A Guide to Harry Nilsson, Who You've Loved Forever Without Knowing It
The songwriting savant has brought us a lot more than “Gotta Get Up” from 'Russian Doll.' From 60s pop to 70s decadence, here’s a primer.
Photo by Stan Meagher / Daily Express / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Each generation has its own gateway into the works of Harry Nilsson. For millennials, it might be Russian Doll. For Gen Xers, it was Goodfellas, or maybe Reservoir Dogs. Boomers had Midnight Cowboy—or perhaps the pop radio of the early 1970s.
For decades (well... weeks, in the case of Russian Doll), these institutions of pop culture have introduced new generations to the sublime pleasures of Harry Nilsson’s music. And lately everybody's talkin' about Nilsson, the iconic pop singer with a strong appetite for absurdism. The singer has been dead 25 years this winter, having succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 52, but his music is lighting up living rooms across the country in the form of a recurring music cue in Russian Doll. In the acclaimed Netlfix series, a 36-year-old woman named Nadia dies over and over, and with every mysterious “reset,” she finds herself reborn in the bathroom of her birthday party as Nilsson’s breezy wake-up anthem “Gotta Get Up” blares each time.
The show’s success has delivered an unexpected spike in Nilsson’s profile. According to Spotify, streams of “Gotta Get Up” have shot up by more than 2,000 percent since Russian Doll’s premiere. And yet, despite the music’s ubiquity in movies and TV, the singer’s discography can be daunting to outsiders—in part because it encompasses such a vast range of stylistic guises, from the sunny 60s pop of his early work to the boozed-up decadence of his mid-70s meltdown. (It seems astonishing that one songwriter could have generated two fantastic hits as wildly disparate as “Coconut” and “Jump Into the Fire” in one career, much less on the same album.) It doesn’t make matters less confusing that Nilsson’s catalog is dotted with soundtracks, covers albums, and not one but three distinct LPs with “Schmilsson” in the title.
Don’t let this scare you—Nilsson’s brilliance is worth the effort. If you’re the vinyl sort, Nilsson Schmilsson, which showcases his commercial peak and dizzying range all at once, is as good a starting point as any. But here are several themed primers.
So you want to get into: God-level pop genius Nilsson?
Yes, two of Nilsson’s best-known radio hits (“Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Without You”) were covers, but the man was a remarkably inventive songwriter in his own right. Don’t believe me—believe the goddamn Beatles, who heard one of his early records, Pandemonium Shadow Show, and were so awed that they cited Nilsson as their “favorite American artist” during a 1968 press conference. (Direct quote from John Lennon: “Nilsson for President!”) Granted, it probably helped that Nilsson covered two Beatles tracks on this record and referenced many more, but still. This boost in confidence helped convince young Nilsson to quit his day job working at a bank. The Beatles wound up inviting Nilsson to hang with them in London, where Lennon played him early versions of White Album cuts. This budding friendship would take a self-destructive turn during the Pussy Cats days—by which point Nilsson had also adopted Ringo as a drinking buddy and musical collaborator—but we’ll get to that later.
The point is, Nilsson’s second and third LPs, 1967’s Pandemonium Shadow Show (half originals) and 1968’s Aerial Ballet (almost entirely originals), are full of perfect, lightly psychedelic pop dispatches that could equal the output of any 60s legend. (Because Nilsson was about 600 years ahead of his time, he combined material from these two albums on one of the world’s first remix albums, 1971’s Aerial Pandemonium Ballet.) So solid was his melodic gift that he could set movie credits to music and make it sound lovely. Nilsson had a knack for writing tunes that could make you laugh, tunes that could make you tear up, and tunes that could make Paul Thomas Anderson want to use them in the opening credits of his three-hour opus. Pandemonium is the more eclectic offering, with Nilsson slipping effortlessly from a military-march opener (“Ten Little Indians”) to psychedelia, Motown, romantic balladry, and beyond. These early gems (including 1969’s Harry and 1971’s The Point!) spotlight Nilsson’s impeccable ear for melody and his almost childlike sense of whimsicality. Consider “Good Old Desk,” in which our hero delivers a bouncy, staccato love song addressed to a piece of office furniture, or “1941,” in which he dramatizes his traumatic upbringing in the form of a rollicking circus ditty.
“One” is, well, number one in this particular playlist. It’s Nilsson’s single greatest song, not just by virtue of its technical achievements—the godly vocal phrasings, the busy signal-inspired introductory notes—but also how well it combines the singer’s pop smarts with a deep undercurrent of sadness in his music. There is no hit song more slyly and delicately harrowing than this one.
Nilsson would continue to indulge his gift for pure pop during the early 1970s, particularly on The Point!, a fun and lively soundtrack to a largely incomprehensible cartoon about a round-headed boy in a village populated by pointy-headed humans. (Our man was on a lot of acid when he dreamed this up.) “Me and My Arrow” is the standout track there, later sampled to fine effect by Blackalicious. But pretty soon Nilsson’s musical interests would take a series of left turns, from bawdy blues-rock to 20th-century standards.
Playlist: “One” / “1941” / “Good Old Desk” / “Cuddly Toy” / “Together” / “I Said Goodbye To Me” / “Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore” / “Rainmaker” / “Me and My Arrow” / “The Lottery Song” / “Lean On Me”
So you want to get into: romantic crooner Nilsson?
Nilsson was gifted with an astonishing three-and-a-half-octave voice, at least before he wrecked it with booze, coke, and screaming contests. This is one reason listeners sometimes seem so appalled by the singer’s post- Schmilsson output: the disturbing contrast between the pureness of his earlier vocal work and the sheer vulgarity of what came later. The man could sing. He could croon, he could wail, he could apply vibrato and falsetto and other vocab words you hear in choir class; he could sing “She’s Leaving Home” better than Paul McCartney; he could even do some straight-up yodeling shit (see: “1941,” “Goin' Down”). Richard Perry, his producer in the early 1970s, has said Nilsson was then “arguably the finest white male singer on the planet.”
Nilsson often used this golden voice in the service of doe-eyed romantic numbers teetering on an imaginary balance beam between sincerity and camp. “Sleep Late, My Lady Friend” is a strong early gem, with cello and upright bass sliding up against a warm, lilting vocal melody. You’ll notice that many of the tracks in this playlist are covers. Nilsson frequently expressed his romantic side via covers of other people’s songs. The one you’re most likely to recognize is his fist-pumping transformation of Badfinger’s “Without You,” which dominated the US pop chart in early 1972. It doesn’t matter if you hear this recording in a supermarket or a cocktail party or an Arby's—you have to stop what you’re doing and just wail along with the chorus.
Nilsson made two albums devoted entirely to covers. You can pretty much ignore the second one—A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night is a schmaltzy Sinatra-style tribute to pop standards of yesteryear, but it’s more interesting for its bizarre placement in the Nilsson catalog, nestled right between Son of Schmilsson and Pussy Cats, than for the music it contains. The other, 1970’s Nilsson Sings Newman, is essential listening for anyone interested in Nilsson’s softer side. This quiet tribute to Randy Newman has amassed a small but dedicated cult of obsessives who insist it is a lost masterpiece. They have a point. Nilsson’s voice is at its loveliest here, and he layers his own singing into lush, immaculate choirs of self-harmony, giving the album an almost celestial glow. Joanna Newsom is among its fans: In 2015 she called it “the consummate early 70s studio record.”
Skipping ahead to 1977, this playlist contains two songs from Nilsson’s last great album, Knnillssonn—the swooning bliss of “All I Think About Is You” and “Perfect Day.” Here, Nilsson’s voice is restored to its rightful glory and paired against lush, pillowy strings generated by a live orchestra. Nilsson considered the album his masterpiece, but his label, RCA, was too distracted by the sudden death of Elvis Presley to promote it, and it fell into obscurity. By the early 1980s, aside from occasional odds and ends, Nilsson’s recording career was effectively finished.
Playlist: “Sleep Late, My Lady Friend” / “Without Her” / “Open Your Window” / “Without You” / “Caroline” / “Living Without You” / “I’ll Be Home” / “The Moonbeam Song” / “I’ll Never Leave You” / “Turn On Your Radio” / “Always” / “Sail Away” / “All I Think About Is You” / “Perfect Day”
So you want to get into: deranged eccentric Nilsson?
Nilsson’s eclectic 1971 masterpiece, Nilsson Schmilsson, was a massive commercial success. Among its unlikely hits was the irresistibly wacky “Coconut” (better known to children of the 70s as the “Put De Lime in De Coconut” song), which contains precisely one chord and many cartoonish enunciations of the cry “Doctor!”
Naturally, our man followed up this success by ignoring his producer’s advice and fully indulging his boozy, vulgar whims on 1972’s polarizing masterpiece Son of Schmilsson—all to the horror of any smooth-faced LA executive who had admired the dulcet tones of “Without You.” Not that it was a shock that a guy who’d written an acid-inspired cartoon about pointy-headed villagers might be a bit strange, but this was on a different level. Boasting a B-horror motif and overarching defiance for commercial expectations, Son of Schmilsson bounces from country pastiche (“Joy”) to profane kiss-off (“You’re Breakin’ My Heart”) to a majestic, Disneyfied ode to the entire universe (“The Most Beautiful World in the World”) with perverse ease. One track opens with a wet belch; another concludes with Nilsson leading a choir of senior citizens in a rousing chorus exclaiming that they’d rather be dead than wet their bed (“I’d Rather Be Dead”). Just about every song is great.
Son of Schmilsson is perched at the perfect midpoint between his pop perfection and subversive imagination. Nilsson Schmilsson is a better starting point, but Son is the one to get if you’re intrigued by his eccentric side. The mid-70s records are also quite perverse, albeit in a more erratic way. We’re entering deep-cut territory here. But don’t miss the very funny Pussy Cats outtake “The Flying Saucer Song,” in which Nilsson single handedly-voices three drunk characters bickering at a bar, or “Jesus Christ You’re Tall,” in which he fantasizes about life with an extremely tall woman. “Jesus Christ You’re Tall” is not one of Nilsson’s greatest songs, but it is one of Nilsson’s greatest song titles.
Playlist: “Coconut” / “Everything's Got 'Em” / “I’d Rather Be Dead” / “Joy” / “Lamaze” / “The Flying Saucer Song” ( Pussy Cats sessions version) / “Jesus Christ You’re Tall” ( Sandman version / “Who Done It?” / “The Ivy Covered Walls” / “The Most Beautiful World in the World”
So you want to get into: drunk-off-his-gourd debauchery Nilsson?
I don’t wish to romanticize Nilsson’s spiral into alcoholism, which ravaged his voice and derailed his life, but I do wish to celebrate the music Nilsson made during this period, which includes the most abrasive and batty records in his catalog. Mostly Pussy Cats. Let’s talk about Pussy Cats. (I am always down to talk about Pussy Cats. Interrupt my wedding ceremony by talking to me about Pussy Cats; I won’t be mad.)
In 1974, Nilsson and his old pal John Lennon, then separated from Yoko Ono, holed up in Los Angeles and sank into hedonism and drunken antics. The pair was famously thrown out of a nightclub for disturbing a Smothers Brothers performance. “The combination of John Lennon and Harry Nilsson created a nuclear self-destructive device,” friend Jimmy Webb remarked decades later. “They found some negative energy that was overpowering.” Amidst this chaos, Lennon decided to produce Nilsson’s next album, which resulted in Pussy Cats.
Pussy Cats is one of those distinctly 70s aural documents of debauchery—you can hear them all partying in the studio, stumbling half-blind through raucous covers of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Rock Around the Clock,” and yet you can also hear the darkness and exhaustion setting in. Nilsson’s golden voice was shot. He resorts to outright screaming in the phenomenal opening cut, “Many Rivers to Cross.” Listen to the woozy war ballad “Old Forgotten Soldier,” as he wheezes, croaks, and strains to reach simple notes. He had ruptured a vocal cord during one screaming session or another, splattered blood on a microphone, and made his condition worse by carrying on and not telling Lennon. The song finds Nilsson playing a soldier “left without a cause” after his war ended, and indeed the singer does sound like an ailing relic from an abandoned era. These songs make for fascinating listening when the mood is right, but they’re hardly pleasant.
The next two albums, 1975’s messy Duit on Mon Dei and 1976’s Sandman, feel like extensions of that spirit of drunken revelry and twisted humor—just without Lennon and with fewer memorable songs. “Good for God,” from the former, is a fun bit of blasphemy (the album itself was supposed to be titled God’s Greatest Hits, but the label refused). “How to Write a Song,” from the latter, is amusing and highly meta.
During this wilderness period, Nilsson also developed an inexplicable fixation with Caribbean music, embellishing Duit on Mon Dei throwaways like “It’s a Jungle Out There” with prominent steel drums and marimba and even covering the calypso classic “Zombie Jamboree (Back to Back)" on 1976’s ...That's the Way It Is. That LP, a far-from-essential covers-heavy outing, at least features some stellar album art: Our dude is pictured lounging around a debauched living room, reading Penthouse and clutching a cigarette. The bottle of booze, the old-timey sensibility, the pervading sense of abandonment—it’s all conveyed on this cover. Curiously, ...That's the Way It Is shares a title with a prior album by Elvis Presley, whose unexpected death a year later threw a wrench in Nilsson’s plans for a comeback. Whether Nilsson had abandoned success or success had abandoned Nilsson remains uncertain. But the wilder side of his career is worth exploring.
Playlist: “Take 54” / “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” / “Many Rivers to Cross” / “All My Life” / “Old Forgotten Soldier” / “Loop de Loop” / “Rock Around the Clock” / “Good for God” / “How to Write a Song” / “Daylight” / "Zombie Jamboree (Back to Back)"
So you want to get into: iconic film/TV soundtracker Nilsson?
Nilsson’s music has been used in a lot of movies. This was true during his lifetime, and it’s particularly true now. You could reasonably argue that movies (and now a Netflix series) have been the primary vehicle for introducing Nilsson to subsequent generations.
The trend began 50 years ago, when filmmaker John Schlesinger chose to use Nilsson’s version of “Everybody’s Talkin’” in Midnight Cowboy. The famously X-rated film dramatically rose Nilsson’s profile and turned the song into a major hit. A year prior, Nilsson had gotten his first taste of recording an original soundtrack, for a forgotten film called Skidoo, but his most notable scoring work came later. The plot of The Point! may be confounding without the aid of hallucinogens, but the soundtrack is a breezy, child-friendly romp, including the lighthearted gem “Poli High.” Years later, at the tail end of his career, Nilsson returned to childlike whimsy with a score for Robert Altman’s Popeye film. “I Yam What I Yam” and “He Needs Me” aren’t sung by Nilsson, but they’re as great as anything he wrote after 1974. The latter, in particular, is a loopy, off-kilter fantasy with an odd swaying rhythm and a Shelley Duvall vocal; decades later it caught the ear of Paul Thomas Anderson, who resurrected it for 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love.
Though his career had been long dormant, Nilsson’s music was tapped for a number of prominent films in the 90s. I include “Jump Into the Fire” in this category because of its iconic Goodfellas usage—it’s impossible to hear that walloping bassline without picturing a paranoid Ray Liotta driving around in a coked-up fog. And, to be fair, I include “Jump Into the Fire” here because it fits in no other category—there is no other song in Nilsson’s catalog that sounds remotely like this monstrous rocker. It is one of those rare songs that, when playing, makes you feel as though the 70s really were as cool as your dad claims they were.
In 1992, Quentin Tarantino nabbed “Coconut” for the end credits of Reservoir Dogs. Several years after the singer’s death, a whole bunch of lesser-known Nilsson cuts—including the jaunty “The Puppy Song”—wound up in You’ve Got Mail. And, of course, I include “Gotta Get Up” here because of its Russian Doll association, though it could just as easily fit on the “pop genius” playlist. It’s a buoyant, bouncy song you might use as an alarm clock if you’re one of those people who can use songs as alarm clocks without developing a hatred for the song. If this is your introduction to Nilsson fandom, welcome to the club: I’m sorry you keep dying and waking up in a bar bathroom, but at least you’ve got a killer theme song.
Playlist: “Jump Into the Fire” / “Everybody’s Talkin’” / “Coconut” / “Without You” / “The Puppy Song” / “Poli High” / “Gotta Get Up” / “Remember (Christmas)” / “I Yam What I Yam” / “He Needs Me” / “I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City”
Zach Schonfeld would rather be dead than wet his bed. Follow him on Twitter: @zzzzaaaacccchhh