Harry Nilsson's Great-Grandparents were vaudeville performers
so you might say that showbiz was 'in the family'. Their troupe of
acrobats went by the name of 'Nilsson's Aerial Ballet.' So that's
where Harry got the album's name from!
Shadow Show' having gained great critical acclaim (if not
earth-shattering profits - in fact no profit at all for several years!) he obviously made a decision to make this, his
second RCA album, far less showy and out-going and to concentrate more on
the human condition, emotions and relationships. The cover versions,
with one notable exception, of course, are gone, the rest of the songs 100%
Many of the same musicians reassembled to make 'Aerial
Ballet' who had played on 'PSS'. The same producer Rick Jarrard and
arranger George Tipton were at the helm and there was still a proliferance of brass musicians
- 17 of them, in all...including 5 euphoniumists! (Americans
frequently refer to the euphonium as the 'baritone horn'; in
orchestral circles it is the 'tenor tuba'. Why is it important?
Guess what I play!)
Nilsson had already established a considerable fan-base
amongst his music-making peers. Derek Taylor, the Beatles publicist
had been so taken by 'PSS' that he bought a box of 25 copies of the album
and took it back to England. A while later, when asked who their
favourite American band was John and Paul famously answered "Nilsson" and
thus started a mutual appreciation society which was to last until the end
of Harry's life (George Harrison attended Harry's funeral in 1993).
All four of the 'Fabs' worked with Nilsson in the years to come (though Paul
far less than the others). The Monkees, another 'hip' band in the late
60's had found success with 'Cuddly Toy' from 'PSS' and now had another
'Nilssong' lined up to follow...
When the album's track list was first put together the
opening song was deemed to be 'Daddy's Song' but after initial copies of the
album included it RCA removed the song from all later pressings to protect
sales of The Monkees soundtrack album for the film 'Head'. The song
was not returned to 'Aerial Ballet' until a CD re-release in 2000 although
it appeared on the compilation of revamped songs, 'Aerial Pandemonium
In his gushing liner notes for the album, Derek Taylor
lauded Harry as 'the best contemporary soloist in the world'. Many
were beginning to agree with him.
A bit of aural tap-dancing to open the album
with. Just 20 seconds of it. Quirky and Nilssonian but...why?
Most artists want to hit new listeners with a powerful album opener to gain
their attention but, for the second album in a row Harry opens with a
personal joke. While they may bring a smile to the established
listener's face I cannot help being reminded of a personal experience:
many years ago I was part of a band with a quirky sense of humour...we
thought it would be funny to open our show with an electric version of the
'Teddy Bears' Picnic'. In our home town, where the listeners knew what
lunacy to expect this was fine but I remember driving 300 miles to a show, playing
the number and having 20+ members of the audience leave before we'd even
started presenting our proper show. I wonder how many listeners Harry
sacrificed to these quirks?
The first of several songs which were to
establish Nilsson's trademark sound of this part of his career. Like
the next song, 'Together' and, probably most notably, 'Best Friend', the
theme tune for the TV series 'The Courtship of Eddie's Father' (and its
sister-song 'Girlfriend') the lazy, slurred brass sound used here was
certainly a unique feature. Another 'song' in the same vein was the 'Ban
Deodorant' jingle TV advert Nilsson recorded. (see also footnote (i) on
the PSS review)
Good Old Desk
Having got used to this as the opening song
on 'AB' I find it a little difficult to start a proper listen to the album
with the original choice (particularly as, for some bizarre reason Camden
put the opening 'tap dance' between the two which spoils any semblance of
restoration!). This is a song about a desk! Harry insisted there
was no hidden meaning, despite publicly stating on TV to Hugh Hefner (in a
rare live appearance on 'Playboy After Dark') that the answer was in the
initial letters of the title. (Hefner replied along the lines of The Beatles
doing this with Lucy in the Sky...ironically there was no truth in either
hypothesis, Nilsson stating later in life that he was joking!). The
song is in the same 'signature style' as it's predecessor on the LP with
brass providing a nice, lilting accompaniment.
'The Move', a British group (whose 'Flowers
in the Rain' was the first song ever played on BBC Radio One) used the
introduction to 'Good Old Desk' as the middle 8 in their hit song 'Blackberry
Don't Leave Me
A much more laid back style for this
song, starting with just Harry's vocal over guitar and maracas. It
builds up to the full 'big band' style in time, of course. Harry
provides his own backing vocals on this track and scat features prominently.
The poetry in the beautiful lyric, "The willow weeps and, having wept, can
weep no more - but still it cries for me. It knows that you are gone."
gives us the central theme of much of the album - sadness - even despair -
over lost love. And that was something Harry always did so well.
Mr Richland's Favorite Song
This is one of my favourite Harry Nilsson
tracks ever. A cleverly crafted song about a singer whose 15 minutes
of fame were quickly over in the public eye but lasted for ever in the eyes
of his few devoted fans. It is another of life's ironies that when he
performed this song later Harry inserted the first line of 'One (is the
loneliest number)' to represent the one hit, yet Harry himself was only
famous for one or two hits and, even today, people will associate him with
'Everybody's Talkin'' and 'Without You', if at all.
The Mr Richland of the title was a record
promoter. I guess Harry didn't have a title in mind for the song but
knew that Tony Richland liked the song and it stuck! For a long, long
time I thought the singer mentioned in the song must have been called by
that name. However, he was in good company, this song was also John
Lennon's favourite Nilsson song!
Musically, the song has a strong melody and
some beautiful, contrapuntal parts between trumpet and euphonium. And
there's more of Nilsson's scat, of course.
A simple, attractive song and one that should
be on all compilations of songs for little children. It would have
found a perfect niche in Pixar's 'Toy Story', for instance, for which the
music was composed and sung by Harry collaborator Randy Newman.
Like 'Freckles' on 'PSS' we owe this song, in part, to Harry's mother, Bette
(see picture, right). If she did not actually compose the song
in this form then Harry
admitted he at least based it on a song she often sang to him when a small
When Nilsson travelled around promoting this
album he chose two or three tracks to perform. At least he recorded a
BBC session and did the 'Playboy' TV show - both had original versions of
these 3 songs, so there were probably more. The three songs were 'Good
Old Desk', 'Together' and (on Playboy) '1941'. 'Together' was the
B-side to the 'Good Old Desk' single which, probably, explains the choice.
'Together' is a mid-tempo brass driven song
about a broken relationship (again on both counts!)
Everybody's Talkin' (Neil)
And so we come to the most well-known track
on the album and the only one not written by Harry Nilsson! Fred Neil
was an American singer-songwriter who had collaborated with, amongst many
others, Buddy Holly. While Nilsson's interpretation is based upon
Neil's own version Harry managed to give the song a
life...a vitality which lifted it from the 'ordinary' to becoming a timeless
classic. yet it sat on this album for quite some time before being
thrust into the limelight. When John Schlesinger needed a song for the
movie 'Midnight Cowboy' Harry
submitted his own composition, 'I Guess The Lord Must Be in New York City'.
This was rejected but Schlesinger's assistant must have been familiar with
'Everybody's Talkin'' as it became the chosen song:
"It was a total, total fluke. My assistant suggested
it. I didn't know who Harry
Nilsson was at the time but lyrically it's perfect as well as
rhythmically. The studio didn't want to buy it, though, because it
was already published and they didn't have the rights. But when we
showed the film to UA for the first time, the head of music leapt up
said 'Where did you get that song from? That is a fabulous song!' So
we told him he'd heard it six months earlier when we'd brought it by,
and he said 'Well, I don't remember. We
gotta get it, we gotta get it!'" -- John Schlesinger
So, two new versions of the song were
recorded for the end credits and the soundtrack album, the single became a
massive hit and Harry Nilsson won his first Grammy Award. The
marriage of 'movie moment' and song has rarely ever been as perfect.
From the moment we hear Alvin Casey's 'banjo-style' guitar the scene for the
'cowboy' feeling is set. The high, sustained strings evoke the broad
plains of the Wild West and Harry's voice had rarely sounded this good -
which means it had to be a special recording! The falsetto and
double-tracked 'whaahs' become the icing on the cake as Nilsson created one
of the near perfect pop records.
From an 'album-overlook' viewpoint it
seems that 'Aerial Ballet' takes a major change in direction from this point
onwards. All the arrangements/songs so far have been heavily
brass-influenced. From this track on that changes - brass barely
appears again on 'Aerial Ballet' (with the exception of the final song).
I Said Goodbye to Me
If 'Everybody's Talkin'' ultimately
became associated with death (in its case that of Dustin Hoffman's
character in the movie) then no-one could have seen THIS one coming.
here, as the absolute emotional low-point of the album is Harry's song about
suicide. In an album littered with references to shattered
relationships, loneliness and despair here we get to hear the performer
contemplate ending it all. From looking in the mirror and crying to
the 'horse and coach' coming to take away the body it is all listed in this
song...and all because love has gone wrong...yet he still hopes that she
will 'understand why'. Sounds like a recipe for a song filled with
pathos and 'cheese' but if anyone could carry it off it was Harry...and, of
course, he did - beautifully.
Little Cowboy (reprise)
The cowboy connection is resumed with a brief
reprise of the song from 'side one' and a song which appeared on a
compilation of 'Best Whistling Songs', surely the strangest inclusion of a
Nilssong in a compilation!
Aaah! Those double-tracked vocals!
In this song the wife has 'passed away'. The loneliness/broken love
link on this album is irrefutable. In a clever piece of social
commentary Harry links the death of a man's love and hope to the dying
tailoring industry: 'Who needs Mr Tinker when all the suits you buy are
This song was a hit...but not for Harry.
It became the third single release for the band 'Three Dog Night' and hit
the top of the Billboard charts.
In Harry's version, the orchestration and
overall feel are much closer to the cuts from 'PSS' with the organ, flute
and strings to the fore. Once again the 'loneliness' theme is
unmistakeable. The phrase 'one is the loneliest number' has now become
a part of the English language - so much so that while making the 'X-Files'
movie actor David Duchovny ad-libbed the line. The producer then
decided to commission the group 'Filter' to specially record the song for
the movie's soundtrack. It is ALSO the very first line uttered by
Eddie Murphy's donkey character in Shrek 2.
Harry claimed he was inspired to write the
song by hearing a 'busy' tone on the telephone.
The Wailing of the Willow
While Harry jokingly described this song as
"Coming from my bossa nova period" this is far from a throwaway song - the
chord changes are examples of Harry's developing song-writing prowess and
the poetic lyrics (needless to say about a 'love that has gone away from
me') match Nilsson's tune perfectly. The tune itself is in, generally,
a far lower register than Harry would normally employ. There are
plenty of examples of songs featuring Harry singing in the upper registers
of his voice (indeed, he finally launches into falsetto here in the last few
notes of the fade) but not as many where he sings 'low'. In this song
he sings several low 'G's - easily into operatic bass range and totally
denying the oft-quoted 'tenor baritone' tag he is given by writers.
While all talk of his 'famous three and a half octave range' is unnecessary
and, anyway, inaccurate Harry did have a voice with an enormous range not
just in basic terms of pitch but also in timbre, dynamic and subtlety which
is a far, far greater gift.
Start with humour, end with a simple,
innocent song about how good the day feels when you're clean...YEAH, that's
very Harry Nilsson! In these modern, permissive and 'aware' days this
song would have been sussed a lot quicker but many years passed before even
most of Harry's fans became aware of what 'Bath' is about! I suppose
the 'Stripper' type accompaniment
Here we have a song about young Harry on his
way home from an entertaining and, no doubt, educational night at the local
brothel!!! If 'Cuddly Toy' with its discreet references to 'gangbangs'
and 'cherry delights' was at least disguised, once the truth is known one
can only be amazed at just how 'filthy' 'Bath' really is! It's one
thing 'leaving here this morning with a smile upon my face' but 'awfully
glad you let me come inside?'
In addition there are the oblique references
to drink and drugs (heavy eyes, knees weak, mouth dry). After a night
like that no wonder he needed a bath! Phew!
Miss Butter's Lament (Nilsson/Segarini)
This song was co-written with
Bob Segarini and
recorded on the same day as 'Mr Tinker' and 'Little Cowboy'. Bob
played piano on '1941' and 'Cuddly Toy' from 'PSS'. The almost
'classical' feel of orchestra and celeste/bells on this track make it a
wonderful large-scale production (the organ and brass are there as well) and
atop it sits a fresh and confident Nilsson vocal (as ever). This is
neither an easy song to appreciate through listening nor to perform, both
exercises taking time to reach maturity. There are time, tempo and key
changes in the song aplenty. A lovely and very much under-rated song,
Unreleased until 'Personal Best' this song is well worth getting to know if
it has passed you by as it did me for quite some time.
Sister Marie (Morrow)
In this song by David Morrow (which was the
B-side to the 'One' single) the story is told of Sister Marie, a nun who
feels unfulfilled and looks for the answers a little closer to home than
Heaven. The swirling, psychedelic sound is typical 60s but rather more
so than was the norm for Nilsson. Built on an organ (with Leslie) the
song lilts along in waltz time. Unfortunately, the mix is a little
cluttered by the attempts to give the 'out of phase' sound and this renders
the lyrics extremely hard to follow. It is interesting to see the
different ways Harry and his production team tried to develop his sound in
new directions - there are definite shades of ethereal early Pink Floyd in
Wasting My Time
One further song which
recorded shortly after the sessions for 'AB'. This would have fitted
in well on 'Harry' but went unreleased until (again) 'Personal Best' and the
Camden re-release. It is a pretty, typically 'lazy' Harry song, with a
bit of whistling added to boot. Often a song which features in
Harry-fans' top tens!
Over a decade later Derek Taylor, in another
set of liner notes (this time for 'Flash Harry') mentioned that a Nilsson
album was a mixture of 'colour, vigour and the spice of vulgarity and humour
with which 45 minutes in his company is always illuminated. It was
true of 'Flash Harry' and it is true of 'Aerial Ballet'. Overall, a
great set of tunes with lively, fun backings - well produced and impeccably
performed yet what makes 'AB' stand out so well from other Nilsson albums is
the depth of emotion conveyed in it throughout. In respect of the
despair of love unrequited or dreams smashed on life's shore by the tides of
circumstance 'Aerial Ballet' can even stand alongside The Beach Boys' (Brian
Wilson's) 'Pet Sounds' as a highlight of 1960s American pop music. One
of Harry's best.