Knnillssonn should have been a hit album - that goes without saying. It might even have been one had not the amphetamine-weakened, bloated body of the once sexy singer from Tupelo, Mississippi pegged out before it could have its own 'perfect day'.
Once Elvis had died, though, nothing and nobody else mattered to RCA. Nilsson had reached breaking point and spent a year or so wrangling his release from his RCA contract disgusted with the lack of promotion Knnillssonn had received from the label, especially in the wake of The King's demise. He eventually succeeded and, for the first time in over a decade, had no contractual obligation to record. He found, exactly like his close friend John Lennon had done, that he liked that situation! He could live comfortably, he had a new, growing family unit in which he was, by all accounts, extremely happy and was no longer forced to bow down and grovel to men in suits who, he knew more than most, knew very little about good music.
To add to all this, Harry's own music appeared to have less chance than ever of finding new popularity in an age of punk rock and new wave music. So, with the charts seemingly becoming impenetrable waters for Harry he had turned to other musical pursuits. The stage had been the scene of his greatest recent success - an 11 week run for The Point at Lord (Bernard) Miles's Mermaid Theatre should have led to a run at a major West End theatre but other successes meant that none were available and bad luck and circumstances contrived against Harry once more. Another musical 'Zapata', co-written with lifelong collaborator Perry Botkin jr., had its debut at the Goodspeed Opera House in Chester, Connecticut in 1978 but it again failed to make the jump to Broadway (Harry recorded an album of demos which has never been released - 5 songs from the show remain all most fans have ever heard: three of them, 'Mi Amigo', 'The Wedding Song' and 'What Are We Fighting For?', were played at a Harryfest, one more, 'Love is the Answer', has 'leaked out' and 'I've Got It' appears on this album).
Perhaps most importantly Nilsson had been asked by Disney and Robert Altman to compose the music for their massive project - turning cartoon hero Popeye into a major movie. With all these doors opening Harry felt, quite understandably, that he did not need to make records any more. According to Derek Taylor's liner notes for Flash Harry he had always intended 'stopping' making records after 21. Knnillssonn had been his 18th so the finishing line was getting near anyway...
Nilsson's 19th and last studio album was Flash Harry and it was released by Mercury/Phonograph. It was recorded in LA with the usual session men on hand plus a few new faces. Amongst these were producer Steve Cropper - former rhythm guitarist maestro with Booker T and the MG's and, more lately, producer for The Blues Brothers, Jeff Beck and the awesome Tower of Power.
I find myself in a rather more privileged position with regards to Flash Harry than the majority of Nilsson fans. For a start I have always lived in the UK - and we actually GOT the album (along with Japan!) - it defies all belief and reason that a new Harry Nilsson LP was never released in the USA! Nevertheless, that was the situation and Harry was all too pleased to spend time promoting his new album in Britain. I remember sitting in my bedroom listening to a BBC Radio interview and hearing Harry 'speak' for the first time - and they played the single from the album 'I Don't Need You'. I have since heard other interviews from the same period, most notably an excellent and lengthy interview Harry did with Andy Park for Radio Clyde in Scotland, the discovery of which was a highlight of Harryfest 2001, which I helped organise at the Hotel Russell in Central London.
In the interview Harry and Andy discuss the album and also 'Stop and Smell the Roses' - another LP Harry had produced for Ringo. For some of the time Harry is sitting at a piano and it is wonderful to hear him play snatches of tunes and chatting very openly and relaxedly throughout the interview. Excerpts from the interview used in the review below will be marked in blue italics.
Derek Taylor, for one last time, wrote the liner notes for the LP - and he paints a wonderful tribute to Nilsson's talent and character in his lengthy column. He paints a picture of himself and Harry as two now middle-aged men a little thicker around the middle than they once were. Taylor admits defeat (in the 43rd round) in their drinking battle (that's some admission, by the way, given Taylor's reputation!) and reflects on the water that has passed under so many bridges since he first met the young banker setting out on his music career 13 years before. He gives his opinion that this new LP is as good as most Nilsson produced and better than some (without specifying) and describes it most beautifully with the words:
"...the mixture has great colour, vigour and the spice of vulgarity with which 45 minutes in his company is always illuminated."
For the last time we come back to the quirks of Nilsson's opening and closing numbers for his albums. There is definitely a clear vision in most cases for a genuine attempt having been made to 'top and tail' each release with appropriately matching songs/themes throughout Nilsson's recording career. If this was blatantly obvious on Pandemonium Shadow Show (circus ringmaster), That's the Way It Is' (same song) and Duit On Mon Dei (Jesus/God) then, on other albums at least he had made an effort to place some of the best songs in these prime places (even Sandman begins and end with top quality songs despite the inconsistency - to be polite - in-between).
And here, on the last LP, the album is sandwiched between two pieces of pure 'Python'. Harry had recently made friends with the Monty Python team (he went on to appear on stage at the Hollywood Bowl with them - joining in 'The Lumberjack Song'. At the end of the song a fan reached up to shake Harry's hand and accidentally pulled him off the stage, breaking both Harry's hands!) and recorded the great song that ends this LP, sending a copy to Eric Idle. In return, Idle wrote and sang this song with English singer Charlie Dore, sending it back to Harry as an unsolicited 'thank you' via Derek Taylor who paid a flying visit to Harry in Malta, where 'Popeye' was being filmed. Harry was very flattered and considered recording the song himself but then decided he could hardly better the original - so he had no hesitation in dropping it straight into the album line-up. Idle was reportedly somewhat surprised to find his little tribute opening Nilsson's next LP!
Fans are divided as to whether this was a good idea or not. Me? I love it! It smacks of Nilssonian eccentricity...and...it's a great, fun song to boot! I don't think I'll ever know if Eric went to Harry and Una's house for a tuna stew - but I bet he went for a few Brandy Alexanders! Idle has gone on to record many songs which have a distinctly Nilsson-inspired feel to them and he makes a contribution to the recent Nilsson documentary 'Who Is Harry Nilsson...(and why is everybody talkin' about him?)'
Cheek to Cheek (George/Parks/Kibbee)
Van Dyke Parks co-wrote his 'Jump!' and 'Discover America' albums with Martin Fydor Kibbee and Kibbee also co-wrote 'Dixie Chicken' and several other songs with Lowell George, former member of Frank Zappa's 'Mothers of Invention' and founder member of 'Little Feat'. Strangely, Kibbee was always credited as 'Martin' for these other compositions but appears as Kibbee here, as he also did on 'Clang of the Yankee Reaper', which was also written with Parks - strange! Of course, Van Dyke had worked with Harry many times before (and is also one of the few people ever to have his name included in a Nilsson lyric!) and George had played on Son of Schmilsson. All three came together for this track which was composed, performed and recorded by Nilsson shortly before George's fatal heart attack in June 1979.
For this and several other Flash Harry cuts Nilsson returns to the 'Latin' styles he had toyed with throughout his career. Harry obviously had a great fondness for these mambas and sambas, rumbas and calypsos - for he seems quite at home composing and performing songs in these grooves (and, thinking back to even his earliest mainstream albums, he always had done: it's a very Latin feel on the Beatles cover 'You Can't Do That' - I always compare 'Wailing of the Willow' with 'The Girl from Ipanema' - and there are a surprising number more that one might add to the list...). The first whole album to have a distinctly 'Latin' vibe was, of course, Duit on Mon Dei and all albums since that (with the exception of Knnillssonn) had carried some legacy of that vibe. In the meantime Harry had gone further down the route by writing the musical 'Zapata!' with Perry Botkin Jr., set in Mexico and with music even more firmly entrenched in the Latin style.
Cheek to Cheek features the same Latin rhythms and instruments but is most notable (as you might expect in any song contributed to by Van Dyke Parks) for some very clever wordplay and descriptive phrases - Parks plays with the idea of a cross-border romance with a Mexican girl, Rosarita - a particular favourite line of Harry's being 'I came all the way from **** del Ray, in a plane yesterday, through the grey L.A. air.'
Best Move (Nilsson/Parks/Hazlewood)
More Parks, more wordplay, this time aided and abetted by Harry himself. Silly and funny...and clever at times as well. The 'best move that you ever made' becomes 'best food' then, at the end, 'best fade' - rhymed with 'would you mind undressing while I serenade' (but, then, is the 'dressing' literal or 'salad' - 'don't forget the Wesson oil and the mayonnaise/just in case I love you'?)
Old Dirt Road (Lennon/Nilsson)
I Don't Need You (Christian)
I've Got It (Nilsson/Botkin Jr)
It's So Easy (Nilsson/Stallworth
How Long Can Disco On? (Nilsson/Starr)
Bright Side of Life (Idle)
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