Knnillssonn

It was early summer in 1977 and I had already seen an article in my father's newspaper about a new Harry Nilsson album.  That was really something, let me say - for it was the first time I ever saw Harry Nilsson's name in a newspaper!  This was to be a 'biggie', it seemed.  RCA were actually letting the ENGLISH public know that a new Nilsson album was on the way!

Could it be that they were going to promote their most difficult, dysfunctional and indefinable artist properly for once?  It seemed they were!  I saw posters in record shops, there were stickers, the Klaus Voorman 'seeing double' artwork and the title ("everyone else spells it wrong, why shouldn't I?") were 'on display' in bus shelters and even on the train station in London when I arrived there for my summer Music Camp. I'm pretty sure I'd even heard 'All I Think About Is You', the first single from the album on the radio.

Then, one morning, as I walked across from my room at Sunbury Court for an early morning band practice a friend asked me, "Have you heard?  Elvis has died!"  The enormity didn't sink in at all, my response being, "What?  Elvis Costello?" as if any other response would have been inconceivable.  "No.  THE Elvis!" he replied.  The king was no more, apparently.  I wasn't (and never have been) an Elvis Presley fan but all I remember for the rest of that summer was Elvis this, Elvis that and 'Way Down' being number one in the charts.  You couldn't escape Elvis Presley in the newspapers or on the radio and TV.  And that was in England!  I can only imagine it was even more intense in the States...

...Of course, what I completely failed to realise at the time was that Elvis was an RCA artist.  Not just AN RCA artist at that - but THE RCA artist as far as the label was concerned - at least for the next few months.  Knnillssonn was dropped like a stone.  Once Elvis's heart gave way they were never going to have any interest in any of their other artists, let alone Harry.  Nilsson was upset, understandably so, and he was to use this as his excuse for getting out of his RCA contract.  I doubt he realised at the time that this action was to effectively make Knnillssonn his last LP (at least in America).

Anyway, Knnillssonn proved to be a big departure from Nilsson's last four albums.  Everything he had produced since returning to America full-time (following his sojourn to London and the Schmilsson days) had had a similar sound - dominated by the saxes and, later, the Latin/Caribbean timbres of multi-layered percussion and steel drums.  He had largely left behind the tradition guitar-led rock sound and, for this new album, he ditched it completely - and virtually everything else as well!  Knnillssonn was orchestrated almost entirely with strings - and the arrangements were all done by Mike McNaught.

McNaught, a Glaswegian graduate of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, had first come to Nilsson's attention as the Musical Director for the highly successful revival of the stage version of 'The Point' at London's Mermaid Theatre in 1975(1). The production, featuring ex-Monkees Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones in an impressive cast, had reignited a lot of interest in Nilsson's music in the United Kingdom.  Appropriately encouraged by this Harry returned to London to record Knnillssonn which he desperately wanted to be a success.  Further evidence of this intention is the fact that, for once Harry had pre-written ten songs for the album - all albums since, probably, Nilsson Schmilsson had had some element of 'making it up in the studio' to it and this had been evident in most cases through pretty poor 'fillers' on everything from Pussy Cats at least through Sandman (with particular reference to the dreadful side two of the latter).

Nilsson ditched RCA's idea of using songs by other writers to such an extent that Knnillssonn was the only album he ever released on which every song was self-composed and McNaught embellished each of them with his quirky, inventive orchestrations - in each case the arrangement becoming 'part of the song' in a way no other orchestrations had since Gordon Jenkins's input on A Little Touch Of Schmilsson in the Night. It also helped the album 'hang together' in a way none had since the Jenkins album of standards - all the songs felt like they were by the same artist - compare that to 'Something True', 'The Ivy Covered Wall' and 'The Flying Saucer Song' to see what I mean!

 

All I Think About Is You

A song that is up there with the very best Nilsson ever wrote - and the most promising start to a Nilsson album since, probably, Take 54!  There is something so 'other-worldly' about the introduction - hairs stand up on the neck as the boys choir from St Paul's Cathedral soar over the strings.,. and that exquisite guitar line.  When Harry sings it is a new 'Harryvoice' once more - for the tenor-baritone of old has most certainly been 'ravaged' away and replaced with what sounds much more like a rich, warm bass here.  Many great songwriters have taken inspiration from relationship breakdowns - for goodness sake my own first pair of ballads were written whilst heartbroken! - and Harry proved to be no different.  You feel the despair in a man knocking for an hour at a door he knows is forever closed to him and it's 'heart ruling head' as he clings to forlorn hope.  The music suits the mood wonderfully and the arrangement could not be improved.

Musically, a lovely feature to listen for is the chromatically descending bass-line. Chromaticism recurs throughout the song as well, in the strings and even the choral lines.  The piece ends with a repeat of the introduction giving a satisfying balance to the whole recording.

As near to a perfect recording as Nilsson had produced since 'Remember' a full five years before and a sure sign of a serious return to form.

I Never Thought I'd Get This Lonely

This song first appeared on mooted tracklists as far back as 1973 but had never seen the light of day until recorded and released here.  It makes for a good contrast with its immediate predecessor - being more up-tempo and with its inherent humour - yet it retains that wistful theme of 'love lost' as did 'All I Think About is You'.  Again the voice veers perilously close to basso-profundo at times  and the song overall makes few demands on Harry's range in either dynamics or pitch.  Yet it works, with the possible exception of what I can only describe as one rather unnecessarily crude line in the lyric that always made me cringe and still jars today.

This is the first song that really shows us the quirky fun of McNaught's arrangements and Ray Cooper's arsenal of percussion.  The strings play pizzicato throughout verse 2, almost like an extension of the percussive nature of the arrangement.  Over this Harry yodels impeccably (have you ever tried doing that?  It's not easy!)  Harry also whistles again - just like old times!

The song ends with  some mock scat.  We all know that Harry had employed scat on his early albums with great success - look, for example, no further than '1941' - so we know he was a master of the jazz technique.  This, however, is a whole different kettle of fish!  I can only say that this 'scat' is so bad that it, just about, works - on its own level!  The 'doohs', 'dootys' and 'dahs' must have, originally, been done in the studio as a joke and someone suggested they stay.  So be it!  It's there - and it's Harry - and I wouldn't be without it, however silly!

(I must make mention of one other thing that doesn't quite work in this song - there is an appalling edit around 3'46" and how it got past 'quality control' is beyond me!)

Who Done It?

Ah!  What's this doing here?  Evidence that I first bought Knnillssonn on cassette (2.11 at a railway station on the way down to London with my dad - the same day we saw Arsenal beat Nottingham Forest at Highbury...strange things my memory retains...)!  On the said tape 'Who Done It?' surfaces as track 2 on side two with 'Sweet Surrender' occupying this spot.  Having listened to that cassette for more than twenty years prior to finally being able to purchase the Camden CD it is rather jarring, to say the least, to have the order I am so used to altered (2).  Anyway...on with the song:  This became an instant favourite; I had always been a fan of the 'whodunnit' genre of murder mystery - my favourite authors include Ruth Rendell and Colin Dexter and by the time of Knnillssonn I had certainly discovered Agatha Christie and Columbo!

Having said that, it was many, many years before I got the right punchline - the butler did it - this despite sitting down at least once with a pen and paper and crossing off names from a list!  I have seen the song compared to 'The Flying Saucer Song' inasmuch as it is Harry telling a story but I feel this is a little unfair on 'Who Done It' which hangs together as a valid song composition far better than the other effort.  In fact, as humorous story songs go, it works very well indeed while still allowing Harry license to have a lot of fun and jokey wordplay, especially in the brilliant extended fade - who could fail to smile at his lines about 'being in Colorado having breakfast...WITH A NUN!' or 'would you mean rewinding that last sentence?  Hanged by the WHAT?  Until WHEN?'

Introduced with a crash of thunder and some Beethoven to set the scene Harry introduces us to the story (loosely based, I think, on Christie's 'Ten Little Niggers', later 'Ten Little Indians' and finally 'And Then There Were None' as political correctness gradually took a hold on society and the publishing industry!):

It was a rainy night

And all the windows were tight

And there were thirteen people in the house

We hear the cast of characters over a steady 'oom-pah' string bass accompaniment...and then the murders start!  It's fun, clever, witty and entertaining throughout - but was it the best choice for the first single from the album?  Bad choice in that respect, I think...but that's just my opinion.  'All I Think About Is You', the 2nd single, got a decent amount of airplay in the UK, I seem to remember, and was always more of a potential hit here (where humorous/novelty songs only tend to have a chance in summer heatwaves or in the race for the Christmas Number One - even 'Coconut' didn't make the top 40 in the UK), reaching a respectable placing of 43 (one place lower, incidentally, than the afore-mentioned 'Coconut').

The string arrangement is, once more, an intrinsic part of the song, helping to emphasize the humour - as, for that matter, so do the percussion and sound effects.

Lean On Me

'Lean on Me' became the 3rd single from Knnillssonn, backed, rather strangely, with 'Will She Miss Me' from Sandman.

It's a lovely song with one of Nilsson's best vocals so far on the album.  It is gentle and flows along in a nice, comfortable groove; the strings punctuating and a good strong drum part lifting the song from mundane 'middle-of-the-road' to a higher perch.  Harry even employs falsetto for the first time on the album in the delightful harmony parts at the end - his voice still had quite a range (and we shall see more evidence of this later!).

Another interesting note here is that an alternate version of this song appeared on the first official CD release.  Introduced with wind chimes the other version features delay effects that give the impression of the whole song being out of phase with itself, the string pizzicato parts being phased so out of time with the rest of the song that it sounds almost absurd

Goin' Down

More yodelling!  I always loved this one - particularly the chorus where the string part employs a counter-melody that beautifully complements the vocal melody.  It is interesting to note the way the two main forces swap roles in the verse and chorus - in the former the longer phrases belong to Harry's vocal while string are again utilizing the percussive pizzicato then, in the chorus the strings have the longer, more sustained, melodic lines and it's left to Harry to keep the momentum going with the notes of shorter duration.

According to Curtis a version of 'Goin' Down' was recorded in the Duit On Mon Dei sessions but it missed the cut on that album.

Old Bones

A song about growing old - but about as different from 'I'd Rather Be Dead' as it is possible to be. This is another one I always liked, especially the very clever string parts which serve as a showcase for Mike McNaught once again.

I believe this song is notable for featuring the lowest note Harry Nilsson ever recorded!  On the word 'bones' he twice sings a low E flat - way down in the low bass range and some 34 semitones lower than the high D flat which was the last pitch he sang in 'Remember'.  There may be wider examples in his entire repertoire but I have not identified them yet...all help gratefully accepted!  (I'm not including glissando 'screams' which may go up to another octave higher - I wanted to refer to proper 'sung' notes.)

Sweet Surrender

I'm used to this track being where 'Who Done It?' sits...ho hum.  The strings in the middle 8 are very reminiscent of George Tipton, I feel - as quirky as Tipton's instrumentation for The Point and probably this is not by accident - remember Mike McNaught had been working on the music for the musical version of The Point for much of the previous year

Blanket For a Sail

Harry and Una had recently had a new addition to the family, son Beau, and one can easily imagine Harry singing this to his new pride and joy in the same way his own mother had soothed him with 'Little Cowboy' 36 years before.  Whether or not it was written for Beau is a story remains to be told - however, as we know that the song was one of those added to the original songs from The Point in order to expand the film/album into a full-length stage show (the others being 'Remember', 'To Be A King', 'Bath', 'Thursday', 'It's a Jungle Out There' and 'Gotta Get Up') I have to suspect that that was not the case - but that does not mean he didn't sing it to his new son, of course!

Harry also incorporated 'Little Cowboy' into the new recording he made of 'Blanket for a Sail' in 1991 for the 'For Our Children' compilation.

Laughin' Man

This follows on just about perfectly from the preceding song - same key, similar tempo, same orchestration (the latter goes without saying - the orchestration is pretty much the same throughout the album).  The lovely, lazy triplets define the string parts (again, though, contrasted by the use of pizzicato elsewhere).  This is one of those songs that makes you smile (how apt!) and your feet tap or even dance of their own accord. Harry even incorporates laughter into his singing style (as well as a bit of 'Zombie Jamboree' type chatter/shouting during the final instrumental section. 

Perfect Day

Listening to this song might just be the 'perfect way to end a perfect day' - it's certainly the perfect way to end a very, very good album and if, as it turned out in America at least, it was the coda to Nilsson's mainstream recording career then he could hardly have done better than this.

Perfect Day is a sublime piece of music, enhanced once more by the boys of St Paul's Cathedral Choir.  Harry gives one of his best vocal performances since his throat problems and showed that the amazing breath control he had learned from his uncle was undiminished.  When he sings harmony with himself in the 'ride with me' section his voice sounds nearly ten years younger - we have the return of the fresh-faced Nilsson of Aerial Ballet just one more time on record.  All is well with the world.

 

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(1) Apart from the mention of this in Curtis Armstrong's liner notes I can find no reference to a 1975 'revival' of 'The Point'.  According to most sources the show opened on December 28th, 1977 - making this well after the release of Knnillssonn. There was a staging in 1975, at the Boston Repertory Theatre, directed by Esquire Jauchem - but this did not feature Mike McNaught.  There does seem to have been a series of performances at The Mermaid in 1976, which would make the 1977/8 shows a revival - it is likely that McNaught would have been part of both sets of performances, as were Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones.  This seems to suit the facts better.  It would place the album's production  between the two sets of Mermaid shows and, at least, after Nilsson and McNaught met. For an excellent review of the show (and a good idea of what the production looked/sounded like) see this external link:  www.the-monkees.net/shows/ThePoint/remember.html

(2) It rather reminds me of an excellent scene in the first of the 'Orchestra' TV series produced by the UK's 'Channel 4' and presented by Dudley Moore and Sir George Solti.  In the first episode renowned flautist James Galway is playing the Mozart flute and harp concerto when the conductor asks him to alter the nuances of the opening phrase in the 2nd movement.  Galway is somewhat taken aback and remarks that, having played the phrase in the more 'traditional' way for decades he would need months of therapy before he could bring himself to change how he played it.  Nevertheless, I seem to recall he did manage the change and even stated that he preferred it the new way.  Whether or not I can ever bring myself to say the same about the displaced 'Who Done It?' remains to be seen, however...

 

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