Pussy Cats

For more on the album and my poems about 'Pussy Cats' please click here

Following the trio of Schmilsson albums and the 'related' film Harry left London and returned to Los Angeles. His marriage to Diane over he was at something of a crossroads both in his life and career.  He had ended his brief affair with 'the girl in the heart' and had fallen in love with Una O'Keefe -the young Irish girl he would soon marry.  However, she was finishing her college course back at home and Harry was 'on his own' so to speak - lonely, looking for things to do and help him find inspiration for his next album.  The successes of 'The Point' and 'Without You' seemed more than a while ago and the debacle of 'Son of Dracula' a more recent memory it must have crossed his mind that his next album would be crucial to his career.

Harry's friend John Lennon had been thrown out of his New York home by his wife Yoko (after they had had a blazing row following her second miscarriage) and she had taken the bizarre step of providing her estranged husband with a substitute love interest in their secretary May Pang before  packing him off to the other side of the country.  He had embarked on what is famously known as his 'lost weekend' - in reality eighteen months.  When Harry and John linked up again in LA they were both more than happy to share their mutual marital woes and drown them in a sea of brandy.  The stories are well-known - drunken revelry, heckling and much, much more.

Problem was - John readily admitted he was unable to hold his drink whereas Harry could have probably out-drunk Zaphod Beeblebrox(1).  Lennon drew all the headlines for what he did while drunk: indecently assaulting waitresses, getting into fights, improvised 'period' headwear, vandalism and anti-Jewish outbursts...Harry just got the blame!  Reading many of the reports of their escapades during these months there is always a feeling that Harry had led John astray somehow - as if this scruffy, tramp-like figure had somehow coerced the cuddly, ex-Beatle away from his 'Give Peace a Chance' persona and turned him into what Uncut magazine called 'a vicious little scouse f***'. 

To make matters worse (!) the pair linked up with even more notorious hell-raisers including Alice Cooper, Keith Moon, Ringo, Mickey Dolenz and Klaus Voorman - cumulatively continuing the gothic themes of the last year, forming a drinking club and calling themselves 'The Hollywood Vampires'.  They met in a loft room at the 'Rainbow Rooms' in LA (having transferred from the 'Speakeasy' and 'Tramps' - mentioned, of course, in 'You're Breaking My Heart' - in London).  There is still a plaque in the LA room commemorating where they met.  It is inscribed 'The Lair of the Hollywood Vampires'.

As if being in the drinking club together was not enough Harry, John, Ringo and Keith rented a house together - if it was a serious attempt to 'get themselves together' then it was, surely, doomed to failure from the start - the parties just went on.

As it happened, RCA were already considering dropping Harry after the last two albums failed to match the commercial heights of Nilsson Schmilsson - it was only the intimation from John Lennon that he and Ringo would sign for RCA in 1975 as long as Nilsson was still there that swayed his case. Now, imagine that atmosphere, add a studio and a very mixed bunch of songs (new ones in various degrees of incompletion!) and you have some idea of the background to Pussy Cats. Harry knew that Lennon's name (and picture) on his new LP would be a selling point but reports vary as to the origins of John Lennon's input - Harry claimed that John 'insisted' on producing, others have claimed Harry was desperate to have John on board while John himself, in his last BBC interview the recorded two days before he was shot, said he "got drunk one night and agreed to produce Harry's next album."  Whatever the details it was John who managed to pull himself together enough to get the tapes rolling - to drag Harry and the musicians into a studio and try to make something happen.

Demos of some of the songs from the early sessions sound as though he was succeeding - Harry was sober enough to sing and, at least, the recording was underway.  Then disaster struck.  The years of heavy drinking, smoking and everything else finally took a toll on Nilsson's health - he managed somehow to rupture a vocal cord.

Now, I know something of this ailment having suffered a similar problem myself.  In my case I was swimming underwater in a pool in Cornwall - in 1995 I think - when a hefty youth jumped in and landed on the top of my head, just as I was resurfacing.  I was knocked unconscious for a few moments before managing to stagger to the side of the pool and get out.  It was a few minutes before I regained full composure but a subsequent visit to the local hospital (in the wilds of Cornwall this was rather more like a Victorian Sanatorium than a modern hospital - old, slow and almost completely useless!) left me with no treatment and a vague "You may have ruptured a vocal cord" diagnosis.  This was, undoubtedly, based on the fact that my speaking voice had dropped a full two octaves!  Back in the car to return to the camp site I amused myself by singing Lee Marvin's 'I Was Born Under a Wandering Star' most authentically!  It was when I tried to sing normally that the shock set in - I couldn't.  It is denial that sets in at that point and, whereas what the damaged voice needs more than anything else is rest, one feels utterly compelled to keep on trying.  Whole ranges of notes were missing - I had a dodgy, rather squeaky, falsetto and part of my higher range, I could blast out low notes like Richard Perry on anti-helium and everything else was either missing (silent, I mean!) or, if absolutely forced, sounding like Louis Armstrong with flu (and far less 'cool').  It was a year before anything like my full voice came back but, even now I do not have the stamina I once had when singing, about the top half octave of falsetto is lost forever and, while I still describe myself as a tenor-baritone the top of my tenor range is a couple of tones lower than before the accident.

Harry, in a similar denial - and desperate for John not to cancel the sessions - didn't even tell John what had happened.  He pushed himself through the sessions in great pain, numbing what voice he had left by gargling with brandy and coughing up blood as he did more and more damage to his precious, once-gorgeous voice.

But they left us with an album(2).  An album that absolutely mystified me for many years.  Whenever I listened my brain bombarded me with questions - Why doesn't it sound like Harry?  What's going on?  Why have they recorded Here We Go Loop the Loop? And now I know why I can place this album in a very particular place in my mind - the album that reflects the 'lost weekend', one long party, a struggle through marital break-ups, ill-health, booze, booze and more booze...and DrugS(3).

So, while Pussy Cats is not a favourite it has many redeeming moments - and it has got better with age and bonus tracks where we can hear what might have been if Harry had not damaged his voice.  Even better is the Quadraphonic mix (not made by John Lennon) in which completely different vocal tracks are used on some songs including some from before the rupture!  Still not as good as I might have hoped an album made by my two favourite pop musicians of all time would be (but could it ever have been?) yet another opportunity to listen, shake my head and whisper, "what were they like?"

Additional note:  In 2006 the whole Pussy Cats album was re-recorded by US band The Walkmen. 

 

Many Rivers To Cross (Cliff)

It is well-known that John Lennon had been flirting with Reggae music for some time - he told the story several times about how he had to try to teach 'Elephant's Memory', the backing band for his album 'Some Time In New York City' how to play the style as they had no idea and Yoko's track 'Sisters, O Sisters' needed it.  There are quasi-Reggae moments elsewhere in his work around that time as well and some might argue that as far back as 'Ob-La-Di' back in 1968 The Beatles had been influenced by the genre.  Jimmy Cliff (left) is probably the greatest Reggae artist alive and still recording in 2007, his career thus far having spanned 40 years so far.  'Many Rivers To Cross' came from Cliff's 1971 album 'The Harder They Come' (as did his other big hit 'You Can Get It If You Really Want').

Here, though, Lennon does not attempt to reproduce a Reggae feel at all but he and Harry transform the song into more of a ballad - albeit a rather heavy one - but more suited to Nilsson's familiar style.  Lennon added strings - at the start, a beautiful, sustained counter-melody that he later recycled as '#9 Dream' for his own next album 'Walls and Bridges'.  Also notable are the duetting electric guitars of Danny Kootch and Jesse Ed Davis.  A pedal steel guitar lends the song a nod in the Country direction (Sneaky Pete also gets the solo here) and the album often features both Ringo and Jim Keltner on drums - in this case also plus a massive dose of reverb.

Harry's vocal is at times moving and also very powerful where necessary - there is a noticeable roughness to it but it works better on this track than on several of the others.

Subterranean Homesick Blues (Dylan)

Again, this is a reflection on John Lennon's attempts to keep up-to-date and even ahead of the game when it came to the popular music of the day.  In the same interview with Andy Peebles mentioned above he reflects on the punk rock movement - firstly in terms of questioning whether any of those who started the movement a few years later were in the audience at London's Lyceum the night he and Yoko guested with Frank Zappa (the 2nd album from 'STINYC') then secondly referring to when he heard the 'new wave' artists The B-52s and Lene Lovich prompting him to call Yoko and tell her it was time to make a comeback: "They're ready for you, mother!".  If this track is not exactly 'punk' then it's not a million miles away either.

This cover version of Bob Dylan's 1965 political 'rant' is certainly not easy to listen to (witness Nilsson's own pose on the promotional ad for the single, right) and if John Lennon ever made a more sincere attempt to reproduce Phil Spector's 'wall of sound' (in a very literal sense!) then it remains to see the light of day!  (Lennon had just finished working with Spector on the sessions for the 'Rock and Roll' album at this time although it was not to be finished and/or released for some time yet.  The sessions had deteriorated into pitched battles with Spector famously firing a gun in the studio at one point).  The first line of the song, 'Johnny's in the basement Mixing up the medicine' refers to LSD, something I'm sure 'Johnny' and Harry found quite apt considering how they were living at the time! They even carried on the parody for a short while, changing the second line to 'Harry's on the pavement'. (sorry, can't resist...)

The music is SOOOooo heavy!  The drums underpin a mix every bit as cluttered as Richard Perry's wasn't!  Klaus Voorman's bass flaps and twangs like Herbie Flowers's de-tuned one did on 'Jump Into The Fire' (I have a suspicion Harry was trying to recreate that sort of groove here) while the triple sax and (barely audible) piano provide the mortar

Don't Forget Me

I've always thought this song written for Zak, Harry's son who he had left along with Diane.  Zak doesn't know for sure (I've asked him) but it does seem quite obvious - and if so this is a touching song for a dad to dedicate to a son he had left behind with the failed marriage - he also refers to the alimony, of course, backing up the theory.

In sharp contrast to the 'wall-of-sound' mass of musicians making multifarious contributions to other songs on the album, this track is beautifully minimalist - just Harry, his piano and the almost ever-present strings of 'Ken Ascher's Masked Alberts Orchestra' - and that helps it stand out.  It is slower than the demo version of the song that exists, to its great betterment, and without drums (to its even better betterment!)  Harry's voice is almost intact on this recording and that means it has to be treasured.  I love the expression 'Get Happy' - quite clearly not original but from the Frank Arlen song of the same name - but it comes up fresh as an alternative to the more commonplace 'cheer up' in this song.

All My Life

This is the song that perhaps sums up the chaotic way its creators were living (making it appropriate that it also marks Keith Moon's first contribution to the album - on Chinese Temple Blocks.  The strings use a portamento, slip-slidey technique to good effect throughout giving a 'drunk' feel to the whole song (they also have some parts just a semitone apart - comical, discordant and most appropriate).  The songs works well for what it is but it is worth noting that this is the one track that most notably suffers in the Quad mix - Harry's vocal track is dreadfully out of tune and that makes it almost unlistenable for me.  (I don't imagine for a moment he sang out of tune - or carried a yellow balloon! - but some way the Quad track's mix was assembled must have played havoc with the tuning.)

Old Forgotten Soldier

This was one of the songs first recorded during the Trident sessions for Nilsson Schmilsson (a version of it is a demo track on the 2004 reissue) so it was a song that had been around for quite some time in one form or another.  I found Curtis Armstrong's liner notes for the Buddha re-release of Pussy Cats very interesting when it referred to a hand-written list of some twenty songs Harry was considering using at that time.  I can't imagine that even Harry would have seriously thought about releasing '(I Want You To) Sit on my Face' on an official LP but who knows?  The final make-up of Pussy Cats reflects input from both Harry and John but also a sort of spontaneity in places as though 'this seemed a good idea at the time'. 

Old Forgotten Soldier was 'on the list', however and proves a highlight of the set.  While Harry's voice had certainly 'gone' by the recording but its cracked, raspy timbre seems somehow fitting for a song like this one.  On the demo it is just a bit 'too' clean and 'young' for authenticity.

The arrangement is left as simple as possible - just Klaus on bass, Jesse Ed on acoustic guitar and some impressive blues piano from Harry (do I do him a disservice if I again question whether this was really 'just' Harry on piano?  The evidence of his rather limited piano skills as heard on other tracks/demos seems to lend the question...)

Save The Last Dance For Me (Pomus/Shuman)

My favourite track on the album and, not surprisingly, that berth goes again to a ballad. The old 'Drifters' hit from before the days of The Beatles was composed by rock and roll greats Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, who also wrote for Fabian and Elvis.

John returns to his 'wall of sound' approach on this song - and he really does manage to build a formidable wall - and it is again the 'overall' effect that shines rather than individual musical performances but his 'greenness' as a producer is evident at times in glaring blunders such as one hears just at the three minute mark here where a stray note is left inexplicably in the mix.  Some of Harry's vocals are lovely again here but you need to listen to the demo version to really get an idea of what this might have sounded like...if...

Mucho-Mungo/Mt Elga (Lennon/adapt. Nilsson)

Other reviewers have hinted that the calypso/Reggae feel of this track was a deliberate attempt on Harry and John's part to recreate 'Coconut'.  It had never occurred to me but I think I can see what they mean - right down to its placement as track 2 on side 2. John doesn't seem to have written this song especially for Harry but probably offered it when Harry asked if he had anything new he could use.  John had recorded several demos of the song during the 'Mind Games' sessions and one of these was released on John's rarities set a few years ago now.  It is not hard to work out that the lyrics were probably by Yoko (very much her style) although she is still uncredited on reissues of Pussy Cats.

A demo version of this song is available on various John Lennon bootlegs and has even been released legitimately now on one of the Lennon Anthology sets.  It is interesting to hear John introduce the song to Harry and Harry take over half way through with Mt Elba.

Harry and John were to write together and John recorded 'Old Dirt Road' on his next LP 'Walls and Bridges'.  Harry's own take on the collaboration came on 'Flash Harry' half a decade later.  So this had to do for now.  Another song, 'You Are Here', was written by the pair and was recorded by Harry (in his sessions with Andy Cahan) near the end of his life.  It is reportedly excellent but has never been released.

Loop de Loop (Vann)

In a darker moment one can only wonder at the psychological damage done to a group of young children brought, unsuspecting, to a recording studio to 'make a record with two of the Beatles...and that nice man...you know...the one who made 'The Point' cartoon. Remember...?'  When the Masked Alberts Kids Chorale entered the studio one  what can they have made of our trio of amyl nitrated drummers and the piles of empty bottles...

But, perhaps it wasn't like that...just maybe someone had enough protocol to 'clean the place up a bit' - I hope so!

This song actually fits in with the 'rock and roll oldies' half of the album - Johnny Thunder had the 'novelty' hit (his only one... lonely number, that...) with this song, essentially a souped-up nursery rhyme but still credited to Teddy Vann, Thunder's producer.(4)

I always get the feeling that Harry and John were looking for ways to 'wind the album up' by this stage - of course, without reference to the dates of the sessions it is not possible to be certain but I suspect this song, Rock Around the Clock and 'Subterranean..' probably came near the end of the sessions when some fillers were needed to pad out the gaps.  It makes for a balance, at least - the album contains five 'originals' (if you include 'Mucho Mungo') and five 'covers' although I'm sure I would have preferred some of the other 'originals', left out for whatever reasons (see bonus tracks below) in place of the 'mele' tracks.

As it is, this and 'Rock Around...', in particular, don't add much to Pussy Cats except a peek inside the mayhem that so influenced its outcome. They remind me, in a way of the 'Toot and a Snore' jams that also took place during this period.  ('A Toot and a Snore in '74' is the title of a bootleg album recorded during a jam in a Los Angeles studio - notable only for the star-studded line-up and the fact that it brought John Lennon and Paul McCartney together for the very last time in any kind of recording.  Nilsson was also present, of course, as were regular side-men, Bobby Keys and Jesse Ed Davis but the line up was completed by Stevie Wonder.  Unfortunately...it just wasn't very good!  The only song that gets anywhere near a proper treatment is 'Lucille' and the album will remain un-reviewed here with the exception of this paragraph.  For a full description of the bootleg please see www.harrynilsson.com/page-a-toot-and-a-snore.html )

Black Sails (in the Moonlight)

Another of the very clear 'stand-out' moments on Pussy Cats.  This song was written at the request of Derek Taylor for a pirate-themed movie ('Ghost in the Noonday Sun' - every bit as atrocious a movie as Nilsson's own 'Son of Dracula', as it happened!) starring ex-Goons Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Harry said that he asked for a 'yucko...blood blues ballad' and that is exactly what Harry delivered - but the song was rejected, even after a mellotron overdub was added.(5)

The final version as head on Pussy Cats does away with both the tinkly piano and the mellotron, replacing the latter with The Masked Alberts Orchestra again - giving the track a very similar feel to the later 'Easier For Me' from 1975's Duit on Mon Dei album.

The lyrics, as Curtis points out in his liner notes for the Buddha reissue, are almost in free verse - a 'naughtily nautical' piece of poetry about the veins on a woman's legs being a treasure map.  

Rock Around the Clock (deKnight/Freedman)

Almost universally recognised as the 'first rock and roll song' this 1954 hit for 'Bill Haley and his Comets' was almost completely written by Max C. Freedman although credit is shared with James E. Myers.  Myers and Haley's producer Dave Miller did not get on at all and Miller refused to allow Haley to record the song (ripping up several copies, it is reported).  Not even the pseudonym 'Jimmy deKnight' worked and, therefore, other artists (Sonny Dae & the Knights) recorded the song before Haley.  Haley, though, became synonymous with the song and it is known by almost all fans of pop music throughout the world.

In its place as the finale to Pussy Cats it seems almost appropriate - the noisiest, most decadent and manic jam session in RCA's history!  The ultimate tribute to the 'permanent floating party in LA'.  Only twelve musicians are credited on the recording but it sounds like a hundred and twelve - and all with their volume knobs turned up to the highest settings! Plus the motor bike, of course!  And the air-raid siren!

Musically it sits quite well.  I find the drummers' shuffle beat a bit of a distraction in a 4/4 song, but then I always do. The saxes adding harmony works as does Harry's understated 2nd harmony vocal low down in Lennon's mix.  Jane Getz improvises manically over the top on her piano, desperately trying to share the solos - or at least get a note in edgewise as guitars demonstrate their 12-bar soloing technique and But there is definitely and 'end of party' feel about the whole thing.  The reprise is a complete mess - but I'm sure all involved knew that - it seems appropriate...

Bonus Tracks:

Down By The Sea (demo)

This fully-produced track somehow missed the cut for the final album but is a most welcome addition to the reissue!  Of course, we are familiar with the version that appeared on Harry's next album, Duit on Mon Dei, but this has a completely different feel to it - almost Hawaiian in its style.  Harry's voice, not severely taxed in this song anyway, sounds smooth and comfortable.  Listening to the whole it becomes clear that, despite the completed backing track it becomes apparent near the end that Harry had by no means completed the lyrics at this point, maybe explaining its omission from the original LP!

The Flying Saucer Song (demo)

Harry made numerous attempts to record this track - the 'final' version surfacing on the Sandman album.  This take was recorded on April Fool's Day in 1974 - it had to have been!  Harry layers his vocals and runs through his range of 'silly voices' a la Coconut.  Some of the layered harmony vocals are lovely!  Curtis describes this as Harry's shaggy-drunk story and I can do no better than repeat his opinion.  That's what it is.  I love the way the barman butts in - 'are you guys a group?' trying to get their attention, only to be completely ignored.

I have to say I much prefer this to the released version - and it's the barman that does it for me.  When he recognizes Ringo near the end then thinks he's overseeing a drunken Beatles reunion it cracks me up every time!

Turn Out The Light (demo)

Another song that had to wait until Harry's next album to earn a starting place this is, like 'Down By The Sea' a very different version.  Again, just about finished here this is a more laid back, reggae-ish arrangement featuring marimba as if to emphasize the Caribbean/Latin connection.  Something unusual here is the fact that the version on the Buddha reissue is not the one Curtis refers to in his liner notes; he leads us to expect a 'stripped-down' demo with a backing vocalist called 'Frank'.  That's not what I hear, unless 'Frank' is really 'Francesca'!

Save The Last Dance For Me (demo)

Worth buying the reissue for on its own.  Little more needs to be said.

This is Harry, at the electric piano, voice intact, close-miked and intimate with his audience. We would never hear him quite like this again - make the most of it!

(1) Zaphod Beeblebrox, for those who don't know, is a character from Douglas Adams's bestselling series of novels which began with 'The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  Beeblebrox is credited with having invented the best drink in the universe - the famed 'Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster' the effect of which is likened to having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.  Advice is also given: Never drink more than two Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters unless you are a thirty ton mega-elephant with bronchial pneumonia - however this advice could, and perhaps should have had as a coda: or Harry Nilsson!

(2) Lines from my poem 'Pussy Cats'.

(3) A reference to the LP cover.  There are two building blocks on the floor showing D and S - between them is a rug.

(4 )Strangely, perhaps, in the UK we only know this as a nursery song - and most of us with slightly different words.  Generations of us British children in the 1950s and 60s grew up singing 'here we go Looby Loo' - Looby Loo being a rag-doll character in the BBC 'Watch With Mother' classic 'Andy Pandy'.  The doll would invariable stand on her wobbly marionette legs and dance a silly dance to the tune.  When I first heard Pussy Cats it was the first time I ever heard this song out of that context! (Andy Pandy, left, with Looby Loo and Teddy)

(5 )The condition of Harry's voice on this track again confirms it was recorded earlier than the remainder of the album - certainly pre-voice problems.  As this was recorded  for a movie that was released in 1973 that seems to be the case and also gives a hint it may have been recorded in London.  If so, then 'Black Sails' - 2nd demo - a demo I have not yet heard), is another candidate for being one of the missing Rick Wakeman tracks (see footnotes *** and **** on the Nilsson Schmilsson review)