I think the lack of standing of this LP and its predecessor are more to do with a lack of patience with Nilsson as a man than Nilsson as an artist. Fans had turned from him in droves: first after Son of Schmilsson and its 'disgusting language' then after Pussy Cats (where has that lovely voice gone?) and then there was also the bad publicity that Harry seemed to draw from all quarters - including, of course, being the 'scruffy one who made John Lennon do those awful things...'
Duit On Mon Dei did not sell well despite the good advertising campaign by RCA, reaching only 141 in the US charts. This rather rushed follow-up was released just months after its predecessor and, although it is at times so wacky it makes Pussy Cats the height of decorum it also contains many moments of absolute brilliance that must have reminded even the most hard-nosed RCA executive of what a marvellous talent they had on their label - if only they could effectively tap it!
He brings us here just one song that could be described as a natural progression from Duit on Mon Dei: the 'end of the world is nigh' lyrics of 'Pretty Soon...' standing in sharp relief to the happy-go-lucky, Latin accompaniment. Elsewhere, Sandman is more of a natural successor to Son Of Schmilsson as Harry gives us another veritable cornucopia of styles and genres - no two songs on Sandman bear the slightest resemblance to each other! On the way we have one of the best ballads Nilsson ever wrote, a Glee Club-like a capella male voice choir, Country, the 'laziest' song ever composed...and the shaggy drunks are back...and so was the blasphemous low-point of Duit, only it was fully produced blasphemy this time round.
What we are left with is just about the best 'side' of a Nilsson album since Son Of Schmilsson and, probably, the worst 'side' ever on its reverse (with the notable exception of the last track - but most of the times I ever played the album I didn't get that far - CD track-skipping has helped somewhat...
The best summation of the 2 albums has to be that of their 'Maestro' Van Dyke Parks, who said in his interview with Curtis prior to the Camden reissue "Nothing could've been less organized than these two albums." Says it all, doesn't it?
Harry was leading a disorganized life. John was back with Yoko for a year and, although he had his new, young family, perhaps even more important to him was to be able to keep up the image of the hard-drinking, pill-swigging, coke-snorting persona he had spent the last couple of years creating. The cover picture of Sandman shows him sitting on a beach, bottle of wine between his legs laughing at some unseen joke (perhaps the picture's not-too-hidden allusion to masturbation was the joke?), the reverse sees him eaten by a giant crab. Whatever, he looks like any old wino on a beach and his insistence on 'having my share of good times' that had lasted since his return to LA undoubtedly clouded his judgement at times - and his career was already in something of a terminal freefall. His love for comedy has been mentioned before and it seems the 'clouded' Harry had a disposition at this time to want to try to be a comedian. Unfortunately, most of his jokes are not found very funny by most people - and even his fans, at times, struggle to give their hero much more than a wry smile. Better selection of material and...who knows what may have been.
While I wouldn't want to be without a single note of Nilsson's records, how about this for a single album from the two 1975 efforts? Commercial success? Maybe not top fifty but inside the magic hundred, I reckon!
Will She Miss Me?
Down By The Sea
I'll Take a Tango
Easier For Me
Turn Out The Light
No place for 'Puget Sound' or even 'The Ivy Covered Walls' (ouch! I love that song but we're after a commercial hit here...) No 'Home', 'Jungle out There' or 'Good For God'. None of the dross from Sandman's lesser flip.
If I'm being a bit hard here it's only to suggest how Nilsson might have had a hit record. At worst, in reality, I would have liked a double album: the 'proper' commercially viable record as listed above and a 'free' bonus album with 'the rest of the sessions' as we know them (try putting that lot into a running order!)
I'll Take A Tango (Harvey)
With the exception of this and his next two albums for RCA Harry Nilsson never opened an album with a ballad - so this was a first (I am discounting A Little Touch because virtually every song on album that is a ballad). Written by Alex Harvey (not as in the Sensational Alex Harvey Band - he was a Scottish rocker), an American singer/songwriter who also wrote for Kenny Rogers, this song was taken from his album Preshus Child. In it Harry seems to tell us that the days of songs like 'Take 54', 'Spaceman' and 'Jump Into the Fire' are gone forever (he was pretty much true to his word, as it transpired!). "Deep down in my soul I hate Rock and Roll" he sings lamentably, preferring a tango. Yet the song is far from a tango itself - it is a slow-tempo, sax heavy, lazy ballad with the slightest Latin influence in the instrumentation and the heavily accented triplets in the penultimate line of each verse.
And what of the words? As a teenager I asked myself 'Has Harry turned gay?' Valentino? Marlon Brando? (Surely 'The Godfather' wasn't gay?)
So...a bit of a bizarre opener in several ways but the song has got a lovely, lazy feel to it, a nice melody and does enough to capture the attention and leave you wanting more.
Something True (Nilsson/Botkin jr)
When that 'more' arrives any Nilsson fan would give a smile of satisfaction. Harry comes up with a ballad to equal anything he's ever composed - right up there with 'Remember', 'Maybe' and 'I'll Never Leave You'. As a bonus, Harry's voice sounds better than it has since before Pussy Cats on this track(1) - clear (no hint of the, by now, familiar rasp evident even on the preceding track) and it can stand up against and of Harry's work from any era - let alone this period.
Lovely piano work (probably Jane Getz) and a sympathetic orchestration from Botkin allow the song to crescendo enough for some pretty hefty drumming but all this never gets 'heavy' - just intense - and Harry sits atop in all his old splendour.
Pretty Soon There'll Be Nothing Left For Anybody
If there's a tongue-in-cheek here its in the way this song goes against Harry's own opinion in the 'Good For God' conversation at the end of Duit. In that song Harry denies the 'end of the world is nigh' railings of the pessimist (albeit with an extremely banal and weak argument!) yet here he is now devoting a whole song to the very same topic - interesting in these days of panic over global warming etc.
This is the most musical link to Duit, as I said above; although the steel pans are missing they could just as easily have been on this track, and in no way out of place.
The Ivy Covered Walls
No instruments at all bar the human voice. Barbershop harmonies delivered by the male voice choir might have been as big a curveball on Sandman as the Stepney and Pinner old folks choir on a previous occasion but this, like 'I'd Rather Be Dead' works perfectly! I love this song, the harmonies (I once extracted the parts onto manuscript and tried recording it singing all the parts myself - unfortunately it was in the days before home multi-track cassette recorders so it was sing while the other recording played back and a few 'parts' down the line there were too many hiss and tuning problems to make it a worthwhile exercise!), the silly story, the language and clever poetry...just one thing gets me...
WHAT WAS THE TITLE OF THE BOOK???????????
Here's Why I Didn't Go To Work Today (a.k.a. Thursday) (Nilsson/Kortchmar)
Chicken or egg? That is the question! (sorry Shakespeare!)
Did I ALWAYS hate Thursdays or was it only since I heard this song. Either way I hate Thursdays and have done so for a very, very long time! It's a day I'd love to be crazy and lazy but seems to last forever (for most of my life I've had a choir practice on Thursdays until nearly 10 at night which doesn't help!)
This song was written by Nilsson and Danny 'Kootch' Kortchmar (one of the guitarists in the 'band') in a bar one night with Van Dyke Parks. Bet it was a Thursday! Although uncredited anyone who knows VDP's writing will recognize how he may have 'chipped in with a line or two' here and there (try asking Mike Love to sing 'surreptitiously unique'!)
The song is a jazzy saloon ballad: laid back music for a smoky piano bar - how could it be anything else? The bluesy piano penetrates the smoky air and Harry delivers with all the languidity he had used so often in the past - but not for a while in recent years. The voice, now largely recovered would never regain its full clarity but whose voice does? If you compare Harry Nilsson and Dennis Wilson (to mention the second Beach Boy in one review!) who lived similarly hard-drinking, hard-drugging lifestyles, what happened to Nilsson's voice was minor damage in comparison. By the time he died in1983 Wilson could barely talk let alone sing.
The Flying Saucer Song
Here we go again...
As the long-awaited pair of drunks finally get their official outing one can't help but feel that the joke has worn very thin. And contrived. This is long-winded and lacking any real humour (any the sketch had had, had been drained out through repeated efforts to finish it and the inspiration long gone by this version.) At least the version we now have released as a bonus track on Pussy Cats has the layered harmonies and the genuinely funny Beatles reunion joke at the end. This is just turgid and stale.
How To Write a Song
Doug Dillard's banjo leads us through this bluegrass romp and the jewsharp twanging away reflects Sandman's, by now seemingly obligatory, 'party song'. Again, though, there is precious little substance to this silly song about how not to use words like talent and orange in songs. Trite.
Jesus Christ You're Tall
If I hadn't turned this album off after the last two 'songs' then this one would guarantee the needle rising - sometimes to side two, track four if I had the patience but not often enough, that's for sure! I've written enough about this heap of a song already - no need to repeat myself (unlike Harry, sadly).
Will She Miss Me?
If you make and elephant cross a tightrope in order to get the peanut on the other side it is widely regarded as cruelty. Well that's what side two of Sandman has always been to me. This song is a darned tasty peanut but I aint crossing no tightrope to eat it!
Consequently, of all the songs I love on Nilsson albums, this has probably been played the least. It is dramatic, emotional and has both a good melody and great orchestration (Botkin again). Harry puts his all into the performance and the songs, undoubtedly deserves better than where it ended up. In fact, I could imagine Sinatra singing this.
It would have been a great way to end (or even start - see above) an album. Unfortunately this album always ended long before this song had a chance to start.
(1) It must have been what Harry later termed 'a good day'. JENKINS BOOK REFERENCE
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