That's the Way It Is
Chart-wise Sandman fared only slightly better than 1975's first effort, peaking at 111 and RCA were tearing their hair out. They lost faith with Nilsson's song-writing that, at their insistence, his next album would be very largely covers - only for it to become a new commercial nadir. Most agree that Nilsson didn't particularly care much...
His 1976 follow up to Sandman was 'That's The Way It Is...' - as apt a title as any other for Nilsson around this time. He showed his carefree attitude on the front cover as he sat relaxing, smoking and reading Penthouse magazine. The title provoked another battle with RCA because Elvis had already released an album with that name - and to the RCA executives (as Harry found out to his cost the very next year) Elvis was God! At least Harry won that battle, making them realise you couldn't copyright an album title! Anyway, by the time Harry came up with that title at least two others ('Eldridge and Beaver Cleaver USA' and 'The Legs Go First') had been rejected. The eventual title was, of course, the 'sign off' line of Walter Cronkite, the famous American newsreader. Harry wanted Cronkite to be the face on the TV for the album cover but Cronkite refused (along with a few others, again!) and the face we actually see is that of Edward R Murrow, noted WWII reporter and the nemesis of Joseph McCarthy. He had been dead over a decade by then so it was harder for him to refuse!
As for the rest of the cover, Nilsson's official discographer Andrea T Sheridan recalled this a while ago on Nilssonweb:
"It was a set...two standing walls (maybe three, but I'm pretty sure it was two. You know the kind, raw on the other side with support posts. So, everything in the photo was placed there for the look of the photo. I once saw snapshots of the setup wherein you could see the edge and back of the false walls. I was stunned, completely fooled by the cover photo." Andrea went on to wonder if everything in the photo had been specifically placed, with a meaning - as the items had been on the cover of Pandemonium Shadow Show before it...
Curtis Armstrong responded:
"Okay let's see...there's a ship on the TV - that's 'Sail Away'. There's also a 'Pussy Cat'. The poster on the bedroom wall is, of course, one of the original proposed titles for the album, nixed by RCA (to rub it in he put the 'God's Greatest Hits' cover on the table next to the crushed Coors beer can). On the floor on the back cover is a copy of Don Nickles' album 'Hello Dummy'.* The man on the TV is Edward R Murrow, the legendary CBS newsman. The '76' is the CBS logo that year for its coverage of the election and Murrow was a replacement for Dean of Newscasters, Walter Cronkite, who refused to have his likeness on the album. On the mantelpiece is a picture of what appears to be a Mexican bandit (Zapata anyone?). That's all I can get out of it."
Well, the Mexican bandit could be a 'moonshine' one...maybe Penthouse featured a girl with a tattoo...it'd be a good game to continue one day!
RCA also insisted that Harry did not produce the album himself but had someone else at the helm. Although this directive was obeyed not much changed! Harry simply chose Trevor Lawrence to do the job - and he was very much an 'insider', having been an integral part of the horns section for the last few albums!
To many people the album's shortfall was that it didn't really seem like a Nilsson album. Yes, his voice was there - and sounding even better than it had at times on Sandman - but the songs weren't 'Nilsson'; and whether you liked 'Remember', 'Coconut' or 'You're Breaking My Heart', none of them were here. There was a great Randy Newman song (which, at least, let long-time Nilsson devotees hearken back to an older era), 'She Sits Down On Me', which could easily have been a Nilsson original and the song that topped and tailed the LP was a lost George Harrison gem (his 'Living in the Material World' album, and several others, received just as bad reviews as Nilsson's own mid-1970s albums and this song was 'hidden away' on that one) but the other songs don't always necessarily sit comfortably enough next to each other to help the album to 'work'. That's The Way It Is has some lovely moments, some fun moments and is nowhere near as bad as its reputation might lead one to expect but, overall - as an album, I have to admit it does lack cohesion.
Interestingly, shortly before this album was recorded Harry had recorded a duet with Cher called 'A Love Like Yours' (written by the famous Holland/Dozier/Holland team and previously recorded by, amongst others, Ike & Tina Turner, Dusty Springfield, Martha Reeves and Manfred Mann) . Produced by Phil Spector it was intended for release on Spector's own Warner Bros 'speciality; label but, after test pressings were circulated, the whole project had had to be abandoned due to the massive inter-label rivalries and technicalities involved in such ventures. The song had been intended for John Lennon to sing and Nilsson/Cher were recording backing vocals - but they ended up recording the song together. It is an excellent recording, however, and would have made a superb contribution to That's The Way It Is, probably holding together side two and giving the album the 'cohesion' I previously said it lacked. (Up to me, I would either have used it in place of Zombie Jamboree or maybe even swapped the 'Just One Look/Baby I'm Yours' medley onto side 2.) It may have taken some support from RCA to do this but I truly believe that the song, if released as a single, could have been a hit. As it is, the song has been released on record, firstly on Phil Spector's 20 Greatest Hits (1976).
That Is All (Harrison)
This is just lovely! .
For a start it lets us hear a guitar - first thing up! Guitars had been in for a bit of a rough ride over the last two or three Nilsson albums but here, appropriately enough on a song written by such an accomplished guitarist as George but here the instrument is restored to its usual place in pop/rock music. And there is another big thing...this sounds like a pop/rock record right from the start. Ever since Harry parted company with George Tipton back in the early 1970s his 'sound' had been very saxophone oriented - and, while there is plenty of sax elsewhere on TTWII, on this track they bare barely evident. More prominent in the mix are guitars, keyboards and those soaring, sustained strings and flutes. In fact the only brass I can hear comes from trombones.
The arrangement, style and pace of this song certainly pave the way for Nilsson's next (and last) RCA album Knnillssonn. The strings and wall of harmonious backing vocalists singing those long, long phrases are very similar to what we would later hear on 'All I Think About Is You'.
Some of Jim Keltner's drumming on this track is rather 'enthusiastic' at times - listen out for some of those fills from the middle section onwards!
And above it all Harry exploits his high register more than he had been able to for several years - the cracks in his once immaculate timbre are still there but this is a voice that is once again comparable to Nilsson at his very best. Another great example of Harry taking someone else's song and making it his own - there are so many examples of that in his catalogue and it is hard to see how anyone could argue that this take is not a considerably better version than the original, just like 'Without You' was vastly better than Badfinger's own original.
Just One Look (Carroll & Payne)/Baby, I'm Yours (Van McCoy)
Not the whole song but an excerpt, primarily to segue into 'Baby, I'm Yours' but it makes for a satisfying medley. Just One Look has been covered by many artists including The Hollies, Linda Ronstadt and Kirsty MacColl but is, perhaps best known as a hit for Doris Troy in 1963. (Troy wrote the hit herself under her real name Doris Payne, along with Greg Carroll. She was also one of the featured vocalists on Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon' - one of the biggest selling albums of all time.)
On this version (and the next song, which segues from this extract) Harry duetted with Lynda Lawrence, Trevor's wife, who had sung with Motown greats The Supremes from 1972-74 during Cindy Birdsong's 'maternity break'.** Harry was frequently quoted as having said that he could see the 'good side' of his voice problems as it gave his voice that more 'gravelly' quality he admired in, for instance, Ray Charles and he expressed his disappointment that it didn't quite work that way for him. Well, on this piece of 'pure pop' (very out of the ordinary for Nilsson) you can just about see what he meant. His voice and Lawrence's blend superbly at times but, on a few occasions, the decision to record 'live' once again takes its toll and the strain is a little too much for those, now more fragile, vocal cords.
'Baby, I'm Yours makes such a good companion for 'Just One Look' that for years I thought it was really part of the same song (being aware of Nilsson's version long before I heard the originals). Again Harry duets with Lynda Lawrence on this Van McCoy song. Although McCoy is still best known to most people for his massive 1975 disco hit 'The Hustle' he was a producer for some of the biggest names in the history of soul music (Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Stylistics, Aretha Franklin etc.), as well as a songwriter, orchestrator and conductor. He died from a heart attack aged just 39 in 1979.
Moonshine Bandit (Nilsson & Kortchmar)
One of the reasons for the lack of cohesion on the album is the inclusion of a couple of Nilsson originals, I'm afraid. This song would have been better placed on Sandman (maybe in place of some of the rubbish that cluttered side 2!). Having said that, it is hardly inspired stuff as far as Nilsson compositions go. The collaboration with Danny 'Kootch' produced a far better song than this on the previous album. It is another excursion into a Latin/Caribbean style, complete with Robert Greenidge's steel pans once again. I suspect it was a 'leftover' from a previous album's sessions. Not exactly a bad song, though...just a bit of a fish out of water - and I know some other Nilsson fans really love it!
I Need You (Gerry Beckley)
It has a bit of a feel of...after the intermission...for here we are back in the 'pop' mode this album is all about. And having cast the last song out of mind we have here one of Harry's best late-era recordings, I think.
'I Need You' was a hit for the group America, of which Beckley was a founding member but, while the words and melody stay the same, Harry changes the whole feel of the song here into a much more wistful 'torch song', full of longing and despair. Gone are the 'cute' harmony vocals of the original (which tend to make the song feel like a 'girlfriend has gone away for the weekend' sort of longing) and in place are Harry's tired, rough voice powered with mega-lungs - almost Pussy Cats type vocals (which make it sound like the girlfriend is lying in a mortuary! Don't get me wrong...I like the original a lot - it's just that Harry's version is so different!)
The song suits Harry's 'new voice' well and the sensitive arrangement and production by Trevor Lawrence give Harry the support to power his way through what, I'm guessing, was a pretty sore voice box on the day this was recorded.
Keltner is still enthusiastic!***
A Thousand Miles Away (Sheppard & Miller)
This song dates from 1956 - a hit for The Heartbeats, whose James 'Shep' Sheppard was a writer of the song. Subsequently covered by artists as diverse as Nilsson, Frank Zappa and Sir Cliff Richard (in whose case it was renamed 'Daddy's Home' and with altered lyrics) it has become one of those songs everyone seems to know.
Harry's version is 'supplemented' by an additional soloist, guest-starring' on the middle 8 - Tony LePeau - he's not very good and it is the weakest section of the song (and the whole album).****
Sail Away (Newman)
The careers of Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson have quite a lot in common. Both produced excellent, innovative music and performed it to a largely minority audience for the majority of their careers, neither truly getting the recognition their talents really deserved. Nilsson won two Grammys, of course, but compare that to, say, Santana or Michael Jackson who have each won eight for just one album each! Newman, during his years as a singer/songwriter won none. Great Newman albums like '12 Songs' and 'Good Old Boys' are every bit a minority purchase today as Pandemonium Shadow Show is, sadly. However, like Nilsson, Randy Newman later turned to writing music for films - in Newman's case particularly for Disney/Pixar and the songs he has written for movies such as Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Cars have, undoubtedly reached a far wider audience than any of his solo records. Since 2000 Newman has won 4 Grammys and an Oscar for the Pixar songs.*****
A similar thing could be said for Nilsson's music, of course. Despite the relative lack of commercial success of these films millions of viewers will have enjoyed Harry's music for Popeye, The Fisher King, Me Myself and I and other films he contributed songs to in later years. (You could also add The Point, of course, from earlier - I would estimate that at least 2/3 of those who ever enjoyed that film probably didn't equate the composer to the 'pop' artist Harry Nilsson - or, even if they did, they didn't go out and buy the rest of his albums!)
Most notably, their careers crossed with the Nilsson Sings Newman album, although Harry had recorded Newman's 'Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear' on Harry a year or so earlier. To my knowledge Newman has only recorded one Nilsson song, his version of 'Remember' being the lead song on the Tribute album 'For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson'.
'Sail Away' was a great choice for Harry's next Newman cover. The song, sung from the standpoint of a slave trader trying to encourage his victims to willingly jump on board ship and sail away for a better life 'across the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay' is one of Newman's very best.
Here, Nilsson sings it, most appropriately, with a smile on his face. Making the most of the high notes and sustained passages in a way Newman never could the listener can feel the grandeur of the ocean. If the slave trader had sung it like this his ship would have capsized due to the overwhelming number of volunteers! Great take of a great song...and it sounds so politically incorrect for the 21st century - I love it!
She Sits Down on Me (Austin Talbot)
I always thought this was a Nilsson original (maybe written under a pseudonym in order to slip another self-penned song into an album that was meant to be covers) but the liner notes on the Camden set tell us that the song was found on a cassette Harry bought in an airport while on holiday with Ringo. Austin Talbot was one of the Talbot Brothers, a calypso band from Bermuda (with his brothers Archie, Bryan, Roy****** and Ross and a cousin Cromwell Mandres. The song first appeared on their 1956 10" LP "Songs Dedicated to You". (In the picture, left, Austin Talbot is far right)
The song has, in my opinion, one of the funniest and wittiest lyrics ever. I have to admit that, in my college days, I claimed to have written it myself (liar, liar - pants on fire!) and spent many fun afternoons in the top floor practice rooms of the music college performing it for an ever-eager audience of fellow students. I even added a very crude extra coda-line for good measure (which is definitely best left to my memory alone!)
Daylight Has Caught Me (Nilsson & Rebennack)
Malcolm Rebennack - better known as Dr John - first worked with Harry on Pandemonium Shadow Show back in 1967 when neither was particularly well known. In 1976 they intended recording a whole album of standards together but it never came to fruition. (I have heard just one of the songs they performed together, 'Sweet Lorraine', and it could have been a great album if that was anything to go by!)
Dr John (right), or 'Mac', as he was known, had become good friends with Harry over the past few years and he had introduced Nilsson to several new musicians who were beginning to influence him. In fact, the first two songs recorded for TTWII were Dr John recommendations and covers of works by Allen Toussaint, a New Orleans R&B musician. Those two songs, 'Holy Cow' and 'Sittin' in the Corner' have yet to be released. This song they co-wrote
Zombie Jamboree (Conrad Mauge Jr)
Another song with a Caribbean connection, although this one is a little better known than the 'Tattoo' song. Harry may have been aware of the Kingston Trio's version, or maybe Harry Belafonte's (he recorded 4 versions of the song, believe it or not - in 1962, '64, '66 and '72) - the song might, conceivably, have even been on the same cassette he picked up at the airport! However it came to be recorded it is a great piece of fun proving zombies entered the world of pop before Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' (although the latter's video comes to mind occasionally when listening, I have to admit).
When recorded by The Kingston Trio we hear this background on the song:
"Every year, in Trinidad, they have what is known as a Calypsonian Carnival. in which the various native groups vie with one another musically in order to find out who's the best extemporaneous composer of them all. And in the year 1955 'Lord Invader and his 12 Penetrators' took the title with this next song, based on a theme by Goethe involving the Dance of the Dead. Well, Invader could only draw from experience so he called it, of course, 'Zombie Jamboree - the song that killed Calypso!'.
They go on to sing the song - but the lyrics are decidedly different - I suspect Harry made up his own verses (this seems to be the case in each artist's own version - Belafonte's version has a verse about Brigitte Bardot and another warning of the consequences of Nuclear War!)*******
Of course, Harry can use his silly Caribbean voice again here - he never needed much excuse to drag it out, did he? The tone is set with the opening, ad hoc, line 'Oh my God, there's a zombie on my belly!' and the fun carries on from there.
That Is All (reprise)
Beginnings and endings of albums were obviously important to Harry all the way through his career. From Pandemonium Shadow Show and it's Circus Ringmaster announcements topping and tailing the record right through to the Monty Python bookmarks on his final album Flash Harry this thought process can be seen quite clearly (the obvious exception being Duit and its poor opening demo - although even that could be said to have been in place to have the Jesus/God link.) Even the debacle that was side two of Sandman ended on a high note!
In this instance Harry gives us a beautiful reprise of the opening number to tie up the album.
* Of course, this is a a typo. Curtis meant Don Rickles (Rickles is best known worldwide today as the voice of Mr Potato Head in the 'Toy Story' movies but he is a vastly experienced American comedian/actor).
**In his interview for the liner notes of the Camden reissue Trevor Lawrence recalled that she was singing with the group at the time of this recording. By 1976, though, Birdsong had returned to The Supremes and Lawrence was recording backing vocals for Stevie Wonder's hit double-album 'Songs in the Key of Life'.
***That's not a complaint - it's just that Lawrence must have liked him loud in the mix! Keltner is a very exact drummer - the drum triplets in this song are very well executed.
****Who he was or what happened to him I cannot find out. If he was a professional singer he sank without trace! He doesn't even get a mention on Roger Smith's exhaustive www.harrynilsson.com pages! Google can't find him (well, it might when it finds this page!) Another option might be to assume LePeau was a pseudonym - possibly for someone hanging around the studio or even a member of the backing band!
*****Nice coincidence that it's the second 'Toy Story' link on this album!
******Roy Talbot's bass was made from a 'meat-packing case' and a piece of fishing line. It is known as 'dog-house' and is a well-known piece of music memorabilia. Amongst many others it has written on it the autographs of Bing Crosby, Tommy Dorsey and Babe Ruth!
*******Conrad Mauge Jr (1935-98) was certainly not 'THE' Lord Invader - that was an entirely different calypsonian, Rupert Grant (1915-62), best known for writing 'Rum and Coca-Cola' and 'Don't Stop the Carnival'. It seems that The Kingston Trio may have helped create the confusion with their intro to the song: Lord Invader's band was called the 'Calypso Orchestra' not the 'Twelve Penetrators'. Bad memory? Yes! It may have been Lord INTRUDER, a Tobago-based calypsonian, although where Conrad Mauge Jr comes in I'm still not sure (as Lord Intruder's real name was Winston O'Conner)!
********The song also inspired a book by American poet Robert Merkin. He relates his life as a draftee in the Vietnam War to the line 'I don't give a damn cos I done dead already.' See: www.cordite.org.au/archives/000327.html
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