Not Forgotten: Harry Nilsson – Son of Schmilsson

Having a hit with “Without You”, the power-ballad that still out power-ballads all other power-ballads, had left Harry Nilsson in a uniquely enviable position of being a vastly talented singer songwriter who enjoyed his biggest hit singles with cover versions of material by other world-class songwriters. Oh and to sweeten the deal he didn’t even have to go through the treadmill of touring to achieve success, he just had to be an utterly brilliant songwriter. “Without You” had dragged its parent album, Nilsson Schmillson into the album charts in its wake and had cemented Harry Nilsson as a songwriter who regularly rubbed shoulders with his fellow musical glitterati, where he caused as much mayhem as he did mirth.

So what to do next? Churn out facsimilies of the power-ballad that had made him a household name? Hardly. As disarmingly diverse as Nilsson Schmilsson had been, it’s follow up would prove to be even more eclectic. History has seemingly dismissed Son of Schmilsson as the album equivalent of a B-Movie, something not helped by Nilsson dressing as Dracula on the cover. While Son of Schmilsson is effectively Nilsson and his A-list mates and various session musos sodding about over ten tracks and calling it an album, it’s a personal favourite of mine as it’s the sound of one of the great songwriters of his generation allowing himself free-reign to show off the breadth of his talents in a pressure-free environment, while having a great time and proving that you don’t have to take yourself too seriously to make great art.

The party kicks off with starts with uptempo rocker “Take 54”, a song resplendent with stinging guitar, some of the most glorious brass you’ll ever hear and the unforgettable line ‘I sang my balls off for you baby’. This is evidently the sound of a rock star having a bit of a laugh, and to its credit, it’s a tune that hasn’t aged a day, indeed, it’s a song that you could imagine Ben Folds performing a killer cover version of. It even ends with a tongue in cheek advert by Nilsson for his own record label. Yeah, maybe it wouldn’t have hurt for Nilsson to have taken himself slightly more seriously, but not by much.

Just when you think that the album is descending into profitless chicanery, Son of Schmilsson hits you with “Remember (Christmas)”, one of his sweetest piano ballads and a reminder exactly what a glorious voice Nilsson had for this kind of tune. However, just when you think he may be settling in for an album of singer-songwriter goodness, he hits you with “Joy”, an unforgettably togue-in-cheek country ballad, all pedal steel, with Nilsson himself giving a once in a career tribute to every male country-singer you’ve ever heard.

“Turn On Your Radio” is pure pop gold, backed up with Nicky Hopkins’ gentle piano and some beautifully understated guitar work from, of all people, Peter Frampton. It’s sometimes easy to forget just how good Nilsson was at the straight pop song, and you have to wonder quite why he didn’t take the easier career path of being a straight pop performer. The answer comes with ‘You’re Breaking My Heart”, an undeniably simple, yet fun, rocker which jut so happens to be one of the most disarmingly direct disasembling of a failed relationship. It’s a song which is often overlooked when considering his contribution to pop music, but for me, it’s one of my favourite Harry Nilsson songs.

The second half of Son of Schmillson opens with the glorious technicolour pop of “Spaceman”, which wears the influence of The Beatles so proudly that you start to question why the fab four didn’t stuff Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with songs as good as this one. By this point in the album, it’s regular switches in style and pace are no longer surprising, but that doesn’t prevent the piano pop balladry of “The Lottery Song” thrilling you with its irresistable chorus. It’s at about this point you have to start asking yourself exactly why Nilsson’s adaptability isn’t more widely celebrated by the music industry. He deserves to be celebrated as one of the greatest creators of pop music of his generation, but instead he’s all too frequently disregarded as someone who didn’t fulfil his promise, when the truth is, he did, it’s just that he isn’t given credit for it.

As successful as “Without You” had been, you may have expected his next album to have been over-laden with cover versions. Infact Son of Schmilsson has just one cover version, the rock and roll tune “At My Front Door”. It’s not the album’s most vital track, but it’s an enjoyable tune, and that’s all it needs to be. “Ambush” finds Nilsson flirting with a sort of RnB rock sound. It’s the kind of sound that Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour had popularised, but it’s also something that Nilsson and the rest of the band pull off with some panache.

Perhaps Son of Schmilsson’s most striking moment comes with “I’d Rather be Dead”, a fun ode to raging against the aging process, complete with a choir of pensioners lifting the chorus. In lesser hands it could have been a tasteless misfire, but it’s judged to perfection and it sounds like a great time was had by all concerned, and as such, it remains one of the most unique pop songs by anyone ever.

The album closes with the calypso-flavoured pop of “The Most Beautiful World in the World”, perhaps the only song in the history of popular music with a gargling solo. Again, it’s a song which could have fallen on it’s backside, but instead it’s saved by a killer chorus, Nilsson’s vocal talents and the production genius of Richard Parry, resulting in a suitably technicolour ending for the album. Sure, it’s a jokey ending, but hell, Son of Schmilsson is an album that reminds even the most hard-hearted of us that sometimes, just sometimes, we can abandon the pretence of being cool and just enjoy ourselves. This overlooked gem of an album is the perfect soundtrack to do just that.

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