During my first year as a Canadian resident I was a little dismayed to find that, no matter where I went, I couldn’t get away from songs by, or talk about, The Beatles. I took part in a country/folk jam and ended up playing Beatles songs. I joined a Georgian singing ensemble and found that 2 of its members were in a Beatles tribute band. I went on a nature walk with some folks from the Zen Buddhist temple and heard someone behind me stating, in no uncertain terms, that ‘before George Martin, the Beatles were just another band’.
It’s not that I don’t like The Beatles, just that I am sick to death of hearing their songs and people’s opinions of them. Being an early starter in music listening, I was familiar enough with their catalogue before I went to secondary school. When I joined a band as a teenager we agreed that there was more to music than The Beatles. We drew upon the rock and roll that spawned 60s pop and the rock and singer-songwriters that came after it. This was in 1983, some 30 years ago. Maybe it’s a North American thing, but it just seems people can’t move on, or look back further, and I found that depressing.
Then one night I was looking for something to watch online and came across a documentary called ‘Who is Harry Nilsson?’ I watched it and found out. Harry Nilsson (1941-1994) could sing rock like John Lennon, write pastiches like Paul McCartney and was best friends with Ringo Starr. At his graveside George Harrison apparently led a singalong of one of the more profane Nilsson efforts.
Nilsson’s main body of recorded work was made between 1967 and 1977. His first 3 albums on the RCA Victor label, Pandemonium Shadow Show, Aerial Ballet and Harry exemplify the glorious eclecticism of the 60s, with original and covered pop songs coexisting with tongue-in-cheek 1920s- and Broadway-style compositions. There then followed a sequence of LPs which really were all over the map, ranging from cover projects of Randy Newman songs (Nilsson Sings Newman) and popular standards (A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night) to soundtracks, remixes and albums which at least partly ‘rock out’ (Nilsson Schmilsson, Son of Schmilsson, Pussy Cats). Finally, after being saved from a non-renewal of his record contract by 2 former Beatles, or so the story goes, Nilsson made 4 albums which did not do well commercially but are all artistically strong, particularly his 1977 swansong, Knnillsson.
He seemed to break all the rules that a great artist would normally need to adhere to. He was self referential, self indulgent and self destructive. Yet in his songs there always seems to be a light-heartedness, an enthusiasm and a freshness, not to mention serious musical ability. And did I mention that he could sing a Beatles song better than anybody else?
It seems to me that Harry Nilsson’s music has everything that The Beatles music has but with none of the baggage. Maybe we should be asking ourselves not who our favourite Beatle is but who is Harry Nilsson.