Despite not having a number one single like “Without You” or two other Billboard charting classic FM songs i.e. “Coconut” and “Jump Into The Fire” like his previous album Nilsson Schmilsson, I find his 1972 follow-up, Son Of Schmilsson to be a slightly more satisfying disc that deserves to be revisited. Fifty years ago Harry Nilsson had the added pressure to try to top his big commercial breakthrough. He smartly involved his previous producer, the brilliant Richard Perry to help him with this collection. Invited to play were a cascade of popular musicians of the time. George Harrison, Ringo, Peter Frampton, Nicky Hopkins, Klaus Voorman, Bobby Keys, Lowell George, Del Newman, Ray Cooper, Chris Spedding etc… and two Beatle engineers, Ken Scott and Phil McDonald contribute to the musical festivities. The results were an excellently recorded and mixed varied collection of songs. From basic rock to singer-songwriter ballads to comedy to country to Christmas and a waltz, it’s all over the place. And that’s a good thing. Harry Nilsson’s amazing voice keeps it all together.
We start off the album with the rollicking “Take 54.” Harry is heard ranting about some female singer in the studio who he is crazy about but who doesn’t seem to care one way or the other about him. The lyrics are comical and Harry Nilsson’s theatrical vocal is well suited to the concept. The song rocks with a heavy backbeat provided by Richie Snare (Ringo Starr) in tandem with Klaus Voorman’s typically solid bass lines and interspersed with an upfront sax part performed by ubiquitous studio musician Bobby Keys.
Harry Nilsson does a complete 180 on the next track, “Remember (Christmas).” It’s mostly a piano driven song with an arching melancholy melody executed flawlessly. The vocal is warm and heartfelt and the “life is but a dream” lyrics set the foundation for most of the album’s sentiment. Though the song is not about Christmas per say, Nicky Hopkin’s delicate piano part lends itself to a holiday feel along with sleigh bells and pizzicato strings. The only thing missing is the sound of a cracking fireplace. On a personal note, I remember buying the CD version of this album back in 1994 and this particular piece really hit me hard. Harry’s voice just cut right through to the core of my soul. A resigned sadness washed over me and I cried a deep cry. Later that day I went to visit my parents and when I arrived my father was watching a “Comic Relief” charity program put on by many famous actors and comics. No sooner did my eyes hit the TV screen I bare witness to Dustin Hoffman shuffling up on the stage and announcing that Harry Nilsson just passed away from a heart attack. Wild synchronicity. Nilsson of course sang the theme “Everybody’s Talkin’” for the Dustin Hoffman movie Midnight Cowboy.
The touchingness of “Remember (Christmas)” is quickly offset with a country and western song entitled “Joy.” This is a tongue and cheek C&W style tune using a lot of cliche country piano licks and standard Nashville orchestration (pedal steel guitar played by Red Rhodes) but the lyrics and the phrase “Joy to the world” (another Christmas reference) are cleverly used and center around a typical country heartbreak concept. The bottom line: Harry does not take any of it too seriously. With a spoken word in the outro, Harry Nilsson segues us into the song “Turn On The Radio.”
This is a quaint, clearheaded, tight melodic little number as only Nilsson could write. I knew the song the first time I heard it. It registered in my DNA. Harry’s vocal is upfront and intimate and supported with minimal orchestration. In this case, a memorable guitar part reminiscent of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” played by Peter Frampton on clean electric guitar, and a simple French horn arrangement akin to Leon Russell’s ballad “A Song For You.” Not surprisingly the song often made its way onto late-night FM radio through out the early 70s.
Just as we are lulled into the comforting vibe of “Turn On The Radio” we are blasted with obnoxious, distorted guitar once again played by Frampton. This is the opening to “You’re Breaking My Heart”; a tongue and cheek rocker about Harry’s separation from his wife Diane. It’s a funny / catchy rock song that would have been a big radio hit had Nilsson not sung the phrase “f**k you” several times. Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful singalong and George Harrison’s perfectly crafted slide guitar work adds to the ruckus nature of the tune. Nilsson is always pushing the boundaries of pop sensibilities and this song is a perfect example of his unwillingness to just go along for the ride and have a hit. Anyone going through a painful relationship needs to sing this song – and loud!
Thus ends side one as it was originally conceived on vinyl record.
Side two opens up with the song that was chosen as the lead single – “Spaceman.” Here Nilsson explores the despair of being an astronaut – not unlike Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Elton’s “Rocket Man”. The song is typical Nilsson tongue and cheek with a memorable hook, and strong vocals supported by a very boomy atmospheric edge (lots of reverb). Producer Richard Perry chimes in with some low pitched comical background vocals and Richie Snare (Ringo Starr) is on drums. Also featured in the mix, the esoteric double reed instrument,”shawm,” a sackbut (14th century trombone) and low chugging harmonicas filling out the rhythm section. The song can be heard in the 1996 Sci-Fi movie “Contact”, in episodes of the first season for the 2020 Netflix comedy series Space Force. and for a trailer for the HBO comedy series Avenue 5 (2020). It reached number 23 on the Billboard charts.
Following on the tails of the spacey “Spaceman” is a very down-to-earth, unpretentious-sounding tune entitled “Lottery.” The lyrics tell the simple story of an everyday man’s hope to win the lottery and then record a hit song with his loved one, eventually playing it in Las Vegas. It’s production is intimate and simple. It’s a short piece clocking in at 2:27. The overall style falls somewhere in between Paul McCartney and Randy Newman.
Nilsson then delves back to his teenage years with a cover of the Eldorados 1955 hit “At My Front Door.”
It’s a lively, rocking production featuring Nilsson singing at first in a low intimate range and then by the outro bursting into some fun 50’s high falsetto. Ringo on drums, Bobby Keys on sax, Frampton on guitar and Ray Cooper pounding away on the congas really bring to life the simulated “live concert feel” producer Richard Perry sets up.
The energetic feel of “At My Front Door” is followed by the exact opposite; the sneaky, slow paced “Ambush.” This Nilsson original starts off with clean electric guitar and Ringo’s patented measured backbeat. Nilsson’s intimate vocal immediately drags the listener in as he quietly sings about men marching off to war to some unknown tune. The song builds up to a crescendo and quickly backs down again to just bass, low tom and a naked, slightly echoed vocal where Harry asks the listener to “listen to the punch line.” The song builds up to it’s logical conclusion and then it’s outro is injected with a very clever horn arrangement that sounds like machine guns firing back and forth. It’s a very intense piece worth repeated listenings.
Since war is a topic that usually involves death it is no surprise that Nilsson chooses to follow up “Ambush” with the song “I’d Rather Be Dead.” This is a joint composition written with Richard Perry but Harry’s sweet melancholia is all over it. The vocals on the song are sung live by Nilsson and the Senior Citizens of the Stepney & Pinner Choir Club No. 6, London, England. Their participation – men and woman playing off each other is charming, spontaneous and heartbreaking. They are supported by minimal orchestration i.e. Perry on piano, two-step snare beat, bass and accordion. Any song with an accordion is sure to paint an old-time homey picture in the listener’s mind. This is no exception. Like the song “Remember (Christmas)” Nilsson is very aware of our mortality but instead of leaving us to wallow in despair we are treated to the affirmation of being alive and enjoying the simple things in life while we are here living in a dream. There is a wonderful video on Youtube of Perry and Nilsson recording the senior citizens that is worth the watch.
The logical way to conclude this album for me would be with the aforementioned “I’d Rather Be Dead.” But Nilsson has other plans and he decides to end with a much broader sentiment in the song “The Most Beautiful World in the World.” The world (Earth) here is portrayed as a metaphor for all the feelings we go through in a life. In this case, the emotional residue of a woman (The Earth) as seen through Nilsson’s eyes. Musically the first half of this song is drenched in a tropical feel slightly akin to his previous hit record “Coconut.” In the second half we are unexpectedly swept off our feet in a kind of overblown waltz with angelic voices rushing over us and some ornate whistling signaling the dance is over. Harry breaks the fourth wall and bids us a “so long folks”, answered by Ringo Starr saying “Goodbye Harry.” Nilsson promises us he’ll be back for another album. An interesting guy that Harry Nilsson. Not a typical “serious” pop star.
And so Son Of Schmilsson comes to an end. The whole collection is just a dream in some songwriter’s head. A musical trip well worth taking if nothing else just to hear Nilsson’s magnificent voice before he destroys it two years later while working with John Lennon on his Pussy Cats album. But that’s a whole other dream. Maybe next time.
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Harry Nilsson’s Son Of Schmilsson Album Turns 50 article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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