In the Wilderness: Harry Nilsson, 1966-1971

In the Wilderness Soundtrack Month

In the Wilderness is a feature in which a group of Strange Currencies contributors examine an overlooked or under-appreciated period of an artist’s career. In these “Slack chats,” we discuss highs, lows, and misconceptions, in order to shed new light on an era that we feel deserves a second look.

This week’s wilderness subject should require no introduction, and yet, despite critical acclaim and friends in the uppermost echelon of the pop music world, Harry Nilsson spent much of his career relegated to the status of a cult artist. While Nilsson was hardly an unknown entity – his contribution to the soundtrack of 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” was an instantly-iconic track that made the American top ten – his brush with stardom was largely centered around his classic 1971 album, Nilsson Schmilsson.

Schmilsson was a legitimate hit – one that thoroughly displayed Nilsson’s range of talents as a singer and songwriter. Though it appeared to signal the true arrival of an artistic dynamo, Nilsson would follow his commercial breakthrough with a series of records that almost seemed designed to alienate his newfound, hard-won following. Coupled with his self-destructive personal behavior, Nilsson’s post-Schmilsson work is practically the dictionary definition of an artistic “wilderness” era.

However, in this chat, Tim Ryan Nelson, Trevor Kvaran, and I discussed the albums that preceded Nilsson Schmilsson. These records found an enormously gifted artist truly discovering his own voice, while building up critical goodwill, and a loyal following – one that included ultra-enthusiastic praise from no less of an authority than The Beatles, who were among Nilsson’s most avid early supporters. Here are our thoughts on the first chapter of Harry Nilsson’s career:

MR: Okay, let’s start by discussing if this is really a “wilderness.”

TK: I’m not sure it really is. Aerial Ballet in particular has hits on it, right?

TRN: If not hits, there’s at least a large amount of his best songs on a single record.

MR: My impression is that Nilsson was kind of the classic definition of a “cult artist” until Schmilsson. He had a hit with “Everybody’s Talkin’” – and was something of an industry insider – but his real brush with stardom seemed to come late and was immediately followed by a period that almost seems like willful career sabotage. I mean, the post-Schmilsson era is probably more wilderness-y, but these records weren’t major sellers, right?

TRN: Yeah, it’s not “wilderness” in the sense that we’ve used the term here before – a decline period after great success – but this is definitely him sort of having fun in relative obscurity before fame hit.

TK: I was a bit surprised when you chose the early stuff over the late stuff for this.

MR: There’ll be a sequel next season. Admittedly, my wilderness definition may have been stretched because I wanted to get to know these albums better.

TRN: I definitely think you could consider everything before and after Schmilsson a “wilderness” period. I do think that some of his best work is happening in this early wilderness period, though.

MR: Absolutely. I really enjoyed almost all of this stuff.

TK: Yep, these albums are really strong.

Spotlight on Nilsson, Compilation (1966)

MR: Let’s dive into the first album, Pandemonium Shadow Show.

TRN: Are we not doing Spotlight on Nilsson?

MR: Oh, damn. Were we supposed to?

TK: I thought so.

TRN: It was on the list.

MR: D’oh. Okay. Talk about it. I’ll listen now.

TK: It was a big surprise for me. I’d not listened to it and I thought it was pretty excellent.

TRN: It’s really just a collection of early singles, but it does probably fit the bill as the most “wilderness” of these. I think it’s a really good listen, but he’s not fully formed yet. His skill shines through, but not his personality. It sounds like he’s imitating.

TK: Yeah, some of it is pretty derivative.

MR: How many of these are original compositions?

TRN: Most are covers. There are only three with no other credits on the Wikipedia page. I assume he was trying to stay within the style of the original versions, but I haven’t heard the originals, so I don’t know. He weirdly puts on kind of a Neil Diamond voice at times.

MR: It’s got a very Spector-esque sound.

TRN: The wiki for Pandemonium Shadow Show mentioned something about Spector co-writing a song on this album, but his name’s not in the credits online.

TK: “Good Times” is the standout here for me. Honestly, the first two tracks are notably the strongest on here to my ear.

TRN: Yeah. I like those two, and I like his vocal on track three pretty well too. “Good Times” was written by Harry. It was later covered by The Monkees, which is funny because it sounds a lot like a Monkees song already – in a general Nesmith-y way

TK: I have no real complaints with anything on the album, but those first two songs are a great pair as an album opener. It’s definitely a surprise, and worth listening to.

MR: Yeah, I’m enjoying it so far. I’m glad you guys actually followed my instructions and listened to it.

Pandemonium Shadow Show, LP (1967)

MR: Let’s talk Pandemonium Shadow Show.

TRN: I’m glad we covered Spotlight on Nilsson, because it makes Pandemonium – at least the first track – sound that much better. It’s a huge leap in style and originality right out of the gate.

MR: I’ve been wanting to know what you guys think of that opener.

TK: It’s fun, although I often skip ahead to “1941.”

TRN: Love it, cultural insensitivity aside. It’s just such a great opener. Big energy.

MR: Yeah, same here. I wanted to dislike it based on the lyrics, but it’s certainly an attention grabber of a vocal performance. There’s a really cool intensity to it.

TRN: “1941” is also great, and really shifts out of that energy into a much more sincere mode, which is also good. It’s such a rough song, subject wise. He basically predicts his future, but the arrangement keeps it from being a downer. I love the horns and everything going on in it, and the cycle of fatherly abandonment doesn’t kill the vibe.

MR: Yeah, it’s a great track. This album starts out really well. I’d actually say that the first Beatle cover kills a lot of the momentum.

TRN: The first time that I heard his version of “You Can’t Do That,” I thought it was really cool. Over time I’ve come to find it pretty obnoxious, too slow, and sort of kiss-assy.

MR: Agreed. Although, it worked. The Beatles did their best to promote him. And then he became friends with all four of them, even when they hated each other.

TRN: Yeah, it worked really well.

TK: Interesting. I don’t mind “You Can’t Do That.” It’s not a favorite on the album, but the whole medley part is something I dig. I think it’s a pretty slick arrangement.

TRN: Yeah, it’s really skillfully done. I just think it sort of tosses aside the energy of the original for the sake of fitting in all the references.

MR: I don’t mind it either, but I actually think there’s a noticeable difference in quality between the originals and covers on this album. The original tracks are all outstanding. I had definitely underrated him as a songwriter before this exercise. The first album of his that I really got familiar with was Nilsson sings Newman. That, paired with “Everybody’s Talkin’,” gave me an unfair impression that he was more of an interpreter than a writer. For whatever reason, I just let my earliest experiences with him form a bit of a misrepresentation of his range of talents.

TRN: I agree. He still has a lot of covers on this album, and they are the most skippable ones, although I do think they’re all pretty good.

MR: I was never a big fan of “Cuddly Toy” until hearing this full album. Hearing it on a best-of that included most of his mid-period stuff made it sound a little too cutesy. It’s much better when surrounded by other baroque pop tracks. The bridge is great.

TRN: I don’t know if I ever heard it outside this album, but I like it. There are definite cutesy vibes. That’s why Davey Jones sang The Monkees version.

MR: Yeah. Never really loved their version, though I do really like The Monkees. Probably too much.

TRN: Love The Monkees.

MR: Yeah, you were once of the first friends that I never had to apologize to for liking The Monkees.

TK: I do like his “River Deep-Mountain High” quite a bit among the covers here.

MR: I think it works pretty well. Even the Tina Turner version isn’t an absolute favorite of mine – it’s just a really claustrophobic song – but Nilsson does well with it.

TRN: I don’t know if I’d heard another version of “River Deep” before this one. I only just heard the Tina version recently.

TK: I love her version. I don’t know that I’d ever pick Nilsson’s if I was in the mood for the song alone, but it’s a cool version and good way end to the album.

MR: Yeah, her version is objectively great, but I’m rarely in the mood for it; for whatever that’s worth.

TRN: “Without Her” is another highlight.

MR: Yep, and another original.

TRN: This album is sort of a combination of Harry being fully formed, and not quite; still a lot of covers, but his personality and style are on display.

MR: Yes. This album was a very welcome surprise. It’s the only one that I didn’t find a cheap used vinyl copy of, but now I’m on a mission to track one down. I particularly like the mono mix. Any final thoughts on this album?

TRN: It’s pretty great. It sags in a couple places but never gets bad.

TK: Yeah, similar to Spotlight and a few others, it’s pretty frontloaded. It starts so strong, but doesn’t completely hold strong the entire way through.

TRN: Yeah, side one is a little stronger for sure.

MR: I’d agree that the front half is better, but “Without Her” elevates the second side.

TRN: Yeah, that’s the bright spot of side two. His “She’s Leaving Home” is fine, too.

MR: Yep, and as Trevor mentioned, “River Deep-Mountain High” closes it out well.

TK: Definitely.

Skidoo, Soundtrack (1968)

MR: Alright, let’s quickly talk about Skidoo. I wish I had listened to Spotlight instead of this one.

TRN: I didn’t spend a lot of time on Skidoo, but I think he did a pretty good job randomly scoring a movie for Otto Preminger. I’ve heard it’s a terrible movie.

TK: I’ve only given this one listen and it wasn’t memorable.

MR: It’s pretty annoying. I do really like “I Will Take You There,” but I could go without ever hearing the rest of it again. And yeah, it doesn’t make me want to see the movie.

TRN: I think “The Cast and Crew” is a pretty funny idea, and I love that it just keeps going and he literally sings the entire credits. “Garbage Can Ballet” is pretty good too.

MR: “The Cast and Crew” is interesting for about 45 seconds. Then it just ushers in the annoying vibe that the rest of the album mostly suffers from.

TRN: Damn, you hate this album.

MR: I didn’t really like it at all, and like I said, would’ve definitely preferred spending time with Spotlight.

TK: I’m with you, Matt. My ears really turned off while this was on. Could not keep my focus at all.

TRN: Now I have to put “The Cast and Crew” on the playlist…..

MR: Don’t even, Tim.

TRN: We’ll see. It’s my job to put the annoying ones on the playlist so everyone hears a fair representation of the artist.

MR: Son of a bitch.

Aerial Ballet, LP (1968)

MR: Okay, let’s talk Aerial Ballet.

TRN: This one is really good.

TK: Yep. Very good.

MR: Yeah, outstanding.

TRN: I hadn’t really listened to Aerial Ballet before, but it has a bunch of songs of his that I’d heard elsewhere some way or another, so it felt very familiar. Lots of quintessentially Harry Nilsson songs on this one.

TK: It absolutely doesn’t feel like a wilderness album to me.

MR: No, it doesn’t. Like some of the Nina Simone albums we listened to for that article, this is not an album that should be relegated to wilderness status. But then you have someone like Tim – who has liked Nilsson for a while – and hadn’t even heard it.

TRN: Yeah, it’s weird that I hadn’t listened to this one.

MR: My only real complaint is that the original (vinyl) version is only 25 minutes long, and doesn’t have “Daddy’s Song.”

TRN: That’s because “Daddy’s Song” was purchased by The Monkees for Head, and they had exclusive rights to it at the time.

MR: This is one of the great baroque pop albums of the time, and almost all of it was original. Except for the hit, of course.

TRN: Yeah, “Everybody’s Talkin’” is the only cover. This album is definitely Harry coming into his own as a songwriter.

MR: “Everybody’s Talkin’” was a pretty deserving hit too. What a song.

TRN: Yeah. I don’t think I’ve heard the (Fred Neil) original, but Harry’s version is iconic.

TK: Carrying my main takeaway from the other albums, I still think this album drags a bit in parts, somewhat because the highs are really high.

TRN: I think it has kind of an overall relaxed vibe but for me it doesn’t drag really. I like the whole thing pretty solidly all the way through.

TK: Maybe “drag” is the wrong word. I basically want to get to the stretch from “Together” through “One” as quickly as possible and I get impatient. And “Wailing of the Willow” really doesn’t work for me.

TRN: I gotcha. A strong middle section.

MR: Ah, then you’d like the vinyl version. It gets there quicker. Much quicker if you play it at 45 RPM. What are the other highlights?

TRN: My highlights are “Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song,” “Together,” “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “I Said Goodbye to Me,” “One.” “Daddy’s Song” and “Good Old Desk” are solid too. I like the ridiculous interval in the line “leaving here this mor-NING.”

TK: Honestly, I’d be okay with this being an EP from “Together” through “One.”

MR: I’ll respectfully disagree. I like the early songs quite a bit as well.

TRN: Yeah, I think “Willow” is the only skipper for me.

MR: It’s the low point for me, but short enough to not bug me.

TK: This style of chamber pop type music is also not my favorite in general, so a lot of it is just a fit with my tastes.

MR: Alright. Last thoughts?

TRN: I think this is the best album of the group.

MR: I’m inclined to agree.

TK: Really good album with probably the highest highs of anything so far.

Harry, LP (1969)

MR: Okay, Harry.

TRN: Not such a big fan of Harry (the album).

MR: It’s a step down from the last one, but still some excellent songs.

TK: So, my wife was a good sport and let me relisten to a lot of these albums while we were on vacation last week and she was trapped in a car, but this one was a deal breaker. Tried to sneak it back on while we were repainting a room in the house yesterday and she stopped that right away.

TRN: She clearly doesn’t care about the railroads. That’s interesting, because while I don’t love it, it doesn’t seem that different from his other stuff. I feel like it’s a more “traditional” mode overall that seems less interesting to me.

MR: This one feels a little closer to Van Dyke Parks’ style, who he was friends with. Perhaps a little more vaudevillian. The Rate Your Music listing gives it a “traditional pop” genre tag. That descriptor doesn’t appear on Aerial Ballet, if that counts for anything.

TRN: Yeah, less experimental? It feels like an early preview of A Little Touch of Schmilsson maybe? Like he probably thinks the songs are really cool, even though they’re actually pretty lame.

MR: Tim, I can usually count on you to have done some Wikipedia reading before these chats. Was there a concerted effort to make more of a traditional album here? The kind of songs he heard growing up, perhaps? Hence the childhood photograph on the cover? Am I reaching?

TRN: There’s not much in the wiki for this one.

TK: I get the feeling that’s just him.

TRN: It weirdly goes into detail on several of the songs and the other artists who covered them, but not a lot of backstory on the album itself.

TK: This album reminded me a lot of late period Alex Chilton stuff. It feels pretty deliberate about doing a style he likes, but is not commercial, even a little.

MR: Interesting. Watching the documentary, I couldn’t help but think of Chilton’s late career watching post-Schmillson Harry. Both were kind of doing the self-sabotage thing, right?

TK: Feels that way to me.

MR: We’ll have to mine that topic more in the sequel.

TRN: The only standout for me is “Rainmaker,” which has kind of a psych vibe.

MR: I think “Mother Nature’s Son” is probably my favorite of the three Beatles covers on these albums. It works well with his voice. Tim, I’m sure you’ve heard the Beatle rumor about Harry Nilsson, right?

TRN: Not sure….

MR: At one point, John suggested replacing Paul with Harry (if Paul were to leave the band).

TRN: Ah, you mean when Paul died.

MR: Yes, of course.

TRN: That’s interesting. Wouldn’t have worked though, I don’t think.

MR: No.

TRN: It’s like when Les Claypool auditioned for Metallica, and they were like, “dude go start your own band.”

TK: Unlike Nina Simone’s wilderness take, I didn’t have a soft spot for “Mr. Bojangles” here.

TRN: This “Bojangles” is pretty standard. Nothing special.

MR: This is only the sixth wilderness article of the season, and already the third to include a version of “Mr. Bojangles.”

TK: Ha. Apparently, you know your career isn’t in the best place when you decide to cover “Mr. Bojangles.”

MR: And yes, Nina’s is definitely the best. How about “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City”? Is it just a lesser version of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” or still a great song? It can be two things.

TRN: I think “I Guess the Lord” is kind of a lame self-cover of “Everybody’s Talkin’.”

TK: Agree.

MR: I thought I saw somewhere that he originally proposed it for the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, but they went with “Everybody’s Talkin’” instead.

TRN: I think he was intentionally going for the same style, because he knew the Midnight Cowboy guy was using “Everybody’s Talkin’” as a stand-in song. They intended to use “New York City,” but got so used to “Everybody’s Talkin’” that they left it in.

TK: Interesting.

MR: I still like it. The banjo is nice, there’s a really cool guitar riff in the right channel, and that little snare/hi-hat fill is great.

TRN: I don’t think I listened to it closely enough to pick up on those details.

MR: It’s clearly derivative, but it’s a good song/recording.

TRN: I guess it’s kind of a standout, but that might just be because I’m pretty “meh” about most of the other songs.

MR: Any last thoughts on Harry? I still like it, but it’s probably my least favorite of the “proper” albums in this grouping.

TRN: Well, this album was actually pretty successful somehow. Wiki says it was his first to get onto the Billboard 200 chart (but it only got to 120). It’s okay, but not something I can see myself listening to much for fun.

MR: It’s a lesser version of the previous album, but I still enjoyed it.

Nilsson Sings Newman, LP (1970)

MR: Okay, let’s talk Nilsson Sings Newman. As I mentioned earlier, this was the first Nilsson album that I ever heard.

TK: One of my favorites of his albums…

MR: Yeah, I’d put it up there with Aerial Ballet as a co-favorite from this group.

TK: …although I think I’ve come to like it less over time.

MR: Damn, I was just going to say the same thing. I don’t like it as much as I used to either. Not sure why, for any reason other than that I’m more familiar with other Nilsson stuff now.

TK: This material is really mostly from the first two Randy Newman albums, which aren’t my favorites of his. I think the piano arrangements just aren’t that exciting, and when I’m in the mood for Newman, these aren’t the songs I want. “The Beehive State” is an exception. I still listen to that song all the time.

MR: Yeah, “Beehive” is a favorite.

TRN: Beehive State” is one of my highlights for sure. I like that one a lot. My other highlight is “Vine Street.” My issue is partly that I’m not familiar with Randy Newman’s songs at all, so I have nothing to compare these to. I didn’t spend a lot of time with this one, but I do like the production, and layered vocals a lot.

MR: I think this album really highlights Nilsson’s vocals well. The spare arrangements leave a lot of space for him. I’d put “Living Without You” up there with “Beehive” as another highlight.

TRN: “Yellow Man” certainly doesn’t age well.

MR: Yeah, “Yellow Man” doesn’t work as satire in the way that other Randy Newman songs do.

TRN: I feel like “Yellow Man” is one of those songs that was written as some kind of weird tribute to Asian culture, but is actually just super racist. They just couldn’t see that back then or something.

MR: Maybe. I mean, if it’s satire it’s not readily apparent, which defeats the purpose.

TRN: Right, it’s just a bunch of stereotypes.

MR: Maybe it’s just that Newman did race-based satire in a more effective way on “Rednecks”?

TRN: Oh, I don’t even know. I have no idea about Newman other than Toy Story.

TK: Randy Newman is probably the best satirical songwriter… maybe ever, but it doesn’t really come across on this album.

TRN: So, he doesn’t really hate short people?

MR: I’m not sure what he’s going for with “Yellow Man.” With “Rednecks” or “Sail Away” you know what his message is. “Yellow Man” is just kind of awkward to listen to.

TRN: It just sounds like standard white people exoticizing (is that a word?) cultures that seem mysterious to them.

TK: I think it was his first attempt at writing from the perspective of a racist character.

MR: Maybe. I think it is a character-based song. At least, I hope.

TK: The point was supposed to be how absurd the song is and how superficially we think about people in other cultures.

TRN: But I feel like the lyrics aren’t outwardly hateful, just full of dumb racial stereotypes.

MR: Like how dumb people look at other cultures?

TRN: I can see that.

TK: That’s what he’s going for. To some extent, it’s the same thing he’s doing on “Sail Away” and “Rednecks.”

MR: Yeah, it’s just a little more apparent I guess when he’s singing from the point of view of a slave trader. It ups the “unreliable narrator” quotient quite a bit.

TK: His idea was to imagine what an idiotic, empty song a xenophobic American would write about someone from China if they tried to.

MR: Makes sense.

TRN: I’ll defer to the guys who know more about Newman than me. Out of context, it just makes the songwriter look bad.

TK: If you listen to concert recordings, he lays out the satire more clearly. I do agree, it’s rough free of context.

MR: I guess part of the problem with hearing a song like “Yellow Man” is that we live in a post-irony world now, in that someone could actually write that song thinking that they were making an anti-racist statement. Toby Keith, perhaps?

TRN: Oh, God. How did Toby Keith get in this conversation?

MR: Sorry. In listening right now, I’m reminded how much I like some of these sparse songs in the middle of the album (“Caroline,” “Cowboy”). They’re good showcases for Harry’s vocals. He really was a great singer.

TRN: Yeah, the whole thing is definitely an excuse for him to have fun singing.

TK: I like “So Long Dad” as a closer.

MR: Yep. Agree.

TRN: I like all the gags with the background chatter, like Harry telling the engineer not to listen to Harry’s instructions.

The Point, Soundtrack (1971)

MR: Alright. Let’s get to The Point. Did either of you watch the movie for this exercise?

TRN: I’ve seen the movie before, but I didn’t re-watch it for this. I like Harry’s narration better than Ringo’s.

TK: Never seen it. I didn’t really know what I was listening to with this one.

MR: I just watched it for the first time the other day. It gave me a better appreciation for the album. It was the version with Alan Thicke’s narration.

TRN: There’s an Alan Thicke version? When did they do that? The original narrator was Dustin Hoffman, then Ringo, and apparently Thicke.

MR: It was the third broadcast (from the 80s). It’s on YouTube:

TRN: I should check it out. That might be the version I saw as a kid. I always thought I had seen the Hoffman version, but the Thicke one would line up better timing wise with when I was young.

MR: It’s charming. I was kind of cynical about this album when I first heard it a few years ago.

TRN: I think I like it so much because I saw the movie as a kid. I had forgotten about it until I found the album on vinyl as an adult, and it had a lot of nostalgia value for me.

MR: I can see that helping. I never saw it as a kid, but even watching it the other day I found myself enjoying it enough. I’ll rep for Oblio and Arrow.

TRN: I still think Aerial Ballet might be the best of this group, but The Point is my favorite. I think what I like most about this one (after doing this exercise) is that – out of all these early albums – this one is truly the most singularly unique work. If that makes sense. It’s all Harry, and it has a consistency throughout. It’s very coherent, even if you don’t like the children’s fable aspect of it.

MR: Yeah, I can definitely see that.

TRN: And I can see not knowing what the hell is going on here, also.

MR: Hell, I’d be more likely to put this on to listen to for fun than The Wall; speaking of seventies-era concept albums where – without, or even with – the film, you have no idea what the hell is going on.

TRN: Well, they’re very different moods. Regardless of the story or anything else, “Think About Your Troubles” is one of Harry’s best songs.

MR: Yep. That plus “Me and My Arrow” are the highlights for me.

TRN: With the narration, this one is actually pretty understandable as far as 70’s concept albums… but I think the main question it raises is “why?” Why does this exist?

MR: Yeah, what’s the point?

TRN: Hey now.

TK: Yep. It’s actually pretty clear start to finish, but such a strange idea for a concept album. It’s enjoyable though.

TRN: Right. Let me copy/paste the comment Harry made about it:

“I was on acid and I looked at the trees and I realized that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to points. I thought, ‘Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn’t, then there’s no point to it.”

MR: Can’t say that helps explain why it exists, but like I said before, it’s charming.

TRN: True. I think that’s also something I like about it – the fact that it’s just a weird thing that didn’t need to be made. And also, who is it for? Children?

MR: Yeah, I think it’s definitely for children. Wasn’t his son born around this time?

TRN: Oh, not sure.

MR: I think so. It fits with the timeline in the documentary. He never explained it this way – at least anywhere that I saw – but I’d like to think of it as a super-talented guy making a goofy project for his kid, and that it just kind of found its way out to the rest of the world.

TRN: That would be nice. But I can also see it as Harry having a weird acid trip and doing a vanity project and later remembering that he has a child.

MR: That’s much more plausible. Any final thoughts on this one?

TRN: I like it.

MR: Me too.

TK: I want to watch the movie now.

TRN: Yeah, it’s at least worth seeing.

MR: Your kids would probably like it. Mine are too old and cynical, but they would’ve liked it when they were younger.

TK: Gonna give it a try. They’re already pretty good at sniffing out my weird movies they aren’t gonna like. Someday I’m gonna get them to watch The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. with me.

Aerial Pandemonium Ballet, LP (1971)

MR: Alright, from the “why does this exist?” file, let’s talk about Aerial Pandemonium Ballet.

TK: I didn’t listen to this one.

TRN: Yeah, me neither really. I listened to a couple tracks because I read that he had re-done some of the vocals, but then I decided that I didn’t care.

MR: To me, it mostly seems like an attempt to bring more attention to his early stuff – after his profile had risen a bit.

TRN: I think that’s true.

MR: They call it a “remix” album, but most of these sound like re-recordings to me. They’re all fine, but I think I generally prefer the originals. Maybe one or two are an improvement.

TRN: I think they’re mostly the original master instrument tracks, plus new vocals. Certainly kind of a “pointless” album.

MR: Yeah, I can’t say that it feels all that necessary. Especially considering that I really enjoy the two albums that it pulls from. I mean, some people who thought that those albums drag a bit might prefer this, but you’d have to agree on where the drag occurs, I guess.

TRN: Do you think the track selection is an improvement over listening to each album separately?

MR: Not really, and since I also don’t think that the new versions are any better than the originals it does seem kind of pointless – especially in the present era. Maybe it served a purpose at the time.

TK: From a quick glance it seems like it would be a bit disjointed, and long.

MR: It does some interesting things in trying to make the songs flow together. Sometimes it works.

TRN: Did this come out after Schmilsson?

MR: No, just before.

TRN: Weird.

MR: He had changed producers by this point, and maybe wanted to give those songs another go with a slightly different vibe. I can understand the artistic impulse, I suppose. I’ve definitely gone back to revise work after the fact, and then shown it to people who were like, “it doesn’t really sound that much different,” even when I thought it was a major improvement.

TRN: Yeah, I can see that happening. When you spend time on something, all you can hear are the flaws, but no one else can, so fixing them has no effect.

MR: But yeah, to your earlier question, he definitely would’ve been working on Schmilsson when this was put out. Perhaps he just thought that one could drum up interest in the other. As for which is which…

MR: Let’s do a real quick wrap up on the era, and then the playlist.

TRN: It’s a solid era. I actually am not very familiar with Nilsson’s stuff post-Son of Schmilsson, so I don’t really even know how this stuff compares.

MR: The next set will be a very different experience, I’m sure.

TK: It’s a really fun set of albums. I doubt I’ll go back to Harry (the album), but the rest all at least have really good high points at a minimum.

MR: I really found myself enjoying all of this stuff (aside from Skidoo). I had heard most before, but listening to them together – and having the context provided by the documentary – really gave me a deeper appreciation for him.

TRN: Yeah, we didn’t really talk about the documentary much, but for anyone reading, it’s a great primer. The full title: Who Is Harry Nilsson? And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?

MR: We’ll probably not discuss Schmilsson as part of any “wilderness,” but I want to give a quick shoutout to “The Moonbeam Song.” How does that only have a 3.6 rating on RYM? I guess it never really stood out to me until a recent re-listen, but god damn, what a gorgeous song.

TRN: It’s no “Think About Your Troubles,” but yeah, it is pretty good.

MR: Okay, playlist time. We each get five. Trevor, you go first.

TK: “The Beehive State”

TRN: I’ll go with “Ten Little Indians.”

MR: “1941.” Round 2:

TK: “Good Times”

TRN: “Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song”

MR: “Me and My Arrow.” Round 3:

TK: “One”

TRN: “Think About Your Troubles”

MR: “I Will Take You There.” Round 4:

TK: “The Path That Leads to Trouble”

TRN: “I Said Goodbye to Me”

MR: “Cuddly Toy.” Last round:

TK: Hmm…feel like I’m missing something, but “So Long Dad.”

TRN: Do I dare pick “The Cast and Crew”?

TK: Hahaha.

MR: Hell no. There are a lot of really good ones missing still. This is tough. Are we assuming that “Everybody’s Talkin’” is too obvious? What about “Without Her”? Or “New York City”? Or anything from Harry?

TK: “Everybody’s Talkin’.” I’ll sub that out for “So Long Dad.”

MR: Okay. That helps.

TRN: Okay then. I was going to pick “Everybody’s Talkin’” if no one else was. Now I’m free to pick “Cast and Crew.” Ha!

TK: Ha!


TRN: Lock it in. I think it shows a lot of talent.

MR: Hell no.

TRN: …and personality.

MR: So does “Rainmaker,” which you already talked about liking… and would cover Harry.

TRN: I’m okay with no Harry representation. My alternate is “Together.”

MR: Let’s go with that. “Cast and Crew” does not hold up to repeat listens.

TRN: I suppose, but you have to include a sidebar that says, “Tim was bullied into changing his pick.”

MR: This whole tangent will be in the final draft.

TRN: Nice. Help, I’m being repressed!

MR: Okay. Now I need to decide between “Without Her” and something from Harry.

TK: I really don’t know if Harry needs to be represented. It’s… a lot weaker than the rest.

TRN: Maybe “Rainmaker,” or “I Guess the Lord.” But maybe not worth un-including something better.

MR: Yeah, but Skidoo is even represented. I’ll go for “Without Her.”

TRN: Maybe Skidoo is better than Harry

MR: Hell no. Skidoo is maybe better than Raditude.

TRN: Raditude makes Skidoo sound like Sgt. Pepper.

MR: Fuck it, I’m changing my Skidoo pick to “New York City.” Every time I see the album cover, I hear that horrible, “Skidoo, skidoo” melody.

TK: Nice.

TRN: Wait, did you have a Skidoo pick?

MR: Yeah, “I Will Take You There.” It’s a good song, surrounded by garbage. But now I’m worried that I will never hear it again if it’s not on our playlist. How about this: A fifteen-song playlist is still under 40 minutes, so I’m gonna allow each of us a bonus pick. Trevor can keep “So Long Dad,” and I’ll add “I Will Take You There” back in. Tim, you can have one more – as long as it’s not “Cast and Crew.”

TRN: I’ll go with “Are You Sleeping?” from The Point.

sidebar: Tim was bullied into changing his pick.


  • Matt Ryan

    Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

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  • Tim Ryan Nelson

    Tim Ryan Nelson is a procrastinator and agitator who sometimes appears on the “Strange Currencies Podcast” to tell Glenn why he is wrong. Tim refused to participate in ranking the Beatles’ songs for Strange Currencies Music but was eager to rank their albums, if only to ensure that Revolver didn’t win. His favorite music is anything unpopular and annoying. He also likes kittens.

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  • Trevor Kvaran

1 thought on “In the Wilderness: Harry Nilsson, 1966-1971

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