Saturday, June 8, 2013

Countdown To The NILSSON Box Set - Part Two


Stephen SPAZ Schnee 
"Without You"
(from the album Nilsson Schmilsson)

"There is not a song in contemporary Rock music that is as perfect as Harry Nilsson's rendiiton of 'Without You.'  The recording gets everything right, from the passionate vocal to the arrangement, production and orchestration.  Emotionally, it is one of the single most powerful performances in recorded music.  It just hits you square in the face and then weaves its way through your veins until it buries its roots smack dab in the middle of your heart and stays there for the rest of your life.  It is not a recording that you forget - it is one that you carry with you  no matter what emotion you are experiencing.  It is a song that reminds us of the sorrow of loss and the joy of love.  At some point in our lives, we've all experienced the pain that Harry sings about.  And a listener connecting with the song on an emotional level brings every word to life... Harry isn't just singing about his own deteriorating relationship, he is breathing the soundtrack to our love lives.  And that's why 'Without You' has become a classic.

Harry was known as one of the best songwriters of his generation, yet he didn't write his two biggest hits.  'Everybody's Talkin'' (from Midnight Cowboy) was written by Folk singer/songwriter Fred Neil and 'Without You' was penned by Pete Ham and Tom Evans from the British band Badfinger.  By now, most people know the tale of Badfinger: promising band signs to The Beatles' Apple Records label, they score some pretty significant hits ('Come And Get It', 'No Matter What', 'Baby Blue' and 'Day After Day'), they leave Apple Records and sign with Warner Brothers, they get screwed over by their manager and the music biz in general, Pete Ham commits suicide in '75, Tom Evans commits suicide in '83... Not a happy story at all.  But the band (which also included Joey Molland and the late Mike Gibbins) are still regarded as one of the best bands of their era. Icons.  Legends.  However,, their own recording of 'Without You' was never issued as a single.  While their's may be the original version (Ham wrote the verses and Evans wrote the chorus), it doesn't quite reach the highs that Harry's version does.  He heard the song's potential and transformed it into something truly spectacular. Pete and Tom may have written 'Without You' but Harry Nilsson reinvented it and now owns it.

Badfinger's original version appeared on their 1970 album No Dice.  Harry was at a party in Laurel Canyon in '71 when he heard the record playing.  He assumed it was a Beatles song he'd never heard before.  While I wouldn't say it sounds like The Beatles, I will also say that I never attended a party in Laurel Canyon in the early '70s. And if the stories are true, there were probably a few different substances being passed around at this particular party. So, to be completely honest, I'm sure if I was high enough, I'd think a fucking Carole King album sounded like The Beatles!

So, Harry, who was working on his Nilsson Schmilsson album, went in and wanted to record a simple piano-based version of "Without You".  A demo was made.  Producer Richard Perry suggested a lot of musical embellishment (including rhythm section and orchestra) and had to fight Harry tooth and nail to get that version recorded.  Supposedly, Harry lost interest in 'Without You' once Perry persuaded him to go big on the arrangement and production.  Harry is rumored to have told the musicians that the song was 'awful'.  Members of Badfinger were unaware of the cover version until they were pulled into the studio and listened to a playback of the song. I can only imagine how powerful that moment must have been: the original writers of the song hearing this majestic interpretation of their very own 'child'. 

'Without You' by Harry Nilsson went to #1 on the U.S. charts.  It remains his career-defining moment.  The song itself has become a true classic.  Practically every Easy Listening artist has taken a crack at it, but nothing comes close to Harry's version.  In 1994, Mariah Carey did an amazing job of sucking the passion, emotion and life out of the song when she recorded it and released it a single. I'm not sure that it was entirely coincidental that our beloved Harry Nilsson died the day her version was released. Shame on you, Mariah. 

(NOTE: When I saw the reunited Badfinger perform at the Roxy in 1979 for the Airwaves tour, they started the song out like the original Badfinger recording but then Tom Evans stepped up to the mic and said "Let's do it like Harry did it" (or something to that effect) as keyboardist Tony Kaye started playing the piano intro just like the Nilsson version. That was a 'chills up my spine' moment, indeed.)"

Stephen SPAZ Schnee

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