One of the most idiosyncratic artists of the late ’60s/early ’70s, Harry Nilsson made one of the most compelling albums of the era in 1974 with none other than John Lennon producing and a cast of characters that included Keith Moon, Ringo Starr, Jim Keltner and Lennon guitar fave Jesse Ed Davis.
Back in the day when The Beatles held a press conference to announce the formation of Apple, an interview asked both Lennon and McCartney for their favorite artist. Harry Nilsson, they both said, and a star was born. Suddenly everyone wanted to know who Nilsson was and his career went ballistic when he took Badfinger’s “Without You” to #1 around the world. Maybe it was all too much, too soon, but by 1974 Nilsson was drinking heavily and flitting between bouts of self-doubt and depression.
Enter good buddy and drinking partner John Lennon, in the midst of his own marital strife and ready to binge drink his way through the so-called “Lost Weekend” in L.A. with Nilsson and assorted cronies.
The idea behind the socializing of course was to produce an album, Pussy Cats, for Nilsson. That it happened at all is quite a miracle; that it’s a sterling work, filled with musical variety and not a little inspired genius, is astonishing.
McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Bobby Keys dropped in during a session and an excited Nilsson screamed into the microphone and damaged his voice. He should have rested but Nilsson feared letting the opportunity of working with Lennon on an album slip away and instead persevered. The voice would never again be the awesome tool he used so effortlessly on “Without You” but his take on “Many Rivers to Cross” shows that technical chops are not the whole picture in rock and roll, at least. Nilsson brings an unworldly power to his creaky vocals, conjuring something vaguely mystical from the song and despite that physical limitation easily matches the better-known versions by Joe Cocker and Jimmy Cliff.
Nilsson’s rowdy version of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is a rollicking update of the ’60s classic with producer Lennon and band clearly enjoying every minute of Dylan’s wordy rock and roll. “Loop de Loop” is a drinking song, and between takes these guys were clearly drinking so, moving quickly along…
“Don’t Forget Me” is marvelous, with Lennon’s master melody touch and overall pop influence clear as he allows Nilsson’s unique delivery and oddball phrasing to make this a delightful vignette.
“Black Sails in the Moonlight” is Nilsson’s best vocal performance and the nearest thing to a hit single on the record. And then there’s “Rock Around the Clock,” probably a Lennon choice since Bill Haley was such a huge influence on The Beatles, and Nilsson and the band take off, fly around Hollywood and land somewhere on Sunset Strip, ready to get down to the Troubadour for another Brandy Alexander.
And that’s the point of this album. It’s not contrived, it’s certainly not consistent and Nilsson’s voice is pretty much shot at times. But that’s what makes this such a “good time, get down to the bar” kind of an album. It’s a rowdy but skilled bunch of musicians teamed with a musical enigma (Nilsson) and a pop genius (Lennon). Not everyone’s cup of tea for sure, but a fascinating album on many levels and guaranteed to put a spring in anyone’s step. A glass of wine before going out? Don’t bother, put on Pussy Cats. The night is young!
Harry Nilsson, Pussy Cats (1974)
1. “Many Rivers to Cross”
2. “Subterranean Homesick Blues”
3. “Don’t Forget Me”
4. “All My Life”
5. “Old Forgotten Soldier”
6. “Save the Last Dance for Me”
7. “Mucho Mungo-Mt. Elga”
8. “Loop de Loop”
9. “Black Sails in the Moonlight”
10. “Rock Around the Clock”