Ringo Starr wrote a song called “Early 1970” which looked back (nostalgically from 1971 no less!) at the traumatic period of the Beatles break-up and outlines how shattered he felt by the loss of his friends and his hope that they could still potentially make music together as a unit.
And Ringo was not alone as the whole world held their breath and hoped that the very public legal fall-out and musical sniping between the relevant parties would simply disappear and there would be a return to the annual classic release.
It wasn’t to be and so the world looked desperately for something to replace it. Not for the kids and teens who had found T-Rex but for those who had grown with the Beatles and loved the sound and its development over the previous nine years or so.
There were the solo recordings of course and “McCartney”, for instance, has the odd high spot – most notably “Maybe I’m Amazed” which must rank as one of the finest songs he ever wrote. But it would be several attempts until 1973’s “Band On The Run” that he could say he had created something he could justifiably put up with his previous canon of work.
Lennon’s solo work became increasingly patchy and though it may be sacrilegious “Imagine” still comes across as mawkish and naive – especially from a man who counted himself in and out of the Revolution.. Thankfully, Roxy Music’s cover of “Jealous Guy” would remind the world that his post-Fab work did still have glimpses of genius.
Two surprises came from firstly Ringo who produced a series of killer singles – “It Don’t Come Easy”, “Back Off Boogaloo” and the magnificent “Photograph” and then from George who produced, in my humble opinion, the best of all post-Beatles Beatle albums with “All Things Must Pass”. But even there, on the sixth side containing a bunch of rather pointless jams, is the evidence that he would never hit these heights again.
The world desperately wanted a new Beatles album and they got it at the beginning of 1972 from somebody who wasn’t a Beatle but was admired by all of them and became close to both John and Ringo.
Harry Nilsson and “Nilsson Schmilsson” as damn near having all the requisite elements for a Beatles album as anyone has ever managed (and I even include the sainted Jeff Lynne).
This was his seventh album and though he had been critically-admired – not least, by Lennon and McCartney who called him their favorite songwriter – since 1968’s “Everybody’s Talkin'”, which aside from winning a Grammy is also in my ten favourite singles ever, his career had not taken off. I think it’s fair to say it’s the best hit Glen Campbell never had (he did actually record it later).
So with Barbra Streisand’s producer, Richard Perry, he decamped to London to try and get some of that old Beatle-style magic to record the album in 1971.
Opener “Gotta Get Up” follows typical Nilsson subject matter of trying to gee himself up. He was a legendary drinker after all. Here, we have a piano line that sounds as if it had been written in the spare bedroom at Jane Asher’s or was the full version of the McCartney middle eight of “A Day In The Life”. It even has an orchestral crescendo at the end.
Although it was Lennon and Ringo with whom Nilsson would famously hook up for the continuous drinking bouts of Lennon’s ‘lost weekend’ when he had split from Yoko, it is undoubtedly McCartney from whom he derives the greatest inspiration. This is an album littered with catchy melodies and memorable hooks.
There’s the jokey novelty song – think “Obla-Di-Obla-Da” – complete with character voices and incessantly simple chorus with the hit “Coconut”, which also demonstrates the extraordinary vocal range of the singer.
“Driving Along” has the kind of rural bounce that you’d find on “Ram” or “Wings Wild Life” whilst “Down” carries the kind of rocky groove that McCartney would not hit again until “Venus & Mars” and “At the Speed Of Sound”.
We have a cover version of an old rock & roll standard with “Let The Good Times Roll” and certainly at the time, all of the Fab Four,were enjoying revisiting their early influences in an attempt to make them independently back to their roots. Paul Had absolutely wanted the band to return to this kind of simpler performance and even head back onto the road to play this kind of material. This rollicking version would not be out of place on any of Ringo’s albums of the time, which at this period is not quite the damning with faint praise it would become in later years.
And then there’s the monster hit, “Without You”, which itself was borrowed from McCartney’s Apple proteges, Badfinger, whose desperately sad tale ended in them earning no money from the record and tragic suicide.
The familiarity of this worldwide smash should not take away from what a towering recording it actually is. It has the kind of Phil Spector-ish ‘wall of sound’ production that manages to pull every emotional lever imaginable. Perhaps this is the least McCartney-esque moment because there is a very simple demo version that perhaps a la “The Long & Winding Road”, Paul would have preferred in its stripped-back version. Of course, this is the argument that ultimately accelerated the Beatles demise as Paul hated the string-laden version on “Let It Be” – personally, mad old goat he may be, I thought Spector was right. George Harrison obviously thought so because he had just employed him to bring majesty to “All Things Must Pass”.
Again, Nilsson’s immense movement through the octaves is a triumph – small wonder Mariah Carey chose to showcase her own vocal gymnastics early in her career by copying the arrangement (albeit without the subtlety of this version). It manages to be huge and intimate all at the same time. Few performances manage to achieve such heartbreak and I don’t care if it appears on every “Love” compilation ever made.
The less recognized (and flawed) classic is “Jump Into The Fire” which is a tense and claustrophobic song kicking off with a pulsating heartbeat bassline that could have emerged from the “White Album” sessions. It has a subtle threat in it that despite it’s “we can make each other happy” chorus feels designed to do the exact opposite, especially with its backward guitar effects and Herbie Flowers detuned bass kicking in. In part, it perhaps owes more to the contemporary “Sticky Fingers” from the Stones – certainly, bona fide Stones aficionado,Martin Scorsese saw the link as he used the song to great effect in “Goodfellas” during the helicopter scene.
And then it has a drum solo, dexterous maybe but unforgivable really. McCartney would certainly have enjoyed this indulgence probably – and played it himself! – whilst his former drummer would have taken his usual more economical approach to the laying down of rhythm. Still the album is only about 34 minutes long so it probably needed to be put in to try and give the listener a little more value for money.
The album closer, “I’ll Never Leave You” signals where Nilsson would later go with the songbook standards of “A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night” as it has the tin pan alley old school quality that McCartney had always enjoyed. Tinkling pianos, strings and even ukuleles have all the hallmarks of an old-fashioned ending to an album in just the way the Beatles used to like to do. McCartney would periodically return to this kind of writing throughout his career, replaying the kinds of tunes his Dad had played him as a child.
There are of course two outliers in the tracklist; firstly “Early In The Morning” which is another Nilsson wake-up song, though this has a really unusual bluesy more American feel and perhaps more of a signifier of Harry’s bleary early mornings. Its use of electric piano on this Louis Jordan classic gives it a very soulful Ray Charles sound that definitely breaks the Beatles spell.
Perhaps my favorite on the album is “The Moonbeam Song” and that is probably because he dips back into his Glen Campbell stylings. As with his earlier hit “I Guess The Lord Must Be In NYC” conjures a beautiful modern cowboy landscape reminding us of what we – and all of the Beatles – had always loved about Nilsson in the first place.
Harry Nilsson never reached the heights of “Nilsson Schmilsson” and is always held up as a destructive talent who never fulfilled his real potential. However, this is, for me the nearest you will ever get to a Beatles album after the Beatles for its variety, its George Martin-esque sound effects and its sheer memorability.
Because it has obviously studied the entire canon of their work and borrowed all that made them such a cultural influence. He also was one of the few people who managed to exist in the inner circles of all of them when they could barely speak to one another and this camaraderie must have brought a subliminal musical influence that helped to create something fresh and familiar all at once.
Its outliers show that, like every new Beatles album, there would be something you just weren’t expecting and took their development and your relationship with them onto another level.
I can give no higher praise to this album than that. And in 1972, it helped the world come to terms with the fact that everyone’s favourite mop tops were not coming back.