Going through my dad’s record collection there was a lot of similarity. Tons of Jerry Reed, Waylon Jennings, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and more Elvis than legally allowed in the state of New York. In my browsing two records kept jumping out at me: Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson and it’s follow up Son of Schmilsson, released in 1971 and 1972 respectively. His album covers were so unusual. On Nilsson Schmilsson he is in his robe, looking nonplussed holding a cup of coffee. Not very rock and roll. Son of Schmilsson is even weirder: he’s wearing a black cape, arms outstretched in a dracula pose. It’s a dark and moody photo except he’s a totally ordinary looking blond dude with a beard. It is brilliant.
Luckily the music matches the weird awesomeness of the covers. I love this guy. I’ve never been into a lot of guys that people recognize as “songwriters”. Heck, even Bob Dylan does very little for me. I get what people see in him, but it doesn’t scratch the itch. Don’t throw rocks at me.
What sets Harry apart, and especially Son of Schmilsson, is how he weaves around genres effortlessly. The opener, “Take 54”, is a 70’s piano rock romp with some naughty language (always a big seller for me!). There’s the haunting, whispy crooning of “Turn On Your Radio” and back to more bombastic classic rock (and more curse words) with “You’re Breakin’ My Heart”. The country twang and spoken delivery of “Joy” sounds like a precursor and inspiration to Faith No More’s “RV” on Angel Dust. “I’d Rather Be Dead” is a fun accordion driven ditty where Harry and the Senior Citizens of the Stepney & Pinner Choir Club enthusiastically sing: “I’d rather be dead than wet my bed”. Of course you would. It all ends with a Disney princess-esque soundtrack number — complete with orchestration and whistling: “The Most Beautiful World in the World”. The song finishes with Harry and the record’s producer, Richard Perry, saying goodbye to the listener and each other: “Goodbye folks”, “Goodbye Harry”, “See you next album Richard!” Awesome.
Harry was a personal favorite and buddy of John Lennon and George Harrison, both collaborating with him after The Beatles broke up. Son of Schmilsson sees George credited as “George Harrysong” on slide guitar, along with Ringo Starr credited as “Richie Snare” and 70’s guitar god Peter Frampton appearing as himself. There’s a thousand other people on this record I have never heard of but I’m sure they are awesome too.
I love records that have a lot of different textures. It’s obvious Harry Nilsson has incredible songwriting chops and he’s not satisfied with any one genre or sound. There’s a lot of humor in this record, a lot of classic reverb-y 70’s rock sound, and a whole lot of weirdness. You can tell why his contemporaries gravitated to him: he sounds like a fun guy to be around. Black capes and all.
Harry Nilsson, Son of Schmilsson: 5/5