The Surprising, Lasting Influence of Harry Nilsson

Harry Nilsson, December 1972. Photo: Getty Images

Almost twenty years after Harry Nilsson’s death, a boxed set of 17 discs’ worth of his recordings, The RCA Albums Collection, came out last week, coinciding with Alyn Shipton’s biography Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter. Nilsson has never fit comfortably into pop music’s history. His biggest hits were either covers or sappy or dopey, he spent enough time around people more famous than himself that he has something of a reputation as a hanger-on, and his career can look, from a distance, like one long act of self-sabotage. (It hasn’t helped his reputation that he barely ever played live until he was long past his prime.) But he was also an astonishing iconoclast — imagine what it would have taken in 1972 for an artist who’d just had a Top Five album to follow it up with the NSFW chorus of “You’re Breaking My Heart,” below — and his influence keeps echoing in surprising places in alternative music.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqhoKLl21mc
Nilsson started his recording career in the early ’60s, making singles under the names Johnny Niles and Bo Pete. His first record to make much of an impact, though, was 1967’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, which got him into the Beatles’ inner circle. That was also the album that established Nilsson as someone who could write successful songs for other people — Tom Northcott’s version of Nilsson’s autobiographical “1941,” below, grazed the bottom of the Hot 100 just a few months later.

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