|Continued From: One Last Touch of Nilsson (Part 2)
Around the beginning of 1967, Nilsson ran into an old friend, Chip Douglas of the
Modern Folk Quartet, at the Los Angeles, California, industry hangout Martoni's. "I said,
'Hi, Chip! What are you doing?' 'I'm producing these guys.' I said, 'I'm sorry, who are these
guys?' He said, 'These are the Monkees.' I had heard all the publicity about them, but
I didn't know what they looked like. I said, 'Oh, fantastic!' They were doing their first or
second album. Chip said to the Monkees, "Harry is a fantastic writer. I would like to
take him into the studio and let you hear a couple of tunes of his.' I said, 'Sure, I'd love
to.' He said, 'Would you come over now?' I said, 'Yeah, I'd love it.' Especially because I'd
heard rumors that they were going at four million record sales out of the box.
"So I sang seven, eight or nine songs, and Michael Nesmith said, 'Man, where the fuck did
you come from? You just sat down there and blew our minds like that. We've been looking for
songs, and you just sat down and played an album for us. Shit! Goddammit!' He
threw something on the floor. And he went and got Micky Dolenz and he said to him,
'Would you listen to this man? Listen to that!' Micky gave a surprised laugh, and
Davy Jones started laughing over one song, and it was like the three of them were
just out of their tree. Only Peter Tork couldn't give a shit."
The first Nilsson song that the Monkees released was "Cuddly Toy", which
they recorded in April, 1967, and released seven months later on their album
Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.. By the time the song came out, loyal viewers already knew it
from the Monkees's TV show. On the show, the super-cuddly Davy Jones commonly
sang the tune to a sweet teenage lass. Viewers in the know laughed at such an innocent display,
confident that "Cuddly Toy" was really about that less-than-romantic experience known as
the "gang bang." When Goldmine asked about this, Nilsson laughed guiltily. "Well,
it crossed my mind. I would try to think of something that would mean something else as
well as its intended meaning, and I would use the most twisted version I could think of."
Although popular wisdom has it that Nilsson was signed to RCA in the wake of
the Monkees's recording "Cuddly Toy", Nilsson's first recording session for
the label was in February of 1967, two months before the Monkees recorded his song.
Nilsson commonly warned journalists not to assume anything about him, but it seems safe to
assume that RCA caught the buzz created by Perry Botkin's office,
which happened to be on the same floor as the label.
The story goes that RCA signed Nilsson to a $75,000 contract, but Nilsson's side of
the story was that they signed him for "zero." Although the truth may be in between,
Nilsson's figure sounds probable, since in February, 1967, he was still, commercially if
not artistically, an untested property.
The title of Nilsson's first album, the October, 1967, release Pandemonium Shadow Show, was taken
from the book Something Wicked This Way Comes, by one of his favorite authors,
Ray Bradbury. Legend has it that Nilsson originally wanted to title the album after
the book itself, but legal considerations prevented his doing so. (It is also hard to
imagine RCA getting worked up over the idea.)
In spite of Nilsson's previous recordings for Mercury, Tower and smaller
labels, he considered Pandemonium Shadow Show his true debut. It is not hard to see why.
For one thing, it was the first record of his to make the most of his three octaves-plus
voice. Many listeners, particularly those in the industry (who were practically the only
ones who heard the album at its time of release) were stunned by the way that the
multi-tracked Nilsson could make himself sound like anything from a gospel choir to the
bigger-than-God Beatles. In addition, unlike Nilsson's previous efforts,
which were tailored for the disposable pop market, Pandemonium Shadow Show had an odd feel,
contemporary, yet timeless. Such praise may sound like hype, but one listen to the
album shows that, with such songs as "Without Her", "1941" and
"Cuddly Toy", it sounds startlingly fresh.
Although Pandemonium Shadow Show missed the charts, it was received enthusiastically by critics
and others in the know. One person who fit into both categories was past and future
Beatles press agent and music columnist Derek Taylor. As Taylor would
later relate in his liner notes to Nilsson's second album, Aerial Ballet, he was so
thrilled with Pandemonium Shadow Show that he ordered up an entire box of LPs so that he could
turn others on to his new discovery.
As 1968 rolled around, the biggest development in Nilsson's business life was that he had
finally gotten the courage to quit his job at the bank. He was in his tiny office at
RCA when he learned of the Apple press conference that made him, at least
temporarily, a household world. "It was the second largest press conference since World
War II," Nilsson recalled. "They asked the Beatles, 'Who is your favorite
American artist?' John said, 'Nilsson.' And a few seconds later some guy asked
Paul, 'Who is your favorite American group?' and Paul said, 'Nilsson.' Then there was a
hubbub throughout the room: 'Nilsson' 'Oh, yeah, the group from Sweden.' Nobody knew
what it was."
It was at this time that Nilsson made his famous decision not to perform. "The phone started
jumping off the hook. They called RCA to say, 'I'd like to talk to someone
about Harry Nilsson.' And RCA would ring them to my phone. I had asked
for an office in my contract, because I was used to being in an office, you know? And I
said, 'Hello?' 'Yeah, this is Tony Green. I'm from the NME,' or
something. He said, 'I'd like some information about Nilsson.' And I said, 'Yeah?' 'Can
you tell me where he's appearing?' I said, 'I'm not.' 'Oh, is this Nilsson? Oh! Uh, sorry!
Listen, I just called because we're doing an article on you and we're trying to find out more
about you. You've only had one album out?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Where are you playing?'
I said, 'I'm not.' This is just after I left the bank! He said, 'Oh, uh, well, where did you
play last?' I said, 'I haven't.' Then he said, 'Well, where are you planning to play
next? What's your next gig?' I said, 'I don't have any plans.' He said, 'Oh, Where did
you play last?' I said, 'I haven't!'
"He said, 'You've never performed?' And I said, 'No. My amateur status is still intact,
thank you.' And the guy went ... you could hear him! ... each one of these callers about the
same press conference, they all went, 'Whoop!' And I thought, 'Ah! Mystique! This is
good. I'm the guy who doesn't perform. Good! Leave it in!' Like the one-name joke. That
was [producer] Rick Jarrard's idea, because 'Harry' sounded like, you know,
'Harry'. At the time, there were 18 television commercials like, 'Haaarry, take
out the gaaarbage!' Rick said, 'Harry's a funny name. It's so
New York. "Haarry," it's a drone name.' So anyone who asked about my performing, I
would answer the same way: 'I'm not, I haven't, I don't.' They'd say, 'Why is that?'
I said, 'Um, I don't know.' And sometimes I'd say, 'I'm doing something the
Beatles can't have done.' 'What's that?' 'Not perform,'" Nilsson said.
There is another story, which Nilsson also told writers, which places the Beatles's
admiration for Nilsson at an earlier date than the Apple press conference. Since this
story conflicts directly with the Apple story, and since there are only a handful of
people alive who know exactly what took place, one hopes that an accurate chronology will
someday surface. Story #2 has it that Derek Taylor first heard Nilsson in the
spring or summer of 1967, before Pandemonium Shadow Show was even released. He brought demos
of the album to Nat Weiss at the Beatles's management company, NEMS.
Nilsson was introduced to George Harrison (then staying on Los Angeles, California's Blue Jay Way),
as NEMS attempted to seduce the singer away from RCA. According to this story,
Nilsson was slow to decide. As soon as he made his mind up to say "yes," Beatles
manager Brian Epstein died, and the offer ended as NEMS fell into disarray.
Continued: One Last Touch of Nilsson (Part 4)