Harry Nilsson “Pussy Cats”

Today’s Cool Album of the Day (#386 in the Series) is Harry Nilsson, Pussy Cats

“Over The Rainbow” was the name of the exclusive members- only, club, bar, hangout, and hideaway for the Los Angeles, Rock and Roll, and Hollywood debauched elite that was located in the upstairs section of the “Rainbow Room”, the iconic Sunset Strip music venue. If you were lucky enough to be granted entrance back in 1973/1974 you might have been indulging and imbibing next to the likes of Keith Moon, Ringo Starr, Alice Cooper, Dennis Hopper, John Lennon, and even Groucho Marx….You Bet Your Llfe. It is here, most probably, that the original idea for John Lennon to produce a Harry Nilsson album was hatched.

The conversation probably went something like this:

  • Groucho: “ For fifty dollars, what do you get when you cross a Beetle and a Rolling Stone?”
  • Dennis Hopper: “Say what? Groovy man.”
  • Alice Cooper: “Who stole my boa?
  • Keith Moon: “Where’s my beer?”
  • Ringo Starr: “Yellow Submarine did not suck.”
  • John Lennon: “I don’t know pops, Harry, let’s go make an album.”
  • Groucho: “Billy Preston”

Unfortunately, for Harry, as well the album, Pussy Cats was a project that was started at about the same time John Lennon was venturing into his 18-month “Lost Weekend” period where he ditched Yoko to hang out with Mae Pang at the beach in Los Angeles. The first sign that this album was not going to be looked upon with Sgt. Pepperian reverence is the album cover itself. Displayed prominently on the middle of the cover is a children’s building block with a large D on the face, a throw rug, and another similar building block to the right of the rug with a big red S. A rebus puzzle (D+Rug+S) = Drugs. With George Martin nowhere to found, and the tone set, this album seemed to be doomed to mediocrity from the start.

Harry Nilsson wasn’t in the best shape himself. It had been three years removed from his biggest hit, “Without You”, his latest release, “A Little Taste of Schmilsson in the Night” while showcasing his amazing voice, was not warmly received by fans nor the music critics. The album, a collection of standards, was the first to feature a major rock artist covering standards. Today it would sell millions. When it was released in 1973 it elicited a lot of “what the heck is he doing” chatter from his fans.

Where his previous album clearly highlighted his pristine vocal talent, Pussy Cats did exactly the opposite. Listen to the song “Makin Whoopie” from “A Touch of Schmilsson” and then listen to the opening track of Pussy Cats, the Jimmy Cliff Song “Many Rivers to Cross”, and you would swear it was not the same singer. The vocals are more Dylan than Nilsson, which comes in handy since the second song on the album is “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Listening to these two songs together you get the feeling that this album was meant to be a sort of Volume II, of the John Lennon “Rock & Roll” album where he recorded cover versions of songs he liked. Then Nilsson delivers an original song “Don’t Forget Me”, which features the typical Nilsson melancholy songwriting style with orchestral styling playing over some lovely piano chords, classic Harry. Listening to this song it is safe to assume that this song was recorded before Nilsson shredded his vocal chords. It is said that at some point in the recording of this album, in vocal exercises, he shredded his vocal chords trying to hit some of some of those Yoko influenced “scream notes”. When in doubt, blame Yoko, I always say. He neglected to tell John about his malady for fear it would halt the production of the album.

The highlight of this album for me is the Drifters cover, “Save The Last Dance For Me”. His voice is clearly gone, but where with other songs like “Black Sails” and “All My Life” the gravelly, shot voice is somewhat of a distraction, here it adds to the song, providing a sort of window into his aching world.

At the end of the day this album is not a classic, although it is important enough for the Walkmen, an American Indie Rock band, to release an album called Pussy Cats – Starring the Walkmen, where singer, Hamilton Leithauser, emulates Harry Nilsson’s torn vocals to gravelly perfection.

Lennon, Moon, McCartney during 'Pussy Cats" recording session.

What this is, is an album presented by two major artists that are not at the top of their game and chose to take the last cut on the album, “Rock Around The Clock”, a little too much to heart. Is it worth a listen? For the historical significance alone it is worth your time. Is it a great album?, No, Nilsson Schmilsson is a great album.

As an historical aside, Harry Nilsson owned the London flat where Mama Cass Elliot died of asphyxiation. Subsequent to her death, Harry leased the apartment to Pete Townshend, who in turn, leased it to Keith Moon. Keith, of course, died in the same apartment of a drug overdose. Harry never returned to the “cursed” residence and asked his friend to sell it for him.

— Walt Falconer

Editors Note: Please note the picture above. Paul McCartney stopped by the studio during the recording of Pussy Cats. That photo has long been considered one of the last photograph of Lennon and McCartney together.

Track listing

All tracks composed by Harry Nilsson; except where indicated

  1. “Many Rivers to Cross” (Jimmy Cliff) – 4:56
  2. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (Bob Dylan) – 3:17
  3. “Don’t Forget Me” – 3:37
  4. “All My Life” – 3:11
  5. “Old Forgotten Soldier” – 4:14
  6. “Save the Last Dance for Me” (Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman) – 4:25
  7. “Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga” (John Lennon, Harry Nilsson) – 3:43
  8. “Loop De Loop” (Ted Vann) (featuring the Masked Alberts Kids Chorale) – 2:40
  9. “Black Sails” – 3:15
  10. “Rock Around the Clock” (Jimmy DeKnight, Max C. Freedman) – 3:12

Personnel

  • Gene Cipriano – Saxophone
  • Jesse Ed Davis – Guitar
  • Chuck Findley – Trombone
  • Jane Getz – Piano
  • Jim Horn – Saxophone
  • Jim Keltner – Drums
  • Bobby Keys – Saxophone
  • Sneaky Pete Kleinow – Pedal Steel
  • Danny Kortchmar – Guitar
  • Trevor Lawrence – Saxophone
  • Keith Moon – Conga, Drums, Wood Block
  • Harry Nilsson – Piano, Piano (Electric), Vocals, Performer, Author, Adaptation
  • May Pang – Production Assistant
  • Willie “The Lion” Smith – Organ
  • Ringo Starr – Drums, Maracas
  • Klaus Voormann – Bass

Links

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Posted by Larry Carta

1 Comment

  1. Kevin (27 May 2011, 11:11)
    Reply

    It’s really a shame that Harry blew out his voice on this one. There is a WONDERFUL documentary called “Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everyone Talking About Him?)” that is a MUST SEE!!
    http://www.lorberfilms.com/who-is-harry-nilsson/who-is-harry-nilsson/

    I was lucky enough to get my copy of “Pussycats” autographed by Harry in the mid 80’s. Such a shame that he went before his time.



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