“Shooting ’em up, drinking ’em up, taking them pills. Fooling around all my life”: Harry Nilsson – Pussy Cats (1974)

I’ve been doing this blogging thing for about 4 years now and I can’t believe I haven’t written about a Harry Nilsson album in all that time.  So, I figured I’d rectify that.  I thought I’d avoid writing about Schmillsson for now and instead share my thoughts on Pussy Cats.  Like Duit On Mon Dei, it’s a curious listen; there are treasures and some of my favourite Harry Nilsson moments despite the awful production and his voice being shot to shit.

Now, the official site suggests he lost his voice and kept it from Lennon to avoid the project being abandoned, but Lennon’s ears must have been more fucked than the production suggests if he didn’t notice, so, while there is evidence that his voice wasn’t what it once was on previous releases, I tend to believe the version suggested in the documentary, Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? (a pretty exceptional documentary, which claims that the two of them were engaged in vocal hijinx that got out of hand).  Regardless of what happened, it’s a shame, cause while the brittle rasp suits something like Don’t Forget Me or All My Life, it doesn’t really work the same with the likes of Subterranean Homesick Blues and Save The Last Dance and it certainly doesn’t really do anything to help with the assorted uninspired covers.

While I’m all for creativity and artistic statements over sales and pleasing the record execs, I could imagine, and appreciate, their bewilderment.  Here’s two artists that have a great deal of respect and adulation… so, the potential to create something truly wonderful and shoot Harry back into the stratosphere.  Sadly, the energy and creativity was spent getting drunk and thinking up new ways to fuck around in and out of the studio.  Naturally, the label objected to the original title (Strange Pussies), but the less than subtle drugs reference on the cover highlights how smart these two jokers thought they were.

Anyhoo, let’s get to it… Pussy Cats starts off promisingly enough.  Many Rivers To Cross is pretty good despite, or rather because of, Harry’s vocal.  It’s affecting and the delivery of that “loneliness won’t leave you alone” line after the solo is exceptional.  The music is very much John Lennon…. the guitar tone very much a ringer for that on his Jealous Guy.  The wail at the outro is brilliant, too “looooooooooooaaaaaaaaasssssssssst”.  But, and here’s the but, the production is claustrophobic.  It may be inspired by Spector’s Wall of Sound, but it’s often suffocating and no more so than on Subterranean Homesick Blues.  That one is a racket… sounding like layers of white noise and Harry is almost unrecognisable (regardless of the shape his voice was in, the vocal just doesn’t sit comfortably).

But, you know what?  The next two tracks are the album’s highlights.  The sparseness of Don’t Forget Me means that it’s not suffocated in any way and that’s a great thing, cause it’s stellar.  Harry’s voice is broken and fragile, but the rawness and the tenderness really fits, and he knows how to use that voice… even when it’s limited.  It’s clear that this song means something (top 5 Nilsson songs, this one – beautiful stuff).  Likewise, All My Life deals with regret and his lifestyle, I guess.  When Harry sings “I’m so tired of bad times I’ll have to change my way” it suggests that he’s very aware of his troubles.  In fact, both these songs give a glipse at Harry’s vulnerability and both are poignant ruminations on the pain he’s endured and caused; though he isn’t above or beyond making light of it on the latter (“I’m so sore from laughing I  haven’t got the will to fight”).  The guitars of Danny Kootch and Jesse Ed Davis are brilliant and the strings are dizzying.  It’s classic Nilsson.  Side closer, Forgotten Soldier is stripped to its bones.  Piano, guitar and some birds in there…

… and so too is Harry’s voice.

It’s a rasp…

he’s almost wheezing.

Straining for words and a breath.

Good grief, it’s affecting.

It makes me sad, as there’s not so much as a glimpse of the old Harry.

Side 2 kicks off with Save The Last Dance For Me.  It evokes Schmillsson’s Without You during the intro.  The piano… listen.  You hear it?  Anyhoo, the take is pedestrian… a deceiving drum shuffle suggests a change in pace that just doesn’t arrive.  The vocal doesn’t quite land and it’s the first major ‘what if’ moment.  It’s not dreadful, but it’s unremarkable and it feels stilted.  Black Sails, on the other hand, is pretty wonderful and it’s as good as Harry sounds on the album.  I’d hazard a guess that this was one of the first vocal takes put down.  The strings are mournful and allow Harry’s vocal the opportunity to breathe and lead.  It’s funny, but mournful… and I love the delivery of “so raise the anchor up! Hoist the canvas… sail me to my heart”.

I’ll not spend too much time on how Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga needs Harry or how Loop De Loop is pretty awful and Rock Around The Clock is a layer of white noise (it’s a bit like listening to music while wearing a grater as someone grates frozen carrots).

I realise that I’ve maybe been more negative about this one than positive… but, seriously, aside from the production and the album being shorn of Harry’s voice, it’s the dip in quality on side 2 that really lets the album down.  Lennon was no Richard Perry, but you can understand why RCA would have felt positive about him doing this album.  I dare say they thought “this is John Fucking Lennon! A bloody Beatle!!  A guy who will harness Harry’s creative energy and inspire him!”.  And just look at the supporting cast…

Instead, they got an album that could have been great and a Harry with a broken voice.  Damn.

Still, I actually do (mostly) like this one.  Or at least side one.

I found out that the album got a reissue there for Record Store Day, but copies of the original pressing can be found really cheap (I found mine for £3), so I can’t see the motivation for anyone looking to spend some good cash for a shiney RSD 2018 sticker.  My advice: grab the original.  Unless, of course, they’re somehow managed to make it sound less like shit.

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53 Comments Add yours

  1. Zack says:

    I love it when I do a review and discover that I didn’t really love an album as much as I thought I did. I swear, sometimes writing about it ruins music for me. It’s nice when I can just sit back and enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      It works both ways, eh? Sometimes I realise I actually quite like something a lot more than I thought… or I rediscover something.

      This one sounds very much like a John Lennon album (not a particularly good thing) with a couple of great Harry Nilsson songs and a guest appearance by him.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Aphoristical says:

    It’s a shame Son of Schmilsson wasn’t more successful – I really like that record, but I guess it was pushing the envelope a bit.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. J. says:

      Agreed; Son of Schmillsson is a favourite of mine. He obviously wasn’t a stranger to pushing the envelope a bit, but I think the atmosphere up there in the stratosphere had a bit of a negative impact on how he harnessed the creativity… instead it resulted in a lot of, what seemed like, messing around in the studio with famous pals.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Aphoristical says:

        It feels like a more comfortable, real album for him – like if it had been more of a success he might have been able to continue in that vein.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. J. says:

        Quite possibly. In many ways Schmillsson was a bit of a curse, as everyone demanded he replicate that success.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Aphoristical says:

        Have you heard any post Pussy Cats stuff? I think I’ve heard most of the albums up to there, but not any further. Talented guy with a very wayward discography, I think.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. J. says:

        I have Duit on Mon Dei and Knnillsson… the latter being one of his best, in my opinion. But yeah, a very wayward discography is probably the best way to describe it.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. DanicaPiche says:

    Excellent review, J. Really enjoying your writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      Thanks, Danica – much appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. DanicaPiche says:

        I found myself focusing on your writing and less on the content. That said, the content was interesting too. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Really enjoyed taking this trip into Pussycat territory with you J. I sometimes feel angry with an artist (I love) turning in a sub-standard effort, but you’ve delicately captured the sadness that underlies the disappointment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      Thanks, Bruce. I’m pleased that I conveyed that sadness despite trying not to focus on the loss of Harry’s voice. It could still have been a very good album had they got the song selections spot on.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Chris says:

    harry Nilsson is another artist I haven’t got to yet but hopefully soon. I might check the documentary you praise to get an idea of who the man was.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      The documentary is great… he was quite the talent and I reckon you can’t go wrong with much of his pre-Schmillsson stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Don’t know my Nilsson from my Nelson so can’t add much here. I know the album covers but that’s about it! And I’ve went 6 years without writing about him so don’t feel too bad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      That does make me feel much better – thanks!

      Like

  7. 80smetalman says:

    Wearing a grater while grating a carrot? Never tried it but if that one song sounds like that, I’ll give it a miss.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      You’re a wise man, Michael. Its one they could have ditched.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. deKE says:

    Funny how sometimes one side is way stronger than another side. Guess thats the great thing about vinyl you don’t have to skip the tracks if its bunk u just don’t play the other side..
    HAHA

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      Haha! Very true, Deke… very true. There are definitely times I could give side 2 a miss here.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. “Despite the awful production and his voice being shot to shit”. When you open up with that, CB has to keep reading. Yeah, despite that,Harry still managed a few gems (I have a couple albums that fit this category). Two guys with a lot of dough and a licence to do whatever they wanted to. I think they were on a bender if I remember the documentary.
    It’s funny I was thinking about these kinds of collaborations (after listening to one that worked magically) yesterday and how often they go south “despite” the talent involved. Good piece J. Love the obscure choice. Works for me.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. J. says:

      Yeah, putting two characters like that together is asking for trouble. The documentary really sheds some light on the bother they got into both in and out of the studio, eh? I believe there was also some shenanigans about possible damage to the studio, too… but I’d have to look that up.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know Scorsese and Robertson went on a couple year binge after the Last Waltz. As far as the music goes I never caught the Lennon thing. Just a matter of taste I guess. I just listened to other types of music. The whole substance thing gets in the way in the end. Ido love the tribute album ‘For the Love of Harry’,

        Liked by 1 person

      2. J. says:

        I’m much the same as you… I’ve never really enjoyed Lennon’s music. Truth be told, I’ve never fully enjoyed The Beatles.

        Anyhoo, I haven’t heard the tribute album… worth finding then?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Definitely. When Bruce at Vinyl Connection did his ‘Various Artists’ thing, I just about went with the Harry tribute. Two of my fave cuts and artists below tipping the their hat to Harry.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. J. says:

        They were pretty good… both artists I need to check out much more stuff from too.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Ely if you don;t know him already , would be your style i think. He is up there for CB. One of my all time go to guys. Wolf and J. Geils same thing. This is the music i was putting my time in with instead of the Fab 4 and others. Not bashing but this stuff moves old CB. There are some more good versions of old Harry’s songs on the tribute.
        (I’m listening to Andre Williams and The Sadies right now. I know the Sadies are one of your bands. Great stuff!)

        Liked by 1 person

      6. J. says:

        I’m familiar with the name, but that’s about it. I’ve noted him, Wolf, and Geils.

        (What album did you listen to?Red Dirt is exceptional… I actually listened to their Country Club album with John Doe, which is equally brilliant).

        Liked by 1 person

      7. ‘Night and Day’ AW and the Sadies. Fantastic so after I live in that some more ‘Red Dirt’ is next. Like having a wine cellar with music instead. Yeah, hotfox turned me onto Williams (‘That’s All I Need’) and then you and the Sadies and Bam! They do a record together. I’m all over the Doe thing too. Thanks. Music like this is where I like to spend time.
        Ely is a treasure. To me anyways.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. J. says:

        Red Dirt left an impression on me the moment I heard it. Night and Day May be that album for you, though… I think it’s the first experience of hearing those two together that set fires off. Truly brilliant stuff.

        What Ely album you recommend I start with?

        Liked by 1 person

      9. Ely’s tough J. I’ve seen him live so that spoils the shit out of me. ‘Live Shots’ if you can find it. That’s where I started. His music has evolved since then but he is a rocker at heart. He was hanging and playing with the Clash back then. (I just found it on Spotify). You have your toes in the country genre and Joe has that gene. Plus he’s a Buddy Holly disciple. Texas boys stick together.

        Liked by 1 person

      10. J. says:

        I’ll have a look for that one, CB. Seeing folks live always adds that wee something, eh? When they majorly impress you it takes your liking for them to another level.

        Just reading about Ely and I reckon I’m gonna dig him big time.

        Liked by 1 person

      11. Yeah knowing what you’ve bit on I would think you’d dig his music. Try ‘Fingernails’ live for his rockin side. It’s killer stuff. Some of the best shows I’ve ever seen. He says he never does a show without kicking a Buddy song. His ‘Fade Away’ is a fave.
        We’ve exchanged some good stuff. Lets keep it going.
        (Watched Bone Tomahawk Friday. Interesting. Wortha watch. I felt they could have hit it out of the park with that idea. A lot of films have that with me. I guess it’s the armchair director in me)

        Liked by 1 person

      12. J. says:

        I’ve had a look on Apple Music, but they don’t have the Live Shots. Few other live bits and pieces by the looks of it, though… I’ll see how I get on.

        I’d agree that Bone Tomahawk could have really been quite something, but I reckon they did a swell job keeping it from feeling too far fetched(?) but then, I would loved to have seen them knock it out the park.

        Liked by 1 person

      13. I love all Joes work. Try ‘Live At Liberty Lunch’ or ‘Live at Antone’s’. Studio ‘Musta Notta Gotta Lotta’.
        I’m going to check out the others you mentioned. The Woody one sounds like a good one. Plus i love those whacked out God guys.

        Liked by 1 person

      14. J. says:

        Of those on there, I grabbed Antone’s, Musta Notta Gotta Lotta, and Panhandle Rambler (just for the cover). I’ll report back.

        The Duel is great. That one is probably one of my favourites from the last few years.

        Liked by 1 person

      15. Cool because I haven’t heard ‘Pan Handle Rambler”. It is a cool cover. Similar to what CB dwells in. You have me listening to it. Yeah it’s Joe in all his Texas glory. Sounding real good. Some nice accordion work happening. I was just hitting the sack but I guess I’m up for a while.

        Duel sounds like it will be watched soon if I can find it.

        Liked by 1 person

      16. J. says:

        Oooft. Sorry, CB… Hopefully Ely doesn’t keep you up too late!!

        … and yeah, hopefully you find The Duel soon. It’s well worth a bit of time.

        Liked by 1 person

      17. I have another hour til pumpkin time. Don’t know if you like story songs but on Antone’s Ely does two of my favorites ‘Gallo del Cielo’ and ‘Me and Billy the Kid’.
        When CB sets out to find something he’s like a dog on a bone. The Duel will be found.

        Liked by 1 person

      18. J. says:

        I’m all about story songs, so I’ll be into them. I have Panhandle Rambler on just now. Digging.

        You like Buddy Miller?

        Liked by 1 person

      19. Listened to Panhandle also. That’s the vibe Joes been on for a while. He really digs into this sound, I guess it’s in his blood. Texas singer/songwriter. Kind of book ending his career with it. He always has good players with him. Joel Guzman’s squeezebox sounds good as always, Repeated listens will keep it growing on me. I love this shit.
        Yeah Buddy Miller is all over the place. I know him more as a producer/sideman. I’ve dipped into his own projects but not near enough. One of those guys that I need to live with for a while. You mentioned him so you must have something in mind.

        Liked by 1 person

      20. J. says:

        Buddy’s Universal United House of Prayer is a pretty great album and worth checking out if you haven’t already heard it. I guess something about that Ely album brought it to mind.

        Liked by 1 person

      21. Yeah Buddy is connected to a bunch of people I like. Jim Lauderdale, Jimmie Dale Gilmore (Joes buddy and ex bandmate) are a couple.. These kinds of musicians find each other. I will check ‘Prayer’ out. I have Cruel Moon but I can’t find it. There’s a song of his going through my head and i can’t remember the title.
        Also J, I seen him on Austin City a few years ago backing up Robert Plant. It was a good show. Lovin the dialogue and recommendations. Back to the Harry record. After our sidetrack you can see where my head is at. The Lennon style just never moved me.

        Liked by 1 person

      22. J. says:

        Another bunch of folks I should be checking out… cheers!

        Yeah, I can see why Lennon never moved you, CB. I’m much the same, I remember when the Beatles was having something of a resurgence when I was younger (the result of the Anthology stuff) and a few pals started listening… I preferred digging into Johnny Cash, Elvis and Sinatra.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. keepsmealive says:

    Great piece on an artist I need to spend some time with – as I haven’t spent much! Very clear-eyed and honest, just what we know we’ll get from Resurrectionsongs!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      Thanks, Aaron. I reckon you’d enjoy spending time with Harry – loads to enjoy.

      Like

  11. 1537 says:

    i still haven’t forgiven him for that Godawful lime and coconut song, so I can’t listen to him objectively, ever.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. J. says:

      Whit!!? Coconut’s a great tune!!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Jay says:

        And also an earworm – oh man, how long before I stop singing this?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. J. says:

        I never stop singing it!! Literally a track I sing around the house all the time.

        Like

  12. Jay says:

    This one made me a little bit sad actually – everything you wrote is fair and true but sometimes we don’t really stop and think about what it means, that an album represents the time in someone’s life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      This: “sometimes we don’t really stop and think about what it means, that an album represents the time in someone’s life”. This is so very true… it’s a snapshot of a particular time and it’s not an easy one… especially given the repercussions (just listen to the Harry Nilsson albums after this one and you hear the impact).

      Like

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