The title is the name
of Cooger and Dark's 'circus side-show' from the book ‘Something Wicked This
Way Comes’ by Ray Bradbury. Harry had originally wanted 'Something
Wicked...' to be the title of the album but RCA was worried
about copyright issues, hence the change.
Although the album
met with considerable critical success sales were (although respectable for
a debut artist) somewhat sluggish. Almost certainly, Harry’s biggest
breakthrough came when Derek Taylor, the Beatles publicist and long-term
friend and colleague at Apple, discovered the recording. Suitably
impressed, not least by the two Lennon/McCartney songs on the LP, he bought
a whole box full of copies and took them with him back to London. Taylor
said, many years later that it was a ‘stunning album and God only knows how
it wasn’t seen by the masses as a mighty work at the time’.
Within a few weeks,
when asked by an interviewer who their favourite group was, John and Paul
replied ‘Nilsson’. They also rang him (individually) in his RCA office
(the office was the 'perk' he asked for after signing a three-year $50,000
contract). From such testimonials are careers made and Harry, of
course, became a great friend and frequent collaborator with each of The
Beatles over the next decade.
The original release
came in two formats – the single album with colour front cover and black and
white montage rear and a special collectors/promotional pack which contained
a press pack,
biography, information sheet, lyrics for all
the Nilsson compositions, a button
(badge), 2 8x10 photographs, a poster, and balloons.
The picture on the
front of the album shows the young Nilsson surrounded by a cornucopia of
artifacts, each of which has an association with a song found on the
record. I will try to list as many of these as I can (in brackets and in
red italics after each song title below
- with thanks to Ben Paxton-Crick, another Welsh Nilssonian!)
The overall ‘feel’ of
the album is of a circus – or at least a show put on by an artist reluctant
to appear as himself and appearing in the guise of a clown, a crooner, a
vaudeville comedian…highly appropriate considering that Nilsson was to go
through his entire career without performing in concerts or developing any
kind of relationship with a live audience. Harry was a studio artist above
all, one who both endured and enjoyed his ‘perfectionist tendencies’, an
inveterate ‘twiddler’ who would return to the same pieces time and time
again, even after they had been released, trying to enhance and improve
It is strangely
appropriate, then, that the first thing we hear on the record is Harry, as
ringmaster, introducing his own album as if it were a live circus show:
Gentlemen…in the centre ring, presenting Nilsson and his Pandemonium Shadow
Show” – or at least that was the intention. By turning the sentence into a
tongue twister Nilsson immediately gives the whole project a quirky
atmosphere, leaving the listener wondering what on earth might come next.
Another appropriate pointer for Harry’s future! He also brings a macabre
sense of humour to the fore as well as his overwhelming, natural shyness –
he seems to be genuinely embarrassed to be presenting himself to an audience
at all. (note the ringmaster's megaphone
on the cover)
As the ringmaster’s
muddled announcement dissolves into his own laughter a heavily reverbed drum
leads us into the opening track…
Ten Little Indians (all future
songs written by Harry Nilsson unless specified)
(the 10 Indians can be
clearly seen in a row on the wall to Harry's right)
This, the first
track on an RCA Nilsson album immediately presents us with an artist not
afraid to tread new ground nor be, for want of a better phrase, politically
incorrect. Rhymes such as the one on which this song is based are all but
banned from nurseries in this ‘enlightened’ day and age – remember, even the
word ‘Indians’ is a step down from the original ‘Ten Little Nigger Boys’
What we actually
have here is an amalgam of the old Nursery Rhyme and the 10 Commandments
(yes, those – Moses and Mt Sinai etc.) As the song progresses each of the
Indians falls victim as he fails to live up to a different one of God’s
laws. For what it’s worth, here are the details:
Indian 1 - One stood
looking at another man's wife/Thou shalt
not covet thy neighbour's wife (or commit adultery)
Indian 2 - One took
another's goods/Thou shalt not steal
Indian 3 - One told a
lie about another's best friend/Thou shalt not bear false witness
Indian 4 - One
thought he'd found another way to get to Heaven/Thou shalt have no other
gods before me
Indian 5 - One took
another's life/Thou shalt not commit murder
Indian 6 - One pulled
his mother down/Honour thy father and mother
Indian 7 -
One...forgot to say his prayers/Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy
- One took the name of God in vain/ Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord
thy God in vain
Indian 9 - One took a
liking to a picture of himself/Thou shalt not make graven images
Indian 10 -
One...looking for the sun/this is unclear...probably to do with having other
gods again - the 10 commandments are actually more like 14 anyway - coveting
the neighbour's wife and committing adultery are 2 different commandments -
I think this was just a dramatic way for Nilsson to end the song!
This song was, rather
surprisingly, covered by British supergroup The Yardbirds and released as a
single in 1967.
"During one session, we were recording 'Ten Little
Indians,' which was an extremely silly song that featured a truly awful
brass arrangement. In fact the whole track sounded terrible. In a desperate
attempt to salvage it, I hit upon an idea. I said, 'Look, turn the tape over
and employ the echo for the brass on a spare track. Then turn it back over
and we'll get the echo preceding the signal.' The result was very
interesting - it made the track sound like it was going backwards." - Jimmy
(poster on the wall of a 1941
calendar/circus poster (clown) behind the cello)
1941 has gone down in
Harryhead folklore as being a semi-autobiographical song. Harry was, of
course, born in 1941 (…a happy father had a son) only for his father to
leave soon afterwards (…and by 1944 the father walked right out the door).
After that beginning,
how much actually relates to ‘truth’ and how much ‘just went to make a
groovy song’ is anyone’s guess although the way the story hangs together
with the ‘twist in the tail’ is both clever and captivating.
From a musical point
of view one of the most notable features in the song is the scat middle
section – this itself a trait which was to mark a great deal of Nilsson’s
early work. By employing this technique Harry could always ‘join in’ with
the band, using his voice as an extra instrument – becoming part of the
texture. Try, for a moment, to imagine 1941 WITHOUT the scat – perhaps with
a saxophone playing the lead line in the scat section…it’s not the same is
it? Such foibles as the scat singing were very much part of what made Harry
what he was – and we should be eternally grateful for that!
song sits on the basis of a brass ensemble and organ. These two forces
feature prominently through the whole album and, indeed the next one as
well, for that matter, although ‘organ’ is, for some reason, not listed
amongst the battery of instruments listed in the published credits. (In
all, 29 players contributed to the record.) The use of strings as an
addition to pop groups had grown ever since George Martin backed ‘Yesterday’
with a string quartet; the use of brass was far less widely used up to this
point. The Beatles themselves had started to explore the potential of brass
in ‘Penny Lane’ (piccolo trumpet) and in various places on the newly
released Sergeant Pepper album (Pandemonium Shadow Show was recorded and
released within a few months of Sgt. Pepper’s release).
Whether it was this
previous brass exploration catching Nilsson’s ear, something inherent in
George Tipton's arranging or even Rick Jarrard’s production the brass section underpins Pandemonium Shadow
Show’s character in the same way the strings hold together ‘Yesterday’.
Choo train at Harry's feet and the words 'Zop Zop' on the poster
This song is
probably more famous for the cover version recorded by The Monkees and was a
hit in 1967. It has to be said that this song bears another sign of
Nilsson’s ‘unwillingness’ to conform to the ideals and expectations of
‘polite society’. It was always said to amuse Harry when Davy Jones was
seen on screen staring into the eyes of an ‘oh, so sweet, demure,
All-American girl’ as he sang this song. Did Harry alone know that ‘cuddly
toy’ was biker slang for a girl who was a willing participant in a
‘gang-bang’? My guess is that he knew all too well but was unable (or
unwilling!) to suppress that wicked sense of humour either then, or on many
and various occasions in the future!
The track starts with
a wonderful ‘doubled’ piano (courtesy of Michael Melvoin and Bob Segarini) –
Harry’s reaction to which was both recorded for posterity and left on the
finished song. Such technical feats were only possible due to the skills
of RCA engineer Dick Bogert who managed to sync-up two 4-track tape machines
in order to create a ‘Heath Robinson’ 8-track.
She Sang Hymns
Out Of Tune (Kincaid) the
yellow balloon, the broom (for brandishing), a sorcerer's room
For many years I
wondered what on earth this song was about. The lyrics tell of a lady who
“sang hymns out of tune and carried a yellow balloon, who traded her love
for a Spanish doubloon and talked to the people who ‘are’”. Whoever she was
she has now ‘passed away’ and gone…to the people who ‘are’. Illuminating!
All this mystery is wrapped up in an extremely singable tune and rocked by a
waltz beat as infectious as any since Strauss.
I only managed to
unravel the mysteries a short time ago when the song was nominated as Track
of the Week on Nilssonweb, the Internet community founded by Roger Smith
which is the www fount of knowledge for all things Nilssonian. Apparently,
it is something to do with a witch!
This rather bizarre
song once again prominently features a harmonium organ. This instrument
always conjures up images for me of somewhere directly between an old
Mission Chapel and a full-blown circus arena. Once again The Beatles had
discovered it first, using it on ‘We Can Work it Out’ and then again (or
something very similar) in ‘Mr. Kite’, where it once again provided a circus
atmosphere. Of course, as she sang hymns (presumably in such a chapel) and
appeared as track 4 on an album introduced by a ringmaster this is all very
When Harry and E.J.
Gold were reminiscing about the recording of "She Sang Hymns Out Of Tune",
E.J. was recalling the Swiss bell-ringer who they had for the session,
complete with lederhosen. Harry laughed and shook his head. "And this was
when "Inna Gadda Da Vida" was a hit," he said. But, really, how do you sell
these albums to people who missed out on it before?
A wonderful touch
comes near the end of the song where Harry starts to sing in the wrong
place…rather than start again he continues…and leaves the error there as a
quaint ‘joke’. Somehow, it wouldn’t have been the same without it. It is
another mark of Nilsson’s instinct for what was just right: turning an
accident into a ‘finishing touch’.
You Can’t Do
there is a list of Beatles songs on the floor
next to the broom. The word 'love' as 'stolen' in the song
This is, almost
certainly, the track that would have first caught the attention of The
Beatles. A fairly obscure track from the soundtrack album of ‘A Hard Day’s
Night’ (1964) is remade and woven into a most elaborate patchwork Beatles
pastiche, a colourful collage of sound which makes aural references to over
20 Beatles songs in its intricate construction.
From the opening
words of ‘She’s a Woman’ to the closing ‘Strawberry (Fields) Beatles for
ever’ we are taken on a whirlwind trip through the catalogue of the Fab Four
yet, amidst the stream of quotes, Harry never loses sight of the fact he is
performing ONE song, and the background collage enhances, rather than
detracts from, the overall performance of it.
Sleep Late, My Lady Friend
the cello features prominently in this song (and several others) Is it
the lady's picture on the wall?
One feels inclined to
say that this song is entirely unlike every other song on the album…except
that the same thing could be said for most of the tracks on the album! This
mid-tempo ballad, punctuated with Indian tablas and Harry’s scat, allows
Nilsson to sing in the lazy, ‘make the most of every syllable’ style he was
to make his own over the next few years.
A composition unlike
any other Nilsson had written before is enhanced by George Tipton’s
impeccable arrangement, blending strings and brass and with Harry’s scat
singing added between lines to create a rich, orchestral texture. The song
itself has little metric sense; uneven lines which, in the hands of lesser
craftsmen would sound clumsy, ‘Sleep Late’ flows along effortlessly,
drifting from lazy, lilting Latin to a slightly more energetic, brassy
American sound without the join showing at all.
‘Cielito Lindo’, the
song mentioned in the lyrics is a very famous Mexican folk-tune best known
in the USA as the “Frito Bandito” melody from that popular advertising
She’s Leaving Home
the euphonium features here. One of the clocks
shows 5 o'clock, the other 9 o'clock. The 'backdoor key' hangs on the
wall. The kissing couple could be her and her 'man from the motor
One of Harry’s most
treasured abilities was the way he could take someone else’s songs and make
you think they were his. Although many members of the public know little
about Nilsson, most who know anything at all seem to realise he was a
songwriter. It is almost invariably a surprise to them to learn that Harry
did not write ‘Without You’ or ‘Everybody’s Talkin’, his two biggest hits.(3)
This lovely Paul
McCartney ballad, telling the story of a frustrated teenage girl who, unable
to communicate with her parents, runs away from home to be with her ‘man
from the motor trade’ had only appeared on ‘Sgt. Pepper’ a few months before
‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’s release. It was a canny move by Nilsson to
include a track from the ‘album of the year’, yet he was innovative enough
to give the song a completely different reading. With the aid of Tipton the
harp was replaced by a harpsichord and the cello by a euphonium, or baritone
horn. This instrument is rarely used in orchestras (where it may be known
as a tenor tuba) but is a member of brass and wind marching bands. This was
its first appearance on a Nilsson track as a ‘lead’ instrument although it
was to be used several times more in future.
instrumental changes help remove quite a substantial proportion of the
‘pathos’ inherent in McCartney’s own version, giving the song a slightly
grittier, more adult edge – a feat Nilsson repeated with the self-penned
‘Mourning Glory Song’ which, like ‘She’s Leaving Home’ led off Side 2 on his
next but one album “Harry”. (It is no coincidence that ‘Mourning Glory’
also features the euphonium prominently.)
There Will Never Be
trombones feature brilliantly here!
A song in 5/4 time!
Now that’s a rare thing. This jazz number, composed by Perry Botkin jr. and
Garfield fits in perfectly between two of the album’s more downbeat numbers
– it’s sense of hopefulness and the joys of being in love only to be dashed
on the shores of despair by the song which follows it. The brass
(particularly trombone) playing on this track is sensational, the best in
song rides on the 5/4 rhythm brought to public attention by Dave Brubeck
(Take 5) but, in fact, the rhythms of this 'pop' song are far more complex
than in the jazz number. The time signature changes very often - but
Harry was able to take it all in his stride, once again showing a natural
affinity with jazz. Harry's falsetto scat in this song is, in my
opinion, the best he ever sang - absolutely superb!
Not many notice the
absence of drums from this track - the only percussion is the expertly
handled tambourine. This arranging touch alows the other instruments
to be heard clearly - I'd LOVE to hear a track only version of this song!
hands on the clock (telling the lovers to part) - pretty balloon
Undoubtedly, one of
the highlights of a great album. The accompaniment is extremely
sparse, featuring simply cello, flute, guitar and plucked double bass.
Of all the original songs Nilsson had recorded to this point this one showed
him at his best as a songwriter completely at home singing his own material.
This song featured in the TV programme 'The Ghost and Mrs. Muir' which
featured Harry as singer Tim Seagirt. My own cover version of this
wonderful song can be heard here.
Screen shots from the
TV show (click to enlarge):
(Hess, Johnson/Ager) the picture of
'Freckles' is on the wall above the Beatles poster.
is a very old, vaudeville song, originally sung by Nora Bayes and was
originally taught to Harry by his mother and aunt who often sang it to him. It is a
humorous song about a boy who always got the blame for any trouble - no
matter how improbable it might have been for him to be involved! As
Harry as a child had copious freckles it easy to see how this became a
family favourite and why Harry may heave felt so fond of it he chose to
include it on his first 'real' album.
So Long 'since I kissed you' - see the
picture of a kissing couple.
This song, as much as
any other shows how much Harry's songwriting had improved in the year or so
since the 'Spotlight' album. This is a well-crafted composition which
fits in perfectly at this point in the album.
River Deep -
Mountain High (Spector/Barry/Greenwich)
Harry holds the rag doll and is followed by the
This song had been a
hit for Ike & Tina Turner and Harry does the song justice by ending the
album with this epic production (in which George Tipton also tips more than
a wink to Phil Spector). Harry rocks the socks off this number, his
vocal acrobatics and power lifting it to the heights in which many feel this
is the best version of the song ever recorded.
And the ringmaster
returns to end the whole thing with another slice of quirky humour...he
still can't get his announcement right!
As I Wander
This song was
recorded on the same day as 'Sleep Late' and composed by the duo who also
gave us 'There Will Never Be'. The beautiful 'empty' production of the
early verses is illuminated once again by Jesse Erlich's delightful cello
then more 'Tipton horns' take over...and all the time Harry's voice, in
supreme form lilts the lovely melody and poetic lyrics. Milt Holland,
who had played tablas on 'Sleep Late' was obviously 'in the mood' as he
added them to this track too. This lovely recording was left off the
album and did not surface until the Personal Best collection some 26 years
(1) In fact, the use of brass on both this album,
it’s successor Aerial Ballet and other recordings of this Nilsson era
like ‘Best Friend’ (the theme for the TV show) and the commercial he wrote
for Ban Deodorant is a common ingredient in the Nilsson sound. (Best
Friend was also recorded as ‘Girlfriend’ but the song remained unreleased
until the Personal Best Anthology, which Harry was working on when he died.
The TV series starring a young Brandon Cruz ran from 1969 and the theme is
amongst the best known American TV favourites. Even more
interestingly, Harry and Brandon recorded a new duet version in 1993 which
was released as one of the song for Cruz’s 1998 solo album ‘Eddie is a
(2) Heath Robinson was an eccentric British
inventor in the early 20th Century who designed and made strange,
working machines from bits and pieces of other ones. Regarded as something
of a ‘mad professor’ his name has come to represent any machine cobbled
together from bits.
(3) This very fact, of course, had ultimately
tragic consequences for Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Tom Evans, the men who DID
write ‘Without You’ but failed to get the recognition they deserved – being
at least a contributory factor in their suicides.