“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 a while 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 a lot of Harry’s post-Schmillsson stuff, it’s a curious listen with treasures and some of my favourite Harry Nilsson moments.  Here, though, the challenge is awful production and his voice being shot to shit.

Now, his official site suggests he lost his voice and kept it from his co-conspirator and producer, John Lennon, to avoid the project being abandoned.  Lennon’s ears must have been more fucked than the production suggests if he didn’t notice, though, 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 hi-jinx 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 white noise of the assorted uninspired covers (particularly Loop De Loop and Rock Around the Clock).

D rug S: very funny, gents.

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, there was 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 (and Loop De Loop… and Rock Around the Clock… and… etc. etc.).  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 for me).

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 to him (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 glimpse at Nilsson’s vulnerability and I guess both are reflections on the pain he’s endured and caused (and being Nilsson, he makes light of it on the latter – “I’m so sore from laughing I  haven’t got the will to fight”).  Anyhoo, back to All My Life… 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, sadly 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.  Don’t get me wrong, 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 Nilsson’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… Sneaky Pete, Jane Getz, Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner, Ringo, Keith Moon, Bobby Keys among others.

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 shiny RSD 2018 sticker.  My advice: grab the original.

20 Comments Add yours

  1. Never heard this one, not sure I want to now! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      Haha! Can’t say I blame you…

      Honestly, it’s not as bad as I’ve maybe suggested… though it’s hard to excuse the notable dip in quality on the second side.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Maybe I’ll listen to Side A.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. J. says:

        Side A is definitely worth a listen… see how you get on from there.

        … obviously this is just my opinion on this one.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. badfinger20 (Max) says:

    All of that talent and wasted. What I’ve read is when Keith Moon, Ringo, and Jim Keltner were ready to record the drums to Rock Around the Clock…Keith’s PA Dougal Butler gave each of them phials of amyl nitrate…that is why it’s fast with no feel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      That would go a long way to explaining it, huh? It’s really unfortunate the way it all panned out.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. badfinger20 (Max) says:

        It is…and I’m the world’s biggest Keith Moon fan…maybe the only time in his life he played a straight beat.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. keepsmealive says:

    I don’t have any albums proper from him, but I do have a compilation set. Sounds like for me that’s the way to go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      His pre-Schmilsson stuff is exceptional. Still eccentric, but much more consistent than the eccentric post-Schmilsson.

      Like

      1. keepsmealive says:

        The operative word here being ‘eccentric,’ lol.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. BuriedOnMars says:

    Howard Stern once had Curtis Armstrong (Booger from Revenge of the Nerds) on and he could identify any Harry Neilson song with only hearing a second of it. It was something else.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      That’s pretty impressive. Was it any second at any point of the song? I’m wondering whether I know any artist that well…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. BuriedOnMars says:

        I believe it had to be the start of the song, but it was impressive. They would throw songs at him at random moments in the middle of a conversation and got it right every time. I tried to do the same with AC/DC with random tracks on the computer but you need someone else feeding them to you for a true test.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. J. says:

        Brilliant. Especially thrown in during conversation.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Loved your take as usual J. You have to have a spot for guys like Harry (I feel your admiration for the guy). A booze fueled outing that was probably lucky to get what they did. He probably would have been better off with a different creative team. You have me curious on the stuff that didnt work for you, not that i dont trust you but sometimes those car wrecks have an appeal. Booby Keys solo on the Haley song helps but yeah they sound like a band down at the pub. Pretty well just having a good time in each others company. Is that Harry actually singing on Loop De Loop?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      When I listen to his albums between ’72 and ’77 you can hear that he’s having a laugh mostly. There are great songs scattered across the albums, but it’s all a bit undercooked cause everyone’s been having a carry on… this though feels like the most disappointing. Maybe because the potential was there and some of his strongest songs sit on it. I can handle Harry not sounding like Harry due to wrecking his voice or whatever, but the dip in the second side badly lets the album down.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This was at the time him and Lennon were on a long piss up wasnt it? Sometimes that works and others not. You are more up on Harry than I am and I can see your point on the quality.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. J. says:

        It was, aye. The documentary covers some of that stuff… literally just hijinx the whole time. The doc is definitely worth your time if you haven’t seen it already.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. msjadeli says:

    That first song got the tears flowing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      It gets me too – really impactful, isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

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