by Brian Smith
By the end of the ’70s, Harry Nilsson (like his drinkin' bud Alice Cooper) was becoming a sort of swollen-livered Norma Desmond, lost to mainstream tastes that mostly favored sellout soul, corporate rock, and, to a lesser degree, some good post-punk shit.
More, conventional music-critic wisdom (yawn) has long said that Nilsson’s famously blown voice ruined his post-1973 albums. That just ain’t true.
Sure, Nilsson hedonistically trashed for good his buttery tone and soaring range while making ’74’s Pussy Cats with John Lennon, but that record and every one of his non-soundtrack albums, were incredible in some way—even ’76’s wrongly maligned, crooner-gone-mad Sandman (dig the killer “Jesus Christ You’re Tall”!). Each is musically diverse, pregnant with Nilsson’s scathing wit and pathos, and his rasped vocals add an extra layer of implied narrative (if not a darker hue).
Hence, 1980’s Flash Harry. The L.A. sessions for this overlooked Steve Cropper(!)-produced album were rife with Nilsson misadventures and party favors, and, so, there’s lots to love, even beyond the soothing nods to reggae, R&B and pop, and co-writes with Ringo, Lennon and Van Dyke Parks.
The best might be “It’s So Easy.” Album engineer Larold Rebhun said Nilsson was drinking hard and did mescaline before recording the song’s lead vocal. Nilsson sang the lyrics he’d scribbled on a napkin at dinner earlier in the night, hilariously singing his name, which he’d signed on the napkin beneath the words.
Yet no one has ever pointed out that this inspired Nilsson/Stallworth tune is so close melodically to Alice Cooper’s “Welcome to my Nightmare” it’s practically an homage, replete with a sinister-tender tone, airy arrangement, creepy sway and groove. Stolen, and just a footnote, but still.
Flash Harry was Nilsson’s last proper studio album, only saw a UK and Japanese release. It was finally reissued stateside a few years ago. (There is an unreleased album produced by Mark Hudson that Nilsson recorded shortly before his ’94 death, called, aptly, Papa’s Got a Brand New Robe. You can give that a whirl on YouTube.)