At the very, very end of the hallucinogenic year of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Rock’s Pied Piper released an album so radical it inspired all of his underlings to abandon their sitars and Mellotrons and get back to Rock & Roll’s rustic roots. Dylan’s John Wesley Harding actually wasn’t that radical considering that Rock & Roll had always been cyclical and always would be. It was inevitable that someone would eventually lead the pack away from psychedelic fads (in fact, Dylan’s album wasn’t really even the first back-to-the roots record of late ’67; The Beach Boys’ Wild Honey was).
For a truly radical late-1967 album, check out Harry Nilsson’s RCA debut, Pandemonium Shadow Show. It’s as psychedelic and as rootsy as a Stephen Sondheim musical, yet it houses trappings of both pre-and-post John Wesley Harding pop. Nilsson’s cover of The Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That” encapsulates this perfectly by quoting a dozen tracks by the kings of psychedelia to a back porch rhythm section of acoustic guitar and bongos. Nilsson mapped out a totally individual pop approach by tarting up such unfashionable styles as jazz, lounge, olde tyme brass band, and Broadway with wiseass humor. He made it more than mere novelty by interpreting this material with a truly gorgeous voice, often laid down in blankets of flawless overdubbed harmony. Even tarter, he undercuts all the offhand satire with “1941”, a stark, breath-snatching piece about the daddy issues that haunted his life and work.
This topic plops down at the very start of Nilsson’s second RCA album, 1968’s Aerial Ballet, as “Daddy’s Song” (later made famous by The Monkees in their movie Head, leading him from cutting the track from second pressings of Aerial Ballet). Despite the ironically light approach of this track, the rest of the album is less comic than Pandemonium Shadow Show and more of a personal artistic statement. The previous album had been evenly divided between covers and Nilsson originals. The new one only contained a single cover, a version of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” that ended up being its most well-known track when John Schlesinger used it in Midnight Cowboy. Nilsson’s own composition “One” would be an even bigger hit when covered by Three Dog Night the following year.
Pandemonium Shadow Show and Aerial Ballet are both lovely, melancholically funny, and emotionally tender records, and both were released just as mono was falling out of favor, leaving the stereo mixes far more common. Sundazed Records has unearthed the mono versions for new 180 gram vinyl reissues produced with all due love, respect, and authenticity (even the RCA label’s are retained). Two of the most unique records of the late sixties are now more unique than ever.
Get Harry Nilsson’s Pandemonium Shadow Show and Aerial Ballet on Amazon.com here: