Josh Rutner

saxophone, etc.

Episode 22: Pandemonium Shadow Show (Harry Nilsson, 1967)

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Harry Nilsson was really something else. He basked in late '60s tropes, but with the subtlety and control of one ahead of his time, or at least, not tied down to the style. The style both worked for him, and worked for him.

His second release, 1967’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, was originally intended to be titled Something Wicked This Way Comes (pulled of course from the cover of Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel), but when legal friction pushed that title aside, Nilsson settled instead on a phrase from inside the same text, the name of the traveling carnival: Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show.  

"Ten Little Indians," the first song, which follows a brief introduction of Nilsson spoofily leading the rings, mis-barking the title as “Shandamanium Shadow Poe” and having a good laugh about it, is a grown-up count-down song, moved-along each successive verse by the transgression of biblical commandments. The arrangement grows in orchestrational intensity as the Little Indians are taken down one by one, with the one exception being the break after number five—reminiscent of the “five golden rings” breather in the middle of the otherwise monotonous 12 days of Christmas song. In Nilsson’s break-down, the electric piano continues, by its lonesome, its gentle pulsing of eighth notes, after two measures modulating without fanfare before a final set of bink bink bink bink bink bink bink binks. The drums and brass return to finish the job.

Number rhymes continue in the album’s melancholic second song, called “1941,” which tells of a child born, a father walking out, the son growing up, running off with the circus and having his own son, whom he then abandons in the same manner as his father did him. The final line of the song poses the question, what will happen to this youngest boy when the circus comes to town? 

The lyric was semi-autobiographical for Nilsson, who was born in 1941, on Father’s day, no less, inspired by Nilsson’s own father’s absence, long-believed by the children to be due to death in the war, but later revealed to be merely a plain and simple abandonment by a man still alive and well. As for the circus-as-hideaway for the runaway, that too was likely gleaned from Nilsson’s family history: his grandparents had been trapeze artists in an act called “Nilsson’s Aerial Ballet.”

Indeed, the theme of “the circus” tents a good deal of the album, not only in the bebloopered ringleader intro and the densely propped cover art, but in the ringling and tingling accompanimental arrangements throughout, most expertly given good weight via tightly stacked brass and tightly tuned drum by composer-arranger George Tipton.

The other major cluster of stars in Pandemonium Shadow Show’s constellation is The Beatles, of whom Nilsson was an unabashed fanboy. Upon first meeting George Harrison, at Harrison’s LA house on Blue Jay Way, Nilsson recalls seeing him at the far end of his pool, in a white, windblown robe, replete with beard and long hair, looking like “Christ with a camcorder.” It turned out the feelings of admiration were mutual, with the Beatles heartily singing Nilsson’s praises to the press and even trying to poach him from his label at the time, RCA. Nilsson would go on to do a ton of work with Ringo Starr as well as John Lennon, whose eventual murder would hit him particularly hard, pushing him to fiercely take up the cause of gun control, a cause which Nilsson would continue to champion through to the end of his own life.

On this album, Nilsson covers Lennon’s “You Can’t Do That,” but within his, what you might call, “conglomarrangement,” he references, usually subtly in multi-tracked backing vocals, as many as twenty other Beatles songs. He concludes his take with a Liverpudlian-tinged singing of the phrase, “Strawberry Beatles forevah.” Total fanboy.

As if quoting tens of Beatles songs within a Beatles song didn’t sufficiently message that Nilsson is fond of the lovable lads, he goes on to cover "She’s Leaving Home"—fitting in quite nicely with the runaway children theme introduced in “1941.” He doesn’t particularly stray from the original’s melody or arrangement, but he does make it his own through Tipton’s sensitive and sparkling brass orchestration and Nilsson’s at-once technichal, tightly-controlled and artsy, loosy-goosey vocal delivery.

A favorite of mine on the record is the Tom Jonesy show piece, “There Will Never Be Another.” Set in a syncopated 5/4 and accompanied not by drums but by two tambourines as percussion, the tune pulls the powerful rips of brass in the backing arrangement together with Nilsson’s expertly executed baroque ornamentation. Carefree exactitude.

Christ with a camcorder, there is some great stuff on this record. Give it a spin.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.