Mar 07

NILSSON – “Without You”

FT + Popular51 comments • 6,126 views

#311, 11th March 1972

Nice beard.A friend of mine recently slammed “Without You” as obnoxious emotional blackmail. Fair enough, but there’s enough of the old Wedding Present fan in me to enjoy the occasional wallow in passive-aggressive neediness, and wallows don’t come much more luxurious than this. “Without Me” is an inheritor of the Engelbert style – the same combination of heart-tugging topic, smooth vocals, and sumptuous instrumental chassis. But the formula’s had some highly effective upgrades too. “Without Me” may be highly arranged but it doesn’t sound remotely old-timey: Richard Perry’s mix avoids orchestral bludgeon to let pretty details catch your ear. Nilsson, too, gets intimate when he needs to – starting pensive, and later letting his voice crack on the big second chorus.

The result is maybe the first ballad on the lists that sounds “modern” – if an X Factor contestant decided to hit with “Without You”, they could use this arrangement and production and it wouldn’t sound like a retro or genre exercise. It also probably wouldn’t sound this good – Nilsson’s singing on the verses is deliciously creamy, and even if he doesn’t quite convince me on the not-living thing, his performance still has an emotional kick, dramatising the horribly slender, slippable gap between acceptance and despair.




  1. 1
    lex on 16 Mar 2007 #

    I much prefer Mariah’s version precisely because of the greater bludgeon!

  2. 2
    Tom on 16 Mar 2007 #

    I mean “bludgeon” in terms of the more undifferentiated arrangements you would get on older-school ballads (eg Al Martino). Can’t really remember how the Mariah version goes (well, obviously I know how it *goes*, I mean what she does with it). I will find out when I get to it if I like it more!

    The original by Badfinger is more matter-of-fact and ‘believable’ I guess but something’s definitely lacking in it.

  3. 3
    Rosie on 16 Mar 2007 #

    I’m going out on a limb here – this is one of my 10s.

    The reason – we come back to the affective thing again. It just happened to coincide with my first big traumatic teenage breakup, and this song said how I felt more than any amount of Leonard Cohen could. It’s more than that though. The voice is terrific, and hits just the right note of despair without going overboard because it’s not to my mnd a song that responds at all well to belting, but that’s not enough in itself.

    There’s something else though. In other versions – especially when they belt it – it seems to fall flat. I always thought there was some special magic about Nilsson’s version but I could never put my finger on it. But then, I’m not a musicologist. It was Howard Goodall’s recent series that cracked it for me – it’s the way the vocal is out of step with the harmonic progression. Or something. Sung in step it just becomes banal.

    Also, a number of people I otherwise respect really hate it and that is a necessary – though not sufficient – requirement for a 10 from me!

  4. 4
    Tom on 16 Mar 2007 #

    Another good thing about it – it’s much shorter than you think it is: not many records manage to be so epic with such economy.

  5. 5
    Kat on 16 Mar 2007 #

    This is one of my favourite songs ever, but I agree with the Lex. Overblown banshee ballads need a certain amount of ridiculousness to carry them off, which Mariah provides and Nilsson does not (I can’t recall the Badfinger version). It’s like eating grilled bacon when you’ve been frying it all your life.

  6. 6
    Marcello Carlin on 16 Mar 2007 #

    The Badfinger original is a bit messy and overlong, as if they haven’t quite worked out what to do with the song, whereas Nilsson sets to the task, perhaps with a pinch of cold efficiency…but the impact is overwhelming, with a near-perfect balance between restraint and explosion, all the more unexpected because Nilsson was until then the kind of singer who rarely, if ever, raised his voice; his music (even the happy songs) was all about broken shadows.

    Jimmy Webb was recording an album of his own in the adjacent studio at the time and witnessed what he still considers to be the greatest vocal performance in all of pop or rock. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far but I’d be inclined to give this a 9 – especially with that police siren piano motif which always seems to signify death in pop (from “I Am The Walrus” to “Waiting For The Miracle”).

    The Mariah version is overblown bilge which doesn’t even qualify as camp – that key change at the end is totally unnecessary, as are her miaowing melismatics – but we can talk about that more when we reach the far-flung waters of 1994.

  7. 7
    Erithian on 16 Mar 2007 #

    I’m pleasantly surprised that people aren’t being more negative about this. Q magazine nominated Mariah Carey as one of the top ten worst singers of all time (controversial!) and if people hate Mariah it’s because of what she did to this song among others: vocal-gymnastic’ing all emotion out of it. And I had thought that people might apportion some of that to Nilsson, as if he could be blamed for starting the trend that led to aforementioned X Factor contestants doing grotesque Mariah impressions. I suppose when people trace a line from “You Really Got Me” to heavy rock, the Kinks get credit for it, but it would be harsh on Harry.

    Personally I was very fond of this one without it becoming one of my particular favourites. Ashamed to say I’ve never heard the Badfinger original though. Noel Edmonds in his pre-breakfast show days was forever playing Nilsson material like “The Point” – remember that?

    Number 2 Watch – “American Pie” stalled at 2 behind both this and “Son Of My Father”, and the New Seekers had their second No 2 with “Beg Steal or Borrow”.

  8. 8
    jeff w on 16 Mar 2007 #

    This is where I came in.

    Not in the sense that this was #1 on my birthday. In the sense that this is the record that marked the start of my 35-years-and-counting ongoing intense relationship with pop. (It would be another 9 months before that LP with Chicory Tip, T.Rex et al on it would come into my possession.)

    In short, this is the first pop record that I had a strong emotional response to.

    I’m six, very nearly seven, years of age. Unusually, I’m alone in the house. Parents were briefly absent – perhaps my Dad was on one of his business trips, and Mum had briefly popped out to collect my sister from brownies. I’m watching Top Of The Pops and this song closes the show. Nilsson’s not in the studio; the Beeb are showing a promo film made to accompany the song. As I remember it, there’s some bloke – that may or may not be Harry – mooching by a lake, alone. It’s all shot in soft focus like a Cadbury’s flake ad. By the song’s end I’m trembling and crying, and don’t want to be on my own anymore.

    Hitherto, pop had been an amusing diversion at best. After “Without You”, however, and perhaps subconsciously at first, I sought it out. Whatever buttons this song and the performance were intended to press, they certainly pressed them in my case. And I think this was 99% down to the music – even then, I never paid much attention to lyrics (although the basic concept of Nilsson not wanting to be without somebody must have permeated to some extent that evening).

    I’ve never owned a copy of this record. I’ve come across it regularly since ’72 of course, on the radio or on TV. I absorbed it more thoroughly aged 15 or 16 when I found it on a cassette compilation of lurve songs my sister bought. By then, I could analyse it more clinically – could appreciate the vocal performance and the arrangement, and could see why it works where other ballads leave me cold. But that initial impact is always going to shape my future relationship to the record.

    Obviously a 10.

  9. 9
    Marcello Carlin on 16 Mar 2007 #

    Noel played some strange stuff in his early radio days; IIRC he was especially keen on Staveley Makepeace, and more about them anon…

  10. 10
    Erithian on 16 Mar 2007 #

    Spoiler!! ; )

  11. 11
    Lena on 16 Mar 2007 #

    This is a great song, no doubt, but it is searingly painful to listen to at the end – he sounds as if something within him is dying and you, as listener, can only listen, not help…sometimes I can’t listen to it, the odd time I do hear it on the radio, because it is so intense…

  12. 12
    Doctor Casino on 16 Mar 2007 #

    9 at least. But I feel that way about Nilsson from this period generally. I haven’t heard Mariah’s version and I really can’t imagine anybody else doing this song somehow – Harry really does nail the perfect amount of sincerity, bombast, and pathetic drunk that this lyric/production needs to work.

  13. 13
    My name is Kenny on 16 Mar 2007 #

    Urgh, this song is awful. Get someone else to sing the chorus, Nilsson, your voice is ear-splitting.

    Then again, maybe I just hate this song because it was on one of my mom’s compilations, along with such unlistenable dreck as “Those Were the Days” and “Seasons in the Sun.”

  14. 14
    Daniel_Rf on 16 Mar 2007 #

    Great record.

  15. 15
    blount on 16 Mar 2007 #

    10 for me as well, perfect execution.

  16. 16
    intothefireuk on 16 Mar 2007 #

    One of my favourite ballads. Nilssons voice is perfect for this song. He doesn’t try to embellish the song with superfluous unneccesary vocal histrionics (hello Mariah). I read this as a sincere & honest recording with just the right amount of balls. A 9 or 10. Usually I always prefer the original version of any song as its normally always the sincerest version but Harry nailed this. An exception to the rule.

    Ms Scareys hideous cover sums up everything I dislike about the woman.

  17. 17
    Rosie on 17 Mar 2007 #

    On the whole I agree about original versions, but this should-have-been-a-ten-imho is one of the exceptions. As was another of my should-have-been-a-ten-imhos, Grapevine .

    It’s something to do with adding something strikingly different, and executing it perfectly, so that something that was originally latent in the song is brought to the fore.

    I can just about remember the Badfinger original, and also hearing this and realising that what I just described is exacly what happened.

  18. 18
    major clout on 17 Mar 2007 #

    10 for me as well, perfect execution. almost as good as 10 tacos

  19. 19
    wwolfe on 19 Mar 2007 #

    Badfinger’s original sounds like a demo. (It also is a good example of the dangers of imitating the Beatles: even if you’re a decent band, you won’t do the Beatles as well as the Beatles.) This re-make sounds like what a very talented producer, singer, and group of studio musicians can do with a demo. In addition to what others have noted – Harry’s emotional tact, Perry’s care with the sonic details – I’d tip my hat to drummer Jim Gordon. His descending drum fill leading into the climactic “Can’t live” – the one where Harry jumps up an octave – is perfect.

  20. 20
    Rosie on 20 Mar 2007 #

    Wasn’t Badfinger the result of McCartney attempting to clone himself?

  21. 21
    Marcello Carlin on 20 Mar 2007 #

    No. McCartney gave them “Come And Get It” (and if his own take on Anthology 3 is anything to go by, the entire backing track) to give their career a boost. Nothing else in their catalogue really sounds like that, though; if anything the likes of “No Matter What” suggest a British Big Star.

  22. 22
    o sobek! on 23 Mar 2007 #

    Marcello would The Beatles : Badfinger :: The Kinks : Big Star (and maybe The Stones : NY Dolls) be fair enough? I think the only Badfinger I know are “Come and Get It” and “Day After Day”, both of which are incredibly Beatles, albeit in pretty different ways.

  23. 23
    Waldo on 28 Mar 2007 #

    I can’t live with any of this…

  24. 24
    jimmymod on 29 Mar 2007 #

    At the very least an 8, possibly a 9 or 10 depending on how you felt abt. The Rules Of Attraction

  25. 25
    Mike Jones on 2 Apr 2007 #

    My experiences are similar to Jeff W’s – not quite the first record to make me cry (that was Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep – “Where’s your mama gone?” or possibly the spooky coda to Ernie) but, at the age of four, it soundtracked a terrifying dream in which our window cleaner kidnapped my mum and dad. Perhaps it was on the radio downstairs as my brother got ready for school.

    Well into adulthood, it had the power to reduce me to mulch (much to my wife’s amusement; we once had to leave a bar in Brussels where it was playing on the jukebox). For years, I kept it at arm’s length, even as I became a bit of a fan of Nilsson’s other work, not daring to buy the album from which it came. Then, a couple of years ago, I picked up Nilsson Schmilsson cheap in Fopp. I got through track 6 (and track 11 too) without blubbing which maybe says something about what happens when you isolate the song at the centre of a web of accumulated memories and experience it as a fresh audio event – the act of deliberately listening to a record being so different to encountering it by chance.

  26. 26
    Barry on 4 Apr 2007 #

    If I remember correctly, Heart did a pretty respectable job with “Without You” back in the late seventies – early eighties. I haven’t heard it for a while, but I remember thinking Ann (or was it Nancy) did it justice. The Mariah version makes me want to cringe. BB

  27. 27
    jules on 23 Jun 2007 #

    Wasn’t around when this came out, but from later radio play I remember that it towered above other ballads from the period. Don’t rate Badfinger as Beatles imitators — their songs were beautifully made, and this one proves it. Nilsson sent it into orbit; an 8 or 9 definitely.

  28. 28
    Jake on 2 Dec 2007 #

    You can hear and download Badfinger’s version and a few versions by Nilsson (including a piano demo) at For The Love Of Harry

  29. 29
    Danny on 17 Apr 2008 #

    Yeah… at For The Love of Harry they’ve got 4 Nilsson versions (including Italian and Spanish), Badfinger’s version and NO Mariah Carey. You can listen to the entire songs and/or download all. And don’t forget the bizarre story that goes along with the song. BOTH authors (Ham & Evans of Badfinger) committed suicide by hanging.

  30. 30
    Danny on 17 Apr 2008 #

    PS: Nilsson died of heart failure on January 15, 1994 – the same day Carey’s version was released in the US. Her version MAY have killed him.

  31. 31
    peak on 7 Jan 2009 #

    Also sung by Fulham FC supporters. At least it was about 10 years ago, when I accompanied one of them to an away game at Wigan in the old 4th division; a horrible january day, an exposed terrace, halfway through the second half with Fulham 1-0 down the sleet began to drive directly into our faces, and about 50 fans began singing (at about half the pace of the recording) ‘I can’t live…’. Eerie, to say the least.

  32. 32
    wichita lineman on 7 Jan 2009 #

    Aged 7, I thought the opening line was “I can’t forget this evening, and your face as you were reading” which kinda sums up the chill of slow seperation in a dying relationship (I still prefer “reading” to “leaving”). A little like the too-clever “you read your Emily Dickenson and I my Robert Frost” in Simon & Garfunkel’s Dangling Conversation. Obviously I didn’t think of THAT when I was 7…

    I heard that Nilsson had a fatal heart attack while in the dentists chair (maybe the dentist was playing a promo of Mariah’s version). Anyway, they left him in situ overnight planning to move his body in the morning. Unfortunately, Burbank was hit by an earthquake that night, and the chair, with Nilsson, was destined to be swallowed up by a crevice, never to be seen again.

    Quite possibly this is a story thought up by Harry in advance of his premature death, in the same way that Richard Burton planned to have “Gone for a Burton” written on his gravestone (I don’t think he got his wish). Burton and Nilsson, both enormous talents who frittered their talents away. Harry’s post Schmilsson output is so disappointing, just the odd pearl (1977’s minor hit All I Think About Is You is a hushed, ghostly counter to Without You but just as alarming and intense). Sandman is The Medusa Touch, Son Of Schmilsson is Villain. Terrible waste. Enough to put you off the booze.

    Re 31: The Ian Branfoot years – 92nd out of 92 for a while, in ’94/95 season I think. Saw a dire cup tie against Shrewsbury at Craven Cottage that year, but sadly missed the eerie Without You. Sounds beautiful.

  33. 33
    lonepilgrim on 7 Jan 2009 #

    Jeff @ #8 echoes my own relationship to this song – one of the first to engage/overwhelm my emotions – I still find it affecting to this day – 8 or 9 for me

  34. 34
    thevisitor on 7 Jan 2009 #

    Re 32: Son of Schmilsson is undoubtedly flawed, but when it clicks, it’s pretty phenomenal. On I’d Rather Be Dead (from Son Of Schmilsson) he enlisted the Stepney and Pinner pensioners’ choir to sing lines like “I’d rather be dead/Than wet my bed” – resulting in a chorus that was both euphoric and heartbreaking. Lottery Song has an awkward sweetness about it which, for some reason, reminds me of early Woody Allen movies. Remember (Christmas) and Spaceman are also as strong as almost anything on his previous few albums.

    Listening to the other (out-take) versions of Without You recorded by Nilsson, I suspect that what he nailed in the “proper” version was something he couldn’t have repeated, even if he wanted to. Given that he never played live, he didn’t need to. I think what also helped, getting into the rest of his back-catalogue, is the realisation that he never quite let rip in the same way with his other songs. More commonly, a playful underselling of his considerable talents was the Nilsson way.

  35. 35
    Mark G on 8 Jan 2009 #

    Amazed this got no mention:

    Apparently, Badfinger were also in the same studio building as Harry (And JWebb, message #6, it seems), he said “oh do you want to hear this version I did of your song?”

    I can only imagine the opengobs…

  36. 36
    peak on 9 Jan 2009 #

    re 32, it was beautiful, mainly because in context,and in tone, it transformed the meaning of the song – replacing the slip between acceptance and despair with a kind of collective affectionate shrug, making the song an answer to the question; why are we stood here in the freezing sleet, 200 miles from home, watching a terrible game of football? Because I can’t live (if living is without…insert team name here).

  37. 37
    Matthew on 17 Jan 2009 #

    Have to add my voice to the “should have been a 10” chorus – I’ve been a defender of the laid-on-thick, more sentimental end of the spectrum since 1952 but this has any heartstring-tugging power that any of its predecessors his while being quite possibly *actually really good* at the same time. As you say, the arrangement is thoroughly modern, you could do it just this way in 2008 and no one would accuse you of wheeling out an obvious period piece. Almost 40 years, which is to say two generations, on. When you think about it, that’s truly phenomenal.

  38. 38
    AndyPandy on 17 Jan 2009 #

    I think you could say the same about his ‘Everybody’s Talking’ too (from 1968 but a hit in 1969)which I think has a certain timelessness and impossible to place timewise that could have come from anytime in the past 40 years.
    I’ll never really know if I’d have liked ‘Without you’ more than I do (which isn’t much) as from when I was about 7 this record was on the radio seemingly every every other record for what seemed like years – it seemed to crop up what seemed like at least twice on every car journey/edition of Junior Choice/Family Favourites etc you name it – the words ‘ubiquitous’ and ‘heavy rotation’ don’t do it justice.

  39. 39
    Waldo on 24 Oct 2009 #

    “Without You” was written by a couple of Welshmen who committed suicide (in separate incidents) and was sung by a guy who pretty much drunk himself to death. If that isn’t cheerful enough, Pans People were obliged to provide a routine for the record, which the girls have since admitted was one of their less sure-footed performances for the sole reason that it was entirely inappropriate, its chart position notwithstanding. They were much better tackling “The Resurrection Shuffle”, an absoluely belter of a record, which we should have been celebrating in this project.

    But cards on the table, I thought “Without You” was one of the best number ones of the year, even though it is certainly a “downer”. I used to imagine poor old Harry standing on the old wooden chair in a damp empty bedsit, washing piling up in the sink, which naturally sports a dripping tap, mournfully connecting a skipping rope up to the light fitting…well, you get the idea. The record also has the benefit of not over-egging. Harry simply reprises the first part of the opening verse and then goes sobbing into the chorus and then…and then kicks the chair away. He can’t live. That will learn the bitch!

    Just a word about “Coconut”, the bizarre follow up, also from “Schmilsson”. What a contrast that was. It was not a big hit and enabled me to wander around telling people to “put the lime in the cooking and see me in the morning” knowing that they wouldn’t have a clue about what I was referring to. Of course clever little Waldo did himself no good in this respect and I was (ahem!) referred. “Doctor! DOCCCC-TORR!!!!”

    Happy Days!

  40. 40
    inakamono on 10 Nov 2009 #

    @ 39 Strictly, one Welshman and one Liverpudlian, I think…

    Badfinger seem to be one of those bands that subsisted mainly on litigation and never did much of note commercially. Their original of this song tries to combine the sounds of the Beatles and Procul Harum, achieving little of either. Nilsson at least chopped all the excess dross away and succeeded in locating the song’s soul.

    At the time, aged 12, I could see the song’s quality — but it wasn’t TRex or Slade, and it got boring pretty quickly. But looking back now, on the cusp of hitting 50, I wonder if anyone in all those years has expressed this emotion better?

    Sad that a great songwriter gets remembered for a cover version…

  41. 41
    thefatgit on 24 Feb 2010 #

    Calm as a millpond opening verse, bridge into building chorus, building second verse, dramatic drum solo, all hell breaks loose in the next chorus, climactic payoff…we’re in Power Ballad territory here. Funny how I never twigged it before as I felt it was a purely ’80s onwards thing, but “Baker Street” and “All By Myself” fit the mould as well. Jeez! I must be stating the obvious to some, but that thought never occurred to me before.

  42. 42
    Tom on 26 Sep 2012 #

    Yeah, I fucked this mark up. Oh well!

    The other hit cover version is coming, worry not. I just have a webinar for work to get out of the way first.

  43. 43
    Mark G on 27 Sep 2012 #

    Um, “Without Me” ?

  44. 44
    swanstep on 27 Sep 2012 #

    Not sure about this record. I know I *greatly* prefer its close cousin Nilsson’s Living Without You (a Randy Newman cover from 1970) which really is a nailed on 10 in my books. Without You, by comparison, is perhaps just too on-the-nose for me to respond to it fairly; I cringe away from it or something; it overloads me. Still, WO is a beautifully arranged record and a hell of a performance by Nilsson so, probably an:

  45. 45
    Mark G on 27 Sep 2012 #

    There is also another close cousin, “Without Her”, as performed here by.. Kenny Everett! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wybv-O9vjKo

  46. 46
    swanstep on 27 Sep 2012 #

    I wonder whether Nilsson was influenced by Michel Legrand and Corinne Marchand’s Sans Toi in Varda’s (wonderful) Cleo from 5 to 7?

  47. 48
    lonepilgrim on 10 Oct 2012 #

    No, I can’t forget tomorrow…

  48. 49
    hectorthebat on 22 Jun 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    HarperCollins GEM (UK) – Single of the Year 1949-99 (1999)
    John Peel (UK) – Peelenium: Four Tracks from Each Year of the Last Century (1999)
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 101
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (2000) 24
    Paul Roland (UK) – CD Guide to Pop & Rock, 100 Essential Singles (2001)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Grammy Awards (USA) – Record of the Year Nominee

  49. 50
    Rory on 16 Oct 2014 #

    I just read this devastating account of Badfinger’s later years. A fate worse than chart-death.

  50. 51
    Red Seeker on 7 Dec 2014 #

    I feel this is one of the most under rated songs ever. Always seemed to get bad reviews – and I didn’t know why. Terrific vocal from Harry, love the one key piano intro part and great Richard Perry production. Emotional stuff (and don’t get me started on Mariah’s version!)

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