Mar 07

NILSSON – “Without You”

FT + Popular53 comments • 6,635 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 2 All
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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…

  6. 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).

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

  10. 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…

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 43
    Mark G on 27 Sep 2012 #

    Um, “Without Me” ?

  14. 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:

  15. 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

  16. 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?

  17. 48
    lonepilgrim on 10 Oct 2012 #

    No, I can’t forget tomorrow…

  18. 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

  19. 50
    Rory on 16 Oct 2014 #

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

  20. 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!)

  21. 52
    jack burton on 24 May 2021 #

    I generally hate every cover version of this song, as the singers quite cheerfully accept suicide as their best option. The thought of being saddened about the decision never seems to enter their mind as they are vocalizing the words. The best version is Nilsson’s demo version that is floating around the ‘net. Much more raw and agonizing than what was put to wax. Listening to that one gives you the picture that he really stepped off from that chair, or out of the 10th story window.

  22. 53
    Gareth Parker on 30 May 2021 #

    Great performance of a top song to my ears. I’ll go with 8/10.

1 2 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)

If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page