In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
There’s a certain breed of pop-culture obsessive that regards Harry Nilsson as some sort of lost patron saint of a wild ’70s era that we will never recover. Nilsson was a fascinating creature: a desperately gifted weirdo who tripped his way through a singular moment in history, intersecting with stardom and sometimes finding and losing it himself. Nilsson’s time in the spotlight was brief, but he did things with it.
Nilsson probably invented the mash-up, though he didn’t necessarily know it at the time. He probably invented the remix album, too, though he didn’t necessarily know that, either. He sang the words “fuck you” on a major-label album — the follow-up to a huge hit, even — when that sort of thing was strictly verboten. He maintained a day job well into his music career, and he maintained a music career even though he generally refused to play live. During John Lennon’s 18-month Lost Weekend — the time when Lennon drugged and drank and fucked himself into a continuous stupor — Nilsson was Lennon’s drugging/drinking/fucking buddy. (They didn’t actually fuck each other, as far as we know, but they did pick up girls together.) And though Nilsson is remembered as one of the great songwriters of his moment, he had his greatest pop success with somebody else’s song.
Here is where we get into the bottomlessly sad saga of the Welsh band Badfinger. Badfinger got together a few years before the Beatles had their pop breakthrough, but they rose to fame in the late ’60s, when Paul McCartney took them under his wing and made them the first band signed to the Beatles’ Apple label. Badfinger’s lushly hooky sound — the kind of thing that people probably used to test their home-stereo systems — was Beatlesque enough to make them a kind of Junior Beatles during the time when the Beatles were breaking up. And for a while, Badfinger had some real success. (Their highest-charting single is 1971’s “Day After Day,” which peaked at #4. It’s an 8.) But they also signed some disastrous deals, and once that first wave of success dried up, their story turned tragic in a hurry.
Badfinger co-leaders Pete Ham and Tom Evans wrote “Without You” sometime around 1970. Both of them were having trouble with their girlfriends, and both of them were trying to write songs about the experience. Ham had a song called “If It’s Love,” but he didn’t have much of a chorus. Evans had a chorus but no real song to attach it to. They put their songs together and included the track, “Without You,” on their 1970 album No Dice. Badfinger’s version of the song is strummy and direct, but it also sounds like a blueprint, not a final version. They could’ve turned it into a showstopping ballad, but they didn’t. They never even released it as a single.
Nilsson, a Brooklyn native, had grown up in poverty, with an absent father. As a teenager in Los Angeles, he dropped out of high school and found himself a job as a computer programmer at a bank. He was apparently great at the job, since the bank didn’t fire him when they learned he’d lied about finishing high school. He also started playing around with music. Nilsson had a great voice, huge and creamy, so he made some money by singing on demos for other songwriters. Then he started writing his own songs.
Nilsson co-wrote a few with Phil Spector, and he sold one to the Monkees. He released his first album in 1965, and his early records didn’t sell, though bigger artists did pretty well by covering his songs. (Three Dog Night took his song “One” to #5 in 1969; that’s an 8.) Lennon and McCartney both fell in love with Nilsson’s 1967 version of “You Can’t Do That,” which worked in a bunch of references to other Beatles songs. (That’s the “inventing mash-ups” thing.) Nilsson finally scored a hit of his own, with a song he didn’t write, when he covered Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” for the soundtrack of the 1969 movie Midnight Cowboy. (Nilsson’s version of that song peaked at #6; it’s a 6.) And then he had even more success when he got ahold of Badfinger’s “Without You.”
Nilsson was working on Nilsson Schmilsson, the album that would turn out to be his one unqualified pop success, with Richard Perry, who was just then emerging as a big-deal pop producer. Perry counterbalanced Nilsson’s messy-weirdo side and put all the focus squarely on Nilsson’s titanic voice. One night at a party, Nilsson heard “Without You” and mistook it for a Beatles song. He wanted his version of the song to be a stark, heavy solo-piano thing, but Perry convinced him to turn it into a grand, crashing, theatrical monster-ballad, complete with orchestra.
When Nilsson was recording his version, Badfinger happened to be recording at another studio in the same building. Nilsson invited them to hear his version, and they later said that they immediately recognized that they should’ve done the song the same way. Badfinger didn’t last much longer. In 1975, as all the members of the band were going broke, Pete Ham hung himself, writing in his suicide note that the band’s manager was a “soulless bastard.” Eight years later, Ham’s “Without You” co-writer Tom Evans also hung himself, immediately after arguing with his former bandmate Joey Molland about who should get what share of the “Without You” royalties.
That’s a whole lot of story for one song. But “Without You,” is, at least to my ears, not a whole lot of song. It is schmaltz. Badfinger’s version is vaguely embarrassed schmaltz. Nilsson’s version is going-for-it schmaltz, which is always better. But it’s still a big and silly and down-the-middle breakup ballad. Keith Emerson had played piano on early versions of the song, but his keyboards were too complicated, so Nilsson and Perry replaced him with prom-theme magician Gary Wright, who played a simple and stately piano line. Wright’s piano is exactly as drippy as the song needs it to be. (As a solo artist, Wright never got to #1, but he had two singles that peaked at #2, both in 1976. “Dream Weaver” is an 8, and “Love Is Alive” is a 7.)
The version of “Without You” that we hear mostly works as a showcase for Nilsson’s voice. It’s not the most interesting showcase for that voice, but that voice is still something special. When the song reaches the final chorus and Nilsson goes all the way big, it’s a textbook power-ballad moment. Maybe it’s the textbook power-ballad moment.
As someone who grew up with early-’90s power ballads, I have a hard time hearing “Without You” as anything other than an early-’90s power ballad. Maybe that’s because the entire institution of the early-’90s power ballad sprang directly from “Without You.” Maybe it’s the sort of thing where we can no longer watch the original Halloween without the context of all the slasher movies that followed. But “Without You,” in all its simplistic grandeur, mostly sounds to me like Firehouse, or Steelheart, or Mr. Big, or Slaughter when Slaughter were feeling sensitive. That’s not a terrible thing, but it’s not enough to earn “Without You” classic status, either.
Nilsson would continue to fuck around with different sounds, even as he ravaged his own voice by drinking too much. His partying days turned dark; Mama Cass and Keith Moon both died in his London apartment. In 1980, after Lennon was murdered, Nilsson mostly left music behind and, instead, campaigned for gun control. And in 1993, as he was just starting to record again, Nilsson died of a heart attack. He was 52.
BONUS BEATS: Mariah Carey released her 1993 “Without You” cover as a single in January of 1994, nine days after Nilsson’s death. Her version of the track peaked at #3; it’s a 6. Here it is: