Transcript 167–Without You

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.


Hey, Cuz! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, and today we’re getting a peek at life without you.


Hi there! I’m Claude Call, and I’m proud to be amongst you. Let’s do some British Invasion Trivia! The Troggs are probably best known for their song “Wild Thing,” which went to Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966. But in the UK. “Wild Thing” didn’t quite make it, only reaching Number Two. Meanwhile, their only Number One in the UK peaked at Number 26 here in the United States. Name that song.

Harry Nilsson was a great songwriter in his own right, so it’s kind of interesting to me that the two songs that he’s probably best known for, stupid jokes on social media notwithstanding, weren’t written by him.


“Without You” was written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans, and recorded by Badfinger for their second album, which was titled No Dice. Ham had written a song called “Is This Love?” that had a chorus he didn’t really like. Evans had the “I can’t live if living is without you” chorus but no verses to go with that, so they put the two songs together as one.  Now, in recent years it’s come to light that there are actually two Badfinger versions floating out there. The one you’re hearing now is the version that made it onto No Dice. But then in 2013 a demo version popped up as a bonus track on a reissue of the album. It’s more piano-heavy and might even be a little bit better version of the song…


Now, why they didn’t turn it into the power ballad that everyone else saw it for and for which Badfinger was perfectly suited to make, isn’t clear except for the fact that neither Pete Ham nor Tom Evans thought it would add up to much, so they didn’t put a ton of effort into it and slotted it to close out Side One of the album. The track did get some mixed reviews at the time, with one reviewer suggesting that it sounded a bit like a blueprint rather than a final version. But it’s gained in posterity since then. And before I walk away from No Dice here, I thought you’d find it interesting that these days, nobody really knows the identity of the model on the album’s cover, other than that her name might be Kathy.

OK, so let’s come back to Harry Nilsson. Now, by 1970 Nilsson had released six albums, and a couple of them did okay, but he refused to tour to support those albums, so they mostly languished. Alyn Shipton, who wrote a biography of the singer in 2013 called Nilsson: Life of a Singer-Songwriter, suggests that he wouldn’t tour because a bad experience at a gig early in his career contributed to his having a bad case of stage fright. However, he did have a small but devoted following, and a lot of respect from other musicians and songwriters, especially in the Los Angeles area. In 1969 his song “Everybody’s Talkin’”—the other big song of his that he didn’t write—gained new popularity after it was used in the film Midnight Cowboy and earned a Grammy Award, so it was re-released, peaking at Number Six this time around when it hadn’t even cracked the Hot 100 the previous year. Then “Me and My Arrow” broke into the Top 40 when the short film The Point appeared on ABC-TV simultaneously with the release of Nilsson’s soundtrack for it. And, his song “One” had been a hit for Three Dog Night, so RCA had a few good reasons for keeping him around, even if he wasn’t exactly tearing up the pea patch, as James Thurber would say.

The story goes that Nilsson was at a party in Laurel Canyon when he heard Badfinger’s song. And as so many people did in those days when they heard a Badfinger song, he mistook it for a Beatles song, largely because Badfinger was on Apple Records, was being mentored by Paul McCartney and therefore used a lot of the same production crew, including Geoff Emerick and Mal Evans. The story goes that he spent a couple of weeks looking for the Beatles album that had this song, before he learned that it was Badfinger. Why he didn’t ask his party host in the first place, I don’t know. At any rate, because it was on Apple Records, Nilsson put together a demo and submitted it to Apple’s former publicist Derek Taylor, who had a prior relationship with Nilsson, and who had just landed a position at Warner Brothers. Taylor, later went on to co-produce his album A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, said that the demo was good enough to suggest that it could be a hit, but it needed a little more. Here’s a little bit of that demo, and I’ve cut a verse out so you can hear the opening, the first verse and his chorus…


As you can hear, the demo was kind of rough and kind of moody, and that continued through to the first few takes of the song, with other instruments added. Now, Richard Perry, who produced the album, was initially promised that he’d have creative control over the album, but Nilsson was frequently butting heads with him about the production on “Without You.” In the documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?, which is available for free on YouTube, Perry said (quote): “About halfway through the album we had a difference of opinion that didn’t settle itself easily, so like two proper gentlemen, we decided to have a meeting … to discuss what we were going to do. I said, ‘Harry, you do remember when you came to me and asked me to produce you, my only condition was that I would have creative control.’ He looks me dead in the face and says, ‘Well, I lied.’ (unquote). It was at that point, Perry says, that they  realized they were late for the vocal session at the studio, so they hopped into a taxi and what you hear is the result of that session.


And even then, while they were working on it, Nilsson kept saying to the musicians, “This song’s awful.” Those musicians, incidentally, include Gary Wright on the piano, Klaus Voorman on the bass, and Jim Keltner on the drums. The strings and horns were arranged by Paul Buckmaster.

Now, one of the things they did agree on was that they needed a little more power in the top notes, so when it came to those big notes, Nilsson really went for it, as you can hear in the finished version. Unfortunately, according to Derek Taylor, hitting those high notes actually gave Nilsson hemorrhoids, and I don’t know about you, but I didn’t even know that’s something that could happen. At any rate, Taylor said that whenever he hears that top note, he thinks of hemorrhoids, which he concedes could spoil it for him, but it doesn’t.

The single was released on October 11, 1971 and began to appear on radio station charts in the US by early December. By December 18 it made its debut on the Billboard Hot 100, and after ten weeks, on February 19, 1972, it began a four-week run at the top of the chart. It was also a Number One in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the UK. It was Number Three in Italy and Top Twenty in Belgium, the Netherlands and West Germany. In fact, in Australia it was the Number Two song for the entire year of 1972.

And for all that, Harry Nilsson performed the song exactly once in concert. It was in September of 1992, over 20 years after it topped the charts, and Ringo Starr was on tour with his All-Starr Band in Las Vegas. During the sound check, Nilsson came by unannounced to visit his old friend, whom he hadn’t seen in some time. Not that they were purposely avoiding each other, but by then Ringo was living the AA life and getting himself cleaned up, and hanging out with the folks you used to get wrecked with is considered a bit of a faux pas. But oddly enough, Ringo actually talked him into performing “Without You” that night. There’s bootleg audio that suggests the audience wasn’t especially  sophisticated, because they didn’t seem to recognize him at first, but while Nilsson’s voice had gotten a bit rough from substance abuse, it’s still got a certain charm to it. And Todd Rundgren, who was part of Ringo’s band at the time, helped cover the harmonies in the high parts…


Nilsson did perform the song onstage one other time in the early 90s, but it was a lip-sync performance, so while the All-Starr Band may have recognized it as a rare event, they probably didn’t realize that it was one-time-only rare. It was only a few months after that Vegas concert that Nilsson suffered a heart attack related to a congenital condition he suffered from, eventually dying of heart failure in January of 1994.

The song has been covered a few times, of course. The first nobable cover was by Country artist TG Sheppard in 1983, included as a single on his Greatest Hits album. Good thing for him, then, that it did manage to reach the Country chart as a single, and the album made it to Number 5 on the Country Albums chart. I’m going to play a clip, and please excuse the surface noise on this vinyl recording…


In 1991 the band Air Supply did their version of the song, including it on their album The Earth Is…, where it reached Number 48 on the Adult Contemporary chart…


I have to admit, I kind of forgot about that one until I listened back for this podcast.

But the big cover, of course, was in 1994. Mariah Carey was familiar with the song, having heard it as a young girl, but she said in a Rolling Stone article that she heard it again in a restaurant and knew she could turn it into a huge hit if she recorded it. Carey’s version was released as the third single from her album Music Box only a week after Nilsson died, and also turned up on a few of her compilation albums. Carey’s version made it to Number Three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and stayed there for six weeks, ending her streak of consecutive Number Ones at ten. However, it was a huge hit elsewhere in the world, reaching Number One in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Scotland, Sweden, and Switzerland, and was Top Five in Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Lithuania, Norway, and Panama. And I’ll say this as a personal note: this is the song where Carey seems to actually gain a little control over her voice; that is to say she’s a little more emotional than she is hitting the high notes just to hit the high notes. In fact, she’s singing in a slightly lower register than usual. And clearly, that paid off for her.

And let me offer up one more cover for you. In February 2008, a singer named Valentina Hasan appeared on the Bulgarian talent show Music Idol and performed “Without You” in English. Unfortunately her English pronunciation wasn’t very good, and the performance went globally viral as “Ken Lee,” based on Hasan’s broken English…



And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I talked about The Troggs, and the fact that they had exactly one Number One hit in the United States, and one in the UK, but they were different songs. In the US it was “Wild Thing,” so what was it in the UK?


Well, it does pop up on oldies stations now and again so it isn’t completely forgotten, but “A Girl Like You” made it to the top of the charts in the UK but it didn’t even crack the Top 20 here in America, peaking at Number 26 on the Billboard Hot 100. And for what it’s worth, both songs charted in the summer of 1966, having been released only a few weeks apart.


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