How Harry Nilsson Made the Beatles’ Catalog Into His Own Russian Doll, Creating Rock’s First Great Mashup



By Mitch Myers

While attention has doubled back onto the late singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson thanks to the integral use of his 1971 tune “Gotta Get Up” into the Netflix hit “Russian Doll,” his knack for getting inside your head and his music has captured the zeitgeist over a period of more than a half-century. In 1967, he created a sort of Russian doll of his own, embedding Beatles songs within a Beatles song.

Exquisitely arranged by virtue of Nilsson’s melodic and vocal brilliance, his 1967 recording of “You Can’t Do That” isn’t the straight cover song that the title suggests, but rather squeezes somewhere between 15 and 20 already-classic Beatles songs into a single, melodic consumable whole, while somehow clocking in at less than two and a half minutes. More than a medley and well beyond a megamix, this customized counterpoint homage must be considered the first great original mash-up.

He even captured the attentions of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and since then the Beatles always have figured prominently in the Nilsson story. The relationship continues: Nilsson’s eldest son Zak, who has recently been diagnosed with cancer, received well wishes and a message of strength from none other than Sir Paul McCartney.

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Google images: in drinking spree with Alice Cooper and Mike Dolenz

A gifted recording artist who first came to prominence in the latter 1960s and died in 1994, Nilsson had musical abilities that set him apart, including a mesmerizing singing voice with a wide expressive range and a brilliance for both harmony and composition. Combining those with a progressive knack for overdubbing his vocals in the studio, Nilsson came out blazing as a remarkable one-man band. Early on he worked with producer Phil Spector, saw his songs recorded by the Monkees and put out his first solo album on a small label. By 1967, he was poised for success, signing a $50,000 deal with RCA Records.

His RCA debut “Pandemonium Shadow Show” was auspicious, but what really put Nilsson on the map was an unexpected endorsement from the Beatles. That first album contained a mix of original songs and cover tunes including remakes of two Beatles tracks, the more straightforward “She’s Leaving Home” and the anything-but-linear “You Can’t Do That.” Beatles publicist and consummate tastemaker Derek Taylor said that he fell in love with the record while visiting America, and bought a box of “Pandemonium Shadow Show” LPs to distribute amongst industry hipsters, including his friends and employers, the Beatles.

Lennon and McCartney simply adored the album. When the Beatles held a press conference announcing the formation of their business entity Apple Corps, someone asked Lennon to name his favorite American artist and he replied, “Nilsson.” When McCartney was pressed to name his favorite American group, he also said, “Nilsson.” Lennon even called Harry after binge listening to “Pandemonium Shadow Show” for 36 hours.The next day, McCartney called him, too. It wasn’t long before Nilsson made a pilgrimage to London where he was welcomed into the Beatles’ inner circle.

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Google images: the infamous photo after being thrown out of the Troubadour for heckling the Smothers Brothers

Showcasing a splendid multi-tracked vocal performance on “She’s Leaving Home,” “Pandemonium Shadow Show” revealed Nilsson to be a concise master of musical form rivaling Messrs. Lennon and McCartney. Interestingly, his remake was recorded just ten days after the release of the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album that contained the original tune. As impressive as that may be, it’s his prescient rendition of “You Can’t Do That” that still stands out today.

As Nilsson once told it, his concept occurred in a flash of inspiration, “One time I was just toying with my guitar. I struck this chord and it seemed to lend itself to a million different songs. I noticed how many Beatles songs could be played on this one chord, so I run down to Wallach’s Music City on Sunset, at about midnight, just before it closed, bought the Beatles songbook, and finished the song that night.”

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Google images: John and Paul’s last photo together with Harry.

So then, how many Beatles songs can you count in your head while listening to Nilsson’s multilayered mash-up? Let us know in the comments section. We can’t get past 11 or 12 without losing track — some of them repeat, which gets confusing — and even diehard fans still argue online about which number in the high teens is the real figure.

Nilsson’s sonic milestone on “You Can’t Do That” wasn’t an isolated incident. His next RCA album, “Aerial Ballet,” included a version of the Fred Neil tune “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which became a Grammy-winning hit after being featured on the soundtrack of the landmark film “Midnight Cowboy.” After the success of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” there was renewed interest in Nilsson, so his first two RCA albums were revived together in odd fashion — selectively combined with Harry providing new studio tweaks, overdubs, adjustments and re-recording of some vocals — making the end product, “Aerial Pandemonium Ballet,” rock’s first actual remix album.

As time passed Nilsson’s life stayed linked to the Beatles, and he even bought a place near the London Apple office. It was at this home where Mama Cass Elliot was staying when she died of an overdose, and four years later, drummer Keith Moon of the Who died in the very same room. Ultimately, Nilsson sold off the house to the Who’s Pete Townshend.

Nilsson reached peak popularity in the 1970s with albums like “Nilsson Schmilsson” and his classic cartoon/storytelling-soundtrack “The Point.” He even made a record with Lennon as his producer in 1974, an uneven affair entitled “Pussy Cats.” Those were drunken times for the two men and they had some notorious escapades in Los Angeles, actually getting thrown out of the Troubadour nightclub for heckling the Smothers Brothers. But the pair stayed close, and after John Lennon was shot and killed, Harry Nilsson was never the same. He devoted time and energy to supporting the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and remained outspoken on the subject. Fittingly, his last-ever concert appearance was in 1992 when he joined Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band onstage at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

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Who says you can’t do that? Clearly not the Beatles themselves, whose mutual love affair with the singer-songwriter remains an integral part of the Harry Nilsson story.

“I got this letter from Paul McCartney the other day,” Zac Nilsson wrote in February.” He heard I had cancer and sent me this note. I was very touched that Harry’s friendship meant this much to Paul,” Zak said. He reprinted McCartney’s note, which wished Nilsson’s son the “very best of luck with your (chemo) treatment. My wife, Nancy, went through it years ago and stuck with it even though she hated it. She is now better and well, except for the fact she is married to me!!” And, he inevitably noted, “I was very privileged to know your Dad, whom I knew as a lovely guy and a great talent.”


The making of John Lennon’s “Imagine” album profiled on upcoming A&E “Biography” episode

What could be better than Give Me Some Truth, the original documentary about the making of the Imagine album? Well, maybe this one, which spans two hours. Any new footage will do. Please do interview musicians, critics, philosopher-peaceniks…

A new two-hour TV special titled John and Yoko: Above Us Only Sky, about the making of John Lennon‘s classic 1971 album, Imagine, and its title track, will premiere this Monday, March 11, at 9 p.m. ET/PT as an episode of the A&E series Biography.

The documentary features previously unseen footage from the archives of the late Beatles legend and his wife, Yoko Ono, as well as new interviews with Ono, Lennon’s son Julian, photographer David Bailey, and other people who were close to John and Yoko at that time.

The film explores how the couple worked together to combine their political with their musical and artistic endeavors. You can watch a preview clip of Above Us Only Sky on A&E’s YouTube channel featuring a number of Lennon associates sharing their reaction to first hearing John’s enduring song, “Imagine.”

John and Yoko: Above Us Only Sky was directed by Michael Epstein, whose credits also include the 2010 LennoNYC documentary, about Lennon’s fight against the U.S. government’s attempts to deport him while he was living in New York City during the 1970s.

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Documentary on George Harrison’s HandMade Films in the Works From AMC U.K.

This would be great. Every other Beatle dabbled with film making. It landed on George’s lap; well, sort of. I’d like to find out more about his career as an investor in films.


The story of groundbreaking British film studio HandMade Films, which was founded by former Beatle George Harrison and made such films as “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” will be told in “An Accidental Studio,” a feature documentary from AMC U.K. for its international networks.

The film will be the first original from AMC U.K. and bow on the British channel on May 4 and on AMC channels internationally later in the year. It has never-before-seen interviews with key players, and sets out to capture an extraordinary moment in film history through the eyes of the filmmakers and actors involved, as well as the man who started it all, music legend Harrison, who features in archive interview footage.

HandMade dominated the British movie scene with its ethos of making and releasing maverick films that everyone else had rejected, including “The Long Good Friday,” “Time Bandits,” and “Withnail and I.”

AMC Networks International and BT are co-producing with DCD Rights, Propellor Films, Bill & Ben Productions and Kim Leggatt. Leggatt, and Bill & Ben’s Ben Timlett and Bill Jones, are directing. DCD will sell the series outside of AMC’s territories, including the U.S.

“HandMade Films created some of Britain’s most iconic films and gave a global platform to artists who continue to have a strong impact on popular culture today,” said Harold Gronenthal, EVP of programming at AMC/SundanceTV Global.

“This new documentary is AMC U.K.’s first original production, and we’re excited to partner with BT, Bill & Ben Productions, Propellor Films and DCD Rights to showcase the important legacy of HandMade Films with AMC’s audiences internationally.”




Early Edition

Finally, got to download the four seasons of Early Edition shown on TV in the latter half of the 1990s.

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Wiki: Early Edition is an American television drama series that aired on CBS from September 28, 1996 to May 27, 2000. Set in the city of Chicago, Illinois, it follows the adventures of a man who mysteriously receives each Chicago Sun-Times newspaper the day before it is actually published, and who uses this knowledge to prevent terrible events every day. Created by Ian Abrams, Patrick Q. Page, and Vik Rubenfeld, the series starred actor Kyle Chandler as Gary Hobson, and featured many real Chicago locations over the course of the series’ run.



Beatles ‘White Album’ Certified 24x Platinum

Wow, this is big. The White Album even outsold Abbey Road, Rubber Soul/Revolver and Sgt. Pepper.


In November 1968, millions of double LPs were shipped to record stores worldwide ahead of that year’s most anticipated music event: the release of The BEATLES (soon to be better known as The White Album). On November 9, 2018, The Beatles released a suite of lavishly presented White Album packages, via Apple Corps Ltd./Capitol/UMe.

More than 50 years after its 1968 release, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has announced that The BEATLES has now been certified 24x Platinum, earning the spot as the fourth top-certified album of all time.

From the February 21, 2019 announcement: The Beatles already hold top honors as the highest certified band in Gold and Platinum Award history, with 178 million certifications across a wide range of titles. Other albums by The Beatles that have surpassed Diamond certification include The Beatles 1967-1970 at 17x Platinum, The Beatles 1962-1966 at 15x Platinum, Abbey Road at 12x Platinum, 1 at 11x Platinum, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at 11x Platinum.

“Diamond status is already a rare feat,” said Mitch Glazier, Chairman and CEO, RIAA. “For an album to go 24x Platinum it has truly become part of America’s cultural fabric.”

The White Album now trails only Eagles – Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 (38 million), Michael Jackson’s Thriller (33 million) and Eagles Hotel California (26 million). It’s just ahead of other classic rock albums: Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Volume I and Volume II (23 million), Led Zeppelin IV (23 million), Pink Floyd’s The Wall (23 million) and AC/DC’s Back in Black (22 million).

The RIAA’s iconic Gold & Platinum brand is the industry’s premier award for recognizing artistic achievement in the music marketplace. Officially launched in 1958, the program expanded in 1999 to include a Diamond Award honoring 10 million or more sales of an album or record. The RIAA added on-demand music streams to its Digital Single Award in 2013 and its Album Award in 2016 to better reflect artists’ commercial success in an ever-evolving music marketplace.

Complete lists of all album, single, and video awards, as well as top tallies for artists and albums can be accessed here.


Paul McCartney remembers Beatles bandmate George Harrison on his birthday

Yesterday, I forgot all about George’s birthday. Been busy. First time in years.

The Beatles (PA)

By Julia HuntPress Association Entertainment Correspondent, February 25 2019 5:01 PM

Sir Paul McCartney has paid tribute to his late Beatles bandmate George Harrison on what would have been his 76th birthday.

Harrison died in 2001 at the age of 58 after developing cancer.

Marking his birthday on February 25, Sir Paul shared a black and white photograph on Twitter showing the pair performing together.

“Happy birthday forever George, we love ya!” said the 76-year-old singer-songwriter.

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A series of snaps of Harrison during his career were posted on The Beatles’ Twitter page to mark the occasion.

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Harrison’s son Dhani shared a photograph on Twitter of a man and a boy – presumably himself and his father – walking away from the camera.

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“Hand in hand we walk away. #HappyBirthdayGeorge,” he captioned the shot.