American Top 40 PastBlast, 11/11/72: Nilsson, “Spaceman”

A good while back I mentioned in passing that one of my good friends from high school introduced me to Harry Nilsson’s 1972 album Son of Schmilsson. He’d learned about it when we were seventh-graders, as a member of the golf team–one of the seniors played the cassette (or would it have been an 8-track?) in his car on the way to practice and matches. It would be the summer of 1979 before my friend shared his find with me. The main attraction was the utter naughtiness of some of its lyrics, chiefly Nilsson telling us how hard he sang to impress a female studio visitor in “Take 54” and giving the finger over and over to his soon-to-be-ex-wife in “You’re Breakin’ My Heart.” I mean, they’re tuneful pieces with fine studio playing, but that was plainly secondary to the opportunity to giggle over what Harry was getting away with singing. (I clearly wasn’t all that mature at 15 and 16.)

Forty years on, I hear Nilsson beginning to spiral a little out of control. He is not in particularly good voice, devolving into semi-screaming too often. There are some interesting songs: I guess I was too young to recognize “Ambush” as anti-Vietnam War or “I’d Rather Be Dead” as pro-assisted suicide (watch the video) when I first heard them. On the other hand, there’s “Joy,” which Casey noted on the 8/19/72 show was released as a country single under the pseudonym Buck Earl. (That Nilsson thought this was a reasonable idea is additional evidence that his judgment was already in decline, never mind the fact I laughed hard over this song many a time.)

What feels somewhat odd is that I don’t have memories from the late 70s of hearing the song on Son of Schmilsson that actually made the Top 40: “Spaceman” is at its peak of #23 on this show. It’s another tune of its time, touching on the same theme of feeling alienation while circling above the earth in a tin can we hear in “Rocket Man” and “Space Oddity” (“Spaceman” made AT40 in between those two, though of course Bowie’s piece was over three years old by the time it hit).

I still have the LP–I must have picked it up sometime while in college. But that wasn’t the only vinyl copy of Son of Schmillson I ever bought; my friend reminded me when I saw him a little over a year ago that I had given one to him as a gift in January 1985, just before he moved away from KY to start on his career as an air traffic controller (a job from which he retired this past July; my-oh-my, how the years do fly).

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