BADFINGER and HARRY NILSSON: Without them, no Without You

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BADFINGER and HARRY NILSSON: Without them, no Without You

Behind most hit songs -- perhaps even behind many songs -- there can be an interesting story. As songwriters tell us in the Famous Elsewhere Songwriting Questionnaire, very few songs dropped fully formed into an artist's lap.

The story behind Harry Nilsson winning a Grammy in 1973 for Without You is interesting, but also comes with a patina of sadness.

Badfinger were a British pop band signed to the Beatles' label Apple. Theirs is a tragic story of bad management, inevitable comparisons to the Beatles (McCartney gifted them a song he'd written, George Harrison produced them), two suicides by band members and some great songs.

One of their best songs was Without You which appeared on their '70 album No Dice.

It didn't drop into the world fully formed however. Here's the home demo by Pete Ham which he called If It's Love; two verses and . . . a chorus? 

Badfinger demo

without"This was the first incarnation of Without You featuring Pete's incomplete chorus and slightly different verse lyrics. Pete knew the song was special but whereas he normally wouldn't toil over a composition, he wasn't about to give up on this promising tune. Finally one of those strange quirks of fate hit when he realised Tom [Evans]' song I Can't Live had the perfect chorus.

" 'My song was okay,' said Tom, 'The verse was a bit like the [Beatles'] Help but Pete fell in love with the chorus'."

-- from Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger by Dan Matovia

Here are the two separate parts put together. Here's the demo

Badfinger studio demo

Then this, their finished studio version . . . 

Badfinger studio version

But the story doesn't end there because . . .

Enter Harry Nilsson 

The American singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson heard their song at a party in LA and heard potential in it.

Here's his demo.

Nilsson demo
 

nilssonWhile the band were recording in Trident Studio in London, Nilsson was down the hall in another studio recording his version of their song. He invited Badfinger down to hear it and . . .

"Pete later recalled, 'As soon as we heard it, we knew that was the way we wanted to do it but never had the nerve.' Tom added, 'We were totally paranoid of doing it that way. Nilsson's version really showed what you can do with a song, production-wise, and with a good singer. It blew me away'."

Harry Nilsson: "I tried it in one key and nearly got hemorrhoids singing it. So we changed that and decided that the keyboard part was too busy, too complex.

"So we replaced Rick Wakeman with Gary Wright and he began, just like you hear on the record, very simple. It was just right!" 

It became one of Nilsson's biggest and most identifiable hits. It won him a Grammy in '73 for Best Vocal Performance.

And it sounded like this . . . 

Nilsson studio version
 

The downside for him as a songwriter was everyone thought he wrote it. Just as they thought he'd written Everybody's Talkin' which he sang and was the theme to the film MIdnight Cowboy.

The song has been much covered, notably by Mariah Carey and, unfortunately, this woman in a Bulgarian Idol contest.


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MickJ - Nov 3, 2014

Great article Graham on a great song. Another couple of similar songs where two different songs were fused together are A Day In The Life by the Beatles and The Chain by Fleetwood Mac. Both great songs as well. Any other come to mind?

Rosco - Nov 3, 2014

Excellent!
Thank you for your scholarly exposition. I would love to see more of this sort of stuff.
What an ironic contrast to Nilsson's other landmark rendition, Everybody's Talkin', composed by Fred Neil in five minutes flat while sitting on the crapper and in order to shut his manager up and let him go home... after recording it in one take of course. Two verses, chorus, repeat; I'm outa here.

mike rudge - Nov 3, 2014

Interestingly I watched a good documentary on you tube the other night that told the bad luck story that is badfinger http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eUJ03rmrDs. Sad that such a good band was so struck with ill luck that it drove Peter Ham to the end he chose

MickJ - Nov 3, 2014

I should also say that the audio included in this article is brilliant and really demonstrates the evolution of this great song.

Graham.Hooper - Nov 11, 2014

I Loved Harry Nilssons Version of Without You as well as Everybody's Talkin (Midnight Cowboy) but he also had the Children/adult story album The Point .... and the Quirky "Lime in the Coconut". Badfinger had some Great pop hits No Matter What ,Day after Day, etc sad about the two Suicides that ripped the band apart ...but we have the songs forever.

Harry Parker - Jan 10, 2019

The back story to Without You is so sad. Pete Ham and Tom Evans took their own lives and the widely held belief, at the time, that Nilsson wrote the song no doubt contributed to that. Badfinger were also cheated by their manager Stan Polly. To this day, people still assume Nilsson wrote Without You. I wrote this 'song about the song' a while back
https://youtu.be/y7mP61HiC68

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