311. ‘Without You’, by Nilsson

If anyone’s feeling a little fragile, a little unlucky in love, then they may want to skip this next #1. Things are about to get emotional


Without You, by Nilsson (his 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 5th March – 9th April 1972

In our previous post – ‘Son of My Father’ – we had the first uber-electronic chart-topper. This time out, another new genre gets its turn to debut – the power ballad. Plus there’s the small matter of one of the best ever vocal performances on a #1 record.

It starts off with a piano. Just a piano, jabbing and stabbing like audible heartache. Well I can’t forget this evening, Your face as you were leaving, I guess that’s just the way the story goes… Harry Nilsson’s voice is slightly on edge, pitched slightly higher than you might expect. Strings are added in, as is a bass guitar for the second verse… No I can’t forget tomorrow, When I think of all my sorrow… We’re building steadily towards a chorus that everyone knows.

I can’t live, If living is without you… Can’t live, I can’t give anymore… It’s soft, gentle to start with, but not for long. He’s been holding it in, and now he just has to let her know what she should know. He tries again. Can’t live, If living is without you…! This time there’s a growl in his voice. Anger, along with the pain.

Power ballads are a much, much-maligned genre. And that’s because people automatically think of the late-eighties, early-nineties monstrosities from the likes Bryan Adams and Celine Dion (I do enjoy that type of power-ballad, in a completely ironic way, honest…) But when they’re done right, when they build subtly to a heart-wrenching climax, like this bad boy. Ooft. It gets you. The chorus comes around a second time, and Nilsson’s not hanging around anymore. A rush of drums, and then he slams into it: Can’t liiiiiivvvvvveeeeee….. His voice up an octave, sweat on his brow. This is the line that everyone thinks of, when they think of ‘Without You.’


Cliched as it may be: this is a song for belting out by yourself, an empty bottle (or two) of wine on the floor. And all this time I’ve been thinking that she left him high and dry, unannounced. But of course, there’s the When I had you there but then I let you go… line. He did something to drive her away. It only adds to the heartbreak. The song slowly fades, and you can imagine a camera panning out, leaving the singer alone on his sofa. Cut to black.

Actually, it’s striking that, in a song that’s all about the vocals, Nilsson stops singing thirty seconds before the end of the song. We’re used to bloated power ballads dragging on for at least five minutes, with multiple chorus repetitions and plenty of chest-beating. ‘Without You’ keeps it to a minimum, clocking in at just over three minutes. Short, sweet and effective.

There’s no point trying to place this in context. It’s a classic, one that would work in any era. But it’s also one of those songs that few people realise is a cover. The band Badfinger had written it and released it as an album track in 1970. Their version is slower, slightly less intense, but still really good. (The band sadly didn’t receive any royalties from the song, but that’s a story for a different post…) And, of course, the song will be exhumed, and returned to the top of the charts, as one of those aforementioned OTT early nineties power-ballads, by none other than Queen of the OTT early-nineties power-ballad: Mariah Carey. We’ll cover that one when the time comes but, just to give you a sneak preview of my write-up… It’s nowhere near as good.

Nilsson really was a bit of a one-hit wonder in the UK (OK, a two-hit wonder). ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’ made a modest #23, and that was pretty much that. Considering his body of work and the esteem with which he’s held, that seems pretty surprising. He passed away in January 1994, just as Mariah’s cover of ‘Without You’ was climbing the charts. We can only hope that the two were not related…

All 310 previous #1 singles, in one handy playlist:


20 thoughts on “311. ‘Without You’, by Nilsson

  1. This is a wonderful song. His voice soars through it. Funny he wrote most of his own songs but this one he re-adapted and did a great job.
    Badfinger’s is more like a bluesy raw song…I like it also.

    Nilsson’s voice is great in this.

    • Well I somehow guessed you might like the Badfinger version…!

      Both versions are really good. But this is an example of a cover going beyond the original, to a complete different level.

      • LOL…yea they have the saddest story in rock…and that is saying something.

        Even they were impressed by Nilsson’s version…he turned it into an iconic recording.

  2. I had no idea Badfinger created this. After a lifetime of Nilsson’s version, Badfinger’s sounds weird. I’d never heard that one…ever.

    Don’t even get me started on Celine & Mariah (making dry heaving sounds). Those two put out ONE song, a piece, that I liked and that was it. After that, I wanted to jab ice picks in my ears when they sang. Ditto Whitney, Christina & Beyonce and all the other melisma addicts (STOP YODLING…or yodeling for y’all…when Carol Burnett did it, it was funny). Ditto Michael Bolton. He is even worse. He sings like someone is standing on his foot.

    Stepping down from soapbox…

    This is a pretty song and his voice is stunning. It is a sad song, tho… The empty wine bottles on the floor…how apropos. LOL! Good visual…

    • So, you’re not a fan of Celine & Mariah, then…? Mariah I quite like as she seems a completely bizarre human being and quite fun… Celine released what I think is possibly the worst song of all time (I’m sure you can guess which one…) Neither have ever released a song as good as this one!

      • How’d you guess? 😆

        I would agree with the bizarre tag and apply it to the others as well. Music is music and, well, pop culture is pop culture. When you mix the two, results may vary. 🙄😳

        Wait. Let me guess…theme from Titanic?

        I totally agree with your last statement.

      • That’s the one… Awful song. I think including Christina and Beyonce in the list is a little harsh, as they can sing in different styles… Celine Dion has one setting, and it’s never pleasant!

      • They have forayed into other music styles…yes. They had to:

        Anyway…all of the melisma maidens wore out the public and their voices as well. Squeaky dog-whistle Mariah can’t hit her high notes, anymore and, half the time can’t remember the words, either. Celine’s chest thumping 🤔🤨🙄 …she’s weird, anyway. Ever seen her creepy children’s line of clothing?

        Gah. Give me Pat Benatar or Martina McBride anyday. They were powerhouses, too…without the yodling, though Benatar’s voice has dropped, too. Menopause is a big bitch.

      • The big problem is that Christina can sing and just about gets away with the vocal theatrics… But then you had everyone on TV talent shows trying to copy it, which wasn’t pleasant… Not that I watch many of them, but still… Anyway, I think we should bring back belting, like Shirley Bassey and Ethel Merman. The good old days 😁

  3. Epic song. Interpretation is everything. I have the badfinger album on vinyl, I like the original but it took Nilsson to see the possibilities, something he had a knack for, a massively under-rated artist, he was never not-good. Subtle, powerful, emotional, everything that Mariah Carey isn’t. Nilsson uses his voice to convey emotion, the 90’s divas were just basically doing the male equivalent of “mine’s bigger than yours”, only it’s vocal range they were showing off. Girls, it’s not how big it is, it’s what you do with it….! 🙂

  4. Don’t really like it that much. Find it very melodramatic for my taste in Nilsson’s performance. In America, Nilsson had another Top 10 hit in 1972 with the stupid but fun singalong Coconut and he also hung out a lot with John Lennon during his Lost Weekend era.

    • Yes, and do I love Lennon’s Rock and Roll album from that era… Well, your take and my take just goes to show how subjective music critiquing is. It is melodramatic, all power ballads are, but I think Nilsson commits, and sells the melodrama completely. Unlike certain other singers that I may have name checked in the post…

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  9. 5/5

    This song is carried extremely heavily by the vocal performance. But what a performance. Badfinger’s one is good, and Mariah’s one is decent, but this is the champ.

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