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: