Monday, April 30, 2018

That's Just the Way the Story Goes

 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century, Part II:
"Without You" (Pete Ham and Tom Evans, 1970)

"Without You" was written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans, who were the two primary songwriters in Badfinger, the Beatle-discovered pop band that recorded for Apple Records. Ham wrote the verse after leaving his girlfriend at home one evening to go work on a recording: "Well I can't forget tomorrow, when I think of all my sorrow, I had you there but then I let you go, and now it's only fair that I should let you know...." Evans wrote the chorus after leaving his German girlfriend in Berlin, then deciding he couldn't go on without her: "I can't live, if living is without you, I can't live, I can't give any more."

"Without You" made its debut on the second Badfinger album, No Dice, released in November 1970. The lead single from that record was "No Matter What," while "Without You" was considered just a strong album track. It was never released as a single, either in the U.S. or in Badfinger's native U.K.

At that point, the chorus of the song had a clipped feel to it:
I can't live [long pause]
If living is without you
I can't live [long pause]
I can't give any more

Shortly after the release of No Dice, Harry Nilsson happened to hear the song - not the Badfinger rednition, but someone else covering it. "I was at a friend's house in Laurel Canyon," he said many years later. "It was one of those Sixties sit-on-the-floor parties. [Ed. note: It was the Seventies, but whatever.] And I heard that song. I thought it was an obscure Beatles track.... it sounded Lennon-ish. I asked all my friends. But then I found it wasn't the Beatles, it was Badfinger."

Nilsson recorded the song some time in the first half of 1971, and on October 11, 1971, "Without You" became the lead single off Nilsson Schmilsson, which followed in November.  "You have to have hits, I don't care who you are," Nilsson said. "In the end, 'Without You' gave us that boost we needed. It was perfect." Nilsson's version of "Without You" reached Number One on the Billboard charts on February 13, 1972, and stayed there for four weeks. 

Of course, Nilsson changed the chorus of the song, such that it now went:
I can't li-i-i-ii-ii-i-ve
If living is without you

I can't li-i-i-ii-i-ve
I can't give anymore

My question is, did Nilsson decide to elongate those vowels, or was that the way he heard that anonymous singer do it in Laurel Canyon? I guess we'll never know, because Nilsson's dead now. Either way, that vocal choice changed the song from a nice Beatlesque tune to a classic. 

It's hard to imagine Mariah Carey wanting to cover the song without those blasts of melismatic goodness, but she recorded the Nilsson-ified version for her third album, Music Box, released in August of 1993. Harry Nilsson died on January 15, 1994, and nine days later, "Without You" became the third single off Mariah's latest album. Was that a coincidence? I find it hard to believe they would be able to gin up the release of a single in nine days, or that Columbia would make that kind of financial decision based on nostalgia for a largely forgotten singer, but who knows.

At any rate, "Without You" went to Number Three on the Billboard charts. That was actually a mildly disappointing performance for a Carey single; among her first ten single releases, she had already had eight Number Ones, and Number Two, and a Number Five hit. But it was huge in Europe, going to Number One in the U.K., Austria, Belgium and Iceland. 

And it's never gone away since then. There have been a reported 180 cover versions of "Without You" released, and at least that many people have done the song on the various talent shows that mob the airwaves. Pete Ham and Tom Evans wouldn't know about any of that; they each hanged themselves, Ham in 1975 and Evans in 1983.

1 comment:

  1. >> Pete Ham and Tom Evans wouldn't know about any of that; they each hanged themselves, Ham in 1975 and Evans in 1983.

    Wow. Sad ending but great story.