[This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #65]
“He can communicate complex human emotions with just a few perfectly chosen words.” That’s how record producer and music industry executive Lenny Waronker, Randy Newman’s friend since childhood, explains the brilliance of Newman’s songwriting. And there is no better demonstration of Newman’s evocative ability than his songs about romantic heartbreak – such as ‘Living Without You’, from his ’68 debut album.
Newman started writing songs in his teens, and by the mid-‘60s had penned multiple hits for acts in the UK and the US. When Waronker became an executive at Warner Bros. Records, he persuaded Newman to sign to the label as a recording artist, and, with Van Dyke Parks, co-produced Newman’s first album. Waronker has stated that Newman, influenced by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, was “intrigued” by the idea of building an album around orchestration. “The concept was to present Randy’s take on orchestra, with a minimal amount of backbeat, at a time when rock’n’roll was still evolving…it was incredibly ambitious.” Newman wrote all the arrangements on the album, and conducted the orchestra himself during the recording sessions.
‘Living Without You’ is less embellished than some of the album’s other tracks, but that minimalism perfectly suits its despondency. In the space of three minutes, Newman completely inhabits the character of the abandoned, awkward outsider bemoaning his loneliness; the mood of pathos is intensified by sparse, repetitive piano chords amidst almost mockingly cheerful instrumentation.
On its initial release, Randy Newman (also known as Randy Newman Creates Something New Under The Sun) received positive reviews, but sold less than 5,000 copies. A re-release the following year did not significantly increase those numbers, even with an advertising campaign that wryly promised “Once You Get Used To It, His Voice Is Really Something”. Reflecting on the album in ‘74, Newman mused, “It was difficult for people to follow, y’know…but I felt I also learnt more about how to accompany my voice during the course of making the record.”
‘Living Without You’ has been somewhat overshadowed by Newman’s more successful songs from the same period, such as ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’. But as documented on Live at the Boarding House ’72 – recorded during a promotional tour for Newman’s third album – ‘Living Without You’ was part of Newman’s concerts for several years after its release. And according to the handy-dandy song statistics at setlist.fm, even now Newman occasionally plays the song live.
The first cover of ‘Living Without You’ actually preceded the release of Newman’s own version of the song. Keith Shields was the lead singer of the Wildcats, a popular live act in Northumberland; the Wildcats lineup also included guitarist Hilton Valentine, who went on to play with the Animals. In ’67, after the Animals broke up, Hilton became Shields’ manager and produced three singles for him. While none of the singles charted, the cover of Donovan’s ‘Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)’ got some attention. But ‘Living Without You’ (listed as ‘So Hard Living Without You’) is also noteworthy, if only for being so radically different from Newman’s rendition. The Shields/Valentine interpretation sounds much more a product of its era, with swirling wah-wah guitar and powerful vocals.
Harry Nilsson included ‘Living Without You’ among the Newman songs he selected for his ’70 album Nilsson Sings Newman. Newman collaborated on the making of the album, and perhaps not surprisingly, Nilsson hews close to the original with a simple piano-based arrangement. Nilsson’s slightly echoing double-tracked voice, nestled in his signature choral vocal settings, manages to be both lush and stark at the same time. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band also covered the song in ’70; this countrified rendition seems constrained by its rigid tempo, and somehow doesn’t resonate quite as emotionally as other versions do.
Some Internet sources list another single of ‘Living Without You’ from ’70, allegedly by Canadian musician Bill Henderson (the Collectors, Chilliwack). Further investigation indicates, however, that this is a different song by the same name, performed by a different Bill Henderson (the jazz vocalist) and with a different sardonic take on romantic breakups – namely, listing all the things that one can do again now that the ex is gone.
But back to Randy Newman’s song. After well-documented evolutions through several previous formats, names, and lineups, Manfred Mann launched his Earth Band in ’72. The new group’s first single was its “upbeat pop treatment” of ‘Living Without You’, which one reviewer tactfully evaluated as “quite nice”. Any pain that the listener might experience while hearing this interpretation will not be from empathizing with the song’s sad protagonist, but from cringing at the squonky synthesizer and bland vocals. Nevertheless, the Earth Band’s ‘Living Without You’ managed to crack the Top 70 in the US, and thus likely laid the groundwork for the group’s more adventurous and successful remakes later in the decade.
Newman himself revisited ‘Living Without You’ in 2003, for the first in his Songbook series of albums. It’s always intriguing to hear what a mature artist does with a song recorded when he was relatively young (Newman was 24 when his debut album was released), and to see if time and experience have affected his understanding of the song. The 2003 ‘Living Without You’ arrangement is bare-bones piano and vocals, which shows off the wonderful unexpected turns in the song’s instrumental structure – something that was largely obscured in the original. Newman’s voice is more weary, more contemplative, but he gently and achingly draws out what Ian MacDonald identified as the underlying theme of ‘Living Without You’: “the longing for the alleviation of simple, steady, dependable love”. And that is something that listeners of any age can appreciate.
Randy Newman: Live at the Boarding House ’72 is now available on Live on Vinyl Records.