The Monkees wanted to be real boys.
Or, at least, some of them did. Peter Tork had joined the band in the belief that he would actually be joining a band — a group of people who would play music together. He’d found that he was relegated to the occasional comedy vocal for the most part, although Michael Nesmith did, when he was producing tracks for the band, allow Tork to be one of several rhythm guitar players on the records. Peter Tork wanted to be a real musician.
Nesmith was less bothered about playing instruments on the records than Tork was, although he would have preferred to be playing on the records than not. What Nesmith wanted was control — other than the couple of songs per album he was allowed to write and produce (but not allowed to play on), he had no artistic input into the records that were going out with his name and face on them. He felt like a fraud, and thought the band’s second album More of the Monkees, which had been released without the band’s knowledge, was the worst album ever made, and he wasn’t shy about telling anyone, even journalists, his views. Michael Nesmith wanted to be a real artist.
Micky Dolenz, meanwhile, was less bothered. He was an actor first and foremost, even though he was the lead vocalist on the band’s most memorable songs. But he wanted to support his colleagues, and he was also fascinated by the idea that something created as a fictional band in a sitcom could become a real, working band — to use an analogy Dolenz has used many times since, he thought it was as if Leonard Nimoy had actually gone into space. Micky Dolenz wanted to be a real Vulcan.
The problem was that the people in control of the Monkees’ music had other ideas. Don Kirshner, the music publisher whose job was to commission songwriters and producers to make the Monkees’ records, had very strong ideas about what could and couldn’t be a hit, and Peter Tork (a banjo-playing folkie with pitching problems) and Michael Nesmith (a country singer who wrote wilfully abstruse psychedelic hillbilly music) were not, to his mind, people who should be allowed anywhere near a recording studio. Their job, in Kirshner’s view, was to mime the instrumental parts while Micky or Davy sang, and the song should be one by Neil Sedaka or Carole Bayer Sager or someone equally reliable.
The tensions between the band and Kirshner increased to the point where, in a meeting between the band, Kirshner, and record-label head Herb Moelis, who sided with Kirshner, Nesmith punched his hand through a wall and said to Moelis “that could have been your face, motherfucker”.
Surprisingly, this negotiating tactic worked, and the band were allowed to go into the studio and record for themselves. Nesmith’s friend Chip Douglas, who had quit the Turtles almost immediately after arranging Happy Together for them, became their producer, and with Tork on harpsichord, Nesmith on guitar, Dolenz on drums, Davy Jones on tambourine, and Nesmith’s friend John London on bass, they recorded two songs — All Of Your Toys, by another friend of Nesmith, Bill Martin, which was earmarked as a potential single, and Nesmith’s The Girl I Knew Somewhere, a wonderful swamp-baroque-pop track somewhere halfway between the Sir Douglas Quintet and The Left Banke.
The agreement with Don Kirshner was that the band would be allowed to play on at least one side of every single they released. Kirshner, however, had other plans, and so while the other three Monkees holidayed at the beginning of February 1967, Davy Jones flew to New York, where he recorded lead vocals on several tracks produced by Jeff Barry.
Kirshner had promised Barry and songwriter Neil Diamond that if I’m A Believer, their previous contribution to the Monkees, went to number one, they would have the follow-up single. It did, and so Jones, who unlike the others was perfectly happy with Kirshner and just saw himself as an actor, went into the studio and recorded vocals for six songs, of which the obvious hit was Diamond’s Latin-flavoured A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You, a song whose conciliatory message (“I’m a little bit wrong/you’re a little bit right”) many of the people involved in the Monkees project at that point could have done well to listen to.
The song was clearly going to be a massive hit — not only was it written by Neil Diamond (then just on the verge of his later massive stardom, but already the writer of the Monkees’ previous hit) but it was the first single to feature Davy Jones, who had quickly become the band’s heartthrob, on vocals.
In fact, it was going to feature Jones on both sides, as Kirshner had no intention of letting the music that the band had recorded on their own ever see the light of day. Kirshner chose Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s song She Hangs Out as the B-side, and had picture covers featuring both titles printed up.
Without the band’s knowledge, the single was released to DJs (and at least a few copies apparently made it to shops in Canada) with the label saying ‘”My Favorite Monkee” Davy Jones Sings’. The Monkees’ third massive hit would have even less of their involvement than the second, where the band were at least allowed to do all the vocal parts.
This not unreasonably incensed the band members, and so the single was withdrawn, and reissued with The Girl I Knew Somewhere on the B-side. Kirshner and his employees may have made the Monkees stars, but his puppets no longer needed anyone pulling their strings. Don Kirshner’s involvement with the Monkees project was at an end.
A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You
Composer: Neil Diamond
Line-up: Davy Jones (vocals), Neil Diamond (backing vocals), Al Gorgoni, Don Thomas, & Hugh McCracken (guitars), Lou Mauro (bass), Artie Butler & Stan Free (keyboards), Herb Lovelle (drums), Tom Cerone (tambourine), unknown handclaps and additional backing vocals
Original release: A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You/She Hangs Out, The Monkees, Colgems 66-1003
Currently available on: Music Box Rhino CD, plus innumerable compilations.
The Mamas and the Papas had had a rough time since the release of California Dreamin’. While they’d continued having hits, their personal lives had been in turmoil. Denny Doherty and Michelle Phillips had had an affair which had nearly torn the band apart — John Phillips was incensed that his wife was sleeping with his friend, while Cass Elliot had been upset that Michelle Phillips, who was more conventionally attractive than Elliot and “could have any man”, had been with Doherty, with whom she was in (unrequited) love.
This being the sixties, and the time of the hippie movement, the band had taken a “papas before mamas” approach, and had thrown Michelle out part-way through the recording of their second album, The Mamas & The Papas, replacing her with Jill Gibson. Gibson had co-written and performed backing vocals on several of Jan & Dean’s records, and had been Jan Berry’s girlfriend, but was currently at a loose end, and had enough vocal and physical resemblance to Michelle that she could slot into the band easily. Sadly for “Mama Jill”, though, John and Michelle Phillips reconciled three months later, and Michelle returned to the band, adding new vocal tracks to songs that had already been recorded with Gibson.
This reconciliation seems to have made the band at least temporarily more comfortable with each other — John Phillips has been quoted as saying that the chemistry of the band was never right without Michelle — and when sessions began for their third album, Deliver (the name being a sly reference to the fact that Cass Elliot had just given birth — something that was kept out of the newspapers, as being an unmarried mother attracted a great deal of stigma at the time) the feeling was one of nostalgia, with the band recording songs they’d loved when they were younger, such as Twist And Shout and Dedicated To The One I Love, although Michelle Phillips’ suggestion that they record a cover version of I’m A Hog For You Baby was met with bemusement.
This nostalgia also led to what would turn out to be the band’s last US top ten single [FOOTNOTE: Dream a Little Dream of Me, from their fourth album The Papas & The Mamas, made the top ten, but the single was released as by “Mama Cass, with the Mamas & the Papas”, reportedly much to John Phillips' displeasure.], Creeque Alley. This was one of three collaborations between John and Michelle Phillips on the album (the other five originals were John Phillips solo compositions), and took a nostalgic look at the origins of the band in the folk scene a few years earlier.
Oddly, the song’s lyrics concentrated more on Doherty and Elliot than on the writers, talking of their time in the Mugwumps with John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin’ Spoonful. Every verse ended with a slight variation on the lines “McGuinn and McGuire couldn’t get no higher in LA, you know where that’s at/And no-one’s getting fat ‘cept Mama Cass”, with (Roger) McGuinn, (Barry) McGuire, and Elliot’s circumstances changing slightly as the story went from the band and their friends as starving folkies (when Elliot was the only one “getting fat” because she was the only one with a regular paying gig, although the line is also obviously a hopefully-affectionate dig at her obesity) to the present, when “California Dreaming is becoming a reality”.
The album version of the song is a fairly standard acoustic-driven harmony singalong, but the single is something rather different. I’ve been unable to confirm this, but I strongly suspect someone (probably producer Lou Adler) was inspired by Winchester Cathedral [FOOTNOTE: A massive hit by the studio group The New Vaudeville Band, now mostly forgotten, which managed to beat Monday Monday, Last Train To Clarksville, Eleanor Rigby and Good Vibrations to the Best Contemporary Rock & Roll Grammy award, in possibly the greatest awards travesty of all time.] and wanted to put out their own 1920s vaudeville pastiche with a place name for the title.
Whether that was the motivation or not, the single had horns and strings added which turned the hootenanny feel of the album track into something that almost had a feel of Dixieland about it, building through the song in a woozy, speakeasy feel, with honky-tonk piano and riffing call-and-response horns.
The result tapped into a widespread nostalgia for a time that was closer to the 1960s than the 60s are to us — by the middle of 1967, almost every band would be recording 1920s-pastiche tracks. The Mamas & the Papas’ last big hit had showed that by looking backwards, they were looking forwards.
Composer: John & Michelle Phillips
Line-up: John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty (vocals), Jules Chaikin, Tony Terran, Ollie Mitchell (trumpet), Richard Leith, Richard Hamilton, Lew McCreary (trombone), Larry Knechtel (keyboards).
The AFM sheet for this song I’ve been able to find only lists the horn and keyboard overdubs for the single version, but personnel for the album Deliver, most of whom probably played on the track, included John Phillips (guitar), Hal Blaine (drums, percussion), Joe Osborn (bass), “Doctor” Eric Hord (guitar), P.F. Sloan (guitar), Gary Coleman (percussion), Jim Horn (flute)
Original release: The Mamas and the Papas Deliver, The Mamas and the Papas, Dunhill D 50014
Currently available on: All The Leaves Are Brown: The Golden Era Collection, Geffen CD. NB this manufactured-on-demand double CD set orderable from Amazon.com is, as far as I can discover, the only place in which the single version of this track is available, as opposed to the very different album mix, which shows up on most other compilations.
This is a busy weekend for me, hence no proper posts yesterday or today — every spare moment has been spent with people.
And tomorrow (well, thirty-four minutes from now) will be one of the busiest, as I’m going to the wedding of two of my favourite people, Alex Wilcock and Richard Flowers (who helps Millennium write his diary).
Tomorrow is their twentieth anniversary, but this year is the first year it’s legal for them to marry. I’ve known them both about six of those years, and I can’t think of a couple more suited to each other, or more clearly devoted to each other even after twenty years. And it says something about how much I like both of them that theirs is the first wedding I’ve attended as a guest in something like twenty-five years (in that time I’ve attended two other weddings — at one I was the groom and at the other I officiated).
So while I’ve not got time to do a proper blog post tonight, I just wanted to publicly congratulate them both.
1967 saw the Turtles as practically a new band, with a new sound, and in search of a new song.
In early 1966, the band had seen the Lovin’ Spoonful play live, and had immediately found the missing piece of their style. The Lovin’ Spoonful were one of the most influential bands of the time, and one who hang like a ghost over much of the story we’re looking at in this book, as while they were not an LA band themselves they were, like the Beatles or the Stones, a band that all the LA musicians were aware of.
In the case of the Turtles, what they took from the Lovin’ Spoonful was their attitude. The Lovin’ Spoonful were a fun band, making what they called “good-time music”, and the Turtles decided that they were going to have nothing more to do with folk-rock, they were going to be a good-time music band too. The Lovin’ Spoonful were now as important to the Turtles as Louis Prima and Keely Smith or the Zombies.
This decision was accepted happily by their record label, White Whale, who instead of passing them P.F. Sloan folk-rock songs to perform started passing them P.F. Sloan Lovin’ Spoonful pastiches like You Baby. At first, this brought the band a certain amount of commercial success, but the band’s singles were charting lower in the top forty with each release.
To make matters worse, they had lost their rhythm section. Don Murray had (according to Howard Kaylan’s autobiography) grown paranoid and stormed off in the middle of a show, never to return, while Chuck Portz had decided that the band was clearly past its peak, and so he quit and became a fisherman.
The remaining foursome auditioned numerous drummers before settling on John Barbata, a jazz drummer who was one of the few people who could take part in drum-offs with Buddy Rich and not come out the clear loser, but for their new bass player they chose Chip Douglas, late of the Modern Folk Quartet.
This new, improved, Turtles spent the next eight months touring before going into the studio to record their new single, a song they had been trying out on the road for much of that time.
The new song actually came from Koppelman/Rubin Associates, the publishing, production, and management conglomerate whose major act was the Lovin’ Spoonful, and by all accounts the demo had been around almost every major band in the country and been turned down before the Turtles heard it.
The song, Happy Together, was by Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon, who had previously been members of The Magicians, whose only single An Invitation To Cry had been a flop but is now considered a minor classic. This new song, however, was anything but a flop. It had a big, bouncy, major-key chorus in the Spoonful style, but it had a soft minor-key verse, which meant that Howard Kaylan could once again do his imitation of Colin Blunstone on She’s Not There, going from a soft, almost whispered, verse into a much stronger chorus. And best of all, it didn’t take itself too seriously — lines like “if I should call you up, invest a dime” were clearly funny, and the Turtles were nothing if not a funny band.
Chip Douglas created a carefully-worked out arrangement, starting with very light instrumental backing by the band with Kaylan’s voice front and centre, then in the second verse bringing in light backing vocals and a single piano embellishment under the line “invest a dime”. For the big chorus, he then has strings and horns come in, along with full-voiced backing vocals, and then in the rest of the song there’s a sense of tension and release as the song keeps dropping back to the quieter verses, but each time there’ll a change in the arrangement, with backing vocals anticipating the main vocal line in the third verse (a trick probably inspired by the Beatles’ Help!), Volman harmonising with Kaylan on the fourth verse while an oboe plays a countermelody (probably inspired by Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe), and then repeating the fourth verse but without Volman or the oboe.
And then of course there are the wonderful, cascading, Beach Boys-inspired “bah bah bah” parts, straight out of God Only Knows but here repurposed to create pure exuberant joy rather than the fragile delicacy of the Beach Boys’ song.
It’s a wonderful, wonderful, track that’s derivative as hell, but derivative of all the best people. Douglas had learned his lessons well, and the track pulls together the Zombies, Phil Spector, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys into one perfect two-minute-and-fifty-four-second masterclass in pop music.
But the thing that tips the track clearly over into perfection is Kaylan’s vocal. The version used on the single is the first take, which he had believed was only a warm-up. As a result, he mocks the song slightly, over-emoting (could anyone really sound that sad while saying they’re “so happy together”?) and including a jokey line that Alan Gordon had sung on the demo — “how is the weather?” — that had never been intended to be part of the song. The band, Joe Wissert (the track’s producer), and engineer Bruce Botnick all persuaded him that his warm-up had been the take, and the result was the band’s only number one, and a track that is one of the fifty records with the most radio plays in history.
Chip Douglas had taken a demo with only an acoustic guitar and slapped knees for percussion, and turned it into a classic of sunshine pop. Clearly he could do great things with the Turtles. But he had other plans…
Composer: Gary Bonner & Alan Gordon
Line-up: Mark Volman (vocals), Howard Kaylan (vocals), Al Nichol (guitar, vocals), Jim Tucker (guitar, vocals), Chip Douglas (bass, vocals), John Barbata (drums), unknown piano, horns, and strings
Original release: Happy Together/Like The Seasons, The Turtles, White Whale WW-244
Currently available on: Save The Turtles: The Turtles Greatest Hits, Manifesto CD and innumerable compilations