The Stone Poneys had broken up several times.
The Stone Poneys had started out as a folk group, focussing equally on their three members; Linda Ronstadt on vocals, and guitarist/vocalists Bobby Kimmel and Kenny Edwards. But the band had been performing for two years, and while they were a popular live attraction, thanks largely to Ronstadt’s voice and looks, their initial attempts at recording, for Mercury records, had been complete flops. Herb Cohen, the band’s manager, summed the problem up in conversation with Kimmel, saying “Well, I can get your chick singer recorded, but I don’t know about the rest of the group.”
However, during the band’s first short split, Cohen had tried promoting Ronstadt as a solo artist, having her collaborate with Frank Zappa (who Cohen also managed) and Jack Nitzsche, but with no success, and so Cohen went back to promoting the full band, eventually getting Nik Venet (who had been working with Zappa) to sign the Stone Poneys as a band to Capitol. Venet and Capitol were convinced that Ronstadt would eventually become a solo star, but that the Stone Poneys were the best vehicle for her to get experience of recording.
Their first album, The Stone Poneys, was consciously modelled on the sound of Peter, Paul, and Mary, with the trio performing a set of songs much like their normal stage act, but with the addition of session player Jimmy Bond on bass and Billy Mundi of the Mothers of Invention on drums, along with a couple of additional guitarists and Cyrus Faryar, formerly of the Modern Folk Quartet, on bouzouki. The album consisted almost entirely of Kimmel and Edwards’ original material, and was commercially unsuccessful, and the band split up again.
However, Nik Venet still thought the band had potential if he could find the right material — or at least that Ronstadt did. The second Stone Poneys album, Evergreen, vol 2, was to spotlight Ronstadt’s vocals. While Edwards and Kimmel were allowed to write five songs for the album, and provide backing vocals and guitars, Linda Ronstadt was to be the lead singer. Indeed, during the recording of one song, Back on the Street Again, a scuffle broke out in the studio as Edwards and Kimmel turned up — they had not been informed that the session was taking place. Nik Venet was now in charge of the Stone Poneys’ sound, and anyone who wasn’t Linda Ronstadt was unimportant.
The band’s biggest hit seems, in retrospect, almost to be about this process of growing apart from the band, with its “it’s not you, it’s me” lyrical theme. Written by Michael Nesmith before he joined the Monkees, Different Drum had been recorded by the bluegrass band The Greenbriar Boys, who had heard Nesmith perform it at a nightclub and had included it on their 1966 album Better Late Than Never (Nesmith had also busked through a deliberately sloppy performance of the song in an episode of the Monkees’ TV series).
The Stone Poneys had added it to their live set in 1967, in an arrangement reminiscent of the Greenbriar Boys’ version — slow, and driven by mandolin, with a bluegrass flavour. However, Nik Venet, after attempting to record it in this style, was convinced the song could be a hit in a new arrangement. He got Jimmy Bond to write the arrangement up and replaced the two male Stone Poneys with members of the Wrecking Crew.
The result turned a country ballad into a midtempo baroque pop piece, rather to the astonishment of Ronstadt, who had believed she was going to be recording the song with her bandmates and was unprepared to deal with the new arrangement. The arrangement confused her, and she was unable to get the phrasing of the song the way she intended, and she has said in many interviews that she can’t bear to listen to her vocals on the track.
Other people disagreed, though, and it’s easy to see why. Over an arrangement led by Don Randi’s harpsichord, Ronstadt sings the rather callous, whimsical lyrics with an urgency and intensity that runs completely counter to the explicit meaning of the text. While for the Greenbriar Boys, or later Nesmith in his own version, the singer is saying goodbye because the woman he’s singing to is mildly irritating to him and he can’t be bothered any more, and he doesn’t really see why she thinks this is a big deal, Ronstadt’s vocal is begging and pleading. “Please accept this,” her vocal practically screams, “can’t you see I’ve thought about this? Please don’t make this any more difficult. It really isn’t you, it’s me.”
There’s a caution to the vocal, a sense of fear at the response the spurned lover may make, and also a sensitivity to the lover’s feelings, that is completely missing from the other versions, which sounds like a conscious choice made by Ronstadt but is actually her trying desperately to get any kind of usable performance while working in an arrangement she hadn’t rehearsed. Either way, it worked, and the song made the top twenty.
The band broke up after the album was recorded, but before the single — released as by The Stone Poneys featuring Linda Ronstadt — was released. When it became a hit, Ronstadt and Kimmel (Edwards had decided to travel to India) got back together to form a new Stone Poneys, but the band wasn’t to last.
A third “Stone Poneys” album was released, but it was titled Linda Ronstadt, Stone Poneys and Friends, Vol. III and was deliberately intended as a transition to Ronstadt’s solo career. It showed only Ronstadt on the cover, had only two Kimmel/Edwards songs, and was recorded under a solo contract for Ronstadt rather than the band contract. Various different lineups of the band would perform for a while, featuring neither Kimmel or Edwards, but including Nesmith’s frequent collaborators Bill Martin and John Ware, before Ronstadt became a solo artist in name, as well as in fact.
Composer: Michael Nesmith
Line-up: Linda Ronstadt (vocals), Al Viola (guitar), Jimmy Bond (bass), Don Randi (harpsichord), Jim Gordon (drums), plus strings led by Sid Sharp. Some online sources also credit Bernie Leadon on guitar. I suspect these are confusing it with a later rerecording, but in the absence of the AFM sheet for the track, I can’t be sure.
Original release: Evergreen, Volume 2, The Stone Poneys, Capitol T2763
Currently available on: The Stone Poneys Featuring Linda Ronstadt/Evergreen Vol.2, Raven CD
Yes — SUPER Deluxe.
Eight years ago, Rhino records started putting out deluxe editions of the Monkees’ albums on CD — double-CD sets with mono and stereo versions of the albums, plus bonus tracks. However, when they got to the band’s fifth album, The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees, they started putting out limited edition box sets instead — triple-CD sets with added vinyl singles — available only from monkees.com .
They now seem to be going back and giving the first few albums the same treatment, minus the vinyl singles, and so we now have the SUPER deluxe 3-CD version of the first Monkees album, put together as carefully as ever by Andrew Sandoval, to whom I really should just send my bank details, as I’m bound to buy every single thing he works on anyway and it’d save time.
The first disc is the familiar album, in mono and stereo, with a few of the different mono mixes used for the TV show at the end. The album itself is possibly the most interesting one, if not the best, of the Monkees’ career, as it’s here we get to see what are essentially three different visions of the band at work — there’s Don Kirshner’s view that the band should be a vehicle for pure, simpleminded pop, Michael Nesmith’s attempts to do something closer to Tex-Mex country rock, and Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider’s view that the success of the project lay in yoking together these completely incompatible artistic visions. The result leads to some bizarre juxtapositions, like Nesmith’s proto-Velvets garage-fuzz-with-country-violins Sweet Young Thing coming between Davy singing “I never promised this to any other girl, but I’ll be true to you, yes I will” and the comedy track Gonna Buy Me A Dog, but at this point everyone involved was, if not working toward the same goals, at least trying to work with each other, and the result is a very strong pop album, possibly the band’s second best after their masterpiece Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. While the bonus tracks on this disc are for the most part just slightly different mixes of the songs on the album, we do get the TV mixes of two Nesmith tracks that weren’t on the album, the rather tepid All The King’s Horses and the astonishing The Kind Of Girl I Could Love.
Disc two consists entirely of previously-unreleased mixes and recordings. The whole thing follows a fairly consistent format — some studio chatter is followed by an instrumental outtake or the backing track, which is then followed by a new stereo mix of the finished track, usually highlighting a backing vocal or instrumental part which was buried in the final mix. For whatever reason, this is dominated by Nesmith’s recordings, with Nesmith having nineteen tracks to Boyce & Hart’s twelve (of which four are the godawful I Wanna Be Free, which we’d already heard three times on the first CD), and it allows one to get a very good picture of what Nesmith’s vision for the band at this point was — all the band at least singing backing vocals (unlike the Boyce & Hart tracks, on which only the lead vocalist would appear), and a harder sound, closer to the blues-pop of the Animals or the Sir Douglas Quintet than to Herman’s Hermits or the Hollies. Had Nesmith been given slightly more say over the band’s direction at this point, one suspects they would have been slightly less commercially successful, but that they would have had a little more respect from critics and their peers.
The disc includes sessions for a lot of songs that weren’t included on the album — I Don’t Think You Know Me, So Goes Love, I Won’t Be The Same Without Her, You Just May Be The One, Jokes, I Can’t Get Her Off Of My Mind, Of You, and (I Prithee) Do Not Ask For Love. Almost all of these are Nesmith productions (only Jokes and I Can’t Get Her Off Of My Mind aren’t), and they’re also tracks that definitely deserved a release. Of particular note is the new mix of Of You, which has Micky Dolenz doubling Nesmith’s vocal — Nesmith and Dolenz’s vocal blend is one of the most wonderful sounds ever made by human voices. I’ve never been a huge fan of the song, but in this mix it’s just lovely. The mix of (I Prithee) Do Not Ask For Love here is also probably the best of the multiple versions that have been released. While it’s credited as Davy’s lead, Micky’s vocal is mixed up to double him on the bridges and choruses, and Nesmith joins them, creating a beautiful harmony mix.
I have only one minor criticism of the second disc, and that is that two tracks from the original deluxe version of the album — the version of I Don’t Think You Know Me with Nesmith on lead vocal, and Nesmith’s demo of Propinquity — aren’t included. Had they been, this set would have rendered the original set totally superfluous, but as it is people who want *every* great track that the Monkees have released will need both. Hopefully those two tracks will be included on a More Of The Monkees super-deluxe set — certainly Sandoval said on Facebook of another review of this set “The one track that they are upset that is missing – Michael Nesmith’s vocal version of “I Don’t Think You Know Me” – was actually completed after the first album. So, it really belongs on a “More Of The Monkees” Super Deluxe Edition. I sure hope it does, at least.”
Disc three is… less good, though understandably so. It’s pre-Monkees stuff, and consists of Davy’s pre-Monkees solo album, David Jones, in both mono and stereo, plus Davy’s non-album single tracks Take Me To Paradise and The Girl From Chelsea, Michael Nesmith’s pre-Monkees singles as Michael Blessing, and yet more sodding versions of I Wanna Be fucking Free.
Davy’s album is… interesting. It’s a clear attempt to replicate the success of Peter Noone, who like Jones was a Manc who had appeared in Coronation Street. Noone’s band, Herman’s Hermits, had had a string of hits with old music-hall songs, which Noone sang in an irritating pseudo-Cockney accent, and so Jones, too, sings in a fake Cockney accent, and performs songs like Maybe It’s Because I’m A Londoner and Any Old Iron, while also occasionally nodding towards folk-rock and pop. Even the liner notes to this release by Andrew Sandoval, who is about the biggest Monkees fan in the world, use words like “a sheer feat of skillful marketing”, “considerably dated”, “a lamentable mix of producer Hank Levine’s poor instincts” and “cynical”.
It’s nice to finally have it properly remastered on CD, however — a previous CD release only had the mono mix, taken from a not-great vinyl source; this is still sourced from vinyl, as the tapes have been lost, but it’s been taken from multiple sources, and is in both mono and stereo for all but one song, and Sandoval’s attention to detail means that the sound is close to perfect. But it’s of historical interest only, rather than musical interest.
The “Michael Blessing” singles are more interesting, and show Nesmith casting around desperately to find some kind of persona. The New Recruit is an attempt at a protest song written as a cash-in by record executive Bob Krasnow, A Journey With Michael Blessing is a Link Wray-esque instrumental played by session musicians that possibly doesn’t have any Nesmith involvement at all, Until It’s Time For You To Go is Nesmith’s performance of the Buffy St. Marie song, over-orchestrated but with nice vocals, What Seems To Be The Trouble Officer is a pisspoor Dylan parody (though Nesmith does get Dylan’s early folk-troubadour voice down perfectly), and Who Do You Love and Get Out Of My Life Woman are previously unreleased covers of R&B classics. Nesmith’s version of Who Do You Love is actually fantastic, and easily the best thing on this CD.
The last four tracks are four of the eleven versions of I Wanna Be Free on this set, and while I’m sure they are of interest to people who don’t think that particular song is a psychopathic dirge with literally no redeeming features, it’s a shame that given the wealth of pre-Monkees material by Nesmith out there, more of that couldn’t have been included instead. Presumably there were rights issues — the Blessing and David Jones material was all on Colpix, the same label that released the Monkees’ records, while the other pre-Monkees Nez material wasn’t — because otherwise I can’t imagine that Sandoval would have missed putting on at least the version of All The King’s Horses by Nesmith’s band Mike, John, & Bill.
Like all archival releases, this is a compromise, and I’ve quibbled with some of the details here, but for anyone with a love of the Monkees, this is an essential release. Let’s hope that we get similar releases for More Of The Monkees, Headquarters, and Pisces, and that the The Birds, The Bees, box set gets a reissue. There are only a few hundred copies of this left, so get it while you can.
With Headquarters, the Monkees had become a real band at last. Every guitar, keyboard, drum, or percussion part on the album, and all the vocals, was performed by one of the Monkees, with only bass, strings, and horns performed by session musicians. And even in the case of the bass parts, they’d been handled by people close to the band — either producer Chip Douglas, Douglas’ old Modern Folk Quartet bandmate Jerry Yester, or John London, who had been in Michal Nesmith’s pre-Monkees band Mike, John, and Bill.
However, working as a full band in the studio quickly became untenable. While Micky Dolenz was an imaginative drummer, he often took many takes to get a complete performance, and Davy Jones, who had been less keen than the others on the whole “real band” idea from the start, resented having to spend ten or twenty takes hitting a tambourine or playing maracas, just to make sure all four band members played on the track. Not only that, but the band’s time was limited. They were recording their second twenty-two-episode TV series and regularly touring, and simply didn’t have the time and energy for extended recording sessions.
But at the same time, the band didn’t want to lose control of their own material, and Tork in particular wanted the band to remain a band, rather than a group of solo performers.
So early in the recording for Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd, the follow-up to Headquarters, a compromise was reached, in which there would effectively be a “studio Monkees” consisting of the two best instrumentalists in the band — Nesmith on guitar and Tork on keyboards — augmented by Douglas on bass and session drummer “Fast” Eddie Hoh. Jones would add percussion to those tracks that really required it, and Dolenz could add acoustic rhythm guitar or Moog where appropriate. The result allowed the Monkees themselves to retain control in the studio, and to provide the core of the instrumentation on their own records, while still being able to work quickly and produce tight, commercial, recordings.
Nowhere is this more evident than on Pleasant Valley Sunday, a track which all the surviving Monkees refer to as a favourite. This is unsurprising, as of all the Monkees’ big hits, it’s the one that allows every member of the band to have his moment in the spotlight.
The song was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and is a fairly typical piece of mid-60s Baby Boomer sneering at suburbia and materialism, mocking “Mr Green, he’s so serene, he’s got a TV in every room”, and singing about how “creature comfort goals, they only numb my soul”. While King’s melody is, as always for her, superb, Goffin’s lyric seems, frankly, a little mean-spirited with several decades’ hindsight, and listening to King’s demo one can hear something that might have become a pleasant album track in the manner of Early Morning Blues And Greens from Headquarters rather than an absolutely massive hit.
That the track is a success is down to Chip Douglas’ arrangement. While previously the Monkees had followed King’s demos precisely, replicating the backing track and copying her vocal harmonies, this time everything except the basic song was scrapped, and Douglas came up with a new arrangement using the same sense of dynamics that had made Happy Together such a success.
The track starts with a guitar riff, composed by Douglas but played by Nesmith, in the manner of the harder pop-rock records that had been coming out over the previous couple of years — it’s reminiscent of the Beatles, but the Beatles of Day Tripper, Taxman, and, especially, I Want To Tell You. Dolenz comes in with one of his most successful vocal performances, and then in a masterstroke thought up by Tork, Nesmith starts doubling the vocal — while he occasionally sings harmony parts, for a large proportion of the song, Nesmith is singing in unison with Dolenz, and the band’s two strongest vocalists’ voices are blended into one “Monkee” voice.
Tork also gets his own moment to shine, in the middle eight, where his hammered, staccato, piano part manages to enliven what would otherwise be a very musically uninteresting section, and Jones gets a solo spot in the break after the middle eight, where he gets to sing-sneer a wordless verse of “ta ta-ta ta”s, in what may be his finest ever moment as a vocalist.
And then there’s that ending, when Chip Douglas and engineer Hank Cicalo push the faders up well past the point where the track becomes a mass of distortion, creating the most psychedelic thing the Monkees had ever done.
Pleasant Valley Sunday was by far the Monkees’ best single to date, from their best album — an album as consistent as Revolver or Pet Sounds. Unfortunately, it was also their least successful single to that point, “only” getting to number three in the US charts rather than number one — although being kept off the top spot by All You Need Is Love and Light My Fire is nothing to be ashamed of. Although they didn’t yet know it, the Monkees’ career had peaked…
Pleasant Valley Sunday
Composer: Gerry Goffin & Carole King
Line-up: Micky Dolenz (vocals, acoustic guitar), Michael Nesmith (vocals, guitar), Peter Tork (piano), Davy Jones (vocals, percussion), Bill Chadwick (acoustic guitar), Chip Douglas (bass), Eddie Hoh (drums)
Original release: Pleasant Valley Sunday/Words The Monkees, ColGems 1007
Currently available on: Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd (Deluxe Edition), Rhino Handmade CD
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.
But is it about the Monkees or not?
With Gene Clark gone from the band, the Byrds’ star was fading. Without their lead singer and most commercial songwriter, their last two singles had only reached numbers 44 and 36 in the charts. Their imperial phase had only lasted a little under a year, between Mr Tambourine Man and Eight Miles High and the pop audience was already on the lookout for the next big thing.
So it’s unsurprising that the new wave of teen idol pop stars was something that the Byrds looked on with, at best, ambivalence. While they were hardly an organic, dues-paying, band themselves (having not played on their first single, and having a drummer who was chosen for his looks rather than his playing ability), nonetheless it galled them when, as Roger McGuinn put it, “We were thumbing through a teen magazine and looking at all the unfamiliar faces and we couldn’t help thinking: ‘Wow, what’s happening…all of a sudden here is everyone and his brother and his sister-in-law and his mother and even his pet bullfrog singing rock ‘n’ roll.’”
This experience inspired McGuinn and Chris Hillman to write a song mocking all these youngsters who were becoming rock stars by just having the right hair and attitude. Hillman had gone from not being a songwriter at all when the band’s first two albums were released to being their most prolific writer, and had come up with the bassline for the song while playing on a session for the trumpeter Hugh Masakela. Hillman and McGuinn then added the lyrics, which seem more passionate than crafted, with many lines having scansion that doesn’t quite fit the melody.
To produce the single, and the album Younger Than Yesterday for which it was intended, the Byrds turned to Gary Usher, who knew a thing or two about manufactured bands himself, having spent his time since he stopped working with Brian Wilson on producing bands such as The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, The Silly Surfers, The Weird-Ohs, and The Hondells, often working for Ben-Ven Productions, an independent production company owned by Nik Venet and his business partner Fred Benson. Possibly more to the point, he had recently produced Gene Clark’s first solo album.
Usher’s more experimental attitude would soon help push the band into new areas very far from their original folk-rock sound, but here what we have is pure 1966, a band clearly moving on into new musical territory, but with enough similarities to their earlier work that nobody could mistake it for anyone else. The main clues that the Byrds were going in a new direction were the addition of Hugh Masakela’s trumpet — the first time that the band had used brass on their recordings — and Chris Hillman’s bass, which had previously been low in the mix, being promoted essentially to the status of a lead instrument. The song also used sound effects — audience screams that had been recorded by Derek Taylor during the band’s 1965 UK tour– something that they had never done before. It’s clearly an advance, albeit an incremental one, on the band’s earlier recordings.
But there’s a big controversy about the song, one that still raises its head to this day — is it about the Monkees?
Both McGuinn and Hillman have said it isn’t, but songwriters aren’t always the most reliable guides to their creations. And certainly Michael Nesmith thinks it isn’t — he planned an interactive video (and later an interactive CD-ROM) based on the song in the 1980s. But it still ends up getting said, over and over, that it is.
It isn’t, of course. While the Monkees were definitely in the news at the time (the day that the Byrds started work on this track, in fact, was the day that they got a gold record for their second single I’m A Believer, November 28 1966), the controversy about them not playing on their own records didn’t start until Saturday 28th January 1967, when the Saturday Evening Post released an article “exposing” them.
In truth, the song is about the Monkees — but only to the same extent that it was about Dino, Desi, & Billy, the Grass Roots, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Paul Revere & The Raiders, or, indeed, the Byrds themselves. The coincidental timing of this single being released just as the Monkees’ manufactured status became a big news item is actually to do with bigger cultural factors.
The end of 1966 and beginning of 1967 was the time when “pop” and “rock” were first starting to split from each other — a split which will play out over the course of the rest of this book. Rock was starting to be defined against pop — as “authentic” and “art”, as opposed to “manufactured” and “commercial” pop. The Byrds’ pop career was effectively over — they simply weren’t having big hit singles any more — and so they had to position themselves as rock artists rather than pop stars if they wanted to continue to have any career at all. The Monkees, meanwhile, were the biggest new pop band, and so would automatically be seen as what the rock bands were defining themselves against, even if, as we shall see, the reality was somewhat different.
Either way, the controversy managed to get the Byrds back into the top thirty, but it wouldn’t last. Their next single, a cover of Dylan’s My Back Pages would be the band’s last top forty hit. And there would soon be many more changes in the band…
So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star
Composer: Roger McGuinn & Chris Hillman
Line-up: Roger McGuinn (guitar, vocals), David Crosby (guitar, vocals) Chris Hillman (bass, vocals), Michael Clarke (drums), Hugh Masakela (trumpet)
Original release: So You Want To Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star/Everybody’s Been Burned, The Byrds, Columbia 4-43987
Currently available on: Younger Than Yesterday, Columbia Legacy CD