The Monkees were at a crossroads in their career.
The second series of their TV show had been just as popular as the first, but as with the records, they’d wanted more control, and so by the last episode Micky Dolenz had been writing and directing, they’d brought in several of their LA scene friends (notably Frank Zappa and Tim Buckley) to appear on the show, and the series had become notably more psychedelic and satirical. But they were still bored with it, and the network weren’t interested in their ideas for a new format for the third series. The series was cancelled, and replaced with a planned three TV specials.
This had an immediate negative effect on their career. The first single they released after the cancellation, D.W. Washburn, “only” reached the top twenty, partly because it wasn’t featured on TV as their earlier singles had been, partly because its 1920s vaudeville feel didn’t fit the band’s image, and partly because the Coasters released a competing version of the song.
But the Monkees were going to show they were true artists, worthy of respect. They were going to make their own film.
Originally titled Changes, but later named Head, the band’s film was produced and directed by Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, who had also made their TV series, with a script by Rafelson and a jobbing actor named Jack Nicholson. Allegedly, to write this script, Nicholson took the Monkees away for a few days, fed them LSD, noted down what they said, and then wrote the script based on that.
The result was one of the strangest — and most brilliant — films of the decade. An anti-war collage comedy that had a style that prefigured by some fifteen years Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, its nearest equivalent, the film is a meditation on war, escaping from the confines of one’s ego, karma, and circular time. Starting with the band committing suicide, the film cuts between a war movie, a sports film, a desert adventure, a concert film, and the band wandering around the studio lot where all these films are being made, and features Annette Funicello, Victor Mature, Sonny Liston, and Frank Zappa.
The soundtrack album, compiled by Nicholson, has a collage style of its own, taking dialogue from the film and recontextualising it, and sounds like nothing so much as the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only In It For The Money. It’s also the album that has least involvement from Davy Jones, the Monkee who was least happy with the film they were making.
Jones’ one vocal lead is on Daddy’s Song, a Nilsson song about his father, very much in the lyrical vein of 1941, and musically similar to Cuddly Toy, the Nilsson song Jones had sung previously with great success. The song had originally featured on Nilsson’s second RCA album, Aerial Ballet, but had been quickly cut when it was chosen to feature in the Monkees’ film.
The Monkees’ version featured Nilsson, with Nesmith and long-term Monkees session drummer Eddie Hoh, as the basic rhythm section in a horn-led arrangement that was very similar to Nilsson’s own earlier version of the song, but playing up the vaudeville aspects of the track. In fact an initial version of the song featured Nesmith, rather than Jones, singing lead, and on this he used a vocal effect to sound like he was singing through a megaphone in the style of Al Bowlly and other pre-electric singers (a similar effect had been used on Nesmith’s song Magnolia Sims on the Monkees’ previous album).
Jones’ vocal mostly ignored the pathos of the song, in favour of its bouncy uptempo feel, and so loses some of the subtlety of Nilsson’s version. Rather than focussing on the harsh lyrics as a way of subverting the music, instead that function is left to Frank Zappa, who in his cameo appearance in the film comments on the song “That song was pretty white”, before noting that Jones had been working on his dancing and should maybe work on his music.
The song is possibly the ultimate example of the direction in which Jones wanted to take the band — the “vaudeville rock” he had been enthusing about in interviews — but perhaps understandably, given the failure of the similar-sounding D.W. Washburn, it wasn’t chosen as the single from the album, with Goffin and King’s cod-psychedelic Porpoise Song, the opening song from the film, being chosen instead. This is a shame, as Daddy’s Song is undoubtedly the best song, as a song, in the whole Head project.
Sadly, both single and album flopped, while the film didn’t gain an audience for more than a decade. The pre-teens who loved the Monkees on TV didn’t want to see a film which included footage of an execution, had the band committing suicide, and had the band mocking their own image, while the college students who might have loved the film wouldn’t be seen dead going to see something with a manufactured band who “didn’t even play their own instruments”. The film eventually found an audience, and was one of the major reasons for the rehabilitation of the Monkees’ image as serious musicians in later years, but in 1968 it essentially killed the band’s career.
Only one of the three TV specials for which they had been contracted was ever made. 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee was the last thing the band would do as a quartet, with Peter Tork leaving as soon as filming ended. It was widely regarded (slightly unfairly) as a disaster, and the network decided to air it opposite the Academy Awards, giving it so little regard that the parts of the show weren’t even aired in the right order.
The Monkees were down to a trio, and their career as hit-makers was over.
Composer: Harry Nilsson
Line-up: David Jones (vocals), Michael Nesmith (guitars), Harry Nilsson (piano), Rick Dey (bass), Eddie Hoh (drums), Tony Terran, Pete Candoli, Buddy Childers, Dick Leith, Lee McCreary (horns) Stu Williamson or Carroll Lewis (flugelhorn), Ray Kramer, Eleanor Slatkin, Emmet Sargeant & Justin DiTullio (cellos), Keith Allison & Bill Chadwick (unknown instruments, presumably additional guitars)
Original release: Head, The Monkees, Colgems COSO-5008
Currently available on: Head, Rhino CD