Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

California Dreaming: Last Train To Clarksville

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on September 20, 2014

(note, I’m posting this and tomorrow’s post backwards — this comes after Along Comes Mary in the book, but I’ve not finished that essay yet and have done this one).

“Madness!! Auditions. Folk & Roll musicians-singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17 – 21. Want spirited Ben Frank’s-types. Have courage to work. Must come down for interview.”

In late 1965, when Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider placed that ad in Variety, the idea of a TV show about a rock and roll band, something like A Hard Day’s Night, had been in the air for a while. There had been talks with both Jan and Dean and the Lovin’ Spoonful about creating shows for them, but things had fallen through or stalled. Rafelson and Schneider decided they were going to just cast four actors who could also sing as their ersatz Beatles. They would work with Columbia/Screen Gems, who would handle the music side of things, and all their “band” would have to do musically would be to add the lead vocals. They would be in control, and not have to worry about the artistic temperament of a bunch of musicians.

As it happened, while the advertisement brought in hundreds of auditionees, including Paul Williams, Bryan Maclean, Van Dyke Parks, and Danny Hutton, only one person was cast because of the ad, and that indirectly. Steve Stills had auditioned, but (depending on who you believe) either told them he was more interested in writing songs for the show than appearing, or was turned down after the second audition because of his crooked teeth. He suggested that if the producers liked him, they might like his friend, Peter Tork, with whom he was in a band called the Buffalo Fish at the time, as many people said that Tork and Stills could almost be brothers.

Tork was hired, but the other three members of the TV show’s cast were known quantities. Michael Nesmith was a folk singer who had put out singles on ColPix, a label owned by Columbia/Screen Gems under the name Michael Blessing. Davy Jones had also put out an album on ColPix, and was signed to Columbia for development as a screen personality, as his show-stealing performances in the Broadway musical Oliver! and subsequent TV appearances had marked him out as precisely the sort of cute, wholesome, British teenager who would make a perfect teen heartthrob in the days of Beatlemania. Micky Dolenz, meanwhile, was a former child star who’d had his own TV series — and who had developed a seriously impressive vocal ability as he’d grown older.

While all four men could sing as well as act, pre-production on the series started before they were cast, and so in the pilot they mimed to tracks by the Candy Store Prophets, a band that were a side project of staff songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Once the show was picked up by NBC, though, they would be making their own music, or so they were led to believe.

In fact, Nesmith, the most insistent on having some musical input, was allowed to write and produce (but not play on) a handful of tracks, and to have Tork add rhythm guitar on his sessions, but for the most part the music for the show was to be written, produced, and performed by outsiders, and the band members were only to provide lead vocals. In fact the band’s first producer, Snuff Garrett, intended to have only Jones sing on the tracks, but within a few days Garrett was replaced by Boyce and Hart.

Boyce and Hart and the Candy Store Prophets (Gerry McGee on guitar, Larry Taylor, formerly of the Gamblers, on bass, and Billy Lewis on drums), augmented by session musicians, would create finished tracks to which Dolenz or Jones would add lead vocals. Nesmith only sang on his own productions at this point, while Tork wasn’t considered a viable lead vocalist, and neither man was especially happy about being squeezed out of the process of recording songs by a band they were supposedly in.

But at least at first it was hard to argue with the results of that process. Last Train To Clarksville, the Monkees’ first single, is based loosely around the Beatles’ Paperback Writer (Hart had misheard the title as “take the last train” when he heard it on the radio, and used that when he discovered the song’s real title) but with the addition of a variant on the Day Tripper riff and a train-blues rhythm that gives it almost the feel of Smokestack Lightnin’, if it had been recorded by LA pop musicians rather than Chicago blues ones. To top it off, and make sure the Beatles connection was obvious, it had a “no no no” chorus, apeing the Beatles’ “yeah yeah yeah”.

In keeping with the other musical trends of late 1965 and early 1966, the song was, to a first approximation, a protest song, sung from the point of view of a soldier leaving for the Vietnam war, wanting to meet his lover for the last time as “I don’t know if I’m ever coming home”. The need to make the song ambiguous (as the label and TV show certainly weren’t in the business of making political statements) worked to the song’s advantage, as did Micky Dolenz’s vocal, which played up the innuendo of lines like “we’ll have time for coffee-flavoured kisses and a little…conversation” rather than stressing the message, such as it was.

The end result was a song and performance that perfectly captured everything good about pop music in 1966, and when it was released (backed with the Monkees’ version of Take A Giant Step) it started going up the charts even before the TV series premiered. Once the series was on the air, the number one spot was as good as theirs…

Last Train To Clarksville

Composer: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Line-up: Micky Dolenz (vocals), Bobby Hart (backing vocals), Tommy Boyce (acoustic guitar, backing vocals), Gerry McGee, Wayne Erwin, and Louie Shelton (guitar), Larry Taylor (bass), Billy Lewis (drums), David Walters (percussion)

Original release: Last Train To Clarksville/Take A Giant Step, The Monkees, ColGems 66-1001

Currently available on: The Monkees Rhino CD, plus innumerable compilations.

Michael Nesmith, Manchester Royal Northern College Of Music

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on October 29, 2012

This will necessarily be brief, because I only had four hours of sleep last night and I was incoherent even before seeing one of my musical idols. But I promised people a report on the gig, so here it is.

Much like the Beach Boys gigs in Italy, today was a day of coincidences. We’ve got a few people doing a six-week residency at my work, and just as I was leaving, one of them pointed to my Monkees T-shirt and said to me “My girlfriend [in the USian usage, for friend-who-is-female] got married by one of them. Mike… Nesmith, is it?” — Nesmith had officiated at her friend’s wedding. Not only that, but my colleague’s husband turns out to be one of The Golden Dawn, a classic 60s garage-psych band I like. So that was nice.

And then at the gig, after buying myself a T-shirt and a cut-priced box set of Nesmith’s last four albums (with free DVD), I took my seat — I had a great seat, third row centre. Not quite as close as Iain Lee’s description of being so close to Nez at Glasgow that he could see the shape of his penis, but then frankly that’s a good thing. Some things are better left to the imagination — or even better left unimagined.

I found myself sat next to the same person I’d been sat next to at the Monkees gig last year. I’m afraid I talked a bit too much at her, because when I’m this tired I have no filters, but on the upside she turned out to be a fan of classic Doctor Who and Canterbury scene prog, and generally to be a very interesting person. Who I’m sure I bored to death, but I shut up once Nesmith came on.

Nesmith’s show is absolutely stunning. His voice is almost unchanged since the 70s, and those rough edges it does have just give it a worn, comforting quality that, if anything, improves it. And he’s such a great natural singer that he manages to work around the limitations his age imposes in much the same way that someone like Tony Bennett does. He’s got a gorgeous, rich baritone, and I hadn’t realised just how *bloody good* he is until hearing him live.

He was backed by Joe Chemay, who he’s played with since 1979 (and who also played with the Beach Boys in the late 70s), on bass and backing vocals, and by Charlie Judge on keyboards and computers.

Because Nesmith has *radically* rearranged some of these songs, to incorporate electronic soundscapes, beats and samples. This has been the most controversial decision of this tour, but it’s both absolutely right and absolutely wrong. On songs like Silver Moon and Rio, it doesn’t work very well, and it ends up sounding a bit 80s cheese, like someone backing themselves with a Casio keyboard. But on the other hand, on Grand Ennui the result was something like Tom Waits by way of the Radiophonic Workshop, while Laugh Kills Lonesome became space age lounge music, something like Cornelius remixing Esquivel.

Possibly the most interesting reworking was Different Drum, which he performed in waltz-time, to a backing of accordion sounds, and which ended up sounding remarkably like Leonard Cohen.

I’d rather see a performer experiment and fail than not experiment at all, and the experiments worked more often than not. But for those who wanted him to do everything exactly as he used to, many of the most famous songs — Some Of Shelly’s Blues, Propinquity, Papa Gene’s Blues, Tapioca Tundra, Joanne — were done pretty much straight, and worked as well as ever. And the computers were also used on the last song to allow them to fly in Red Rhodes’ original pedal steel solo for Thanx For The Ride, which was a beautiful moment.

The songs worked better than ever, in fact — one thing that people have not properly mentioned in reviews is the way Nez has set the songs up. In order to make them fresh for himself and the audience, he tells a little… story isn’t *quite* the right word, maybe scenario?… before each one, describing a context in which the songs could happen. These are very visual descriptions, told in Nez’s wonderful Jimmy Stewart voice, and they do conjure up very vivid images in the head while listening to the songs. It’s easy to see why he took to making videos with such enthusiasm — the descriptions sound like storyboards for videos.

The interesting thing about these is that the contextualising does help give the songs new meanings. Some Of Shelly’s Blues and Different Drum, for example, are both songs I like a lot but which have a macho arrogance and callousness to them that makes it hard for me to love them. The settings Nez describes manage to remove that sting and make them both seem much more compassionate, empathetic songs, and all the better for it.

The best of these, though, was actually one he read from a book — Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling’s conversation about fate, writing and how art becomes the property of the reader, as recounted in Craig Brown’s Hello Goodbye Hello — which manages actually to make Tapioca Tundra’s lyrics make some kind of sense.

To give some idea of how great Nez is as a live performer, when I saw the other three Monkees last year, even when they were posing for photos outside before the show, I was hit with a rush of childhood nostalgia. “That’s Micky! Off of the Monkees! Off of the telly! It’s MICKY!!!” — they were great, but they could have been godawful and I’d have loved them because I reverted to being eight years old.

On the other hand, when Nesmith mentioned the Monkees, which he did two or three times, I actually thought for half a second “Why’s he talking about the Monkees? Oh yeah! Michael Nesmith is Mike out of the Monkees, isn’t he?” — I was so lost in the music and the show that the fact that the little old man who was playing, talking and singing had a connection to a TV show I loved as a kid (and still love as an adult, of course) was about as important as what brand of shoes he was wearing. I was watching someone with a remarkable voice (and, other than Brian Wilson’s, the most infectious smile of anyone I’ve ever seen) performing songs that are equal parts Cole Porter and Hank Williams, that make up one of the most remarkable catalogues in modern popular music, and that’s pretty much all I was thinking about.

This has been a wonderful year for gigs. I’ve seen Neil Innes play to an audience of about fifty people, and the Beach Boys fill stadia, I’ve seen Ray Davies play Autumn Almanac with just an acoustic guitar, and Van Dyke Parks play Heroes & Villains with the Britten Sinfonia. In a year of wonderful performances by great eccentric 1960s songwriters, it’s impossible to choose a best, but Nesmith’s show was at least comparable to all of those.

He hasn’t toured the UK solo since before I was born, and has barely ever gigged, so it’s not likely you’ll get to see him if you’re reading this and haven’t (although he’s touring the US with the Monkees in a couple of weeks, doing a very different, but undoubtedly excellent, kind of show). But in the unlikely event you do get a chance, *GO*.

Setlist was Papa Gene’s Blues – Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun To Care) – Tomorrow And Me – Grand Ennui – Different Drum – Joanne – Silver Moon – Some Of Shelly’s Blues – Tapioca Tundra – Rio – Casablanca Moonlight – Crusin – Life,The Unsuspecting Captive – Marie’s Theme – Prison Closing Theme – Laugh Kills Lonesome – Thanx For The Ride

The Wrecking [History] Crew

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on October 26, 2012

Proper blog post tomorrow, but I just wanted to rant:

One of the most annoying things in the world is the way the fantasies spread by Carol Kaye are destroying music business history. For years people claimed — because of Kaye and a few others — that the Beach Boys never played on any of their records, and the Wrecking Crew did everything. In fact the only albums where the Wrecking Crew played the majority of the instruments were Summer Days and Pet Sounds.

Similarly, I *keep* seeing people saying that the Wrecking Crew played on the Monkees’ hits. No, they didn’t.  Looking at their famous hits, The Candy Store Prophets played on Last Train To Clarksville, She, I’m Not Your Stepping Stone, Valleri and Words. New York musicians whose names we don’t know played on I’m A Believer and A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You. And the Monkees themselves (sometimes augmented, but as the core of the band, and never by the Wrecking Crew) played on Daydream Believer, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Goin’ Down and Randy Scouse Git.

Here, for the record, is every Monkees song on any of their studio albums or singles that featured mainly Wrecking Crew members (from a list of hundreds of songs) :

Papa Gene’s Blues
Sweet Young Thing
I Don’t Think You Know Me (first version) — not released til the 90s, but I’m being generous here
Mary Mary
The Kind Of Girl I Could Love
The Day We Fall In Love
Laugh
Dream World
We Were Made For Each Other
The Poster
I Won’t Be The Same Without Her
Someday Man
A Man Without A Dream

I may have missed one or two, as I just scanned through the sessionographies, but that’s the lot.

The Wrecking Crew played on many, many great records. But no matter how often Carol Kaye chooses to lie through her teeth, they didn’t play on the Motown hits, they didn’t play on Light My Fire by the Doors, and they didn’t play on any of the significant Monkees records. They also played on far fewer Beach Boys records than people think.

Me On The Radio (Davy Jones)

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on March 1, 2012

I just recorded a rather stuttery interview with Alan Simpson for BBC Radio Ulster, about Davy Jones. I did about five or six minutes, and that will be broadcast, intercut with Monkees music (and hopefully with some of my repe- re- repetition, repetiton, repetition and st-stu-stuttering cut out) some time between three and five today. Those of you who use Flash can hear it on BBC iPlayer. I don’t think I came off particularly well – I’ve got a migraine today – but I hope I did Davy justice.

I may be posting something to the Mindless Ones site about Davy and the Monkees tonight, but then I’ll not be talking about this much more.

RIP Davy Jones

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on February 29, 2012

Some people have said that in my book on the Monkees I’m a little harsh on Davy Jones. It’s entirely possible that I am. But even so, he was capable of some great music, like this:

The thing is, Jones was primarily an actor, rather than a singer or songwriter, which is why he doesn’t come across especially well in my book, because it focuses on the music. Were I talking about the band as *entertainers* though, I would have placed Jones at the top of the list. The man had a stunning stage presence, was effortlessly funny, and seemed a genuinely decent person (as for example in this anecdote from Mark Evanier about an appearance from only a couple of weeks ago)

Davy Jones made my childhood happier with his TV show, and he made my adulthood happier with his work on some of my favourite albums and in one of my favourite films. I feel very, very lucky that I got to see him live on what must now be the last ever Monkees tour.

I have a horrible feeling that my Monkees book will start to sell more, now, for all the wrong reasons. I don’t want to profit off the death of a man I admire, so any profits I make from sales of my Monkees book in March will be given to a Manchester-based charity (since Davy was from Manchester and I live there, I thought that a donation to improve the city he came from would be a good way to go). At the moment, I’m leaning towards the Booth Centre, a drop-in centre for homeless people, but if anyone has any better suggestions let me know in the comments.

Meanwhile, here’s a spotify playlist of some of his best moments as a singer (not all of them — Spotify doesn’t have his lovely version of Nine Times Blue, or the cast album for The Point, or his version of McCartney’s Man We Was Lonely). When he was good, he was *bloody* good, wasn’t he?

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