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
(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.
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
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
The Kind Of Girl I Could Love
The Day We Fall In Love
We Were Made For Each Other
I Won’t Be The Same Without Her
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.