And so we come to the last album the four Monkees would all appear on until the mid-1990s.
Head is a wonderful trivia-quiz question supplier – “What album, compiled by Jack Nicholson, features Neil Young, Frank Zappa and Bela Lugosi?” as an example – and by far the strangest album the Monkees ever released.
In late 1968 the Monkees released their film Head. Written by Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson from ideas that the group had supplied, the film is a collage of loosely-interrelated sketches and what would now be called music videos, a psychedelic montage which tries to link the Monkees’ status as plastic pop idols with the Vietnam War, with both being regarded as traps of the mind, to be escaped from by attaining mental or spiritual freedom. It features, among many other scenes, Peter Tork punching a female impersonator, the Monkees as dandruff in Victor Mature’s hair, and Davy Jones beating Sonny Liston in a boxing match.
The film is bizarre, and utterly unlike anything you might imagine from the phrase ‘a Monkees film’, but is in its own way a masterpiece. Probably the closest comparisons are Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels and Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life, both of which came out much later, and neither of which were aimed at an audience remotely comparable to the Monkees’. On top of this, the film had an…interesting…advertising campaign, based around the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, which didn’t bother with giving information like the fact that Head was a film, or that the Monkees were in it, choosing instead just to show the head of advertising executive John Brockman with the cryptic slogan “What is Head? Only John Brockman’s shrink knows for sure.”
The film was, understandably, a gigantic flop, and inspires mixed emotions in the band members these days. Nesmith, when he will speak about the Monkees at all, regards the film as a masterpiece. Tork is proud of it as a technical achievement, but dislikes what he sees as its overly cynical attitude. Jones, on the other hand, loathes it, blaming the film for the destruction of the band’s career.
That may or may not be the case, though from singles sales the band were probably doomed as soon as the TV show went off-air, but what Head did do, very successfully, was show future generations of fans that there was more to the band than the TV show and hits, when shown on late-night TV. Tork, Jones and Dolenz acknowledged this in their most recent (as of this writing) reunion tour, by opening the second half of their show with all the songs from Head.
It’s not the place of this book to go into the film in any more detail, but anyone with any interest in the band should read the slowly-updating but exhaustive analysis of the film and its making by comedy site Some Of The Corpses Are Amusing [FOOTNOTE: http://head.sotcaa.net/ ].
The soundtrack album is, in its own way, as interesting as the film. Edited together by Nicholson, the album was inspired by The Mothers Of Invention’s We’re Only In It For The Money, and mixes the seven songs from the film with collages of dialogue (both from the film and from bits of other films excerpted in the film) and orchestral soundtrack music. All of this was taken out of context, so for example the line “Boys, don’t never, but never, make fun of no cripples” from one scene in the film is followed by “Somebody come up and giggle at ya, that’s a violation of your civil rights” from a vox-pop section, while the question “Are you telling me you don’t see the connection between government and laughing at people?” is followed by Tork’s “Well, let me tell you one thing, son, nobody ever lends money to a man with a sense of humour.”
The result preserves many of the best lines from the film while recontextualising them, and the repetition of different snippets of songs and dialogue gives the album a through-line that’s missing from many of the Monkees’ other records. While this is the Monkees’ most ‘experimental’ album, it’s also, without a doubt, the one that has the greatest feeling of unity to it, thanks largely to Nicholson’s editing.
It’s also, after the largely solo The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees, slightly more of a group effort. While only Ditty Diego (and the live version of Circle Sky used in the film but not the album) features all four Monkees, the majority of the tracks feature two of them. And after Tork’s near-absence from the previous album, and Dolenz’s general lower profile, the two dominate this album at the expense of Nesmith and Jones, who only get one song each. The level of group control over the creative process in this album can be seen by the fact that it’s the only 60s Monkees album to feature no Boyce & Hart tracks.
After this, the Monkees only did one more project as a quartet, the deeply strange and uncommercial TV special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee, the music from which has never been released on CD, before Tork left, frustrated that the four were no longer working together in the studio as a unit.
While the two albums that followed have their moments, this is really where the Monkees meet their end.
All the actual songs on the album are credited as produced by The Monkees, with the exception of Porpoise Song which is produced by Gerry Goffin.
While a 3-CD deluxe edition of this album does exist, it has relatively little in the way of new music, featuring mostly alternate mixes, some live tracks from the concert that was filmed for the Circle Sky scene, and lots of promotional material (radio adverts, interviews with Jones and so on) that doesn’t really come under this book’s remit.
This track starts as a collage of lines from various parts of the film, over sections of music from Porpoise Song , As We Go Along, Daddy’s Song and Circle Sky, while two people say, as dialogue, “Head” ,“Soon”, over and over.
It then cuts to a speech from the opening scene from the film (the dedication ceremony for a bridge), overlaid by additional sound effects.
Porpoise Song (Theme from Head)
Writers: Gerry Goffin and Carole King
Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones
Producer: Gerry Goffin
Other Monkees present: None
This is Goffin and King being all cod-psychedelic, but it works here. While the lyrics are gibberish (where they’re not in-jokes like “riding the backs of giraffes for laughs”, a reference to Dolenz’s child stardom on Circus Boy), the music is perfectly put together.
The verses are, roughly, inspired by A Day In The Life, in their stately rhythm, especially with the piano chords early on, while the bridge and chorus are both tips of the hat to A Whiter Shade Of Pale , being as they are progressions based on a single chord each but with a scalar descending bassline. This is most notable in the organ part, which sounds near-identical to the Procol Harum song.
Both Dolenz (on the verses and bridges) and Jones (on the choruses) turn in stellar performances, but what really makes this track is the extraordinary arrangement by Jack Nitzsche, one of the great unsung heroes of American music in the 60s. He manages to combine a string arrangement perfectly in the style of George Martin (using only double basses and ‘cellos) with the Procol Harum organ, but then adds reverbed, clanking bells to remind the listener of the sea.
This is especially effective on the extended mix used for the single, which features an extended instrumental coda for strings, bells, organ and cymbals that is one of Nitzsche’s most beautiful pieces of work.
The whole thing seems to be a response to the Beatles’ psychedelic work, saying in effect “Okay, we can top that” – an effect which is added to on the album by the police sirens at the beginning, giving a reminder of I Am The Walrus. Unfortunately, the Monkees weren’t able to take the teen audience with them the way the Beatles had, and this single only reached number 62 in the US charts.
Ditty Diego-War Chant
Writers: Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson
Lead Vocalist: All four Monkees
The last pre-reunion track to be released featuring all four Monkees, this is a parody by Nicholson and Rafelson of the Monkees Theme, with verses alternating between skewering the band themselves (“Hey hey we are the Monkees, you know we love to please/A manufactured image, with no philosophies” “Hey hey we are the Monkees, we’ve said it all before/The money’s in, we’re made of tin, we’re here to give you more”) and describing the film’s plot and structure (“We know it doesn’t matter, ’cause what you came to see/Is what we’d love to give you, and give it one, two, three/But it may come three, two, one, two, or jump from nine to five/And when you see the end in sight the beginning may arrive”).
This chant, spoken at times by the full band and at times by individual members, is spoken over a barrel-house piano part reminiscent of silent-film comedy accompaniments, and the whole thing is then sped up and slowed down to sound like the tape is stretched and distorted, before there’s a sharp cut to the band exhorting a concert audience to “Give me a W! Give me an A! Give me an R! What’s that spell?!”
This track is so breathtakingly cynical about the Monkees themselves, it may be the bravest thing ever recorded by a major band. It’s not, however, worth listening to the twenty-two minute session excerpt on the deluxe box set more than once.
One of the oddest moments in Tork, Dolenz and Jones’ reunion tour of the late 80s was that they performed an abbreviated version of this in a hip-hop style.
Writer: Michael Nesmith
Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith
Other Monkees present: None (studio version)/Micky Dolenz (drums), Peter Tork (bass), Davy Jones (maracas and organ) (live version)
The closest thing to a hard rock track the band ever recorded, this is for the most part just hammering away at a single chord in a manner inspired by Bo Diddley (apart from the instrumental breaks, which are just descending bar chords from B to D, and the middle eight, which is the minor-chord equivalent of the breaks). Lyrically, it’s a stream-of-consciousness description of Nesmith’s impressions of a Monkees tour (“Colours, sounds/all around”), although the themes of circularity and repetition (“it looks like we’ve made it once again”) work well with the themes of the rest of the album and of the film.
This song was very specifically written to work well for the band in a live setting, and the performance in the film is taken from a real live show – possibly the first time a rock band had used actual live footage rather than mimed performances in a film like this. However, strangely, the version on the album is a nearly-identical studio take, performed by Nesmith with studio musicians.
This upset the rest of the band, especially Tork, who blamed Nesmith, but Nesmith himself now says that he prefers the live version and had nothing to do with its replacement on the album. Either way, the live version is now included on all CD reissues along with the studio performance.
The band later rerecorded this for the Justus album, making the only song to have been released by the band as part of two proper albums. That version will be dealt with in that chapter.
Some Moog wind effects, a snatch of orchestral music, a cymbal with backwards reverb, and a voice saying “Quiet, isn’t it, George Michael Dolenz? I said…” (the latter taken from a scene in the film where Dolenz becomes delirious in a desert).
Can You Dig It?
Writer: Peter Tork
Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz
Other Monkees present: Peter Tork (guitar and vocals)
This is possibly the most 1968 piece of music ever, with pseudo-Indian sitarish acoustic guitar, bongos, and a chorus that goes “Can you dig it?/Do you know?/Would you care to let it show?”, as well as a long instrumental freak-out at the end.
However, it’s also the Monkees track that changed most from its original conception. Before becoming the minor pop-psych masterpiece it started out as a ragtime-ish acoustic guitar piece that sounded equal parts Blind Blake and Bert Jansch (this version can be heard on the Headquarters Sessions box set), with a bridge that didn’t make it to the final version.
To my ears, that version is even better than the finished record, but the track as heard on the album, with its lyrics about the Tao and ‘exotic’ textures, is still one of the best things Tork ever brought to the group.
The song was originally intended to have Tork singing lead, but Dolenz recorded a new (and extremely good) lead vocal at the request of Rafelson, without any objection from Tork. However, the version with Tork singing lead is available as a bonus track on all CD releases, and Tork now sings this song live.
Side one finishes with Jones saying “And I’d like a glass of cold gravy with a hair in it please”.
A snippet from the 1934 Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi film The Black Cat, briefly seen on a TV in the film. This just consists of David Manners saying “Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me”, with Lugosi replying “Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.”
As We Go Along
Writers: Gerry Goffin and Carole King
Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz
Other Monkees present: None
This gorgeous little ballad is notable for having possibly the most unnecessarily-stellar group of session guitarists ever. The wall of acoustic guitars in Jack Nitzsche’s arrangement, mostly just strumming chords, includes Neil Young, Danny Kortchmar, Ry Cooder and Carole King.
The only song in the film to feature only one Monkee, this is a delicate, yearning ballad, which Dolenz sings perfectly, despite its difficulty. The song is one of the most metrically difficult things the Monkees ever did – starting out with an extended intro in 5/4, once Dolenz’s vocal comes in we have a verse of three bars of 5/4 (in one of which the bass accentuates the wrong beat, adding to the metrical confusion – the bass seems to be implying that these fifteen beats should be broken up 6,4, 5 rather than the 5,5,5 everything else implies) one of 6/4, three of 3/4 and one of 6/4. The chorus, though, is in pretty straight sixes.
This is the kind of song with which King would later have a huge amount of solo success, but as the B-side of Porpoise Song this failed even to make the top 100 in the US. A shame, as while the song is very different from the rest of the Head material, it’s a beautiful, gentle track that deserves a wider audience.
A quick reprise of Lugosi’s line, before brief snippets of three sections of the film – a factory tour in which the band are told “the tragedy of your times, my friends, is that you may get exactly what you want”, a policeman calling them weirdos, and the band being directed to act like dandruff in a commercial.
Writer: Harry Nilsson
Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones
Other Monkees present: Michael Nesmith (guitar)
This Nilsson song was originally recorded during a Nesmith session, with Nesmith singing lead (this version is available as a bonus track on the CDs, and is much better than the released version, with Nesmith’s heavily-processed vocals working wonderfully with the muted trumpet).
The song is one of Nilsson’s more heartfelt, talking about his relationship with his father as a small child, and his sadness and confusion at his father abandoning his family when Nilsson was aged three. Unfortunately, Jones seems to have ignored the lyrical content and treated this as Cuddly Toy part two – understandably, since the songs share a bouncy tempo and 1920s musical style.
There is a longer version of the track, which features both some Nilssonesque additional scat vocals by Nesmith and a much slower rendition of the verse starting “the years have passed and so have I”, where Jones does seem to sing that part sadly – but there, he’s hamming it up to the point of schmaltz.
It’s a great song, but only an adequate performance. If you want a good version of the song, either listen to Nesmith’s subtler vocal or get hold of Nilsson’s own version (on Aerial Ballet).
A collage of spoken snippets from the film, starting with Frank Zappa’s response to Jones’ performance – “That song was pretty white”, and followed with Nesmith saying “And I’ll tell you something else too, the same goes for Christmas”, from a different section of the film, before various other lines of dialogue, sound effects, bits of the vox-pop sections and snippets of Circle Sky.
Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?
Writers: Peter Tork
Lead Vocalist: Peter Tork
Other Monkees present: Davy Jones (backing vocals)
This song was actually intended to have an even longer title, as Tork introduced it in a rare solo gig in the 1970s as “Long Title, colon, Do I Have To Do This All Over Again, question mark, Or , comma, The Karma Blues”
An enjoyable rocker with some extraordinarily mobile bass playing by Tork, this song’s lyrics (“Do I have to do this all over again?/Didn’t I do it right the first time?”) do seem to sum up some ideas about karma (as does the music’s brief drop into waltz time, like a turning wheel always getting back to the same place) but were written about Tork’s frustration with being in the Monkees.
Another hard-rock song in the same style as Circle Sky, this is obviously from the heart, and Tork is almost screaming with frustration by the end. It also, though, makes a perfect end point for the film, which ends at the same point at which it starts.
Swami–Plus Strings, Etc.
Abraham Sofaer, the actor who played the head Genie in I Dream Of Jeannie recites some warmed-over Timothy Leary (with a bit of Thomas Kuhn thrown in, and a touch of Buddhism) as a Maharishi-esque character, while various other bits of the film are heard under him, before we get a chunk of the Porpoise Song and a sprightly Mozart-esque string instrumental by Ken Thorne from the film soundtrack.
The key part of this – and one of the messages of the film – is “Where there is clarity, there is no choice, and where there is choice there is misery.”
Writers: Mildred and Patty Hill
Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Davy Jones
Other Monkees present: None
Some sepulchral (and very effective) block harmonies over a spooky church organ lead into an off-key rendition of Happy Birthday To You sung to Nesmith in the film.
California, Here It Comes
Writers: Buddy DeSylva, Al Jolson and Joseph Meyer
Lead Vocalist: Peter Tork
Other Monkees present: None
A snippet from the end of the 33 1/3 Revolutions per Monkee special, this track consists of a heartbeat, TV producer Jack Good repeating “the end”, and a busked banjo-and-trombone run-through of the old musical number for a few seconds. The lyric change to ‘it comes’ from ‘I come’ was apparently meant to imply an earthquake that will supposedly destroy California.
This is the only track from 33 1/3 Revolutions per Monkee to have been released on CD in any form, as most of the master tapes for that special are missing (and also it wasn’t very good, musically), but it’s fitting, as this really was ‘the end’ of the Monkees, at least as a four-piece band.