California Dreaming: Last Train To Clarksville

(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.

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