California Dreaming: Different Drum

The Stone Poneys had broken up several times.

The Stone Poneys had started out as a folk group, focussing equally on their three members; Linda Ronstadt on vocals, and guitarist/vocalists Bobby Kimmel and Kenny Edwards. But the band had been performing for two years, and while they were a popular live attraction, thanks largely to Ronstadt’s voice and looks, their initial attempts at recording, for Mercury records, had been complete flops. Herb Cohen, the band’s manager, summed the problem up in conversation with Kimmel, saying “Well, I can get your chick singer recorded, but I don’t know about the rest of the group.”

However, during the band’s first short split, Cohen had tried promoting Ronstadt as a solo artist, having her collaborate with Frank Zappa (who Cohen also managed) and Jack Nitzsche, but with no success, and so Cohen went back to promoting the full band, eventually getting Nik Venet (who had been working with Zappa) to sign the Stone Poneys as a band to Capitol. Venet and Capitol were convinced that Ronstadt would eventually become a solo star, but that the Stone Poneys were the best vehicle for her to get experience of recording.

Their first album, The Stone Poneys, was consciously modelled on the sound of Peter, Paul, and Mary, with the trio performing a set of songs much like their normal stage act, but with the addition of session player Jimmy Bond on bass and Billy Mundi of the Mothers of Invention on drums, along with a couple of additional guitarists and Cyrus Faryar, formerly of the Modern Folk Quartet, on bouzouki. The album consisted almost entirely of Kimmel and Edwards’ original material, and was commercially unsuccessful, and the band split up again.

However, Nik Venet still thought the band had potential if he could find the right material — or at least that Ronstadt did. The second Stone Poneys album, Evergreen, vol 2, was to spotlight Ronstadt’s vocals. While Edwards and Kimmel were allowed to write five songs for the album, and provide backing vocals and guitars, Linda Ronstadt was to be the lead singer. Indeed, during the recording of one song, Back on the Street Again, a scuffle broke out in the studio as Edwards and Kimmel turned up — they had not been informed that the session was taking place. Nik Venet was now in charge of the Stone Poneys’ sound, and anyone who wasn’t Linda Ronstadt was unimportant.

The band’s biggest hit seems, in retrospect, almost to be about this process of growing apart from the band, with its “it’s not you, it’s me” lyrical theme. Written by Michael Nesmith before he joined the Monkees, Different Drum had been recorded by the bluegrass band The Greenbriar Boys, who had heard Nesmith perform it at a nightclub and had included it on their 1966 album Better Late Than Never (Nesmith had also busked through a deliberately sloppy performance of the song in an episode of the Monkees’ TV series).

The Stone Poneys had added it to their live set in 1967, in an arrangement reminiscent of the Greenbriar Boys’ version — slow, and driven by mandolin, with a bluegrass flavour. However, Nik Venet, after attempting to record it in this style, was convinced the song could be a hit in a new arrangement. He got Jimmy Bond to write the arrangement up and replaced the two male Stone Poneys with members of the Wrecking Crew.

The result turned a country ballad into a midtempo baroque pop piece, rather to the astonishment of Ronstadt, who had believed she was going to be recording the song with her bandmates and was unprepared to deal with the new arrangement. The arrangement confused her, and she was unable to get the phrasing of the song the way she intended, and she has said in many interviews that she can’t bear to listen to her vocals on the track.

Other people disagreed, though, and it’s easy to see why. Over an arrangement led by Don Randi’s harpsichord, Ronstadt sings the rather callous, whimsical lyrics with an urgency and intensity that runs completely counter to the explicit meaning of the text. While for the Greenbriar Boys, or later Nesmith in his own version, the singer is saying goodbye because the woman he’s singing to is mildly irritating to him and he can’t be bothered any more, and he doesn’t really see why she thinks this is a big deal, Ronstadt’s vocal is begging and pleading. “Please accept this,” her vocal practically screams, “can’t you see I’ve thought about this? Please don’t make this any more difficult. It really isn’t you, it’s me.”

There’s a caution to the vocal, a sense of fear at the response the spurned lover may make, and also a sensitivity to the lover’s feelings, that is completely missing from the other versions, which sounds like a conscious choice made by Ronstadt but is actually her trying desperately to get any kind of usable performance while working in an arrangement she hadn’t rehearsed. Either way, it worked, and the song made the top twenty.

The band broke up after the album was recorded, but before the single — released as by The Stone Poneys featuring Linda Ronstadt — was released. When it became a hit, Ronstadt and Kimmel (Edwards had decided to travel to India) got back together to form a new Stone Poneys, but the band wasn’t to last.

A third “Stone Poneys” album was released, but it was titled Linda Ronstadt, Stone Poneys and Friends, Vol. III and was deliberately intended as a transition to Ronstadt’s solo career. It showed only Ronstadt on the cover, had only two Kimmel/Edwards songs, and was recorded under a solo contract for Ronstadt rather than the band contract. Various different lineups of the band would perform for a while, featuring neither Kimmel or Edwards, but including Nesmith’s frequent collaborators Bill Martin and John Ware, before Ronstadt became a solo artist in name, as well as in fact.

Different Drum
Michael Nesmith

Line-up: Linda Ronstadt (vocals), Al Viola (guitar), Jimmy Bond (bass), Don Randi (harpsichord), Jim Gordon (drums), plus strings led by Sid Sharp. Some online sources also credit Bernie Leadon on guitar. I suspect these are confusing it with a later rerecording, but in the absence of the AFM sheet for the track, I can’t be sure.

Original release: Evergreen, Volume 2, The Stone Poneys, Capitol T2763

Currently available on: The Stone Poneys Featuring Linda Ronstadt/Evergreen Vol.2, Raven CD

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