Yesterday, more-or-less unannounced, extended download versions of Michael Nesmith’s first five post-Monkees solo albums were released.
These albums — the three albums by Michael Nesmith and the First National Band (Magnetic South, Loose Salute, and Nevada Fighter), the Second National Band album Tantamount to Treason vol 1, and the Nez-and-Red Rhodes duo album And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ — are the music on which Nesmith’s artistic reputation rests (although his Monkees-era music is getting something of a reappraisal in recent years). Nesmith recently seems to have been recognising this himself, and put together a small tour earlier this year with a new First National Band Redux (sadly the original First National Band is no longer able to tour due to the deaths of bass player John London and steel guitar player Red Rhodes), which got some of the best notices of Nesmith’s career.
For those who don’t know these albums, they’re very much not what you might expect from the phrase “solo albums by an ex-Monkee” if all you know of the Monkees is the hits. While Nesmith did, in the early years of the Monkees, write powerpop songs that fit the band’s public image (and he did so very, very well — his pop songs, strongly influenced by John Lennon and George Harrison, are some of the best examples of early powerpop), he quickly moved, in later Monkees albums, into a unique style which was influenced by blues musicians such as Bo Diddley, but filtered through Nesmith’s psychedelic country music sensibilities.
People have described Nesmith, thanks to the music he was writing then, as “the father of country rock”, but the music he was creating bore little resemblance to what that genre eventually settled in to. There’s some similarity to the music of Gram Parsons, who had a similar career trajectory, going from LA chart pop music to attempts to synthesise the various different strains of American folk music, but Nesmith is, honestly, better. (Parsons and Nesmith shared a lot of similarities, even down to their fashion sense at the time, both regularly wearing Nudie suits).
What Nesmith does on these first few albums (and intermittently thereafter) is to try to create a whole new style of music; one which takes inspiration from people like Lefty Frizell and Hank Williams in its emotional honesty, but couples that with a sophistication inspired by songwriters like Cole Porter, and with a driving rock beat. On top of that is the expressive pedal steel playing of Red Rhodes, an absolute master of the instrument and the true hero of these recordings. Rhodes’ steel playing can, at times, sound like the conventional country playing one expects when one thinks of pedal steel, but equally it can have a fluidity to it, and a piercing quality, that makes it sound at times more like a theremin or an early analogue synthesiser than like the standard country instrument one expects.
The result is something close to the swamp rock that was becoming popular at the time, but with Nesmith’s pure country keening and Rhodes’ avant-garde country playing over the top, leading to something that could actually be described as progressive country, if such a thing doesn’t sound oxymoronic.
Magnetic South, the earliest album here, is also possibly the strongest set of songs. Nesmith had been far more productive as a songwriter during the Monkees years than the band had space for, and many of his early solo albums contained material he’d originally recorded for Monkees use — in this case five of the eight Nesmith originals (“Calico Girlfriend”, “Nine Times Blue”, “Little Red Rider”, “The Crippled Lion” and “Hollywood”) were songs that Nesmith had worked on during the sessions that became Instant Replay and The Monkees Present. The album also contains “Joanne”, one of the two songs that Nesmith had genuine solo hits with, and Rhodes’ instrumental “First National Rag”, and ends with cover versions of two 1930s country songs — “The One Rose” and “Beyond The Blue Horizon”. It’s a truly great album by any standards.
The expanded edition has five bonus tracks. “Rose City Chimes” was the B-side to the “Little Red Rider” single, and is a cover version of a pedal steel instrumental originally by Bobby Garrett and the Comanches, but also recorded by Buddy Emmons, Ernest Tubbs, and others, and is a fun chance to show off Rhodes’ truly exceptional pedal steel playing.
“Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette” is a comedy talking blues song, originally by Tex Williams, about how annoying it is that smokers have to interrupt everything they’re doing to smoke. Nesmith does a great job on the vocal, and the arrangement is updated from Williams’ Western swing style to something closer to Jerry Lee Lewis.
“Magnolia Sims” is an instrumental backing track for what was intended as a remake of Nesmith’s song from The Birds, the Bees, and the Monkees. While that version had been performed almost as a comedy track, arranged as a 1920s vaudeville song, here it’s played straight, in an arrangement that highlights the song’s similarities to “Joanne” and “Nine Times Blue” (possibly why the rerecording was never completed).
“Born to Love You” is another instrumental backing track, this time for a song that Nesmith would rerecord for his sixth album, Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash. It’s taken at a less plodding tempo than that version, and Rhodes adds some nice pedal steel, and this version if completed might have been better than the version that was eventually released.
And “Hollywood (Alternate Backing Track)” is what the title says, an alternate version of the backing track for the song “Hollywood”. Taken at a much faster pace than the finished version, it’s an interesting take on the song.
Loose Salute is very much Magnetic South Part 2, and features a similar combination of songs Nesmith had written for the Monkees, in this case “Conversations”, which is a retitled version of “Carlisle Wheeling”, which he’d made several attempts at recording in 1968 and 69, and a remake of the late-period Monkees single “Listen to the Band”; new songs, notably “Silver Moon” which was a minor international hit; and an old country cover, here of the old Patsy Cline song “I Fall to Pieces” (performed in an arrangement which owes something to Nesmith’s old friend Harry Nilsson’s song “This Could Be The Night”). It’s not quite as outstanding an album as Magnetic South — it sags a bit in the last half, and would be better described as a good album with moments of greatness than as a great album — but it’s still very worthwhile. However, of these reissues it has the most, and also the most interesting, bonus tracks.
“Different Drum” is a full-band version of Nesmith’s pre-Monkees song, which had been a hit for the Stone Poneys. Here it’s performed in neither the acoustic style which Nesmith would eventually use for its studio release on And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’, nor in the baroque-pop style of the Stone Poneys’ single, but almost as a Western swing song.
“1st National Dance” is a Red Rhodes-driven near-instrumental (the only vocals being Nesmith calling some square dance moves towards the end) which has been included on previous reissues of this album.
“American Airman” is a song I’d not come across before, and appears never to have been released. It’s a country boogie somewhat reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Old Brown Shoe”, a tale of travel from the perspective of a drummer in a country band. All three of these tracks so far are easily equal to the material on the album proper, and better than some of it.
“Bye Bye Bye (alternate version)” is a slightly longer, looser, take on the story-song from the album, about quitting one’s job as a trucker and moving to Mexico.
“Dedicated Friend (alternate version)” is a radically different arrangement from the version on the album — it’s nearly seven minutes long, contains some new instrumental sections that are reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s “Mr Green Genes”, and in its combination of pedal steel and phased fuzz guitar it is also very reminiscent of some of the uptempo material from the Beach Boys’ Carl and the Passions (So Tough). After the song proper ends there’s a near-four-minute instrumental freakout country-psych section somewhat similar to the instrumental sections of “Writing Wrongs”, Nesmith’s song from The Birds, the Bees and the Monkees.
“Tengo Amore (alternate instrumental)” is a radically different arrangement of what was, in its final version, an uptempo song. Here it’s a soft-rocker, with a sound that somehow prefigures yacht rock but also has elements of Philly soul in its staccato sections. It’s utterly unrecognisable as the same song, and manages to be both cheesy as hell and surprisingly beautiful.
And “Loose Salute (Radio Spots)” is actually quite wonderful — it’s a couple of radio ads that Nesmith did to promote the album — except that after saying he was there to promote his own album, he goes on to talk about other albums, not even on the same label, which you should buy instead. On the first one he promotes Layla by Derek and the Dominoes, and on the second Silver Apples of the Moon by Morton Subotnick. It’s absolutely charming, and a perfect example of Nesmith’s sense of humour.
Nevada Fighter is the last First National Band album — the band’s rhythm section quit just before the album finished recording, and Nesmith had to call in James Burton, Ronnie Tutt and Joe Osborne to fill in for the last two tracks. All three were session musicians with whom Nesmith had worked on Monkees records, and Burton and Tutt were also members of Elvis’ TCB Band, whose sound was not a million miles away from Nesmith’s. This album is a marked improvement on Loose Salute, and is split into two very different halves — the first half is made up of Nesmith’s own material, including two of his very best songs, the proto-rap “Grand Ennui” and the gorgeous ballad “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care)” which had first been recorded during the very earliest Monkees sessions. Side two, on the other hand, is made up of songs by other people — Rhodes’ gorgeous instrumental “Rene”, “Texas Morning” by Michael Murphy and Boomer Castleman, friends of Nesmith’s who had written several Monkees songs, a take on the old Sons of the Pioneers song “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” which is fairly straight apart from the processing on the multi-tracked Nesmiths, a version of Derek and the Dominoes’ “I Looked Away” (far and away the weakest song on the album, a bit of a dull plodder), and Nesmith’s gloriously intense version of his friend Harry Nilsson’s “Rainmaker”.
The bonus tracks here are mostly less interesting than on Loose Salute, although still worth a listen. There’s an alternate version of “Texas Morning” with some slight differences in Nesmith’s phrasing, and “Rene (Uncut Version)” which is like it sounds — just a version of the track that doesn’t fade as early, and has about another minute of material.
“Tapioca Tundra (instrumental)” is another attempt at rerecording one of Nesmith’s old Monkees songs, this one originally appearing on The Birds, the Bees, and the Monkees, but this lazy, laid-back swamp rock version, which sounds somewhere between The Band and “Such a Night” era Doctor John, has none of the energy of the Monkees version.
“Roses are Blooming – Come Back To Me Darling” is a country instrumental with some nice work from Red Rhodes. It’s a cover version of an old rockabilly-zydeco song by Joe Therrien Jr, but doesn’t have any of the strangeness of Therrien’s song.
And the album ends with radio spots for the album, and the “trilogy” that these first three albums make up, sadly in a more traditional radio ad style rather than the style of the Loose Salute ones.
Tantamount to Treason vol 1 is the only album by the Second National Band, which featured Nesmith and Rhodes along with a new rhythm section and a keyboard/Moog player. It’s structured similarly to Nevada Fighter, but puts the emphasis on the rock rather than the country, and has a rather thick, phasey, production sound. Like Nevada Fighter, it starts with a run of Nesmith songs (the first four songs on the album, these are comparatively weak here, perhaps unsurprisingly since this was Nesmith’s fourth solo album in less than two years), before going into a second half combining old country songs (a *lovely* version of the old George Jones song “She Thinks I Still Care” and a cover of Pee Wee King’s “Bonaparte’s Retreat”), a song by a band member (in this case “Highway 99 With Melange” by Michael Cohen, the band’s keyboard player, not a favourite of mine), a songs by a friend of Nesmith’s (“Talking to the Wall” by Bill Chadwick), and a cover of a song by a contemporary rock band (in this case “Wax Minute”, written by Richard Stekol of the obscure band Honk, who never recorded it themselves — “Wax Minute” may be Nesmith’s best solo track, and manages to sound more like Nesmith’s writing than most of Nesmith’s own work does). The second half is definitely better than the first, but the whole hangs together rather better than its reputation.
The bonus tracks on this one are again extremely interesting. “Six Days on the Road” is a not-altogether-successful cover of the trucking country song. Nesmith’s version is slowed down to a rather sluggish tempo, rather than the rockabilly boogie of the original or the frenetic bluegrass take of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and this is combined with the rather sludgy, reverb-heavy production of the album as a whole (I have no idea if Nesmith was using cocaine at this point, but the production has a lot of the hallmarks of cocaine-fuelled 70s music). It doesn’t have the tightness of the First National Band recordings, but I imagine I’d like it better if I didn’t know the song from other versions.
“Circle Sky” is a remake of Nesmith’s song from the Monkees film Head, taken at a slower tempo, as a chugging piano-led swamp rocker. No rerecording of this has beaten the live version from the film soundtrack, but the song itself is a strong one.
“Listen to the Band (alternate version)” is yet another recrecording of the Monkees song, here just a piano-led instrumental backing track (apart from one shout of the title by Nesmith), again sounding influenced by the Beatles’ “Old Brown Shoe”, with a very interesting rising instrumental section absent from other versions. It’s a shame that this version was never completed (though it’s understandable, as it had already been released in two studio versions — possibly this and the previous track are recordings of rehearsals for live shows? I miss liner notes when things are digital only releases).
“Tan My Hide” is an instrumental, led by bass, pedal steel, and Moog, which has some sonic resemblance to “Medicine Jar” by Wings. No songwriter is credited. And “You Are My One (instrumental)” is an alternative arrangement of one of the songs from the album.
And finally in this reissue series, we get to what is possibly Nesmith’s best solo album (and the first of his post-Monkees albums to be made up entirely of his own material). And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ is a duo album, with all the songs featuring Nesmith on multitracked vocals and acoustic guitar and Red Rhodes on multitracked pedal steel. Rhodes conjures entire orchestrations just from his pedal steel, managing to sound sometimes like a lead guitar, sometimes like a Moog, sometimes like a string section, with cascading layers of sound rolling through the stereo spectrum like a river, while Nesmith is in wonderful voice. Nesmith’s songwriting is back on form — or perhaps it’s just better served by the sparser arrangements here — and songs like “Harmony Constant”, “The Upside of Goodbye” and “Two Different Roads” perfectly combine his literate lyrics and musical directness. The album also contains Nesmith’s first officially released version of his best known song, “Different Drum”, nearly a decade after it was a hit for the Stone Poneys.
There are four bonus tracks here — “Some of Shelly’s Blues” is a version of one of his Monkees-era songs, which Nesmith has recorded many times. It’s a song that’s wonderfully crafted, but which has an uncomfortable lyric from a protagonist who verges on being a domestic abuser, although in recent years Nesmith has tried with some success to recontextualise the song in his “Movies of the Mind” shows and take much of the sting from it, perhaps realising how dodgy it sounds. It’s a beautiful song, if you can ignore the lyrics.
“Keep On (Alternate Version)” is a different arrangement of one of the songs on the album — and it sounds staggeringly different, especially considering that both arrangements feature only guitar, pedal steel, and voice. While the released version is an almost-yodeled country song, this is a gentle pop-country song that’s not a million miles away from Nesmith’s songs on Headquarters.
“Roll With the Flow (Alternate Version)” is again very different from the version that made the album — here all the instruments are put through fuzzboxes, and we have a far more psych-rock take on the song. There’s even a little percussion on this one — what sounds like a shaker and a set of bongos. Both these alternate versions are very different from the album versions, but still very listenable.
And the extended version of the album ends with “Cantata and Fugue in C&W”, a rather lovely little instrumental, for once dominated by Nesmith’s guitar rather than Rhodes’ pedal steel, but showing him to be a far better player than he’s usually credited for.
All of these albums are at least good, and all have moments of greatness, and I can recommend all of them to anyone who’s interested in how country-rock could have gone in a totally different, much more creative, direction in the 70s. If you’ve not heard these albums already, my recommendation would be to start with Magnetic South and And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’, as the two absolute classics without a sub-par track on either of them. If you have, and are looking to upgrade, I’d suggest starting with Nevada Fighter as the most interesting set of bonus tracks — happily, if you already own these albums, the bonus tracks are available for individual purchase (at least on Amazon), so there’s none of that album-only nonsense.
Whatever you choose, any and all of these albums are definitely worth your attention. They’re great works by a massively underrated musician.
Tomorrow, we go back to the Good Place…
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