Listen to this track by former TV band turned actual real life band featured in their own movie, The Monkees. It’s “Porpoise Song”, a 1968 single also to be heard on the soundtrack to the movie Head. The film was directed by The Monkees TV series creator and director Bob Rafaelson who would go on to direct many films into the 1970s, including Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson, who in turn would serve as a screeenwriter on Head. The Monkees TV producer Bert Schneider would also produce the feature. The gang was all here.
In addition to the filmmaking aspect of the project, The Monkees had other allies on this tune, with whom they had a healthy and fruitful relationship; Carole King and Gerry Goffin, who had written a number of other songs in their catalogue, including a hit song in “Pleasant Valley Sunday“. That was during the era in which the band were beamed into living rooms all over the nation. Since that period, they’d cut loose the bonds of their former personas as lovable TV goofs. They had established their own path as a real band without the fuel of a hit TV show to propel them onto the charts.
And yet, with “Porpoise Song” and with Head, that former life was still referenced, although in a more satirical light — or maybe as a way to decompress from it and make their escape once and for all. The results were, perhaps, not as they’d thought.
The movie itself was a bomb. This is possibly because audiences expected a plot of some kind, instead of a series of odd, and loosely structured vignettes. Or at least they were looking for a passing resemblance to what they had already seen on TV. Besides that, the countercultural audience they were shooting for weren’t much interested, thinking The Monkees were too mainstream and jokey to really be taken seriously as satirical social critics, even if Frank Zappa does make an appearance as “The Critic” with that countercultural voice of derision in mind. All the while, the issues of creative control and credit reared their heads again on this project, just as it had done on the show. Considering the players were largely the same, maybe it stood to reason. But, just as was the case before, it’s the music that redeems all of that.
This tune was otherwise known as The Theme From Head, bookending the film and accompanying aquatic scenes that evoke birth, or a rebirth. It seemed to be about the arduous process of transformation from persona to real person, referencing how The Monkees were perceived even by themselves, ending up caught inside what had been created around them. Things really had changed, though since they’d struck out on their own as a real band playing shows, writing songs, and making records without a full-blown production team and session musicians playing the parts. Visually speaking when it came to the movie during this second phase of their career, the new imagery wouldn’t be quite as Hard Day’s Night/Help in nature as it had been on TV. It would be odd, at times even nightmarish, which was a far cry away from their teenybopper audience’s expectations. But, by 1968 it would reflect the times.
The music would authentically reflect the times too. Unlike many Brill Building-era writers by 1968, Goffin and King knew exactly what they were doing during the seismic shift that psychedelia presented to pop songwriters. So did The Monkees. They took the material and made it into something that worked outside of the movie as well as in it. But more than that, they used this song to tell their story as artists who had had to fight for their artistry. If there is a thread to follow in the movie, then this is it.
The absurdist nature of the TV show they’d been in was played strictly for laughs in the spirit of the Marx Brothers. In the film, the absurdism is turned inward. It struck at the heart of the medium itself, including its structure, its tropes, its processes, and its goals of fame and commerce especially during times of social upheaval and changing values.”Porpoise Song” injects a greater sense of personal perspective on all of this. It is about tearing down of their own false images in order to preserve their humanity and their ability to express themselves: “a face, a voice, and overdub has no choice/an image cannot rejoice”. It points out the stifling and dehumanizing nature of being reduced to an image, of effectively not being a real person while stuck inside of a closed system that props up that image.
Maybe this was another thing that sunk the film for audiences; that Monkees fans wanted the image. A movie that says “this thing you’re watching is a lie and you’ve been taken in” wasn’t exactly box office gold for that audience in an era that hadn’t quite come to terms with post-modernism in pop culture. In fact, it looked like an act of self-destruction. Technically it kind of was. Apart from the four Monkees being keen to separate themselves from their manufactured image, it is easily argued that Head was also simply a good way for producers Rafaelson and Schneider to close the lid (quite literally in the movie!) on The Monkees as a filmed project, giving the producers the last word on the subject as the four Monkees are carted away in a box at the end of the film, like any product that can be boxed up.
But again, the music redeems all that.”Porpoise Song” more than stands as a statement about artistic freedom, and individual happiness that goes way beyond all the conflicts that seemed to be attached to the show, the movie, and the band. It remains outside of that box. Even if Head didn’t quite take off (to say the least!), the truth at the heart of this song works beyond that limited context. The Monkees got there eventually in terms of making an artistic impact beyond their image. Cover versions from The Wondermints, The Lightning Seeds, The Church, and others would ensue over the decades from new generations of musicians and fans interested in psychedelia made in new eras. Used in the sixth series Mad Men, set in 1968 and sharing those same themes of image and how it relates to the truth through out that show’s run, it turns out that those themes in this song remain to be resonant in the 21st century, too.
For more information about how Head the movie was made, why it may have been too much for Monkees fans to handle at the time, and what The Monkees thought of it in the ensuing years afterwards, take a read of this article from The Guardian.
As of this writing, you can watch Head on YouTube. Do it while (if?) you can before The Man carts it away in a black box.
[Update, October 8, 2015: Here’s an interesting article that also talks about The Monkees and their dance with credibility outside of their TV images. Interestingly, it advises listeners to stop comparing The Monkees to the Beatles, and instead start comparing them to a Motown group. Hmmm ….]
[Update, November 6, 2018: Here’s an article on Variety Magazine that has Monkees Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith reflecting on the 50th anniversary American Cinematheque showing of Head and its influence on independent film and the breakdown of the then-established Hollywood Studio system. If the movie had any success at all as an artistic statement, it was certainly in this area.]