Michael Nesmith Sings “Harmony Constant”

Listen to this track by one-time wool-hatted Monkee and recognized country-rock pioneer Michael Nesmith. It’s “Harmony Constant”, a deep cut taken from his tongue-in-cheekily titled 1972 album And The Hits Just Keep On Comin‘, his fifth as a solo artist.

That title was applied in a characteristically wry manner by Nesmith, a response to his record company. They had given him a mandate to put out another album quickly after his more experimental Tantamount to Treason, Vol. 1, this time preferably with a hit song or two included in there somewhere. Even if it didn’t set the charts on fire, the result was one of Nesmith’s most celebrated works as a solo artist. It also includes his version of an actual hit song he wrote for The Stone Poneys, “A Different Drum”. So in a sense, Nesmith kept his promise to his record company! Despite all that, a burgeoning number of country-rock songwriters by the early seventies would enjoy much greater chart success than Nesmith himself would, comparatively speaking.

Apart from any (ridiculous) snobbery around his association with a TV pop group, maybe this is down to Nesmith’s unconventional approach to writing country songs. In “Harmony Constant” specifically, there is a distinct contrast between how he presents an eminently hummable tune to lyrics that are high-minded, even touching on the metaphysical. There’s also a curious subtext to be found here that isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill for the standard love song, either. Read more

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The Monkees Play “Daydream Believer”

the_monkees_single_05_daydream_believerListen to this track by enduring multimedia phenomenon that featured ex-jockey and Artful Dodger Davy Jones as a lead singer, The Monkees. It’s “Daydream Believer”, one of their biggest hits and appearing on the 1968 album The Birds, The Bees, and The Monkees.

As with many songs that The Monkees recorded, “Daydream Believer” was sourced from an outside writer. In this case, the writer is John Stewart who was a one-time member of folk group The Kingston Trio. That folk connection seems like kind of an odd fit on the surface of things where The Monkees were concerned, maybe. But producer Chip Douglas, who was a friend of Stewart’s, helped the band turn this into a smash pop single. This is in no small part thanks to Peter Tork, who came up with and plays the bright piano line that helps to define the song so sharply. Additionally, both Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz add their own parts (guitar and backing vocals respectively), making this a full-band effort.

But the one who really shines on this is Davy Jones himself, striking a balance between joy and melancholy that’s as good as any of the best pop songs of the decade. Beyond the era in which it was made, I think this song says a lot about it’s lead singer too, and continues to do so even beyond his time spent on earth singing it. Yet initially, Davy Jones just didn’t get this song. Read more

The Monkees Play “Sometime In The Morning”

MoreoftmListen to this track by enduring four-man multimedia phenomenon Micky, Davy, Mike, and Peter; The Monkees. It’s “Sometime In The Morning”, a deep cut and favourite track off of their mega-selling second album More Of The Monkees, released in January of 1967. The album remained at the number one spot on the Billboard 200 for a big 18 weeks. Meanwhile, this song would appear multiple times in their concurrent and very popular TV show The Monkees including in one of my favourite episodes “Monkee Mother”, guest starring Rose Marie.

Nineteen sixty-seven was a banner year for the group for a number of reasons. First, the TV show was an Emmy-winning hit. Second, their first live appearances as a group starting at tail-end of 1966 were going swimmingly during a time when they were taking heat for being just a pretend group who couldn’t play their own instruments. As far as the “pretend” part of that equation, this was true in one sense; the group they played on TV really was fictional, even though its members had the same names as the four principle cast. In real life though, they were as real as any other band playing shows in front of live audiences. The differences between their two identities, one fictional and one real, may explain the confusion around The Monkees’ authenticity. No one else was doing this sort of thing in quite this way at the time.

Further to that, this dynamic blurred the lines about who was responsible and who should be credited for the music people were hearing and buying. So, when More Of The Monkees hit the racks in January of 1967 to the surprise of The Monkees themselves who had no idea it was even coming out, things were about to get real ugly, real fast. Read more

The Monkees Play “Me And Magdalena”

Good_Times!_(The_Monkees)_(Front_Cover)Listen to this track by golden anniversary-celebrating TV and pop music institution The Monkees. It’s “Me and Magdalena”, a cut from their latest album Good Times!. The record was released this past May, and features the work of several top shelf songwriters, some of whom helped the band to create their earliest hits (Goffin & King, Neil Diamond, Boyce & Hart, Harry Nilsson), and some who grew up with The Monkees and became songwriters themselves (Andy Partridge, Rivers Cuomo, Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller). Adam Schlesinger of Fountains Of Wayne produced the album and wrote or co-wrote a couple of tracks of his own. That’s quite a line-up!

This particular tune was written by Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, known for the unique brand of sombre and melancholic Americana on his own records. Where does that fit in with the happy-go-lucky Monkees? Well, that would be the contributions of Michael Nesmith [note: could this song be a sequel to “What Am I Doing Hanging Round?], who helped to fashion that same moody and rootsy sound from his work with the band to his solo career in the 1970s with the First National Band. Micky Dolenz and Nesmith harmonize on this track in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever heard them do. It is a wonderful surprise just how well they sing together.

That’s the thing with The Monkees. Fifty years later, the band that many people thought weren’t even real had dimension and range to spare all along. That’s why this song works so well, and why it reminds us what this band has always been about since our childhoods. And therein lies the secret ingredient to this song, and to others on the album, too. Read more

The Stone Poneys Sing “Different Drum”

Stone Poneys Evergreen vol 2Listen to this track by Los Angeles-based folk-rock trio featuring ingenue singer Linda Ronstadt. It’s “Different Drum”, a 1967 single as taken from their second album, Evergreen, Vol. 2, which would turn out to be their most successful release.

The song was penned by Michael Nesmith, a member of the Monkees of course, but written in 1965 before his profile was raised by the weekly TV show that made him famous. Even before Stone Poneys got a hold of it, it had been recorded by bluegrass outfit The Greenbriar Boys. Nesmith himself would record his own version of the song on his And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ album in 1972.

In the summer of 1967, this proved to be the first hit single (#13 on the Billboard Hot 100) that singer Linda Ronstadt would enjoy in a solo career that would yield several as the sixties turned into the seventies, and even beyond. Maybe the song’s subject matter inadvertently pointed to the fate of the group; that each member was ultimately headed in different directions to the others before the end of the decade.

Yet I think more interestingly, this take on Nesmith’s tune as re-interpreted by Ronstadt says a lot about its current era of the sixties and how things were changing especially when it came to the roles of men and women. Read more

Former Monkees Guitarist Michael Nesmith Performs ‘Joanne’

Michael Nesmith Magnetic SouthHere’s a clip of former pre-fab four guitarist and country-rock pioneer Michael Nesmith performing his 1970 solo tune ‘Joanne’ as taken from his critically-acclaimed, if not world-renowned Magnetic South album.

The idea to jump headlong into country music wasn’t necessarily a new idea for Nesmith, even when he was one of the Monkees.  Many of the songs he contributed to that group – “You Just May Be the One”, “Listen to the Band”, and others – gave away his love of country music pretty blatantly.  And he wasn’t the first guy to add country to a pop group’s repertoire either.  The Byrds, under the influence of Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman (who later formed the Flying Burrito Brothers), had established a precedent for country rock by recording what is, to my ears, a straight-ahead country album Sweetheart of the Rodeo.  Yet, it started a number of artists down the path of rootsy, country rock.

But,  country rock wasn’t yet a radio staple when this song was recorded.  Nesmith’s  album was released before the age of the Eagles allowed rock and pop musicians to explore country forms and enjoy crossover success too.   Also, there was the stigma of the Monkees to contend with, saddled as they were with the public perception that they were just a TV band, with no real songwriting or musical talent of their own, despite the fact that this wasn’t actually the case.  In some ways, Nesmith deciding to follow a solo career by 1970, and do it while writing in a nascent genre, might have been looked upon by many as a foolhardy move.   The artistic integrity of this decision alone is admirable, but Nesmith’s exemplary songwriting talent makes it only a curiosity.  I personally think that he was just pursuing his natural interest in roots music, which I think is why he succeeds.

Mike Nesmith: my favourite Monkee, and not just because of the hat.

Nesmith seemed to have an instinct for writing interesting lyrics that reflected his times, while at the same time making his songs sound like early country classics, or even old-timey folk-tunes from the mountain.  And his arrangements are both lush, and unobtrusive at the same time, which is certainly showcased well here in this tune.  And I think that this song shows off his vocal talents too, with a high yodel that reflects a classic approach true to the genre, and augments the subject matter of the song; remembrance of a love long gone.

Mike Nesmith continued his solo career through the 1970s, taking time off in the 80s to explore filmmaking and TV production with his company Pacific Arts including the movie Elephant Parts,  which was a pop-experimental film of comedic and musical vignettes which carried on the traditions of the movie he’d made in the 60s with the Monkees, Head. Both of those films are often cited as major influences on the development of music videos during the 80s and onward.  He continues to record today, with sporadic revisits to the Monkees camp, yet still on the same path he took at the end of the 60s, when the shackles of a TV pop image were traded in for his role as proto-alt country innovator.

Enjoy!