As all good students of pop culture know, The Monkees were a '60s group created for a television show about a rock band very much like The Beatles. Once derided for their studio-slick gloss on Beatles music — they recorded songs by such great tunesmiths as Harry Nilsson and the team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and employed the best studio musicians — The Monkees are now viewed as canonical pop of the era, with the music's artificiality no problem for post-rock rock fans heavily into irony and thwarted intentions. If The Monkees had a leader, it was Michael Nesmith, who went on to have a significant post-Monkees career as a businessman-artist.
If you were a kid in the '60s, maybe you were like me: confused about the exact nature of the relationship among The Monkees, The Beatles and The Byrds. They seemed like the same group, and I'd even argue that The Monkees' 1967 single, "Pleasant Valley Sunday," is almost as good as one of its obvious inspirations, The Beatles' "Ticket to Ride." In his post-Monkees career, Nesmith would become a country-rock auteur — "Gram Parsons for television fans," as rock critic Robert Christgau once put it — but his drawling vocal delivery seemed perfect for the small-screen Nowheresville The Monkees represented, even to a kid watching the television show in 1967.
Along with Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz and the late Davy Jones, Nesmith did eventually gain some artistic control within The Monkees, with somewhat predictable results. Their 1968 movie, Head, is only slightly better than Otto Preminger's contemporaneous Skidoo, a direly unfunny satire on hippies and organized crime that briefly featured one of The Monkees' up-and-coming pop songwriters, Harry Nilsson.
What helped to make The Monkees great was the money spent, the marketing campaigns arrayed, and the session musicians and tunesmiths working around the clock. As a moment in the history of the Beatles-influenced rock 'n' roll of the '60s — I recall Richard Meltzer's assertion, in his 1970 book The Aesthetics of Rock, that "Beatle emulation, imitation and plagiarism have been interesting over the years" — The Monkees are significant.
I'd argue that "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and "Last Train to Clarksville" qualify as early power pop, which began when American musicians started to recast the music of The Beatles. Again, Meltzer makes an interesting point: "But only The Monkees (ever since the McCartneyesque 'Last Train to Clarksville') have persisted as objectified 'mere Beatle imitators.' "
As you may imagine, being counted as a mere imitator rankled Nesmith, who had made his bones performing in early '60s Los Angeles folk clubs. Still, Nesmith wrote some of the group's best material, including "The Girl I Knew Somewhere," the B-side of their 1967 single, "A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You."
Nesmith's reputation as a country rocker is founded on two 1970 albums he released with The First National Band. Featuring the brilliant steel-guitar playing of Red Rhodes, Magnetic South and Loose Salute are tongue-in-cheek amalgams of country, Western swing, rock 'n' roll and oddball rhythms. The Loose Salute track "Bye, Bye, Bye" is a superb piece of post-'60s rock-country — a song about a trucker's transformation into a hippie who prefers "living off the land" to returning to his former ways.
South and Salute demonstrated Nesmith's savvy as a conceptualist — the songwriting was frequently inspired, and Nesmith seemed to be aware of the distance between his television-fueled eminence and, well, his real voice. Later in the '70s, Nesmith continued to make such high-concept country-rock records as The Prison and From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing, and branched out into video production.
Apart from his musical accomplishments, Nesmith is a video pioneer — his hourlong 1981 TV show Elephant Parts won the Grammy for Video of the Year, the first given in that category. And he was executive producer of director Alex Cox's 1984 Repo Man, a science-fiction-punk-rock film that helped lay the '60s to its overdue rest.
Last year, Nesmith toured with the surviving Monkees — along with Tork and Dolenz, the Smart Monkee played a series of well-received shows. For his current North American tour, his band includes Nashville multi-instrumentalist Chris Scruggs, who should be able to invoke the spirit of Red Rhodes. These days, of course, I can tell a Monkee from a Beatle, but maybe Nesmith will find a way to blur that distinction again.
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