Sunday, December 30, 2012

Mike Nesmith's Ten Greatest Monkees Songs

Say what you will about The Monkees (no one has ever pulled any punches before), but even the most blinkered, calloused critics admit one thing about the group they deride as “the Pre-Fab Four”: Mike Nesmith is a great, great songwriter. In celebration of ol’ Wool Hat’s 70th birthday today, I’ve put together a selection of his ten best. Or, more truthfully, my ten favorites.

Narrowing this list down was very, very hard, so I had to put some tough restrictions on myself. Naturally, there would be no songs Mike sang but didn’t write, which is why all of my favorite tracks from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones LTD. are MIA. Out went songs he didn’t write for The Monkees, such as “Different Drum” and my favorite of his solo tunes, “Mama Nantucket”. Even after instating those rules, narrowing the list down was still too difficult, which accounts for my final restriction: no songs Mike co-wrote. That meant three of the most painful cuts: “Sweet Young Thing”, “I Won’t Be the Same without Her”, and toughest of all, “Auntie’s Municipal Court”.

You may still notice that some of your favorite Mike Nesmith solo-compositions for The Monkees are missing from the list. Rest assured they are only missing because it would be kind of dopey to create a list with everything the guy wrote for his group. As far as I’m concerned, he never really wrote a bad Monkees song (one might cite “Writing Wrongs” as an example. I’ve always found it hypnotic and scary, though I can understand why someone else might dismiss it as pretentious rubbish). In any event, here’s the cream of a particularly healthy crop.

1. “Papa Gene’s Blues” (1966)

The Monkees were hardly taken seriously during their own time, but they were subtly innovative as early as their very first album. Nothing in 1966 sounded quite like Mike’s Cajun funk “Sweet Young Thing” (which he was forced to co-write with Gerry Goffin and Carole King) or the exhilarating Tex-Mex jambalaya “Papa Gene’s Blues”. With its rising and falling chord progression and simplistically joyful chorus, it remains one of Nes’s freshest compositions. With its tapestry of percussion and twangy guitars, it is one of his most enthralling productions.

2. “You Just May Be the One” (1966)

Mike’s commercial instincts are even sharper on the ridiculously catchy “You Just May Be the One”. With its cautiously romantic lyric and jittery bass riff, the track was a classic even before it appeared on LP. Several months before The Monkees remade the track for Headquarters, Mike cut a version with studio musicians that was regularly featured in season one of the “Monkees” TV show. With all due respect to the band—and Peter’s amazing bass playing—the Monkees’ version sounds a little too bare bones compared to the nearly overproduced studio-musicians version. I also prefer how Mike rattles off the title line rapidly instead of slow-drawling it as he does on the slightly less exciting Headquarters remake.

3. “Mary Mary” (1967)

Mike didn’t exactly write this for The Monkees. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band recorded “Mary Mary” half-a-year before it appeared on More of the Monkees, but no doubt most people are familiar with the version spotlighting Glen Campbell’s gut-twisting blues riff and Micky’s soul stirring R&B vocal.

4. “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” (1967)
Mike was no dope. Yes, he was a genuine artist who legitimately craved the freedom to create the kind of music he wanted to make, but he also knew that by wrestling control away from “music supervisor” Don Kirshner, he could get more of his songs onto mega-selling Monkees vinyl. Dismissive of The Monkees’ talents, Kirshner went ahead and released a single comprising two middling recordings cut by studio musicians, “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” b/w “She Hangs Out”. The move got Donnie fired, although publishing issues with songwriter Bill Martin meant that the new single could not feature The Monkees’ recording of “All of Your Toys” on the A-side as they’d intended. Instead, “A Little Bit Me” was retained on side A while Nesmith’s “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” sat on side B. The A-side was commercial enough to go top five, but the B-side was the real treasure, buoyed by Mike’s wistful lyric and beautiful vocal interplay with Micky.

5. “You Told Me” (1967)

Mike only placed three of his songs on Headquarters, the first album The Monkees recorded as their own back-up band. However, his twangy, country-pop influence is strong in nearly every one of the record’s excellent tracks. It all gets underway with the powerful “You Told Me”, with its propulsive bassline, enthralling web of vocals, and Peter’s ass-kicking banjo.

6. “Sunny Girlfriend” (1967)

Mike wrote “Sunny Girlfriend” as a simple tune the guys could reproduce on stage with a minimum of fuss. It worked, and the song was a staple of The Monkees’ famed 1967 tour. On record, it was just as effective, borrowing the guitar riff from The Rolling Stones’ version of “It’s All Over Now” and the standard boogie bass line to create a jangly, countrified rocker that sounds uniquely like The Monkees. Mike and Micky harmonize like no one else.

7. “Daily Nightly” (1967)

Mike’s vocals dominate The Monkees’ finest album, yet he only placed two compositions on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones, LTD. He co-wrote the lounge-lizard parody “Don’t Call on Me” with his buddy John London, but handled the superior “Daily Nightly” all on his own. This spacey psychedelic track is an evocative poem based on the recent curfew protests on the Sunset Strip. Micky takes the vocal again, while also unleashing an onslaught of strange squeals and screeches from his newly acquired Moog synthesizer. The bass line’s great too.

8. “Tapioca Tundra” (1968)

Mike Nesmith wrote his weirdest songs to date for The Monkees’ fifth album, The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees. They ranged from the consciously old-fashioned “Magnolia Simms” to the futuristic psychedelic experiment “Writing Wrongs.” It’s hard to feature these two songs springing from the pen of the same man until hearing “Tapioca Tundra”. The track bridges the other two: a vaudevillian romp to be crooned through a megaphone on the one hand; a freak-out with bizarre echo effects and a disturbing climax that suggests Nes plunging to his death on the other. With its frenetic percussion and jolly melody, “Tapioca Tundra” is also a return to the Tex-Mex pop Mike contributed to the first two Monkees records. As the charting B-side of the “Valleri” single, this is surely one of the strangest songs to ever creep into the top forty.

9. “Carlisle Wheeling” (1968)

Mike Nesmith wasn't happy with “Carlisle Wheeling”, hence its failure to appear on a Monkees album in its own time. The lyric about a ripening relationship is a bit-heavy handedly poetic, yet the simple folk melody is astoundingly beautiful. Mike tried rerecording the song several times before realizing its issues laid in the lyric and not the arrangement (he even tried renaming it “Conversations” for a solo remake that went on his Loose Salute album). However, the best version is unquestionably the first, with its spare ensemble of acoustic guitar, drums, percussion, banjo, and organ… and it simply must be heard with the ominous percussive introduction only included on the Missing Links compilation.

10. “Circle Sky” (1968)

The Monkees’ first (and, alas, final) feature film was an attempt to show the guys as they really were: hip to the artificiality of their creation and capable of making truly imaginative music as good as anyone of their pop peers. Part of the plan was to have them play one of the songs live in Head. For this assignment, Mike Nesmith wrote “Circle Sky”. With its surreal lyric and infectious Bo Diddley guitar riff, the track showcased the best of psychedelic progressiveness and Rock & Roll simplicity. The Monkees played the number with enthusiastic aggression in the film, but the swampy studio version is still my favorite by several miles. Mike’s vocal is mixed very low, making him sound like a lost soul hollering in the center of the dense maelstrom of percussion and guitar overdubs. Anyone who thinks Mike Nesmith was some sort of pre-fab puppet who couldn’t make real Rock & Roll needs to hear  “Circle Sky”. It will shut them right the fuck up.

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