Friday, November 12, 2010

Meet the Song of the Day: “Love Is Only Sleeping” by The Monkees

In late 1967 The Monkees were still a viable moneymaking enterprise. They’d had three number one albums, two massive number one singles in a pleasantly poppy vein, and an additional two top-five hits. Neil Diamond’s “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” (number 2 in spring ’67) pushed The Monkees deeper into the teeny-bop territory that offended both critics and the boys in the band, but it also had decidedly positive results when bubblegum-inclined musical director Don Kirshner was fired for releasing the record. 

Left to choose, write, and record their own music, The Monkees released their first great album, Headquarters, two months later. Their first great single, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (number 3 in summer ’67), followed after another two months. The track, penned by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, was more sophisticated than any non-group composition The Monkees had yet recorded. The topic, a light jab at the generic suburban communities popping up all over the country, was more interesting than the usual “I love you, you love me, la la la” material Kirshner generally foisted on the band. The guitar riff producer Chip Douglas worked out under the inspiration of George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You” was intricate and catchy in equal measure. The performance was incredibly dynamic, with Mike Nesmith fingering that riff flawlessly, “Fast” Eddie Hoe discharging machine gun drum fills, Douglas supplying the thrillingly upfront bass line, Peter Tork laying down an equally exciting and involved piano part, and all four Monkees contributing to the tapestry of harmonies.

“Pleasant Valley Sunday” was, indeed, an artistic breakthrough for The Monkees, even though it failed to sell quite as many copies as the three singles that preceded it. Regardless, the band and the machine that drove them remained determined to push the boundaries of what The Monkees were supposed to be even further with their next single to be released in the autumn of 1967. For the first time a track with lead vocals by Mike Nesmith would represent the band on 7”. Nesmith did not have the strongest voice in the band— Micky Dolenz was doubtlessly the most traditionally accomplished singer in The Monkees—yet his voice was the most interesting, the one that departed from the group’s bubblegum image most drastically. Nesmith’s hoarse twang is a more unique instrument than Dolenz’s pipes and infinitely more mature than Davy Jones’s munchkin chirp. Using him as lead vocalist on a single intended to sell as many copies as “Last Train to Clarksville” or “I’m a Believer” was a bold decision. 

The track was an unusual choice as well. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil had written some of the biggest hits of the ‘60s, including The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Kicks”, The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, and The Crystals’ “Uptown”. The Tin Pan Alley team also wrote “Shades of Gray”, the default hit from the single-devoid Headquarters. Like “Shades of Gray”, “Love Is Only Sleeping” was an unusually moody, reflective song for The Monkees, dealing with the ups and downs of a relationship in a more complex manner than anything the band had recorded yet. Like “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, “Love Is Only Sleeping” is driven by a wiry, infectious guitar riff and crisp drumming, but the combination of Nesmith’s eerie wail and the psychedelic percussive clicks and clacks that flit through the mix--plus a rather undanceable time signature that lurches between 7/8 and 4/4-- make for a less commercial and far more unsettling sound.

“Love Is Only Sleeping” had a better chance of establishing The Monkees as a serious group than any earlier single. It was primed to snap their image as bubblegum phonies in two and toss the pieces aside. Its B-side chosen, the record was ready to be pressed. Then, suddenly, the Powers That Be got cold feet. The common line is the title was too suggestive for The Monkees’ label, Colgems, apparently the implication being that “sleeping” is synonymous with “fucking.” This story is not completely unlikely. Just a few months earlier American DJs opted to flip over The Rolling Stones’ latest single in fear that the intended A-side, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, was too risqué for U.S. teens. “Ruby Tuesday” proved a sufficiently commercial alternative, and it became The Stones’ fourth stateside number one hit.

Could the commerciality of “Ruby Tuesday” have played a role in the single’s flip, as well? And could such concerns have influenced Colgems to pass on “Love Is Only Sleeping” in favor of its proposed flipside, a song Davy Jones initially refused to sing because he thought it mediocre? I personally think this is the most likely reason Colgems tossed “Love Is Only Sleeping” in the “out” pile and went with the more typically bubblegummy “Daydream Believer” for The Monkees’ fifth single. One certainly can’t argue with the label on that level. The single became The Monkees’ first number one hit in nearly a year, remaining in the top slot until The Beatles displaced it with “Hello, Goodbye”. From a creative standpoint, the move was, at the very least, cowardly. Although it is certainly an impeccable pop production, “Daydream Believer” represents much of what critics dislike about The Monkees, with its lighter-than-air delivery, silly lyric, cutesy vocal, and sing-songy chorus: a limp counterpoint to the maturity and complexity of “Love Is Only Sleeping”. As for Mann and Weil’s usurped masterpiece, it didn’t even make it to the B-side of the “Daydream Believer” single. That honor went to a group composition that was even further out than “Love Is Only Sleeping”; a ferocious, scatting, jazz-rock freakout about a suicide attempt called “Goin’ Down”.

Like “Daydream Believer” and “Goin’ Down”, “Love Is Only Sleeping” would feature heavily in the second season of the “Monkees” TV show. The track also won a position on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones, LTD. (1967) where it contributed immensely to the album’s sophistication and fine quality. The Monkees’ next single marked the first time a Nesmith-sung number made the charts when his self-penned B-side “Tapioca Tundra” went to #34— quite a feat considering it was by far the strangest song to make its way onto a Monkees single. In 1969, Nesmith was given pride of place on two singles with a couple of his pioneering country-rock experiments, “Listen to the Band” and “Good Clean Fun”, but by that point The Monkees had fallen so far out of popular favor that Colgems execs probably couldn’t have cared less what the band released.
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