The Monkees :: Head (Soundtrack)

Head isn’t the best Monkees album; in fact it contains just six pieces of music, only one of which is a copper-bottomed classic. But it does best symbolize the wonderful set of contradictions that made up the Monkees and their brief top-flight career.

The Monkees were first really brought to my attention when my kid sister pinned a tearout picture from Fab 208 teeny fanzine on her bedroom wall. It showed the band members goofing around in Victorian style striped swimsuits. Her comment was “Haven’t they got nice legs?”. You can imagine the response she received from this then ultra-serious psychedelia and Memphis soul admirer. Actually I had appreciated the excellent first single, “Last Train To Clarksville”, but had not been impressed by the follow-ups, including the turgid “I Wanna Be Free” and the simplistic “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone”. Nothing to lay alongside Pepper, Hendrix and Wilson Pickett there, then. The TV series just irritated me: A Hard Day’s Night reduced to twenty-five-minute knockabouts. And if I did manage to catch the Head movie — I can’t remember if I did or not — its plotless, formless, apparently pointless structure would have had the same effect.

Fast forward to the new millennium, and after decades of derision the Monkees suddenly became hip again in the wake of Britpop, New Psychedelia and other sixties revival movements. I discovered to my surprise that Mickey Dolenz was a peerless pop vocalist, and Mike Nesmith a confident, strident songwriter; that the best songs had been penned by the aristocracy of Goffin and King, Boyce and Hart, Neil Diamond, John Stewart and the Harries Chapin and Nilsson; that with musical backing by Glen Campbell, James Burton, Clarence White, Ry Cooder, Tommy Tedesco, Neil Young (yes, that one) and other A-team sessioneers from both coasts, those tracks were, in retrospect, sublime nuggets of pop; and that Head the movie was a definitive sixties cinematic experience. I came to sympathize with the group’s struggle to escape from the straitjacket of the exploitative entertainment industry, so splendidly satirised in Head in “Ditty Diego – War Chant”. From witless boy-band to The Next Beatles via psychedelia and country-rock, I saw the Monkees for what they really had been: a genuinely ambitious and progressive outfit with real musical integrity, their career cut short by their inability to shed the ludicrous image they’d been saddled with at the start. (OK, maybe scratch Davy Jones, who had zip musical or vocal talent, but provided eye-candy in the same way as Paul McCartney did for the Fabs and Brian Jones did for the Stones, and also shared Macca’s unfortunate penchant for Vaudeville. Nobody’s perfect.)

Head the movie and Head the album represent the Monkees’ final, ill-fated, attempt to break through the cultural barriers. Read about the movie on Wikipedia, if you will; the entry is very good. The album comprises the aforesaid six songs plus a bewildering collage of dialogue and found sounds from the film, deliberately reassembled, reverbed, varispeeded and otherwise twisted to produce a supremely trippy experience not unlike Frank Zappa’s experiments on Uncle Meat. (In fact Zappa also has a cameo in the film.) Of the songs, “Porpoise Song” (Goffin & King) is possibly the best psychedelic single ever released. The live version of Nesmith’s “Circle Sky”, unaccountably passed over on the original album for the inferior studio version, is good enough to have been included on Nuggets. And the reissue CD also includes the original mix of Peter Tork’s “Can You Dig It”, his homespun vocal fitting this deeply psych song better than Micky’s smooth, poppy delivery as used on the final version.

Both movie and album bombed, of course. But the Monkees’ true legacy can be found in the excellent psych artifact which is the reissue CD of Head, and on the absolutely stunning 2008 Rhino 4-CD compilation The Monkees Music Box. Also indispensible is Andrew Sandoval’s definitive book The Monkees: The Day By Day Story. Go explore, and happy hunting. words / l. leichti

MP3: The Monkees :: Porpoise Song (Theme From Head)
MP3: The Monkees :: Circle Sky
MP3: The Monkees :: Can You Dig It

13 thoughts on “The Monkees :: Head (Soundtrack)

  1. i agree about peter’s version of “can you dig it”! “head” has been a personal fave of mine for many years now. it really is a masterpiece of “outsider” filmmaking and i truly believe davy was in the joke.. or maybe not.. anyway, the music is brief but wonderful and i think “as we go along” and “do i have have to do this all over again?” are every bit as good as “the porpoise song”. but then i am a monkees fan so history will inevitably mark me as a man of low standards..

  2. The feeling of ‘Porpoise song’ does (like much of the Monkees’ music) catch some essence of the period. Not supposed to like them? who cares. Thanks for the ‘Heads Up’.

  3. A fan of the Monkees before I was a fan of the Beatles (hey, I was in third grade) I think that’s probably the only reason I could watch the film without being under the influence of a controlled substance. But it does show that they weren’t just teeny bopper pablum and that their heart was in the counterculture. The soundtrack does include some great songs, albeit ones that I didn’t appreciate as much back in third grade.

  4. Yeah, what’s up with the Macca shot? If you’re a Beatles fan, you’re a Macca fan because his DNA is all over every single recording: the bass, the singing, the writing and co-writing, not to mention his own guitar and piano (and drums). He was easily the best musician in the group and his vaudeville predilection was occasional, always tuneful and always enjoyable, and aped by a ton of others, I might add. It’s strange how whenever Ray Davies or Blur does it, it’ vintage British music hall, but when Paul homages the music he grew up to, he’s a tosser. How many rock songs does one have to write before being allowed to stretch out a bit? I’m sorry, but “Honey Pie” is fucking solid. In fact, the Internet has exposed so much of the music of the ’60s to the light of day–some good, some…not…so…good–that it has had the effect of really showing, beyond any doubt, how much better the Beatles were. Like John said, best fucking rock band in the world.

    That said, I remember being a Monkees fan as a kid because I was such a Beatles fan. I remember thinking back then that they had this air of illegitimacy about them even though they had great melodies. I remember getting Head (insert joke here) and thinking “what he fuck is this?” somewhat akin to hearing Freak Out! or the aforementioned Uncle Meat for the first time when you’re 8 years old. Unfortunately, I never returned because my interests went elsewhere. Thanks for throwing this back at me.

  5. The Monkees version of Porpoise Song sounds more ‘just woke up after a three-week acid/DMT/peyote binge and I’ve damaged my brain’. For a far superior version that is actually psychedelic, check out The Church’s ‘Box of Birds’ Covers LP.

  6. I’m glad to hear AD likes “Porpoise Song”as much as I do.

    In fairness to Davy Jones came by his vaudevillian ways honestly, arriving in Hollywood via the British musical theatre/music hall tradition. He and his castmates in the original London cast of “Oliver!” appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show the night the Beatles made their debut. His turn as the Artful Dodger in that show propelled him to teen-heartthrob status in England, and led to his casting as the first Monkee and token British Invader of the group.

  7. Oh dear, the joy of blogging! Time for the hapless commenter to put the record straight. No cheap shot was intended against Mr McCartney, honest. I’m an enormous admirer of Macca, as (a) a Beatle, member of the world’s greatest band ever, (b) a musician – my own first instrument was bass and Macca’s melodic style was my first template, (c) a songwriter with an amazing innate technical knowledge of music, (d) a vegetarian and animal lover, and (e) an all-round ordinary good human being who’s never let fame go to his head. Long may he prosper. That said, I’ve always held that Macca’s songwriting veers between the sublime and the sickly, and some of his solo stuff which didn’t have the other Fabs as a quality filter bears this out. Mull Of Kintyre, Frog Chorus, Wonderful Christmas Time, anybody? Beatlewise, he rarely put a foot wrong, but I’d take Blackbird over Honey Pie any day. If Macca was perfect, he’d be Gershwin. As for Davy, yes, I’d knock him, but if he hadn’t been around there might never have been a Monkees project. File with Stacia, Andrew Ridgeley and Bez as useless but indispensable spare parts.

  8. Thanks for the “Head” mention as it might give some nay sayers second thoughts about the band. The content in the film which was extremely shocking for 1968 still may blow some minds away . Micheal Nesmith’s post career in the early 70s isnt too shabby either. its so nice to get stoned

  9. Thanks for giving deserved props to “Head”. I was in college when the Monkees hit and I liked them, despite the disparaging remarks from music snobs. Well-done Top 40 pop was a nice treat for ears (and minds) travailed by the heavy sounds that were emerging.
    When “Head” rolled out, many of those snobs “got it” and realized the boys had a message for us stoners, albeit a very convoluted one.

  10. Thanks for giving deserved props to “Head”. I was in college when the Monkees hit and I liked them, despite the disparaging remarks from music snobs. Well-done Top 40 pop was a nice treat for ears (and minds) travailed by the heavy sounds that were emerging.
    When “Head” rolled out, many of those snobs “got it” and realized the boys had a message for us stoners, albeit a very convoluted one.

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