The Monkees “Head”


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 symbolise 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 in 1967 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 millenium, 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 sympathise 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.

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“Porpoise Song”

:D CD Reissue | 1994 | Rhino | at amazon ]
:) Vinyl | 1968 | Colgems | at ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

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  • Kim

    It’s no secret to anyone that I am a huge Monkees fan – I came by it honestly just like any other teenage girl, through hormonal influence initially, but ultimately I remain a fan of their music because it’s good. And I really think it’s good both when the songs are being written by professional songwriters like Goffin/King or when any of the gentlemen themselves are writing the songs.

    I actually think Headquarters, their first self-propelled effort, is my favorite. The Nesmith-penned tracks on that album really stand out.

    You’ve already given credit to the greatest tracks on Head, so I just second all that. Great review! Hits all the salient points. :)

  • “As We Go Along” usually makes it on the ol’ mix tapes.

  • actually.. this record is missing a few tracks that when included make it more cohesive and complete (particularly the happy birthday bit):

    1. Opening Ceremony
    2. Porpoise Song
    3. Ditty Diego – War Chant
    4. Circle Sky (live version)
    5. Happy Birthday To You (crowd scream fade in)
    6. Supplicio
    7. Can You Dig It
    8. Gravy
    9. Superstitious
    10. As We Go Along (Vocal Mix)
    11. Dandruff
    12. Daddy’s Song
    13. Poll
    14. Long Title
    15. Swami Plus Strings Etc.
    16. Ditty Diego – War Chant Untampered
    17. Porpoise Song (studio bonus track)
    18. Circle Sky (studio bonus track)
    19. Porpoise Song (Carol King Demo)

    Anyone interested in a copy can email me… or if you want any other monkee goodnes like headquarters sessions.


  • mark

    thank you for the review of this much-maligned and/or forgotten work. Just a couple of thoughts to place on this virtual table: Nesmith, whose vocals on Head are mixed into the background unfairly, is present here as a remarkable musician. In spite of the efforts by Micky and especially Peter, is the only musician in the group. His solo career saw the critical experimentation of the country-rock genre and produced some remarkable albums. Ditty Diego was penned by Jack Nicholson who was involved in the production of the album and who disliked the Monkees. As much as I enjoy the six songs (especially Porpoise Song, and that Nesmith masterpiece, Circle Sky) I still get a chuckle out of the rest of the material – there is nothing quite like Dandruff – I find that the album is both a critique of the recording industry, the gullible nature of the fans, and the impossibility of any true redemption of this group under the moniker Monkees.
    Your very right in your assessment that the back-up musicians (not exactly “back-up” at all) were a remarkable assortment of excellent musicians – in fact, perhaps we should consider the Monkees and a larger collective of creative collaborators – not just these four front-men.
    Yes, it is dated.
    Yes, the Monkees were pre-fab.
    Yes, Nesmith was a very creative musician.
    Yes, Peter Tork’s post Monkees work (the peter Tork Project) was a bomb.
    Yes, they were designed for a particular, musically uneducated market or teeny boppers.
    Yes, yes, yes…
    I still like them and I still listen to them and I still find moments of greatness and a not unceretain richness in their work.
    Whoever the Monkees were, Long Live the Monkees!

  • Kim

    Strictly speaking, I wouldn’t say Michael Nesmith’s post-Monkees material met with great success, I have no idea what the numbers are in sales but if we’re looking back over the entire 40 years, I’d say both Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith have put out some impressive underappreciated work. I saw Peter Tork and James Lee Stanley twice on tour in the 90s and I really enjoyed those shows.

    The word “bomb” in the context of any post-Monkees efforts is kind of meaningless as I think either of the members who were originally musicians and not actors went off and did things that were not meant to be popular music.

    Long story short:You may not like PT’s music but there are folks out there who do! And he is by all means a musician, just because you don’t like his stuff doesn’t take that away.

    I hope this doesn’t sound too flamey and I am a huge Nesmith fan, but saying he is/was the only musician in the group is a little unneccessarily insulting.

  • mark

    I believe that something needs to be clarified here: there is always someone who enjoys the artistic production of any musician. There are quite a few bands that I listen to, for example, which demonstrate less-than-stellar musicianship. This does not mean that they should not be listened to – there are many reasons why one might enjoy a song or an album outside to the craft of their production or their musical prowess. Opinion, however, cannot or should not pass for knowledge. While one may enjoy Peter Tork, this fact alone does not mean that he demonstrates strong or even good musicianship. I must admit, however, that his work – even at its worst – is far better than I could ever do…
    Continue to enjoy!

  • Kim

    No worries, I think it was the phrase “is the only musician in the group”is what frustrated me. Peter Tork is clearly a musician.

  • Len Liechti

    Agreed. It seems to me that Peter occupied a similar position to that of George Harrison in the Fabs or Brian Jones in the Stones, in that he was a good musician (like Brian, probably the best in the band) and a reasonably competent songwriter who had trouble getting his talents appreciated by the Big Two in the outfit. Like George and Brian, he was probably also less assertive and more withdrawn, and probably got coerced into playing the dummy in the TV series, somewhat out of character. Peter’s post-Monkee history evinces a bad luck streak that shows how hard it is to make it on your own merits after you’ve been part of a top-flight combo, particularly if you’re not as hard-nosed as Nes or Macca.

  • The Monkees were the first band I became a fan of–thru the TV reruns, since I was born the year they debuted–and so, they will always have a special place in my heart. (Any artist that can have both Frank Zappa and The Sex Pistols in their corner, well…)

    Btw, I’ve always thought the “As We Go Along” sequence in Head would’ve made a great video clip for what is undoubtedly one of their best songs.

    Thanks for this post, Len. Cheers to all.

  • james simpson

    i just listened to a song which i always liked (you just may be the one)good lyrics and a good song considering they were labled as non-musicians.this song was also performed by heavyweight stephen stills and thats a testament to thier creative and performing skills. in spite of what some critics have said they were quite good, and very real musicians.

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