Disappointment haunted all my dreams

Mention the name Michael Nesmith, and casual observers of classic rock music might not recognize it. Fans of The Monkees will surely remember him as the tall guitar player wearing a wool hat who often served as the voice of reason amidst the zany chaos of their weekly TV comedy series that ran from 1966-1968.

Michael Nesmith

But even fans of the band’s music and/or TV series might not know about Nesmith’s other notable accomplishments as a songwriter, band leader and video visionary. In light of Nesmith’s death last week at age 78, it seems appropriate to shed a little light on his life to broaden understanding of his talents and influence in the music business through the years.

But first, let’s get a little perspective:

I was only 11, so I didn’t really understand what was happening.  I was pretty much a pawn in the show business game of foisting a product upon an unsuspecting public. It was September 1966, and overnight, I joined millions of other teens and pre-teens in becoming a huge fan The Monkees.

“They’re going to be bigger than The Beatles!” I told my skeptical parents.  “They even have their own weekly TV show!”

This was just what the show’s producers were counting on — gullible American kids buying into the sanitized Hollywood vision of what a rock band should look like and sound like:  Four zany young guys with dreams of making it big, making their way through one silly weekly adventure after the next, always finding a way to work in a “performance” of at least one of their songs, which were often being heard concurrently on Top 40 radio.

And it worked.  For a while.

The half-hour NBC-TV show “The Monkees” was an instant hit in the ratings. At the Emmy Awards nine months later, the program scored an upset by winning Outstanding Comedy Series, triumphing over shows with far better credentials like “Bewitched,” “Get Smart,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Hogan’s Heroes.”

On the Billboard Pop charts, the first singles and albums released by The Monkees all went to #1 and stayed there for many weeks on end.  “I’m a Believer” was the #1 song in the nation for nearly three months.  Here’s a fact that still astonishes me today:  Year-end sales figures for 1967 show that more units of Monkees records were sold than The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined!

But there was a fly in the ointment that soon derailed this runaway success.  When the public learned that the band members weren’t really playing the instruments on the records they were hearing or on the TV performances they were seeing, there was a backlash from which they never fully recovered.  Critics pounced, calling The Monkees “The Pre-Fab Four,” a derisive take on The Beatles’ “Fab Four” nickname.  The TV show lasted only one more season through continually sagging ratings, and was cancelled in the summer of 1968.

Still, there were six commercially huge hit singles between September 1966 and March 1968 that cemented The Monkees’ name in pop music history.  “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “Daydream Believer” and “Valleri” all reached at least #3, with four of them topping the charts.  They’re so ingrained in my head that I could sing you every word of these songs right now, today.  But then the bottom fell out, with each successive single faring worse through 1968 and 1969, and by 1970, the jig was up.

In retrospect, the case can be made that the four individuals who comprised the band — Nesmith, Peter Tork, Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz — were just as much pawns in this show business game as anybody.  They were hired not as musicians but as comic actors playing the roles of musicians in a TV sitcom.

Producer Bob Rafelson had come up with the concept of a TV show about a rock and roll group as early as 1960, but it wasn’t until The Beatles’ spectacular arrival and, more specifically, the success of their film “A Hard Day’s Night” in 1964 that Rafelson got the green light from Screen Gems, the TV arm of Columbia Pictures, to develop his idea.  At first he thought of using an existing pop band to star in the program, but after being turned down by the likes of The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Dave Clark Five, he decided to manufacture his own group.

Rafelson concluded that Jones, whose Broadway acting pedigree had already won him a contract with Screen Gems and Columbia as an actor/singer, would be an ideal choice for this project, bringing a charming Brit-pop sensibility.  The rest of the group would be found through auditions, just as was done with any other TV show at the time.

This was the ad copy that ran in Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter:  “Madness!  Auditions.  Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for four insane boys age 17-21.”

Tork, a budding musician, won one of the three remaining parts, along with Dolenz, a former child actor who had starred in the inconsequential 1950s sitcom “The Circus Boy.”  Rounding out the quartet was Nesmith, by far the best musician of the four, a competent songwriter/guitarist with a droll sense of humor and a business acumen inherited from his mother, an executive secretary who had invented “Liquid Paper” correction fluid and built it into a multi-million-dollar company.

The foursome did what was asked of them, learning their lines and playing their parts on the show. When they showed up at the recording studio, however, Nesmith and Tork were disappointed to learn their musical skills would not be needed.  Dolenz and Jones were tapped to dub lead vocal parts onto the finished tracks.  The show’s musical supervisor was the notorious Don Kirshner, who had selected Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart from his stable of Brill Building pop songwriters to write and produce most of the songs for the group’s first album, “The Monkees,” which was essentially intended as a companion soundtrack to the TV show’s first season.

The first sign of trouble, as far as Nesmith was concerned, was when that debut LP appeared.  “The first album showed up and I looked at it and my heart sank, because it made us appear as if we were a bonafide rock ‘n’ roll band.  There was no credit given for the other musicians who actually played on the tracks.  I went completely ballistic, and said, ‘What are you people thinking?’  And the powers that be said, ‘Well, you know, it’s the fantasy.’  I said, ‘It’s not the fantasy.  You’ve crossed the line here.  You are now duping the public.  They know when they look at the television series that we’re not a rock ‘n’ roll band; it’s a show about a rock ‘n’ roll band.  Nobody for a minute believes that we are somehow this accomplished rock ‘n’ roll band that got their own television show.  You putting the record out like this is just beyond the pale.'”

Kirshner, irritated at Nesmith’s objections, plowed ahead, assembling a dozen more tracks recorded in the same manner and releasing them a mere three months later without the group’s knowledge as the second LP, “More of The Monkees.”  Despite the fact that the album was a big commercial hit, Nesmith and the other Monkees had reached their breaking point about what they felt was nothing short of fraud.  Nesmith persuaded the others to used their leverage to have Kirshner ousted, and The Monkees won creative control of all their recordings from then on.

On those initial two dozen recordings, the musical parts were handled largely by the seasoned pros who made up what was known in some circles as The Wrecking Crew.  Some names you might recognize:  guitarists Glen Campbell, James Burton and Louie Shelton; pianist Larry Knechtel (who later joined the soft-rock band Bread); drummer Hal Blaine; bassist Carol Kaye; percussionist Jim Gordon.  Also contributing were Carole King, who wrote “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and added piano and backing vocals, and Neil Diamond, who wrote “I’m a Believer” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” and added guitar.

It’s kind of unfair that The Monkees were singled out for not playing much on their own records.  Truth be told, this wasn’t all that different from what occurred with other hip groups of the period.  On several of the big hits released by The Beach Boys (“I Get Around,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Good Vibrations”) and The Byrds (“Mr. Tambourine Man”), the drums, bass, guitar and keyboard parts were played by Wrecking Crew session guys because the record label executives didn’t yet have confidence in the band members’ musical abilities.

Glenn Baker, author of “Monkeemania: The True Story of the Monkees,” put his finger on the real problem that tarnished The Monkees’ image, even to this day:  “The rise of the ‘Pre-fab Four’ coincided with rock’s desperate desire to cloak itself with the trappings of respectability and credibility.  Session players were being heavily employed by many acts of the time, but what could not be ignored, as rock disdained its pubescent past, was a group of middle-aged Hollywood businessmen had actually assembled their concept of a profitable rock group and foisted it upon the world.  What mattered was that the Monkees had success handed to them on a silver plate.  Indeed, it was not so much righteous indignation but thinly disguised jealousy which motivated the scornful dismissal of what must, in retrospect, be seen as an entertaining, imaginative and highly memorable exercise in pop culture.”

From my point of view as a teen in 1966-67, The Monkees were definitely entertaining.  My friends and I held instruments and pretended to be Monkees in school skits, aping their movements and lip-synching their lyrics.  The TV show offered half-hour escapes of mindless fun each Monday evening.  Most of the controversy surrounding their legitimacy was, frankly, just not important to me at the time.

The freedom The Monkees won to control their recorded output was complicated by the fact that they didn’t share a common vision regarding the band’s musical direction.  Nesmith favored leaning toward country rock and country blues, the direction his post-Monkees solo career would go.  Jones fancied the more showy Broadway-type music, while Tork and Dolenz enjoyed dabbling in psychedelia and other more avant-garde genres.  Still, they understood the need to maintain some continuity to what their young fan base expected, which was straightforward pop with accessible hooks.

Their 1967 singles “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “Daydream Believer” are still enormously popular today, but their third and fourth LPs, “Headquarters” and “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.,” exemplified the group’s inner turmoil and rudderless direction (although both nevertheless reached #1 on the album charts).  By the time of the fifth LP, “The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees,” the TV show had been cancelled, and the experimental film and soundtrack they released in November 1968, “Head,” proved disastrous commercially, and Tork left the lineup. Efforts to continue as a threesome — 1969’s “Instant Replay” and 1970’s “The Monkees Present” — fell on deaf ears.  The end had come.

Nesmith formed the First National Band in 1970 with songwriting partner John London and steel guitar legend “Red” Rhodes and released three LPs in the space of a year, full of songs Nesmith had been writing throughout the ’60s. But his role as a Monkee haunted him for years to come. His upbringing in Texas had given him his country music roots, and although his pop-star status tarnished his credibility among many musicians at the time, he is now mentioned in the same breath with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers as pioneers of the country rock genre.

(Remember “Different Drum,” the country flavored hit single from 1967 by The Stone Poneys, with then-unknown Linda Ronstadt on lead vocals? Nesmith wrote it.)

It’s interesting to note that both The Monkees’ music and TV show are now regarded with more respect than at their time of release.  If you analyze some of the TV episodes, you’ll find, amidst the silliness, some groundbreaking creativity.  During an era of formulaic domestic sitcoms and corny comedies, it was a stylistically ambitious show, with a distinctive visual style and tempo, an absurdist sense of humor and almost radical story structure.  It utilized quick edits strung together with interview segments and even occasional documentary footage.

It rarely gets the credit for it, but The Monkees’ show was one of the essential pioneers of the music video format. Indeed, in 1979, Nesmith created and produced “PopClips,” a music video TV show that ran on Nickelodeon in 1980-81. He was also behind the VHS release of “Elephant Parts,” a collection of comedy sketches and music videos that saw significant sales in 1981 and won the first Grammy in the Music Video category that year. Warner Cable, who owned Nickelodeon, took Nesmith’s concept, made some minor adjustments, and launched MTV, the game-changing phenomenon of music delivery in the 1980s.

Writing in 2012 at the time of Jones’ death, columnist James Poniewozik said, “Even if ‘The Monkees’ never meant to be more than harmless entertainment and a hit-single generator, we shouldn’t sell it short.  It was far better TV than it had to be.  In fact, ‘The Monkees’ was the opening salvo in a revolution that brought on the New Hollywood cinema, an influence rarely acknowledged but no less impactful.  As a pop culture phenomenon, The Monkees paved the way for just about every boy band that followed in their wake, from New Kids on the Block to ‘N Sync to the Jonas Brothers, while Davy set the stage for future teen idols David Cassidy and Justin Bieber.  You would be hard pressed to find a successful artist who didn’t take a page from The Monkees’ playbook, even generations later.”

Numerous Monkees revival tours have been met with huge, adoring crowds, mostly aging Sixties kids looking for nostalgic memories.  Ironically, MTV re-aired the TV show in the late ’80s, and a new generation of fans hopped on The Monkees’ train.  New albums in 1987 (“Pool It!”) and again in 1996 (“Justus”) weren’t commercial or critical successes, but they served their purpose of keeping The Monkees name before the public.  Tours usually featured only three of the four principals (either Nesmith or Tork holding out), but that didn’t seem to matter to those who bought tickets to see them.

Many middle-aged women wept in 2012 when their teen idol Davy Jones died of a heart attack at age 66.  Social media activity was substantial and brought about increased sales of Monkees material.  Dolenz, Tork and Nesmith collaborated once more on the praised 2016 album “Good Times!” which features several tracks written and sung by Nesmith ( “Me & Magdelena,” “I Know What I Know”).

In 2019, Tork died of cancer at age 77. Dolenz and Nesmith resumed touring in 2020 as “The Monkees Live: The Mike and Micky Show,” and their final performance came at the Greek Theater in L.A. in November of this year, only a month before Nesmith died of heart failure.

He may have had his share of disappointments, but his legacy is intact among those in the know.

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The Spotify playlist below includes The Monkees’ biggest hits, plus Monkees songs written and/or sung by Nesmith, and a sampling of tracks from Nesmith’s solo career.

The music to the story in your eyes

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell. In this essay, I take a detailed look at one of the most important British bands involved in pioneering the challenging genre known as art rock, or progressive rock, in which elements of rock music and classical music merge. Thanks to a substantial fan base, plenty of critical praise, and considerable commercial success with Top Ten singles and #1 LPs in the US and the UK, they grew from modest beginning in the mid-1960s into a bonafide musical legend: The Moody Blues.

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The Moody Blues in 1970: Ray Thomas, Mike Pinder, Graeme Edge, Justin Hayward, John Lodge

Popular music is full of stories of rock groups that were lucky enough to have a #1 single almost right away but then unable to duplicate their success. The record label might stick with them for a year or two, but without sales, the groups lose their contracts and are never heard from again. You’ve no doubt heard such artists referred to as “One-Hit Wonders.”

The Moody Blues, who went on to become one of the most successful British progressive rock groups in history, came pretty close to being saddled with that dubious distinction. They signed a deal with Decca in early 1964 and, before the year was out, they topped the charts in England with “Go Now,” which also broke into the Top Ten in the US. Like much of their repertoire at the time, “Go Now” was a cover version of a rhythm and blues song recorded by an American soul singer, Bessie Banks, with lead singer/guitarist Denny Laine as the front man. But then they struggled unsuccessfully for nearly two years to come up with another hit.

Their 1964 #1 single, with Denny Laine on vocals

Decca was ready to drop them from the roster. But the group had built up a debt that Decca wanted to recoup, so they came up with a plan: Use the Moody Blues to create a rock music version of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” to help promote the label’s new subsidiary, Deram Records, and its new high-end sonic development they called Deramic Stereo. The band had little choice but to go along.

The band quickly reached the conclusion that the project wasn’t going to work. Instead, with support from their producer and engineer, they boldly proposed to write a cycle of original songs about “everyman’s archetypical day” (dawn, morning, mid-day, late afternoon, evening, night) which would then be expanded and connected by classical music passages, written and conducted by Peter Knight and recorded with a session “orchestra” that called themselves the London Festival Orchestra. To their everlasting credit, the label agreed.

“Days of Future Passed” cover, 1967

The album they got, “Days of Future Passed,” was fairly astounding. It is regarded as one of the very first concept albums, released in 1967 in the wake of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” and Pink Floyd’s “Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” neither of which utilized classical music structures and instruments as comprehensively as The Moody Blues did. Although Decca had little hope that the album would sell much, it became a surprise hit, reaching #27 in the UK on the strength of its two singles, “Nights in White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon (#19 and #24 respectively).

It should be noted that the album tanked badly in the US at the time, and critics savaged it. Rolling Stone said, “The Moody Blues have matured considerably since ‘Go Now,’ but their music is constantly marred by one of the most startlingly saccharine conceptions of ‘beauty’ and ‘mysticism’ that any rock group has ever attempted. They are strangling themselves in conceptual goo.” Truth be told, I’ve found the album to be a bit tiresome to listen to all the way through, and the orchestral sections seem rather heavy-handed. But “Days of Future Passed” stands as a landmark LP in its creative blending of rock and roll arrangements with classical song structures and instrumentation.

In the UK, the album’s success gave the group the green light to continue their experimentation. Fortunately, Mike Pinder, one of the group’s founding members, was exceptionally well versed in the Mellotron, an analog antecedent to the synthesizer. It was designed as an organ-like device that used tape heads activated by the touch of keys, and tape loops comprised of the sounds of horns, strings and other instruments generating an eerie, orchestra-like sound. Pinder, who not only knew how to play it but also once worked for the company that developed and built them, was able to perpetuate the group’s use of orchestral sounds without the expense of hiring classical musicians for the recording process.

“In Search of the Lost Chord” cover, 1968

The next Moodies LP, “In Search of the Lost Chord,” revealed the depth of talent of the band’s five multi-faceted musicians. Pinder worked the Mellotron and added piano, harpsichord, autoharp, tambura and spoken vocals. Ray Thomas provided flute, oboe, sax and French horn and vocals. Justin Hayward, who had replaced Laine as their primary singer, played acoustic and electric guitar, sitar and keyboards. John Lodge handled bass, cello and vocals, and Graeme Edge chipped in on drums and percussion. All five were songwriters as well, giving the album a wonderful diversity within the group dynamic. Lyrically, the songs examined themes like higher consciousness (Thomas’s ode to Timothy Leary and LSD, “Legend of a Mind”), spiritual development (Hayward’s “Voices in the Sky”), quest for knowledge (Lodge’s rocker “Ride My See-Saw”) and imagination (Pinder’s “The Best Way to Travel”). All this proved to establish the group as darlings of the counterculture on both sides of the Atlantic while also showing robust sales in the mainstream, reaching #5 in the UK and #23 in the US.

Front-and-back album cover art, 1969

Over the next four years, The Moody Blues honed and embraced this formula, offering five rich, diverse, sonically engrossing albums that achieved ever-higher positions on the charts in both the UK and the US, and Canada and Australia as well. “On the Threshold of a Dream” and “To Our Children’s Children’s Children,” both released in 1969, cemented their reputation as an “album band,” with tracks that segued into one another. Their trippy album cover art further sealed the deal, giving their attitude-adjusted audience something to look at while the music played on. “A Question of Balance” in 1970 and “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” in 1971 brought The Moodies back to the singles charts with two vibrant Hayward compositions: the melodramatic “Question,” with its frenetic acoustic strumming, and my personal Moodies favorite, the hard-rocking “The Story in Your Eyes.”

The band toured incessantly throughout this period, and because some of their pieces proved too daunting to attempt on stage, they found themselves consciously writing tunes that could be more easily recreated in a live setting. Consequently, “Question,” “It’s Up to You,” “Melancholy Man,” “Dawning is the Day,” “The Story in Your Eyes” and “Our Guessing Game” from the 1970-1971 LPs became regulars on their concert setlist.

Re-release single of “Nights in White Satin,” 1972

An unusual thing happened in 1972. While the group’s accurately titled album “Seventh Sojourn” became the first to reach #1 on the US album charts, its two Lodge-penned singles — “Isn’t Life Strange” and “I’m Just a Singer (in a Rock and Roll Band)” — made the Top 40 but were completely overshadowed by the re-release of “Nights in White Satin.” A disc jockey in Washington had been signing off with the five-year-old song, and listeners began clamoring for it. Interest spread to other US markets, and soon Decca/Deram chose to re-release it as a single. It not only reached #2 on the US Top 40, but also brought “Days of Future Passed” to #3 on the US album chart, giving The Moodies TWO albums in the Top Five in December 1972.

Non-stop touring and recording took their toll, and The Moodies chose to go on hiatus for a few years, much to the displeasure of the record label. Pinder had grown tired of England and relocated to California to start a new family there, and Hayward, under pressure to come up with new Moody Blues-like material, teamed up with Lodge and their longtime producer Tony Clarke to make “Blue Jays” in 1975, which reached a respectable #16 in the US and #4 in Britain, even without any noteworthy singles.

The whole band reunited in 1977 to record the so-so “Octave” LP with the below-average single “Steppin’ in a Slide Zone,” but Pinder was so dissatisfied with the result that he refused to participate in the subsequent tour and officially left the group.

Various solo projects by Hayward and others filled the gap for a spell, but by then it seemed the music scene had moved on. Audiences became more fragmented, craving disco, punk, New Wave and heavy metal.

“Long Distance Voyager” cover, 1981

In 1981, though, The Moody Blues came roaring back with “Long Distance Voyager,” a synthesizer-driven #1 pop/rock album carried by two Top 20 Hayward hits, “Gemini Dream” and “The Voice.” A triumphant return to touring, including songs from throughout their catalog, was made possible by the industry’s improved technical improvements in concert sound.

This album, and those that followed over the next decade (1983’s “The Present,” 1986’s “The Other Side of Life,” 1988’s “Sur La Mer” and 1991’s “Kings of the Kingdom”), bore only a little resemblance to the psychedelia and mind-expanding albums of the band’s prime, but the accessible melodies, crisp production and Hayward’s ever-present voice kept the band in the limelight. Indeed, Hayward’s catchy pop song, “Your Wildest Dream,” and its apparent sequel, “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere,” got as much exposure as anything they’d ever done. Still, there were precious few memorable deep tracks behind the singles, certainly a discouraging development to older fans.

The Moodies in 2002, L-R: Edge, Hayward, Lodge, Thomas

The band’s last time in the recording studio was in 2003 when they cobbled together a Christmas-themed album called “December,” which came and went quickly, like most seasonal records. The Moody Blues, augmented by additional performers on stage, continued performing well into the 2010s, with Hayward and Lodge carrying the load. First Thomas and then Edge were forced to reduce their participation due to health issues. Thomas ultimately died of cancer in 2018, and Edge passed away of cancer last week, effectively bringing the story of The Moody Blues to an end.

I can’t think of any other rock band that had the audacity to offer tracks of cosmic poetry, spoken rather than sung, on almost every album. “In the late 1960s we became the group that Graeme always wanted it to be, and he was called upon to be a poet as well as a drummer,” said Hayward about Graeme Edge in the wake of his death. “He delivered that beautifully and brilliantly, while creating an atmosphere and setting that the music would never have achieved without his words.”

There’s a song on “Long Distance Voyager” that, while not one of their better efforts, perfectly describes how The Moody Blues are perceived these days — “Veteran Cosmic Rockers.” Their spacey music and intelligent lyrics mesmerized a sizable fan base during their 1967-1974 era, and their 1981-1991 period perpetuated The Moodies brand as a worthy rock band that absolutely deserved their long-overdue induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

As Edge himself put it in a 2008 interview, “I never get tired of playing the hits. I think we have a duty. You play ‘Nights in White Satin’ for them. You’ve got to play ‘I’m Just a Singer (in a Rock and Roll Band),’ and you’ve got to play ‘Tuesday Afternoon’ and you’ve got to play ‘Question.’ It’s your duty, and the audience’s right.”

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