For all the negative comparisons The Monkees endured to The Beatles, the musical similarity between the two groups is largely superficial. The Monkees material, especially early on, was written and produced by the sort of Brill Building figures that the British Invasion had largely displaced. These records sound like The Beatles only inasmuch as all pop-rock of the mid-’60s followed their lead, coating classic pop structures with a folk-rock or semi-psychedelic sheen. The one place where The Monkees did owe a major debt to The Beatles, however, was their screen personas: A Hard Day’s Night’s flippant, chipper jokers; even moreso Help!’s cohabitating gadabouts contending with surreality. Even if the music sounded only moderately Beatlesesque, the Monkees TV series clearly intended to tap into the Fab Four’s fanbase – in particular, the kids who appreciated the antics and catchy melodies but were left behind by the band’s shift into arty experimentation. So when the time came to introduce The Monkees to the world, via a single released a month before the show’s premiere, it made sense to employ a pastiche of The Beatles’ glory days to convey the gist of the series (conceptually, if not sonically) before a single episode had aired.
Appropriately enough, the most Beatlesy of Monkees singles originated when songwriters/producers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart misheard the outro of “Paperback Writer” as “take the last train.” The sustained falsetto harmony vocals of “Last Train to Clarksville” also draw heavily from that single, with the descending major third on “tra-ain” modeled after the ones on “wri-ter” and “Jac-ques.” (The high, drawn-out pitch also conveniently sounds a lot like a train whistle.) Most of the inspiration for “Clarksville,” however, reaches back a year or two earlier to the friendly folk-pop of Help! and Rubber Soul rather than the more recent, harder-edged material. The prominent tambourine rolls that precede the verses evoke The Beatles’ frequent use of the instrument in that era, as a means of not only adding depth to the percussion but also an element of disruption and edginess – here evoking the restlessness and unease of preparing to depart on an uncertain journey. The main guitar riff, apparently played on a George Harrison-style 12-string, echoes the descending arpeggios of “Help!,” while the “oh no no no” refrain was (according to Boyce and Hart) a conscious negation of “She Loves You”’s “yeah yeah yeah.” Lead singer Micky Dolenz, an American, occasionally even adopts British inflections: the crisp T in “four-thirty,” the long A in the second syllable of “again,” the dropped R in “evah coming home.” (Incidentally, he’s the only Monkee to appear on the track. They weren’t really a band yet, just playing one on TV.)
Despite being an obvious Beatles pastiche, “Last Train to Clarksville” manages the rare accomplishment of standing on its own rather than merely reminding the listener of the superior material it’s copying. Boyce and Hart include enough original hooks to keep it fresh – that “oh no no no” feels like it should have been pulled from a Beatles song, even if it wasn’t – while understanding how to incorporate the cut-and-paste elements so that they speak to the song itself (as with the backing vocals and tambourine), rather than leaning on sheer familiarity. It helps too that The Monkees’ future singles wouldn’t tread the same ground. Having drawn their lineage as successors to the Fab Four’s young fans, they no longer had to directly copy them. “Last Train to Clarksville” may not be particularly sophisticated lyrically – “coffee-flavored kisses” is the closest it comes to poesy – but the sunny folk-rock masks the dark clouds on the narrator’s horizon. There’s even the interpretation, supported by Boyce and Hart themselves, that the song’s narrator is departing for military duty in Vietnam, based largely on the line “and I don’t know if I’m ever coming home” and the coincidence (unknown to the writers at the time) of a basic combat training center located near Clarksville, Tennessee. While this claim to topicality is roughly as probable as that of Martha & the Vandellas’ “Jimmy Mack” (i.e., probably speaking more to the climate of the time than being literally about the war), it does point the way to a defining feature of The Monkees especially on TV and film, of sneaking in evidence of the wider, shifting culture under the guise of kids’ entertainment. 7
Hit #1 on November 5, 1966; total of one week at #1
172 of 1023 #1’s reviewed; 16.81% through the Hot 100