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177) The Monkees – “I’m a Believer”

The future promised by “Good Vibrations” couldn’t last long. After just one week at the top of the charts, it was displaced by the return of the faux-nostalgic, willfully uninspiring “Winchester Cathedral” – a move by the American Record Buying Public that seemed to repudiate their brief dalliance with moving, stimulating pop. But in the nick of time, The Monkees came to rescue arguably the greatest year ever for number-ones from ending on a bum note. “I’m a Believer” isn’t a fraction as innovative as “Good Vibrations,” but whereas that Beach Boys record provided a blueprint for the experimental sounds of emerging FM rock, the success of “I’m a Believer” more accurately predicted pop’s immediate future. The song would go on not only to become the biggest single of 1967, but one of the most popular records ever. (Of the songs that have turned up on this blog so far, only “Sukiyaki” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” have sold more copies worldwide.) The band’s first four LPs would go on to top the 1967 Billboard album charts for a combined total of 29 weeks – more than half the year, and double the length of time that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would spend at the top. More of the Monkees, the LP featuring “I’m a Believer,” would become the first rock album to be the year’s bestseller, a feat not even The Beatles had managed.

As if predicting that Beatlemania was about to be eclipsed by Monkeemania, “I’m a Believer” borrows far less from the Fab Four than had previous single “Last Train to Clarksville.” The guitar riff, melodic bass line and Micky Dolenz’s mid-Atlantic accent are all mildly Beatles-inspired (and the prominent organ recalls tracks like “I’m Looking Through You” from Rubber Soul), but there’s nothing that countless other rock bands of the time hadn’t nicked without drawing comment. In fact, the track it most resembles is its songwriter Neil Diamond’s own hit “Cherry, Cherry,” which broke into the Top 10 in October 1966. The two records share a suspiciously similar rhythm and acoustic guitar/keyboard elements – little surprise, then, that they also share a producer (Jeff Barry) and an arranger/organist (Artie Butler).

But whereas Diamond, a “rocker” in a traditional pop mold, could deck his version of “I’m a Believer” with strings, horns and female backing vocals, a nominal garage rock band like The Monkees needed to keep their instrumentation basic. Instead, the record catches the ear with a dynamic arrangement. The chugging pace of the verses reflects a life trudged through without hope of anything exciting to shake it up – though the handclaps and bright tempo hint at happier times just around the corner. Suddenly, the gears grind to a halt as the narrator finds his life changed in an instant: “Then I saw her face! Now I’m a believer!” The record’s sound immediately grows fuller and richer, augmented by a chirpy organ and livelier backing vocals. But if one dramatic pause weren’t enough to express this radical conversion, a second drives the point home. The proclamation “I’m in love!” is accompanied only by tambourine and a few emphatic guitar strums, intercut with Davy Jones and Peter Tork’s transcendent “mmmm – oh – yeah!” harmony vocals, as sharp and clear as a beam of light through a stained glass window.

As striking as the arrangement is, though, it’s lead singer Micky Dolenz who really sells the song, as a pessimist succumbing to belief in love in spite of himself. His vocal inflections – the sigh of “what’s the use in tryin’,” the slight falter in “not a trace,” the breathless strain on the final “I couldn’t leave her if I tried” – and the way he drags one microsecond behind the beat through most of the song convey the ambivalence of someone who had gotten comfortable with his lack of happiness and isn’t entirely sure he’s ready for a change, even a positive one. By the coda, though, any hesitation in his voice evaporates as his faith in love is made devout. Playing off the title’s religious connotations, the song takes on a gospel flavor as Dolenz and Jones/Tork exchange call-and-response cries of “I’m a believer!” backed by the everpresent organ.

Despite all the dramatic pauses and dynamic shifts, The Monkees & co handle “I’m a Believer” with a light touch, keeping the beat danceable and the tone joyous throughout. Dolenz commits to the emotional arc of the song, but without pushing it to Righteous Brothers-levels of melodrama. Even when the song is at its bleakest (“disappointment haunted all my dreams”), the exaggeratedly monotone “duh-dun duh-dun” backing vocals seem to mock the narrator’s self-pity. More than “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer” sets the template for The Monkees records to come: as clever, experimental and affecting as the best of ’60s pop-rock, but without the burden of taking themselves too seriously. 9

Hit #1 on December 31, 1966; total of 7 weeks at #1
177 of 1030 #1’s reviewed; 17.18% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 09, 1966, 1967

172) The Monkees – “Last Train to Clarksville”

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

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Filed under 07, 1966