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