For the longest time this album was a real rarity and a curio. When I first worked in record shops as a boy in the mid-80s, you could only get it as a pricey import. Readily available now to download and even on vinyl, it remains something of curiosity.
Of course, that would be bad enough if this was an album by any number of minor players in the US psych scene of the late 60s. But it’s by The Monkees, ferfucksake, from a movie co-scripted by Jack Nicholson and directed by Bob Rafelson. Oh, and it’s fucking great.
Perhaps, as The Monkees’ teenybopper audience started slapping their fins for whatever fresh new fish the corporate music machine decided to throw them, the band failed to find a new, more mature, audience due to a lack of perceived credibility. That might account for the album’s initial lack of success but not its continued relative obscurity. Oh well. Onto the music.
The album is a mashup of dialogue/sfx snippets, incidental music and seven original songs, compiled and sequenced from the film soundtrack by Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson), with the songs produced by the band. It can be something of an assault on the senses but it’s never less than engaging.
Those songs, though, are what make this an honest-to-goodness classic, with most of the tracks being performed by one or two “Monkees” and a host of guest and session musicians. Amongst those appearing on the album are Ry Cooder, Neil Young, Carole King, Dewey Martin, Stephen Stills and Leon Russell.
Porpoise Song (Theme from Head), written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, is one of the great psych-pop recordings. On this version (the 1985 Rhino reissue), the four-minutes-plus running time is more or less commensurate with the better known single version which is odd as the original album version is under three minutes. This seems to be a slightly clunky remix/remaster as there’s what at first listen sounds like a vinyl jump at the beginning of the extended section but which might actually be an audible edit. Whatever, a great number.
Ditty Diego ─ War Chant is a psychedelic piss-take of the original Monkees TV theme, written by Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, in which the band lays out the nature of the movie’s structure and addresses their image (“Hey hey we are The Monkees/You know we like to please/A manufactured image/With no philosophies”). This morphs into Mike Nesmith’s terrific garage rocker Circle Sky which is let down by an appalling mix. The movie version is live and just about perfect but this studio recording, while still worthwhile, has Nesmith’s lead vocal buried so deep in the mix that it’s virtually inaudible. A problem from the original release frustratingly preserved on the reissue.
Can You Dig It, one of two superior writing efforts here from Peter Tork is a guitar-led psych-pop gem with lead vocal from Mickey Dolenz. Interesting side-note: musically, Richard Thompson’s Easy There, Steady Now from 1994’s Mirror Blue is an almost-suspiciously close cousin to this one.
As We Go Along is the album’s mellowest moment, all flute and acoustic guitars. Another Carole King composition (with Toni Stern), this is the one featuring, amongst others, Cooder, King and Young on guitar. Daddy’s Song, written by Harry Nilsson, is entertaining and gives Davy Jones his music-hall moment in the spotlight, followed by Frank Zappa’s fitting comment from the film, “[that] song was pretty white”.
The last “proper” song on the album is a rocker with obvious nods to The Doors, Peter Tork’s Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again? with Tork taking lead vocal and sharing guitar duties with Stephen Stills. With its propulsive bass and frustrated lyric , this and Can You Dig It should serve as a rebuttal to those who buy into the myth that Mike Nesmith was The Monkee’s only real songwriting talent.
The album bows out with Swami – Strings etc., another Nicholson sound collage based around a monologue from the film, a reprise of Porpoise Song and the film’s classical-themed orchestral end music. A suitably chaotic close.
Given its scarcity I willingly shelled out about £6 for the tape. It’s not really in great condition – after a couple of plays I can’t help but note a slightly stretched quality to the less busy passages – and what really disappoints is just how lame the packaging is. Where the original LP came in a “mirrored” sleeve (so you looked at the cover and saw your own head, geddit?) here we have a grey, one-sided j-card lacking any recording or release info, not so much as a songwriting credit. For the factual details above you can thank my ancient creaking memory and Wikipedia. Unless you’re some kind of cassette purist, I’d suggest looking to another format for this one and perhaps avoiding the 1985 reissue due to that odd glitch in Porpoise Song.