Monday, 30 May 2016

The Monkees: Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part One: 1967-1975





"Live '67"

(Rhino, Recorded August 1967, Released 'mid' 1987)

Last Train To Clarksville/You Just May Be The One/The Girl I Knew Somewhere/I Wanna Be Free/Sunny Girlfriend/Your Auntie Grizelda/Forget That Girl/Sweet Young Thing/Mary Mary/I'm A Believer/Randy Scouse Git/(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone

CD Bonus Tracks: Cripple Creek/You Can't Judge A Book By Looking At It's Cover/Gonna Build A Mountain/I Gotta Woman!

"Everybody say yeah!"

I wonder what would have happened if The Monkees had released 'Live '67' at around the time it was recorded, rather than twenty years later. More modern-day audiences saw this as a mixture of a load of badly recorded noise that was to primitive it made The Monkees sound like The Dinosaurs coupled with surprise that actually a band we'd long been told couldn't really play give it a blooming good go. But what would audiences at the time have thought? Would the sometimes clumsy but always enthusiastic performances here have been enough to stem mid-1967's favourite sport of Monkee bashings? Would audiences more used to being unable to hear their favourite bands under a sea of noise ('The Kinks At Kelvin Hall' and 'The Beach Boys Concert' sound every bit as bad - ditto 'The Beatles Live At The Hollywood Bowl' unreleased till 1977) have been kinder to this record than more modern day reviewers more used to pristine sound from live shows? Or crueller, given that many fans who'd never been to gigs expected them to sound like the perfection of their TV series? I'd love to know - but sadly that's unknowable.

What we do know is that this is a pretty handy souvenir, a 'highlights' set taken up from the only four concerts by the band 'professionally' recorded. The Monkees do an amazingly good job given their limited rehearsal time and the fact that they'd only known each other a year by this point. Micky is a comic mix of grumpy and funny, despairing of things going wrong just like his TV character while playing up to the audience and Peter is having fun ad libbing away like mad and enjoying the audience's cheers, while Davy and Mike largely stay quiet. The performances veer from tight and professional (a rather good 'Last Train To Clarksville' not too far removed from the seasoned session muso professionals, a gorgeous straining-at-the-leash  'I Wanna Be Free' and a pretty good go at tackling the complex 'Randy Scouse Git') to the chaotic and random (a five minute 'Steppin' Stone' that's as big a cross as you'll find between psychedelia and punk). 

Understandably the band play an awful lot of Nesmith songs, with Mike turning in some great vocals and guitar work, though Davy and Peter seem under-used. Sadly the limitations of the LP playing time meant that the Monkees' four solo performances were cut from the record, which though none of them were particularly well performed is a tragedy for The Monkees collector as The Monkees' actually quite interesting and inventive selection of songs gets pared back to songs already released. However what is 'new' - and the record's main selling point to be honest - is The Monkees' humour. Whether it's the audience blinding poor Micky with flash-bulbs before he kick-starts 'I'm A Believer', Peter quipping band in-jokes that only the band can hear anyway (the band joke 'asking that musical question' they 'stole' from a review and which will end up being recycled in the chatter at the start of 'Don't Call On Me' from 'Pisces', plus his beloved Gaberdine suit mutated into a 'Gaberdine voice'), a lengthy 'joke' where Micky kee[ps stopping 'Mary Mary' because he isn't ready yet or Davy getting a cheer simply for saying 'hello' to the audience, The Monkees are having great fun and it's that infectious enthusiasm, rather than the professionalism, you take away the most. 'Live '67' isn't truly essential, it doesn't add much about The Monkees you didn't know and is often a struggle to sit through, but it's a welcome historical record of a fictional band performing live that's a lot better than it has a right to be. 


"Summer '67 - The Complete US Concert Recordings"

(Rhino, Recorded August 1967, Released May 18th 2001)

Introduction/Last Train To Clarksville/You Just May Be The One/The Girl I Knew Somewhere/I Wanna Be Free/Sunny Gilrfriend/Your Auntie Grizelda/Forget That Girl/Sweet Young Thing/Mary Mary/Cripple CReek/You Can't Judge A Book By Its Cover/Gonna Build A Mountain/I Got A Woman/I'm A Believer/Randy Scouse Git (aka Alternate Title)/I'm Not Your Steppin' Stone
The same track listing appears on all four discs taken from the following concerts -

CD One: Municipal Auditorium, Alabama (August 12th 1967)

CD Two: Seattle Centre Coliseum, Washington (August 25th 1967)

CD Three: Memorial Coliseum, Oregon (August 26th 1967)

CD Four: The Coliseum, Washington (August 27th 1967)

"Watch the VU, Hank!"

One of many Rhino 'Handmade' sets in our list, 'Summer '67' is the complete set of the only four properly recorded Monkee live concerts in all their full-length glory before they were cut up, re-sequenced, re-edited and tidied up for release on 'Live '67' and released as a typically generous and slightly over-priced box-set (though a radio broadcast of the band on their 1968 Japanese tour exists as a manic but rather fine bootleg). Monkee haters will wonder what all the fuss is: all the very best performances are out already, the full concerts reveal the band to be frequently shaky and for the technical gremlins to be out in force on all four days, and the exact same setlists is played on all four dates. However if you're a Monkee supporter you'll find yourself cheering the band on the way you do a favourite sports team: it doesn't matter if the band trip over - it's The Monkees; it doesn't matter if the band seem to be recorded down a wind tunnel - it's The Monkees; it doesn't matter if Micky is trying to play, sing and hold his drums in place (as happens at the start of the chaotic fourth gig in Washington, where Micky turns 'guess what? This one isn't tied down to my drum-kit either' into a catchphrase): it's The Monkees. Though the music isn't always the greatest and doesn't always show The Monkees off in the best light, best heard in small doses (and showing what a careful editing job was done on 'Live '67'), their reputation as natural comedians was never higher - especially at the Washington gig where things fall apart fast (other bands would struggle, but broken microphones and collapsing drum-kits are exactly what would happen to the TV series Monkees). 

Even the 'rehearsed' Monkee humour alters slightly from gig to gig, especially Micky and Mike's  multiple endings to 'Mary Mary' which doubles in length each night ('I won't do it again I promise'... 'Mike - You lied to me!'), Davy quoting knowingly from Beatles cover 'Act Naturally' and Micky's impressions of the inimitable James Cagney to fill in time when the stage is being set. Peter even remarks that the album is being recorded for possible release in stereo 'so wherever you're sitting now is where you're going to end up sitting on the record!' before bursting into a bit of the then-brand new title track from 'Sgt Peppers' back when it wasn't even 'twenty years ago' but about  sixty days. The box set is also a welcome chance to hear four 'exclusive' songs performed by each of The Monkees in turn. Though none are up to what they played together, they do reveal the very different contrasting influences that made up the band: Peter's folk on banjo lament 'Cripple Creek, Davy's cheery Broadway on 'Gonna Build A Mountain', Micky's soulful take on James Brown's 'I Got A Woman' which goes on and on and Mike who curiously avoids country altogether for a rocky version of 'You Can't Judge A Book'. No one would ever claim that 'Summer '67' is the greatest live set out there, or that it's the greatest Monkees album you can buy. But it is all great fun and sometimes that's enough.  

Mike Nesmith "The Witchita Train Whistle Sings"

(Dot Records, '1968')

Original Tracklisting: Nine Times Blue/Carlisle Wheeling/Tapioca Tundra/Don't Call On Me/Don't Cry Now//While I Cried/Papa Gene's Blues/You Just May Be The One/Sweet Young Thing/You Told Me

CD Re-Issue Tracklisting: Nine Times Blue/While I Cried/You Just May Be The One/Tapioca Tundra/Don't Cry Now//Carlisle Wheeling/Papa Gene's Blues/You Told Me/Sweet Young Thing/Don't Call On Me

"I have no more than I did before, but now I've got all that I need"

'Witchita' isn't just the oddest Monkees-related album, it's one of the single oddest albums in my collection. Recorded in two days across November 1967 (just after sessions for 'Pisces Aquarius') it teamed Mike with his new Monkee mate arranger Shorty Rogers for a series of instrumental big band arrangements of his Monkee songs, released and unreleased. Somehow despite the big band and one of the biggest names in jazz it still came off sounding like a cross between latin, folk and country! Famously the musicians treated the project as a 'tax loss', assuming that was the only explanation for Mike to hire so many of Los Angeles' best musicians and often pay them double time for lengthy sessions making an album guaranteed not to sell (drummer Hal Blaine recalled later that Mike even hired the best and priciest caterers, which must have been a shock after years of the same low-budget canteen) - in fact Mike's ideas were more artistic than that. By this point he's been a Monkee for over a year and even after 'Headquarters' felt restricted and hemmed in by what Monkee audiences were expecting of him. He also had far more material than could ever be used up on a quarter of an album and probably had an inkling The Monkees wouldn't be around long enough for him to release them with the band anyway. Given that Mike suddenly had pots of money to spend however he chose, making this album is a far more valuable use of his earnings than, say, splashing out on yet another car or house or something, though it should perhaps be viewed as a 'hobby' rather than a 'proper' solo album. Ignored by most reviewers and not a terribly heavy seller with fans (how many teeny-boppers do you know who wanted to hear jazz versions of Monkee songs they hadn't heard yet?) the album has only really been affordable to most fans since appearing on CD for the first time in the year 2000 (with the very different yet similarly brazen instrumental score for the 'Timerider' film on the back).

Actually, the album makes much more 'sense' to modern-day reviewers than it would at the time as yet another strand of the multi-media Monkees 'experiment'. You can tell that it's a record Mike needs to get out of his system before reverting back to Monkee type and is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a restless and suddenly rich musician to make an album with many of the land's finest who he'll probably never be able to afford again. Far from being intended as a Monkee 'cash-in' to make yet more money, as many in-band solo albums often are, it was instead released very much for 'our' benefit - as a time capsule for fans curious about Mike's music to come to later, to see what ideas he already had away from the band. On that score it's a triumph: Mike has hit a rich writing seam and apart from five songs already recorded in very different style with The Monkees ('Papa Gene's Blues' and 'Sweet Young Thing' from 'The Monkees', 'You Told Me' and 'You Just May Be The One' from 'Headquarters' and the only recently issued 'While I Cry' from 'Pisces', the aching album highlight) there are another five songs nobody had heard in any other form at the time. One of them, the creepy 'Tapioca Tundra', will be heard in the new year on 'Birds, Bees and Monkees', with 'While I Cried' tried out for the first time at the same sessions before being released on 'Instant Replay'. Two more songs, the lovely ballad 'Carlisle Wheeling' and even lovelier ballad 'Nine Times Blue' would also later be recorded with The Monkees but won't be released until the Rhino album re-issue series in the mid-1990s. The almost as lovely ballad 'Don't Cry Now' is the one exclusive song here that doesn't seem to have been tried by Mike in another form (although he speaks in the sleevenotes about having already written lyrics for all these songs, so presumably there is a pop 'version' of the song out there somewhere). According to the sleevenotes recordings for 'Different Drum' and 'Mary Mary' were also planned but were dropped before the recording stage as they 'didn't fit' (Mike seems to have passed over his 'other' songs we know for a fact to have been written at this stage like 'The Kind Of Girl I Could Love' 'Sunny Girlfriend' and 'The Girl I Knew Somewhere'). There's still quite a lot to play with here though, with ten very different slices of anarchic madness, caught halfway between traditional and 'grown up' and the youthful sixties spirit of invention and Mike and Shorty work well together, bringing out new sides in each other's work. The album is an awful lot easier to follow when you know the 'other' versions and you can see just what lengths Mike has gone to in order to make them so very different.

However the playing is not quite what it could be. Though Mike is quite right when he claims to have brought in the best of the best, not all of these musicians had worked together before. There's also a slightly Bacchanalian air in the studio, which suggests that most of these recordings were made after a heavy and tipsy lunch across the two days (the CD re-issue ends with thirty seconds of stoned laughter, which funnily enough ends on 'Don't Call For Me' - a song The Monkees had already released followed by rather less convincing stoned laughter).  Not always sure what to do with the band, Mike and Shorty left in many very late-sixties instructions that must have driven the usually-disciplined band to distraction too with instructions like 'improvise here' or 'make a lot of noise' or 'do what you want' written on the score. Even Mike's own sleevenotes (a typical blend of the humorous and the confusing) make the comment 'I can't help feeling that it's all been done in an utterly mad state of confusion!' (they end with what's probably a dig at The Monkees: 'Man constantly must share and wander round a martyred clown in some endless state of confusion'). Though there's a great album in here somewhere, with several of Mike's songs sounding rather good in the new context, it's a genie too large to contain in a bottle with just two days of recording and rehearsal. Mike ought perhaps have been better off booking a smaller band for a longer time - and held back slightly on the alcohol consumption at lunch (that's not me being rude either - Hal Blaine has written about how he'd never been so drunk at work before and his playing especially is uncharacteristically 'scatterbrained' throughout, with the most random drum fills, even if he still manages to hit all the 'important' beats. The horn section, meanwhile, often sounds as if it's giving birth).

However it's worth stressing that 'Witchita' (the album title means nothing apparently - Mike just liked the way it sounded and it may have reminded him of 'Last Train To Clarksville', his very different 'other' musical debut that he had precious little to do with) is far from a redundant LP. Messy yes, difficult to listen to frequently, and yet there's a real sense of excitement and creativity in the air that must have been exactly what Mike wanted. There's a moment near the end of 'You Told Me' where the song seems to have already got as high and as loud as it possibly can - and then it keeps going with a whole key change leaving the band breathless and hoarse; it's simultaneously such a great and painful moment as you realise this is a writer, arranger and band giving their all. 'Don't Call One Me' is perfectly cast in a new role as a sultry orchestral ballad, 'Papa Gene's Blues' sounds oddly convincing as a big band number and 'While I Cried' - already a first-class song when done by The Monkees - has never sounded lovelier than here. If in truth a lot of the rest of the album doesn't quite compete then  at least this is an album that's always trying and is never afraid to fall flat on its face. The obvious comparison is with 'Thrillington' Paul and Linda McCartney's remake of their joint album 'Ram' also done in a big band style: the first listen has you simply asking 'why?', the second has you huffing 'it doesn't sound anything like as good as the original' and the third has you trying to spot songs you know in a different setting like a manic musical version of 'Where's Wally?/Waldo?' (delete according to continent). The fourth listen onwards, however, reveals a much more interesting album that just keeps better with age and repeated hearings, although it's safe to say that neither quite matches the originals. You sense too that it was an album Mike has to make, whether he released it or not, to stop himself going 'mad' - and also marks the first time he met his future collaborator Red Rhodes, who'll be a key part of his solo albums when The Monkees are over. One aspect of the original album that really didn't work was the running order: the band seemed to get drunk, then sober, then drunk again seemingly at random. Mike was never happy with it either and gave the record an overhaul for re-release on his own 'Pacific Arts' label where it now sounds much better slowly descending into chaos across the two sides!

'Nine Times Blue' isn't recognisable as the same song at all (not that anyone would have known it at the time) until a minute in when the horns finally sweep in with the lovely haunting melody. Hal Blaine and fellow drummer Earl Palmer seems to be having muscle spasms while chasing a rat round their drum-kits, but that aside it's one of the tighter arrangements here starting off in slow sympathy and bursting into utter atonal chaos at the end before chillaxing again by the end.

'While I Cried' is the clear album highlight. This was always one of Mike's lovelier melodies anyway but it sounds really good here, given an aching counter-melody from the French Horn (similar, in fact, to the part written by Mike for 'Shades Of Grey') before a sad and wistful trumpet takes over. Around him other brass parts dance and play, but the central theme has never sounded so alone.

'You Just May Be The One' is the only song to feature guitar, although it's Monkee regular James Burton re-turning his guitar while the band march around the room military style. You wonder whether any brass band ever took up this 'cheerleading' version and whether any fans would have recognised a song by the day's biggest teen idols buried within it.

'Tapioca Tundra' was chosen as the single and retains a near-unique accolade for being released in two very different versions as both 'A' and 'B sides' of singles credited to someone else within a few weeks of each other (The Monkees version was on the back of 'Valleri'). One of Mike's most unlistenable rock and pop concoctions actually sounds less palatable when played by brass although the central hook sounds good played by trumpets.

'Don't Cry Now' is the one exclusive song, a cheery folk 'n' brass track that's easy to imagine sung by The Monkees in the style of 'Papa Gene's Blues' with Micky on lead and Peter on banjo. Actually it's famed country legend Doug Dillard taking a break from working with Byrd Gene Clark on the banjo and the song is at its best when played simply and quietly - it rather loses its edge when the mass band join in too and gets very screechy by the end. Nice tune though - it would be great to hear a more Monkeefied version of it one day.

Over on side two 'Carlisle Wheeling' has lost its feeling of inner peace and solitude to become a sexy strut with 'nudge nudge wink' brass trying to knock the solemn brass lick at the heart off its perch of superiority. The 'new' riff ('Bah! Da -da-dah Bah-bah! da da dah') is a good one, but there's no way this arrangement wheels even close to the Monkee or National Band versions and without the expressive thoughtful lyrics the song seems somewhat empty somehow.

'Papa Gene's Blues' works surprisingly well considering that it's probably the most 'poppy' song here. A squeal of strings and a parping trombone stalk the gentle trumpet lead, forever interrupting it's thoughts, as the song is more carefully constructed than the simple rattle of the debut Monkees album version. The slower tempo brings out more of the song's inner beauty too.

There's no way I'd have guessed the next song was 'You Told Me' if I hadn't looked at the sleeve - it has almost nothing in common with The Monkees' stunning version except a certain manic tempo and is one of the noisiest songs on the album, ending in a painful squeal of brass players all trying to outdo each other with pure noise. It's probably the weakest arrangement here.

'Sweet Young Thing' comes over like a James Bond theme and is one of the more successful tracks on the album, with the familiar tune relayed by a series of woodwind in the right-hand speaker, out-drowned by brass and drums maintaining a killer beat in the left channel. Though this song gets rowdy quite quickly too, it keeps stepping back to give us the lovely main riff again and again and is in any case rather better suited to screams of passion and devotion, ending in a fierce bass/banjo/drum duel.

'Witchita' then closes with the aching love song 'Don't Call On Me'. An already pretty song sounds ever prettier when turned into 'lounge jazz', with Hal Blaine trying to solo while the woodwind slowly basks in the warm glow of a stunning string arrangement. Much of the song is bliss, although this track too gets a little too heavy in the middle and actively falls apart at the end, setting the band off in a peal of drunken giggles. 

Overall, then, 'Witchita' is an album it's easier to admire than to love. It's probably split pretty neatly 50/450 between the songs that are enhanced from the very different arrangements and those that are ruined by it, with gorgeous songs sounding either more gorgeous or being so top-heavy they can't help but fall over. What the record does demonstrate, though, is just how naturally musically gifted Mike was and how brave he was to release an album like this at the height of Monkee bashing, sailing way over the heads over an audience who would have bought almost anything else with his name attached to it. Though the project remains a slightly failed experiment, sometimes simply being an experiment and testing the waters is enough. 

"Greatest Hits"

(Colgems, June 9th 1969)

Daydream Believer/Pleasant Valley Sunday/Cuddly Toy/Shades Of Grey/Zor and Zam/A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You/She//Randy Scouse Git/I Wanna Be Free/I'm A Believer/Valleri/Mary Mary/(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone/The Last Train To Clarksville

"It's just a pleasant valley sunday, here in status symbol land"

The first Monkees best-of predictably came out during a gap in the band's third year - the exact time all record labels in the 1960s seemed to go into overdrive and release these sorts of albums. However The Monkees' career went by at a quicker and more frenetic pace than most and by the band's third years they were more or less over, with just two chart-missing albums to come. Trying to sift through the major changes of 1966-1969 was no easy task and Colgems largely just ignore it, sticking instead to a predictable run of the hits (including the first ever appearance on an album of non-single 'A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You') with a few actually highly welcome selections from the album tracks such as 'Mary Mary'  'Shades Of Grey' 'Cuddly Toy' and 'Zor and Zam'. As a Monkees fan of the late 1960s who probably couldn't have afforded all of the earlier albums I'd have been very pleased, although Colgems lost a trick by giving such a vibrant and colourful group such a bland and dark from cover. With nothing except the title letters written in red over a black background, this feels more like a funeral than a celebration and predictably did very badly in the charts, its US peak of #89 actually worse than either 'Head' or 'Instant Replay'. A 'volume two', planned with similar clockwork-speed for the band's fifth year in 1971, was cancelled at the last minute. Test pressings reveal that it would have had more of a 'collector's feel to it with some rare singles and B-sides made up of following: (Theme From) The Monkees/Porpoise Song/Someday Man/Good Clean Fun/Oh My My/What Am I Doin' Hangin' Round?/D W Washburn//For Pete's Sake/Listen To The Band/It's Nice To Be With You/The Girl I Knew Somewhere/Tear Drop City/Long Title/Goin' Down

Mike Nesmith/The First National Band

"Magnetic South"

(RCA, June 1970)

Calico Girlfriend/Nine Times Blue/Little Red Rider/The Crippled Lion/Joanne/The First National Rag//Mama Nantucket/Keys To The Car/Hollywood/One Rose/Beyond The Blue Horizon

"Wandering over the roadway, changing the sign and the times"

While Micky and Davy are being told what to do, Mike is getting his first taste of freedom - and he's loving it. 'Magnetic South' is a debut that finally allows him to indulge in writing, production and singing without having to cater for anyone else except the close buddies of his first band (including Monkees sessions regular John London on bass). The album pretty much follows on from where Mike's country-ish songs for The Monkees left-off (particularly the outtakes heard on 'Missing Links III') with re-recordings of several Monkees rejects such as 'Nine Times Blues' 'Little Red Rider' 'Hollywood' 'The Crippled Lion' and 'Calico Girlfriend'. None sound quite up to The Monkees versions but then the circumstances couldn't have been more different: Mike had once had the big budget of Colgems behind him but is now recording stripped-down versions of these songs as quickly and painlessly as possible. The songs still sound great, as do most of the new ones Mike wrote for the album, especially 'Joanne' which was lovely enough to become a hit single at a time when The Monkees couldn't have been less popular if they'd hired Richard Nixon as part of their line-up. Overall, 'Magnetic South' is one of Mike's better solo albums and sounds like the one that turned out closer to his original vision for it, with some great performances by a band who clearly relish the chance to do things 'their' way.
The album also never gets the credit it deserves for pioneering country-rock. Though The Byrds rightly got most of the accolades for 'inventing' the genre in 1968 with 'Sweetheart Of The Rodeo' (technically band member Gram Parsons had been doing this for a year anyway with his 'International Submarine Band' and former band member Gene Clark deserves an 'honorary mention' for his work with Godsin Brothers), this is to my ears the first country-rock band to be both things at once, all the way through, rather than an either/or situation. Every song on this album features Red Rhodes playing the sort of traditional pedal steel you only find on a particularly branch of traditional country, while drummer John Ware makes no concession to the sound at all, hammering nearly every track with the sort of rock drumming that gives the genre a good name. Above it all Mike's vocal sits somewhere in the middle, with the cheeky wink of rock but also the seriousness and straightness of country, making for an album sound that might perhaps be a little over-familiar now but would have been revolutionary in its day. RCA really took a chance on this band and probably weren't expecting an album quite so unorthodox (Mike was an ex-Monkee after all - and they were just a mere pop band weren't they?) I'm not sure what they'd have thought of a #143 chart peak in the States - higher than 'Changes' but lower than 'The Monkees Present', but it might speak volumes that they decided to have more of a 'hand' in the next few Nesmith albums, with largely disappointing results. For now the wind is blowing in the right direction, Mike has a suitcase load of songs leftover from his Monkee days and a whole load more flowing through his veins, he has a cracking band behind him and is finally free to do just whatsoever he pleases. He's even come to terms with the difficult last few years with a surprisingly sentimental sleeve-note, which doesn't mention The Monkees by name but is dedicated to 'Micky, Davy, Peter and (producer) Bert Schneider' (Bob Rafelson is conspicuous by his absence - did the pair have a falling out?)  Much of that enthusiasm and succour comes through on this under-rated, innovative set which might not be the best Nesmith work song-on-song but is still one of his most consistent and entertaining overall.

'Calico Girlfriend' is almost completely different to the slightly sombre outtake from 'Monkee Present' recorded just a few months earlier. This version is happy-go-lucky and sunny, as lines like 'seeing with more than our eyes' and 'taking the latch off our window, giving us more than we've got', which once sounded vaguely threatening, now sound like a re-birth. Though I miss the salsa samba of the original, the band turn in a great performance with Red Rhodes' pedal steel and Mike's more traditional guitar soaring on a series of twinned solos that are well executed.

A quick bass samba later and we're into 'Nine Times Blue', one of the most loved of Nesmith songs within the band even if the band never quite achieved a master take (the live version on 'The Johnny Cash Show' comes closest). In keeping with the rest of the album, the song is less mournful and more upbeat that its predecessors, with Mike feeling like 'such a fool' after his woman walks out on him, but more determined to learn from it and put things right. John London adds a distinctive 'ghostly' vocal over the top that's highly effective and slightly menacing, as if Mike is still being haunted by memories of his past.

Another quick bass riff samba later and we're into the slinky groove of 'Little Red Rider'. Sadly this version of the song isn't quite up to The Monkees take. It's much rawer and for once the more stripped-down version can't quite match the original, with the 'as-live' vocal rather thrown away without the same care and attention as before. It's still a good song, though, with the tale of a seemingly happy girl whose really 'little miss blue' in private related like a rocking fairytale and Mike's final compliment before he rides off into the sunset: 'you are so wise'.

'The Crippled Lion' should have been on 'Monkees Present' - it's far too good a song to have been left unused. Again the more mournful Monkees version is probably the 'keeper', but this revved up version (where Mike still sounds sad, but everyone treats the song as an excuse to party) is still a good 'un. Mike sounds shocked that his world has continues after the devastatingly loss of a loved one and wonders where to go next before realising he sort of does, that 'though my path is planned is not rehearsed'. Mike tries to move on 'to the next thing on the list' but his list is difficult and he's oh so sad. One of Mike's best and most moving songs, with a grest mixture of intellectual wordplay and heartfelt sentiment.

The single 'Joanne' is simpler and more trad-country than the rest of the album. The song was probably a hint because of Mike's much-mimicked falsetto yodel at the end of each chorus, but even behind such ear-catching pop hooks there's a real and sad song at the heart of this song. This song sounds like a man trying to remember why he chose to love somebody after a row - and remembering just how wonderful the moment of first meeting was all over again, torn between starting all over again or letting things be(for the record Mike didn't divorce wife Phyllis until 1975, but the pairs relationship had been very much off-and-on since 1968).Another of Mike's better songs, with a really haunting melody.

The 'First National Rag' is a Monkees-like thirty second 'intermission' whereby Mike tries to re-create the Looney Tunes theme tune (again! See 'band Six') and informs listeners 'we'll be back right after you turn the record over!' before Red provides a comedy pedal steel chuckle. I used to use this short song endlessly back in the days when I made cassettes for people as the end of the first side where it used to work rather well (it sounds a bit odd now it's a quarter of the way through a CD!)

'Mama Nantucket' starts the second side off with the rockiest song on the album and another batch of yodelling. The song features the quick-stepping 'story' lyrics of 'Never Tell A Woman Yes' but is a far superior song in every way. It sounds like a warning against the rock scene in general and drugs specifically, with Mike saying that though he loves that world 'I would love it more if it changed!' and comes with the closing line 'I keep on hoping that something will happen - and that something will happen fast!'

'The Keys To The Car' is probably the weakest track on the album and not co-incidentally the most traditional country tune on the record. For years I thought this song was an attempt to write a typically rebellious rock song but in the guise of a country ballad ('They only want friends they can have on their terms') but reading through the lyrics again it sounds more like a description of drunk-driving after a party and being badgered into driving home drunk as the characters 'stumble and fall'.

Though the other Monkees re-makes are a step or two behind the originals, 'Hollywood' beats the 'Birds' era recording in every way. From a slightly boring country ballad, the song has been turned into a twist-and-turny rocker that uses a similar fade-in and fade-out structure to 'Listen To The Band' to keep out our interest. Mike is great on this song of finding a 'different road' ('These things I think are new I guess are really old') as once again he tries to work out what to do with the rest of his life, although he's still outshone by John Ware's tight rock drumming (especially during a lengthy instrumental section near the end) and Red Rhodes' gonzo pedal steel guitar break which is more psychedelia than country! As usual with Mike the title isn't mentioned anywhere in the song and this time has only the vaguest connections to the plot, although you could argue the sing is also partly about the deceptive dazzle of tinseltown. One of the real highlights of the Nesmith solo catalogue and one of the better mixtures of country and rock.

Alas the album ends with two fairly disappointing covers. Lyon and Macintyre's 'One Rose' is the sort of dreary sentimental country songs that give the genre a bad name and even a committed Nesmith vocal can't lift the song any. Teresa Brewer had the biggest hit with the song, though Johnny Cash did the 'best' version. Strangely Mike's cover is more traditional than either.

Am instrumental version of the Jeanette MacDonald song 'Beyond The Blue Horizon' starts with some yawning and ends up with the sound of chickens and a tractor. Mike seems to be making a point about having to move on from this sort of slow dreary country sound while simultaneously going back to his roots, although it's an odd way of going about making it. He finally starts singing the third verse, though only off-mike; it sounds rather good so it's a shame the whole song wasn't done this way!

Overall, though, 'Magnetic South' is a small triumph, an aptly titled collection of songs about how strong the lure to go back to the country and home to Texas is for Mike. You can see why for the most part, with a well performed collection of tracks that are among his best, with a real rock and roll roar that makes this record more palatable than many country albums. Mike will be back with a sequel within mere weeks of this one the band loved making it so much - although alas in many ways it will be a case of diminished returns until the formula is changed again around the mid-1970s. 

Mike Nesmith/The First National Band

"Loose Salute"

(RCA, October 1970)

Silver Moon/I Fall To Pieces/Thanx For The Ride/Dedicated Friend/Conversations//Tengo Amore/Listen To The Band/Bye Bye Bye/Lady Of The Valley/Hello Lady

"It'll be like it's my first time, moving closer to clearer skies"

'Loose Salute' came out a mere four months after its predecessor and yet against all odds manages to be another strong and consistent album, if perhaps a half-point behind its predecessor in terms of invention and breaking new ground. Fans knew what to expect by now: a retro 50s rock beat with lots of country piano and pedal steel and there's less variety across this album than before. However the sound is still a good and - for the times - unusual one. The same 'First National Band' line-up play, but with the bonus of Glenn Hardin on piano this time around, who adds a subtle touch of bar-room honky-tonk throughout part of the album.  This time around there are just two songs that Mike had previously recorded with 'The Monkees' - 'Listen To The Band' is given a whole new makeover and turned into a low-key rocker without the effects or the stop-start sections of the earlier version, while 'Conversations' is a slightly re-written version of 'Carlisle Wheeling' and treated to an even slower and more pompous delivery, though it's such a strong song it still remains an album highlight. There's a real theme running through this album too, about being torn between wanting to leave and embrace the new and running back to the comforts of home, with the metaphors of roads and crossroads turning up in several of the songs (Mike and Phyllis were still enjoying their on-off relationship in this period). Though the record was made in as much of a hurry as 'Magnetic South' the band also seemed to take more care about it, with a reported eleven mixing sessions before the band were happy with the track 'Bye Bye Bye' (which is a lot for such a simple uncluttered arrangement of such a simple song). Sales-wise the album pretty much matched its predecessor, with a #159 US peak just a smidgeon lower and 'Silver Moon' similarly placed just a fraction lower than 'Joanne' on the charts. That song is one of the clear album highlights, along with the curious stop-start of 'Hello Lady', although there are a few more ordinary songs along for the ride this time around.  In other words, it gets a 'loose salute' from me!

'Silver Moon' is a delightful pop song with country overtones that features a truly gorgeous sighing opening and one of Mike's best vocals as he managed to rhyme 'turning' and 'churning' without choking. At first the song is a sad one, with poetic lyrics about nature reflecting the narrator's sad and lonely stance: 'windmills slowly turning, cutting up the marble canyons of the sky and where 'half the thoughts I'm speaking turn into sighs'. Like many a song in this period Mike seems torn between making a decision (with thoughts of the impending split of Phyllis again?) but feels better once a decision is reached and the semi-yodelling chorus is quite joyous, the 'silver moon' throwing light in which path he should take even as he imagined his loved one standing in the opposite direction. The line 'highways of goodbye' is a favourite line he'll return to often throughout his career.

'I Fall To Pieces' is the album's cover song, a bit hit for Patsy Cline in 1961 and the First National Band provide a surprisingly traditional backing with only a little touch of rock from John Ware's drums giving the song an added kick. Mike sings with a real vulnerability, although the decision to drown his vocal in echo rather detracts from the end product.

'Thanx For The Ride' starts off as an acoustic ballad that again finds Mike pausing at his front gate to say goodbye and that he's sorry things didn't work out before making his mind up and walking down the road. Suddenly though there's a squeal of noise and the song goes in quite a different direction, becoming an epic of noise and confusion as Mike's narrator starts to lose his certainty that what he's doing is the right thing. Red's pedal steel has never sounded more ugly and yet the song's overall melody is one of Mike's prettiest so that like the narrator you're really torn by the end.

'Dedicated Friend' is the most rocking song on the album, with Mike getting funky on a bar-room honky tonk that seems to return to the postmodern songs like 'Listen To The Band'. 'Has anyone seen my power? Where has it all gone?' Mike sings, as he wonders about the fair-weathered friends from The Monkees days who have dropped him like a stone. Mike has only 'been in town for an hour' and the whole music scene seems to have shifted, leading on to further discussions of where his expensive rockstar Chevy has gone (presumably it's been towed away) and even where Jesus has gone in a land that used to be based on caring and support.  In a way this song is his take on Davy's 'You and I' but more comical, with a self-mocking tone and a fun rock waddle that makes the joke pointed squarely at Mike.

'Conversations' sucks all the fun out of 'Carlisle Wheeling' (the seventh and final time Mike returned to the song!), with a slow and stately funeral march now the tempo, with Mike admitting later that he never did get the song the way he wanted it 'before deciding the problem was not with the performance but with the song'. Actually he'd being unfair on himself: 'Carlisle' is a stunning song that really fits the album's sequence of torn decisions, as Mike holds a 'long and involved conversation' with himself where he remembers the good times and the bad. Trying to weight them up to discover a 'true path', he reflects that time can change people from what they once were and that 'the razor-edge of youth-filled love is gone'. The ending is ambiguous, Mike telling his wife that he's staying though 'really it was a lie' and stepping back into his old situation with his mind made up (although he won't tell us just what that decision is). The difference between the two versions is that the faster Monkees version still has some hope left, a little added bounce from the pedal steel - this version is in a much more sombre frame of mind. They're both good but the Monkees version perhaps has the edge, with the solo versions coming back for one too many false endings. Still false endings are in a sense what this song is all about, with some of Mike's deepest and most poetic lines.

'Tengo Amore' is perhaps the most adventurous song on the album. Mike sings his own lyric in cod-Spanish before finally giving us the English translation in the second verse, but only after a lengthy 1:15 introduction where not much happens. Mike sounds great on the vocal even if to most of his fans what he's singing is gibberish and as the song title ('I Love') suggests, it's a very sultry, sexy song - the sort of thing Ricky Martin would do if he had a bit more talent and a wool-hat. Once again Mike's heart says 'run' but he has too much love to give so vows to stay this time 'watching our love making shadows on the ceiling'. Good luck with that, Mike...

A sly pedal steel moan introduces the long long looong fade-in of 'Listen To The Band' which to all intents and purposes sounds as if the Monkees track has been playing all this time underneath everything else and is only now being heard, with Mike now with a different band. Suitably the song's been given a country-rock makeover, with pedal steel and piano where the guitar and horns used to be, with the biggest difference being that the song is sung all together to the same tune without any gaps, with the only breaks coming from the occasional guttural solo from red Rhodes' pedal steel. Compared to the original, this song sounds less triumphant somehow and a lot more low budget, as if Mike is only scraping by this time though the music still 'makes me happy' and he still thinks 'I can make it alone'. Few fans would want to replace the near-perfect original with this reworking but it's interesting to hear the song in a new style and it's an apt song to choose for remaking in this way, given that even in the Monkees days it was a statement of intent about going your own way.

'Bye Bye Bye' seems to have given the band more trouble than any other song so far, with the band struggling to find what to play and the mix going through several re-workings. After all that, it's probably the weakest track on the album still, with Mike going back to the aggressive 'fake' voice (see 'Never Tell A Woman Yes') on a song that has little to do with the rest of the album, a fictional account of 'living off the land'. There is a middle eight that must have been very satisfying to sing though as Mike cables his employers to tell them he's quit his job and his delight at 'finally being a free man!' adding 'the people back home still talk about me running off without a word'. There's something ugly and vaguely threatening about the way Mike sings it, though, with the highlight of the song being Red Rhodes' lovely pedal steel solo.

Next up is 'Lady Of The Valley', which is a lovely but unfinished sounding ballad with even less going on in it than normal. Mike's lyrics are almost Haikus, short poetic phrases of imagery and metaphor,  coming to the conclusion that 'now is the time, Lady of the Valley you are mine!' There are some lovely harmonies and a sort of half-yodel again from 'Silver Moon', but a fuller backing would have made a promising song even better.

'Hello Lady' is a curious closer, returning to the same 'hello, goodbye' feel of much of the album with even more of a stop-start feel to it that makes the song as if it's permanently stuck between gears. Mike sings with a slight Jamaican patois, which is a bit odd even for a song that's near-spoken in stilted English, although the verses are pretty.

The First National Band recorded a fair few other songs for the album that never made the cut as well - 'The First National Band Dance' is a funky instrumental (till some dancing instructions in the last verse anyway!) later collected on the CD as a bonus track and its nice without being an essential purchase if you only own the vinyl (the track was intended to be the opening track before 'Silver Moon' was recorded late in the sessions). The band also recorded Jerry Reed's 'Guitar Man', which hasn't been released at all yet.

Overall, then, 'Loose Salute' doesn't quite have the sheer outrageous originality or consistency as its predecessor. It is, however, a step down from a very high place indeed and still has more than enough magical moments to move Mike's ex-Monkee menagerie. The band will back the following year with a record that takes from the best of both of these records and is in many ways Mike's masterpiece...


"Davy Jones"

(Bell, '1971')

Road To Love/How About Me/Singing' To The Music/Rainy Jane/Look At Me/Say It Again/I Really Love You/Sitting In The Apple Tree/Take My Love/ Pretty Little Girl/Welcome To My Love

"Mirrors aren't reflecting me, laws aren't protecting me, people aren't expecting me"

Though Micky bailed out of being a 'Bell' recording act, Davy persevered, finally recording the much-delayed follow-up to his Colpix album after a delay of six years for reasons his younger self would never have guessed. Also titled 'Davy Jones' (which has caused more than a bit of confusion amongst fans!) it follows on neatly from 'Changes' bubblegum soul, though made without the input of Jeff Barry or Andy Kim. Davy in fact returns to many of the songwriters he'd admired from his early Monkee days, people like Neil Sedaka and David Gates, and Davy seems to have had much more of an input into the song choice, delivering them with far more gusto and enthusiasm than the tracks from the last Monkee long-player. Though Bell was a much smaller label who wanted the record delivered at the same pace as The Monkees albums (despite Davy having to fill up an album on his own), what most impresses is that no one has skimped on the sound, which is elaborate and fully orchestrated. In fact Davy hasn't had a sound texture this wide to play around with since the Shorty Rogers days of 'Birds, Bees and Monkees'. However in other ways 'Davy Jones' is a wasted opportunity. Not all the material is as srong as it ought to be, with Davy picking out songs by a bunch of new writers that lack the depth and emotion of what he can deliver at his best. Worse yet Davy doesn't record a single original song, despite having more than a full album's worth of material sitting in the Monkee vaults just waiting to be re-recorded. Davy won't release another song of his own until 'Pool It' in 1987 - a horrifically long wait for such a quality writer. You can't help but feel that for Davy this album was a 'marking time' record before the big break came along again and he was saving his better material for a higher profile release, which sadly never came. Davy never gives less than his best, though, and there are still many reasons to love this second album. Long deleted from catalogue and missing from CD for the longest time (Davy said once he'd looked into the rights but that it would 'cost too much' to digitally transfer), the album used to be one of the rarer Monkee solo LPs until finally rennovated as 'The Bell Recordings' after the singer's death in 2012. A welcome memory of a talent in his prime, with just enough of the 'old' Davy intact, the album deservedly sold much better the second time around.

'Road To Love' is a fair opener, a bouncy song by newcomer Carol Carreschanel. The groovy riff comes over like a Spencer Davis Group backing track (its a slightly softer version of 'Keep On Running') while Davy has lots of space to soar over the top backed by a choir and brass. Only the lyrics slightly less this song down - compared to the similar Nesmith songs about life and love being a 'journey' it sounds slightly empty and cliched. Great melody though.

John Carrington's 'How About Me' starts well, with another dynamic brass part and another gunky fat riff. Alas then the song comes in and sounds more like The Sammes Singers or the Black and White Minstrels, with a massed sea of voices intoning 'how about me?' while Davy struts at the front. You know something has gone wrong when Davy is the toughest, muscliest sound in the room - a stripped down version of the song would have been far better as it's actually not a bad song, Davy offering comfort and stability to a girl worried about her future.

Darry Jenson's 'Singin' To The Music', meanwhile, is just boring despite the nice sentiment about music giving a companion to all the lonely people of the world. The track comes over as one of those irritating charity songs with a dotty lyric delivered over a rather forgettable beat. The lyric is worth a quick giggle though: 'I'm a true believer' sings Davy with a knowing wink, with shades of both 'I'm A Believer' and 'Daydream Believer'.

The album highlight is surely Neil Sedaka's 'Rainy Jane'. Far deeper than usual for Sedaka, the song is a perfect fit for Davy as he first synpathises with and then gets slightly fed up of a depressed girlfriend, urging her to delight in the sunshine and brilliance of life. Davy veers from a slightly paranoid but highly memorable opening where everything seems to be ought to get the couple to the gorgeous middle eight where the sun finally shines and a catchy chorus where he does everything he can to lure his girl out of her shell. Though the song perhaps lacks one final twist to make a good song great, it's more inventive than most of the songs on the album and it's subtle shades are a joy to travel through. Davy sounds superb too on a song built for his cheery persona about how everyone can 'change the weather' of their respective worlds.

David Gates had had a busy time since he last wrote for a Monkee. By 1971 Bread are a hip and happening band and Gates is finally recognised as a go-to writer of taste and talent. Interestingly his song for Davy 'Look At Me' is a real departure for both men and another album highlight (though the opening description of a man 'with curly hair' suggests Gates wrote it for himself, not his Monkee friend). A moody orchestral ballad with more of a dramatic 'musical' feel than a 'pop' one, it must have reminded Davy of his songs for 'Oliver!' Davy acts his heart out as a lonely man trapped in a lonely world with only a mirror to stare back at him. 'Look at me, I'm fading into the flor - and I wonder if I'm really living anymore' he sighs, one wrong move away from oblivion. The arrangement is complex but tasteful, more 'Monkee' than Mantovani, and Davy's voice has always sounded good against strings.

Ed Welch and Carl Symmons' 'Say It Again' returns to the slightly tweer songs on the album and comes over as a Eurovision entry - and not a good one but one of the oddly constructed Scandanavian entries that would get 'nul points' if they didn't all vote for each other. The theme of the song is a last return to 'I'm A Believer', switching from lonely verses to a loved-up chorus, although there's a world of difference between the two songs in terms of emotion and execution. The fake Beach Boys backing vocals are also horridly out of place.

I really love 'I Really Love You' though, a sighing breathy ballad by Bob Grundy that cuts a shade deeper than some of the album's songs. Though Davy isn't the sort of person you'd imagine has problems saying 'I really love you', he sounds good acting the part of a man unused to expressing his deepest feelings and handles the switch between lonely, stumbling, humble verse to powerful emotional chorus really well.

Alas Terry Rossino's  'Love Me For A Day' is another of the lesser album songs, an oom-pah-pah pop song that sounds slightly rushed as Davy yet again sings about the joys of being in love. Though the song is bright enough to throw in a few unexpected moments (the end of each verse goes somewhere entirely new and unrelated to the rest of the songs), it's also thick enough to repeat the same old cliches along the way to this point.

Douglas Trevor's 'Sitting In The Apple Tree' sounds like one of those daft songs that used to fill up the early Abba songs, full of plodding open chords and daft lyrics that turn out a bit garbled in translation. Davy has no excuse in his native tongue, though and this tale of sitting in a tree waiting for his beloved to show is distinctly odd.

Three writers came up with 'Take My Love' between them and it's a case of the more cooks the merrier, as this is another unexpectedly atmopsheric and adventurous song. Davy sings most of the song in a whisper as, hurt and vulnerable, he pleads with a girl to come back with him. Though the song threatens to get loud and aggressive, it successfully manages to with-hold the obvious and remains one of the sweetest and most memorable creations on the record, quite unlike anything else Davy ever did.

Gloria Skelton's 'Pretty Little Girl' is a sweet song too, Davy repeating Mike's song 'Propinquity' as he suddenly realises a girl he's known most of his life has transformed into a beauty. The wretched chorus, which sounds like Boney M singing an advertisement, prevents the song approaching first-class levels but the verse is pretty haunting as Davy suddenly realises the world has changed without him noticing.

The album closes on an unexpected note with the up-tempo brass of Steve Godman's 'Welcome To My Love'. Another curiously lifeless, faceless track treated to a far-too-posh makeover, it's the song on the albu that most returns to Davy's 1965 style as a wannabe cheery cockney. It's not altogether successful sadly, with Davy's accent varying between London Manchester and American throughout, but the chorus has it's moments.

Overall, then, 'Davy Jones' is pretty neatly divided into a record of two halves - the one you longed for when you were waiting for the album in the post (mature songs, velvety arrangements, Davy making the most of his natural deep voice and emotional acting skills) and half what you feared (Davy returning to his cutesy teeny-boppery persona on a series of songs his 1966 self would have been embarrassed to sing). The result is an album that should have been better but could have ben worse, embellishing Davy's reputation as an interpretive singer without being quite strong enough or different enough to re-establish Davy's standing as a solo star. Fans who already love Davy will find much to enjoy and  the album makes some kind of sense as a 'tribute' to the singer now that he's sadly no longer with us, containing perhaps more Davy personality per square inch than any of his other records. Haters who never liked The Monkees, meanwhile, will find more ammunition amongst the less fortunate songs on this album. Not quite up to any of the Monkees albums (even last album 'Changes'), 'Davy Jones' is however a record that deserves at least a half re-appraisal, still so much better than a rushed low budget album made using new songwriters, a new smaller label's facilities and a singer everyone considered past his best has a right to be.

Mike Nesmith/The First National Band
"Nevada Fighter"
(RCA, '1971')
Grand Ennui/Propinquity (I've Just Begun To Care)/Here I Am/Only Bound/Nevada Fighter/Texas Morning/Tumbling Tumbleweeds/I Looked Away/Rainmaker/Rene
"Grasping at the veils as they begin to tear, wearily the healing comes to lift the care"
Papa Nez' third album is probably the most listenable of his albums, a glorious third record that instead of trying to combine several different genres on the same song explores the band's many influences in turn. The First National Band's last hurrah before their metamorphosis into the Second National Band shows more than ever just how much ground this band could cover, with Nesmith's heaviest hitting rock, sweetest ballads and most rustic country songs. The songwriting too shows off more sides of Nesmith's character than any other album, with grunting simples rockers next to exquisitely crafted pop songs and the sheer poetry of 'Here I Am' - and that's just the three opening tracks! Bursting from cynical to loved to reflective to angry, it's also easily Mike's best album as a singer, with 'Nevada Fighter' turning from brittle to fragile in a heartbeat. It's also a great album for The First National Band, who get to show off each of their many influences in turn rather than all packed into one song which works out rather well. Sadly, though, it's their last hurrah: general discontent and frustration at their lack of success meant that the band of brothers drifted apart, with the album's final tracks ('Here I Am' and 'Only Bound') added in a rushed final session using studio musicians to get the album released - old Monkee pals like James Burton, Joe Osborn and Ron Tutt making their only solo Monkees appearance (John Ware and even Mike's pre-Monkees buddy John London both left, with only Red Rhodes staying loyal to the National Band).
There's a pleasing half-theme across this album too, though in typical Nesmith fashion it's only teased here and not up front and centre. Following two albums that were largely about returning to your 'roots', this is Nesmith's character preparing to go back out into the big wide world of the city again. Sometimes, as with 'Grand Ennui' 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds' and the gorgeous cover of Harry Nilsson's greatest song 'Rainmaker', he doesn't like what he sees: the modern city world is artificial and fast, full of people rushing around without getting much done and waiting for a miracle, quite unlike the simpler desires of country life. On the other side, though, 'Propinquity'  and 'Here I Am' reveal that Nesmith's simple country narrator still has a lot to learn about the complexities of human nature which the city seems to be much more upfront about. 'Texas Morning', meanwhile, concerns the journey and being a long way from home.
Sadly, the album isn't quite perfect. While Nesmith is a wonderful interpreter it's as a writer and creator that he really blossoms, so sad to say there are more covers on this album than ever - the whole of the second side. As ever with the 'National Band' there are playful experiments that no other band would dare consider for release, such as the recorded-in-the-distance low-key cover of 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds' or the two minute country snooze-fest instrumental 'Rene'. Thankfully, though, the other covers are amongst the best that Mike ever did and feature some of his greatest singing: he gets the building worry of 'Rainmaker' just right, can melt the heart of even Don Kirshner with his angelic vocals on 'Texas Morning' and turns Eric Clapton's authentic blues 'I Looked Away' into a truly sublime country song. Nesmith's judgement is sometimes questionable without the need to fit into the Monkees' format and his music can sometimes go so far in one direction it's hard for fans to keep pace; goodness knows saome of his other solo records can be bumpy rides. However 'Nevada Fighter' is a wonderfully consistent album, the one where his vision of uniting his twin loves of country and rock is at its strongest and most original. Curious Monkees fans who haven't gone o0n to the solo years yet should start here, with what is minute for minute easily the best solo Monkees album.
'Grand Ennui' is Mike the rockstar trying to take his expensive new Ferrari home to the sticks and using it as a metaphor for how far down the 'wrong' path he's travelled. Speeding up to escape the 'grand ennui' of boredom and apathy chasing him down, he distracts himself with wine and women and to outward appearances has succeeded with every trinket and bauble you could wish for. But at night he feels the 'Grand Ennui' coming closer towards him and can't escape the feeling that he's done 'wrong'. Cue Red Rhodes' marvellously scary pedal steel solo and, fittingly, the noisiest most demented rocker in the solo Nesmith canon, complete with yells of 'yeeha!'
'Propinquity' is a masterclass in songwriting, with a gorgeous melody that unfolds at just the right speed fitted to a sensitive set of lyrics about being blind to how a long-time friend has come to fall in love with them. Nesmith's sighing vocal is full of real warmth and passion as he sighs that he was 'standing too near' to see love in all its glory. Though the National Band could have played this song as an all-out country weepy, they cleverly keep just enough doubt and weight in their performance of the song, with John London's bass pulling away from the rest of the musicians to create added tension and Red Rhodes' pedal steel hinting at just how lonely and isolated the partner used to feel when their love was a one-way street. It's all good by the end, though, with a triumphant chorus that seems to have put everything right. Though Nesmith tried the song a number of times with The Monkees (see 'Missing Links Three') the song hadn't quite 'cooked' yet, sounding a bit rushed and underplayed - for once the solo version is a clear winner and features one of the band's finest performances.
The post-National Band 'Here I Am' is pretty stunning too, a lovely harmony-filled song with multiple Nesmiths singing over a session backing track that does a good job at sounding like all the missing members. The lyrics try to update Monkee fans with where Mike's head is at, with his 'old' self dying and replaced by something brighter and newer, with some exquisite poetry in the lyrics: 'Slowly into Winter goes the ash of life...' The song also introduces a character named 'Marie' who urges him to 'make a new beginning' and 'turn to the sun' for inspiration and truth. Marie will become Nesmith's muse for many years to come and inspire many of his better songs (though Nesmith doesn't seem to have known a 'Marie' in real life - she's probably a composite of quite a few people).
'Only Bound', the last song recorded for the album, is probably the weakest original track here, a sort of lazy country-bucket blues with a touch of music hall that drifts along without really getting anywhere. It's still quite a lovely journey, though, as Nes again reaches out for the hand of a loved one to pull him from the void he's sunk to, 'clinging to a vine of promises' as he slowly pulls his way up.
Title track 'Nevada Fighter' was a minor hit single and while not the best from the album by any means has a nicely catchy chorus and an insistent rock and roll riff that sounds oddly 'right' with the country overtones. It is perhaps the closest the National Band ever got to sounding like rivals and Byrds spin-off The Flying Burrito Brothers, with the same insistent rock beat underpinning some country clichés. The highlights are Glen D Hardin's thrilling organ solo - that suddenly kicks this country-rock hybrid into gospel! - and another poetic Nesmith lyric that seems to be about a cyclone that hit Nevada, Texas, in the mid-1930s about a decade before Mike was born ('The by-gone half-grown high-flown cyclone rides!')  Typically, though, this sudden devastation (which might reflect the end of The Monkees and/or Mike's marriage to Phyllis) is also a chance for new beginnings and the mood is upbeat rather than downcast.
'Texas Morning' is only the second song Mike ever sang by his old pals 'Boomer Clarke and Murphy Lewis', who wrote 'What Am I Doin' Hangin' Round?' from the 'Pisces' album. This track is an even stronger song, though, a haunting ballad about being an awfully long way from home apparently after spotting a long lost love who walked out of his life on a picture postcard marked 'Texas'. Nesmith's 'California Bum' narrator has come looking for her but she's proving elusive so he prepares his long trip home again, the wind blowing around him 'like a Dixie Cup'. Nesmith sounds great on this story-song so suited to his own strengths and turns in the same delightful falsetto yodel last heard on 'Joanne' and 'Silver Moon'.
His long path homeward is shared by Red Rhodes' pedal steel seemingly running low on power and some eerie sci-fi style atmospheric noises. The National Band's most prog rock moment is disturbed by electronic horse's hooves and the slow waddle of 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds', sung by Nesmith down what sounds like a distorted transistor radio. Though everyone assumes this famous pieces is a traditional settler song, it actually wasn't written till 1930 and came to fame when used as the title track of a Gene Autry film five years later. The song is most associated with Bing Crosby's laidback croon, which Nesmith tries to emulate here, but the setting is just that bit too strange for this experiment of the album's most traditional track and most futuristic setting to quite work. 'Tumbleweeds', before you ask, are the sections of dead plants that, brittle and dry from the hot sunshine, have broken away and formed into a ball blown this way and that by the wind. It's an image that must have appeared to Nesmith as his Monkees career drifts into the distance and finds him bouncing between the paths of mainstream and cult, rock and country.
The pretty 'I Looked Away' is a gorgeous Eric Clapton collaboration with keyboard player Bobby Whitlock and originally performed on the pair's 'Derek and the Dominoes' album (where this song beats much more famous cousin 'Layla'). The country settings really suit this song about yet another girl coming out to reach her hand out and 'pull' the narrator into a happier present. Alas she then disappears, leaving him looking foolish in the eyes of his friends and family after leaving a wife and kids to be with her and leaving him with less than when he started (like 'Layla', Clapton was clearly writing about Patti Boyd here, at the time still the wife of Beatle George Harrison).
Along with 'Propinquity' Harry Nilsson's dramatic ballad 'Rainmaker' is the record's masterpiece. Though written with rock and pop in mind, rather than country, the song suits Nesmith's first love even better, enlivened by some psychedelic fuzz guitar. That's all very fitting for a re-telling of the 'Pied Piper' story, of a man who comes to Kansas in the middle of a major drought . However after the rain falls, the Rainmaker passes hi hat to the people and they refuse to pay up - assuming that his incantations were just co-incidence. Unusually, though, the Rainmaker rides away, having had payment enough from the townsfolk's joy and laughter and hope. Though the cry of 'rain' is usually a bad thing in music circles, here it's a cry of joy as the water fills up the dry Earth and helps things grow again. Nilsson, on his first 'Monkee' song since 'Cuddly Toy' five years earlier, was never a better story-teller and Nesmith was never a better interpreter than here, capturing this song's sense of hopelessness turning to unbridled joy beautifully, while the band's array of guitars, pedal steels and percussion tricks mimic the various turns of the weather across this song beautifully.
Alas the album has used so much emotion up that it has nowhere to go for last track 'Rene', a lazy country instrumental that doesn't have much of interest to say across it's 1:44. A full-on country weepie, with Red's pedal steel centre stage, it's most memorable for the harpsichord gently playing in the background and the hours of debate about who 'Rene' really was. Rhodes gets the sole credit for this song, his only such credit in the whole of his time with Nesmith's many bands.
Overall, then, 'Nevada Fighter' is a thoughtful and expressive album that covers a lot of ground across it's barely thirty minutes. The themes of travel and weather are well expressed and the band get to show off more of their many styles than ever. This is easily Nesmith's most accessible work and an excellent record - though even this one is perhaps a couple of songs short of true AAA carat gold classic status.

"A Barrel Full Of Monkees"

(Colgems, March 1971)

I'm A Believer/Cuddly Toy/Star Collector/What Am I Doin' Hangin' Round?/Pleasant Valley Sunday//Last Train To Clarksville/Valleri/Randy Scouse Git/I Wanna Be Free/Listen To The Band//(Theme From) The Monkees/She Hangs Out/Gonna Buy Me A Dog/She/(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone//Daydream Believer/Your Auntie Grizelda/A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You/Mary Mary/Shades Of Grey

"When the world and I was young - just yesterday"

The second Monkee compilation couldn't have come out at a worse time - The Monkees couldn't sell new recordings at the time never mind old ones their few faithful fans already owned. As a result, the cleverly titled 'Barrel' quickly disappeared - which is a shame as it remains one of the best thought out and sequenced Monkee compilations as well as the first that had the entire run of Monkee releases from the 'first' time round to choose from. With twenty songs the set is nicely generous and has more space than most pre-CD compilations at digging past the hits to the real core of who The Monkees were. Thankfully this means gems like 'Cuddly Toy' 'Listen To The Band'  'She' 'Mary Mary' and 'Shades Of Grey' as well as the very-Monkees but rather less important 'Gonna Buy Me A Dog'.  Even in the CD era and all the compilations put together since it remains the single best Monkee  best-of set, containing everything you 'd want as a newcomer with lots you didn't know you wanted but can easily fall in love with. 

Mike Nesmith/The Second National Band

"Tantamount To Treason Vol 1"

(RCA, February 1972)

Mama Rocker/Lazy Lady/You Are My One/In The Afternoon/Highway 99 With Melange//Wax Minute/Bonaparte's Retreat/Talking To The Wall/She Thinks I Still Care

"Pioneering spirit abounds in dreams we keep fastening down"

 ‘Tantamout To Treason’ (1972) is a bit of a backward step, with the second National Band now backing Nesmith – a much rockier combo than the first. By now Nesmith had taken to talking about the First National Band albums as a standalone album - although he hadn't mentioned any of that at the time -and declared that his Second National Band albums would have an entirely different feel. They certainly do - this is a harder edged band that veers from extremes, going from not-quite-there softly spoken ballads to heavy punkish rockers to the most psychedelic recordings any of The Monkees had made since the 'Pisces' album. The balance is just tipped that little bit far from 'accessibility' to 'self-indulgence', with more weak tracks and even the strong ones could have used a bit of pruning this time around. Only Red Rhodes is along for the ride from last time around and with just six months together this second band never quite matches the peaks of the first. Mike has now brought in a keyboard player, Michael Cohen,  and replaced bassist John London and drummer John Ware with Johnny Meeks and Jack Rinelli respectively. Having proved that he could write albums of country-rock and pop songs, this is Nesmith returning to the restless creative spirit of his material in the 'Birds Bees and Monkees' era, but alas all too often experimenting for experiment's sake. As the typically grandiose title admits (there never was a 'volume two' despite rumours of one having been recorded but left unreleased) Nesmith risks losing even the little fanbase he had with this record and destroying almost all links he had to his golden musical Monkee past.
 For all that, though, 'Treason' still has many high points, even if these are fleeting moments within songs rather than full songs themselves. 'In The Afternoon' is one of Nesmith's better poetic ballads, lazily drifting across the speakers for six golden minutes, while 'Wax Minute' is an under-rated gem, Nesmith explaining to us why his music has to be so different before the song slowly unwinds through a series of atonal musical runs and somehow still ends up back at the same poignant opening. Other songs have fleeting moments of greatness too, usually in the instrumental breaks that unite so many styles at once, with Red's pedal steel our only real musical link to the past. However losing another second half of an album to a series of cover songs (all much blander choices than on 'Nevada Fighter') is a shame given how many of these album lyrics talk about Mike's new found creativity and too much of this album is trying to be different simply for difference's sake ('Highway 99 With Melange', for instance, is a cut up of two very different promising songs stuck randomly on top of each other for no reason except that that the band say they 'fit'). The best thing about this album - certainly the most Monkees thing - are the jovial sleevenotes, where Mike again seeks to fight against being 'labelled' and breaks off from re-writing his biography to give us his home-brewed beer recipe ('Ingredients: Barley Malt - about three pounds, Water - about five gallons, Hops - about a cup, Corn - to taste (the pilgrims the in artichokes), Rice - to taste, Brewer's Yeast - one block'. The instructions are then interrupted by the musician credits: 'Add the corn, rice and hops; drums - Jack Panelli' and are delivered with some typical Nesmith asides: 'Do not allow the temperature of the mixture to rise above sixty degrees from this point on, because if you do you got the world's worst soup' and ends with the instruction 'don't drink this - it tastes terrible!' There seems an awful lot of ingredients in this recipe too, which I'm sure isn't right - did Mike get the recipe confused with the one for liquid paper? The recipe is very helpful actually - I've been reliably informed by many Monkee fans that this record sounds better when you're drunk (actually it sounds like the band were when they were making it!)

As so often happened with the National Band there were a run of outtakes from this record that were cut from the final album - and as so often happens too they're among the best things here, with three bonus tracks all added onto the Beat Goes On CD re-issue in 2000. 'Cantata and Fugue' is a sweet 'Propinquity' style instrumental that's more like the songs from the first three albums with some lovely haunting pedal steel though some lyrics wouldn't have gone amiss. Despite the mysterious 1970 credit for both of the last tracks (included on a CD of records from 1972 and 1973), it seems likely that the cautionary anti-cigarettes tale 'Smoke Smoke Smoke'  (recorded complete with lots of coughing) and the faster-paced instrumental 'Rose City Chimes' were both recorded at these sessions - they share the same comparatively heavy handedness of the rest of the recordings. Sadly the Second National Band won't last even as long as the first and it will be back to just Mike and Red for the next album. Enjoy the sound of a full band while it lasts!

However the first song proper is the incredibly noisy 'Mama Rocker', a Nesmith original that sounds as if the idea was to play as loudly and tunelessly as possible. The lyrics, if you can decipher them, are a 'story-song' like 'Never Tell A Woman yes' about a sultry woman 'two inches shorter than me without my boots', who takes the trucker narrator's attention but who just about resists making love to her.  While it's welcome to hear Nesmith heading in a different direction to where he's been the last few albums, this particular avenue sounds like a dead-end (it's also three years too early for punk).

'Lazy Lady' is a slightly boring ballad, delivered at such a slow tempo you begin to wonder your record is playing at the right speed. Had the song been performed at a slightly faster lick, though, the beauty of another gorgeous Nesmith ballad would have been more apparent, while the lyrics return to the themes of the first two solo albums, Nesmith walking out of his old life but not before a last sorrowful look over his shoulder at everything he's leaving behind. Red Rhodes gets his atonal pedal steel moment in early before the song finally lifts with a drum part in the second half, but it's too little too late.

Say what you will about previous Nesmith records but at least there was usually a lot going on - in the lyrics especially. The four and a half minute 'You Are Mine' is his 'emptiest' song though, the title repeated over and over across a gentle samba lick while Nesmith sings through what sounds like a megaphone a million miles in the distance, a curious mixture of loud and soft. Though Nesmith's use of contrasts is as strong as ever, the sudden peak of the emotion 90 seconds or so in being particularly breathtaking, this is a sketch not a song.

'In The Afternoon' is a relative album highlight, a lovely ballad that nicely evokes the feel of the sun setting at the end of a day in the country. Across six minutes the song moves from slow burning groove to an uptempo rocker while the lyrics are one of the best examples of Nesmith's poetic touch, returning to his beloved theme of travel: 'Turn and dig your heels in the road, don't be bound or trapped by the old'.

'Highway 99 With Melange' sandwiches a traditional rocker by keyboard player Michael Cohen with a bit of messing about by Nesmith at the beginning and end. Neither quite meet up, with some atmospheric seagull 'n' thunder effects disrupted by sudden powerful stings of guitar that crash as if dropped in at random from a great height. Mike also sings 'Highway 99', his new friend's song, with extreme sarcasm, as if he's sending the whole thing up while the National Band sound like a bad doo-wop group behind him. This song is, in case you hadn't guessed, tantamount to treason given what these two songs could have been separately.

Thank goodness for 'Wax Minute', a gorgeous rendering of Richard Stekol's ballad about the many small adjustments made at the start of a new relationship. Though it 'complicates things greatly', the narrator is intrigued by what new directions this next love has to offer for him and how his 'humble plans' as a bachelor now can't compete with the grand schemes they cook up together. Nesmith's narrator tries to write a letter explaining all his feelings but realises all that he wants to say comes down to the line 'don't leave, girl'. A nicely timed pedal steel solo by red starts off by sounding enthusiastic and committed but little by little unravels until the narrator is left a big sobbing mess on the floor, whispering the much-delayed final verse 'The distance which I keep has entered into play - I won't be seeing you' as old habits die hard after all. An excellent complex song so close to Mike's own writing is expertly realised by a cooking band and the result is easily the highlight of the album and still a popular one with fans(it's one of the few solo songs Nesmith has revived on 'request' in recent years). If only there'd been as much care taken with the rest of the record.

The much-covered 'Bonaparte's Retreat' was based by Pee Wee King around a fiddle song that dates back to time immemorial. The lyrics, though, suggest the song goes back to the days of Napoleon and takes place as 'background music' while Nesmith's narrator pledges his love to a girlfriend. Though a pretty song, enhanced nicely by the pedal steel and a new arrangement that keeps rocking between the minor and major keys, this is too simple and empty by Nesmith's usual standards and the romance sounds all too obviously, erm, 'blown apart'.

'Talking To The Wall' is an interesting choice of song to cover. Though Mike had cut many of his Monkee ties long before 1973, he had stayed good friends with near-Monkee Bill Chadwick and agreed to cover this country-rock lament so close to his own tastes and style. It's no 'Door Into Summer' or 'Zor and Zam', but the song does invoke a real feeling of alienation and suffering as Nesmith turns on his cold-hearted  lover and tells her he's leaving, hallucinating that he sees a tear 'fall from stone'.

By far the best known song Mike ever covered was the much-heard country number  'She Thinks I Still Care'. It's an 'I'm Not In Love' style song where the narrator doth protest too much about all the odd 'coincidences' that made him weep and fall apart at certain times that makes his lover thinks he's missing her. Clearly he isn't, no sirree, not nohow, uhh-huh, you betcha, I mean all that asking about her and stalking her - that's just being friendly and caring, right? It's nicely handled, with a gorgeous lead vocal from Mike, but it seems an oddly anti-climactic and safe end to what has been an unusual and daring record till now.

Overall, then, this is tantamount to career suicide, that's what this is, with the Second National Band a sort of juiced up version of the first that's lost all the subtlety and grace. Still, you have to admire an artist who simply refuses to be labelled and restricted and who does everything to break a mould most people hadn't even begun to hear form around him just yet. Future Nesmith records will go back and forth between the two styles, with some similarly bold artistic statements at the end of the decade, but this as ground-breaking and adventurous yet also as unlistenable as the Nesmith albums will come. 

Mike Nesmith "...And The Hits Just Keep On Comin'"

(RCA, August 1972)

Tomorrow and Me/The Upside Of Goodbye/Lady Love/Listening/Two Different Roads//The Candidate/Different Drum/Harmony Constant/Keep On/Roll With The Flow

"In the final analysis, it's foolish if you resist the changes that come into your life"

The title of this album was Nez's sarcastic take on his low-selling albums and of being asked by record label RCA to write something more 'commercial'. Though usually people who asked something similar got short shrift - from Don Kirshner in 1966 to Colgems in 1969 - this time Mike at least pays lip service to their advice and turns in one of his prettier, more accessible albums. Many of Mike's songs are amongst his best work, especially the lyrics which are more poetic than ever and return to Mike's favourite themes of life being a journey and of being left at a crossroads, clearly inspired by the last attempt to move back in with Phyllis (which didn't go all that well). Many of these melodies are haunting too, with a sense of poignancy and power that's a long way away from the harshness and aggression of parts of the first two records. If you were hearing this album without knowing who Mike was you wouldn't guess either his Monkees past or his recent country-rock pioneering and would just assume he was another heartfelt singer-songwriter in the mould that were frequent back in 1972. However there are quite a few things that stop this album from being a 'hit' and they're both linked. The National Band is no more and Mike is too tired and frustrated to go through the drama of creating a Third National Band, so all the performances here feature just him and long-term colleague Red Rhodes. Without the power of a band behind the songs, all of this album ends up sounding the same - even though each track unfolds new delights and differences the more you get to know this record really well - and the recordings here sounds like demos rather than the real thing. Though Mike's acoustic guitar playing and especially Red's ghostly pedal steel are beautiful and powerful in their own right, 'Hits' feels like an unfinished album, a structurally magnificent and functional wall that's lacking the lick of paint it needs to be truly beautiful. Of all the Nesmith albums in the canon, this is the one that 'got away' and had it been recorded by the First National Band would no doubt be celebrated as one of the very best.

It is, even so, a very fine album. Nesmith reveals in the sleevenotes for the typically comprehensive BGO re-issue that he wrote all these songs 'within a week' - not quite true as 'Different Drum' dates back to the mid-60s - but even with a little truth-stretching it's evidence of how much inspiration was coursing through its author's veins. An earlier sleevenote, included with the original vinyl album, is that Mike used this album 'to write messages to myself' and that 'I did this album for me'. Nesmith's tone comes across as slightly worried actually - that the experiences he's going through will mean nothing to anyone else - but he needn't have worried.  Freed of the experimentations and cover songs of the past four records, Nesmith really finds his 'voice' here as a sort of cerebral Bob Dylanesque poet, but with a warmth that the Bobmeister could never manage. The album is full of memorable imagery, from the opening narrator getting drunk ('Watching my reflection slowly fade into my beer') and imagining the distance physically widening between him and a loved one, to the 'didactic minister who told me sinister things' as Mike reflects on his first marriage and wonders if it was a sham from the start. In between we get lots of songs about a couple who both want to make things work but who find themselves drifting in two entirely different directions, with less blame or fingers pointed than before. Instead of being an angry album or a sad album, 'Hits' is a weary album, philosophically recognising that some things just aren't set to last. Even the album's most famous song 'Different Drum', a 1965 hit for Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Pony's, sounds extraordinarily prescient here and a perfect fit. This is a record full of people marching to the sounds of different drums, without villains or heroes, winners and losers, clever people or fools. Unfortunately it's also an album without electric guitar, bass and drums but even that taps into the feel that this is a true 'inward' singer-songwriter album of the Cat Stevens/James Taylor mould. 'Hits' should have done better, managing to stay true to Nesmith's past principles while more or less doing what the record company wanted. While 'Nevada Fighter' is the best overall Nesmith album and I still have a soft spot for 'Ranch Stash' to come, 'Hits' is easily Papa Nez's most consistent post-Monkees album and song for song may yet be the best in his catalogue. 

'Tomorrow and Me' is a sweet opening song with a really haunting pedal steel part. Nesmith is adrift from his loved ones in some dim and rusty pub, where the 'loneliness is so strong you can cut it with a knife'. Throughout Nesmith's narrator is teased by memories of what was and might yet have been, as two separate Red Rhodes dance around him in a thrilling solo. By the end of the song Nesmith has come to a conclusion and 'accepts apparent loss as a battle won', although it's a mixed ending as Nesmith still looks round for one last kiss, hoping it will lead him back to where he once was.

'The Upside Of Goodbye' is perhaps the greatest song on the album, as for once in Nesmith's output it's the girl saying goodbye to the narrator. The whole song takes place as they rather awkwardly bid their goodbyes at the door with so much left unsaid as they 'quickly check the reins of emotions which unloosed would cripple most'. Nesmith realises he should feel bitter but actually feels new respect for the adult way they've handled a difficult decision and realises that 'love would be made much more sure if all the ladies leaving left like her'. There's a lovely tune that's a perfect fit for the lyrics too, with Red forever going round in circles trying to get her to change her mind, but the main verse structure and Nesmith's acoustic standing regimented and strong. A highly impressive song.

'Lady Love' is slightly more ordinary but still a mighty powerful song, with Nesmith turning to a more Haiku style of abbreviated poetry as he tries to come to terms with a new change in his life he doesn't want to accept but has to ('The eyes of a fool hide only the sun'). Nesmith loves his parting missus all the more for the way she's made truth uttermost in their decision.

'Listening' is a slightly quicker-tempoed song that on albums past might have been the rock song on the album, with a hastily strummed guitar part that's relentless and refuses to sit still. Red struggles to come up with a suitable accompaniment for once as Mike turns inward and tries to listen to his own heart about where to go next 'to overcome Earthbound decay'. Many of these thoughts are surely random and 'meaningless' but Nesmith can't bear to stop listening - 'hoping for the best I listen to the rest'.

'Two Different Roads' is the catchiest song on the album and among Nesmith's most memorable pieces. The song loses out on the poetic imagery of most of the other album songs and says things more bluntly, but it still has a great message to tell. Nesmith is worried about taking the wrong road, of hesitating too long to take the right one and of messing up along the way. But he consoles himself with the thought that 'you'd better move along' and that 'no man criticise you as long as what you're doing is your best'.

'The Candidate' is perhaps the spaciest song on the album without as much of a 'rootsy' feel as the other songs, with an even more haunting ethereal pedal steel part and yet more surreal lyrics. These seem to have something to do with America doing things it shouldn't, 'sailing ships of state ignoring navigation laws through the sea of man', but as is so often the case with Nesmith there are several things going on at once. A much under-rated song.

'Different Drum' is given a country makeover and Nesmith sings his original in a far softer and reflective way than Linda Ronstadt's howl of pain. This song is presumably here in deference to RCA's request for 'hits' (because it was, once upon a time) and would have made a fine Monkee number (Mike does get to sing a pastiche of it during the TV episode 'Fern and Davy' incidentally). The song is remarkably in keeping with the other songs on the album, Mike revisiting a teenage romance with the older, wiser eyes of a man at the end of his first marriage and the one instigating rather than trying to reconcile the split. The song decides practically that 'we'll both live a lot longer if you live without me' and offers advice, but there's a sense of heartbreak in this song too with Nesmith holding the word 'meeeeee' for what seems like an age, hinting at the real emotion behind these practical words.

'Harmony Constant' is pretty but also rather lightweight by the album standards. Nesmith is again turning inward to make a hard decision, 'exposing the past to review' as he goes over old ground and reworks every possible scenario in his mind. The 'harmony constant in all of these things' turns out be 'a future without you' - but unlike before the decision is made without tears or anger or finger-pointing and sounds rather calm and serene now that a decision has been made. Red plays another lovely solo, full of unfulfilled promise and remorse, but still in keeping with the reserve and detachment of the rest of the song. Nesmith's vocal sounds at a bit of a distance too which is rather apt, heavily treated with echo as if he's moving further and further away from us and his 'old life'.

'Keep On' is the most 'outer' song, with Nesmith trying to offer advice to similar fans going through a hard time. Mike tries to tell us or maybe himself that it's alright to give up something that used to work when it no longer does rather than flogging a dead horse (or Monkee), ignore those who try to undo your plans when you've come to the only conclusion you can reach and that by 'gently overturning' the darkness shade by shade it's never too late to find the 'light'. Above all, though, 'you're doing just fine - so keep on keepin' on'. This pretty song is by far the happiest on the album, with Red using his pedal steel to provide hope and light this time instead of misery and tears.

The album ends with the catchy 'Roll With The Flow', the only song on the album where Mike fully 'sings' rather than whispering or sighing. His voice rather overpowers the background, actually, but it's another fine song full of snappy rhymes and a nice funky guitar riff. The song is about having to adapt to what life throws at you and 'roll with the flow' - but this is clearly a song written before the 'peace' of the last song and still has a slightly bitter taste as Mike rejoins that you have to do it 'even if you roll outter here'. A charming duet between Mike's guitar and Red's pedal steel makes for a memorable finale (the finale solo runs nearly a full two minutes!), even if this song doesn't have quite the finesse of the best of the album.

Overall, then, 'And The Hits Just Keep On Comin' was unlikely to trouble the charts for all the pair's hard work. However as Nesmith knew all too well an album's worth and lasting power is measured in terms far beyond mere chart statistics and sales records. Many fans adore this album for it's space and simplicity - for me it still feels like there's something missing here and that the musicians are about to go back into the studio to record this record 'properly' and make it a true gem. But even then there is so much to love about this record, from the troubled yet soothing lyrics to the exquisite melodies and Red's playing especially was never lovelier than here. Though 'Hits' isn't one of Mike's most immediate albums, repeat playings makes it out to be one of his best - a record that manages to be with beautiful and intelligent, clever and crafted, warm and funny with each turn as Nesmith comes to a 'final' final conclusion about where his life is headed next and comes to terms with the last few stormy years of his life. Now though he can look to the future content that he's done the only thing he can and get back to his 'proper' career of redefining country-rock in modern America with a more 'standard' work (if you can call an album containing a seven minute medley about iced tea a 'standard' work...)

Mike Nesmith "Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash"

(RCA, '1973')

Continuing/Some Of Shelley's Blues/Release/Winonah/Born To Love You//The Back Porch And A Fruit Jar Full Of Iced Tea  (The FFV/Uncle Pen)/Prairie Lullaby

"...Just stood there, somewhere in-between..."

So far Mike Nesmith's records have either been superb or a bit flat, depending on the era, with either a lot to say or a little. 'Ranch Stash' isn't like his other records which are either nearly all good or all bad - instead it's a rollercoaster ride that peaks with some of the most inspired and unfairly overlooked songs in the Mike Nesmith canon (most of them on side two) with some of the most unlistenable experiments he ever dared attempt (much of side two). Nesmith's last great tie with RCA, the record label that had kept him safe ever since he became a Monkee in 1966, it's like a sampler for his earlier records full of some stunning country-rock songs that were still ahead of their time despite dating from slightly later than his First National Band work before moving out to the more experimental sound collages of the Second National Band and the sparser work Mike and Red Rhodes had recently been making. Though the record is credited to Mike alone, it is in effect a Third National Band record, being the last 'mainstream' release to feature Red in the band (though he'll be back for curio record/book 'The Prison' the following year) and featuring a much fuller band sound for the most part with guest appearance by Nashville specialists Jay Lacy, Robert Warford, Billy Graham, David Barry and Danny Lane (with Nelson Stump given a credit for playing the brief beats played on a 'Cowbell' on 'Shelley's Blues').

Spiritually Mike is still suffering from the fallout with first wife Phyllis and as the first song puts it is simply 'continuing' down a 'road' still without any clue as to where to go just yet. However rather than fight the decision about whether to stay or go Nesmith seems to have made up his mind now and the majority of this album takes place in the past tense. Without the doubt and worry spurring him on, Mike's creativity will begin to slow down for the rest of the decade and he rather neatly ties up all the loose ends here, returning to his Monkee days one last time for 'Some Of Shelley's Blues', the 'first' or thereabouts of his songs written about an impending split that actually took place over the course of about six years. It's like we've gone full circle, with 'Continuing' the most adamant Nesmith song about moving on - and 'Shelley' his most adamant song about staying, with all the Nesmith solo tracks and even some of the Monkee ones to date charting the movement from one opinion to the next. With most singers I'd assume this would be coincidental and Mike just needed the extra material in a hurry (this album's worst feature is that, at just seven songs and thirty-one minutes it sells itself very short). However Nesmith is exactly the sort of singer-songwriter to have thought that through, ending his RCA contract, his marriage and his songs about it all together in one big musical bonfire so he can clear the ways for what's coming next.

RCA are, however, still on his back to have a 'hit' and Mike takes the opposite tack to his last album 'And The Hits Just Keep On Comin' (although his only real nod to this is the subliminal message in the middle of his neck on the front cover saying 'buy this album' - you can almost hear Mike saying 'well I wasn't going to jeopardise the songs so what else could I do?'). This time it's the performances that are upbeat and commercial and the songs that are a little, err...strange. Nobody else would have dared to include a rambling eight minute instrumental about drinking iced tea and celebrating old steam trains and fiddle players or covering ancient yodelling lullabies. However, even these songs sound the most commercial records Mike had ever made, while it's easy to miss just how poetic and intelligent the lyrics to songs like 'Continuing' and 'Release' are given that they're performed by a cooking band and full of more hooks than a pair of curtains. Many fans have pointed towards this album as possessing more of a 'Monkees' sound than usual - which is true and oddly enough it's the early Monkee it points to, not the 'Listen To The Band' or 'Good Clean Fun' era which points ahead to the National Band work. There's a playfulness and pop sensibility to this album, with the same 'feel' of songs like 'Papa Gene's Blues' and 'Sweet Young Thing' that do what Mike always does without dilution but also happens to sound more like something other people are making. Some fans love it for this reason and others hate it depending on their feelings over The Monkees. To my ears it's one of his better albums, with the single best one-two-three opening salvo in the Nesmith discography - it's just a shame that the second half of the record doesn't go in as many interesting places and that there isn't a couple of extra excellent songs here to turn this record into a classic.

One thing this album has become remembered for is the rambling sleevenotes, which were becoming something of a Nesmith tradition by now. I don't know how Mike got RCA to spend the extra money on a gatefold sleeve but he did and it comes with a giant photograph of him reaching out to a biblical painting of nymphs, the 'reality' and 'fantasy' meeting somewhere in the middle (very Monkees - it recalls the lines about there being 'no difference between the real and the vividly imaginative' in 'Head'). Mike starts his words by saying 'this is my sixth album since leaving The Monkees - and it doesn't make any difference' and that he's 'tried to get past the superstructure and into substance...' and runs on to a discussion about how building his records on logic rather than instinct was a bad move. Mike says that all his recordings are logical constructs he feels proud of '...and then WHAMMO! I've got to deal with music - no reason no basis other than purest expression'. It recalls how Mike started as a musician, setting the poetry he read at school to music and using the lyrics as the starting point. After struggling to combine the two 'finally I bailed, just packed it in, no more fuss, simple - and that's when it took on a different complexion, it begins to be its own person, take on its own identity'. This is the album where Mike feels that 'me and the music began to talk' and that makes sense - 'Ranch Stash' may be more rambling than normal but it's also the album where for the first time the instrumental passages and melodies are as important as the words and rather than work against each other they tend to do both across this album (the difference between the Monkees and solo version of 'Shelley's Blues', for instance, is that the earlier version is musically trying to put on a brave face while this later re-recording drags its feet most painfully, with every line an admission of defeat'). As Mike says 'lyrics aren't really the conversation - they're just the logical part for people who are into that'. He talks about feeling that he was onto something that was bigger than just making an album, 'waiting for the song that would cure our problems with Paraguay or cure cancer', but in the end settles for the sudden rush of insight turning into more songs instead. Mike is wrong on two scores though - that he didn't match 'the level of Dylan or Cole Porter after all' with this record (he plainly did) or the album's unique best before date as if it's just another consumer good ('After a month or two this album may lose its potency although an aroma may linger') - I've been playing this album for decades now and love it more every time I play it. Far more than just your standard ranch stash, this is an under-valued Nesmith recording that deserves to be loved by fans more than it is (it's one of Nez's most obscure works) even with one or two less enjoyable moments along the way..
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'Continuing', for instance, is a classic opening song which comes along like one of those 'last album in the life of Mike Nesmith' recaps you get at the beginning of long running problems. Mike is still going back over the moment when he left his wife and his conflicted feelings as he walks away. He remembers her mix of compassion and aloofness as he struggles to think of the right things to say, sighing that it's circumstances that split them apart and that 'the love I had never died'. Mike's narrator believes that leaving is the only fair response to the trust and outspokeness the couple once shared and that she now has the same trust with his replacement - so why does he feel so bad about it all? Mike admits 'I haven't seen her since' as if it all took place a million years ago but he's clearly still haunted by it all. The musical accompaniment to this song is pure genius - Mike is the banjo and repetitive acoustic guitar part walking further out of sight across the song, Red's pedal steel dances round the song like his subconscious switching from relief to joy to deep depression as the song moves on and even after Mike gives us his final word that the split is good for both of them there's a 'false ending' where the song returns to the opening riff and it sounds like he's going round again, trying once more to think his way through his problems. One of the best songs in the Nesmith canon and a pithy summary of the last five albums with all the confusion, joy and sadness rolled in together.

'Some Of Shelley's Blues' is another masterpiece, a 1968 song where 'Shelley' is obviously Phyllis and is again about the impending split though written from an earlier perspective. Mike doesn't understand why this is happening, adding 'I won't let you go with nothing to show but more blues'. In a tightly packed song full of clever rhymes, Mike still infuses the song with a sense of honesty and authenticity - for all the clever pop construction you know that this is a 'real' song involving real people. Mike sounds unusually critical here, scathingly replying 'there's nothing so hard about the life that you've led' but he also sounds like a man still in love and hurting as the music cleverly mirrors his sense of heartbreak. The fiddle players tear at the song as if trying to put the brakes on and only Mike's anger - turned into a waddling guitar riff - keeps the momentum going. I'd hate to pick between this and the Monkees recording (the two are so very different!) but this solo versions sounds more real and less contrived than the original from 1969. Both are still classics though!

'Release' is another singalong song that's clearly deeper than most simple pop songs. Mike sounds as if he's an old friend trying to comfort someone after a split (maybe himself) and doing the old 'it wasn't meant to be - there's plenty more fish in the sea routine'. However it's more clever than that, persuading his loved one not to bottle feelings up and to let the tears come, persuading them that 'the need for boldness is gone' now that the decision has been made, in a majestic middle eight that works in reverse to the structure of the verse, as if still trying to undo time despite what the lyrics say. Just as a bit of trivia, Peter Tork's unsuccessful post-Monkees band who never made any recordings was also called 'Release' (a title that, typically, isn't mentioned anywhere in the lyric) - could Mike also have been comforting his old buddy about how if you keep walking far enough in any direction 'the past looms small'? It's the sort of song Peter would have loved too, with a nicely folky feel.

'Winonah' was co-written with Linda Hargrove and James Miner, marking the first time Mike had worked with any outside writer since 'The Kind Of Girl I Could Love' on 'More Of The Monkees' seven years and some fifteen albums earlier. The pair wrote three songs rtogether including the Lynn Andersen hit 'I Have Never Loved Anyone More' but this is the only one Mike recorded. It's a much more traditional country song than most on the album, with much more for Red to play on and another classic pedal steel solo that says everything the lyrics do and more, though still with more of a pop feel than usual for Mike's solo work. Winonah is a drunk, hiding from her fading youth by spending her nights in a bar-room but as Mike puts it so succinctly 'Winonah, the whiskey owns her, bar-rooms are her prison and whiskey is no key'. Rather than a snarling some about prohibition, however, the song brings out Mike's empathy and he paints a sorrowful picture of a character who used to have dreams but when they didn't come true she got them 'from the bottles on a shelf...to wash the pain away'. Alas there's no happy endings for one of Mike's better characters who ends the song as messed up and desperate as she ever was. Though not up to the album's opening trilogy this is another very strong track. Hargroves recorded her own version, which is similar but a lot more traditionally country than this country-rock version.

Alas 'Born To Love You' is a return to the days of the National Band covers and isn't one of Mike's better choices. He probably chose this Cindy Walker ballad because it reminded him so much of his own 'Joanne' (still his biggest solo hit and what RCA wanted him to emulate). The song is a nice vehicle for Mike's falsetto-turned-yodel, but it's all a bit slow and far more insincere than his own material, being a simple devotion of love that tries hard to be intimate and informal but just sounds repetitive.

More curious still is the medley 'The Back Porch and Jar Of Iced Tea'. Mike proudly said that his new ad hoc seven piece band performed this medley of old traditional standards in a single take with no editing needed, which is impressive given that the two songs 'The FFV' and 'Uncle Pen' have little in common (the first is a narrative, busked by the band behind Mike's Jackanory style lead as he leans back in a creaking chair and mimic train noises; the second an upbeat fiddle song by Bill Monroe about a popular relative that everyone wanted to hear play). Unfortunately the two halves don't meet (the first is about death, the second about life) and the opening few minutes are badly recorded, with Mike's drawled verses hard to hear. It is, however, welcome to hear the band trying something a bit more daring and less formulaic than usual and the moment when the song suddenly kicks in some 3:15 in is hugely satisfying as the band stop coasting and pounce as one.

One final cover song - the penultimate cover song ever on a Nesmith studio album - is the best on the album. Billy Hill's gorgeous 'Prairie Lullaby' is perfectly cast for Mike's cosier falsetto voice (again with a slight yodel recalling 'Joanne') and the opening 1:30 are amongst the prettiest of his career. Alas the main song itself is more clichéd with a very traditional country lyric and backing, but even this has its moments and is well cast for the singer and band.

Overall, then, another side of original songs like the first half of this album and we could have easily been talking about Mike's greatest solo album. However even the second side of covers has its moments and the end result is a lovely and complex little album that manages to be everything it needed to be (accessible without sacrificing intelligence or emotional warmth) except a hit. Mike's final album for RCA will be a very different sort of farewell project and one that still leaves fans' scratching their heads to this day...


Mike Nesmith "The Prison"

(Pacific Arts, '1974')

Opening Theme (Life The Unsuspecting Captive)/Dance Between The Raindrops/Elusive Ragings/Waking Mystery//Hear Me Calling/Marie's Theme/Closing Theme (Lamp-post)

"Is the tale too early spoken to the heads that nod a token of appreciation based upon the sound?"

'The sky was purple. But Max The Singing Dog was blue. 'What was he doing inside again?' he wondered. 'How come he hadn't left the prison when Jason did?' It looked such a lovely day outside and all they were doing inside was sitting around watching reality television and soap operas to drown out the sound of their own existence. It was then that he discovered a pair of earphones hidden away in a dog-flap that had mysteriously arrived in the middle of the prison, attached to a book and CD. As he listened, Max leaned back in his favourite top-hat and imagined how nice it must be outside the prison. And suddenly he was outside. The sky wasn't purple anymore, the way it had looked from behind bars, but it was still a fairly strong glowing-orange that enticed him further onwards and at least he was outside.'

'Jailhouse Rock' this isn't, a complex work with the difference that we're all prisoners of something! As if being part of the first real multi-media experience hadn't been enough (I mean the TV/music Monkees by the way if you hadn't already guessed) Mike had a second go in the mid-70s with a pioneering concept that nobody understood then and few understand even now. 'The Prison' was slaughtered by critics and some fans who thought it was deeply pretentious and the poor response to the album pretty much killed off any hope of RCA re-signing Mike after this, leading to a further three years in the musical wilderness in a 'prison' of his own. However I've always felt that 'The Prison' and more especially 'The Garden' are amongst the most vital and interesting work of the Nesmith canon where Mike's love of contrasting styles and intelligence was never out to better use.

We've often said in our previous Nesmith reviews that Mike's work often 'reads' better than it sounds and that the imagery means these are mini-novels rather than mere 'songs', so it made sense that Nesmith should write a fully-fledged 'concept' album aiming to tell a complete story from beginning to end. However Mike didn't just do what everyone else did - write a series of songs with an over-riding theme - but a 'book' that told the story directly while the carefully timed and organised music tells the story 'indirectly' when you hear it. The idea is to read the book one chapter at a time, with each song taking roughly the same length of time, and if you can read at the correct speed (an art form I never did quite master and only occasionally got to work) the two mould together to act like a 'bigger' experience. It all fits in nicely with the sleevenotes of 'Ranch Stash' which felt that music was 'something more' than just a collection of words and music and that it took off a life on its own - by using two completely separate mediums in tandem Nesmith heightens the feeling so that you get hit by more senses at once. Unfortunately that idea rather flew over the heads of everybody at the time (even people who'd spent their younger days watching The Monkees 'romp' to music that happened to be filmed) and critics seized upon how 'unfinished' a lot of the music sounded. Nowadays, in our days of ambience music and barely-sketched-in new age records it makes a lot more sense than it did in 1975 and works very well if you slightly adapt your listening skills so that instead of concentrating deeply on one or the other you let both 'wash over' you. It also features some near-last pedal steel from Red Rhodes and the last 'traditional' Nesmith sound, though with quite a few important changes there too.

The story itself is typically Nesmith, a surreal patchwork of metaphors and imagery that can be taken at face value if you want but are clearly working to a whole other dimension. The story concerns Jason (a name that Mike clearly liked - it's the name he gave to his third son who was seven when the album came out; a twenty-six-year old Jason Nesmith will become one of the musical stars of sequel 'The Prison') who finds himself trapped inside a prison. This isn't unusual - everyone else is trapped too - but other people seemed to be more accepting of it or more knowledgeable about being trapped than he. Jason asks an elder, more experienced prisoner Marie why there is a hole in the wall and she replies that it's too dangerous to leave('Fear creeps like sand through the cracks')  - but Jason is excited by the discovery and eventually plucks up the courage to make it outside, upset that his close friend Marie won't follow. Jason makes it past the guards (who turn out to be as trapped as he is, more concerned with trying to scare the masses into staying with propaganda than caring about the few people who make it through the cracks. Jason soon discovers that this new outside world is scarier and less safe than it is inside but is also a lot freer, with Jason free to actually experience life rather than merely seeing it through the prison bars or feeling the odd breeze through the jail door. He also discovers a community of like-minded souls who all had the same thoughts and share ideas and support. Thrilled, Jason returns to get Marie but finds himself getting overcome with feelings of paranoia and uncertainty again when back inside the prison, overcome with feelings and worried by the tut-tutting of the other inmates. Marie does make it out, though consumed by so much darkness she fears she'll never see again and she rushes back inside. Jason's new friends tell him this is normal - that 'you cannot teach someone that does not wish to be taught' and isn't ready. It turns out that they have to leave to a higher plain and Jason realises 'Head' style that he is actually still inside a 'prison' or a 'black box' of sorts; the difference though is that he is 'free' because he's seen the fake walls for what they are and that the 'real world' isn't as scary as he was taught to fear it was. The question now is where to go next for the next stage - which is a story finally told after nearly two decades' worth of delays as 'The Prison'.

This story is, surely, a last story about Mike and his split from Phyllis. Mike's first wife met Mike when he was a no one, before he was even a musician, and was rather more reluctant to follow him into the less secure things he wanted to do like play music and act. Though Phyllis was loved by many Monkee fans and popular amongst the Monkee community for her time and patience, she wasn't exactly a fan of the series either. She felt even less secure when Mike left the band to make his own and turned into a well regarded but poor country-rock star. 'The Prison' finally makes sense of all those National Band pieces about the need to travel and keep moving no matter who you leave behind or how many times you look fondly over your shoulder: Mike is leaving behind a 'prison', first from the conventional jobs and careers he left behind to join The Monkees and then The Monkees themselves when that 'job' became too restricting and infuriating. The support group on the outside, who know so much even if it turns out that all they have come to realise is how little they actually do know, is presumably the group of artists, poets and musicians who made their lives away from the security blankets of a regular income and 9-5 jobs. Mike puts himself at the 'start' of this journey and his character noticeably ends the story with the instruction of helping as many people find their ways out 'the prison' as they can, which is presumably the records he's been releasing since then. He knows, though, that he can't nag people out of the 'black box' they keep finding themselves in time and time again over and over, merely help show that there is a way out of it and that human existence is bigger than they think it is.

As for the music that plays while the story unfolds, it is by turns atonal and empty an teething full of life with each new chapter. Though you wouldn't want to hear too much of this album out of context, it has a really special sound all of its own which is hypnotic but in a good sense, with a unique piano-guitar interplay rumble that keeps the songs unfolding wave after wave. The lyrics are all loose re-tellings of the same story but with a typically Nesmith poetic turn of phrase that works rather well even if you can't always pick up the lyrics while reading (luckily these words are in the middle of the lyric booklet). Highlights include the haunting 'Life The Unsuspecting Captive' (the most 'famous' song here after being re-used as the B-side of hit song 'Rio'), the gorgeous slowed out chill of 'Dance Between The Raindrops', the sunny turbulence of 'Elusive Ragings' (one of the loveliest country and western songs in the Nesmith canon) and the truly beautiful 'Closing Theme' which rises and falls in the perfect imitation of the beautiful garden of the next chapter of life that lies just tantalisingly out of reach (much much more of that in the sequel). As Mike winds up telling us in some of his loveliest poetry, 'guard the beauty's treat, carry your message sweet, and deliver as complete the play's unspoken line'.

This is, naturally, enough, the sort of project that only a particularly type of fan will enjoy. Basically 'Head' is the litmus paper test: if you thought that was a load of nonsense about Victor Mature's dandruff and faulty coca-cola machines then this probably isn't your' bag' . If on the other hand the ideas intrigued you and made you think then congratulations - you've found a hole in your own prison wall and may well find 'The Prison' and 'The Garden' a welcome means of progressing further to the outside wall. For once the album sounds better than ever on CD, with the removal of period effects (such as drum machines or moments when the synthesisers got just that little bit too obtrusive), Pacific Arts releasing it with 'The Garden' as a 'double pack'. No wonder so many people misunderstood this record at the time - there was nothing like it before and only 'The Garden' has come close to replicating it since (though as that is a largely instrumental work, 'The Prison' is still a more full-on listening experience). However we love ambition at our site and few albums have ever managed to cover as much ground or break as many rules as successfully as this work. This twist on the 'Prisoner's Benefit Concert' (because 'we' are all the prisoners) gets ten out of ten for the idea and a good nine for the execution, being one of the best albums in the entire list, even if it is also the sort of album you keep held back for rare special occasions rather than constant playing.

Suddenly the album finished and Max came to, not quite back in his old prison but inside a slightly wider box with slightly larger bars across a slightly larger window. 'Well' he thought to himself, 'at least I know what to do now', pushed the button on the CD player he happened to have with him, and nodded off back to sleep, perhaps when he woke up again he would finally be in the 'garden'?!

Various Artists (Including Mike Nesmith) "The Amazing Zig-Zag Concerts"

(The Road Goes On Forever, Recorded 1975 Released 2011)

CD One: Starry-Eyed and Laughing

CD Two: Chilli Willi and the Red-Hot Peppers

CD Three: John Stewart

CD Four: Help Yourself

CD Five: Mike Nesmith and Red Rhodes (Joanne/Some Of Shelley's Blues/Silver Moon/ Different Drum/Propinquity/The Grand Ennui/Wax Minute/Tomorrow and Me/The Upside Of Goodbye/Roll With The Flow/Marie's Theme)

"I just want to be who I am and do what I'm doing - like anybody does"

In 1975 Zig-Zag Magazine was looking for a big event to advertise the fact that the mag had now changed hands and was more 'underground' than ever. New editor Tony Stratton Smith had more contacts in the music industry than most, having co-founded the 'Chrisma' record labels that prided itself on finding new talent (AAA stars Lindisfarne were one of their first signings). However rather than another 'Woodstock' full of big name guests Smith wanted things to be simple and to help publicise names that the staff thought hadn't got the respect they had deserved over the past few years. Though the magazine wasn't really tied to any particular genre, many of these acts turned out to be country stars and the evening has gone down in history in country circles as one of the great nights with well-received sets by five relatively obscure acts who hardly ever got noticed. Many rock music fans, who came that night out of curiosity or fondness for the magazine became country fans from that night on. Mike Nesmith, by now at the end of his career with RCA and with only Red Rhodes left in his band, hadn't performed a full gig in years and it must have been a strange and unsettling experience for him to suddnly be top of the bill and given the covted 'final' spot. The concert the pair choose is more 'audience-friendly' than many Nesmith shows, with a nice and carefully chosen collection of songs from his solo years well played by he and Red together. Though the pair are naturally keen to plug their most recent 'playable' record 'And The Hits Just Keep On Comin' (with arrangements already worked out for the two of them - 'Tomorrow and Me' sounds particularly gorgeous!), the joy for collectors comes from hearing so many of the 'National Band' recordings stripped down to the basics the same way. Tracks like 'Some Of Shelley's Blues' and 'Silver Moon' sound particularly strong as guitar 'n' pedal steel ballads and the pair are even brave enough to have a stab at a near-rap version of 'Grand Ennui' and the epic 'Wax Minute' which still sounds wonderful even when barely there. The pair also perform 'Marie' Song' from 'The Prison' where iot almost sounds like a 'normal' song! Mike is in chatty form throughout and delivers several mad asides to the audience: asked by the audience to sing 'Wax Minute' because 'it's your favourite' Mike sighs that he hasn't sung it for a long time 'so if my tyres give way in the race it's not my fault' - actually this unplanned performance is the highlight of the set, even with Mike shouting the chord changes over to Red who, typically, 'gets' the song right away no questions asked. Mike also talks about a bizarre dream playing golf with Bing Crosby where the pair pick a rose, which ends up in a discussion of why people are different and should be pure to themselves - or something. Actually the discussion dissolves into a whoop and cheer for Bob Hope but it does lead into a nice intro for 'The Prison' extract. The audience response - massive cheers - must have been highlyg gratifyong for the pair who, without a record deal, must have wondered if they'd ever perform again. Though it's a shame the Nesmith show wasn't released seprately, if you have an interest in country music of the 1970s and can afford it the 'Zig Zag' box is a really good purchase overall, with all of the support acts on good form too, including 'Daydream Believer' writer John Stewart, though sadly like Nesmith he doesn't play his biggest 'hits'. Lovingly packaged, and as good as the special night's reputation suggested it would be, this was one of the better box sets of 2010. 

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