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  • Tony Harris

IN NEED OF CORRECTION

Updated: Jun 6, 2020


One of my favourite pieces of pop trivia is that the mother of Mike Nesmith - the woolly hatted guitarist in The Monkees - invented liquid paper. Not something necessarily used in gallons now but once it was the lifesaver of a million and one typists.


It seems an interesting way to set off on this essay's journey because Mike Nesmith is a character from the corridors of pop pageantry whose historical role is unfairly ignored or diminished - mainly for his participation in one of the industry's most obviously manufactured bands.


Firstly, let's remove the assumption that his mother, Bette Graham, was some terribly inventive young secretary because she was actually a very accomplished commercial artist and invented the product as part of her pursuit, and then set up The Liquid Paper Company, selling it to Gillette for over $50m in 1979.


Then, there is the myth around the auditions for the band themselves. Bruce Springsteen is alleged to have applied as apparently did musical wannabe and psychopath, Charles Manson. None of these were true. Stephen Stills did however audition and it is likely that he put forward his friend, Peter Tork. What is true is that Mike Nesmith wore his wooly hat at the audition - ostensibly to keep his floppy hair out of his eyes - but for a man with a keen sense of commercial stand out it certainly made him more memorable and had the production team keep referring back to "the wooly hat guy".


Thirdly, the accusation always levelled at The Monkees is that they never played on their records - a fact that has rankled with them all incessantly ever since. All had recorded material - Davy Jones had even hit the Top 100 - already. Colpix-Screen Gems, the production company behind the programme were focused on the TV series and so the music they wanted the band to sing and perform had already had the songs largely pre-chosen and the backing tracks laid down. Both "The Monkees" and "More Of The Monkees" had their music selected ahead of shooting and with such a tight schedule time only allowed the band's vocal performances (think the winner of the X Factor). All certainly were playing by the time they were touring in late 1966 - Micky Dolenz was not a drummer but had taken a crash course to learn but the whispering did not die down about their musical abilities.


Nesmith had actually already contributed "Papa Gene's Blues" and the excellent "You May Just Be The One" to the first album and "Mary Mary" to the second but in 1967 they went into the studio and recorded what is often considered one of their finest albums "Headquarters" in which they intended to show off their abilities and sense of musicianship. They also had a keen eye on the potential earnings from royalties in having more of their music featured on (what were at the time) multi-million selling albums.


In the course of these sessions, he contributed another epic single "The Girl I Knew Somewhere" which was the B-side of the far weaker "A Little Bit Me A Bit You" (in fact, the Monkees best ever recording "All Of Your Toys" was supposed to be the A-side but was somehow over-ruled and did not appear anywhere for many years).



That's sixties siren Julie Newmar in this sequence from the TV show by the way. You might know her as the first "Catwoman" from the "Batman" series.


Already, the Texan gentleman, Nesmith was starting to demonstrate his tendencies towards a style of country rock that combined pop sensibilities with dude-ranch styling particularly when you hear another masterpiece "What Am I Doing Hanging Round" - which though not written by him, appealed to his developing sensibilities.



Mike was well known in the LA music scene; there is a bizarre and surreal clip from the show where Mike's part is played by Frank Zappa and he plays Zappa. He was certainly in a social crowd with The Byrds who were changing their style more towards his country leanings with the recording of their gear-change album "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo". Meanwhile, "Mary Mary" had been given to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band as a single before the Monkees released it and his ability as a writer was starting to find demand from other artists.


The biggest of these hits was a baroque pop classic from a band called The Stone Poneys - the song was the spellbinding "Different Drum" featuring the vocal talent of a very young Linda Ronstadt. It is an absolute stone-cold jukebox favourite in my house.



As the Monkees' star began to wane - and it was a slow rather painful decline - Nesmith began working on his own vision of Country Rock and after the band disbanded formed the First National Band to find an outlet for his leanings. While working in the Monkees, he had been banned by their production team from utilising his trademark "twang" but for the unassuming Texan the 'twang was the (dare I say it) thang.


There was early interest in this band's release and his simple execution of "Joanne" graced the Top 20 in the USA and seemed to set him on to the next phase of his career. It was a gentle and authentic song that bore all the hallmarks of the vision he had for a new genre of music at which he was certainly poised at the very forefront as was it's equally enjoyable follow-up "Silver Moon".



Sadly, the world did not take to any of the excellent First National Band albums despite some strong songs and a seemingly unique sound. By 1971, he had disbanded them as well and took to releasing a new album ironically called "And The Hits Just Keep On Coming".


Meanwhile, Linda Ronstadt had risen to become a very successful solo artist and her hitherto unknown backing band, The Eagles had started to hit on a magic sound formula that would shift millions of units and establish country-rock as a genre that would be much loved on freeways and highways the world over. They owe much to their Monkee mentor and he in return is (largely) complimentary of their success


In a recent interview he said of them "...how they finally wound up their run was a spectacular show of talent and intelligence. They were and are one of my favorite bands — but I don't listen to them anymore."


The music industry simply could not take Nesmith seriously enough as an artist despite his pedigree. The cartoonish boy band member with the woolly hat simply could not convince people of his credentials. However, I also think that he remained just a little too pure to the country end of the Country-rock equation and so made his music less accessible than the up and coming "Desperados" who communicated the second half of the equation perhaps a little more fluidly. In another nod, on the multi-million selling "Eagles Live" , they perform a version of "Seven Bridges Road" - a record Nesmith had produced for Steve Young a decade earlier


But, as if being a global million selling artist, one of the first multi-media stars, a successful writer / producer and the inventor of country rock were not enough, Mike Nesmith still goes on to make an even deeper mark in music history.


Throughout this period. Mike still felt he had something to say musically and was probably the most vocal of his former colleagues on the subject of not wanting to reform the Monkees.He had signed to Island Records and was asked by label head Chris Blackwell to make a promo film in 1977 so that his new single "Rio", the lead track of his album "From A Radio Engine To The Photon Wing", could get circulation in Europe and Australia where they would often use the film in the absence of an in-person TV appearance or tour. It certainly cut down on costs. Nesmith decided to create something far more ambitious and created one of the first promotional films that was not simply a filmed performance.



And a good seven years after any of his work had even tickled the bottom end of the charts, he now had another top 30 smash with a slightly lighter easier version of his twangy country rock.


However, having first emerged from the world of television he became fascinated with the music video industry and with his musical film called "Elephant Parts" became the first ever winner of a Grammy for long-form Music Video. Yet this is still not the end of his story.


He had always kept an interest in production and had produced such fascinating films as Alex Cox's "Repo Man". However, spurred by the success of "Rio", he started up a TV show called "PopClips" which was basically a compendium of interesting music videos. He sold this concept to Time-Warner and it marked the crucial inspirational point for what they then developed into MTV.


I therefore think we should all be doffing our woolly hats to Mike Nesmith - star, artist, writer, producer, founder, inspiration and (like the good Texan he is) a true pioneer.


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