Saturday, May 09, 2009

220. The Monkees: Head (1968)

In 1968, the Monkees TV show was over and the band was musically fragmented. Their public popularity was on a downswing and they certainly weren't a favorite in rock circles. But someway, somehow, they were allowed to make a movie. Maybe the studio saw it as one last cash-in, or maybe they thought the franchise could be revived. Who knows? The movie was a flop.

I won't spend much time on the movie in this review, because I already wrote about it here.

I'll wait while you go read it.

Suffice to say, it's probably my second favorite rock 'n' roll movie ever made (after Purple Rain, of course). It takes equal parts Marx Brothers zaniness, '60s psychedelica, and self-aware post-modernism and mixes them into one tasty stew.

The soundtrack (compiled by Jack Nicholson, who also co-wrote the film) is similarly high-quality, a sharp turnaround from the two limp albums that preceded it. The record does a good job of capturing the free-flowing nature of the film, with snippets of dialogue woven in throughout. Now let's look at the songs:

The Classics
For the purpose of these reviews, I've defined a "classic" as a song that is instantly recognizable to the majority of rock listeners. There are none of those on Head.

The Pleasant Surprises
The movie and soundtrack open with Porpoise Song (Theme from Head). Gerry Goffin & Carole King (the same team responsible for Pleasant Valley Sunday) wrote this dreamy attempt to embrace the LSD '60s. Sample line: "Riding the backs of giraffes for laughs is alright for awhile." In the movie, the song plays as the Monkees swim around in multi-colored water with mermaids.

Ditty Diego - War Chant was written by Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson, and basically addresses the band's poor image among the hipsters of the time. "They say we're manufactured / to that we all agree / so make your choice and we all rejoice in never being free / Hey, hey we are the Monkees / we've said it all before / the money's in / we're made of tin / we're here to give you more." The words may have been somewhat at the band's expense, but they're delivered by all four Monkees with zeal.

Circle Sky is featured as a live performance in the film, with the band playing to a frenzied crowd of teenagers. As the song wraps up, fans rush the stage and rip the boys limb-from-limb. The song itself is foot-tapping and full of energy, with lyrics that make absolutely no sense (unless you know what "wing tip smile / sees for miles" means).

The percussive, middle-eastern-flavored Can You Dig It rescues Peter from the Monkees album obscurity he had been languishing in. Though Mickey takes the lead vocal, Peter wrote the song and plays guitar. The other Peter sighting comes on Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again. He wrote, plays on, and sings the rocked-up tune. It even gets a little bit heavy in the bridge. Sadly, it would be Peter's swan song with the band. He quit the Monkees at the end of 1968.

Comme Ci Comme Ca
The other two proper songs on the soundtrack are just okay. As We Go Along is another Carole King contribution, and it's more in line with what you'd expect from her. King leads a talented list of session players that also include Neil Young and Ry Cooder. The song moves the Monkees prematurely into the soft-rock '70s, but overall it's not outstanding, lyrically or musically.

Musical chameleon Harry Nilsson wrote Daddy's Song, and Davy performs it as a dance number in the film, with choreography by Toni "Mickey" Basil. Lyrically, the song is the flip side to Nilsson's theme to The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Instead of it being about a father who's a best friend, it's about a father who has abandoned his family. Frank Zappa shows up after the scene and rightly declares it to be "pretty white" (the soundbite is also included on the album), but it actually fits Davy's theatrical background.

There are tons of WTF? moments in the movie, and many of them are used as between-song sound bites. But it this case WTF is actually a good thing.

The Bonus Tracks
As is sadly typical of these Rhino releases, the bonus tracks offer very little outside of alternate versions. BUT, at least in this case, the versions are significantly different. Circle Sky is presented in a live take, featuring the Monkees playing everything themselves. There's no discernable loss in quality between this and the studio version on the proper album. Both Can You Dig It and Daddy's Song are featured with different vocalists, Peter on the former and Mike on the latter. The results are mixed. Peter was clearly not as strong or natural of a singer as Mickey, and thus his version is worse than the original. However, Mike bests Davy on Daddy's Song, though that may just be a matter of personal preference. Either way, his vocal is processed to sound like it was recorded 40 years earlier on inferior equipment, which fits with the '20s style of the song.

There's also a studio rehearsal of Ditty Diego - War Chant that offers a few lines that didn't make the final version (Mickey delivers them: "to mix it all together pictures sounds and songs / in time and place and weather / and even rights and wrongs"). More interesting is the insight into the individual personalities. Mickey cuts up, Peter and Mike offer suggestions to the producer, and Davy proves once again to be a studio space case again, flubbing his lines. It also shows the band working together in the studio, which had become a rarity.

So the only truly new content in the bonus tracks is a short version of Happy Birthday from the film and a radio promo for the movie. The former opens with some creepy chanting, and the latter shows why the movie didn't do so well at the box office. As was typical of the marketing campaign for the film, the ad mentions the movie's name, but offers nothing else but a head-scratching mix of ambient sounds from the movie and song snippets with no mention of the Monkees.

Head, like the film it comes from, is a fascinating mess, representing the last time the four originals would work as a unit (at least until the mid-'90s). Fittingly, it's one of their best efforts.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Circle Sky

1 comment:

Alex said...

You're right on that the album is similar to the movie -- some amazing bits, lots of filler, some really edgy material and some really dated material (and some material that desperately wants to be edgy but isn't).

I've always thought the movie (and it's music too) got a bad rap -- yeah, it's a mess, but it's an interesting mess (and probably less of a mess than some late-60s classics).