A new collection digs into the solo career of the most musically diverse Monkee
One could argue that being a Monkee stunted Michael Nesmith’s career as a musician.
Yes, he found fame and some fortune, but he always chafed against the group’s creative restrictions (especially in the recording studio). He was first out of the gate with a solo album, The Wichita Train Whistle Sings, released in 1968 while he was still in the band. When he finally freed himself from the shackles of pre-fabricated four, he headed full-on into country rock, followed by other innovative ventures (such as developing the concept for MTV). The Monkees were relegated to the past; until this century, he largely avoided appearing with the reunited band.
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Different Drum: The Lost RCA Victor Recordings (Second Disc Records/Real Gone Music) looks at those early post-Monkees years (1970-73) when he was finding his musical footing. It’s an album’s worth of alternate takes and backing tracks, first released as digital-only bonus tracks when Nesmith’s catalogue was being revamped for digital/streaming services, and now available on CD to satiate lovers of physical media.
It’s clear that had had he chosen to, Nesmith could’ve pursued a more pop-oriented path. Yet his work for RCA (five albums, credited to the First National Band, the Second National Band, and Nesmith as a solo artist) has him mining his country roots, while taking the time to revisit a few songs from his already notable catalogue.
The song “Different Drum” itself, for example, illustrates how his songs so easily straddled the pop/country divide. The Stone Poneys (with Linda Ronstadt on lead vocals) leaned pop when they recorded the song, and had the hit. Nesmith’s version (which appeared on 1972’s And the Hits Just Keep On Comin’) goes the other way, featuring the pedal steel guitar of Orville J. “Red” Rhodes; this album’s alternate version also features a cold opening, as opposed to the final version’s guitar intro. There’s a slower, heavier version of “Circle Sky,” a more brooding rendition that stands in contrast to the fiery, rollicking rocker heard in the Monkees’ film Head (live in the film, a studio take on the soundtrack). “Listen to the Band” (one of his best Monkees tracks) takes the opposite approach, a stately number in its Monkees incarnation, a hoedown when he re-recorded it with the First National Band (this album offers a slower, alternate version of the backing track).
“Tapioca Tundra” and “Magnolia Sims” were also previously recorded for Monkees’ albums, in dramatically different arrangements from those featured on Different Drum, which are steeped in pure country. Both tracks are instrumentals, which is a disappointment, as it would’ve been fascinating to hear what Nesmith could bring to these revamped concoctions vocally. There might be too many instrumentals (about a third of the tracks) on this album for some tastes. They’re entertaining to listen to once, but are probably only played again by aficionados. Though, admittedly, that’s who this release is aimed at.
AUDIO: Michael Nesmith “Circle Sky”
But overall, there’s plenty of good stuff here to sink your teeth into. Both “American Airman” and “Six Days on the Road” are bonafide outtakes, songs not released at the time on any of Nesmith’s RCA albums, both addressing the trials and tribulations of the touring life; searching for that next meal (the former song) and popping speed (the latter). An extended “Bye, Bye, Bye,” without the sheen of the released version (on 1970’s Loose Salute), has a grittier appeal. There’s even a sneak peak at a future project, the melancholy “Marie’s Theme,” destined to turn up on The Prison: A Book with a Soundtrack (1974), a box set that came with a book that was meant to read while listening to the record. Nesmith’s songs always have a playful element to them, especially lyrically. It gives his work an idiosyncratic touch that leaves you with a smile.
The album concludes with some radio promos for Nesmith’s Loose Salute album that displays his off-kilter humor; instead of plugging his latest release, he gives the thumbs up to his favorite albums of the moment, Derek & the Dominoes’ Layla and Morton Sobotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon (“I never really liked electronic music, but a friend turned me on to this particular album and it’s really something different!”).
Musically, Michael Nesmith has marched to the beat of a different drum throughout his entire career — and it’s the gift that keeps on giving.