In 2016 my book The Monkees, Head and the 60s was published by Jawbone Books. It’s been a great success, which pleases me no end. It’s long enough, but as is my wont, I wrote at least twice as much material as ended up in the final version. So every now and then I will put extracts from the unpublished material on this blog. This little investigation into the life of Michael Nesmith’s ‘Different Drum’ is one such piece, for your pleasure and interest.
If you like it, check my book out here: http://jawbonepress.com/the-monkees-head-and-the-60s/
The Beat of a ‘Different Drum’
In episode 15 of The Monkees TV show ‘Too Many Girls’, struggling aspiring song writer Mike Nesmith gets his chance to shine on an ‘amateur hour’ show on TV station KXIU-TV as part of a production line of auditions. Under the guise of ‘folk singer, Billy Roy Hodstetter’ he and his cream suit scramble through a speedy 45 second version of part of a song. The host ‘Mr. Hack’ played by Jeff DeBenning moves from encouraging optimism to mild confusion to welcoming the times-up moment, but – typically – Mike decides when the tune is over, not waiting to be dismissed from the stage. The performance is part of a plot by Mike, Micky and Peter to sabotage the chances of Davy and Fern – that episode’s girlfriend – winning the contest. Fern’s mother is A Manipulative Baddie who wishes to launch her daughter’s career by teaming her up with Davy, thus splitting him away from his gang. Only the most attentive viewer/listener in December 1966 would have noticed the lyrics to Mike’s song, or that there was even a real song there at all. If you can catch the rapid, mumbled delivery, the opening line is ‘You and I travel to the beat of a different drum’. The performance is brief, deliberately cack-handed and goofy but the song is, indeed, ‘Different Drum’.
Yet this wasn’t the song’s debut in public – in Nesmith’s previous life as stalwart of the folk scene’s Hootenanies after his arrival in LA in early July 1964 he had recorded and performed live and on TV shows not a million miles away from this imaginary amateur hour, but had also had his songs lodged with a publisher, Randy Sparks, who evidently had some success placing the songs. It was through this route that the first version of ‘Different Drum’ emerged blinking into the sunshine – folk quartet The Greenbriars recorded it for their 1966 album Better Late Than Never issued on the renowned Vanguard label – the group had several illustrious alumni, including mandolin player Ralph Rinzler who left the band to work at the Smithsonian Folk Institute, Eric Weissberg who played half of the banjo duet famed in the movie Deliverance, and the legendary mandolin player Frank Wakefield. The band could pick and choose their material and to have his song covered by such an established roots outfit would certainly have been a feather in the young songwriter’s cap – that they chose the song also shows how close to the tap root of American music Nesmith’s abilities as a writer could take him.
Better Late Than Never proved a rich resource for an LA based country pop group, The Stone Poneys, as they covered two of the dozen tunes on there the following year. The plaintive, even pleading catch-in-the-throat vocal tone of John Herald, a real high plainsman country voice, really connects the song to the tradition from which it sprang, and the image of the reins being pulled in on someone suddenly makes perfect Cowboy-sense. The lyric still feels quirky and young – ‘it’s not that I knock it’ – but the maturity and sage-like reason in relation to matters of the heart is particularly notable here too. Herald’s vocal is clearly the model for Linda Ronstadt’s take the following year. In comparing the two versions we sense how the pop field which had already absorbed Nesmith was also drawing in the way pop music could, or needed to sound – the back beat, the bright melody line foregrounded, the neat transitions from verse to chorus – and how for the foreseeable future acts like the Greenbriar Boys would have to give way to the music that would both shape and come to represent the era.
Only 20 seconds longer than the Stone Poneys version but taken at about two thirds of the pace, it feels like a much older, backwoodsy tune, and – sung by a young man – seems a much more typical voice – the young coltish male trying to be kind as he heads out on the road. Its female counterpoint might be something like Joni Mitchell’s ‘Urge For Going’, with the ‘gal’ left at home while the boy seeks adventure beyond the blue horizon.
All this is spun on its head, of course, when sung by a girl, and especially one as striking and talented as Linda Ronstadt – here, in every sense, was a new voice for changed times. The earlier version has none of the melodic hooks with which the Stone Poneys’ version bristles. Initially Ronstadt worked with her bandmates Bobby Kimmel and Kenny Edwards on a version of the song that was closer kin to the Greenbriar Boys take on it: in this live clip, we hear their original arrangement of of the tune.
In her 2013 memoir Simple Dreams Linda Ronstadt recalled how the hit version of the song came to be.
“I found a song called “Different Drum” on a bluegrass record sung by John Herald of the Greenbriar Boys and written by Mike Nesmith before he joined The Monkees. I told [manager Nik] Venet I thought it was a hit. We went into the studio and recorded an arrangement for acoustic instruments, with Kenny playing mandolin. Venet wasn’t happy with it and said he wanted to hire and outside arranger, Jimmy Bond, and recut it.”
In scenes which feel similar to those experienced in the Monkees’ tale the singer turned up for another session to be met with a curious sight:
“A few days later I walked into the studio and was surprised to see it filled with musicians I had never met. They were all good players: Don Randi on harpsichord, Jimmy Gordon on the drums , and [arranger Jimmy] Bond playing bass. There was an acoustic guitar and some strings. the arrangement was completely different from the way I had rehearsed it. I tried as hard as I could to sing it, but we went through it only twice, and I hadn’t had time to learn the new arrangement . I told Venet I didn’t think we could use it because it was so different from the way I imagined it. Also it didn’t include Bobby or Ken. He ignored me. It was a hit.”
Linda aside, the Stone Poneys had been cut out of their own hit record. Unsurprisingly, as she notes of the success of ‘Different Drum’, ‘it was the beginning of the end for the Stone Poneys’.
A hit it was, making a lucky 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, on January 27th 1968 but the song proved to be very much a mixed blessing for the group. They didn’t really survive its success , substantially because not having played on the record they had difficulty recreating the song live – further evidence that the great ‘crime’ of The Monkees (session players workng on hit records) was in fact standard practise in the industry – and Ronstadt’s musical gifts and considerable charms were winning her the right to try and fly alone. Her first backing band included Bernie Leadon, Glenn Frey and Don Henley who, of course, later founded the Eagles.
The success may have spelled doom for the band but it has left us with a timelessly enjoyable pop record of the highest sort. The curlicues of acoustic guitar, the zeitgeisty harpsichord and the barefoot, dark-eyed flower child singer all making a challenge to the rules of the Boy’s World right at the dawning of the Summer of Love. It has it all going on. The gorgeous riff on the acoustic spirals down to silence yet feels like it just keeps spinning on, forever, beyond the fade. It reminds me of what, say, Manfred Mann did with loose Dylan tunes like ‘The Mighty Quinn’, pulling elements as yet unheard out of the way the notes in the melody speak to each other in order to remake the song into a tight, bright pop artefact, something that sounds like a dream on a car radio or a jukebox. Ronstadt’s assured yet pleading vocal adds just the right touch of vulnerability to the certitudes of the lyric.
The Stone Poneys’ hit not only became a staple of the new pop radio but spread the song far beyond its natural constituency, entering the canon of authenticating pop tunes – it has been returned to many times by a number of artists wishing to tip their hats to the enduring cult status of the tune but also to the spirit of the times that allowed such a curious little tune to climb the hit parade so nimbly.
Perhaps the most bizarre performance was given by none other than Raquel Welch, flown into Vietnam in 1967 to entertain a massed gathering of troops there. Pure Apocalypse Now – if Francis Ford Coppola hadn’t seen this clip and taken inspiration from it for the Playboy Bunny/Suzie Q concert sequence scene in the 1979 movie, well he should have done. Ms. Welch looked fabulous and sounded terrible but it’s unlikely anyone cared about the latter.
The song’s composer Michael Nesmith took his time to return to the song, eventually turning in a concise and urbane version on the sardonically titled 1973 album And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’. It’s a performance as neat as his outfit on the album’s gatefold, where he sits having raised his eyes to the camera from the copy of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s alternative history of the American West, which rests on his lap. Four beautiful and elegant women, all of whom look as if they are suffering to a greater or a lesser degree from the grand ennui detailed so well on Nevada Fighter, surround him. Two of them look as if they are about to attend to his hair. It’s a strange, strong and enigmatic image which has always intrigued me ; it’s like a portrait of a Renaissance prince. This was the first version of ‘Different Drum’ that I heard, as the Stone Poneys 45 had not been a UK hit and it would be some years before oldies radio made it a familiar tune to a younger generation in the UK.
Nesmith performs it on acoustic guitar in the vocal style he favoured at that time – narratorial, resisting untrammelled pop melodicism in the delivery, and with a clipped, even professorial tone to the voice, typified by his habit of pronouncing the definite article as ‘thee‘ regardless of context. He is accompanied on the track – as he is throughout 11 of the album’s 12 tracks – by his constant comrade in the post-Monkees years, pedal steel player Orville OJ ‘Red’ Rhodes, who gets a namecheck (‘Oh, go Red’) before his solo. His vocal is very direct and conversational, best heard on the line ‘settle down with him and I know that you’ll be happy’. It is a much more reflective and personal piece in this form, designed to travel a short distance from one person’s mind to another’s heart – a conversation piece. It restores the gender dynamic upturned by the Stone Poneys version – the boy tells the girl that he’s not saying she ain’t pretty – and the irresistible logic of the lyric is given a quieter and more focussed setting, an atmosphere as calm yet as troubling as the album’s curio of a gatefold sleeve picture.
The song is revealed as Dylanesque in its lyrical flow and its musical progressions, and also connects up with something Nesmith said much later about ‘St Matthew’, a song that lay unissued for many years, recorded in late 1967 and again in 1968. He commented that the song was an attempt to write like Dylan and it pulls the gender reversal trick that was working nicely for the Stone Poneys version of ‘Different Drum’ at exactly that time – late ‘67 going into ‘68. Coincidence? Probably, but an instructive and intriguing one – ‘she calls herself St Matthew and she is on the run’. The female , masquerading as male, is helping herself to the freedoms afforded to the man and this echoes the shock of hearing the doe-eyed Ronstadt say she is out of the door – ‘so goodbye, I’m a-leavin’ ‘. It’s a song for a man brought to life by a woman.
Live, Nesmith has tended to retain the Hits solo arrangement, solo sans the pedal steel. However we have a souvenir of a late blossoming of the relationship between Nesmith and Rhodes on the beautifully recorded appearance at the Britt Festival, Jacksonville, Oregon on the 19th of June 1992. The show eventually emerged on double CD and DVD in 1999 and 2001 respectively. This was his last in concert performance with Red Rhodes who passed away in August 1995 aged 64. Ironically Rhodes did not play on the version of ‘Different Drum’ which provided the evening’s closing song, but Nesmith acknowledged the debt to Ms Ronstadt, tipping his hat to her by saying ‘With apologies and special thanks to Linda, and a fond goodnight to y’all’ .
The song was not given a concert airing again until his 2012 UK tour debuted a rather fetching Parisienne-street cafe style arrangement, 3/4 time and an accordion-style keyboard part. This is the arrangement you can hear on his 2014 live album Movies Of The Mind . Sitting in the third row at the show at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester on October 29th 2012, it was clear that this version exercised his attention – carefully coaxing the chords from his acoustic 12-string, concentratedly focussed on the lyric, the vocal line observing the beat of a different rhythm now. The wistful melancholy of the song is somehow foregrounded ; it may be something we hear in the singer’s voice, or the fin-de-siecle arrangement, but the couple in the movie of the mind this version shoots somehow feel much older.
As is often the case nowadays, someone filmed this very show and put it on the internet. So now you can sit next to me, all those years ago, and hear what I heard, see what I saw.
Covers? Well now.
The song went underground for some years after Nesmith’s version appeared until the generation of younger musicians who had heard the hit version as children started to take to the stage and draw upon the influential songs of their youth – so we had indie darlings like The Lemonheads turning in a sterling 1990 cover, cranked up really high and deliberately scorching the edges but keeping the Stone Poneys structure and country-pop heart intact, to the extent of slyly keeping the song addressed to a boy.
In 2006 Matthew Sweet and Susannah Hoffs of The Bangles brought the song some Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra action in their guise as ‘Sid ‘n’ Susie’ on the first of their series of Under The Covers albums, bespoke collections of their covers of classic pop songs – by then ‘Different Drum’ really had joined the canon, undoubtedly thanks to Ronstadt’s performance in 1967, one which the song’s composer said in 2013 “infused it with a new level of passion and sensuality”.
Finally, when Linda Ronstadt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2014 the citation came courtesy of her old guitar player Glenn Frey but she was ‘sung in’ by Carrie Underwood who sang ‘Different Drum’, note for plangent note. She was welcomed in not via the easy rhythms of her famous and era-defining 70’s material for Asylum. No; it was to the beat of that old different drum. Nesmith was right to tip his hat at the Britt Festival; it’s her song now.