Album Review: “Head” — The Monkees (1968)


Hey, hey, we are The Monkees, you know we love to please
A manufactured image with no philosophies…

Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson wrote and produced the absurdist yet strangely (and often beautifully) endearing 1968 film Head. Directed by Rafelson, the movie takes The Monkees off the television screen and into their first cinematic adventure in an effort that absolutely NO ONE expected. Certainly not the bands fans, who were probably primed for a feature-length extension of the TV show. Cinemaphiles, film studies majors, pseudo-ints and the like were certainly turning their nose up at ANYTHING that had to deal with a “fake teenybopper band from TV”. I have no idea who or what the film’s intended audience was expected to be. It certainly wasn’t the audience that showed up at the box office, because there wasn’t any. The film bombed big-time.

As this isn’t a film review, I’ll hold off on an in-depth analysis of the merits of Head, except to say that I love the movie as an exceptionally entertaining piece of Technicolor kitsch with a little to say about so much, and lots to say about more than a few, and a whole lot of giggle-inducing “Huh wha??” about the rest. It’s surreal, absurd, satirical, vibrant, bursting with music and color and energy… and then it ends. Except that it ends right where it starts. Make sense of the entire ordeal? Well you certainly can try.

We hope you like our story, although there isn’t one.
That is to say, there’s many; that way there is more fun!

The music the band assembled for the film (which correspondingly appeared on the soundtrack album of the same name) was, however, was quite extraordinary. There are really only six “real songs” — seven, if you include the spoken word chant. That said, the quality of this collection is, across the board, probably the best work The Monkees had ever put together, before or after. But it’s really an EP’s worth of musical content; the rest of the Head soundtrack album is comprised of soundbites from the movie. This makes Head more of an album experience more than any of their LPs; it’s meant to be evocative of the entire Head experience: the lack of narrative, the free-form surrealism, spontaneity, and everything-and-nothing arbitrary nonsense all at once, while still being anchored by six of the very best songs the band ever recorded.

The lush, swirling orchestrations of Porpoise Song (Theme from Head) drench this exquisite song in the trappings of psychedelia, but the Gerry Goffin/Carole King-composed number sets the tone for the film rather brilliantly. The presumption is that The Monkees — the BAND — is trying to un-cage themselves, extricate themselves from the image, the Hollywood fakery, the Grand Canard… except there are still dandruff commercials and television shows and state fairs to which they remain answerable. Like Lady Death’s answer to Orpheus in Jean Cocteau’s Orphee, they are made immortal only by imposed petrification. Good art, terrible art, manufactured art, or soulless art, it all gets encased in amber and dissected by curious onlookers (and willy-nilly bloggers) over time.

All that’s well and good, but does it make for a good song? Honestly, it makes for a great one. This is a band highlight, a beautifully produced track (by song co-writer Gerry Coffin) with a hauntingly great vocal by Micky Dolenz. I love how the strings, chimes, and organ build slowly as the song erupts into its opening verse. The song retains elements of the ephemeral charm of the band’s more commercial hits, but comfortably inserted into the sensibilities of 1968 pop psyechedelia.

You say we’re manufactured, to that we all agree
So make you choice and we’ll rejoice in never being free!

Mike Nesmith takes center stage with Circle Sky, a song performed live in the film by all four Monkees. The album cut is a studio version, with Michael and vocals and guitar, backed up by studio musicians. This country’ish rocker has a vague rockabilly feel, an uptempo toe-tapper if there ever was one. Nesmith’s Texan cadences are put to great use on the song, which acts as a bookend piece of sorts to “Porpoise Song”; a more caustic take on the cyclical, repetitive, churned-out tedium endemic to the overall hype machine. If nothing else, the song exudes confidence, an assured air of control by the band as a creative musical entity. It remains a mystery why the studio track was included on the soundtrack instead of the righteously energized live version featured in the film.

Peter Tork really came into his own as a songwriter on Head, contributing two of his own original compositions to the soundtrack (the most of any band member), and both of them stellar tracks. The first is the Middle Eastern-tinged Can You Dig It, which was originally produced as a demo during the Headquarters sessions. The song was revisited for Head and originally produced with Peter on lead vocals (as well as playing lead guitar and bass). The film ended up going with a take featuring Micky on lead vocals, instead. It’s a beautiful number, with trippy-dippy lyrics inspired by the Tao te Ching punctuated by some groovy 60s hipster-slang. The song works so well, it not only could have worked as a hit single, it really should have.

For those who look for meaning and form as they do facts
We might tell you one thing but we’d only take it back…

You can easily shuffle off whatever mundane coils are keeping you earthbound amid the gentle acoustic shuffling of As We Go Along, a stunning Carole King and Toni Stern-composed number featuring some of Micky’s best vocals in any Monkees song. It’s easily the sweetest, most emotionally vulnerable and dramatically straightforward track on the album, a simple plea to throw down your defenses and open yourself up to a loved one. That’s it. No pejoratives hurled towards the Hollywood/show-biz process, no lamentations of being locked into a false image to please the masses, nothing. Just a yearning for mutual trust and understanding. It’s a beautiful track, compounded by all the talent performing with Micky: not only does Carole King play guitar, she is accompanied by both Ry Cooder and Neil Young.

The legendary Harry Nilsson got some of his earliest successes writing songs for The Monkees, having contributed the fantastic “Cuddly Toy” for their 1967 album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (a sweet, bouncy, joyous ode to a young lady who enjoys group sex). That song was sung by Davy, giving the dark subject matter a deeply contrasting innocence and back-of-the-theater showmanship. This is repeated with Daddy’s Song, a song-and-dance show-stopper featuring Davy doing what he did best: high-spirited musical-theater performance. The lyrics detail a man’s lamentations after being abandoned by a loving father and his own determination to break the cycle, but given the energy and boisterousness Davy imbues it with you could conceivably never realize this.

I have to share the sequence from the film during which the song is performed. The cinematography, choreography, and vocal delivery of the performance is ridiculously ebullient.

And yes, the woman Davy is dancing with is Toni Basil, she of the 1982 Top-40 hit “Mickey”. She choreographed the entire sequence and was a Bob Rafelson stock player for a time, appearing in his later projects “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces”.

We know it doesn’t matter, ’cause what you came to see
Is what we’d love to give you, and give it one, two, three!

The last “proper” song on the album is the second of two Peter Tork compositions, Long Title: Do I Have To DO This All Over Again. While it’s a lesser song to “Can You Dig It”, the song remains a quality track, an uptempo rocker designed to make you get your best Mashed Potato on. If anything, it might be the most dated album track; there’s a certain timeless quality to the rest of the songs, even with the psychedelia of “Porpoise Song” and the artful-dodgering of “Daddy’s Song”. Nonetheless, the song cooks as a slice of late 60s getting your mad groove on. Pete takes on vocals, guitar, and bass duties (his thumping bassline is unmistakable), and I dare you to try real hard to not hear Stephen Stills shredding all over the entire track. Good stuff.

Peppered throughout this entire review are lines from Ditty Diego — War Chant, a spoken-word chant set to rhyme above ragtime piano. The lyrics (penned by Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson) spell out the movie’s Declaration of Principles, basically detailing everything the movie’s “about” into several rhyming stanzas. All four Monkees participate on the track, both individually and in unison. While the “song” is inextricably tied into the goings-on of the film itself rather than a stand-alone piece, it remains one hell of an infectious bit of entertainment.

But there may come three, two, one, two — or jump from nine to five
And when you see the end in sight the beginning may arrive!

The rest of the album is sound clips from the movie, snippets of dialog, narration, orchestrations, even audio from the movie that came from OTHER movies (“Supernatural? Perhaps… Baloney? Perhaps not…” — taken from the 1934 horror classic The Black Cat featuring both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff). You can take or leave them. I think they really add a sense of flavor to the album experience, but that level of texture is better appreciated having seen (and loved) the film. You can also skip past these bits and appreciate Head as an EPs worth of some of The Monkees’s best recorded material, ever. Either way works for me. Head represented a high water mark for the band, but the failure of the project sadly hastened their pop culture demise. A few more albums were to follow, but they’d never be anywhere near this good, let alone consistently great, again.

If you’re a fan of the album and/or the movie, the Rhino Records boxed set of the soundtrack is well worth seeking out. It comes with a ton of alternate takes, outtakes, demos, live tracks, interviews, behind the scenes bits, promos, and more. Some highlights on this 3-CD set include the live version of “Circle Sky” (featuring all four Monkees performing), “Can You Dig It” with Peter on vocals, an early take of “Daddy’s Song” with Mike handing vocals, and an extensive Davy Jones interview about the project.

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