“Getting” Head… The Monkees’ Last Great Album

The Monkees
Rhino Handmade

Obsessed as we are with anniversaries (see: the building crescendo of grunge retromania), 20-, 30-, and 40-year marks reliably bring new seasons of re-analysis. And as the latest wave of ’60s pop retrospection continues to limp into the new decade, the artisanal re-hashers at Rhino have given us one more (last?) excuse to revisit a most criminally neglected album of the rock era, the Monkees’ 1968 suicide note, Head.

This month, Rhino will reissue Head on LP for the first time since 1986 — the first time ever at an audiophile weight, and on clear vinyl at that. Head is also notably the only original Monkees album getting such treatment in 2011, perhaps a measure of its critical reputation within a growing hardcore sect of fans. The latest reissue will make this writer’s ninth copy of the album — including an original pressing; several copies of the 1986 Rhino repress; the 1994 deluxe CD; last fall’s immense three-disc Rhino box set; and an obsessively compiled 100-track fan bootleg. Add to the list Head’s inclusion in last year’s Criterion survey of BBS Productions (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show), and you might think that it has already been plenty reconsidered.

But for whatever reason, much of the press on Head is general, focused primarily on the quirkiness of the film (“it’s, like, A Hard Day’s Night… on acid!”). Perhaps none of it has made the simple, reasonable assertion that the Head soundtrack is more than just a curiosity, it’s simply one of the greatest pop albums ever made. In fact, Head represents a unique variety of the essential album that doesn’t always make top albums lists, but is arguably a rarer achievement than the mere masterful collection of well-written songs. It’s in that class of albums that, in addition to being an absorbing listen front-to-back, are situational in the extreme, documenting a unique, unprecedented, unrepeatable set of circumstances, frozen in the amber of a pop record. One could claim that many great albums come from rare or unusual circumstances, at least rare or unusual talent, but albums such as Head, more than most others, are almost wholly products of fantastic conditions.

Briefly consider a pair of albums that also fit this description. On Syd Barrett’s first solo album, The Madcap Laughs, the listener is witness to a real-time audio documentary of a pop genius’s plunge into LSD-assisted madness. Just over a year before the album was recorded, Barrett was lucid, articulate and in full command of his substantial talent (check Pink Floyd’s 1967 interview on BBC 1’s The Look of the Week). Within the period of recording his two solo albums (1969 and 1970), his friends Roger Waters and David Gilmour reportedly had to help him use the bathroom. The Madcap Laughs is a shocking freeze-frame of Barrett’s mental segue. The music on it is simultaneously deeply flawed and flawless.

You could also pick, say, any of the first four albums by the German group Faust, whose early ’70s recordings are the result of a pretty harebrained gamble by a major label to cash in on the prog rock boom by giving a large budget and a country house to a rock critic charged with assembling an arty music collective. With money flowing in and a field of pot growing out back, highly volatile weirdness ensued, and it coalesced into crystalline perfection on the group’s 1971 self-titled debut.

Head is among the first and best in the canon of situational masterpieces and the events that led to its creation even more complicated. In 1966, NBC green-lighted a pilot for a TV show intended to capitalize on an opening in the post-British Invasion American teen market, basically a serialized version of the Beatles movies. The series’ developers, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson were neither insiders from the show’s target demographic, nor were they NBC suits (though Schneider was the vice-president’s son). The two were actually cynical, budding McLuhan disciples who envisioned the Monkees project as a gateway to making more serious feature films. This outlook made for some very weird decision-making. For example, when the four Monkees protested a power grab by the show’s music supervisor, Don Kirshner, Schneider and Rafelson actually fired the multi-million selling producer and let the actors (who had varying degrees of musical ability and little musical common ground) record their own album (1967’s miraculously coherent Headquarters). This set the scene for progressively more eclectic, genuinely ground-breaking, records.

By early 1968, the Monkees were on pace to sell more albums than the Beatles and Stones combined, and although it was number one in its timeslot, everyone involved decided to kill the TV show. In spring of 1968, the directors and the show’s stars began shooting a feature film, the script for which had been entirely written in a collective stream of consciousness during a weekend pot binge at an Ojai, California, golf resort. Producers Schneider and Rafelson brought their friend onboard to direct, a then-struggling actor, Jack Nicholson.

With the shooting wrapped up later that year, the compilation of a soundtrack album was almost an afterthought. De facto bandleader Mike Nesmith helmed it very briefly before passing it on to Nicholson. With only the handful of songs featured in the movie, and no real oversight, Nicholson was free to build a lot of filler material from scratch. The album’s skeleton became a series of musique concrète assemblages of film dialogue, a sort of aural mortar that holds together six incongruent musical bricks. Of the six actual songs on Head, the strongest are a pair of sophisticated, psychedelic tunes by the recently divorced Carole King (she of “The Loco-Motion” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” fame). The album’s Davy Jones showpiece is an early Harry Nilsson track called “Daddy’s Song” that describes the plight of an absentee father against an inappropriately jaunty Broadway backdrop; Mike Nesmith contributed a slicing, inscrutably lo-fi rock song with muddy organ and nearly inaudible vocals. Peter Tork, who had been almost entirely cut out of the creative process of the band’s earliest recordings, pitched in two surprisingly mature, Eastern/existential-leaning songs of his own.

The album is a little over 28 minutes long, roughly the length of an episode of the show. Of the more than 50 session musicians who play on this mess, highlights include a delicate guitar duel between Ry Cooder and Neil Young (on King’s “As We Go Along”), Nilsson sitting in on piano for his own tune, Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles backing Tork, arrangements by Jack Neitzche and Shorty Rogers, an extended philosophic monologue by a swami in a sauna, and an orchestral climax by Ken Thorne (the guy who scored Help!). The resulting mosaic resembles the sort of irrational chunking-together of information that one sometimes experiences in the moments between consciousness and sleep, a hypnogogic hallucination of a 60’s pop record, a record that could only have been made as part of an out-of-control major studio project with money to burn, steered by a team of indifferent directors who were already thinking about their next film (the script for Five Easy Pieces was on deck). Rafelson and Schneider wanted to be done with the Monkees and showed seemingly zero interest in Head’s commercial or critical success. The film played in select cities and grossed just over $16,000 (about two percent of the film’s budget). The soundtrack album peaked at #45, the first Monkees LP to peak lower than #3 on the Billboard chart.

From this point, the four Monkees slowly disbanded. Tork fulfilled one last contractual obligation by appearing in the 1969 TV special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. With Tork gone, Nesmith spent the next year trying to turn the Monkees into an odd C&W-soul hybrid before leaving to record a string of cosmic country records better than anything by the Flying Burrito Brothers (another argument for another day). Dolenz and Jones, seemingly content to do whatever was asked of them, released one final awkward Monkees record as a duo. Head, however, remains distinguished from the rest of the band’s later output. Just as the early Monkees albums are underappreciated gateways for young listeners to sophisticated pop, Head is an almost accidental youngster’s gateway to the avant-garde; there is a clear line for clued-in pre-teens leading from Head’s “Opening Ceremony” and “Swami—Plus Strings, Etc.” to the Beatles’ “Revolution 9″, and from there to Yoko Ono, Stockhausen, Krautrock, postpunk, and a million other directions.