The Ones I Rarely Play: Michael Nesmith – Listen to the Band

It’s not really surprising that Mike Nesmith was the only one of the Monkees to have a real solo career. He was, after all, the only ‘real’ musician in the band, and it’s easy to see that he is the only one who looks faintly embarrassed at the hi-jinks they were put through (that is, if he went through them: there are many episodes where he disappears from the screen before things get too silly).
Nesmith contributed by far the highest number of songs to the Monkees’ repertoire, including my personal favourite Monkees track of all time, an uptempo country rocker, ‘What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round?’, to the Pisces, Aquaruis, Capricorn and Jones Ltd album, the first the band were allowed to play on themselves.
It’s another of Nesmith’s songs that privides the title track to this twenty song compilation of his solo career. ‘Listen to the Band’ was a strident, brassy, staccato song in the Monkees’ hands, but Newsmith’s arrangement is considerably more low-key, fluid and laid-back.
And that’s the key to the material, which represents the best of Nesmith’s solo albums, the only notable exception being the omission of ‘Rio’, his only UK hit single (if you count a track that stalled at no 28 as a hit).
In the Monkees, Nesmith’s influence could not go further than a kind of countryfied pop-rock, but once he was free from the restraints put on the band in its early stages, his natural instincts began to emerge, perhaps most strongly on the unsuccessful late single, ‘Sweet Young Thing’.
But once he was solo, and backed by the First National Band, he was free to pursue his tastes.
My first exposure to this was an aching, mournful ballad called ‘Joanne’, a Radio Two Recent Release (in 1971, you were forbidden from using the word ‘new’ on that channel). It was all weeping steel guitars, falsetto, almost yodelling vocals: in short, nearly everything I really don’t like about country music.
But it’s on this CD, as the penultimate track, and I love it, and it reminds me of the exact place in the Lake District and the exact shade of sun when I heard it then.
With Nesmith though, it doesn’t bother me. He retains enough of the pop sensibility to leaven the country influence, but at the heart of it he simply doesn’t have the voice that grates on me.
And there are simply some excellent songs on this compilation, most of which he’s written himself (the fiery ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’ is a shining example of a roaring cover).
Two that fascinate me are ‘Some of Shelley’s Blues’ and ‘Propinquity’, with which I’d long been familiar due to the cover versions performed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their classic Uncle Teddy and his Dog Charlie album.
With the Nitty Grittys, the one’s a barnstormer, fiddles and banjos and and a swing, and gusto in the voice of a song about a man refusing to accept his girlfriend’s decision to break up with him (not a subject you could credibly write about these days, though I’m sure Robin Thicke probably has). The other is a slow, almost shy, sparsely instrumentalised love song, about a man realising that he’s falling in love with a woman he’s known for a long time as a friend.
Nesmith’s takes on these songs are interesting in that ‘Some of Shelley’s Blues’ is looser and more laconic, rowing back from the Nitty Grittys’ energy, whilst his version of ‘Propinquity’ is fuller of sound, and more vigorous. The result is not a meeting of sound in the middle of the two extremes of the Nitty Grittys’ interpretations, but Nesmith’s sound is overall cooler, and more laconic.
There’s an amusing moment halfway through the set, as Nesmith schedules a song that obviously closed side one of its original home, and which still urges the listener to get the record turned over in time for the goodies on its other side!
The result is an entertaining meander through his career, not to mention the most steel guitar I’ve ever stood for in one place! Nesmith is laid-back, contented and at home and the effect is welcome. Even if it is male Country music!

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