Time/Life's "Music of 1968"'s Glaring Omission - "Head" by The Monkees

So I'm in my local supermarket's magazine aisle, when I come across this "special edition" of Time/Life's Music Of 1968, featuring....surprise - The Beatles on the cover, with the byline, "Rock and Roll's Greatest Year." I should be used to this self-aggrandizing hyperbole by now, especially from conglomerate publications such as the ones Time/Life puts out, but still, I'm a little flummoxed by the fact that the editors there would consider 1968 to be "Rock and Roll's Greatest Year" - it leads me to wonder if these guys/gals are likely members of Gen-X, and have no clue about the simultaneously tumultuous and psychedelic Summer of Love which, by the way, happened in 1967 not 1968.

Nevertheless, for the sake of being entertained, I flipped through the pages and read the various articles. It didn't take long however, before the mag's editorial agenda revealed itself to be a patronizing acknowledgement of the contributions of women and African-Americans to the genre: pieces on James BrownThe Temptations, The Supremes and Jimi Hendrix; a significant portion of the issue payed homage to  "women of rock", including Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Grace Slick, Dusty Springfield, Linda Ronstadt and Laura Nyro. Nevermind the fact that a more accurate description of say, Nyro's music would fall under "folk" and not "rock", or in Springfield's case, R'n'B. 

And of course (as all self-referential hispsters tend to do), nods were given to quasi-obscure (by popular standards) albums like The Zombies' Odyssey and Oracle, or Waiting For The Sun by The Doors. That really doesn't surprise me. What does surprise and even angers me is that here is a special magazine dedicated to a specific period in rock history, and the editors either chose to exclude (or are too clueless to know about) one of the most laudable moments not just in rock history, but in American filmmaking - that milestone boys and girls would be Head, the ambitious motion picture and soundtrack by The Monkees, curated by none other than that movie's scriptwriter and director, Jack "Easy Rider" Nicholson.

The movie, produced by Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson (the creators of the band's tv series for Screen Gems) is a bonafide contender for one of the earliest examples of counterculture filmmaking - a movie that sought not only to deconstruct the mythology of the group, but to critique, lampoon and ultimately destroy the commercially-successful, prefabricated band that burst on the scene as skilled assimilators of the The Beatles' acerbic looniness captured in Richard Lester's A Hard Days Night, but went well beyond that movie's comic cinema verité, to become not only the chronicler of pop culture, but in many ways, its most ardent critic - using humor to poke fun of sacred cows and treasured icons, all the while surreptitiously packaging its subversion as a sitcom about four generally-unemployed lads just trying to make a living securing gigs.

"People say we 'monkey around', but we're too busy singing to put anybody down" was the rallying cry from the Boyce & Hart-penned show theme, "Come and watch us sing and play/We're the young generation, and we've got something to say." Frankly, despite The Beatles massive appeal and critical hosannas, as a band, they really didn't speak much to 'their generation' demographically-speaking as The Monkees did (with some exceptions). The Beatles themselves started their musical odyssey essentially copying early R'n'B and soul music, occasionally reinterpreting it through a rockabilly/folk infused lens, before veering off into more experimental, psychedelic territory. 

A revelation that has only recently come to light is that the Beatles vs. Monkees "feud" was spawned entirely by the demagoguery of rock journalists - whose thinly-veiled vendetta reflected their collective disgust that a band assembled from a cattle call in Variety magazine could, at their peak, outsell both The Beatles and The Stones. Like theatre critics of the time, rock critics had an inflated sense of their own importance, and had no intention of lending any credence to a band that didn't need their stamp of approval to sell albums, or have a successful, Emmy-award winning prime-time series that was one part sketch comedy, one part MTV-antecedent music video.

Little did they know,  The Monkees were not only fans of The Beatles, but the two groups formed a mutual admiration society. The Beatles regularly threw parties for The Monkees (their seminal tune "Randy Scouse Git" is an account of one of those parties) and recently , it was revealed that not only were Davy, Micky, Mike and Peter present (at the band's invitation) during the recording sessions for many of the Beatles' records, certain members of The Monkees contributed musically to tracks from those sessions. In any other context, this would serve as a major revelation among the rock'n'roll cognescenti, but even today, the unfair anti-Monkees bias rears its ugly head through denial and omission.

But back to 1968 - producers Rafelson and Schneider had their sights set on Hollywood, and wanted to bankroll the success of the Monkees' tv series into a filmmaking career - and what better way, they thought, than to have the Monkees really poke fun of themselves in a feature film. So the producers, the band, and Jack Nicholson (who had become a new bestie of Rafelson) found themselves spending a lost weekend at an Ojai, California resort, ingesting illicit substances while brainstorming aloud into a tape recorder, which Nicholson would then use as a template for the screenplay that would become Head. But while the band likely thought the jabs would be lighthearted, Nicholson ended up incorporating many of their ideas into a trenchant pastiche of the post-Summer of Love atmosphere of which Vietnam would serve as its catalyst.

A prime example of this can be found on the Nicholson-penned "Ditty Diego (War Chant)", whereupon the Boyce and Hart theme song is eviscerated to critique the band's creation and success: "A manufactured image with no philosophies/We know it doesn't matter...Hey, hey we are The Monkees/The money's in, we're made of tin/We're here to give you more" as a huge grid of tv screens shows the band viciously mocking itself until we are jarred by the now infamous footage of a Viet Cong prisoner being executed at point blank range - the accompanying cries first suggest a reaction of horror, until the camera pans back, and we realize it is a screaming teenager at a rock concert. It's just one of many, many trenchant statements succinctly told within the film's loose narrative.

And the soundtrack of this Columbia Pictures movie features some incredible tunes performed and written by a stellar collection of artists assisting the band, including songwriters Carole King and Gerry Goffin (who contribute the majestic, psychedelic gem "Porpoise Song"), Harry Nilsson (the charming but bittersweet "Daddy's Song"), Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (the melancholy country rock of "As We Go Along", featuring guitarists Neil Young [that's right, I said Neil Young] and Ry Cooder), as well as Stephen Stills - who contributes to his ex-roommate Peter Tork's hard-charging "Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again?" The film's choreography is courtesy of a young Toni Basil (who would go on to choreograph many an MTV-music video, as well as have a major new-wave hit with "Mickey"), and cameos by 50's sweetheart Annette Funicello, 60's counterculture icon Frank Zappa, actor Victor Mature, boxer Sonny Liston and renown topless dancer Carol Doda.

During a scene in the movie where T.C. Jones (as a wise-cracking waitress) dresses down Peter Tork, Tork responds by punching the waitress in the mouth - as Jack Nicholson yells "Cut", Peter is visibly shaken, and a minor kerfuffle occurs between Tork, Nicholson and the producers - during this scene, we notice actor Dennis Hopper is visiting the set, and is seen briefly attempting to diffuse the situation before walking off-camera. Hopper would then go on to be a major player in the Rafelson/Schneider flick, Easy Rider - a counterculture classic which would never have been funded had Head not been made at all.

This is what makes Head  a pivotal event in the history of rock'n'roll movies and 60's pop culture - the accompanying soundtrack a unique sonic snapshot of both the period, and as an album, a record at least as significant as Odyssey and Oracle, The Beatles' HELP! or any of a number of respective releases by pop and rock bands not only of that year, but of the decade as a whole. In a universe where talent and determination actually meant something, The Monkees would have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame decades ago, their legacy would not be continually held suspect or up for derision, and when any discussion of the 60's and its major contributors were discussed, The Monkees would get their due respect, admiration and appreciation.

"My, my...the clock in the sky is pounding away/And there's so much to say...." Indeed. And now is the time it needs to be said.

Footnote: A marvelously-restored version of Head can be found on America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, released as part of The Criterion Collection, and includes Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show, among others. Check it out.


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