Take Five: Michael Nesmith

Michael Nesmith would have celebrated his 80th birthday last December 30; he passed away in 2021 after an acclaimed tour with former bandmate Micky Dolenz. The talented musician and songwriter was best known as a member of The Monkees, but he was a successful songwriter before joining the group: Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys had a hit with his “Different Drum,” and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band cut his “Mary, Mary” before the Monkees recorded it. And in his post-Monkees years, Nesmith was a pioneer in both country rock and music video.

And even while with the Monkees, Nesmith wrote some of the band’s best material. Here are five deep album cuts from the pen of Michael Nesmith.

“All the King’s Horses” (recorded for The Monkees, 1966)
Most of the songs that would appear on the Monkees’ debut album were written by outside songwriters (primarily the team of Tommy Boyce / Bobby Hart and Gerry Goffin / Carole King), and most of the instrumental work featured session musicians. (The four members of the Monkees were hired primarily for their on-screen talents.) But right from the start, Nesmith proved his mettle as a songwriter and producer. This song was recorded during the first album sessions but left unreleased until the late 1980s.

“You Told Me” (from Headquarters, 1967)
Much of Michael Nesmith’s original songs – like this original composition – showcased the country music influences of the Texas-born songwriter. This song was featured on the Monkees’ third album, the first on which the group exercised creative control and provided nearly all of the instrumental work.

“Daily Nightly” (from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., 1967)
A departure from Nesmith’s country-rock stylings, this hypnotic and psychedelic track – featuring a lead vocal from Micky Dolenz – is notable as one of the earliest-ever pop recordings to feature the Moog synthesizer. That’s Micky playing the Moog; the sounds on the imposing instrument had been programmed by synth pioneer Paul Beaver.

“Tapioca Tundra” (from The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees, 1968)
Like “Daily Nightly,” this Nesmith original features a lyric that doesn’t include the song’s title. Nesmith’s lead vocal is treated to sound as if he’s singing through a megaphone, a nod to early 20th century ragtime jazz singers like Rudy Vallée. But there are plenty of country-rock textures in the song as well, thanks to Nesmith’s multiple guitar parts on the recording. Much more recently, in 2022 an acoustic version of the song was featured on a 6th season episode of Better Caul Saul.

“Circle Sky” (from the Head soundtrack, 1968)
After The Monkees’ television series was canceled, the group embarked on an even more ambitious project, the surreal motion picture Head. Featuring a diverse collection of contributors (Jack Nicholson, Frank Zappa, Annette Funicello, Victor Mature and prize fighter Sonny Liston) the film is a psychedelic extravaganza. And it includes a snippet of The Monkees in concert, playing this rocking Nesmith original. The group would re-record the song on their 1996 reunion album Justus; this is the original.