238. Bee Gees – Massachusetts (1967)

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The Bee Gees. Through thick and thin, in hard times and great times, the iconic Gibb brothers, Barry, Robin and Maurice sang together for 45 years (minor the occasional split) until Maurice’s untimely death in 2003, creating some of the bestselling songs of all time for themselves and other high-profile artists, and yet, seem to me to be strangely underrated. They had five number 1s as Bee Gees, spanning three decades, and this is the story of their early years and first number 1, Massachusetts.

The Gibb brothers were born on the Isle of Man to English parents. Barry was born 1 September 1946, and twins Robin and Maurice on 22 December 1949. They moved back to their father Hugh’s home town of Chorlton-cum-Hardy in Manchester in 1955, where they formed skiffle and rock’n’roll group the Rattlesnakes. The group featured Barry on vocals and guitar, Robin and Maurice on vocals too, and friends Paul frost on drums and Kenny Horrocks on tea-chest bass.

The story goes that some time in December 1957, the Gibbs were on their way to a cinema to mime to a record, as other children had in previous weeks, but the record broke on the way, and so they sang together live and it went down a storm. Whether it’s true or not, it makes for a good tale. The following year the Rattlesnakes disbanded when Frost and Horrocks left, so the Gibbs formed Wee Johny Hayes and the Blue Cats, with Barry as Hayes.

That August the Gibb family emigrated to Queensland, Australia. The trio began singing to earn pocket money. In 1960, speedway promoter and driver Bill Goode dug those harmonies and hired the Gibbs to entertain the crowd at Redcliffe Speedway. During intervals they would be driven around the track and as they sang the audience would throw them money on to the track. Goode introduced them to Brisbane DJ Bill Gates. It was Gates, who, noting that he, Goode and Barry shared the same initials, named the boys the BGs.

Soon they were appearing on Australian television, and in 1962 they supported Chubby Checker. In 1963 the family were living in Sydney, when the star Cal Joye helped get them a record deal with Festival Records under the name the Bee Gees, and they began releasing singles under this name while Barry would also write for other artists. They had a minor hit in 1965 with Wine and Women, which led to their debut album, The Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs. Talk about ‘it does exactly what it says on the tin’…

The following year they came very close to being dropped when they met their new manager and producer Nat Kipner, who signed them to Spin Records. By getting unlimited access to a recording studio, the Bee Gees skills rapidly grew, but they became increasingly frustrated, and having paid close attention to the UK music scene, they made the decision to return to the UK in January 1967. Before they left, tapes had been sent over to the Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who had passed ther tapes over Robert Stigwood, who had previously worked with Joe Meek and John Leyton, and recently joined NEMS. Ironically, it was on the journey to Blighty that they discovered their last Australian single Spicks and Specks, off an album of the same name, had been named Best Single of the Year by the influential music newspapaer Go-Set.

In February the Bee Gees signed with Stigwood and began work on their first international album, with fellow Australians Colin Petersen and Vince Melouney joining them on drums and lead guitar respectively. Inspired by the Aberfan mining tragedy, they released New York Mining Disaster 1941 as a single, and confusing some DJs who thought this was a new single by the Beatles thanks to some lovely harmonies and considerable charm, the single garnered some attention. They followed it up with To Love Somebody. Originally written for Otis Redding, it didn’t even reach the top 40, yet is now a pop standard. Their third album, The Bee Gees 1st, was released in July. Fitting in perfectly with the sound of the Summer of Love, the gentle psychedia made it into the top ten albums.

While promoting the album in New York, Scott McKenzie was at number 1 in the UK with the mournful hippie folk of San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair). Barry, Robin and Maurice wrote (The Lights Went Out in) Massachusetts as their reply. They knew nothing about Massachusetts, but they liked the sound of the name, and while strumming away to a tune not entirely dissimilar from McKenzie’s song, they decided that the song would specifically reference San Francisco, with the subject of their song having travelled there like so many others. So many others, in fact, that ‘the lights all went out in Massachusetts’

It’s a quirky little song, but lovely with it. Although deliberately similar to McKenzie’s ode to the Moneterey Rock Festival, it outdoes it, and that’s largely due to those gorgeous, idiosyncratic harmonies. Robin’s plaintive lead also works a treat. It’s hard to say from the sparse lyrics whether the Bee Gees were attacking the hippy movement, paying tribute to it, or just taking the piss somewhat, but it has rightly taken up place as another one of those patchouli-flecked psych-folk ballads that summed up the abiding spirit of 1967. Nicely understated and a sign of a future force to be reckoned with.

So it had been a wise move by the Gibbs to release it ASAP, rather than wait until they had finished their next album Horizontal, released in 1968. They were even considering not releasing it at all and were keen on giving it to Australian folk stars the Seekers. Massachusetts helped make Bee Gees one of the brightest new acts of the era, and of course, there was much more to come.

Massachusetts spent for weeks at number 1 that autumn. On 11 October, Prime Minister Harold Wilson won a libel action against Birmingham psych-rockers the Move after they depicted him nude in promotional material for their record Flowers in the Rain. A fortnight later, Parliament passed The Abortion Act, legalising abortion on a number of grounds from the following year onwards.

2 November saw Winnie Ewing of the Scottish National Party win the Hamilton by-election. Having formed in 1934, this was the first time the party had won a by-election. The single’s final week at number 1 was marred by two tragic accidents., with Iberia Airlines Flight 062 from Málaga Airport, Spain hitting Blackdown Hill in West Sussex. All 37 on board were killed. The very next day, an express train from Hastings to London derailed in the Hither Green rail crash, which killed 49 people. Amongst the passengers was Robin Gibb, who recalled in The Mail on Sunday on 1 November 2009, ‘Luckily I didn’t get injured. I remember sitting at the side of the carriage, watching the rain pour down, fireworks go off and blue lights of the ambulances whirring. It was like something out of a Spielberg film.’

Written by: Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb & Maurice Gibb

Producer: Robert Stigwood & Bee Gees

Weeks at number 1: 4 (11 October-7 November) 

Births:

Presenter Davina McCall – 16 October
Novelist Monica Ali – 20 October 
Footballer Paul Ince – 21 October 
Politician Douglas Alexander – 26 October
Bush singer Gavin Rossdale – 30 October

236. Scott McKenzie – San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) (1967)

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‘San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant…’

If a raging, savage cynic like Hunter S Thompson could write so warmly about San Francisco in 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then it must have indeed been quite a place. After two homegrown Summer of Love anthems from Procul Harum and the Beatles, the third that summer to hit number 1 came from US singer-songwriter Scott McKenzie with his tribute to the hippies of the Golden City.

McKenzie was born with the very un-hippy-like name Philip Wallach Blondheim III in Jacksonville Florida, January 1939. When only six months old the family moved to Asheville, North Carolina. At school he became friends with John Phillips, future member of the Mamas & the Papas and writer of this number 1 you’re reading about. In the mid-1950s Blondheim sang with Tim Rose in the Singing Strings at high school, and later formed doo-wop group the Abstracts with Phillips, Mike Boran and Bill Cleary.

The Abstracts soon became the Smoothies and they signed with Decca Records. Around this time, Blondheim decided if he was ever going to be famous he needed to change his name. Comedian Jackie Curtis said he looked like a Scottie dog. He has a point, but I’d say he looks more like a Spaniel. Anyway, from then onwards he became Scott McKenzie (McKenzie was the name of Phillips’s daughter).

During the folk revival of the early-60s, McKenzie and Phillips teamed up with Dick Weissman to form the Journeymen. They recorded three albums for Capitol Records, but failed to ignite the charts and so they disbanded in 1964. McKenzie and Weissman went solo, while Phillips formed the New Journeymen, who eventually morphed into the Mamas & the Papas. McKenzie was offered the chance to join them, but he wasn’t sure he’d be able to cope with the pressure and declined. He did however audition to join the Monkees, but was rejected for looking too old at 24.

In the spring of 1967, Phillips, along with music producer Lou Adler, Alan Pariser and Beatles and Beach Boys press spokesman Derek Taylor planned the first major rock festival, inspired by the Monterey Jazz Festival. Celebrating the counterculture, the Monterey International Pop Festival was planned for 16-18 June at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in Monterey, California. Phillips may have been a hippy, but he was also a budding businessman. Some of the psychedelic era’s biggest acts agreed to play for free, including Jefferson Airplane, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Who, the Grateful Dead, the Mamas & the Papas (of course) and Otis Redding. Documented in a famous film by DA Pennebaker, without Monterey we may have never had the music festival culture we have today.

With Phillips being such a canny businessman, he could see the way the wind was blowing, and decided, why stop there? He wanted a song to promote the festival, and hopefully make him a lot more money in the process. So he wrote San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) in 20 minutes to promote his project. Perhaps deciding it would look too cynical to get his group to record it, he asked McKenzie, who was an unknown by comparison. Members of the Wrecking Crew were hired as backing, with Phillips and Adler co-producing. Phillips also provided guitars and sitar. The song was released that May.

It’s looked down upon these days for not being a cynical marketing tool, but I don’t mind San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair). The lyrics are a little cheesy and bland, but it’s well-produced, with Gary L Coleman’s orchestral bells and chimes making for an atmospheric sound, and together with McKenzie’s wistful vocal, it makes for a strangely downbeat tune, seemingly mourning the passing of the hippy movement while it was at its peak.

It’s an unusual number 1, and it was certainly a case of ‘right place, right time’. Strangely, it didn’t get to number 1 in the US, despite him performing it at the festival, so I’m guessing that San Francisco must have seemed to many Brits to be a mystical, out-of-reach paradise, and buoyed on by the success of Procul Harum and the Beatles, McKenzie’s folk song seemed a suitable way to follow up the mood of hippy celebration that summer. It even inspired the first Bee Gees number 1, Massachusetts, later that year.

Scott McKenzie would remain a one-hit wonder. The follow-up, a re-release of his debut single, Look in Your Eyes, failed to chart once more. Phillips co-wrote and co-produced Like an Old Time Movie, but that and debut album The Voice of Scott McKenzie, didn’t capture the public mood. But McKenzie was aware of the fact he just wasn’t a natural pop star, and after his second album Stained Glass Morning in 1970, he retired.

McKenzie resurfaced in the 80s and rode the nostalgia wave of the baby boomers as part of the new version of the Mamas & the Papas, and then in 1988 he co-wrote the risible Beach Boys hit Kokomo with Terry Melcher, Mike Love and Phillips for the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail.

In 1998 McKenzie left the Mamas & the Papas and retired once more. He appeared at the Los Angeles tribute concert for Phillips in 2001. Nine years later he began suffering from Guillain–Barré syndrome, which would eventually claim his life in 2012 at the age of 73.

San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair). ruled the charts for most of August. During that time… playwright Joe Orton was battered to death by his lover Kenneth Halliwell at their North London home on 9 August. Halliwell then committed suicide. The hippy movement took a knock on 14 August when The Marine & Broadcasting (Offences) Act 1967 declared participation in offshore pirate radio in the UK illegal. Therefore, Wonderful Radio London closed down that afternoon with one last song – A Day in the Life by the Beatles. Three days later, Coventry City, who had been promoted to the Football League First Division for the first time, lost their manager when Jimmy Hill announced he was leaving his position to become a television pundit.

Ten days later, the manager of the Beatles shocked the music world, dying of an overdose aged only 32. This comes as a surprise to me now, as I assumed he was a fair bit older. More on this when I cover Hello Goodbye. And on 28 August the first late summer holiday on the last Monday of the month occured in England and Wales, replacing the previous holiday, which occured on the first Monday of the month. Bet it rained.

Written by: John Phillips

Producer: Lou Adler & John Phillips

Weeks at number 1: 4 (9 August-5 September) 

Births:

Scottish ice hockey player Tony Hand – 15 August 
Footballer Michael Thomas – 24 August
Politician Greg Clark – 28 August
Comedy actor Steve Pemberton – 1 September
Field hockey player Jane Sixsmith – 5 September 

Deaths:

Playwright Joe Orton – 9 August
The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein – 27 August 

234. Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale (1967)

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We’re now into the Summer of Love, and in the final, stormy week of June 1967 a landmark event happened, involving, erm, Reg Varney from On the Buses. The comedy actor became the first person to use a cash machine in the world, at Barclays Bank in Enfield. Trippy, man. Two days later Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was jailed for a year for possession of drugs, and Mick Jagger was sentenced to three months for the same offence.

July began with BBC Two transmitting the first colour TV broadcasts in Britain, during live coverage of the Wimbledon Championships.  It was the final year in which the competition was amateur, and Australian John Newcombe won the men’s tournament, with American Billie Jean King winning the women’s. During Wimbledon, on 7 July, Parliament decriminalised private acts of consensual adult male homosexuality in England and Wales with the Sexual Offences Act.

In the singles chart, after months of rather lightweight pop ruling the charts, Procul Harum went to number 1 with their woozy, hazy classic debut single A Whiter Shade of Pale, on 8 June – the same day the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band topped the album charts for the first time. For the counterculture, it must have felt like the future was theirs for the taking.

Procul Harum formed from the ashes of the Paramounts, a beat group from Southend-on-Sea in Essex. They had reached number 35 in 1964 with their cover of Lieber and Stoller’s Poison Ivy, but split in 1966. Their singer, Gary Brooker, formed his new group in April 1967, and the line-up featured Keith Reid, a poet who would write their lyrics, Matthew Fisher on Hammond organ, guitarist Ray Royer and bassist David Knights. Their manager, Guy Stevens (later to come up with Mott the Hoople’s name and co-produce the Clash’s album London Calling) said they should name themselves after producer Gus Dudgeon’s cat. Dudgeon produced classic work from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, David Bowie and Elton John. His Burmese pet’s ‘cat fancy’ name was Procul Harun, so they just switched the last letter.

A Whiter Shade of Pale originated at a party Brooker attended. He heard someone say to a woman’ you’ve turned a whiter shade of pale’, and the phrase stuck in his mind. Although the lyrics are full of Bob Dylan-style, mysterious imagery, it’s clear the song is about a man, a woman, and sex. Brooker admitted in the February 2008 issue of Uncut that it was a ‘girl-leaves-boy story’, wrapped up in evocative imagery. He also said that although he may have been smoking at the time, the song was inspired by books, not drugs. Reid must have also had a say in the words though, as he recieved co-credit at the time and didn’t play an instrument.

Matthew Fisher didn’t receive a credit for his integral organ contribution until 2009 in a court ruling. As interesting as the lyrics are, it’s fair to say the song wouldn’t be as famous as it was without his playing, inspired by Bach’s Air on the G string.

Procul Harum convened to record their first single at Olympic Sound Studios in London soon after formation. So soon, they hadn’t yet found a drummer, so session musician Bill Eyden took up the sticks. Produced by Denny Cordell, it was quickly wrapped up in two takes. A few days later they had a drummer, Bobby Harrison, and tried a new version, but opted to release one of their earlier takes in mono only. Cordell was worried about the single’s length and slightly muddy recording, until he sent an acetate to Radio London. John Peel was working for the station at the time, and fell immediately in love with it.

WIth its stately pace, dreamlike feel and surreal lyrics, A Whiter Shade of Pale is a perfect example of a song capturing the zeitgeist. It’s a great song, but it could only have been number 1 for six weeks at that moment in time. The fact it was there at the start of the Summer of Love has elevated its status, possibly making it a touch overrated, but it’s a very impressive debut and a great time capsule of flower power.

Much of British psychedelia harked back to an earlier time, to childhood memories, or even further back to Victorian and Edwardian styles. But the chorus of A Whiter Shade of Pale goes even further back, to Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale from the 14th century. Critics may complain the words are meaningless, but frankly, they need to get out more. It’s about the feeling they create, rather than a story being told. There’s some excellent acid-laced lines, including the introductory ‘We skipped the light fandango’ and ‘One of sixteen vestal virgins’. When performed live, the song sometimes featured a further two verses, which I’d be interested to hear.

Brooker’s vocal is also great, with his soulful, mournful tones adding to the elegiac tone. In fact, if you ignore the lyrics and just listen to the sound, there are some similarities to Percy Sledge’s beautiful When a Man Loves a Woman.

Procul Harum shot several promotional videos for the single, and if you click above you can see the first, which the band minus Harrison shot in the ruins of Witley Court in Worcestershire. Peter Clifton’s film was banned by Top of the Pops due to the splicing in of footage of the Vietnam war.

Following A Whiter Shade of Pale‘s immense success, Procul Harum were one of the bands of 1967. The single was loved by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with Lennon in particular becoming obsessed that summer. Their first gig saw them supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The line-up soon changed, with Harrison and Royer leaving to form Freedom. They were replaced by former Paramounts BJ Wilson and Robin Trower respectively. Follow-up single Homburg, released that September, reached number six, despite Peel preferring it to their previous 7-inch. They finished the year with their eponymous debut album in December.

It wasn’t until September 1968 that their second album came out. Shine On Brightly is considered one of the earliest examples of a progressive rock album, with the album closer, In Held ‘Twas in I, lasting over 17 minutes. 1969’s A Salty Dog went further down that route, and Fisher, who produced it, departed soon after. and was replaced by another former Paramount, Chris Copping.

In the 1970s, they fell into a pattern of further line-up changes and ever decreasing album sales, embarking on a full-on symphonic progressive rock sound. Their final top 20 hit was Pandora’s Box in 1975. They split up in 1977, but two months later they were performing at the BRIT Awards, when A Whiter Shade of Pale was named Best British Pop Single 1952-1977, along with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

Procul Harum reformed in 1991, and have remained together ever since, with Brooker the only constant throughout. In 2017 they released their 13th album, Novum. While they were unable to continue with their initial popularity, A Whiter Shade of Pale is still considered one of the best songs of that heady summer, when music branched out and for a while it seemed as though anything was possible.

Written by: Gary Brooker, Keith Reid & Matthew Fisher

Producer: Denny Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 6 (8 June-18 July) 

Births:

Darts player Kevin Painter -2 July
Television writer Paul Cornell – 18 July

Deaths:

Actress Vivien Leigh – 7 July
Cyclist Tom Simpson – 13 July 

233. The Tremeloes – Silence Is Golden (1967)

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May 1967, and much had changed since Brian Poole and the Tremeloes were at number 1 with Do You Love Me? four years previous. Beatlemania had just begun, and with Poole and co toppling the mighty She Loves You, the future bode well for the beat group from Dagenham. However, they simply couldn’t compete with the Fab Four, and as fashions changed, their fortunes were mixed. In 1964 they had two top ten hits with covers of Roy Orbison’s Candy Man and the Crickets’ Someone Someone, but sales dropped the following year for I Want Candy and Good Lovin.

In 1966, singer Brian Poole left the group to try out a solo career. This didn’t work out, and he went on to form a label called Outlook Records. By the 1970s he was working in his brother’s butchers. He would later have career in cabaret though, and his daughters Karen and Shelly made it to the charts in 1996 as Alisha’s Attic.

In addition to Poole’s departure, bassist Alan Howard left, so only rhythm guitarist and keyboardist Alan Blakley and drummer Dave Munden remained from the original line-up. They regrouped as a four-piece with new bass player Len ‘Chip’ Hawkes (father of 90s one-hit wonder Chesney Hawkes), and were now known as simply the Tremeloes. Making a conscious decision to cover more ‘hip’ material, their first two singles were versions of Paul Simon’s Blessed and the Beatles’ Good Day Sunshine. Neither charted, but a cover of Cat Stevens’ Here Comes My Baby reached number six.

For reasons unknown, they decided to follow this with Silence Is Golden. Previously a B-side for the Four Seasons, it had been written by their producer Bob Crewe and group member Bob Gaudio, the duo responsible for The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore. The Tremeloes version closely followed the sound and arrangement of the original, with the band apeing the Four Seasons’ distinctive harmonies.

It had been three years since the original version of Silence Is Golden, and tastes had changed, so what were the Tremeloes thinking? Actually, scratch that, what were the British public thinking to take it to number 1 and make me look stupid?

It’s not that it’s a terrible song (although certainly no classic like The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore), it’s just an unusual chart-topper as tastes had changed since 1964 and we’re here at the start of the Summer of Love, such an exciting time for music, and somehow, this single was at number 1 for five whole weeks.

What makes it worse is the lyrics suggest the singer is feeling sorry for themselves because a girl they care for is being mistreated by their lover, and they daren’t do anything about it, so ‘Silence is golden, but my eyes still see’. Well, forgive me for not thinking you should have a word with yourself and do something about the situation… A rather mediocre number 1, and the harmonies make me slightly nauseous.

The rest of the 60s were a mixed bag for the Tremeloes, with singles failures like Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released in 1968, and big hits such as (Call Me) Number One in 1969, which ironically went to number two.

In 1970 they were set to release a song called Yellow River by Jeff Christie as their follow-up. However when they changed their minds, producer Mike Smith removed their vocals and replaced them with Christie’s lead. It was a number 1 that June, while the Tremeloes’ By the Way bombed.

From 1972 onwards the group went through several line-up changes, with Munden the only constant throughout. Hawkes left to record solo albums but returned in 1979. In 1983 the original quartet reformed briefly. Hawkes left again in 1988 to manage his son, whose The One and Only was a big number 1 in 1991. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the band, Brian Poole, Chip Hawkes and the Tremeloes toured together in 2006. Poole is to briefly appear with them again this year, before retiring from touring.

While Silence Is Golden reigned, Tottenham Hotspur defeated Chelsea 2-1 in the first all-London FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium (20 May). On 25 May, Celtic FC became the first British and Northern European team to reach a European Cup final and also to win it, beating Inter Milan 2-1. That same day, Conservative MP Enoch Powell attacked the Labour government, calling Britain the ‘sick man of Europe’.

28 May saw Sir Francis Chichester arrived in Plymouth after completing a single-handed sailing voyage around the world in his yacht Gipsy Moth IV. It had taken him nine months and one day. A day later, the first Spring Bank Holiday occurred on the last Monday of the month, replacing the former Whitsun holiday in England and Wales. The Tulip Bulb Auction Hall hosted music festival Barbeque 67, featuring up-and-coming rock acts the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream and Pink Floyd.

The first day of June heralded the release of the Beatles’ landmark album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as well as the eponymous debut of a singer called David Bowie.

Three days later, the Stockport Air Disaster was all over the papers when British Midland flight G-ALHG crashed in Hopes Carr, Stockport, killing 72 people.

Written by: Bob Crewe & Bob Gaudio

Producer: Mike Smith

Weeks at number 1: 5 (18 May-7 June) 

Births:

Politician Graham Brady – 20 May 
Footballer Paul Gascoigne – 27 May 
Oasis singer-songwriter Noel Gallagher – 29 May 

Deaths:

Poet John Masefield – 12 May
Children’s presenter Derek McCulloch – 1 June 
Author Arthur Ransome – 3 June 

228. The Monkees – I’m a Believer (1967)

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1967! The Summer of Love! Hippies! And Milton Keynes! Yes, on 23 January, this village in northern Buckinghamshire was formally designated as a new town. Over the next few decades it became Britain’s largest of its kind. Three days later Parliament amounted it would nationalise 90% of the British steel industry.

On 3 February, eccentric genius producer Joe Meek killed himself – you can read more about that whole sorry tale here.

6 February saw Soviet Union Premier Alexei Kosygin arriving in the UK for an eight-day visit, with a visit the Queen thrown in too. The following day the British National Front was founded by South African AK Chesterton.

1967 was a turbulent year for the Rolling Stones, with their troubles beginning on 12 February when police raided the home of Keith Richards. He, Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser were later charged with possession of drugs.

Enjoying a deservedly lengthy month-long stint at the top of the charts were the Monkees with I’m a Believer. Although I’m a snob when it comes to music, and think the entertainment industry took over the music business to such an extent it stifled creativity and nearly brought about its demise, I have a massive soft spot for the Monkees. In fact it’s not a soft spot – they’re easily one of my favourite groups of the 1960s. And their rise and fall is a fascinating subject.

It’s widely acknowledged that the Monkees were an American attempt at apeing (ho ho) the Beatles, but in fact aspiring filmmaker Bob Rafelson first came up with it back in 1962. I wonder how that would have ended up? In 1964 he was working for the film company Screen Gems and had teamed up with Bert Schneider. They had just formed Raybert Productions when they saw A Hard Day’s Night, and Schneider thought the time might be right to revive his idea. He was right, and Screen Gems snapped up the idea.

Fast forward to May 1965, and Raybert Productions wanted folk-rockers the Lovin’ Spoonful to be their band, but as singer John Sebastian had already signed to make recordings, they had to look elsewhere. And as the plan was for the TV show to feature a pretend band, why limit themselves to just musicians?

Mancunian actor Davy Jones was chosen first. He had appeared in Coronation Street and made waves as the Artful Dodger in the Broadway show Oliver! He just needed a big break, was already signed to Screen Gems, and with his baby-face and sweet demeanour, could easily pass for a Paul McCartney-type. One down.

The other three members were all from the US and came from auditions held later that year. Micky Dolenz, from Los Angeles, California, was also an actor, having appeared as a child in the TV series Circus Boy. He did have some experience of being in a band though, and, importantly, he had a great voice.

Mike Nesmith, from Houston Texas, had been working as a musician since 1963, and had featured in a few bands, as well as performing on his own. His audition showcased a laconic humour and bullish personality, so they now had their John Lennon. Maybe they’d even let him write some tunes?

Last to be chosen was fellow musician Peter Tork, who was part of the Greenwich Village folk scene. Stephen Stills suggested he try out after being rejected himself. Poor Tork, despite being gifted and bright, was soon portraying a bumbling but lovable fool – basically, Ringo Starr in A Hard Day’s Night.

While the auditions went on, Don Krishner was hired to sort out the music for the pilot episode. Kirshner had been instrumental in making Bobby Darin famous, and knew the Brill Building team of songwriters, so seemed like a great choice. But he couldn’t get any interest, so he tried Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart instead. They wrote the theme to the series, and offered up another three songs, so things were looking good, apart from the fact the Monkees couldn’t play anything together, and the plan was to release an album to cash in on the series.

Their eponymous debut album was recorded in June 1966, and by and large the formula was to have one Monkee singing per track, with everything else supplied by session musicians the Wrecking Crew. Debut single Last Train to Clarksville, sounding not dissimilar to Paperback Writer, was released before the show had been aired, and still did pretty well. However, Nesmith wasn’t happy that the actual musicians received no credit on the LP.

The series was a smash as soon as it began in the US that September, and a month later the follow-up was recorded. I’m a Believer had been written and originally recorded by Neil Diamond, then still a struggling Brill Building songwriter. The Monkees version featured Dolenz on vocals, along with, among others, Al Gorgoni on guitar (he had played on Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence), Buddy Salzman on drums, and that chirpy organ hook at the start and through the choruses came from Stan Free on a Vox Continental.

Nesmith certainly had a point in wanting the Monkees to be responsible for ‘real music’, but all these years later, people still go mad to I’m a Believer, and they don’t care who did what. It’s such a lovely, warm track, that captures how the joy of love at first sight can melt the hardest of hearts. The success of the TV series was in a large part due to the charm of the group, and somehow, no matter who appeared on their recorded output, that charm shone through too, whether by luck or design, or both, I can’t say. The Monkees at their best put their name to 60s pop at its best, and I’m a Believer is among their finest singles. That’s partly down to producer Jeff Barry, who had written many hit singles before then, including Do Wah Diddy Diddy.

The TV series began in the UK on New Year’s Eve 1966, and Monkeemania began soon after when this single climbed the charts. Tensions soon rose though when the band discovered it had been included on their second album, More of the Monkees. They didn’t even know the album existed until it was too late, and were horrified at the track listing and cover image. Nesmith told Melody Maker it was ‘probably the worst album in the history of the world’. Matters came to a head in an argument with Kirshner that resulted in Nesmith threatening to quit before punching a hole in a wall and shouting ‘that could have been your face!’ to a lawyer. Soon after, Kirshner was let go.

And then things got really interesting. The Monkees wrested control of their output, and in February 1967 they began recording their third album Headquarters. For the first and only time of their original run as a band, they performed the tracks pretty much on their own, and had more of a hand in the songwriting, with Chip Douglas from the Turtles on bass and production duties. Largely country-rock-flavoured, Headquarters is a great achievement for a ‘manufactured’ band. It may not be up there with the classic albums of 1967, but it’s a giant leap forward for the foursome. Highlight for me is Micky Dolenz’s noise-fest closer Randy Scouse Git, named after one of Alf Garnett’s favourite outbursts at his son-in-law (played by Tony Blair’s father-in-law, Tony Booth) on BBC One sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. It nearly became their second number 1 too, but stalled at number two against All You Need Is Love.

It’s a shame the Monkees then chose to rely on session musicians again, as I think it sped up their demise. Having said that, they still had more authority over who they worked with, and fourth album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd, released that November, is just as good, if not better than its predecessor. It featured Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s wonderful and blissful Pleasant Valley Sunday, which had been a single during the Summer of Love. The album featured a Moog synthesizer – Dolenz was one of the first owners of the instrument. Another classic hit single was released as 1967 drew to a close – Daydream Believer, Davy Jones’s finest hour as a singer.

The TV show had been getting weirder, the band were touring as a real unit, alongside the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and they were hanging out with the Beatles. Amazing times for a group who weren’t supposed to be able to play.

1968 wasn’t such a great year, but at least it was interesting. NBC announced they wouldn’t renew the show for a third season in February, and shortly afterwards they released The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees. The band mostly worked alone, with their own team of musicians, making for an eclectic sound. Nesmith fares the best with the low-key psychedelic strum of Tapioca Tundra.

Rafelson and Schneider had it in mind to create a feature film for the Monkees. What the group didn’t know at the start was that their plan was a work of cynical avant-garde genius that would cynically tear apart at the notion of the group. Written by then-unknown actor Jack Nicholson with Rafelson, Head set out to prove that no matter what the band members did to try and break free of their public image, they would always be considered nothing more than a cartoon band, no more real than the Archies, also created in 1968. Head is one of the greatest music films of all time, a technicolour masterpiece with a dark heart. And the soundtrack is just as great. There aren’t many actual songs, but they’re all excellent, especially Goffin and King’s spaced-out Porpoise Song and sweet love song As We Go Along, plus Tork finally gets the spotlight with the fuzzy blast of the marvellously named Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again? Nesmith always contributed great songs to their albums, but Circle Sky, an impressive blast of acid-country-rock, is one of his best.

In 1969, not long after their disappointing TV special 33⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee, Tork left, and the downhill slide truly began. There were still some great songs, including both tracks on the single Someday Man/Listen to the Band, but things were never the same again. The Monkees Present, released in October, was the last to feature Nesmith. Dolenz and Jones soldiered on with one more album, Changes, released in 1970. It was a new decade, and time to move on.

In the meantime each member had varying degrees of success. Nesmith became a country-rock pioneer and helped invent MTV.  Dolenz moved into acting and directing, and along the way he made UK children’s series Metal Mickey in the 80s. Incidentally, both he and Nesmith auditioned to be the Fonz in Happy Days. Jones went back to mostly acting, and became a popular choice for cameos in US sitcoms. He also became a jockey. Tork was in the public eye the least, but I get the feeling he liked it that way.

There have been a number of reunions, most notably in 1986 when repeats of the series prompted a revival and new 20th anniversary album, minus Nesmith, called Pool It! It’s shockingly bad. A large factor in Nesmith’s reluctance to tour was money. He inherited $25 million when his mother, the inventor of liquid paper, passed away. This meant there was no financial incentive to reunite, so over the years he only got involved again when he really felt like it.

He returned in 1996 when they celebrated their 30th anniversary with Justus, an album featuring the band writing, performing and producing every song. Another poor collection, bar the Circle Sky remake, but not as bad as Pool It! They also reunited for another TV special, but it wasn’t half as clever as it thought it was. Following a tour of the UK, Nesmith left again and relations became strained. In 2010 they reformed for the final time as a quartet, as Jones died of a heart attack in 2012, aged 66.

In 2015, Dolenz and Tork toured together, and the following year they released a new album, Good Times!, to commemorate their 50th anniversary. Nesmith joined in, and Jones appeared too posthumously. With songs by musicians including Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, XTC’s Andy Partridge and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Good Times! was, against all odds, a great listen. Highlight for me was Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher’s Birth of an Accidental Hipster.

This would have been the perfect way to end the Monkees, but, buoyed by the reception to Good Times!, they released an album this past Christmas. Christmas Party features a similar line-up of songwriters, and once again, Jones is exhumed, but its mostly cheesy and Dolenz’s vocals really grate on me. Tork’s contribution was minimal due to illness, with him contributing only a sweet banjo-led version of the traditional Angels We Have Heard on High. Perhaps he knew he hadn’t long, for this was his final contribution to the Monkees. Tork sadly died aged 77 only last week.

The Monkees were certainly not perfect. They could be corny, and recorded some terrible songs at times, particularly those godawful mawkish ballads sung by Jones on the first two albums. But how many groups, put together by the industry, have been able to do what they did, to take over and create better results? They may have been manufactured, but they can’t be compared to, say, the boy bands of the 90s. My issue with Westlife et al isn’t that somebody is telling them what to do, it’s the quality of the material, the cynicism, and the lack of effort. The people behind the Monkees were often craftsmen, and as I said before, in their best material, the charm of Mike, Davy, Micky and Peter shines through, and they could experiment, be far-out, and savage at times (the Sex Pistols even covered (I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone). I’m a Believer is one of their best. I love the Monkees, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

28 years after it reached number 1, I’m a Believer was nearly a chart-topper for my favourite comedians, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. Attempting to repeat the success of Dizzy, recorded with the Wonder Stuff, they teamed up with indie rockers EMF for a great, beefed-up version, and you can see the video here.

Written by: Neil Diamond

Producer: Jeff Barry

Weeks at number 1: 4 (19 January-15 February) 

Births:

Field hockey player Kathryn Johnson – 21 January 
Swimmer Nick Gillingham – 22 January
Actress Olivia d’Abo – 22 January

Deaths:

Producer Joe Meek – 3 February (read more here)
Publisher Victor Gollancz – 8 February