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Sunday, 13 March 2011

~Nippy Sweeties~#7: The Monkees Give Head....

....and blow their brains across the screen!!

Okay....Pop quiz, Hotshots!
How many major artists do you know who have committed suicide before their adoring public?
G.G. Allin? Nope, he may have threatened to on many an occasion but he never went through with it, and he's not exactly 'major' anyway!
No....perhaps such an award can really only go to The Monkees who committed spectacular (career) suicide in 1968 when they released their only full length movie 'Head'. After 'Head', NOTHING would ever be the same for The Monkees again. Not only did they succeed in ostracising the teenybopper audience that worshipped them, but they confounded the more serious protagonists of the counterculture by delivering something truly worthy and completely 'out-there' while still being a musical pariah, an insult to the (cough) serious music scene.
'Head' was originally loathed by almost EVERYONE upon it's release and was virtually ignored and forgotten throughout the 1970s. In the early 80s, thanks to some film festival showings, the film was rediscovered as a curious timepiece and now is critically acclaimed as a major work of counterculture film making.
'Head' now sits at the top table of rock music movies with 'A Hard Day's Night' and 'Gimme Shelter' and pisses all over such fluff as 'Mrs. Brown, You've Got A Lovely Daughter', 'Catch Us If You Can' or any of Cliff's or Elvis's movies.
So let's take another look and we'll see what all the fuss is about....
'Head' originated when the band's very successful TV show was axed after it's second series. As with their music, The Monkees themselves wanted more input into the shows. The last ever episode, 'Mijacogeo - The Frodis Caper' was written and directed by Mickey Dolenz and is completely off the wall. The band were given one more project, '33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee', an extended TV special in which the band gave a psychedelic hued interpretation of Darwinism....yes, really! It didn't go down well with audiences, but gave the band the courage to break out on their own and go for the big screen.
If popular myth is to be believed, the four Monkees, the band's creator Bob Rafelson, and Jack Nicholson (yes,THAT Jack Nicholson) locked themselves in a hotel room with a bunch of pharmaceuticals and left a tape recorded running into which they babbled all their ideas.
The result, pretty much, is 'Head'....

The film begins with the band (literally) committing suicide (the first of many metaphors) by jumping to their deaths from a bridge. This leads us into the very psychedelic opening titles, and an early indicator of how good the music is going to be in this movie with 'Porpoise Song', The Monkees own 'I Am The Walrus' or 'Whiter Shade Of Pale'.

It becomes obvious after this that the movie is not going to follow any concrete narrative. Scenes begin and end without explanation, there are references to the Vietnam war which was raging at the time ('Head' is one of very few movies made at the time that actually dared speak out against the madness of that war!), then the band do a cheerleader style chant decrying their own fame and slaughtering their own manufactured image,"The money's in// We're made of tin", before we cut to staggering live footage of the band performing Mike Nesmith's 'Circle Sky' proving that not only could they play very well, but that they were a pretty dynamic rock band.
The performance ends with the band being ripped apart by their fans, only to be revealed as mannequins.

It's clear by now that this is an angry movie. The film rages against so many things, from the aforementioned Vietnam war to the manipulation of advertising, the fakeness of Hollywood, police brutality, faux spiritualism, and The Monkees own branding and image. The inner-band rivalry between Davy Jones and Peter Tork is used to create an uncomfortable tension, Mike Nesmith's blatant disinterest in both The Monkees as a band and as people is glaringly obvious, and Mickey Dolenz's wacky persona is often peeled away as a mask revealing a serious man at odds with what the world has thrown at him this last few years....Cue 'Can You Dig It'.....

The films lack of structure, similar to that of Monty Python's Flying Circus which would follow a year later means that the film can cut from humourous parody to a series of shocking images (napalm burned children, the infamous execution of Vietcong guerrilla Bay Hop), back to scenes with a giant Victor Mature and then into the snowy pastoral scenes that accompany 'As We Go Along'...

(unfortunately the audio has not been authorised for this video so all that remains are the images...sorry!)

As the film progresses it keeps turning everything on it's head (if you'll excuse the pun); Peter Tork hits a woman because the script requires it, only for him to spend the rest of the movie lamenting the damage such a scene will do to his image, the band parody The Beatles meetings with the Maharishi by meeting their own swami only to denounce everything he has taught them, Mike Nesmith takes bets on whether a suicide will jump to her death, Mickey Dolenz spears a huge cigarette butt only to sniff it and procalim rather dreamily that its 'an El Zoomo', and in an odd snippet of what appears to be behind the scenes footage is seen rambling cosmically (for real) to an unseen interviewer; and Davy Jones plays a typical Hollywood romantic lead claiming that his face is his fortune only to have said face beaten to a bloody pulp by Sonny Liston. Later he'll bump into Frank Zappa who'll inform him that song he's just performed, 'Daddy's Song', was 'pretty white', meaning lacking in any soul.....

There's no doubting that the film was made with the drug crowd in mind, and the final song of the movie, called (deep breath)"Long Title Do I Have To Do This All Over Again" is a complete psychedelic barrage of the senses. The whole scene is obviously meant to resemble an acid trip and is far more successful in doing so than say, Roger Corman's mega-bore 'The Trip' or the final sequences of 2001: A Space Odyssey....

There are some interesting cutaways and cameos littering the movie too; Jack Nicholson is seen emerging from behind a camera, future Spielberg and Scorsese favourite Teri Garr appears in a scene, as does Beach movie starlet Annette Funicello. Kubrick actor Timothy Carey turns up in a bizarre scene in a wheelchair, and the band end up as dandruff on a giant Victor Mature's head.

The soundtrack album was one of the band's worst selling albums, probably because it only has six songs as well as snippets from the movie, and also as they included a studio version of 'Circle Sky' rather than the blistering version used in the film.
'Head', once so cruelly hated or ignored is now quite rightly regarded as a major contribution to the late 60s counterculture and has recently been given the whole Criterion DVD package, who clearly see it as not just a classic of it's time, but possibly one of Hollywood's only truly avant-garde surrealist movies.
So what have we learned from 'Head' then? Well, we now know that The Monkees really should have been taken a lot more seriously than they were at the time. Remember this was the band who on the very first episode of their TV show performed a song called 'Take A Giant Step Outside Your Mind', delivering it right into the homes of middle America at tea-time; that The Monkees had the foresight to take a neglected Jimi Hendrix on tour with them as nobody else in America 'got' him. That 'Head' is now seen, along with Easy Rider' (which followed a year later), as the beginning of 'New' Hollywood. That The Monkees COULD play. And write. And perform live.
Of course, I may be a tad biased as I consider The Monkees in the Holy Trilogy of 60s Geniuses along with The Beatles and The Beach Boys. I know it's an unpopular view but....ppffffttt, do I look like I care?

Hey Hey We're Tragically Underrated!


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