Song of the Week 55: Porpoise Song (Theme from “Head”) {Goffin/King} – The Monkees

Monkees 45 Porpoise Song

And now for something completely different…

As I said in the ‘about’ section of this blog, it’s written for musically educated porpoises. Today’s song of the Week actually has porpoises singing on it. I’ve always loved it before I’d even heard of the movie. It just sounds so strange, dreamlike, and watery.

“I am… proud of ‘Head’.” Micky Dolenz

This week the lunatics finally got control of the asylum, the puppets got a hold of the pupeteer’s strings. For once The Monkees got to do what they wanted and they duly torpedoed their own flagship, scuttling it in the process. But they still couldn’t get out of the box. The beginning of the end.

Ladies and Gentlemens, the Monkees at their weirdest…

The Monkees were a manufactured boy band with personality back when people knew how to do that type of thing. They were put together in the image of The Beatles doing their lovable high jinx in A Hard Day’s Night. They had some of the best 1960s songwriters behind them. People like Goffin/King, Boyce and Hart, John Barry, Harry Nilsson (who, like Goffin/King also has a song featured in this movie), Neil Diamond etc.

At first they didn’t even play on the songs. The TV people got the best session musicians in for that. The musicians Tork and Nesmith hated the bubblegum pop they were producing. From the beginning the pair wanted to write their own songs and play their own instruments.

It’s a great show: offbeat, zany, funny, but just as The Beatles were never the caricatures that were portrayed in A Hard Day’s Night, neither were the Monkees the TV characters they played.

“The Monkees are like the Marx brothers.” John Lennon

In 1967, the Prefab Four eventually got to meet the Fab Four when The Beatles threw a party for them in London.

The Monkees

Davy Jones was a 19 year old Englishman, who never wanted to be an actor. He wanted to be a jockey. He had already found some fame before auditioning, as the star of Oliver Twist. He was already employed by Screen Gems and now here was the perfect vehicle for his English charm.

20 year old Micky Dolenz had been a child star in the TV Show Circus Boy, and the leader of a band Micky and the One Nighters.

Peter Tork was a 21 year old folk musician from New York City’s Greenwich Village, who was recommended by his friend Stephen Stills.

Michael Nesmith was a 22 year old Texan singer-songwriter who had already released two singles on a small label under the umbrella of Columbia Records.

Here are the screen tests. You can see why the fellas got picked. They’ve got that whatchamacallit x factor, back when that meant something.

The Porpoise Song is the theme for their far out movie psychedelic comedy Head. If you haven’t seen it, bear in mind that it’s nothing like their TV Show. In fact it’s nothing like most things. Not that their TV show was anything like anything else (apart from 1964 Beatles). The movie was a long time before The Truman Show. It’s much darker than Magical Mystery Tour, and tackles subjects like war, empty consumerism, television the drug of a nation, a Hollywood Expose, not to mention breaking the fourth wall, and the philosophical conundrum of free will. You should see it. It will make you scratch your head. Monkees fans were bewildered. The impact it had is comparable to The Beatles releasing the movie Magical Mystery Tour in 1964 in place of A Hard Day’s Night. Incidentally there’s a nice little nod to The Beatles psychedelic masterpiece where Peter Tork whistles Strawberry Fields Forever in a bathroom where Davy Jones had just been having a surreal moment.

However as career suicides go, it’s one of the better ones. In fact it’s kind of a masterpiece. We’ll get back to that later. First, husband and wife team Goffin/ King.

Director Bob Rafelson, co-creator of the TV Show, commissioned the pair to write a song for the movie. I’ll come back to Carole another day, but during the 60s, she and her husband Gerry wrote some of the greatest pop tunes of the time, many of which became standards of the American Songbook. She would go on to have success in her own right as a singer songwriter in 1971 with the album Tapestry, which reached number 1 in the U.S.

***Just found this demo on soundcloud posted by Simon Wells. Thanks for that. It’s Carole King home-demoing the song for The Monkees. It features a Gregorian chant at the beginning and the end of the song (The Mass of the Dead), the same music that’s playing as Micky begins his suicidal jump off the bridge at the beginning of the movie. Sound quality isn’t brilliant, but the demo is a revelation. I’d love to hear more of King’s original demos from the 60’s. There are a few of them up on youtube too. Thanks also to Trevor Blake of INTONARUMORON for emailing me and alerting me to the existence of these demos. Check out some of the great music on his blog by clicking on the link.

The lyrics and melody reflect the psychedelia of the time. Micky Dolenz sings vocals, which are distorted by echoing effects and organ riffs, chimes, tubular bells, cello, string bass, aquatic sound effects (including porpoise sounds) woodwinds and horns float in and out. The lyrics question the order of the world and one’s place in it, and there are also veiled in-jokes to Dolenz’s childhood work on Circus Boy. Gerry Goffin produced the track with The Monkees in February 1968.

It was the most elaborate production yet for a Monkees recording.

 “Carole King was living in an apartment building on Sunset Boulevard, and I went to her apartment every day,, and we would sit and we would talk. That song was critical to me. ‘A face, a voice, an overdub has no choice.’ In other words, the whole synthetic process of making The Monkees’ records was about to be [examined] in the movie. They are constantly being picked up, used, transplanted, subjected to influence by the [guru], by the war, by the media, and all of these things are exposed. They are always [portrayed] as the victims of their own fame. That’s what I chose to make the movie about…. It was Carole or Gerry’s idea to record live porpoise sounds and use them on the track. That’s what you hear [at the end of the song]. I just thought that they were the appropriate people. It is far and away my favourite Monkees’ song.” Bob Rafelson

Have a listen to the unedited and best version with the extended ending.

The b-side As We Go Along was also written by Goffin and King.

The film Head was directed by Rafelson, who was credited as a co-writer with Jack Nicholson. It was made for the sizable budget of $750,000 in 1968, which in those days was quite a large amount of money, especially for a movie with no plot. Lucky then that it made the quite inconsiderable profit of $16,111 in the box office. Well, for some reason Columbia thought it was a good idea, and I, for one, am quite happy they did. It featured those four lovable rogues, The Monkees, from the hit TV Show of the same name, Victor Mature as The Big Victor (with Monkee dandruff), along with cameos from Frank Zappa and a talking cow, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Sonny Liston, Carol Doda, Annette Funicello, Timothy Carey and Ray Nitschke. It even features some Andy Warhol-esque floating silver pillows.

It wasn’t the first time Zappa appeared with The Monkees either. Check out this for zaniness! Frank and Mike. Mike and Frank…

“Zappa was a fan, Mike met him, and he saw what we were doing, and wanted to be part of it.” Micky Dolenz

Zappa later said that he thought The Monkees were better than 90 per cent of the music coming from San Francisco.

“He asked me to drum for The Mothers Of Invention after The Monkees were finished. Sometimes I wish I had, but I couldn’t because I was still under contract.” Dolenz

The movie was The Monkees seizing control of their careers, and wanting to be a real band. They crashed the car on purpose. The show had been about a fictitious group, but the actors grew tired of faking it, but in doing so, lay the seeds of their destruction.

The film is about the nature of free will, and it was conceived and edited in a stream of consciousness style.

Spoiler alert. Maybe watch the movie first…

It begins at the end, with the Monkees running through assembled officials at the dedication of a bridge. From there, the rest of the film shows the lead up to that point. The Monkees make their way through unrelated TV Show vignettes where the protagonists try to come to terms with the fact that they are scripted characters in a manufactured TV band doing exactly what the director wants them to do, while also being four real people in a real band making records for real people.

They struggle to prove that they are free to choose their own destiny, but no matter what they do (smashing through the paper backdrop, walking off the set into the street, physically attacking other actors, complaining to the director and writers) they find out that every detail has already been scripted by the writers and the director.

The group frequently find themselves in a large black box they can’t escape from. It represents the constraints of being fictional characters unable to make real choices. At one point, Peter Tork becomes enlightened and discovers the free-will contradiction to their reality after a session with a guru. Peter treats the others to a philosophical discussion on their plight. He discovers that the difference between free will and pre-scripted action is an illusion, but after informing them that in reality (like the Gadfly) he “knows nothing”, Davy becomes frustrated and breaks out of the box ignoring Peter’s revelation  that “it doesn’t matter whether we’re in the box or not.” Peter then forgets about his moment of clarity and joins with the others in the escape.

In the final part of the movie, we return to the scene of the bridge with the Monkees being chased by everyone they have encountered in the movie, pushing people out of the way, trying to escape being mere scripted puppets. They attempt to commit suicide in a desperate attempt at free will by jumping off the bridge. Alas to no avail, even then the soaked bodies of The Monkees are hauled away in a huge aquarium while they stare blankly through the glass, motionless under the water. The director laughingly rolls it into the studio warehouse for storage until he needs to use them again in another movie.

Hey now, wait a minute…

“Hey, hey we are The Monkees

You know we love to please

A manufactured image with no philosophies

We hope you like our story

Although there isn’t one

That is to say there’s many

That way there is more fun

You’ve told us you like action

And games of many kinds

You like to dance

We like to sing

So let’s all lose our minds

We know it doesn’t matter

Cause what you came to see

Is what we’d love to give you

And give it one, two, three

But it may come three, two, one, two

Or jump from nine to five

And when you see the end in sight

The beginning may arrive

For those who look for meanings

And form as they do fact

We might tell you one thing

But we’d only take it back

Not back like in a box back

Not back like in a race

Not back like we can keep it

But back in time and space

You say we’re manufactured

To that we all agree

So make your choice and we’ll rejoice

In never being free

Hey, hey we are the Monkees

We’ve said it all before

The money’s in, we’re made of tin

We’re here to give you more…

This parody on The Monkees theme tune was penned by Jack Nicholson.

The movie was marketed as the “most extraordinary adventure, western, comedy, love story, mystery, drama, musical, documentary ever made (And that’s putting it mildly).”

HEAD JonBrockman Monkees poster

The Monkees didn’t feature on the original poster. Instead there was a picture of John Brockman, who did the PR for the film. Original, I’ll give him that! 🙂 The film was badly under promoted. The television ad featured a close up shot of Brockman’s Head for 30 seconds, then a smile with the word HEAD appearing on his forehead. This was a parody of Andy Warhol’s Blow Job from 1963, which showed only a close up of a man’s face, while he was supposedly receiving head. Hope that’s all clear. For the intellectuals out there.

“The ad was originally supposed to have a picture of me on it, but John Brockman was a Marshall McLuhan scholar, and said: ‘It doesn’t matter whose picture is on it. We’re not going to say it’s The Monkees. We’re just going to get people to say, ‘What’s Head?’ and ‘Whose Head?’ and basically enquire people into the theatre.’ He was afraid this picture was too radical for The Monkees’ audience, so let’s allow people to discover it as an individual movie. That was the philosophy.” Bob Rafelson

Most people had no idea it was a movie, never mind a Monkees movie. It premiered in a Spanish language cinema called El Studio. It was the first English Language movie to show there. Rafelson and Nicholson got nervous nobody was going to go, and went around sticking stickers up in an effort to create a word of mouth buzz in New York.

“We ended up pasting little ‘Head’ stickers wherever we could. Jack tried to slip one onto the helmet of a police officer ticketing a chestnut salesman on Fifth Avenue. He put the sticker on the helmet just as the guy’s head turned. The cop got the sticker on his face. We were thrown up against the wall and both of us were handcuffed – but it was Jack who went to jail. I called every newspaper, every radio station, and said, The makers of Head have been busted! Of course, nobody paid any attention: ‘The producers of a famous Hollywood movie opening where? El Studio Cinema?! What the fuck? They must be out of their minds!'” Rafelson

“In some ways they wanted it to tank… Publicity for the TV show had been perfect, but the Head campaign couldn’t have been better designed to ensure the movie would flop.” Peter Tork

The idea for the storylines and the peak moments came from a weekend visit to a resort in Ojai, California, where the Monkees, Rafelson and Nicholson brainstormed into a tape recorder fuelled by a large amount of marijuana.

“There was just the four of us plus Bob, Bert, and Jack. We just talked for two days. It seemed to be more about what we didn’t want to make. A basic rambling about everything. Jack was trying to get a sense of who we were. Now that I see the movie, it’s clear they were looking to make a deconstruction of The Monkees [and] a deconstruction of Hollywood as well.” Micky Dolenz

“To a degree I was parodying Hollywood… But I was also saying, I’ll probably never get the chance to make a movie again, so I’m going to make every movie this time out. Ojai was sort of a group therapy session. But Jack was dumbfounded to think The Monkees would say things like, ‘We’re better actors than Marlon Brando.’ Jack said, ‘Jesus, who are these guys? They’re out of their minds.’ I said, Just be patient, Jack. They all have their virtues, they’ll do everything quite well.” Rafelson

Jack Nicholson then took the tapes away with him and used them as the basis for the screenplay, which he reportedly structured while under the influence of LSD. When the band learned they wouldn’t be allowed to direct themselves or receive screenwriting credit Dolenz, Jones and Nesmith staged a one-day walkout, leaving Tork as the only Monkee on set the first day.

“The Head experience has always baffled me. I never understood it. I didn’t understand why we didn’t get a writing credit. I was paid a thousand dollars for it And we co-wrote it.” Davy Jones

Life mirroring art anyone? The strike ended with the studio offering a larger percentage of the film’s net to the group. In hindsight, that wouldn’t have amounted to much. The incident damaged the relationship between the group and Rafelson and Bert Schneider and it was the last project they did together.

“They wanted everything. They were kids. They didn’t know anything about movies. Yeah, they wanted writing credit – but, my goodness, Mr Nicholson was dumbfounded as to why. Now, their recollection is probably different because they think they invented themselves. From a certain point of view, as I was inspired to make a movie about The Monkees, they may have thought they deserved it. But there was little I learned in Ojai that I didn’t already know.” Rafelson

The Monkees Head album

Unsurprisingly the film received mixed reviews and absolutely alienated the band’s teenage fanbase, while failing to attract the hip adult audience they’d been aiming for. The studio cancelled all future movie plans, and the run of number 1 albums was also halted. The album of the same name, which had been compiled by Jack Nicholson to approximate the flow of the movie with snippets of dialogue included, reached number 45 in the U.S. Charts. Ironically it featured some of their best recordings. The Porpoise Song didn’t even dent the top 60 never mind top 40.

Musicians like Neil Young, Ry Cooder, Earl Palmer and Buffalo Springfield’s drummer Dewey Martin played on it. It featured two of Tork’s best tracks Can You Dig It? and Do I Have To Do This All Over Again and a Nesmith gem Circle Sky.

The incidental music was composed by Ken Thorne, who had composed and conducted for Help, The Beatles’ second film.

The dreamlike Porpoise Song appears at the beginning and end. Bright colour filters and slow motion heighten the dream sequence feel, which was a psychedelic nod and a wink to The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine, which used similar musical and visual elements.

As with Magical Mystery Tour the musical moments are some of the most memorable. There had been an implied darkness behind some of the Monkees’ earlier hits, but now it was much more explicit. We’ve already mentioned Ditty Diego – War Chant, Nicholson’s send up of the Monkees theme, but in Daddy’s Song, Jones sings an upbeat Broadway-style number about a boy abandoned by his father, written by a boy named Harry who had been abandoned by his father.

Needless to say (but I will) the juxtaposition of screaming teenage fans coupled with shocking footage of Vietnam, television ads and cosy consumerism with our heroes the Monkees on the front line would test all but the most loyal screaming teenage girl fan base. Even The Beatles had at least taken three to four years to surprise them with Strawberry Fields and Sgt Peppers.

Renata Adler of The New York Times wrote this withering review:  “might be a film to see if you have been smoking grass, or if you like to scream at The Monkees, or if you are interested in what interests drifting heads and hysterical high-school girls.” 

Yeah, that was the idea I think; the first part anyway. She added that The Monkees “are most interesting for their lack of similarity to The Beatles. Going through ersatz Beatle songs, and jokes and motions, their complete lack of distinction of any kind…makes their performance modest and almost brave.”

That old adage either brave or stupid. Yeah, I see what you’re getting at. Go easy Renata!

Another review from Daily Variety went like this: “Head is an extension of the ridiculous nonsense served up on the Screen Gems vidseries that manufactured The Monkees and lasted two full seasons following the same format and, ostensibly, appealing to the same kind of audience.” 

That same review praised Rafelson and Nicholson saying that they “were wise not to attempt a firm storyline as The Monkees have established themselves in the art of the non-sequitur and outrageous action. Giving them material they can handle is good thinking; asking them to achieve something more might have been a disaster.”

Jeez, The Monkees can’t win with the critics can they? Don’t listen to them. It’s great.

Meanwhile seems like the writer and director couldn’t lose.

Easy Rider poster

Rafelson used the money he made making Head to make the latest 60s cultural phenomenon Easy Rider starring Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda and written by, well let’s not get into that right now. Let’s just say Dennis and Peter (allegedly) used a similar writing method.

“We knew the next movie we were making was Easy Rider. We wanted to bill that as ‘From the producers who gave you Head!’ Unfortunately, nobody saw Head so we couldn’t use that line.”” Rafelson

“A lot of Monkees fans didn’t get it at all, remember I was at a car wash in the Valley and this teenage girl came up to me and said, ‘I saw Head.’ I was, like, That’s nice. And she said, ‘How could you support the war like that?’ She’d read that whole war sequence – a totally anti-war statement – as being pro-Vietnam. I was stunned. But that showed that our fans didn’t get it, [that] the movie was so far removed from the sensibilities of a Monkees episode. People didn’t understand it. I’m not sure I do to this day!”

Although it went over people’s heads at the time (sorry!), the “delightfully plotless” Head has gone on to gather a cult following and even gets studied in film school these days.

“I’m not even sure Jack and Bob knew what the film was about. It was certainly a deconstruction of The Monkees and the whole Hollywood myth. And about us as individuals getting stuck in this black box, which was a metaphor for The Monkees. We used to talk about being in a black box all the time. When we were on tour, especially – but even being on the TV set. We couldn’t leave a room or hotel. We were shuffled around from limo to hotel room to limo to the back entrance of a concert arena into a dressing room. It was even a little black box on-stage because we used to jump out of these fake Vox amps. So for more than two years, we lived – literally – in a little black box. But aside from that, the movie was just symptomatic of the times.” Micky Dolenz

When asked about whether making the movie was a mistake, in 2012, Mike Nesmith responded that…

“by the time Head came out the Monkees were a pariah. There was no confusion about this. We were on the cosine of the line of approbation, from acceptance to rejection . . . and it was basically over. Headwas a swan song. We wrote it with Jack and Bob . . .and we liked it. It was an authentic representation of a phenomenon we were a part of that was winding down. It was very far from suicide—even though it may have looked like that. There were some people in power, and not a few critics, who thought there was another decision that could have been made. But I believe the movie was an inevitability—there was no other movie to be made that would not have been ghastly under the circumstances.”

The Monkees were left to pick up the pieces from the failure of the movie. Peter Tork grew tired of the group and quit. The boys continued as a trio. There were revivals and stadium tours to come as they went in and out of fashion. Best watch the documentary below for more on that.

“The Monkees were going off the air about the time Head was being wrapped up… So we didn’t do anything in the public eye for months – we toured Japan and that was it – and the public forgot about us. The Monkees were a TV-driven group. TV is a medium for short attention spans, and if you don’t keep them fed, they’re gone. By the time Head came out, nobody was interested in The Monkees, especially the avant-garde. And the kids weren’t interested in a psychedelic movie. So, The Monkees tanked in a massive way. I left right after, I had things I wanted to do. They went on without me for a while – touring Mexico City and so on. But they would’ve had a hard road to regenerate The Monkees.” Peter Tork

As with all slow-burning cult classics, there was eventually some revisionism, and many critics came back onside.

“You wonder how critics and early audiences could have missed the film’s fierce energy and…tart, iconoclastic point of view.” Charles Champlin LA Times Chief Music Critic in 1973

Sounds like it was easy to miss, seeing as nobody knew about it.

“Head reveals some bitter truths about rock stardom. It’s a dark movie and – ultimately – a remarkably accurate assessment (and forecast) of what this rock business was becoming…Head is anti-rock and anti-fame [and] so self-mocking that it borders on tragedy.”  John Kordash 1987 in Creem

Not everyone missed it. Here’s a comment to Rex Reed in the New York Times in 1970.

 “Nobody ever saw that, man, but I saw it 158 million times. I loved it. Filmatically, it’s the best rock’n’roll movie ever made. It’s anti-rock.” 

Slight exaggeration there.

“What I personally find rewarding about Head is that people still care about it. That the movie has somehow recovered from the bad reception it originally received and is now regarded as something unique, special, even something that led the way. I’ve seen myself referred to as ‘the godfather of MTV’. It’s always nice to have a revisionist opinion. I’m sure there’ll be another one sooner or later where it’ll be condemned, if I live long enough.” Rafelson

“In a way, it was my farewell to The Monkees… I mean, the movie begins and ends with them committing a kind of symbolic suicide. I was trying to expose the myth [of] the TV show. The movie portrays them with not so much sweetness and brightness. It’s a much heavier and far-out thinking group. I wouldn’t call it uncharitable. I thought it was expanding my sense of who they were. There’s a boxing scene in which Micky says, ‘Take this, you dummy’ Suddenly the music changes and Peter appears in the corner, Christ-like, and says, ‘Micky, I’m the dummy. I’m always the dummy.’ The point was that he was always asked to be the dummy, so here he’s acknowledging it. But he’s also the one who’s given the longest speech in the movie about spiritual evolution, which he’s learned from the guru in the steam room. I was trying to give him a chance to be himself, but in a symbolic way. He is that way today, by the way. In other words, The Monkees became what they really were.” Rafelson

Lastly, but not leastly, here’s a behind the scenes documentary about the band and their musical journey for more on the before and after on how they fired their genius musical director, how Mike put his fist through a wall, and plenty more of their madcap antics.

R.I.P. Davy Jones, who died in 2012.

For what it’s worth the song also features on Vanilla Sky (the remake of the superior Abre los ojos or Open your eyes by Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar ) and season 6 episode 12 of Mad Men.

It’s been covered by The Church, Trouble, The Wondermints (who were mentioned in the last SOTW), The Lightning Seeds, and And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead.

That’s all for this week/month/year. Happy New Year folks…

Without any further adieus (goodbye, goodbye, goodbye), the beginning and end of Head, the Porpoise Song.

And here are the lyrics:

My, my the clock in the sky is pounding away
There’s so much to say
A face, a voice, an overdub has no choice
And it cannot rejoice
Wanting to be, to hear and to see
Crying to the sky
But the porpoise is laughing good-bye, good-bye
Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye
Clicks, clacks
Riding the backs of giraffes for laughs is alright for a while
The ego sings of castles and kings and things
That go with a life of style
Wanting to feel, to know what is real
Living is a lie
But the porpoise is waiting good-bye, good-bye
Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye
Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye
Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye

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One thought on “Song of the Week 55: Porpoise Song (Theme from “Head”) {Goffin/King} – The Monkees

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