Michael Nesmith. Despite a few solo records, most folks I chat to are more aware of him being that chap in The Monkees. He also happens to be that chap from The Monkees that called his own album (More of The Monkees) “the worst record in the history of the World”. Given that the band was very much a product of a TV show, I personally didn’t care too much for the musical output and dare say I know only the Nesmith compositions (a result of my discovery of his solo work). I guess it’s fair to say that they do have a few gems in their catalogue – obviously being written by Michael Nesmith.
So with that said, I’d be first to admit that I might just be a little harsh on The Monkees. I mean, I’ve never really tried to listen to them. They’re one of those incredibly interesting groups, though. The type that are remembered fondly (“they used to be great, didn’t they?”). It seems now that folks are all about cheering about the fantabulous pop awesomeness of The Monkees given that they are on the road (or maybe they aint and it’s just the odd bit of fawning over nostalgia), but they struggled to be recognised as a credible ‘group’ for a very very long time. Partly, I understand, due to Mr. Nesmith himself being pretty vocal about them being manufactured, and the discovery that they actually didn’t play on their records and only done so on Headquarters. As a result, Nesmith spent a great deal of cash getting himself out of the contract (ouch!) with a bag o’ songs that he wrote while with the ‘band’ (hurrah!).
Those songs became the foundations of The First National Band. Some really incredible songs, too. Magnetic South is the first of their records. I happened to pick up all three on vinyl in the space of a week last March and, bar a few scuffs, they’re all in fairly grand condition. I’m still pretty chuffed. In fact, for about 12 months that was pretty much all my wife heard me talk about – “Please, not again with The First National Band …” or “I know, he was in The Monkees”. Occasionally I’ll remind her that I love this album. After all, it’s incredible. It’s hard to imagine that this is a band who are largely overlooked. Still. Especially given their ‘cosmic Americana’ vibe.
Strangely, I can’t really remember how I stumbled upon these albums. Given my lack of interest it wasn’t Monkees related, but I’m fairly certain it was off the back of falling into that Gram Parsons thing about 10 years or so ago – y’know, discovering his catalogue and Cosmic American music. I’m fairly certain that’s the case (about 98%).
Anyhoo, the songs are a perfect blend of self-penned and classic, or obscure, country songs. The self penned stuff is particularly strong – self reflective, a bit off the wall and witty. Heck, The Crippled Lion and Joanne are perfect examples of him throwing everything he loves together. Brilliantly sad at times and utterly infectious. It’s country with psychedelic flourishes and, well, it’s also a little tad pop.
Calico Girlfriend is a most excellent opener. Red Rhodes lights it up (his pedal steel is faultless on the whole album) and Nesmith is in fine voice. Mixing up Hank Williams and The Beatles. Or The Monkees, I guess. Little Red Rider has a groove that throws you off a bit, John Ware and John London just rolling along and, of course, Rhodes comes in with some of his pedal steel magic. Seriously, that dude doesn’t let up for the whole record. Listen to Mama Nantucket, too. The whole band kicking up dust all over the place. That’s how they roll.
I honestly never tire of this record. I just sit transfixed on it. Like I am now. Occasionally pulling my attention from it. The record spinning and the pedal steel becoming one.
Ah! I remember how I stumbled on this stuff! It was a blog telling folks exactly what I’m gonna say now – for my money the three First National Band records are just as important to Americana / Alt. Country as Gilded Palace of Sin by The Flying Burrito Brothers (a band they gigged with and who laughed at them cause of The Monkees baggage).
In fact, I’d maybe go as far as saying this one is just as brilliant as Gilded Palace of Sin. So I will. This is just as brilliant as Gilded Palace of Sin. So there.
Much like the song The Crippled Lion, you could even say that the notes on the back of the sleeve are a way of exorcising his old day job.