1968 was all about the loss of innocence. From two tragic assassinations to the Vietnam War, it was an earth-shattering time for a generation that grew up believing the squeaky clean world awaited them. Suddenly, hitting the street to protest meant more than sitting by the TV watching sanitized fantasies. Maybe that’s why The Monkees own story and subsequent 1968 feature film release, Head, was the perfect choice to accompany the tumultuous moment.
Two years earlier, Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones had been brought together by fate as well as sheer timing. Their mission, to create the perfect match for the Fab Four. Focusing on catchy pop hits and a music video style that had only been seen in A Hard Days Night and Help!, the band’s weekly exploits became a success for the powers that be. It also led to a string of hits and a not-so-subtle scandal about who was really behind the music. What was hidden among the myths and legends about the band was their actual artistry. For some reason, it was easier to dismiss them as pop culture phonies than acknowledge their abilities as musicians and entertainers. The gossip worthy muckraking arguably created a jolt within its members that was already growing with every twisted movement of the studio machine. It was all too reminiscent of a modern day Frankenstein parable, a power struggle for the ages to wrestle control of an image, an icon, and an identity. With the albums Headquarters; Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.; and The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees; the band showed that they were more than generic properties, as they put together some of The Monkees’ most endearing and important contributions to music. Meanwhile, their legion of fans had done their own growing up in these two short years. A band breaking loose from their tethers and a fanbase changing perceptions about social ideals became the quintessential stew for one groundbreaking psychedelic cinematic journey.
“We hope you like our story
Although there isn’t one
That is to say there’s many
That way there is more fun” Ditty Diego – War Chant
There’s a melody to any rebellion. In 1968, the clattering hum of disenchantment grew into a fast-paced string of beats punctuated by sound and fury. The Monkees themselves noted a changing tempo to their own fortunes when NBC cancelled their series after just two seasons. The tune dictated by a mix of the band’s revolution against the series’ static formula and a changing demographic intent on finding the next big thing. It was with both relief and reservation the four Monkee men embarked on a new chapter into the unknown. The band faced a new landscape that wanted more from pop stars and less from authority. It was a balancing act that was nearly impossible to maintain if they stayed on a path of saccharin laced antics.
The film Head can be described in any number of ways, but it is ultimately best told through its music. Conceived in a drug-fueled haze of neurosis and ambition, the project would be a way into new arenas of sight and sound. For a young actor named Jack Nicholson, it was a chance to expand on a less than successful start to his career. The do anything road to stardom propelled him to write the picture with an assist from director Bob Rafelson and input from the band’s members. Nicholson would also have creative input on the soundtrack itself and held co-writing credit for “Ditty Diego – War Chant”, a satirical nod to the Monkees’ former series. Past the carefully selected spoken word film segments, the soundtrack is a road map to not only Head, but the anxieties of a nation that was teetering on its personal precepts.
“A face, a voice
An overdub has no choice
An image cannot rejoice” Porpoise Song
“Porpoise Song” is a defining choice that bookends the film. Psychedelic and serene at once, the tune is a beautifully untroubled choice for the surrounding events. The song takes its roots from The Monkees’ past, then infuses every second with a tone of the time that wrecks any playful notions. Legendary writing team Carole King and Gerry Goffin, creators of some the band’s biggest hits, returned to compose this poetic lyrical bridge between a bygone world of youthful frivolity and the harshness of 1968’s graphic realities. It’s hard to miss the glaring themes of connection, as Dolenz leaps from the Gerald Desmond Bridge in an attempt to get away from unseen forces later revealed to be various characters from the film. As if hinting at what is real and what is perceived reality, the song’s lyrics speak about that search for truth as Dolenz is navigated through hallucinatory aqua fueled hues. In a nod to the TV “fish bowl” they felt stuck in, the sequence and the song itself flawlessly transitions into an aquarium placed on the iconic Monkee series set.
“Here I stand
At demand” Circle Sky
The connection between a band and its audience can become uneasy under the best circumstances. With “Circle Sky”, Nesmith found a voice for the angst of being caught between an artist’s humanity and the listener’s demand for control. A concert setting highlights one particular audience member who fits the traditional American teen persona. She is the total embodiment of a generation’s perceived visions, purposely free from 1968’s cares and worries. With each scream, the fan is propelled further into a faux madness that is strikingly contrasted with real life scenes of suffering and death. The sequence forces the viewer to question what’s really important and the things that truly matter in an all too fragile world. It’s a bold questioning of the vague devotions that abound in the human heart as well as the mind. Ultimately, the unruly crowd descends upon the band’s stage and literally pulls them apart. The act itself is a personal reflection on what a so-called adoring public can do to the idols they conditionally place on fragile shelves. With only mannequins of the band members left behind, the lasting question of how we view the humanity of performers is ultimately left up to the very fans who were growing to resent a certain level of consumerism.
“There is only one
Always changing inside
What does it become” Can You Dig It?
Musicians and maidens have an undescribable sexual chemistry that has gone on since the first songs came into existence. With that in mind, the band made a clever nod to the sexual undertones that ’60s TV did its best to avoid. In a stark contrast to the concert setting, The Monkees find themselves in a desert oasis surrounded by their own harem of belly dancers. While some might argue it was simply male gaze, the scene provided more than that. A female view of teen heartthrob idols are suddenly inverted on itself. The male performers are no longer on display, instead turning the tables on their view of the experience. Meanwhile, the cool melodic tones of “Can You Dig It?” seamlessly fit into the sequence like a siren’s call to the masses. A psychedelic ode to one of the decade’s most overused phrases, it winks slyly towards the viewer who gets the mainstream adaptation of a singular catchphrase.
“Open your eyes
Get up off your chair
There’s so much to do in the sunlight” As We Go Along
Some of 1968’s most indelible images centered on the quiet reflection people face when dealing with their mortality. The still contemplation as funeral trains and memorials wound their way through the country. For a band known for their fast-paced music video segments, “As We Go Along” reveals a connection to the moment at hand. Instead of acting together, each member is on their own introspective journey through nature. The natural settings are beautifully filmed and presented to convey the spaces people often miss when dealing with the rigors of daily life. There is a deliberate notion to separating members into individual locations that are as opposing as they are naturally related. To give them specific destinations and moments that are as unique as the person who occupies the area. It’s also a challenge to the TV generation that grew up understanding images without experiences. A generation that was doing a balancing act between awareness and reality beyond the family living room viewing station. Alone, it might have been perceived as just another attempt at capturing an untapped music video market. As a part of the film, it became a somber and calming break to the mania surrounding not only the project, but the year’s most disturbing themes.
“The years have passed and so have I
Making it hard for me to cry” Daddy’s Song
Abandonment was at the forefront of 1968’s most heartbreaking details. People felt abandoned by their politicians, their neighbors, even their personal idealism. The themes of “Daddy’s Song” expertly address the isolation with an unflinching narrative from songwriter Harry Nilsson. There’s a simplicity to the song presentation that makes it uneasy, yet totally appealing. Davy Jones, trapped along with the other members of the band, emerges into a black space. It is a void that is without emotion, a living space that is without life. Trading on his broadway past, Jones takes on the persona of a gleeful representative and storyteller. Full of motion and movement, his steps recall a gleeful experience instead of the traumatic tale he presents. As the scene progresses, it adds a colorful counterbalance with costumes and sets changing between stark black and white themes.
Not only vibrant and vivid in its styling, the number, with a special appearance from Toni Basil, takes on our concept that everything is “black and white.” Many teenagers and twentysomethings of the time were increasingly being hit by the notion that they couldn’t think outside of the box. Women had to be homemakers. Men had to be breadwinners. Breaking those norms were frowned on with equal parts devotion and status quo pandering. Tales of a tot left behind by their father couldn’t possibly fit in the world some people wanted to see. Breaking the mold and stepping up to the notions presented in the song were leaps forward that some may not have been ready to tackle. A static emotion in their heart and soul that was exposed through the song’s cheerfully whimsical notes.
“How many times do I have to make this climb?” Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?
While many cite “Porpoise Song” and “Circle Sky” as the film’s major musical contributions, there’s no discounting the importance of “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?” and its significance. Introduced among the promise of a medieval ritual, the tone quickly progresses into a party spinning wildly out of control. The viewer is either immersed in the unfolding spectacle or takes on the bewilderment of Nesmith as he comes to grips with the situation. Blaring lyrics and music overlap the sometimes psychedelic imagery that overlaps standard shots. The song asks “can I see my way to know what’s really real” and it’s a question the band themselves seem to grapple with throughout the film. More than just the band, the world of 1968 had to seek an answer to their own feelings as the search for truth among lies, corruption, incivility, politics, and passion raged on. Still, the title says it all when Tork sings “Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?” throughout the guitar-heavy tune. The more things change, the more they stay the same. In the end, The Monkees knew they were facing these disheartening principles in their careers. For every virtual step forward, the system and the fans demanded that never ending circular draw that kept things safe and comfortable. It was a decision and an illusion that any mere mortal would have trouble containing under the best circumstances.
As if acting as a prophetic vision, the song is the last full entry to be presented until The Monkees return to the familiar Gerald Desmond Bridge. The scene unfolds just as before, with the same results. The band is left to risk certain death as they leap in an attempt to flee the pursuing mob of entertainment-based ideals in human form. Feeling a sense of freedom, the soothing sounds of “Porpoise Song” lull each member as well as the audience into believing the struggles overcome, the harsh realities defeated. As the band hits the glass wall, it’s a stirring wake up call that reality will always be there and the events of 1968 would linger as if it surrounded the very air each generation was breathing. Ending the film with band members being taken away in their “fish bowl” becomes a tragic reminder that some things are far beyond a person’s control.
Head was the epitome for which everything 1968 would come to be known. It carried the notions of violence, satire, sexual politics, and ultimately, a generations forced attempt at growing up in one perfect reflection. Not a title ahead of its time, the film is instead an ambitious filmmaking endeavor that was right on schedule.