Michael Nesmith & The First National Band – Magnetic south

Unplayed no. 2

Michael Nesmith’s first post-Monkees record, I bought this for £2 on the strength of the title and the evidence of 1973’s Pretty much your standard ranch stash.  This is 1970; Mike is some way off developing the timeless American beard that he models on the cover of the 1973 set, and although the First National Band look like proper country pickers and players (give or take the one who looks like a refugee from the Byrds), he’s still singing the songs of a Monkee, albeit the member of the quartet with the most furrowed brow; there are pleasing echoes of ‘The girl I knew somewhere’ throughout.  The LP opens with an undeniably great country rock tune, ‘Calico girlfriend’, which regularly veers off-script to deliver equally great left-field guitar work that Alasdair MacLean might be proud to claim as his own, Nesmith’s electric duelling for the first time with the pedal steel of longtime collaborator O.J. ‘Red’ Rhodes’.  The miniature ‘Nine times blue’ is likewise imbued with the spirit of at least two of his three touchstones (Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers; it’s hard to pick out much Jerry Lee Lewis).  After a mere 1:39 we are into the funky railroad blues of ‘Little red rider’.  ‘The crippled lion’ is a resurrected Monkees song performed with greater looseness than was previously possible, but given anchorage by the straight and true nature of Nesmith’s singing.

Though he does a fair impression on ‘The keys to the car’, Nesmith hasn’t a typical country voice; not that as a Monkee he had a typical pop voice.  It has in it an element of tenor training which connects it to a previous age where pop idols sang carefully, minding their notes and the niceties of performance.  But to this potential baggage he brings sufficient shades of blue to create a fine blend of tone and emotional potency that help him deliver the goods in the country idiom.  And there’s no doubting the effects that singing the crafted songs of Brill Building writers and other leading writers of the sixties must have had on his own song writing – what better education could there be than to sing not only some of those major hits but also minor classics like ‘What am I doing hangin’ round?’ and ‘The door into summer’, numbers one and two in my personal Monkees chart.

The sleeve has on it a sticker which states ‘INCLUDES JOANNE’ so I surmise that this was thought the closest approximation to a potential hit single on the LP.  But you can take the sticker as a caution as to the record’s most syrup-laden moment.  And then you spot on the flip of the sleeve that ‘Joanne’ is dedicated to ‘Jack Nicholson & Mimi’!  The song entitled ‘Hollywood’ would surely have been more apposite, being the darker, Easy Rider-ish sibling of ‘What am doing hangin’ round?’.  Incidentally the ‘making of the album’ is dedicated among others to ‘David, Micky & Peter’ in what you hope and presume is a mood of affectionate goodbye rather the ironic raising of a middle digit.

Magnetic south runs out of originals towards the end, closing with two covers.  Going on the bookend content alone, I imagine you could make a pretty fine double album length compilation out of the six RCA LPs that begin with this and end with Pretty much your standard ranch stash.  I wouldn’t be surprised to find that such a collection exists.  ‘Some of Shelly’s blues’ aside, this first outing is a better album than the sixth.

Play again factor: 8/10.

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2 responses

  1. I’m not sure you’ve ever had the dubious pleasure of hearing me bang on about how great some of Jerry Lee Lewis’s country material is, and I don’t know whether you know any of that stuff – have you? The reason I ask is that (on the small bits of this LP that I have heard) I hear a lot more of JLL’s Smash-era country material (starts with “Another Place Another Time, ’69 I’d guess) than I hear of his more famous Sun records stuff.

    More puzzling is Nesmith’s JLL love: Jerry’s great and all but he seems an odd choice to put alongside Jimmie and Hank, to me. Then again, Jerry actually made it out from under the wreckage of his career in rock/pop to forge a second successful career in mainstream country. Maybe that’s the key?

  2. I don’t believe I have had that particular pleasure, no, but I look forward to it the next time we catch up. And neither to my knowledge have I ever heard Jerry Lee in country mode – my parenthesis should have read ‘it’s hard for me to pick out much Jerry Lee Lewis’…

    I’m sure there’s something in your observation as to JLL’s inspiration being more about the possibility of reinvention he held out to Nesmith rather than straight musical influence. Cheers for the enlightenment!

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