Saturday, June 20, 2020

Michael Nesmith’s First National Band – Magnetic South –‘Different Rhymes and Tunes'

Following his departure from the world famous 'prefab four' Michael Nesmith had collected a back catalog of stunning original compositions. While fans of the ‘Monkees’ were aware of Nesmith’s affection for country music and a down home aesthetic, his ability to express said music through the TV pop group had run its course.  In early 1970 Nesmith collected musicians John London (bass), John Ware (drums) and famed steel played Red Rhodes for the First National Band, a collective in which Nesmith could find a proper vehicle for his muse. 

While the subject will require an entirely different discussion, Nesmith and the First National Band became either subconsciously or not, one of the first bands to be branded ‘country rock’. In addition to the 'Buffalo Springfield', ‘Flying Burrito Brothers’, ‘Poco’, ‘Byrds’ and others, the First National Band was part of the late 1960's tumbling tumbleweed of a ‘country rock’ movement, and in hindsight one of its most important proponents.

Nesmith was quite prolific following his departure from the ‘Monkees’ as three First National Band LP’s were released in just a year in 1970-1971, each sharing similar cover art and ideal. The albums were colored red, white, and blue respectively, each with a large central image. Today, the ‘rock room’ will focus on the introductory blue volume, Magnetic South. While Nesmith’s first ‘true’ solo record came out in 1968, The Witicha Train Whistle Sings, the record was a ‘big band’ recitation of already ‘Monkee’ recorded Nesmith originals.

Now with the fully formed First National Band, Nesmith was the ‘band leader’ and in charge of steering his own ship. As Nesmith stated in a 2018 interview, ‘Pop music was foreign to him’ when he was writing songs in the ‘Monkees’, he was interested in what was ‘playing on his home stereo’.  As an aside, Nesmith really was aware of what a ‘pop’ song could be as his composition ‘Different Drum’ climbed up the pop charts at the end of 1967 when the ‘Stone Ponies’ featuring a young  Linda Ronstadt covered the song and took the track to #12. Oddly enough the ‘Monkees’ producers had dismissed the song when shown by Nesmith at the end of 1965. The Monkee mangers had often told Nesmith his originals were too ‘twangy’ or country and wouldn’t appeal to the Monkees audiences. Hence the reason Nesmith felt it was now his time to put together a ‘real’ band, a band in the sense of an organic thing where each member has a role and contributes to the whole. He knew he could do it, he knew he had to do it. The ‘Monkees’ were a job, the First National Band would be art, with a ‘spiritual understanding of the music’.

As previously stated, Nesmith had been writing for a number of years with the 'Monkees' and had actually recorded but not released a sheaf of  tracks that would later appear on First National Band records. Songs on Magnetic South that had opportunities with the ‘Monkees’ include, ‘The Crippled Lion, ‘Hollywood’, and ‘Nine Times Blue’ which was performed in 1969 on the Johnny Cash Show with Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz prior to the band’s dissolving.

Because of Nesmith’s history as a ‘Monkee’ he was constantly haunted by his past as critics and fellow musicians could not decide whether or not to take his new direction seriously. The 'rock room'asserts that if they just listened to the quality tunes being created instead of labeling and putting into a sterile box the group could have gathered more contemporary respect. Regardless, Magnetic South is a wonderful snapshot of an artist finding his feet and directive while also being an important signpost on the dirty rutted roads of ‘country rock’.
The album begins with the strident acoustic guitar intro of ‘Calico Girlfriend’ and once Red Rhodes pedal steel slides into the melody line proper the listener knows that this is something ‘alien’ to the pop charts, perhaps originating from south of the border. The group collaborates into a Tex-Mex groove where Rhodes scribbles out a multifarious melody to which Nesmith sings in a matter of fact country curl. Under this vocal serape Rhodes pours out a watery descending counter melody. The drums and percussion kick in after the first verse and prior to the middle eight and drive the clandestine meeting with a mysterious lady toward the top of the tower.

Fading in from a dropping Western sunset comes the shadow of a solitary guitar strummer as the beginning of ‘Nine Times Blue’ appears. Nesmith with a healthy dose of echo croons against the thump on Ware’s bass drum. Nez then harmonizes with himself on the chorus in a magical fashion. One of Nez’s most loved songs, while criminally short is sugar sweet. The second verse begins and finds Ware hitting a double time drum groove while Nesmith reminisces about the things he has learned with the female subject of the song. A quick key change comes and Rhodes deftly creates a slick musical segue into ‘Little Red Rider’.

A warm bass pulse ushers in the deliciously funky ‘Little Red Rider’ which sways like a crimson dress blowing off of the back of the departing train in the song. Tumbling drums and percussion work in conjunction with the chugging acoustic and well timed horn blasts from Nesmith’s electric guitar. This track was attempted by Nesmith during his time in the ‘Monkees’ (can be found on the CD Missing Links), here it digs into the earth with a groovy spade revealing a funk well suited for ‘The Band’. A ‘rock room’ favorite.

‘The Crippled Lion’ comes next and could lyrically act as the title track for Nesmith’s musical moves following his time in the ‘Monkees’. Reflection and hope saturate the lyrics. ‘Now my world opens up in different rhymes and tunes, with highways making up the verse’. The instrumentation is majestic with Red Rhodes again soaring across the gently undulating backing by the band. Nesmith’s vocals are in the ‘rock room’s opinion the finest of the record. Additionally, here the basic instrumentation is augmented by some honky tonk piano played by Earl P. Ball. I firmly believe that this song is the centerpiece of the record, the First National Band at its best.

What was destined to be the biggest hit of the LP and of Nesmith’s First National Band days follows with ‘Joanne’. Again, a Nesmith original the track would hit 21 on the Billboard charts upon release. The song would continue to be most popular for Nez right up through current times. A drumless ballad, Nesmith and Rhodes duet with Nesmith’s glistening falsetto underpinned by Rhodes weeping runs. A beautifully timeless and pastoral portrait of a love that was never to be. The emotions between the narrator and Joanne only increased by the sparse landscape instrumentation.

Side one closes with a blink and you will miss it instrumental piece credited to Red Rhodes called the ‘First National Rag’. Similarly to the conclusion of a cartoon, Nez lets us know that, ‘we will be right back as soon as you turn the record over” as the band cooks up a slippery stew in the back room.

Following a flip, side two begins with the high tempo ‘Mama Nantucket’, with a wonderful example of Nesmith’s yodeling abilities! Containing some vague lyrical references, this song cooks up some heat off on the not so distant range.

‘The Keys to the Car’ begins with a solitary acoustic and a gentle clip clop of rhythm. Again, Nesmith’s falsetto is spotlighted with a tune that seems like a gentle song of caution. Nez lets the subject know symbolically even if she gets the ‘keys’ be wary of what is expected of you. At the risk of sounding redundant, the magic is found in the meshing of Rhodes and Nesmith, a testament to a relationship that would last decades.

‘Hollywood’ begins with the soft tip tapping of a high hat before a drum roll ushers in the bedazzled lyrics. Separating the verses are soft interludes of Nesmith falsetto whispers.  Thematically the song is Nesmith running from ‘Hollywood’ trapping to open pastures. It seems to the ‘rock room’ that the quiet preludes are Nez contemplating his next move and his run from the border is initiated with the thumping piano and skidding steel. The tail end of the song contains a well-placed keyboard/Rhodes interlude that is delicately sprinkled across the acoustic guitar running through the track. A spacey break is reached with keys and steel winding around the acoustic guitar illuminated by a light polluted sky.

The album concludes with two cover versions, the firsts of the collection. ‘The One Rose (That’s Left In My Heart) first recorded by Jimmie Rodgers is given an intimate and purist reading. Nesmith sounds perfectly laid back and vocally assured. The closing track of the LP is ‘Beyond the Blue Horizon’ a song that first appeared in 1930 in the film Monte Carlo. What is also the longest track on the album reaching almost 6 minutes is a proper and fitting conclusion.
The song begins with the anticipatory tic tock of a clock, while some tender piano runs dress the passage of time. A distant rooster crows as the clock dings its alarm bringing the listener into a room with lovingly caressed acoustic guitar. Nez whistles, the steel moans like a violin and a series of sound effects bring a feeling of leaving for the horizon and never looking back. At three minutes Nesmith sings the words as the drums enter through the same door. Dynamically, the song reaches for the sun as a shaded plant searches for light. The song reaches toward climax with swirling organ, theatrical vocals and increased tension by the instrumentalists before everything drops away. Left only with a steel disappearing into dusk and the drone of crickets the LP concludes.

The ‘First National Band’s debut album of their ‘trilogy’ set the table for an original musical feast. Their first record plays cinematically, the words and instruments working in perfect harmony to create a uniquely original album that is neither country nor rock and roll. Against the odds, Nesmith used his professional time spent in pop and his valuable moments spent composing to assimilate both into an organic and original band of his own device. While not the lurid rock tale of Gram Parsons or as famous and radio friendly as the ‘Eagles’, the ‘First National Band’ is perhaps the most unique ‘country rock’ story you have never heard of.

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