Once upon a time, the undisputed king of the box set was Rhino Records. The label gave us a brain in a box, an old phonograph to house the masterworks of Ray Charles, a crate of eight tracks to take us back to a more soulful time, and a hatbox filled with the most effervescent girl group sounds possible, just to name a few. (Shag carpets, coffee beans and a carrying case for 45s figured prominently in a few other such packages.) Of late, these lavish sets haven't appeared with great frequency; I feared 2009 was the last hurrah, when the Warner Music Group-owned company delivered exquisite collections from Big Star, Frank Sinatra and Rod Stewart, and exciting multi-artist sets devoted to Woodstock and the Los Angeles music scene of yesteryear. But leave it to Andrew Sandoval and the Monkees to keep the good times coming.
Producer Sandoval had already expanded the Monkees catalogue in the 1990s with Rhino reissues of each of the band’s titles containing bonus tracks and new liner notes. Around this time, I began referring to the Monkees as “the Beatles of Rhino,” as the band was clearly the label's crown jewel. And I found myself wondering why the Fab Four weren’t accorded the same kind of quality treatment over at EMI/Apple. Sandoval and the Rhino team finished the core catalogue, but in 2006, a series of 2-CD mono/stereo expansions began. (A deluxe box set dedicated to the group’s acclaimed Headquarters LP had also arrived from the Rhino Handmade imprint.) This series, however, ended in 2007 with the release of the band’s fourth album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, Ltd. So it was to much surprise in early 2010 that Rhino Handmade released the Monkees’ fifth album, The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees in a beautiful three-disc box set that doubled as an art object, with a 3-D lenticular cover. Some months later, the label and producer Sandoval have unveiled a similar set for the trippiest Monkees album of all, the soundtrack to Head (Rhino Handmade RHM2 525670). (The film itself will be released later this year on DVD and in its Blu-Ray debut.)
This is a box set fully in the grand tradition of Rhino’s history, and most definitely for the hardcore collector. It’s the kind of box I cherish most, a set that’s not designed for casual listening but rather for full immersion in the music, with copious liner notes as your guide. Speaking of those liner notes (by Sandoval and Rachel Lichtman), the Beatles comparisons don’t escape them, either. But I can’t help find it ironic that as of this writing in late 2010, the Beatles still have not released a box set or deluxe edition comparable to the one currently in my hands. Hit the jump to feed your Head with more details!
In fairness, it should be noted that the Head album itself is a ragtag collection of songs, dialogue soundbites and score from the film of the same name. The original album (heard in stereo on Disc 1 with many mono mixes on Disc 2) plays like an artifact of its time, a lengthy and offbeat sound collage. But there’s elegance in its eclectic lineup. There are only six proper songs, making it no small feat that the box set’s three discs are as listenable as they are. (For those counting, that means no fewer than five appearances of “Porpoise Song," natch.)
Two Carole King compositions are at the heart of the album. “Porpoise Song,” with lyrics by Gerry Goffin, is the most-remembered song from Head, and with good reason. Davy Jones calls the film’s “Porpoise Song” sequence a “complete mind-blower” on the interview disc contained in the box, and that’s not an understatement. With Leon Russell on keyboards, Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar and members of Clear Light in the band, and an eerie, atmospheric arrangement by Jack Nitzsche, the Monkees embraced psychedelia head-on. Jones also mentions that, after listening to the song and watching the visuals, audience members would forget about The Monkees and see Davy, Peter, Mike and Micky as themselves. That might have been part of the problem; as Lichtman points out in her perceptive essay, Head helped cause the Monkees to lose “their focus and their fans,” trapped between their desire to appeal to a hip crowd while holding onto their core teen audience. The haunting, dreamlike “Porpoise Song” illustrates the dichotomy, written by the establishment Brill Building team of Goffin and King (who had previously gifted the band with the marvelously scathing “Pleasant Valley Sunday”) but striking out in an edgy new direction not easily understood by many fans.
King’s other contribution to the score was the also-atypical, underrated “As We Go Along.” Written with Toni Stern, King's future collaborator on hits like “It’s Too Late” and “Where You Lead,” the folk-influenced “As We Go Along” featured King on guitar alongside Ry Cooder, Neil Young and Kortchmar. Talk about one hell of a house band! The Head sessions were clearly the place to be for rock’s crème de la crème: Buffalo Springfield’s Stephen Stills and Dewey Martin both played on Peter Tork’s “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again.” Harry Nilsson contributed “Daddy’s Song,” which shows the songwriter in his Broadway bag. A showstopper for Jones, its brassy sound draws from the same well that Nilsson's friend and colleague Randy Newman often did. Tork’s two songs, “Long Title” and “Can You Dig It” are among his finest offerings on any Monkees album, while Mike Nesmith’s “Circle Sky” is a straight-ahead rocker with a psychedelic lyric.
One of the most surreal tracks on Head is “Ditty Diego – War Chant,” which might qualify as a seventh song. It’s a short chant spoofing and deconstructing The Monkees’ famous Tommy Boyce/Bobby Hart theme song: “Hey, hey, we are the Monkees/You know we love to please/A manufactured image/With no philosophies.” Ouch! Jack Nicholson, Head’s screenwriter and the “album coordinator,” helmed the vocal session for this track, and the 20+ minute session is included on Disc Two. It’s as fascinating (and freewheeling) as might be expected, with cries to Nicholson of “Jack, you’re losing control!” turning rapidly into “Jack, you’ve lost control!” Of course, "Ditty Diego” gets a little tiresome after multiple listens, but it certainly illustrates just how far The Monkees had come from Clarksville.
Disc 1 and Disc 2 are both filled with outtakes and rarities: alternate mixes and takes of the tracks, promos for the film (be sure to listen to the whole disc straight through for some hidden tracks!) and four songs plus an introduction from The Monkees’ performance at Salt Lake City’s Valley Music Hall on May 17, 1968. (All four tracks are Nesmith songs, including the terrific “You Just May Be the One,” “Sunny Girlfriend,” “You Told Me” and the film’s “Circle Sky.”) Of the alternate mixes, “As We Go Along” is a standout in its stereo version on Disc 1, with the vocals more present. The alternate stereo mix of “Circle Sky” is similarly revelatory, with great definition and separation, allowing new nuances to be easily heard. “Daddy’s Song” has one take with an extra, slow verse, while it can also be heard with Mike’s less razz-ma-tazz vocal. Similarly, “Can You Dig It” offers a version with vocals by its composer, Tork, rather than Micky Dolenz, who sings it in the film. These two alternate vocals appeared on the previous Head reissue (Rhino R2 71795). Of that reissue’s six bonus tracks, “Happy Birthday to You” is heard in the new set in a previously-unissued alternate stereo mix, while its “Ditty Diego” bonus track was excerpted from the full session, heard completely here. The other four tracks are all included here. Oddly, one track on this new box appeared earlier this year on the Birds, Bees and Monkees box, an alternate stereo mix of “Long Title.” Disc 3 contains the complete, extremely rare 1968 radio interview LP with Davy Jones where he discusses the film; excerpts of the album are included on that disc.
Attention to detail clearly was paramount for producer Andrew Sandoval, who also remastered with Dan Hersch. The same attention was paid by the project’s designer and art director, Steve Stanley of the Now Sounds label. The 7" x 7" box boasts a mirrored finish similar to that of the original LP, and inside, there are plenty of fun visual "Easter eggs." The movie poster can be seen on the box’s inside front cover, all of the CDs have Colgems-style labels, and each CD is packed in a cardboard sleeve. Discs 1 and 3 replicate the original LP artwork (including the mirrored finish, again!) while Disc 2’s design has artwork from a Japanese edition of the soundtrack on its rear cover! There’s also a Head pin included, and those who pre-ordered received a vinyl 45 with instrumental mixes (not on the CDs) of “Porpoise Song” and “As We Go Along.” Stanley’s period-perfect work is exceptional. The 26-page booklet has the usual classy array of text and full-color photographs along with comprehensive discographical information.
Head is a limited edition from Rhino Handmade; it’s my hope that the sales will be encouraging enough that Rhino will consider letting Messrs. Sandoval, Hersch, Stanley and co. finish the Monkees’ catalogue in similar style. While 3-CD boxes for Instant Replay, The Monkees Present and Changes seem unlikely, I’ve no doubt that these gentlemen can come up with a viable solution to re-present these three LPs. (Over at the Steve Hoffman Music Forums, members have already been compiling their dream sets!) And Rhino folks, with all due respect to The Stooges, can we get The Headquarters Sessions back in print already? Please…?
Your enjoyment of the Head box set will largely depend on your affinity for the six core songs and this period of The Monkees’ short career. And the danger with boxes devoted primarily to session takes and alternates is that there may not be a lot of repeat listening value. I concede that the same might apply, but in actuality, the possibilities for replay are endless. A listener has the potential to create many different versions of the Head LP with the tracks presented here. All of the different iterations of each song may blow your mind – but then again, that’s what this Head trip is all about. Can you dig it?