In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
When the Beatles played on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, becoming instant stars in America, Davy Jones was there. He wasn’t in the audience. Jones, a fellow lovable British moppet, was 19 then, just a few years younger than the Beatles. (He was short, so he looked younger.) And he was there to perform as well. Jones was working on Broadway at the time, playing the Artful Dodger in the stage musical Oliver! And on that particular historic episode of the show, he and the rest of the show’s cast sang “I’d Do Anything.” A couple of years later, forces conspired to make Jones a serious commercial competitor to the Beatles.
The idea for The Monkees existed before the Beatles broke in America. The aspiring filmmaker Bob Rafelson developed the concept in 1962, but he couldn’t sell it until the Beatles came out with A Hard Day’s Night a few months after that Ed Sullivan performance. The Monkees weren’t a band in any traditional way — or, at least, they didn’t start out that way. They were the stars of a sitcom, one that told the story of a group of wacky guys who were trying to make it in the music biz. The show was modeled on A Hard Day’s Night, and the accompanying songs were modeled on Beatles records. But while the Beatles were a creative force, the Monkees were essentially mouthpieces.
The members of the band sang on their records. Michael Nesmith produced some of their sessions. Every once in a while, Peter Tork got to play guitar on a record. But the Monkees certainly didn’t write their early singles, and they didn’t really play on them, either. Musicians hated them for it, but they still became an instant commercial success of near-Beatlesque proportions. And they made a whole lot of seriously great pop music. “Last Train To Clarksville” was their first single, and it might also be their best.
“Last Train To Clarksville” was a Beatles ripoff in just about every conceivable way. Bobby Hart, who co-wrote the song with Tommy Boyce, came up with the title after thinking he heard the phrase “take the last train” on the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer.” The song copped the jangly, hazy guitar tone of “Paperback Writer,” and its “no no no” bit is a direct response to the Beatles’ “yeah yeah yeah.” And yet “Last Train” has enough of its own personality that it can stand up to a whole lot of Beatles records.
“Last Train To Clarksville” just shimmers. That opening guitar line has a deep, satisfying twang, and the whole track is firmly in the pocket, that bass coming in at the exact right instant. The track has just a few tiny elements of the psychedelia that was in full flower at the time, and it integrates them cannily. I love the wordless fluttery singing on the bridge and the purpose that Micky Dolenz brings when the chorus kicks back in. The Wrecking Crew played on a lot of the Monkees’ hits, but the (uncredited) band on “Last Train” was the Candy Store Prophets, Boyce and Hart’s band. Those guys knew what they were doing.
Dolenz, the Monkees’ drummer, was the only actual Monkee to appear on “Last Train.” (All of the Monkees were musicians, but they were assigned whichever instruments the show’s producers thought they looked best playing. Dolenz didn’t actually know how to play drums before he was cast on the show.) Dolenz’s vocal is both warm and regretful, and he convey’s the song’s storyline, about a guy asking for one final date before he ships off somewhere, with an actor’s sense of emotion.
I’ve heard “Last Train To Clarksville” about a billion times in my life, but until I sat down to research this post, I always assumed it was a song about a guy’s conflicted, half-regretful wanderlust. He’s leaving the girl because leaving is just what he does, but he doesn’t feel altogether great about it. It somehow never occurred to me that it was really a song about a guy shipping off to the Vietnam War, but that’s what Boyce and Hart meant for it to be, and that’s probably how audiences would’ve heard it at the time, too. (Boyce and Hart were surprised that the show’s producers, who presumably didn’t figure out the Vietnam subtext, okayed the song.) Boyce and Hart used the phrase “Clarksville” because it sounded good, but it turned out to be a happy accident, since there’s a real Clarksville in Tennessee that’s near an Air Force base.
There was nothing authentic about the Monkees, of course, though they did eventually win control of their own band once their sitcom had been cancelled. But it doesn’t say anywhere that great pop music has to conform to anyone’s idea of authenticity. The Monkees themselves can’t claim much credit for “Last Train To Clarksville,” but it’s a great, sticky, meaningful pop song, and a secret protest record to boot. The supposedly authentic musicians who complained about the Monkees — like the Byrds, who clowned the Monkees on “So You Wanna Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” even though they themselves hadn’t played on “Mr. Tambourine Man” — would’ve been lucky to come up with anything as resonant as “Last Train To Clarksville.”
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the crossover-thrash cover of “Last Train To Clarksville” that the New York band Ludichrist included on their 1986 album Immaculate Deception: