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.
Does it count as a cover song if the song you’re covering doesn’t come out until after the one you made? Neil Diamond started out as a Brill Building songwriter, working under the tutelage of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. But by 1966, Diamond was starting to break out as a solo artist. His song “Cherry Cherry” made it to #6, and Don Kirshner, producer of The Monkees, heard it on the radio and figured it was exactly the kind of thing that The Monkees needed. So Kirshner asked Diamond if he had any other songs like that. As it happened, he did. He had “I’m A Believer.”
If you’re trying to figure out the right song to give to your prefabricated mid-’60s sitcom boy band, “I’m A Believer” is your platonic ideal. It’s propulsive and catchy and immediate. It has a monster chorus and an organ riff so big that you could see it from space. It’s friendly and unthreatening and all about love. And it happens to be an amazing song, a sharp and dazzling evocation of what it’s like to have your whole world flipped upside down.
Micky Dolenz, who sang lead on “I’m A Believer,” sold the emotion of the song just as well as he’d done on “Last Train To Clarksville.” He’s someone who’s been a hopeless wanderer, wounded and disconsolate: “What’s the use of trying? / All you get is pain / When I needed sunshine, I got rain.” But then he sees this girl, and his entire point of view does a full 180. And all it takes is a look: “I saw her face! Now I’m a believer!”
The song itself is an economical marvel, all twangy guitar and ahh-ahh backing vocals. The entire tone of the production shifts when it hits the chorus and those other Monkees come in sighing. It’s a perfect little tension-and-release machine. I don’t think it’s as towering a songwriting achievement as “Last Train To Clarksville,” but it’s close. And think how amazing it was that this goofy sitcom was working as the delivery mechanism for these incredible songs. The Monkees wasn’t even a huge hit! More people bought the records than watched the show!
The Monkees didn’t play on “I’m A Believer,” of course. (Diamond did play guitar on the session. Diamond had already recorded his own version of the song, but he wouldn’t release it until 1967.) The actual Monkees’ lack of input in their own musical careers was already bothering them. Some of them were OK with the idea that they were actors on a TV show, and others were mad that they were being presented as musicians but not allowed to play music.
One possibly-apocryphal story says that guitarist Michael Nesmith got pissy during the recording of “I’m A Believer,” claiming that the song was just not a hit, and he should know, he’s a songwriter. The story goes that producer Jeff Barry kicked Nesmith out of the studio when Dolenz was recording his vocal. And then Nesmith had to pretend to play “I’m A Believer” on four Monkees episodes in a row.
BONUS BEATS: In 1974, the wizardly prog songwriter Robert Wyatt, formerly of the Soft Machine, released a cover of “I’m A Believer” that made it to #29 on the UK charts. Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason played on it, as did future Police guitarist Andy Summers. It’s the first thing Wyatt released after he fell out of a fourth-floor window and paralyzed himself from the waist down. Here’s Wyatt performing it on Top Of The Pops: