NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Greetings! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and sometimes resort towns aren’t what they’re cracked up to be.
Hey, don’t forget to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, How Good It Is Pod.
Here’s an interesting trivia item for ye: These two performers both died at the age of 32, but about four years apart, in 1974 and 1978. They died in the same apartment, which was owned by the same person, who was himself a famous person. Who are the performers, and who owned the apartment in which they died? I’ll have the answer for you near the end of the program.
[STONE PONY BLUES]
The Stone Poneys was a band that formed in the mid 1960s. Linda Ronstadt moved to Los Angeles in 1964 to join guitarist Bobby Kimmel and form a band. In a 1975 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Ronstadt said that Kimmel’s vision involved five people, including an autoharp and a girl singer, and they were all kinds of unique, except that the Jefferson Airplane and the Lovin’ Spoonful got there first. They pared the band down to three people and took on the name The Stone Poneys, which, although spelled differently, comes from Charley Patton’s song from 1929, called “The Stone Pony Blues.” And now you know what you’ve been listening to for the past minute or so.
It was in 1965 that the band was discovered by some music industry executives while they were rehearsing at an Ocean Park restaurant called Olivia’s. They recorded a few songs, including this one, a cover of the Fiestas’ song “So Fine”. They picked up some attention on the club circuit in Los Angeles, but not much else happened for them. One night their manager made a point of telling the group that, quote, “I can get your chick singer recorded, but I don’t know about the rest of the group.” They actually broke up briefly after that but reformed and managed to get a contract with Capitol Records in 1966. Again, the label wanted Ronstadt as a solo, but ultimately they were convinced that she wasn’t really ready for that. The Stone Poneys became the first act in Capitols’ folk/rock stable.
[TRAIN AND THE RIVER]
Their first album was more folk than rock, and Ronstadt is kind of understated, but they moved into more of a rock sound with their second album, which is where their breakout hit appeared.
Now, once in awhile I’ll do a show about songs you probably didn’t know were covers, and believe it or not, this is one of them. “Different Drum” was written in 1964 or 65—accounts differ on this—by Michael Nesmith, one of the Monkees. Nesmith was a friend of John Herald, the guitarist for a bluegrass band called the Greenbriar Boys, who liked it and slowed the tempo down for their version…
The Greenbriar Boys released it in 1966 on their album, titled Better Late Than Never! So far as I know, Nesmith himself didn’t record the song until 1972, but there’s a little twist there, that I’ll get to in a minute.
Better Late Than Never! was the Greenbriar Boys’ last album, and so far as I know, their albums never achieved much commercial success, though as a live act they were popular with the Bluegrass crowd.
OK, so I mentioned that Mike Nesmith didn’t record the song himself until 1972, but he did perform it for comic effect on an episode of The Monkees. In the episode titled “Too Many Girls,” Davy has a girlfriend named Fern, whose mother is very manipulative. Fern enters a talent contest and the other three Monkees enter the contest in order to give each other time to sabotage Fern’s act.
If the laugh track appears to be operating in odd places, it’s because Mike is also making faces while he performs, such as winking at the camera after singing the line “every time you make eyes at me”. So why didn’t The Monkees play it? Well, it’s not for lack of trying on Nesmith’s part. Like the other performers, he was a little dismayed to learn that session musicians would be playing on the albums, and the songs would be written by other songwriters, but he did bring this song, among many others, to the table. According to an interview he did in 1971, he was told that the song was a stiff, and it needed a hook.
So let’s get to the version that actually became a hit, and that’s the Stone Poneys, and here’s the dirty secret: while the track is credited to that band, the fact is that Linda Ronstadt is the only one of the Stone Poneys who actually appears on that track. Their original version of the song sounded a lot like the Greenbriar Boys’ version, and you can find recordings of live performances the band did that sound that way. But producer Nik Venet thought there was hit potential in it, and suggested that an arranger come in and re-do the track. Consequently, all of the male band members were essentially pushed out of the studio and different musicians brought in. Jimmy Bond, who played bass on the record, did the arranging, and the other musicians included Al Viola on guitar as well as Bernie Leadon, a future co-founder of the Eagles. Jim Gordon played drums, Sid Sharp was in charge of the strings, and it was Don Randi who played the harpsichord, much of which was improvised during the recording session. If you listen to the album version of the song, that harpsichord section is longer, and there’s a different stereo mix than the single. And, here’s an interesting coincidence: Jim Gordon and Don Randi also played on many of the Monkees’ recordings.
“Different Drum” is a typical “It’s not you, it’s me” breakup song, and of course Ronstadt switched the genders for her recording, with the exception of describing the guy as “pretty.” But it’s basically a relationship in which one person wants to settle down, but the narrator wants to remain free.
Ronstadt has said repeatedly in interviews that she was confused by the new approach to the song, and that she only had one run-through before recording it. Even just a few years ago, in 2013, she interviewed that she’s hearing what she described as “fear and a lack of confidence” in her performance, but to my ears that’s the sound that gives the song its heartbreak factor: she loves the guy but she knows that the relationship is going to end in disaster, so let’s just rip off the bandaid now. In that same 2013 article, Nesmith said much the same thing, that there’s a level of passion that she injected into the song that wasn’t originally there. But I’m going to add in my own observation that Ronstadt is often critical of her recorded performances, perhaps not seeing some of the nuances that we, as listeners, are picking up. In fact, I think it unnerves her a little bit when people pick up on things that she hadn’t necessarily intended. We hear the heartbreak or perhaps the early stirrings of the Women’s Liberation movement in “Different Drum”, but she hears the fear and lack of confidence that perhaps she felt that day.
“Different Drum” was released in September of 1967, and it peaked at Number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart at the end of January 1968. It was also a Top 30 hit in Canada, and a Top 10 song in Australia and New Zealand. Its success meant the beginning of the end for the Stone Poneys, especially as the 45 label reads “Stone Poneys Featuring Linda Ronstadt,” as Capitol Records was clearly still pushing hard for Ronstadt to break out as a solo act. To be fair, however, Ronstadt’s musical taste was also moving away from the rest of the band, and by the time the third album came around, the Stone Poneys weren’t even on Capitol’s contract. Ronstadt wound up paying for everything to put that album together, and she found herself deep in the red financially before her solo career really got underway.
The song has been covered many times, including by Susanna Hoffs, Carrie Underwood and The Lemonheads, and of course there’s Nesmith’s version, essentially covering himself on the album And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’. His version has a fourth verse that isn’t usually heard. But one of the things I’ve noticed among the covers is that it’s usually a female lead performing, even though the song was originally written as a man-to-woman conversation.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. ‘Way back when, I asked you to identify two musicians who died in the same apartment four years apart, and to identify the famous owner of that apartment.
Well, on July 29, 1974, Mama Cass Elliot had a heart attack and died. She’d gotten into a cycle of gaining and losing a lot of weight, which weakened the heart muscle the point of failure. That rumor about a ham sandwich? Well, yeah. There was a sandwich by her bedside, but she’d never touched it.
[WHO ARE YOU]
And then four years later, on September 7, 1978, it was Keith Moon who died in that same apartment from an overdose of the anti-alcohol drug Clomethiazole. And the person who owned that apartment? Was Harry Nilsson, the Coconut Man, who later sold the place…to Keith Moon’s bandmate, Pete Townshend.
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Next time around, we’re going find out How Good It Is In The Year 2525.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.