Monday, September 1, 2008

Nesmith Airways Flight 200 Bound For Rio, Now Boarding At Gate 77

When I was about 8 or 9 I can recall falling in love with a song called ‘Rio’. It was a bright and breezy tune that strongly evoked the feelings and imagery captured in the lyrics. I recall seeing the promotional video on Countdown a number of times, and hearing that it was by a guy called Michael Nesmith. I didn’t know much about his background other than he used to be in the Monkees, and I remembered watching their TV show a lot, and seeing a couple of their albums around the place that used to belong to my older brothers.

Though essentially a manufactured American answer to The Beatles, the members of The Monkees, Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, all brought their own unique talents to the pre-fabricated fun four. However, Michael Nesmith was clearly the most musically gifted of the quartet, having already developed a solid craft in song writing/ performing. Most of The Monkees’ biggest hits were penned by professional song smiths such as Neil Diamond and the teams of Gerry Goffin/Carole King and Tommy Boyce/Bobby Hart. But by the group’s second album ‘More Of The Monkees’ (1967), Michael Nesmith started to get a couple of his own more rootsy, blues based numbers included such as ‘The Kind Of Girl I Could Love’. Their next album ‘Headquarters’ featured the Nesmith penned hit ‘You Just May Be The One’. Nesmith, and in fact the other three as well, were pushing hard to become more involved in the hand’s on recording process, finding their respective musical voices along the way. By 1968’s ‘The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees’, almost half of the album’s tracks were written or co-written by Nesmith or Tork.

Following the pre-fab four’s 1968 film ‘Head’, Peter Tork left the group to pursue a solo career. That same year Michael Nesmith recorded the album ‘The Wichita Train Whistle Sings’, featuring instrumental versions of his own songs, and his composition ‘Different Drum’ became a US#13 hit for the Stone Poneys featuring Linda Ronstadt. Nesmith, Jones and Dolenz recorded the 1969 album’s ‘Instant Replay’ and ‘Present’, which again featured several Nesmith compositions, including the strongest indication yet of Nesmith’s burgeoning talents as a songwriter with the country-rock classic ‘Listen To The Band’. Soon after Nesmith himself decided to venture out on a solo career.

Prior to his tenure with The Monkees, Nesmith had already established a solid career as a folk musician and session player with the Memphis based Stax-Volt label. He was one half of the folk rock duo Mike and John (with John London), and also recorded several low key solo singles under the name Michael Blessing, prior to his big break auditioning for The Monkees in late 1965. Immediately following his departure from The Monkees, Michael Nesmith put together The First National Band with old friend John London (from Mike and John) on bass, John Ware on drums and steel guitar ace Red Rhodes. They signed on to RCA and released two albums during 1970. The country-rock oriented ‘Magnetic South’ and ‘Loose Salute’ were critically and commercially well received, yielding the hit singles ‘Joanne’ (OZ#3/US#21) and ‘Silver Moon’ (OZ#11/US#42).

For the 1971 album ‘Nevada Fighter’ (OZ#45), Nesmith expanded his backing band’s line-up, renaming them the Second National Band. The title track flirted with the lower reaches of the U.S. charts (US#70), but Nesmith penned a bigger hit with ‘Some Of Shelly’s Blues’ (US#64) recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Nesmith’s work from this period was compared favourably to the likes of fellow country rock exponents the Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco.

The National Band was credited with the 1972 album ‘Tantamount To Treason’, but the same year Nesmith released his first (post Monkees) album as a credited solo artist with ‘And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’. Around this time Nesmith announced the ambitious plan to release a trilogy of album trilogies chronicling the history and future direction of country music. The following year Nesmith recorded his final album for the RCA Victor label with 1973’s ‘Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash’, again with a strong country rock flavour.

In 1974 Nesmith took the key step of forming his own music/ communications company Pacific Arts. Pacific Arts would later prove to be a key pioneering force in the development of the music video, Nesmith taking a lot of the lessons learnt from the visual side of The Monkees project and adapting those to the fastest growing music medium in the latter half of the 70s and beyond. His first album release on his own label was ‘The Prison’, and though the album didn’t produce any hit singles, Nesmith kept his name in the singles chart as the songwriter behind Olivia Newton-John’s 1975 US#30 ‘Let It Shine’. For the next couple of years Nesmith devoted much of his time and energy to getting Pacific Arts up to speed in the competitive multi-media/ communications market. 1977 saw him return to the recording studio for the brilliantly titled album ‘From A Radio Engine To The Photon Wing’ (OZ#24). The single ‘Rio’ was released in advance of the album and flew to #28 in Britain, before catching a connecting flight all the way to #4 in Australia. Aside from being a great song, what set ‘Rio’ apart was the extravagantly produced promotional video that accompanied it, and gained it considerably more airplay than it may otherwise have garnered - and it was Nesmith’s own Pacific Arts production house that made the video.

That same year Nesmith’s Pacific Arts created the TV chart show ‘Popclips’. The show featured externally sources clips and in house productions of current hits. Warner Cable made an offer to purchase the rights to the ‘Popclips’, but Nesmith and Pacific Arts turned them down. A few years later Warner launched the revolutionary MTV cable television network, owing much to ‘Popclips’ concept. The remainder of the 70s saw Nesmith release ‘Live At The Palais’ (1978), ‘The Michael Nesmith Radio Special’ (1979) and arguably his strongest album to date with ‘Infinite Rider On The Big Dogma’ (1979) which yielded the minor hit ‘Cruising (Lucy & Ramona & Sunset Sam)’ (OZ#94) - the promo video for the song being an early feature track on MTV. Reflecting a confident and versatile songwriter and performer, the album would also be Nesmith’s last album of original material for 13 years and would provide several tracks that would form the basis of the next phase in Michael Nesmith’s career.

In 1981 Nesmith’s Pacific Arts Video company released the home video ‘Elephant Parts’ which was a full hour long conceptual music video, specifically produced to accompany several Nesmith tracks, including ‘Cruisin’, ‘Magic’ and ‘Flying’, and incorporating elements of comedy and dance - the special inspired the short-lived series ‘Television Parts’. An innovative driving force in the development of the music video medium, Michael Nesmith holds the honour of being the first winner of a Grammy Award for Best Music Video for ‘Elephant Parts’, and no doubt it acted as an inspiration behind the music video efforts of Michael Jackson and others during the 80s and beyond. Pacific Arts was also behind the extravagant music video for Lionel Richie’s 1983 #1 ‘All Night Long’. In addition to producing music videos, Nesmith branched out into motion picture production, including the cult hits ‘Repo Man’ and ‘Tapeheads’.

Following the 1989 release of the Rhino label compilation ‘The Newer Stuff’, which featured several rare solo tracks, Nesmith made an even rarer stage appearance in a one off cameo with his old Monkees band-mates during their 1989 reunion tour. In 1992 Nesmith released his first album of new material in 13 years with ‘Tropical Campfires’, following this up with 1994’s ‘The Garden’, though neither sold that well. In 1996 he rejoined The Monkees in the studio for the album ‘Justus’, and toured with them briefly in 1997.

In the decade since Michael Nesmith continued to head up Pacific Arts, whilst sporadically releasing new music along the way, including ‘Timerider: The Adventure Of Lyle Swann’ (2000) and ‘The Long Sandy Hair Of Neftoon Zamara’ (2004 - inspired by Nesmith’s 1996 novel of the same name). Following the cessation of Pacific Arts’ operations, Nesmith has most recently operated the online live performance venue Videoranch 3D.

A little postscript to the ‘Rio’ adventure -
In 1988 I went to visit an old friend from school
days in Tasmania. We were both very much into music at the time (and still are), and on one of several expeditions to local second hand record shops I can recall mentioning to him that I was desperately trying to find a copy of the Michael Nesmith album that contained the song ‘Rio’. This was of course before the days of the internet and online downloading, and the CD reissue market was still in its infancy. So the most likely way to get hold of an old song was via a second hand copy on vinyl/cassette. My friend said he’d keep an eye out for the song, and true to his word a few months later a parcel arrived. He’d come across a copy of Michael Nesmith’s 1977 album ‘From A Radio Engine To The Photon Wing’ (in very good nick) and very kindly purchased it and sent it up to me. Suffice to say I was very chuffed to finally get a hold of the song ‘Rio’, and played the album relentlessly.

By the mid early 90s I was desperate to upgrade from my rapidly wearing vinyl copy of the track to a perfectly pristine CD copy. I still couldn’t find the original Michael Nesmith album but did happen across the track ‘Rio’ via its inclusion on the CD soundtrack to the film ‘Peter’s Friends’ in 1992 (the film, starring Kenneth Brannagh, Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry, was a favourite of mine at the time). To this day ‘Rio’ by Michael Nesmith remains one of my top 20 favourite songs of all time.
Something for all you trivia buffs - in case you didn’t already know Michael Nesmith’s mother Bette is credited with inventing liquid paper.

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