50 Years Ago: Mike Nesmith Buys His Way Out of the Monkees
At that point, the band had released four albums since the Monkees' television show limped off the air in 1968 – including the soundtrack for Head, which found the group making the leap to theaters. Yet they continued to be defined by the program's paper-thin characterizations – and that was particularly difficult for Nesmith, who still boasted much higher musical aspirations.
"We all were very tired, and the show was starting to repeat itself," Nesmith told the Arizona Republic in 2018. "Things like The Monkees show have a specific lifetime, and when it's through, it is through – left for history to assess. It does not, however, ever die."
A frustrated Nesmith had been recording with his First National Band since February 1970, drawing upon a deep well of songs he never got to record before. Their debut album, June's Magnetic South, helped establish a nascent country-rock sound that didn't even have a name yet. Still, in his mind, this was going to be bigger than the Monkees.
"I wanted it to be was one of the great bands in the world, playing some of the great music in the world with some of the great people in the world,” Nesmith told Rolling Stone in 2018. "Nothing less than that. I thought, 'Well, why can't I play stadiums with the First National Band?'"
Listen to the Monkees' 'Hollywood'
First, he had to get out of his contract. Former Monkees bandmate Peter Tork, who left after Head, had already shown how difficult that could be. He ended up having to buy out his deal with Screen Gems for about $150,000 a year – or around $1 million today. Nesmith made a similar deal, leaving himself in financial ruin.
Small connections back to his time with the Monkees remained: Nesmith had begun work on five of the songs on Magnetic South while still with the group – including "Hollywood," which he'd demoed for 1967's Headquarters. First National Band bassist John London played on some earlier Monkees songs, and had appeared as an extra on their TV show; pedal-steel guitarist Red Rhodes sat in on the Monkees' "Steam Engine," among other tracks.
But the First National Band boldly expanded upon occasional rootsy fare like "Sunny Girlfriend" from Head. Playing with a lineup made complete by drummer John Ware, Nesmith quickly caught the eye of fellow genre-bending pioneer Gram Parsons. Soon, the First National Band were opening for Parsons' newly formed Flying Burrito Brothers.
Nesmith was actually surprised to find others threading the same country-rock needle. "I hadn't met them and hadn't really heard them," he told Blurt in 2013. "I was up to my neck in Monkees, and [the First National Band] was the first step out of that. So, John Ware and Red and John London and I locked ourselves away and learned all these songs that had been laying around."
At first, they didn't even know what to call it. "I had no notion of country rock as a possible genre, although we used the phrase among ourselves as First National Band members," Nesmith told Goldmine in 2013. "This was more to frame up and focus a feeling of playing. We weren't conscious of this being innovative. It was fun to play like that, and there was plenty to say with it, and we enjoyed listening to it, to each other."
Listen to the First National Band's 'Joanne'
The First National Band's debut single, "Joanne," showed real promise, reaching No. 21 in the U.S. Unfortunately, Magnetic South didn't follow it up on the Billboard chart, getting to only No. 143. Dolenz and Jones didn't do much better without Nesmith, as 1970's Changes became the last original-era Monkees album after stalling at a paltry No. 140. All four Monkees wouldn't appear on an album together again until 1996's Justus.
Nesmith kept going. In fact, he had such a backlog of unreleased songs that the First National Band quickly produced two more albums over the span of a little more than 12 months. Each charted worse than the last. He also struggled out on the road, where fans continually yelled out requests for songs by his old band. Nesmith ended up asking venues not to reference his time in the Monkees in their ads or as part of the group's introduction.
It did no good. He was stuck in a caricature. By 1971, the First National Band were over. None of their subsequent singles ever charted higher than "Joanne."
"The reaction at the time was awful. We were ridiculed and mocked. Some of that may have been Monkees backlash from people who despised the Monkees, and at that time — and maybe still — were in a majority," Nesmith told USA Today in 2013. "Whatever it was, the rejection was hard to take, and it ultimately brought FNB to a halt. The records were not successful and the live shows were not subscribed, so it became impossible to proceed."
Meanwhile, the country-rocking Eagles were becoming one of America's hottest bands, after first getting together as the backing group for Linda Ronstadt – a singer-songwriter who rose to fame with a cover of Nesmith's "Different Drum." Eagles ended up as a stadium act, while Nesmith released a solo album in 1972 called And the Hits Just Keep on Comin,' tongue firmly in cheek. His finances didn't stabilize until he received a 1980 inheritance from the Liquid Paper Company.
Watch Michael Nesmith Perform 'Different Drum'
"I was heartbroken beyond speech," Nesmith told Rolling Stone. "I couldn't even utter the words 'the Eagles' – and I loved Hotel California and I love the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, all that stuff. That was right in my wheelhouse and I was agonized. ... I was like, 'Why is this happening?'"
Maybe the Monkees were simply a stone too heavy to carry into the next phase. He didn't participate in their early reunions – including the Monkees' celebrated 20th-anniversary tour, appearing only for a single encore in 1986 at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. After Justus, a decade later, he largely stayed away until returning for consecutive summer tours in the wake of Jones' death in 2012. He took part in sessions for 2016's Good Times, but didn't tour behind it. After Tork died, Nesmith performed some duo shows with Dolenz.
He never could let go of the First National Band, however, and eventually reissued their albums then resurrected the band in 2018. "The songs, of course, live on," Nesmith told USA Today, "and I was and am happy with them and satisfied with them."
By then, Rhodes and London had also died, and Ware said he wasn't up for a return to the road. Mike's son Christian, who at that point was also part of the Monkees' touring band, assembled the new lineup. They played to a series of packed crowds, finally gifting Nesmith with the attention this phase always deserved.
"Those were the songs I started writing when I started writing," Nesmith told the Arizona Republic. "They play out in my life the way any early work persists, and nourishes the way they nourish. The First National Band was to be my private yacht to take me to shore. It still serves that purpose – and I think it is a beautiful boat."