A shorter edit of this story ran in Uncut magazine in 2007.
With the news that Michael Nesmith is going to be heading out and playing his First National Band songs live for the first time in almost five decades in 2018, I’m running a much longer version here.
In 1970, after five restless years with The Monkees, Michael Nesmith turned his back on the pop whirlwind to strike out with his new outfit, The First National Band. The strange, stubbornly American music of this short-lived group confirmed him as one of the founding fathers of what came to be labelled “country rock” – but, back then, no one was listening. Here’s the story of the other Original Cosmic Cowboy…
This might be a contentious question, I put it to Michael Nesmith toward the end of our interview about the astonishing music he made after he quit one of the most famous bands in the world. But here it is: Do you think that, if you had died young, say burned out in a cultish rock’n’roll desert suicide of booze and drugs around 1971, those records might be better known today?
“Maybe it’s less contentious,” he replies. “And more simply impossible to answer.”
When it comes to trying to figure out why and when “country rock” began, it pays to consider what a densely tangled web the relationship between country and rock’n’roll has been, and that to get into it too deeply would lead back through Ricky Nelson, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and Sam Phillips, all the way to the first cowboy to buy himself an electric guitar. It’s worth recalling, too, Townes Van Zandt’s words on the whole business of genre: “There’s only two kinds of music: the blues and zippity-doo-dah.”
Still, a consensus of sorts has been reached, which says that country rock was born around 1968, somewhere between The International Submarine Band’s Safe At Home and The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and that it was made largely in the image of the heavily mythologised figure who was the guiding force behind both those albums, whose troubled life and, especially, early death casts as long and ragged a shadow as his music: Gram Parsons.
An obstinate minority, however, takes some issue with that. There is another man, they say, long overdue credit as a key pioneer in the field. Another man who spent the 1960s following his own path, putting the era’s sharp new electric psych rock into bed with the deeply resonant country music he had loved growing up as a child in Texas, but whose experiment went largely unnoticed – paradoxically because he conducted it in the full glare of the spotlight, as part of the biggest pop phenomenon of the era.
A man who then, striking out under a new banner in the early 1970s, released a trilogy of albums that practically no one heard back then, but which, in their rocking and rolling, high-lonesome loveliness and plain widescreen weirdness rival anything Parsons created. A man who, as much as anyone, deserves to be called The Other Original Cosmic Cowboy. And who, like it or not, also happened to be a Monkee.
This is the tale of Michael Nesmith and The First National Band, a story that takes us all the way from 1960s Hollywood, to the working men’s clubs of 1970s northern England.
“The whole Monkees thing was crumbling,” says former First National Band drummer John Ware, as he recalls the afternoon in 1969 he told Michael Nesmith that it was time for him to form a new band. “I was watching it all just coming apart.”
At that stage, Ware, an Oklahoman who would go on to fill the drummer’s seat in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, was playing in LA in The Stone Poneys, the backing group assembled to support the young Linda Ronstadt, who had just scored a hit with Nesmith’s song “Different Drum.” Playing bass alongside him was Nesmith’s best friend, John London (born John Kuehne), who had hit out from Texas with Nesmith in 1962 when Nesmith, fresh out of the US Air Force, first decided to head to LA to try and make it as a musician.
“I just knew Mike as, y’know: The Monkee Guy at first,” Ware says. “But he used to come to our rehearsals to see how John was faring, and we became chums. We’d hang out at his house, and by 1969, I knew I was seeing The Monkees end, and I thought that Mike was such a great talent he should use his connections before the furore over The Monkees’ implosion meant they all went up in smoke. And so I suggested it was time for him to put together his country band.”
The one with the woolly hat had always been the most malcontent Monkee. Having already released a few country-folk singles before answering the 1965 ad looking for “four insane boys” to play a band in a new television series, it was Nesmith who ultimately led ‘The Prefab Four’’s artistic rebellion against their Hollywood overlords.
First, he brought down a storm of controversy by blowing the whistle on the fact that the boys whose records were outselling Elvis and The Beatles combined were not actually playing on those records. Then Nesmith famously underlined his point – that they should be allowed to make their own music – during his definitive argument with The Monkees’ pop svengali music supervisor Don Kirshner and his contract-waving attorney, when he drove his fist through a hotel room wall with these words: “That could’ve been your face, motherfucker.”
“Well, one thing I should make clear,” Nesmith asserts in his gentle Texan twang today, “is that I didn’t feel imprisoned by my time in The Monkees. That’s a distinction it’s important to make if we’re going to be accurate here: I didn’t have any bad feelings. It was just I didn’t have much to do. I wanted to make music, but I wanted to make music other than they – the producers and so forth – wanted me to. There was no reception within The Monkees’ power structure for my music at all. The response was uniformly negative. My songs, the way I sang, were perceived as liabilities that would marginalize the effort to create pop records. Anything of mine that did show up was there only after massive struggles and some very difficult times. But, y’know, that was just part of the drill. There was a TV show, a movie, a whole nexus of talents there. It was just a whirlwind.”
By 1967, Nesmith’s frustration at being gagged within The Monkees led him to funding a bizarre side project, issuing a debut solo album on which he didn’t actually appear. A beguilingly dotty sonic timepiece recorded with the same LA session musicians who built Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Nesmith’s The Wichita Train Whistle Sings was an all-instrumental collection that smuggled several of his suppressed compositions out in arrangements that suggested Ennio Morricone and Henry Mancini collaborating on a form of big-band elevator muzak.
Looking back at the songs of his that did make it onto Monkees’ records, however, what is striking is the consistent nature of the music Nesmith wanted to make. As early as the band’s self-titled debut in 1966, the two tracks he wrote and produced for the album – “Papa Gene’s Blues,” with hard picking guitar from James Burton, and “Sweet Young Thing,” a shit-kicking garage-country barnstormer, featuring blistering fiddle from Texas swing legend Jimmy Bryant – show him already forging his own country rock hybrid; this over a year before Dylan recorded John Wesley Harding, and while Gram Parsons was still trying get the first incarnation of the International Sunshine Band recorded in New York.
Putting the blues into The Monkees’ zippitty-doo-dah, Nesmith doggedly pursued his country leanings to the point where, in 1968, he headed to Nashville under The Monkees’ banner to record an entire album’s worth of songs with the cream of the town’s session players – around the same time that The Byrds were doing the same thing for Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
Most of these songs, like the majority of songs Nesmith recorded for The Monkees, failed to see the light of day until the issue of the Missing Links albums of unreleased tracks in the early 1990s. But put together a playlist of Nesmith’s Monkees recordings, both released and unreleased, and you begin to see something that looks startlingly like the great lost proto-country rock album: songs like “Sweet Young Thing”, “Nine Times Blue”, “Papa Gene’s Blues”, “Some of Shelly’s Blues”, “You Just May Be the One”, “Listen to the Band” “Circle Sky”, “Carlisle Wheeling”, and the beautiful “Propinquity” (I’ve Just Begun To Care).”
Ironically enough, Nesmith’s Monkees nemesis, Don Kirshner, makes one of the strongest advocates for his status as a country rock pioneer. “We wanted to make pop records,” Kirshner puts it, “and Mike was writing country songs.”
Faced with the allegation today, however, Nesmith shies away. “It only may be so that I was a ‘pioneer.’ But it wasn’t conscious. I guess I understand what people are getting at by trying to separate out Country Rock from regular Country; I’d say the defining element of Country Rock is attitude. Rock’n’Roll itself is an attitude, more than anything else. Being situated as I was, growing up among the Rock and Rollers and embracing them, while listening to traditional Country music, it was natural for me to bring this Rock’n’Roll attitude to the Country blues form. Whether this qualifies as pioneering I don’t know – that seems more a function of the time that it happened, rather than the fact that it happened.”
In a curious fraternal parallel with (or pre-echo of) Parsons, one of the first things Nesmith did when the Monkees money started coming in was buy himself a Nudie suit, which he could sometimes be seen sporting semi-surrealistically on the TV show. At the same time, however, he remained unconscious of being part of any great return to more traditional American musical forms.
“I bought my Nudie’s in 1967,” he says, “because of Buck Owens and Porter Waggoner, specifically, and Hank Williams generally. I liked the way they looked on stage –it showed a playfulness and absurdist art that I liked. I never knew Parsons at all. I’d met Roger McGuinn and David Crosby and Chris Hillman at the Troubadour, and Stephen Stills and Neil Young [who contributed guitar to Monkees records] were part of that whole scene, so I knew and liked all of them. There was some contact, but what was transpiring, what rubbed off on who, is mysterious to me. Certainly it wasn’t in anyone’s mind I knew that we were part of some larger movement.”
John Ware has his own simple answer as to why a generation of young LA-based musicians seemed to turn as one back toward country music. “The thing is – there was no place to play in LA. The clubs were locked into dance music, and if you just wanted to go out and play, just to keep your craft up, there weren’t many places. The ones that were available were these bars out in the San Fernando Valley that had one or two regular guys who were older and played country music, because that’s what the people who frequented those bars wanted to hear. So if you wanted the chance to play your instrument and get $10 in your pocket, you’d head out there and play some country music. Everyone was doing it. But the only person who made a lot of noise about it was Gram. And, personally, I didn’t understand what he was up to. I got it later on – believe me, when I joined Emmylou, I got to understand exactly what he was up to. Back then, though, to me, Gram was mostly just a guy who sang out of tune.”
Whatever mysterious alchemy was happening on the LA music scene, however, by the end of 1969, two things were very clear to John Ware. With their TV show cancelled and tensions increasing between the members of the band, The Monkees were finished. Meanwhile, Nesmith had amassed a huge stockpile of songs that no one had heard.
“We’d hang out at Mike’s house and play,” Ware recalls, “and it was obvious he’d built up just a ton of really strong material, some songs actually dating back to before Mike and John [London] had left Texas. I just thought this music was – I didn’t have the word “Americana” in my lexicon back then – but there was something so purely and naturally American about it. It just felt like something I needed to play. So I suggested we form a new band to play them. And, basically, Mike thought I was nuts. He said, ‘Nobody’s gonna want to know. There’s gonna be a Monkees backlash, and they’re all just gonna hate my ass, and we’re not gonna sell any records, we’re just gonna spin our wheels.’
I said, ‘Well, maybe. But why do you care?’”
Nesmith bought himself out of his Monkees contract early in 1970. “I was glad to be out of that. But it wasn’t like I’d been released from some terrible thing,” he stresses. “I was just ready to move on. It was: ‘Okay. That’s over. Now I get to do something else.’”
What that something else might be, however, remained uncertain. “For me, it really was tabula rasa,” Nesmith admits. “I didn’t know which way to go. I was in limbo. But Johnny [Ware] was pretty insistent that we – he, John and I – should form this new band. But I was resistant. I didn’t want to be a power-trio. For all intents and purposes, in a live situation, The Monkees had been a power trio, and I didn’t want to do just that bass, drum, guitar thing again, I couldn’t hear that. But when the subject of Red came up, now, I could hear that band in my head.”
“Red” was Orville J “Red” Rhodes, a pedal steel guitarist and session veteran who, as well as The Monkees, had worked with everyone from Gene Vincent to Nancy Sinatra, and played on The Byrds’ The Notorious Byrd Brothers. He’d become a legend on the LA scene, however, mainly due to his long-standing stint as band leader at the Palomino club.
“Red was the Palomino’s house band,” Ware says. “If people came to the Palomino to dance, that was fine, you could do that to the jukebox. But the experience of listening to Red was enough to get people in the gate. He was old-fashioned in a way, but he played with such a powerful sense of himself – you just felt you’d seen something big when he played.”
“Oh, Red was just fantastic,” enthuses Bert Jansch, who recorded an entire album with Rhodes and Nesmith in 1974, when, in an unlikely hook up, Nesmith produced the British folk legend’s exquisite LA Turnaround LP.
“Red was a truly fantastic player,” Jansch continues. “I’d never heard pedal steel like that before. And he was a lovely guy. He lived in West Hollywood, which has a bit of a reputation to say the least, he actually had a guitar shop there, where he did a few things for me, so I got to know him quite well. Going to the pub with Red in England was always quite an intriguing situation… But Nesmith, as a producer, really did a great job with that LA Turnaround. All the stuff that he suggested – putting me together with Red in the first place, and then most of the ideas for Red and myself, for Red’s parts of the track, came from Mike. It was the first time I’d played with a pedal steel player, and to me it’s a big learning curve: how do you put certain instruments together, what do you get, what will the sound be? But, as a musician, I will play with anybody that’s of interest. I think Mike Nesmith actually did a fantastic ‘commercial’ job on me, which is very hard to do. I think it’s one of my important albums, definitely.”
For Nesmith, Red Rhodes’s agreeing to join the new group was the deciding factor in going ahead with what he now called The First National Band. Rhodes’s mercurial, increasingly adventurous playing would become the group’s key sound; indeed, Nesmith would continue to collaborate with him until the pedal steel player’s death in 1995.
“Red was willing to try things, “Nesmith says. “He wasn’t avant-garde, but his attitude was willing and open-minded and he developed just extraordinary approaches to chord structure and harmonies and fills. The way he would draw the filigree and curlicue around a song was unique. It sounded country on the one hand, but if you listened closer, you realised, ‘Wait a minute. This guy’s doing something …different.
“And that whole attitude worked great for us, because the music we were doing, at that time, it was just off-beat. There wasn’t any way to peg it. I liked the lushness of Red’s chords, and also the flavor of cocktail music, and Latin tropical motif restaurant muzak – they were all in there as seasonings – and some more influences sort of fell in by accident that I never really intended, but was happy to have. We couldn’t call it country, it wasn’t rock’n’roll. There was no marketing niche, no bin in the record store, no radio, no format. I mean, we were just completely out in the weeds with this.
“I was following a sound in my head. I just love music. I’m drawn to it like a fire on a cold day. And because I didn’t play very well – I wasn’t a trained musician, and I didn’t have a lot music theory – I had to make up things that I could play. That’s how I became a writer. And the more I did that, the more these directions would open up in my head, and the way I knew something was good is when it came out unique, and I hadn’t heard it before. That’s how things bounced in there – it was a kind of mixture of everything that was going on at the time, but from my own point of view. I knew what it was supposed to sound like before I ever actually played it.”
If, for Nesmith, The Monkees had been a whirlwind, The First National Band would be more akin to a flash of lightning: dazzling, but brief, and witnessed by few. All told, the band actually lasted less than a year. But in that time they managed to release three albums, as well as undertake one disastrously misconceived foreign tour that sowed the seeds of their disintegration.
They were up against it from the first. As Nesmith had anticipated, the backlash was underway. 1970 was not a good year to be an ex-Monkee forging a new sound.
“A lot of people in LA’s music community knew Mike was a seriously good songwriter,” Ware says. “But there were some who still thought he was a joke. There was definitely that tribe. One of the first times I noticed that was, we played a date with The Burrito Brothers. They were brand new. And they laughed at us while we were playing. I knew those guys – Bernie Leadon had been in Linda’s band with me – and it was obvious they thought it was funny Mike was who he was: ‘A Monkee.’ They just weren’t paying attention to the music. I think they dismissed it because we weren’t, y’know, openly espousing drugs and swagger. We were just playing. I liked those guys, but it pissed me off.”
Faced with indifference and incomprehension when they ventured out live, the band surged ahead in the studio. Recorded in an extremely short time, drawing on Nesmith’s backlog of unwanted Monkees songs, their three albums – Magnetic South, Loose Salute and Nevada Fighter (known as the “Red, White and Blue trilogy” to aficionados, due to their coded, folksily enigmatic covers: “A careful study of the album covers will give a glimpse into my social and political sentiments at the time,” Nesmith adds) – sound like a damn bursting happily, showcasing both Nesmith’s playful, philosophically-inclined songwriting and his sometimes sardonic, sometimes plaintive Texan drawl.
With Rhodes’ stratospheric pedal steel running through things like a silver thread, Magnetic South set the pace, stirring sharp pop, (“Calico Girlfriend”), southern-fried soul (“Little Red Rider”), brooding psychedelia (“Hollywood”), balls-to-the-wall hootenanny rock (“Mama Nantucket,” with Nesmith’s abandoned old-school cowboy yodelling) and pure Hank Williamsesque Honky Tonk balladeering (“The Keys to the Car”) into one glorious American stew.
It is also a deeply strange record, with layers of detail emerging beneath the very immediate surface. Despite being credited to long-term Elvis producer Felton Jarvis, like all The First National Band records, Magnetic South was produced by Nesmith, who brought everything he’d learned in studios during his Monkees years back home. For the closing track, an unbelievable cover of Hank Cochran’s “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” Nesmith, who’d sat in on to The Beatles’ sessions for “A Day in the Life,” transforms Cochran’s chestnut into an unhinged cosmic epic, replete with cinematic sound effects of a day on the farm, as his vocal builds to an unabashedly impassioned climax.
“Really, the heart and soul of the creative process to me,” Nesmith says about his approach, “is the naturalness of it: the way that things have to happen. Whatever kind of project you’re working on, the actual work is really getting into that creative state and staying there: that place where you have a willingness to just see where the thing is drifting on its own. The rest of it is theory and engineering and technology and skill and talent, and so forth: but the spiritual place, which is the one from which it all flows, is that place of really being open and letting things fall in that naturally and easily fall in.
“For me, there never should feel like a lot of work involved here, it should be playing, in every sense of the word. So the extra elements that made their way in to these records, the quirks and unusualness that one begins to discover under headphones, are not a product of any calculation, not a product of trying to fit with the times or trying to fit with anything. It’s a product of that creative space where, you just sit bolt upright and say, ‘Wow, that sounds just terrific, let’s leave that in there, that’s great.’ It becomes a process of discovery as much as anything else. To me, that process of discovering is a very high state of mind. Every moment is new, everything that’s popping into your head is exciting – of course, some of it’s not very good, and so you have to have the ability to be as tough with the things you don’t like as the things you do. But it really comes down to leaving it alone and letting it happen. Which is what we did.”
“One thing that sticks out in my memory about the recording,” John Ware adds, “is that we consumed vast quantities of beer. I dunno how that started. I mean, we always sucked up the suds when we were playing around the house, but I mean, we really, really poured it down while we were recording. Some of the sessions were kind of sloppy, but somehow they found their way onto the album, and they’re kind of endearing, because I can feel the drunkeness in them.”
Nesmith would continue to push his production as the band progressed: Loose Salute’s shimmering “Tengo Amore,” in particular sounds like it could have been recorded last week. By a cowboy band playing a Latin cocktail lounge in space.
“Yeah, Mike really surprised me as a producer,” Ware says. “He always had the room full of percussion instruments when we showed up. I mean, instruments I’d never even seen before. His attidue was, ‘Here’s the raw track we laid down – now go out and play one of those things over it.’ Uh, okay…Then, you wouldn’t hear the track for a couple of days, and he’d call up and say, ‘Well, I did some stuff, you’re probably not gonna like it.’ Suddenly things would be thrown into deep echoes, or he’d be yodelling… and I’d always listen and then go, ‘Man, that’s goddam great.’ And he’d pretend to be surprised. He thought I would absolutely quit the band over “Joanne,” because my drum track was taken off completely, and this African instrument I’d played as a kind of murmur track had been left on, this 12-note Lujon, and he did those yodels. But I couldn’t get enough of it.”
A ghostly, dusty ballad, “Joanne” surprised everyone by leaping off Magnetic South and gaining heavy radio airplay, soon climbing toward the upper reaches of America’s Billboard chart. A bona fide hit single, it should have set The First National Band on the road to success. The only problem was, for reasons that still baffle Nesmith and Ware to this day, they were unable to capitalise on it – because they found themselves several thousand miles away, tolling up and down the UK’s motorway system, trying to launch themselves via a deeply unlikely tour of the country’s workingmen’s clubs.
“Why did we move to Britain?” Nesmith laughs. “Well, it was a mistake! ‘Joanne’ had started climbing the charts in the US. So – what’s the natural thing to do? Leave the country! This is the suggestion my manager put together in one of his more insane moments. And so, yeah, we went and played these workingmen’s clubs in England, for three or four months. Until that pesky hit record went away.”
“Yeah,” Ware muses. “I think, somehow, our management had the idea that The Monkees weren’t so well known in the UK, so if you wanted to break a new sound, that was the place to go do it. So we went on that premise – there was no expectation of anyone wanting to see us! A strange choice. We were there for months. I mean, it started well. We played The Nashville Rooms in London, and had a press conference and party there and there was a lot of star-power in the room, the guys from Led Zeppelin and Ringo and Jimi Hendrix were all there to support Mike, because they knew him and were friends, and so we thought something was really happening that night.”
“I remember that press conference well,” Nesmith says. “When we got over to the UK to do the first kind of press kick-off, we were in London at a hotel, and RCA, the record company, had put together a little press conference to announce this tour. So, the day of the conference, I said to the RCA promotion man, ‘How’s it going? How has the response been?’ And he said, ‘Uhm. Well. Yeah. We’re…fine! We’ll have… a nice turnout.’ And I could tell he was sweating bullets, that something was just terribly, terribly wrong. And I thought, oh, boy. I’m in trouble now. I’m going to go in there, and we’re gonna have the big display of food for the press – but there’s only going to be three people there, and everybody’s gonna be so embarrassed.
“So we went downstairs – and the place was jammed. Just packed with press. And I looked at the promotion guy, and he kind of looked at me like – “Well, I dunno what’s going on…” And I walked in, and it was really one of those inching your way through people, and holding your drink real close and everything, and I got up and all of a sudden these flash bulbs started going off, pop pop pop, everything was happening, and I looked across the room – and Hendrix walks in. And he comes up to me and gives me a hug, and it was really great to see him again, and he said, ‘I heard you were having a press conference, I wanted to come and say hi.’ And then the flash bulbs start going off again and I look up and Ringo walks in the door, and he comes up and he gives me a hug and says hello, and the press gather round him and they start asking what’s going with this, what’s going on with that – and he says, ‘Oh, no, no, no, This is Michael’s press conference for his band, we’re not talking about The Beatles.’
“And it turned out that the press guy had called up some of his friends and said, ‘I’m dying over here, nobody’s coming to Nesmith’s press conference, and I dunno what I’m gonna do, it’s a wreck…’ And somehow, it filtered out, and Jimi and Ringo heard about it, and came out, so that people would show up. And that was very touching. I still think on that with great fondness. Jimi died just a few days later. It was kind of like: there was this past, these wonderful connections that I had made, and I had to go out there on my own now. That was fine, I was going to have to go out there and play the clubs, do that thing that one does when one is a musician, and it’s not a chore, but it’s part of the hard work – and I had this tremendous support from other musicians, other players. Just that tremendous generosity of spirit that Ringo and Jimi both expressed for me that day, I’ll never forget that.”
“But that was pretty much it,” Ware continues. “From there we went up north around England, into Scotland, down into the bowels of Wales. Oh yeah. And we saw some rough places, stone floors, no band stand, just setting up on the floor. But, in some cases, they liked it. Because, Mike’s a singer y’know, and we really played. Many of the people in those audiences had only heard a pedal steel guitar on records, so they were pretty amazed at seeing Red and what a guy could do sitting at a table. But, well, yeah: they weren’t exactly rushing the stage…”
“I look back on it and laugh at the absurdity,” Nesmith says. “But it was a cataclysmic blunder. Just flat-out stupid. I mean, I loved playing those clubs in their own way, it was kind of cool, they reminded me of some of the honky-tonk type places. The audiences, it was mostly the morbidly curious. It was working men, and they certainly weren’t on for giving any kind of deference to any semi-celebrity yesterday’s TV star, so that throws you back on your chops. I enjoyed it in a way.
“Only thing was, I became obsessed with keeping the rain spots and road grime off of the windshield. We were travelling everywhere by car, and that became my pastime, as the days drug on. I’d find myself stopping at every other grocery store buying boxes and boxes of baking soda to pour on the windshield to get rid of the grease. Then we’d pull out into the traffic, and there it was again, that little streak…I remember thinking, after about the eighth or ninth box of baking soda: ‘This may be nuts. This might actually be a species of real insanity growing here, I maybe better stop this.’”
By the time they made it back to the US in the winter of 1971, any momentum “Joanne” had gathered was long gone. When their record company booked The First National Band on a package tour made up of acts who had all had hit singles in previous years, things started to fall apart.
“First “Joanne” had become a radio hit in the US, and we totally missed that,” Ware recalls. “Then, when we got back, and we started to do a few shows in the US, it was almost as though the record was already an oldie. So we went out that summer on The Cavalcade of Stars, which was all people who had had a hit the year before. We had had our hit that year, but it was back in the February or March of the year, and we were out in August or something, playing that Cavalcade with Tony Orlando. It was just ridiculous, we shouldn’t have been doing it, but the record company wanted to exposure. So we played dates. But it wasn’t about us, it was about supporting the record company’s ideas.”
The situation came to a head during the recording of their final album, Nevada Fighter, whose churning, militant title track might be the band’s finest moment. Before the record was finished, Ware and London had departed. Listened to today, it almost seems as though the band split up midway through the record, in the pause as you flip the sides.
“That’s exactly what happened,” Ware says. “When we got back off of that last tour – the only real tour we ever did of the US – we were angry at each other. I mean, trying to crank out three albums in a year: that’s a lot. Y’know, Mike’s trick is, he always makes you think that you dreamed it up, whatever it is. When it’s clearly his idea. By the time we tried to do Nevada Fighter, that trick was wasn’t working at all. Red was growing, he was wanting to play more weird stuff, I was falling back into listening to R&B records, I wanted to go in one direction, Red wanted to go in another direction, Mike had his own pretty firm idea…What we’d had at first, it just went away. Which is why I quit.”
Nesmith sees the reason for the band’s demise slightly differently. “In my mind, it was very simple – we just weren’t drawing an audience. Nobody was coming to see us play. Put it this way, I’ve been in situations, with The Monkees most obviously, where people have had the most bitter creative differences. But then they stand and watch an audience come in, and when the audience starts cheering, suddenly everybody in the band starts standing shoulder to shoulder. That kind of success heals all wounds or differences. And I think that would have happened to The First National Band, if we had we had had that mandate, But we didn’t have the mandate – and we still don’t.”
Within a year of The First National Band’s dissolution, Nesmith and Rhodes, augmented by several members of Elvis’ touring band and, oddly enough, Jose Feliciano, returned with The Second National Band, a markedly different proposition. Unveiling a denser, heavier sound, their album Tantamount To Treason veered toward a kind of country-prog, Rhodes unleashing some stratospherically strange playing, particularly on a glorious cover of Richard Stekol’s “Wax Minute.”
As Nesmith embarked on a series of idiosyncratic solo albums across the 1970s, he and Rhodes would continue to collaborate, most sublimely when the pair worked alone on 1972’s And the Hits Just Keep On Comin’ a stripped-back, acoustic masterpiece. In the 1980s, however, Nesmith began to become better known for his non-musical work. Such as when, famously, he put together a package of music promo clips, took the idea to the Nickelodeon cable network, and invented MTV. Elsewhere, as a movie producer, he gave the world Alex Cox’s punk classic, Repo Man.
Since 1990, using money he inherited from his mother – who really did invent typewriter correction fluid – he has hosted the Council On Ideas, a gathering of leading thinkers invited to brainstorm solutions to world problems. Heavily involved in the internet since its earliest years, he spent a lot of time working on his website, videoranch.com, a virtual world that was at the cutting edge of presenting live music online. Meanwhile, he has written a novel, The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamorra and, occasionally, continued to release music: 2006 saw his first album in fourteen years, Rays, which, awash in keyboards, electronica and Latin rhythms, sees him continuing to push his sonic experimentation.
In a long career, Nesmith’s year with The First National Band now seems like a flash on the horizon in his rearview mirror. He’s both proud of the records the band made, and bemused by the stubborn cult that has since grown up around them.
“You know, those records…they never really saw the light of day,” Nesmith says, “and, frankly, I don’t think they ever will. Not in my lifetime. I’m not sure why. Nor am I sure why they’re held in such regard by the few who do know them. That part I really don’t understand either. I remember them fondly – but I don’t listen to them much anymore, because…That was then, this is now.”
“Occasionally, I get contacted by people I don’t know who are just devoted fans of that music,” John Ware adds. “It used to strike me as just curious, but now, I guess it results in a certain amount of pride. I liked that music then – and I like it even more now. Considering it was 1969, 1970 that was some damn inventive music. And pretty brave music. Almost suicidally brave. Really, when you think about “Beyond the Blue Horizon” – that actually was suicidal. But it’s great. Nobody, nobody was doing that. I mean, you can say that Wild Man Fischer was brave because nobody was doing what he was doing. But so what? It’s not enough just to be brave, it has to have some musical legs. And I’ll tell you: The First National Band damn well does.”