by Randal Hill
Q: What do “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Give Peace a Chance” and “Last Train to Clarksville” all have in common?
A: During the 1960s, each became a million-selling anti-war song.
Wait a minute! A teenybopper Monkees hit belongs on that contentious list? Yes, and soon you too will be saying, “I’m a believer.”
In September 1965, both Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter ran an unusual advertisement:
Madness! Auditions. Folk and Roll Musicians – Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for four insane boys, age 17 -21.
Included among the tryout hopefuls were Stephen Stills (later of Crosby, Stills and Nash), Danny Hutton (later of Three Dog Night) and—supposedly but never verified—mass murderer Charles Manson. From the 437 applicants, coveted roles went to musicians/non-actors Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork, and actors/non-musicians Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz.
The quartet was hired to ape the Beatles’ zany antics in their debut movie A Hard Day’s Night. (Writer Barney Hoskyns once declared the advent of the Monkees “post-moptop surrealism for pre-teens, with great songs thrown in as part of the package.”)
And great songs they often were. Songwriting partners Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart composed the “manufactured” band’s first single. “Last Train to Clarksville” took its chord structure, “jangly” guitar sound and tight vocal harmonies directly from the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” from earlier in 1966. In fact, Hart had thought that Paul McCartney was singing something about a “last train” rather than “paperback writer” at the song’s fadeout. Knowing that The Monkees was to be a music/comedy TV show in the style of A Hard Day’s Night, Boyce and Hart figured they couldn’t go wrong emulating the Fab Four.
The songwriting pair wanted a simple title that would be easy for fans to remember. On songfacts.com, Bobby Hart explained, “We were just looking for a name that sounded good. There’s a little town in northern Arizona I used to go through called Clarksdale. We were throwing out names, and when we got to Clarksdale, we thought Clarksville sounded even better.”
Boyce and Hart both opposed the Vietnam War, and they wanted the first Monkees “45” to include their take on the conflict. But both writers knew they had to exercise caution. “We couldn’t be too direct with the Monkees,” Hart admitted later. “We really couldn’t make a protest song out of it. We kind of snuck it in.” In the tune’s story line, a young soldier pleads with his girlfriend to say goodbye at a train station. He knows he may die in the war, hence the downbeat, often-repeated line: I don’t know if I’m ever coming home.
The Monkees debuted on NBC-TV in September 1966, and “Last Train to Clarksville” on the Colgems label rocketed to Number One within weeks. While Boyce and Hart would also write the group’s sixth and final hit (“Valleri”), only the first of the Monkees tunes offered up a serious (if subtle) anti-war statement.