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This was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, a songwriting team who came up with many songs for the Monkees. They also wrote songs for Chubby Checker and Jay & the Americans.
Boyce and Hart wrote this as a protest to the Vietnam War. They had to keep this quiet in order to get it recorded, but it is about a guy who gets drafted and goes to fight in the war. The train is taking him to an army base, and he knows he may die in Vietnam. At the end of the song he states, "I don't know if I'm ever coming home."
Bobby Hart said of writing this song: "We were just looking for a name that sounded good. There's a little town in Northern Arizona I used to go through in the summer on the way to Oak Creek Canyon called Clarksdale. We were throwing out names, and when we got to Clarksdale, we thought Clarksville sounded even better. We didn't know it at the time, [but] there is an Air Force base near the town of Clarksville, Tennessee - which would have fit the bill fine for the story line. We couldn't be too direct with The Monkees. We couldn't really make a protest song out of it - we kind of snuck it in."
Hart got the idea for the lyrics when he turned on the radio and heard the end of The Beatles' "Paperback Writer." He thought Paul McCartney was singing "Take the last train," and decided to use the line when he found out McCartney was actually singing "Paperback Writer." Hart knew that The Monkees TV series was pitched as a music/comedy series in the spirit of The Beatles movie A Hard Day's Night, so he knew emulating The Beatles would be a winner. To do that, he made sure to put a distinctive guitar riff in this song, and wrote in the "Oh No-No-No, Oh No-No-No" lyrics as a response to the Beatles famous "Yeah Yeah Yeah."
The Monkees didn't play on this. The four members of the group were chosen from over 400 applicants to appear on a TV show based on The Beatles movie A Hard Day's Night
. The show was about a fictional band, so the members were chosen more for their looks and acting ability than for their musical talent. Session musicians played on their albums, usually some combination of Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, James Burton, David Gates, Carol Kaye
, Jim Gordon and Hal Blaine. According to Kaye, who played bass on this track, her bassline was inspired by Ragtime music.
This was The Monkees' first single. It was released shortly after their TV show started on NBC and got a lot of publicity as a result. The Monkees followed this up with another hit, "I'm A Believer," and had several more hits before their show was canceled in 1968. Eventually, the group wrote their own songs and played their own instruments. (thanks to Lucy at Monkeeland.com
for helping us out)
When this song was released as a single, it went straight to #1, knocking "96 Tears
" by ? & the Mysterians down to #2. (thanks, Tommy - flower mound, TX)
The Monkees took a lot of heat when they became successful recording artists without playing on their songs. Their drummer Micky Dolenz explained in The Wrecking Crew film: "I think there was a lot of resentment in the recording industry that we’d come out of nowhere, left field, and sort of just shot right to the top without having to kind of go through the ropes. The music industry back then was pretty crooked, and some people say even to this day. And I didn’t know at the time anything about the business end of it, but all of the sudden, the radio stations, the rack jobbers, the distributors, all these people that had a lot of power at that time - all of the sudden, they had to start playing the Monkees songs; they had to start racking them, they had to start distributing them. They had no choice. It was just so huge because of the television show. And that’s the first time anything like that had ever happened. And I think that probably created a lot of resentment."
There is a certain lyrical dissonance in this song, as the upbeat music is contrasted with lyrics about being shipped off to war. Carol Kaye
, who played bass on the session, told us, "The tempo of the tune was a good tempo. And that's the main thing is to keep that tempo going. Back in the '60s, you're playing for people who dance. And if the tempo is 1-2-3-4, that's a dance tempo. So you're going to keep the tempo up, that's important. So no, the mood of the song is not critical if the tempo is high, if the tempo is fast. If it's slow, yeah, it's kind of critical, and it depends upon how much is happening in the tune, too."