Mike Nesmith wrote this song in 1964, two years before he joined the made-for-TV group The Monkees. At the time, he was developing his skills as a folk singer - a far cry from the Hollywood-enhanced shenanigans and high-gloss pop songs The Monkees were known for. In 1965, he met John Herald, guitarist for a bluegrass/folk group called The Greenbriar Boys. They played songs for each other, and Herald loved "Different Drum." He brought it to his group, slowed down the tempo, and released it on the group's 1966 album Better Late Than Never! Linda Ronstadt heard this version and recorded it with her group The Stone Poneys (named after the Charlie Patton song "Stone Pony Blues), which is by far the best-known version of the song.
Like "Me And Bobby McGee
," this is a song written and originally recorded by a guy that switched genders when a female recorded it. With a male narrator, the girl is tying him down, and he has to leave her to strike out on his own. With Ronstadt singing it, the girl become the one who is reigned in, and leaves her man so she can do her own thing. Notice that she ends up describing the guy as "pretty," which makes a lot more sense when it was Nesmith singing about a girl.
In this song, Ronstadt is ready to bail on a relationship, claiming they are very different people and she doesn't want to be tied down to one person anyway. It's a variation of both the "I want to see other people" and the "It's not you, it's me" breakups. Mike Nesmith wrote it in character - he was newly married and his wife was pregnant.
The Monkees were given very little control of their musical output, which didn't sit well with Mike Nesmith, who found out after he joined the ensemble that session musicians would be playing on their albums and hired guns would write their songs. Nesmith was a talented performer and songwriter, and he proved it with this tune, which he pitched for The Monkees. He explained in 1971: "Most of the songs I did write, they didn't want, so on the last few albums I didn't contribute much in the way of material. I took them 'Different Drum' and they said all it needed was a hook. They asked me to change it and told me it was a stiff."
The Stone Poneys were a folk trio of Ronstadt, Kenny Edwards and Bobby Kimmel. They released their first album earlier in 1967, and it went nowhere. This song was included on their second album, Evergreen Volume 2
, later that year and appeared to be headed toward a similar fate. In dire financial straits, the band was driving to a meeting with their record company when their car broke down on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles. At the gas station where they ended up, they heard this song playing on the radio - it had been added to the playlist at KRLA-AM, a huge station in LA. Suddenly, they had a hit on their hands.
Their fortunes improved, but the song only took them so far. After one more charting single ("Up To My Neck In High Muddy Water" - #93) the band broke up. Ronstadt went solo and charted a few minor hits from 1970-1974, but landed a #1 in 1975 with "You're No Good
," launching her to stardom.
Bobby Kimmel did most of the songwriting in The Stone Poneys, who generally shared vocals like Peter, Paul and Mary. These songs rarely suited Linda Ronstadt's voice, but when she heard "Different Drum" by The Greenbriar Boys, she thought it was a perfect fit and a great opportunity to take a lead vocal.
Fittingly, this song was far different than previous Stone Poneys material, and the male members of the group, Kenny Edwards and Bobby Kimmel, didn't even play on it. Ronstadt envisioned the song as an acoustic piece, but their producer, Nick Venet, had different ideas. When the group showed up for the three-song session at Capitol Records' Studio B in Los Angeles, there were a number of studio musicians there. Edwards and Kimmel played on two of the songs, but when it came time to record "Different Drum," they watched from the control room as the seasoned studio pros worked up the song under Venet's direction. Among the musicians:
Don Randi - harpsichord
Al Viola - guitar
Jimmy Bond - bass
Jim Gordon - drums
There was also a string section conducted by Sid Sharp. Gordon and Randi also played on many of the Monkees recordings in place of the actual group.
Ronstadt did one run-through of the song before recording her vocal, start to finish, in the next take. As she developed her vocal talents, she came to hate the way she sounded on the song. "Today I will break my finger trying to get that record off when it's on," she said in the 2016 book Anatomy of a Song. "Everyone hears something in that song - a breakup, the antiwar movement, women's lib. I hear a fear and a lack of confidence on my part. It all happened so fast that day."
The Monkees were in their second (and final) season when this song reached its chart peak in January 1968. Mike Nesmith heard it for the first time on a Philadelphia radio station when the group was riding together in a limousine.
Nesmith recorded this himself in 1972 on a solo album called And The Hits Just Keep On Comin'. Nesmith had a substantial solo output after The Monkees TV series was canceled.