The Monkees formed in 1966 as the American answer to The Beatles. The LA group started initially by creating music for the TV programme of the same name. After receiving a great deal of attention, the group, consisting of Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork and English actor/singer Davy Jones, decided to pursue a more forthright music career.
They became exceedingly successful in rebranding Beatlemania for the US, with many of their photographs from the mid-1960s showing familiar cheeky smiles under shiny mops of hair.
From listening to the Monkees’ music, it isn’t difficult to conceive that they took much of their inspiration from The Beatles. But the group once admitted that one of their number one hits, ‘Last Train to Clarksville’, was directly influenced by three different Beatles hits.
Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart co-wrote a number of The Monkees’ tracks, including the band’s original television theme song and ‘Valleri’. In a 2015 memoir, Hart explained the origin of ‘Last Train to Clarksville’. “We fashioned a storyline about a soldier heading off to face combat and an uncertain future,” Hart wrote. “Frantically, he was trying to arrange train transportation for a rendezvous to see the girl he loved for what could very well be the last time.”
After conceiving the concept for ‘Last Train to Clarksville’, Boyce and Hart booked a studio to perfect the track instrumentally. Initially, they gathered some musicians to draft the track, including guitarist Louis Shelton. Hart asked the group to draw influence from The Beatles’ ‘Day Tripper’. “After we showed them the basic tempo and groove and sang the song down a couple of times, I told the guys, ‘Now we need a great intro, a guitar riff, maybe something like ‘Day Tripper.’”
“Usually our three guitar players would vie to come up with the missing ingredients by playing us their respective ideas, and often we would work all three into the arrangement,” Hart recalled. “But this day Louie Shelton’s iconic reply, ‘How ’bout this one,’ led immediately into his playing the signature riff that fans around the world for nearly five decades have identified most closely with ‘Last Train to Clarksville.’”
The lyrics of ‘Last Train to Clarksville’, which read “take the last train”, came about when Hart recalled The Beatles’ ‘Paperback Writer’ and incorrectly thought they were singing “take the last train”. When he realised later that they hadn’t been singing the words he had misheard, he decided to use them to form the lyrics that would become ‘Last Train to Clarksville’.
The lyrics also took inspiration from the Beatles in another convoluted way. In the early 1960s, one of The Beatles’ most famous hooks was “yeah, yeah, yeah”, as heard in the chorus of ‘She Loves You’. Inspired by this, yet not wanting to copy directly, Hart opted for the contradicting hook “no, no, no”.
The song is indeed one of the most Beatlesque of the ‘60s hits that weren’t actually by the Beatles. It seemed to strike a chord with the American population who, at the time, had been wondering why the British invasion had little competition on the other side of the Atlantic. ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ became The Monkees’ first number-one single on the Billboard Hot 100, remaining in the top spot for a week.
Listen to ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ by The Monkees below.