If you've ever sung Hey, Hey, We're The Monkees, you've got songwriter Bobby Hart to thank. As half of the successful songwriting team of Boyce And Hart, Bobby helped create the sound of America's answer to the British Invasion, allowing The Monkees to outsell The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined in 1967. Bobby's Top Ten songs include "Come A Little Bit Closer", "Hurt So Bad", "Last Train To Clarksville", "Valleri" and "I Wonder What She's Doin' Tonight". Rolling Stone has it that Boyce And Hart wrote more than 300 songs, selling more than 42 million records in the process. For Bobby Hart, the Grammy, Golden Globe and Academy Award nominated composer, that translates to almost $100 million in sales as a singer, songwriter and producer. Bobby Hart has told his story in his new book, Psychedelic Bubble Gum: Boyce And Hart, The Monkees, And Turning Mayhem Into Miracles. (Select Books Inc.)
It's a real honor to speak with one of the most celebrated songwriters of the 20th Century, Mr. Bobby Hart!
Q - Bobby, it's the strangest thing; when you watch a movie from the past, you'll say this isn't as good as I remember it.
A - Yeah.
Q - But when you hear a song like "Last Train To Clarksville", you hear things that you didn't hear before. In fact, the song sounds even better. So, what's going on?
A - (laughs) I don't know. It's a strange phenomenon. I know what you mean. Sometimes I have the same feeling, to know that this music we wrote fifty years ago still has meaning and value to people today. It's quite amazing to me. The songs we produced for The Monkees, we used my band, The Candy Store Prophets, and augmented it with a couple of guitar players named Louie Shelton and Wayne Erwin, and Tommy and I also played and sang background on 'em. It was a different sound than we would've gotten if we had used The Wrecking Crew guys, the regular studio guys that played on almost everything else. We loved those guys and we did use them on other sessions for other artists, but The Monkees, it really was a garage band and one that Tommy and I played with in one form or another for four or five years.
Q - In the 1960s, songwriters really had to be creative. There was a beginning, a middle, and an end to a song, lyric wise. Whether you're talking about The Beatles, The Rascals or you guys, you had to one-up yourself every time you came up with a song. Would you agree with that?
A - I would agree and it was also a time when there were songwriters who did nothing more than write songs for artists who didn't write songs for themselves. Tommy and I had our first success in New York. I came from Phoenix to Los Angeles at 18, but I met Tommy when we were the same age and we became friends out here (California), but then we had a chance to go to New York and had our first success back there with "Come A Little Bit Closer" by Jay And The Americans and a Chubby Checker record and Little Anthony And The Imperials. We got signed to Screen Gems Columbia Music and came back to the West Coast in 1965. We were just set up with all these projects and basicially at that point were seeing ourselves as short order cooks if you will. Whatever was needed and whenever it was needed. If Paul Revere And The Raiders were coming up to record in three days and they needed a record, we would do something that we thought would sound like a Paul Revere And The Raiders record and demo it and get it to them in three days. That was our life in 1965.
Q - Where does the ability to write a hit song come from? Can you explain it? On page 101 of your book, you and Tommy are walking down the street and you wrote The Monkees theme song!
A - Right.
Q - You didn't know who The Monkees were because they hadn't been cast yet!
A - They hadn't been cast.
Q - But, that song suited the show.
A - Yeah. We knew it was going to be four guys with long hair. We knew there was not going to be a mother or father or an authority figure on the show. We knew that nothing like this had been on network television before. So we had some guidelines we wanted to accomplish as far as making them seem unthreatening to the parents of these kids that were going to fall in love with them. I can't tell you exactly why, but we were walking down the street at the time, to a little park where we were going to write. Tommy's got his guitar. I'm snapping my fingers. Tommy just started out; Here We Come, Walking Down The Street, 'cause that's what we were doing. (laughs) But there was a method to our madness. When we finished the lyric, we knew the certain elements we wanted to include in there.
Q - Who was writing the music and who was writing the lyrics?
A - This is kind of the answer to your last question and this question. For six years we had written separately. I wrote by myself. Tommy wrote by himself. We were on separate coasts for a couple of years. So we both were honing our craft. You said how do you do it? Well, nobody's that great at something the first time they try it. You just continue to do it until you get better. And so, when Tommy and I got together as serious songwriting partners, we brought that to the table. I could write melodies and lyrics and he could write melodies and lyrics. We just had a lot of fun bouncing ideas off each other.
Q - You thought Tommy was a great melody writer and he thought you were a brilliant lyricist. Correct?
A - Well, we got pegged that way a little bit later on because Screen Gems at one point, Screen Gems Columbia Music had been Nevins Kirshner Music, which was the biggest, most successful Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building situation that a music publisher had ever been. All those teams back then, Gerry Goffin And Carole King and Barry Mann And Cynthia Weil, they were all segmented in that way. One wrote melodies and one wrote lyrics. So, at one point, Lester Sills of Screen Gems said, "I'm bringing out some of the guys from New York to write with you guys. I'm gonna split you up. (laughs) And so he had me write with melody writers and he had Tommy write with a lyricist. I remember when Tommy wrote a song with Howie Greenfield, who had written so many hits with Neil Sedaka and Jack Kellar. Tommy just couldn't stop himself from making suggestions lyrically. Howie said, "Don't talk to me about lyrics. Don't tell me that! That's my job. You just give me a melody." (laughs) I learned pretty quickly that I could write a lyric to somebody else's melody.
Q - You and Tommy had a regular table at The Whiskey A Go Go.
A - (laughs)
Q - You would come in to hear The Doors. What'd you think of Jim Morrison?
A - This was a whole new wave of music when we got out here. It was the perfect timing when we came back to L.A. in 1965. It was just the beginning of Psychedelic music coming on to the scene. By the time Hendrix hit in '67, that started to go nationwide. In those days, it was just before what we called the "Summer Of Love", which I guess was '67. Even late '65, '66, there were throngs of kids jamming the Sunset Strip and spilling out into the streets.
Q - What year would you have seen The Doors at The Whiskey?
A - '65, '66. I'm just guessing. That's what I'm remembering. It wasn't just The Doors, it was Arthur Lee and Love. It was a bunch of groups that were starting to use feedback sounds from the guitar as a production tool. So, we started in our demos using what we were hearing. We were fascinated by the differences in sounds between the East Coast music scene and the West Coast music scene in '65. We were here just at the right time to be able to incorporate some of those sounds to Indian instruments and so on to the music we were making.
Q - Do you specifically remember seeing The Doors?
A - Yes.
Q - Do you remember thinking, "What is this?"
A - Yeah. It was not so much the psychedelic part of it, but it was a whole different kind of a sound 'cause you had that great Ray Manzarek with that tremendous classical background and you mix that with the raucousness of a Rock 'n' Roll band and that was a whole different kind of sound. We were fascinated by it.
Q - Did you ever meet Jim Morrison?
A - No. We never met him. They weren't there that long. They were there for a week or two at the time and then there would be all these other groups that we would be watching and learning what we could from them.
Q - You really were in a time and place that can never be duplicated or re-created. It was maybe like Paris in the 1920s for writers.
A - (laughs) Yeah.
Q - Hollywood, in the '30s for movies.
A - That's a good comparison. I like that, Paris in the '20s.
Q - I believe I'm right about that. To be in Los Angeles in the 1960s with Rock 'n' Roll groups all around you, it must have been very exciting.
A - It was a very fertile time for music. I agree we'll never see that kind of music again. There'll always be good music coming out and creativity certainly doesn't have the '60s under under the copyright of creativity. It was a special time. I looked recently at a Billboard Top 100 sheet that I'd torn out in the '60s. If you look at the Top Ten or the Top Twenty, people today would know maybe half of those songs still. I don't know if that's going to be the case fifty years from now, if people will be able to sing any of the Top Twenty songs that are happening today. I think it's largely because there was a system in place that was called music publishing. Today we still have music publishing of course, but it's totally different. In those days they would sign writers and they gave Tommy and I a chance. They gave us $100 a week to live on. They gave us a chance to get better, to learn how to produce records by making demos of our songs. That doesn't really exist today other than possibly in Nashville a little bit. Today, publishers sign usually the big artists, the successful artists and the successful producers so they don't have to go out and get records recorded. They already signed the artist that's going to record the songs. So, we had that wonderful opportunity to get better at what we were doing. Today, an artist is expected to write, expected to be in the studio, be on the road, doing videos, doing interviews. We did all of that of course, but today there's just no time for them to consider themselves as just songwriters and learn the craft.
Q - Isn't also the fact that you don't have the Top 40 radio format, AM stations, which played such a diversity of music. That no longer exists. Record labels are not what they used to be. Hardly any local promoters anymore. To see a top rated act like Herb Alpert in 1966, the ticket price was $3.50
A - Oh, yeah.
Q - And into the '70s you could see name acts for $5.00 to $6.00 a ticket. Today, ticket prices have risen dramatically. I don't see how anybody can afford to see a concert anymore.
A - Then the other part of the music business is the delivery systems, which now they tell me even CDs are dead. It's just downloads. I think they've run it into the ground too much. They had a good thing going there for a number of years, decades. They said, okay, vinyl is dead. Now you gotta get an 8 track tape. That's over. Now you gotta get a cassette. That's over. Now you gotta get a CD. Every time you do that you have records that you love, you'd have albums that you'd love, you'd go out and buy 'em again. (laughs) So, they have a great thing going on. Now they've totally lost control. With downloads we hardly make anything from those. Unless you're out there and touring and making money on the road, you can't really make a living as a songwriter.
Q - I don't even know how you can make a living on the road. Touring is expensive. Prices are through the roof for everything unless maybe you're Bruce Springsteen.
A - Those top ten acts will do great. I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about somebody who wants to break in. I'm not saying they're not doing it. You have tools you didn't have then. You've got YouTube and very diverse places you can be seen and heard. There's all kinds of music that can have a chance and yet it's difficult for one person to reach that status.
Q - And so, what is next on your agenda?
A - There's a Boyce And Hart documentary that's not available yet that's being screened in certain select venues while they're still worrying about getting the money to pay for the music and all the licensing and so on. It's a fun film. I turned over my home movies I had on a 16 millimeter camera in the '60s while this was all going on. It's not about your talking heads. You don't see a lot of old guys on screen. You just hear their voices. Mickey (Dolenz), Peter (Tork), and Michael (Nesmith) are interviewed and a few others. I narrate it. It's a fun 90 minute piece.
Q - Is this something that's going to be a theatrical release or shown on something like HBO?
A - I'm sure yet. I don't know if it will go theatrical. What they'd like to do is maybe get it on Netflix. My book publisher wants to shop it to P.B.S. They just had one of their other books used for a Pledge Drive week. So, I would have the book and the DVD of the documentary and some music CDs. They could put a Pledge Drive together with that. First of all they've got to get the thing licensed. I've got a small, little re-issue label in London releasing for the first time a CD, an album that I did in 1978, a solo album. I talk to them once in a while.
Q - Did you ever encounter Bobby Fuller during the time you were in L.A.?
A - No, I don't think I ever met him, but I loved his record, "I Fought The Law". In fact, I covered it with, produced it with an artist named Sam Neeley in the '70s. Did a good version of it.
Q - July, 2016 will mark the 50th anniversary of Bobby's passing, or should I say mysterious death.
A - I knew Bob Keane (Bobby Fuller's record label owner) when I first came to L.A. as an 18-year-old trying to break in. I knew him from Del-Fi Records, his little offices and studio on Vine Street, off of Sunset.
Q - I'm glad you didn't sign with him. You might not be alive today.
A - (laughs)
Q - Look at his artist roster; Bobby Fuller, Sam Cooke, Ritchie Valens. I don't know if that's coincidence or not.