I was in a local Key Food supermarket the other day when the ’60s classic “Different Drum” featuring Linda Ronstadt came blasting through the store’s sound system. I stopped right there in the produce aisle and just listened with wonder, yes, and admiration. The song has always been a favorite of mine and I had completely forgotten about it.
The moment I got home, I went to add it to my Spotify list but it was nowhere to be found. Of course! Because it was not a Linda Ronstadt song–it was released when she was the lead singer of the Stone Poneys.
As I listened again and again, I gained more and more respect for whomever wrote this gem. It’s a minor masterpiece, not just the melody but the lyrics and pretty much everything about it. Like Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows,” “Different Drum” is a perfect song.
I began to wonder who wrote it and if he or she had written anything else. I knew it probably was not Ronstadt who was more an interpreter of songs. As an aside, it’s always bothered me that, while we go overboard in our critiques of novels and films, we rarely give the same treatment to pop songs (outside of the Beatles), songs that hit us on a visceral level and still do.
Thanks to the internet, I didn’t have to look too far to learn that “Different Drum” was written by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees. In fact, he offered it to the producers of the TV show who sniffed that it was not a Monkees’ song.
Instead, he gave it to a group called the Greenbriar Boys whose slowed-down, folk-style recording doesn’t have any of the magic that Ronstadt brought to the song. Actually, it was producer Nik Venet–credited with discovering the Beach Boys–who heard the song and thought it should be arranged differently and made more commercial.
When Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys arrived to record the song, Venet had a surprise in store. Not only the new arrangement but he told the rest of the Poneys, very much a folk group, that they would not be playing on the record. Venet had studio musicians standing by and ready. Ronstadt had only minutes to figure out the way she would sing it.
Let’s just say, she nailed it. Incredibly, the song only made it to No. 13 on the Billboard charts but it made Ronstadt a star. The Stone Poneys wound up not appearing on the group’s biggest hit and Mike Nesmith stuck with the Monkees although he wrong many other songs, many quite good.
Even he has acknowledged that Ronstadt gave the song something special because she was singing from the female perspective. The rest is rock history.