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In 1965 an advertisement appeared in US publications Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter: “Madness!! Auditions. Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running Parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21.”
From these auditions emerged The Monkees, four young men whose records would, for a while, outsell the combined might of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. In an age of singer-songwriters, artistic credibility and emotional authenticity, The Monkees were unashamedly plastic, the original manufactured boy band.
Their first single, “Last Train to Clarksville”, written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, reached number one in the US. Its follow-up, “I’m a Believer”, was the work of a young New York songwriter-for-hire, Neil Diamond, who had initially tried to place it with country singer Eddie Arnold, as well as recording it himself.
With its nifty guitar intro, catchy keyboard riff (all played by session musicians) and upbeat chorus, the song was an instant hit for The Monkees in 1966; Diamond also had some success the following year with his own version of the song, whose appeal lies in its irresistibly innocent, romantic, epiphanic chorus.
The Monkees, meanwhile, fought back against the corporate machine and eventually got to play and write their own material, culminating in a strange but sporadically entertaining 1969 concept album called The Monkees Present.
Fast-forward to the early 1970s. Robert Wyatt, an English musician, was making a name as drummer with a proggy, jazzy outfit called Soft Machine. Then, in 1973, at a party in London, Wyatt fell out of a fourth-floor window and was paralysed from the waist down.
Drumming, clearly, was now too physically challenging, so he announced his return to the music scene the following year as a singer, with his totally unexpected rendition of “I’m a Believer”. Wyatt’s 1974 appearance on the BBC’s Top of the Pops is one of the show’s great unforgettable “moments”.
The programme’s producers had tried to persuade him out of his wheelchair and into a regular chair; he refused, and there he sat, rocking gently from side to side, his frail voice and his London accent bringing new meaning and emotional depth to the song’s lyric: here was a man, the song said, who believed in life. (His band on Top of the Pops, incidentally, included Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason on drums and Andy Summers, later of The Police, on acoustic guitar.) Wyatt’s version was a triumph, and showed that it was not always essential to have written a song for it to be authentic, personal and emotional.
But to anyone under the age of 30, “I’m a Believer” is associated not with Wyatt, Diamond, or The Monkees, but with an animated ogre. 2001’s Shrek film, the first in a franchise, introduced a new generation to the song; the film’s fairytale wedding finale between Shrek and Princess Fiona features a pumped-up, steroidal version sung by California rock band Smash Mouth, with contributions from Eddie Murphy.
Finally, in 2008, the song came full circle as Neil Diamond recorded a stripped-down acoustic version for his Dreams album. His rendition on the BBC’s Jools Holland show is exquisite, Diamond’s gravelly delivery ripe with the wisdom of experience. Contestants on TV talent shows these days are often told by the judges (usually Louis Walsh) that they have “owned” a song. “You took that song and made it your own,” is the mantra. Diamond, of course, having written the song, already “owned” it; but here he repossessed it.