On Aug. 16, 1966, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork - the foursome known collectively as The Monkees - released “Last Train to Clarksville,” not only their first single but also their first No. 1 hit.
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Composed by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, the songwriting duo whose contributions were as invaluable to The Monkees’ success as the band’s sales figures were to Boyce & Hart’s bank accounts, “Last Train to Clarksville” was recorded at RCA Victor Studio B in Hollywood on July 25, 1966 and released less than a month later, if that gives you an idea how quickly things were moving for the group at the time.
Was it written about Clarksville, Tennessee, as has been said many times in the past? It was not. According to Hart, he had originally referenced Clarksdale in the lyrics, having recalled a town in northern Arizona that he’d passed on his way to Oak Creek Canyon once upon a time, but it became Clarksville by the time all was said and done.
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There’s also another longstanding lingering story about “Last Train” that people often ask about: was it really a protest song about a soldier going off to Vietnam?
Well, in his 1993 autobiography, I’m a Believer: My Life of Monkees, Music, and Madness, Micky described it as “an antiwar song about a soldier going off to war,” a position he’d already confidently offered up in a 1987 Entertainment Tonight interview. If you watch the clip, though, you’ll notice that Peter makes a point of clarifying that, although he’d heard that it was an anti-war song, he’d never actually heard the Vietnam aspect confirmed by Boyce or Hart themselves, while the late Davy Jones can actually be heard to say, “Oh, I get it now! I never realized that before!”
So what’s the truth of the matter?
Admittedly, the Internet is filled with pages which reference a quote attributed to Hart in which he explains that “we couldn't be too direct with The Monkees,” says that “we couldn't really make a protest song out of it,” and adds that “we kind of snuck it in.” Having said that, however, we’ll be damned any of those pages actually offers attribution to the original interview, so we’re hard pressed to commit to its accuracy. It seems fair to say that it was at least a protest song of some sort, although whether it was specifically about Vietnam or not...we’re not going that far out on a limb.
In the long run, all that matters is that “Last Train to Clarksville” remains one of the most memorable pop songs to emerge during the 1960s, and it’s one that you’ll have stuck in your head for the rest of the day.