I’m a Believer - the The Monkees original
Long before donkeys, or should that be donkees, I’m a Believer was sung by a different animal: Monkees—a cynical experiment intended to cash in on the British Invasion of pop music in the mid-sixties.
The Monkees were assembled as the cast for a musical television show and the band was initially criticised for their manufactured sound and lack of musical authenticity. The allocation of instruments was apparently done cosmetically, according to the height of band members. Davy Jones was the most accomplished drummer in the band but was denied this place because he was too short to be viewed over the drum kit. He was relegated to lead vocals but didn’t do all the heavy lifting in that department, with other band members contributing vox pipes when required.
Despite their concocted beginnings, The Monkees went on to become one of the most loved and highest-selling artists of the sixties. They virtually created the “boy band” genre and brought the music video art form to the forefront of the population’s imagination.
Penned by the legendary Neil Diamond, Believer is a happy little three-chord strummer, with a fourth chord accidentally finding its way in at the end of the chorus. A Hammond organ delivers the hook in the first second of the song, and a nifty guitar noodle capitalises on the strong start, all before a chord is strummed. The jingle of a tambourine adds a subconscious sparkle to the mix, and before you know it, your foot taps along involuntarily.
Micky Dolenz delivers the vocals. He starts off singing with lament, about his unlucky-in-love endeavors. Then he picks up his delivery as the lyrics inform us of his change in fortunes. He conveys yearning, hope, and anxiety within a few short bars. The man knows how to interpret emotion, and it’s clear why the producers chose him to front Believer.
Smash Mouth covers I’m a Believer
I don’t mean to hipster-brag, but I didn’t like Smash Mouth before it was cool. There are some artists you just don’t gel with, and for me, Mouth is near the top of my list. I find them musically shallow, lyrically trite, and vocally antagonising.
But that’s just me. I’m a picky eater.
Mouth’s popularity has waned into memehood in recent years. Lead singer Steve Harwell hasn’t done the band many favors with his social media meltdowns and threatening physical violence towards audience members because bread was thrown on stage. He offered to leave the stage if more baked goods were distributed his way, but the promise was shallow, and the audience was subjected to a protracted version of All Star, where they enthusiastically shouted with one voice that Harwell was not the sharpest tool in the shed. Such incidents make you wonder if his reaction might have been about more than just the bread. Perhaps there are deeper concerns that he’s grappling with. That said, the people throwing stuff at musicians are the real villains.
Mouth made some great decisions in the composition of Believer. They maintained the sixties vibe, mimicking the tone and instrumentation of the era. Slightly overdriven guitars, a tooting Hammond organ, and a bass drum with a hefty kick to tether it all. The increased BPM draws an extra layer of surfer rock, adding even more sixties throwback, into their offering. I do, however, find the overly-compressed backing music quite grating.
Speaking of grating, we haven’t mentioned Harwell’s vocals. I know some people like his delivery and believe it is perfectly suited to the whimsy and light-hearted nature of Mouth’s style. To which I don’t completely disagree. Harwell sounds like my schoolyard bully who would shake smaller kids down for their lunch money before administering an atomic wedgies. Maybe I have some repressed issues preventing me from becoming sympatico with Harwell’s craft, but after watching him threaten to beat the shit out of audience members, I might just throw my juice money at his feet and bound away with my underpants and eardrums intact.
There is no denying Mouth’s copious success. They’ve etched out a neat little niche in the market and milked it expertly. They have multiple songs on the soundtracks of blockbuster movies, and no mixed tape of the nineties or early noughties would be complete without at least a few of their leading tracks, or as the kids call them, bangers. (Hello, fellow youths!)
Supermarket demographers also add them to the high-rotation playlist at my local Woolworths, which is a good indicator of popularity and an understanding of when people born of a particular era are likely to shop.
Comparing The Monkees and Smash Mouth
Okay, I’m going to say this through gritted teeth. Mouth’s version was a timely update to the original. They captured the feel, instrumentation, and groove of the original and gave it the sparkle of modern recording techniques. The overly-compressed backing track served a greater purpose in distracting from Harwell’s vocals, so I won’t mark the sound engineer’s too harshly. Both versions have weathered the decades to be played repeatedly at all manner of venues, for better or worse.
Despite closely adhering to the original’s composition, Mouth has remarkably succeeded in infusing their unique touch into this version of Believer. There’s no mistaking it as anything other than a Mouth classic. They resisted the urge to blindly follow the original while also avoiding the pitfall of overly reinterpreting the track to its detriment.
Both tracks share many qualities, and when I hear The Monkees’ version, I start bopping along to the happy little beat. But when Mouth’s version rears its head, I tend to cover my ears and shudder before running headlong into the roaring traffic of the nearest highway. It’s strange to me how two very similar tracks can elicit opposing reactions.
Mouth did a great job with this cover, even if I can’t stand a bar of it. Smash Mouth is more of a visceral response than a band name for me. But I can humbly concede that I’m in the minority and the issues are all my own.
So, which version would I rather listen to? Clearly the hierarchy goes The Monkees, chalk screeching on a blackboard, then Mouth.
If you see me being ejected bodily from the supermarket, there’s a good chance it’s because I was throwing slices of bread at muzak speaker, trying to make Mouth stop. I rate this cover version two loaves of moldy white bread out of… I don’t really care, let’s say a million.
Please enjoy these rejected cover images for this article.