The Wall Street Journal’s Friday Arena section has a regular feature called Anatomy of a Song, which deconstructs the creation of memorable musical performances.
Up this week: Linda Ronstadt’s ‘Different Drum’.
The It’s-Not-You-It’s-Me Song
When the red light went on at Hollywood’s Capitol Studios in 1967, singer Linda Ronstadt was scared. There to record “Different Drum”—her first lead-vocal single as a member of the Stone Poneys—Ms. Ronstadt was expecting to sing an acoustic ballad version of the song accompanied by her two bandmates.
Instead, a new faster arrangement had been written, a rhythm section and string players were brought in to replace the other two Stone Poneys, and Ms. Ronstadt had just seconds to figure out how she was going to phrase the lyrics and make the song work.
The song had been written by future-Monkee Michael Nesmith and made it to #13 on the Billboard charts. For the Journal feature “Ms. Ronstadt, 67, author of ‘Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir,’ published in September; Mr. Nesmith, 70; harpsichordist Don Randi, 76, and Stone Poney Bobby Kimmel, 73, talked about the song’s evolution” to reporter Marc Myers.
But before we get to that, the recording itself.
Representative samples from the interviews:
Michael Nesmith: Whenever I wrote, I liked creating little ‘movies of the mind.’ I was thinking about two lovers—one of whom decides they love different things. In later years, comedian Whitney Brown referred to “Different Drum” as the first “it’s not you, it’s me” breakup song.
Linda Ronstadt: I thought we were going to record an acoustic ballad version of “Different Drum” with Bobby and Kenny. But when I walked into the studio, there were other musicians there I didn’t know. Bobby [Kimmel] and Kenny [Edwards] played on two of the songs, but on “Different Drum,” Nik asked them to sit out.
Bobby Kimmel: Kenny and I didn’t mind. It was always going to be a solo vocal feature for Linda anyway, and Nik wanted more going on instrumentally behind her. Kenny and I stood in the engineer’s booth and watched and listened.
Ms. Ronstadt: We didn’t rehearse. I was just thrown into it. I was completely confused. I didn’t have the lyrics in front of me—I sang them from memory. Since I can’t read music, I didn’t have a lead sheet either. I knew I could remember the words, but I wasn’t sure how to phrase them with the new arrangement and faster tempo.
Don Randi: She had this innocence and humility that won me over. If she had been frightened, you’d never have known it. Linda was so down-to-earth and natural—she even recorded that song barefoot.
Ms. Ronstadt: I’ll be honest—I was never happy with how I sounded. It took me 10 years to learn how to sing before I had skill and craft. Today I will break my finger trying to get that record off when it’s on.
Perhaps because of that, the Journal piece includes this later version.
(For our money, the original version is way better. But maybe that’s just our 18-year-old hormones talking.)
Regardless, read the whole piece. It’s a corker.
P.S. Two years later Ronstadt delivered the emotional flip side to “Different Drum” in the it’s-not-me-it’s-you “Long Long Time” (from Silk Purse).
And while we’re doing the whole balance of power thing, here are two more.
“Long Way Round” (from Hand Sown . . . Home Grown).
“Some of Shelly’s Blues” (from Stone Poneys Vol. III).
That’s it. We’re done.