Circle Sky is a song with an interesting history. Mike Nesmith started a recording of the track in December of 1967, but for inclusion in the film HEAD, it was also performed in front of a live audience five months later. However, when the soundtrack album accompanying the film was released in November, 1968, a strangely-mixed version of the studio recording was used instead of the energetic live take which many consider superior.
Time has been good to fans of this track. In 1984, an alternate mix appeared out of nowhere on the Rhino compilation MONKEE FLIPS, an early (unlabeled) taste of the previously unreleased mixes that would be uncovered in the years to come. In 1989, the live recording heard in the film HEAD was finally mixed to stereo for the landmark compilation MISSING LINKS VOLUME TWO.
The first recording of Circle Sky started rather simply on December 9, 1967 with just Nesmith on electric guitar and Eddie Hoh on drums. Bass guitar was added only to the master, take 6. A few days later, Nesmith added a second electric guitar, acoustic guitar, organ, and some percussion, filling all the tracks of his 8-track tape. During early January, 1968, two additional overdub sessions were held to refine the instrumentation and before the end of the month, a stereo and a mono mix were completed.
When the decision was made to include a live performance of Circle Sky in the film HEAD, a concert was scheduled for Friday May 17, 1968 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Several rehearsals and three official takes of the song were recorded this evening with electric guitar (Nesmith), bass (Tork), drums (Dolenz), and organ (Jones) occupying at least four tracks of an 8-track tape, with the audience on an additional two tracks. Possibly due to the lack of an available track or other engineering issues, Nesmith’s vocal from this live performance was inaudible on the master tape, prompting him to record a new vocal on the master tape the following Tuesday.
On August 1, 1968, the stereo and mono masters of songs intended for HEAD were assembled, including the studio version of Circle Sky completed in January. During the first week of September, the stereo masters were utilized when Jack Nicholson took on the task of creating a collage-style soundtrack album for HEAD, featuring dialogue, sound effects and incidental music alongside the Monkees’ recordings. During this same period, mixing would have likely taken place for the mono mix of the live Circle Sky for use in HEAD.
The 1968 mixes of the studio version of Circle Sky are distinguished by the absurdly quiet level of the vocal track and a focus on the three guitars heard in the recording. Consequently, the drums take a back seat in these mixes, letting the added percussion (particularly a shaker) drive the song’s rhythm. On the 1968 mono mix, the percussion blends particularly well with the strikes of plectrums against guitar strings. The mono mix also brings forward the organ during each verse and a single-note electric guitar line during the bridge. The stereo mix begins with a two-note organ intro which is absent from the mono. Conversely, the mono mix ends with a stray bass note heard alongside a squeal of feedback which is missing from the stereo version. The stereo version mixed in 1968 was included on the HEAD soundtrack album, however the mono mix remained unreleased until Rhino Handmade issued an expanded HEAD box set in 2010.
The mono live version of Circle Sky as heard in the film HEAD appears to have been specifically mixed to accompany the visuals. For example, the drums were brought forward during a close-up of Micky seen between verses, and Mike’s guitar was brought forward under a close-up during the second verse. Aside from these visually-based choices, this mono mix kept the drums pulled back during the first two bars of the intro and the entire bridge, lending more impact to the fills following each of these sections. Technically, this live version of Circle Sky was first released on the 1979 Australian collection MONKEEMANIA - 40 TIMELESS HITS FROM THE MONKEES, however, the audio was extracted from a film print of HEAD instead of a master source.
For reasons unknown to us, the studio version of Circle Sky was treated to new stereo and mono mixes in the spring of 1969. These mixes featured a completely different - and much more prominent - lead vocal distinguished immediately by the lack of exclamatory grunts by Nesmith after each of the descending guitar figures repeated during the song’s intro and outro. It is possible this new vocal replaced the original from 1968 on the multitrack tape or was overdubbed on a duplicate master. The 1969 mixes of Circle Sky also differ from the 1968 mixes by favoring the drums and percussion over the guitars. This is very evident in the stereo mix, as all three guitars are panned to the left while the percussion track is centered and therefore one of the most prominent elements of the mix. This percussion track also includes rattling chains at the start and end of the song which were either mixed out on the 1968 versions or added after those stereo and mono mixes were completed.
As with the 1968 mixes, the organ notes heard at the start of the 1969 stereo mix are not present on the 1969 mono version. However, the 1969 stereo mix revealed that three organ notes were present on the master tape. The first of these was presumably mixed out of the 1968 stereo LP mix because a voice can be heard faintly saying “yes” during the first note. When the 1969 stereo mix first appeared on MONKEE FLIPS in 1984, the organ notes were not present, however they were restored for the 1986 remaster of the album. This stereo mix has subsequently appeared on several releases, and in some cases, the mastering attempts to dull the hard splice at the start of this mix with a slight fade.
Both the mono and stereo mixes from 1969 end with the single bass note and feedback squeal, however these are edited off on some appearances (such as the first US CD release of this mix on MISSING LINKS VOLUME THREE in 1996). The first complete release of this mix on CD was on the highly collectible 1993 issue of HEAD in the UK on Lightning Records. The mono mix from this period went unissued until the 2010 Rhino Handmade HEAD box set.
The 1989 mix of the live version of Circle Sky has proven to be a popular inclusion on Monkees compilations in the USA. This mix is a straightforward representation of the live performance without the level adjustments which distinguished the mono mix heard in HEAD. On this stereo mix, the post-dubbed vocal is treated with some reverb to help it blend with the rest of the performance.
In 2010, the live version of Circle Sky was remixed for two releases. The Rhino Handmade HEAD box set included 21 minutes of material from the full May 17, 1968 concert in Salt Lake City, including a new mix of Circle Sky complete with an apology to the audience from Nesmith about having to perform the song one more time. This is a narrow stereo mix which locks the bass in the center of the stereo image with the drums and vocals, giving the performance a heavier feel than the 1989 mix, where the bass is panned to the right. Nesmith’s vocal is left very dry in the 2010 mix, betraying its origins as a studio overdub. An errant snare drum hit during the song’s guitar intro which was minimized in all other mixes is very audible in the 2010 mix.
Also in 2010, Circle Sky was remixed for 5.1 channel surround sound for a DVD and Blu-ray edition of HEAD included in the Criterion Collection box set AMERICA LOST AND FOUND: THE BBS STORY. This is also a narrow mix which centers the vocal, drums and bass while panning the guitar slightly left and the organ slightly right. This multichannel mix is able to create ambience with digital signal processing and the stereo recording of the audience from the live venue. This 5.1 mix of the film HEAD was included on THE MONKEES: THE COMPLETE SERIES Blu-ray box set in 2016.
In 1996, the reunited Monkees would lay down a new version of this track for the JUSTUS album with revised lyrics. The group approached the song much like the original live performance, with a doubled lead guitar, bass, drums, percussion (shaker/tambourine) and a bit of keyboard in the bridge. The result is a dense recording reminiscent of 1970s heavy metal. This version of the song is extended by repeating the bridge and the first verse. Each chorus and bridge features the full group on vocals and each verse after the first features a harmony vocal, probably by Dolenz. Only one mix of this version is in circulation.
Also of note is a tape that circulates amongst collectors that features either a false start and full take from Mike's vocal overdub session for the live version or a mixing session from the multitrack for such. There is a bit of ambience before the track starts, and when the vocal enters at a low volume, the tape is wound back and a full attempt follows. All of the officially released mixes end before this tape fragment does, so there is more concert ambience after the song ends.