Different Drum is a song written in 1965 by Mike Nesmith (later known as a member of the band The Monkees). It is best known for its interpretation by Linda Ronstadt, then lead singer of the folk band The Stone Poneys, which reached number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1967; since then, the song has appeared in a number of cover versions.
To the text
The title of the song refers to a famous quote from Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden (1854):
The self-conscious nonconformism evident in sentences like these made Walden a “cult book” of youth and counterculture, especially in the 1960s. In Nesmith’s verse, however, the metaphor of the “different drummer” stands less for the assertion of his individuality in society than in an intimate love affair. Different Drum is thus the opposite of a love song – in it, the singer explains to his admirer that he is very attached to his freedom and is therefore unwilling to enter into a permanent relationship with her; at the end, he assures her that both of them will certainly have a longer life if they now go their separate ways.
The first recording of the song appeared in 1966 on the album Better Late Than Never by the bluegrass band The Greenbriar Boys, sung by John Herald, accompanied on mandolin by Frank Wakefield. Herald became aware of the song in 1965 when the then-unknown Nesmith performed it at the Ash Grove folk club in Los Angeles. Soon after, Nesmith was hired for the audition band The Monkees, which enjoyed great success over the next few years with its comedy television series of the same name. In the episode Too Many Girls, first broadcast on December 19, 1966, Nesmith also briefly sang the song himself, albeit in a deliberately goofy and hokey version. It wasn’t until 1972 that Nesmith recorded his own take on his composition for his solo album And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’.
Also in 1966, the folk band Stone Poneys recorded the song for their second album Evergreen, Volume 2, which, like its predecessor, was commercially unsuccessful, so that the band broke up the following year. Different Drum, reworked by producer Nick Venet into a ballad with a violin arrangement, was unexpectedly a hit as the last single release, and the band reformed for a short time afterwards. In the following years, the song was part of the standard repertoire of singer Linda Ronstadt, who became one of the most successful folk and country singers in the 1970s and 1980s.
Since then, the song has been covered many times, including by The Lemonheads(Favorite Spanish Dishes, 1990), The Pastels (1990), P. P. Arnold (1998), Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet(Under the Covers, Vol. 1, 2006), and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes(Blow in the Wind, 2009).
- Stone Poneys: Different Drum – Review by music journalist Richie Unterberger at allmusic.com
- On Thoreau’s influence on American musicians, see, for example: Walter Harding: A Bibliography of Thoreau in Music. In: Studies in the American Renaissance, pp. 291-315.
- Richie Unterberger: Eight Miles High: Folk-Rock’s Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock. Backbeat Books 2003. (Chapter 3 online at richieunterberger.com)