It’s impossible not to compare the Beatles and the Monkees. The Monkees’ sitcom inspired by A Hard Day’s Night and some Monkees hits were explicitly patterned on Beatles songs. Sometimes, songwriters try to keep this influence from being too blatant. However, Boyce and Hart, a songwriting team who wrote hits for the Monkees, sometimes made their influences obvious. For example, they tried to write their own version of one of the Beatles’s most popular songs: “Yesterday.”
The Monkees’ songwriters try to mimic the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’
Any pop act, even a bubblegum pop act, has to try to display some sensitivity and depth once in a while. This is how the world got ballads like Britney Spears’ “Everytime” and the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.” The Monkees also tried their hand at emotional ballads. “I Wanna Be Free” is perhaps the most famous.
According to AllMusic, “I Wanna Be Free” is Boyce and Hart’s attempt to emulate “Yesterday.” The similarities between the two songs are pretty obvious. They are both pop ballads with a neoclassical string section.
Additionally, Davy Jones’ delicate vocals on “I Wanna Be Free” recalls Paul McCartney’s singing on “Yesterday.” In the same vein, “I Wanna Be Free” includes the phrase “I want to hold your hand.” That’s as blatant as a Beatles reference could possibly be. To many fans, the influence the Monkees took from the Fab Four is part of their charm.
The other song that inspired ‘I Wanna Be Free’
While “I Wanna Be Free” is supposed to sound like “Yesterday,” it wasn’t written for the Monkees, a group designed to capitalize on the Beatles. According to the book Psychedelic Bubble Gum, the song wasn’t written for any particular artist. The song was partly inspired by “One Dyin’ and a Buryin’,” another song co-written by Boyce.
“One Dyin’ and a Buryin’” included the lyric “I wanna be free.” This inspired Boyce to write the line “I wanna be free, don’t say you love me, say you like me.” Afterward, he and Boyce finished the song in less than an hour. Though some fans interpret “I Wanna Be Free” as a love song, it’s not really.
In Psychedelic Bubble Gum, Hart said the song’s sentiment was “‘I want to to be your friend, but don’t tie me down.’” He described the song as displaying “the somewhat unromantic philosophy expressed in many Boyce and Hart songs.” He said this attitude toward romance was reflected in his personal life in the 1960s. Ironically, “I Wanna Be Free” reflects the sexual ethos of the decade better than many songs by edgier acts.
Why ‘I Wanna Be Free’ was released and how the world reacted to it
Boyce and Heart held onto the song for some time. Then, as Hart put it, the Monkees needed a “‘Yesterday’-type string quartet ballad” and “I Wanna Be Free” fit the bill. AllMusic reports the Beatles released “Yesterday” in 1965, so the song was only about a year old when the Monkees released “I Wanna Be Free.”
“Yesterday” reached the top position on the Billboard Hot 100. Meanwhile, “I Wanna Be Free” did not chart on the Billboard Hot 100 at all. Perhaps this was because “Yesterday” had recently been a ubiquitous hit. However, Hart said “I Wanna Be Free” is probably the Boyce and Hart song which has been covered the most.
Andy Williams and Richard Marx are among the legends who covered “I Wanna Be Free.” Hart likes Marx’s cover most of all. This is fitting, as one of the songs which inspired it – ‘Yesterday” — is the most covered song ever. In a way, Boyce and Hart did write their “Yesterday.”