by J. Albert Barr
"They've got their own scene, and I won't send them down for it. You try a weekly television show and see if you can manage one half as good!" - John Lennon (who called them the modern Marx Brothers for their ground-breaking antics on their Emmy-award winning T.V. show)
The new Monkees album was released in late-May of this year, just a couple of weeks ago, in fact. The reviews for Good Times! have been surprisingly positive to downright overwhelming in praise. It's "surprising" because the last several Monkees albums, dating from, at least, 1970's Changes to 1996's Justus, had been judged less than favourably, especially 1987's dismal, Pool It!, the first of their, now three, reunion albums. One notable solid review, for the new album, was actually issued by Rolling Stone, a rock magazine known for their viciously criticising, and basically writing-off, the entire Monkees catalogue, aside from their best-of compilations. Rolling Stone gave Good Times! a three-and-a-half star rating, concluding in their glowing review that "Monkee freaks have waited far too long for this album. But it was worth it." If you go by Rolling Stone's most recent edition of their review guide, Good Times! is easily the highest rated Monkees album ever by this "institute of rock journalism". The album is currently sitting at 80% among critics at Metacritic, indicating an average of 4 stars given to it. The U.K.'s Independant even called the album, "probably The Monkees' best album, after their hits compilation". I personally don't agree with that assessment, but I'll come back to that counter opinion a little later. It might, however, be their "second best album".
Unlike '96's Justus, where the band wrote, and played on, every track of that album, Good Times! features song contributions from a very impressive collection of well-known songwriters (and fans of The Monkees), such as Weezer's Rivers Cuomo (who wrote the album's first single, the 60s-evoking and infectious, "She Makes Me Laugh"), XTC's Andy Partridge (contributing the second single, the appropriately sunny and catchy, "You Bring the Summer"), a fantastic collaborative effort from Oasis' Noel Gallagher and The Jam's legendary Paul Weller with the contemporaneously titular and ironically topical, "Birth of an Accidental Hipster"; a progressive sounding song seemingly with both feet straddling the late-60s a la S.F. Sorrow-era Pretty Things and post-millennial Beck a la Sea Change/Morning Phase. There's also a magnificent tune from Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, "Me & Magdalena", which appears to be a personal favourite among the fans, including myself. These two latter songs feature impressively affecting lead-vocals from Michael Nesmith, who also sings lead on his own original composition, the simple, yet beautiful and heart-baring, piano-led ballad, "I Know What I Know".
In fact, all three surviving Monkees contributed an original song each on the new album. Besides Nesmith's aforementioned gem, Peter Tork's folky, "Little Girl", may just be the best Monkees song to bear his credit (and his vocals on Goffin & King's, "Wasn't Born to Follow", could be his best vocal performance ever). Okay, Tork's "For Pete's Sake", from Headquarters, and his two numbers featured on Head, are also quite good as well, but I really do love "Little Girl". And, lastly, there's Micky Dolenz's characteristically upbeat and droll, "I Was There (And I'm Told I Had a Good Time)" to aptly close out the album, which he actually co-wrote with the album's producer, Adam Schlesinger, who also appears on several tracks playing an array of instruments. It should be mentioned, too, that The Monkees, themselves, particularly Nesmith and Tork, brought a fair bit of the album's instrumentation to the proverbial table, i.e., studio sessions. That being said, they were indeed supported by a terrific group of musicians that bolstered a very tight and well-produced Monkees album that should date quite well in the future, I feel, unlike, say, the aforementioned, Pool It!, for instance. And, to top it all off, Good Times! has debuted all the way up to #14 on Billboard's Top 200 Album Chart! This signifies the highest a Monkees album has charted since The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees peaked at #3 in 1968. So, all indications say that the new album is both a commercial and critical success. which appears to be a first for this historically, much critically-maligned, bubblegum pop-labelled, "pre-fab four".
And it's unfortunate that The Monkees have had to continually apologize for their "prefabricated and manufactured" origins, when they, actually, became fairly significant musical artists in their own right pretty early in their existence. Yes, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Davy Jones and Peter Tork did indeed audition, in 1965, for a new television show that would premiere in September 1966, and become an immediate sensation. The show was created by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider after they were inspired by The Beatles' first, iconic film, 1964's A Hard Day's Night. They wanted to re-create the fresh, youthful and crazy spirit of that zeitgeist-establishing film, that came out of England, for American kids, and with a particularly American sensibility.
Chock full of frenetic energy; wacky, zany and downright surreal situations; witty, hilarious banter among the four leads; colourful and imaginative sets, and art direction that screamed of the changing cultural tide, visually and aurally, The Monkees became an instant smash hit on television in the fall of 1966. But even before the show debuted, the band (at least "in name", for now, at the time) already scored a #1 smash hit with "Last Train to Clarksville", having been released a month before the show's first episode aired. The Monkees' self-titled debut album got its official release a few weeks after the show's premiere, hitting #1 a month later and stayed on top of the Billboard charts for thirteen consecutive weeks, right into the second month of 1967, where it was finally displaced by their quick follow-up second album, More of the Monkees. During the 1967 Emmy Awards, The Monkees won Best Comedy Series, as well as Outstanding Directorial Achievement for the show's principal director, James Frawley.
1967 would prove to be one of the most spectacular years any musical outfit would ever have! They started the year off as the biggest thing on television with a hugely popular and critically-acclaimed show, but The Monkees were literally ruling the airwaves and the pop charts as well. They had the #1 album in the U.S. for the first 23 weeks of that year. Their second album was finally dethroned by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, but then they returned to the nation's top-spot the following week with their third album, Headquarters, which was then replaced by none other than The Beatles' era-defining masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. As Sgt. Pepper retained the #1 spot week after week throughout the "Summer of Love", Headquarters held strong by staying at #2 for eleven consecutive weeks. The Monkees would then close out their unbelievable 1967 with yet another smash-hit album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd, hitting #1 for the last five weeks of that unforgettable year. All together, The Monkees scored four #1 albums in 1967! That is a record no one else has ever equalled. Also, their second album, More of the Monkees, was the best selling album of 1967, giving it the distinction of becoming the very first pop-rock album ever to be the year's best seller, out-selling every other genre of music. As for singles, The Monkees racked up seven Top 40 hits in 1967, including two #1's ("I'm a Believer" and "Daydream Believer"), and two other Top 10s ("A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You" and "Pleasant Valley Sunday"), and two others that made the Top 20 ("I'm Not Your Stepping Stone" and "Words"), with "Words" narrowly missing the Top 10 by peaking at #11. The seventh Top 40 hit was Michael Nesmith's own "The Girl I Knew Somewhere", which was the B-side to "A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You", but managed to chart at #39.
The show's premise was that of four struggling musicians trying to "make it" in the music business as a band, living in a two-story beach house in Malibu, California. On the first floor, in the back, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, was an alcove where "the band" kept their instruments and rehearsed. Their attempts to be successful, however, were thwarted week-in and week-out, by "older members" of the establishment. Pretty much immediately after being cast in the show, Peter Tork, and particularly Michael Nesmith, expressed surprise and dismay that their musical talents were not required for the recording of The Monkees' first album. To appease the severity of Nesmith's misgivings concerning his non-invite to the recording sessions, musical director, Don Kirshner, who was hired by the show's producers to lord over the choice of song material and session players, allowed Nesmith to actually contribute two original numbers on the debut album. The only Monkee, however, to appear on the album in the capacity of musicianship, was Peter Tork, who played guitar on two tracks.
Regardless of what Kirshner insisted upon, Michael, Peter, Micky and Davy practiced and rehearsed as a "real band". To everyone else, however, especially music business insiders, critics and actual musicians playing and recording albums, The Monkees were a "fictitious band". This festering frustration finally came to a head after The Monkees had performed several live gigs in front of thousands of their screaming, adoring fans. To their collective surprise and confusion, their second album, More of the Monkees, had already been released, with Kirshner deciding the song selections and sequencing, without their being informed of any of it upon arriving back from their maiden tour. Shortly thereafter, the disgruntled Monkees met with Kirshner and his lawyer, Herb Moelis, at the Beverly Hills Hotel. What, to Kirshner, seemed like a moment of celebration, by rewarding each Monkee with a handsome check for $250,000 for services rendered, in terms of the show's and music's success, quickly deteriorated into a hostile ultimatum led by, of course, Michael Nesmith, who, at this point, could no longer accept his role as a "phony musician" barely even credited on albums bearing his band's/show's namesake. He formally threatened to quit the show if he couldn't actually play on Monkees albums. He punctuated his point by literally punching a hole in the wall of the hotel suite and saying to Moelis, "That could have been your face!", before storming out. Though the two less musically-inclined members, Micky and Davy, were hesitant somewhat, they still sided with their band-mates, Peter and Nesmith, to be allowed to play their own music. The show's creators and producers, Bob and Bert, also sided with The Monkees. They officially dismissed Don Kirshner of his duties with The Monkees, and in February of 1967, they finally won their artistic autonomy to play and record, and even choose what songs they wanted on their albums, including writing songs themselves.
The resulting album, Headquarters, was released in May of '67, with half the album's fourteen tracks written by The Monkees themselves. Musically, the now real band, played on every track as well. Though it didn't spawn any big hits in the U.S., they did score a considerable hit in the U.K. with Micky Dolenz's first original song, "Randy Scouse Git" (under the deliberately cheeky alternate title, "Alternate Title", due to its racy connotations to English sensibilities), which just missed hitting the top by peaking at #2. The song's lyrics relayed a series of observations Micky made at a big party The Beatles threw for The Monkees in their honour in London. The album's other famous song is "Shades of Gray". Despite Headquarters lack of hit singles, at least in the States, it still proved to be an excellent collection of songs and yet another #1, which even ebbed the number of hostile reviews they typically received from music critics.
Later that year, The Monkees, despite their exhausting work schedule, regarding the show, which was still doing well, re-entered the studio again to record their third 1967 album. This one was titled Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd, and it would prove to be, in the opinion of many, including myself, their masterpiece. Earlier in the year, Micky Dolenz purchased a newly designed instrument called a Moog synthesizer, a very innovative keyboard, with accompanying transistor panel, that created a fantastic and sense-heightening array of electronic sounds that helped usher in the "psychedelic era" of rock and experimental/avant garde music. The Monkees were one of the first musical acts to employ this instrument's sound in their music, and particularly on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. It can be heard on side-two of the record on the album's marvelous closer, "Star Collector", and especially, and most memorably, on one of the album's best tracks, the Nesmith-penned "Daily Nightly". This incredible track, and truly one of the most under-rated classics of the psychedelic era, features Micky's outstanding vocals as well as his playing the Moog synthesizer, creating eerie and spacey sounds that instantly enhance his ghostly vocals and Michael's vivid and evocative lyrics, lyrics that recall French symbolist poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud. One great example comes in the second verse: "Startled eyes that sometimes see phastasmagoric splendour/ Pirouette down palsied paths/ With pennies for the vendor". Each verse ends with the refrain of "Finding questions, but no answers" - a sentiment very much in the ether during those culturally revolutionary, and acutely political, times in the 60s. "Daily Nightly" is The Monkees' "Tomorrow Never Knows", and it heralded the likes of great, yet undervalued psychedelic classics like The United States of America's "The American Metaphysical Circus" and Elephant's Memory's "Old Man Willow".
The Monkees' fourth album was replete with one great track after another. It has no filler at all, and puts on display some of the best stuff any individual Monkee had ever contributed. Davy Jones, whose vocals weren't exactly the strongest and most versatile, here gives his best vocal performances on any Monkees album, in my opinion, showing a range he hadn't accomplished before or after. And the best Monkee song with his name in the credits, the admittedly mellifluous, but undeniably pretty, "Hard to Believe" amply shows the atypical strength of his vocals on this magnificent album, as does the rollicking rocker, the aforementioned album closer, "Star Collector", which was written by the great song-writing team of Goffin and King. True, The Monkees did resort back some to outside writers for much of this album's material, but it was still chosen by themselves and played to a large extent by themselves, with assistance from session players. Pisces also features Michael Nesmith's vocals more prominently than any other Monkees album, with him singing lead on five tracks, including album highlight "Love is Only Sleeping", a spectacular rocker that also features his incredibly catchy, garage-rock guitar riff that runs through the entire song. It could have been a single, I feel. And perhaps more importantly, there is his performance on Murphey and Castleman's "What Am I Doing Hangin' 'Round?", one of the first bona fide "country-rock" tunes to appear on record before The Byrds officially established the sub-genre the next year with their now classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Of course, the two most famous songs on Pisces, and its two biggest hits, are the cheerfully cynical, suburban apathy-exposing "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and the moody and sensual "Words", both highlighting the truly remarkable vocals of Micky Dolenz, who really was gifted with one of the best singing voices in all of rock and popdom. Other favourites are the insidiously catchy bubblegum pop of "She Hangs Out", with its subversive lyrics suggesting sexual promiscuity, the rock solid Nesmith-sung "The Door into Summer", and his other self-penned contribution, the classy and gorgeously loungey, "Don't Call on Me", and, finally, one of Harry Nilsson's first songs to be recorded, "Cuddly Bear", which Davy sings with understated gusto and irresistible charm. Even Peter's lone lead vocal on the half minute long "Peter Percival Patterson's Pet Pig Porky" is an ear-arresting vignette straight out of a drug-induced daydream,...believe it! Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd is quite simply one of the finest albums of the 1960s, period.
In the spring of 1968 The Monkees television show was cancelled after two solid seasons. The band refused to continue with the same formula, and instead opted for a motion-picture to be made called Head. A project they had been discussing with relative unknown, at the time, Jack Nicholson, actually. The film's premise would be the antithesis of what their show presented, and truly test the patience of both the show's young demographic and critics alike. Before that, however, they released what would be their last "hit album", The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees. By this time the band had pretty much reverted back to using session musicians on most of the tracks, although they still wrote at least half of the album's songs themselves. However, much like The Beatles did on "The White Album", each Monkee focused exclusively on their own numbers, injecting their own musical style on their respective productions, eschewing with any real sense of a "united band dynamic", for better or worse. Still, the resulting product was a mostly good, if uneven, collection of songs which had among them the last two significant hits The Monkees would enjoy, the schmaltzy, but much beloved, "Daydream Believer", and the spirited rocker, "Valleri". Nesmith's tremendous "Tapioca Tundra" also appears on The Birds, and even charted at #34 to boot.
With the show now gone, and their popularity on a discernible downturn, The Monkees, with Jack Nicholson co-writing the script and co-producing the film, focused on Head's production. The dark and surreal tone of the film, which begins with a prototypical Lynchian scene of an awkward ceremonial opening of a bridge, where an exasperated city mayor is futilely fighting off feedback from his microphone, hindering him from declaring the bridge open and cutting the ceremonial ribbon. When he finally gets his speech out of the way and is about to cut said ribbon, The Monkees suddenly show up and run right past everyone attending the ceremony and running through the ribbon before the mayor has a chance to cut it. They are apparently being chased, and so they run right to the edge of the bridge when suddenly Micky jumps off it and into the water hundreds of feet below. Then the film's theme song, "Porpoise Song" begins as Micky struggles to swim within the water's depths. He's then suddenly saved by, yup, a couple of mermaids. From there, the film follows The Monkees through a series of bizarre scenes of disorientation and frustration with the situation they find themselves in, and the questionable state of their career, evidently; continually getting themselves trapped inside a large metal box, only to escape momentarily and then captured again, before ending, like a Moebius-strip, at the beginning, disrupting the bridge ceremony and jumping off it together. The affecting symbolism of their being mere, exploited puppets for the soulless and superficial entertainment industry, while the Vietnam war is happening and 60s culture appears to be reaching an apogee of sorts, is not impossible to extract from Head, despite the film's nonlinear, peculiar narrative. I think it's a film that can be better appreciated with its historical context more fully fleshed-out and realised with hindsight. The soundtrack is also one of the band's most adventurous and rewarding listens. Rolling Stone even placed it in their Top 25 soundtracks of all time, further suggesting that they seem to be finally coming around to acknowledging The Monkees' tenable quality and historical significance.
After Head bombed completely at the box-office, and the soundtrack only managed to crack the Top 50 on Billboard's album chart, Peter Tork left the band. The three remaining members recorded two 1969 albums of ever more diminishing returns: Instant Replay and The Monkees Present (which does feature Michael's classic, "Listen to the Band"). Michael Nesmith did not participate on the band's final album, Changes (a contractual obligation album for all intents and purposes), before Micky and Davy put The Monkees out of their misery, as they were quite irrelevant by that time, sadly. Sixteen years later, however, in 1986, and much to their collective surprise, Monkeemania returned when MTV aired all 58 episodes of their once celebrated show, prompting a new generation of fans clamouring for new Monkees activity. It, understandably, brought the band back together, minus Michael Nesmith (who was doing rather fine, financially, at that time, when he inherited his mother's fortune of some 50 million dollars, having invented "liquid paper"), and so they recorded three new songs which were included on a new Monkees best-of compilation, Then and Now...The Best of The Monkees. They even scored a Top 20 hit with "That Was Then, This Is Now". Unfortunately, they couldn't sustain the momentum when they released the godawful Pool It! album in 1987.
For their 30th Anniversary, the entire band reconvened in 1996 and recorded a brand new album of all original material written by them, and also featuring no other musicians but themselves on every track. The result was the much-improved Justus album. However, unlike a decade earlier, there wasn't the same kind of reception by the record buying public, and so Justus became the first and only Monkees album to fail to chart. But now with the band's 50th Anniversary arriving this year, and the release of the truly wonderful Good Times! album, and its accompanying commercial and critical success, The Monkees are being afforded an opportunity to go out in style. They were eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25 years ago, and I think, with this new record being one of the band's finest, and the undeniable legacy that refuses to fade away, and given all that they have accomplished in those 50 years, they should finally be inducted. They clearly have a rich cache of classic hits that, to this day, are played every day on the radio, and have at least four albums that merit serious critical and artistic accolades and continuous admiration: Headquarters; Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd; Head and Good Times! There have definitely been artists that have made the Hall of Fame (Kiss, anyone?) with less impressive accomplishments, at least in my opinion. At last, I say give The Monkees their most-deserved due.