The Monkees were a typically American solution to a problem.
Throw money at it!
Since none of the American bands of the era came close to producing the levels of excitement of the major and even minor British bands, the men with the money decided to create a band from scratch and market them through the awesome power of 1960’s television. Attempting to neutralize the opponent’s competitive advantage, their first hire was a British citizen with musical stage experience. From there they added three Americans who met the specs, hired Boyce and Hart to write a bunch of pop songs, session men to play the instruments and allowed the more vocally-inclined cast members to sing along to the backing tracks. The strategy was successful: The Monkees’ first two singles and the first four albums hit the top spot in the charts and some stayed there for weeks. Mobs of screaming girls swarmed to their live performances.
This speaks volumes about the power of television during that era, when American culture revolved around the boob tube. The simple fact that you could pluck four guys out of relative obscurity who had never played a note together in their lives and give them immediate credibility as a band through the magic of the medium . . . well, in the parlance of the era, that just blows my fucking mind. It blew my mind even further when I read that The Monkees won an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. After watching a few episodes on YouTube, I was thoroughly baffled. The dialogue was no better than what you’d find in an Ed Wood film and the acting was not much better.
The success of The Monkees is a complete enigma to me.
Some of the common criticisms don’t bother me in the least. One is that their path to stardom was a rotten thing to do and proved that they were sellouts from the get-go. Look. Most musicians and actors spend much of their lives unemployed and ninety-nine percent of those starving artists of the era would have taken that gig without a second thought about their alleged artistic integrity. Why blame these guys for taking advantage of an opportunity? That’s un-fucking-American!
The most common criticism is that they didn’t play their own instruments. Hey, dummy! The Monkees began their existence as actors on a television show! Acting doesn’t mean you have to know how to do whatever it is your character is doing! Do you believe that William Shatner had lots of practice firing a real phaser or piloting a starship? Acting = make-believe, remember? No, they didn’t do much but sing on the first two albums, but the problem the producers were trying to solve was to quickly and efficiently manufacture enough music to meet the demands of a weekly, prime-time television show. By the third album, Headquarters, The Monkees were pretty much in control of the musical product, and eventually wound up self-producing their work. The first two albums were the price they had to pay to get their shot at reaching a wider audience. Yes, it was a deal with the devil, but every musician who signs a contract with a record company makes that deal. It’s a grubby business, my friends, and it was a grubby business long before The Monkees came to pass. I’ll also add that they were hardly the only band of that era whose producers forced them to use session men, as The Byrds, The Yardbirds, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits and others all relied on uncredited musical pros when the producers weren’t satisfied with what the “real” band had to offer.
All that matters to me as a music reviewer is whether or not their music is any good. I don’t care how they got there, but I do care about what they did with the golden opportunity that fell into their laps.
I mentioned in my review of Herman’s Hermits that The Monkees’ critical reputation had suffered in the years following their departure from the scene. Recently it seems there has been a critical reappraisal and the tide has turned in their favor. All Music rates many of their albums very highly, and gave this particular compilation an emphatic five stars, the highest rating possible.
The only theories that I can come up with to explain such a turn of events are a.) mass insanity in the critical community, b.) Baby Boomers in denial about approaching senior citizenship grasping on for dear life to anything from their youth, or c.) the music today is so awful that even a relatively unfocused, sub par band like The Monkees sound good in comparison.
Trying to find a position between blind adoration and complete dismissal has not been easy for people. The Monkees are a very divisive, polarizing topic among music fans. They were long gone before I was born, and my father owned none of their records, so I had to do lots of research for this review to get myself up to speed. What I learned is that they were pretty decent fellows who caught a lucky break and found themselves in a completely bizarre situation, their lives magically transformed overnight. I give Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork a lot of credit for leading the revolt against the producers for creative control of their music, because it would have been much easier simply to let the music manufacturing machine run until it ran out of gas and rake in as much cash as they could. Dolenz and Jones supported the revolt, but they were industry veterans who knew how the game was played and could have gone either way.
What they did with that creative control wasn’t much. The first post-coup album, Headquarters, shows some promise and one song that is absolutely stunning. After that, the band began to splinter, eventually winding up in a situation similar to The Beatles on Abbey Road: each individual band member would show up separately to record their parts and leave. This lack of collaborative spirit led to an ongoing reliance on session musicians, opening themselves up to continuing criticism that they still weren’t a real band. Most disappointing to me was that they continued to depend on other songwriters for most of their material and failed to develop a solid collection of original compositions. The Monkees never came close to having a unified artistic direction: Nesmith pretty much stuck to his Texas roots with his rather pedestrian, country-flavored music; Davy Jones was a trouper who performed his role as “the cute one” to the end; Peter Tork was an eclectic, valuable and misplaced utility player who might have done better elsewhere; and Micky Dolenz, who showed flashes of significant artistic potential, was too restless a spirit to call up enough discipline to put it all together. The Monkees were followers, not leaders, and in terms of sheer musicianship, they were average at best. It’s ridiculous to compare them to The Beatles, The Kinks, The Stones, The Beach Boys or any of the bands with deep catalogs and great songwriters, but I don’t think The Monkees hold up very well even when compared to less-honored contemporaries. The (Young) Rascals had better musicians, a clear and developing artistic vision and moved from covers to all-original compositions by their third album.
This album is allegedly The Best of the Monkees, but I disagree. For a pure listening experience, I think Headquarters and even Head are better, or at least more interesting. I have the urge to skip everything from their first two albums, but since they are a significant part of cultural history, I can’t. Damn. Let’s, uh, rock.
“(Theme from) The Monkees”: The original idea was to make Davy Jones the lead singer, which didn’t sit well with the others. The producers came to their senses and gave the job to Micky Dolenz, whose voice had far more range and expressiveness. Although he could sometimes deliver overwrought performances with too much manufactured emotion, when Micky Dolenz was on, he was one of the great pop singers of his day. That voice was the primary selling point for the band in their pre-control years, so Micky deserves a lot of credit for embedding The Monkees in the public consciousness. This song is ridiculous as a standalone pop song, so it’s better to compare it to other TV show theme songs of the era, and a convenient avenue to that comparison is to look at the theme songs of the four other shows that lost the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series to The Monkees in 1967:
- Bewitched: Too slick, and the sound effect accompanying Samantha’s nose-twitch doesn’t work without the cartoon graphic. Monkees win!
- Hogan’s Heroes: No, no, no! The military drum beat goes on far too long and the tune sucks. Compared to the themes for The Great Escape or The Bridge Over the River Kwai, this is a turkey. Monkees by a landslide!
- Get Smart: It’s a great piece when you’re watching Maxwell Smart go to work, but without the visuals, it’s kind of boring. Monkees!
- The Andy Griffith Show: Oh, I’m sorry! No way can anyone beat a theme song with whistling! You don’t even need the visuals to imagine Andy and Opie heading down to the fishing hole. Sorry, Monkees!
“Last Train to Clarksville”: Their first big hit from Boyce and Hart is a well-arranged piece carefully designed to stimulate maximum excitement. It’s also a very British song despite the geography. An American male would never say “a bit of conversation” any more than he’d say “a spot of tea.” He’d say “a little conversation,” but never “a bit of conversation,” then might add, “But I want you to know, uh, my, uh, you know, my thing, uh, is not, uh, little.” The real value of this song is Micky Dolenz’ vocal, a very strong performance indeed.
“I Wanna Be Free”: Puke! Designed entirely for 12-year old girls with low self-esteem, Davy Jones surprisingly struggles to hit the notes but he sure knew how to twiddle a little girl’s diddle.
“Papa Gene’s Blues”: The producers allowed Nesmith to contribute the only original on the album, a corny country number with gratuitous yee-hahs and silly jokes like “Pick it, Wilson.”
“I’m a Believer”: This was the #1 record of 1967, staying in the top slot for seven weeks. The band consisted of Micky Dolenz, Al Gorgoni, Sal Ditroia, Dick Romoff, Artie Butler, Jeff Barry and Buddy Saltzman. Hey, hey, we’re The Monkees! Impressive sales numbers aside, it’s still a Neil Diamond song, and I wouldn’t spend ten cents on a Neil Diamond song. So what if it sold over 10 million copies! With a population of 198,712,056 souls in 1967, that means that 188,712,056 Americans refused to buy it as well. I’ll take that as irrefutable evidence that the American population would have embraced my position had I been alive back then. You also have to consider that their hottest competition for the top spot at the time was “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” by The Royal Guardsmen.
“(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”: Do you know why I’m reviewing The Monkees? I lost a coin flip. I only had one spot left for reviews in this series and I couldn’t decide between The Monkees and Paul Revere & The Raiders. So, I flipped a Euro and it came up “continent” instead of “tree.” Comparing the two versions, I’d have to flip another Euro to determine which is least offensive. This song sucks.
“She”: I told you Micky Dolenz could get overly melodramatic, right? This is Exhibit 1.
“Mary, Mary”: Given my love of blues and Mike Bloomfield, if you guessed that I like Paul Butterfield’s version just a teensy bit better, you would be so right. Micky sounds positively bored here.
“Your Auntie Grizelda”: A novelty song that proved only one thing: Peter Tork never should have come within twenty feet of a live microphone.
“Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)”: Didn’t I already tell you I can’t stand Neil Diamond songs? Then why are you giving me another one? That is fucking rude, my friend. Fucking rude!
“Sometime in the Morning”: A Goffin-King number that allows Micky to overdo it again (Exhibit 2). The call-and-response vocals seem rather awkward and the quality of the recording is terrible.
“A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”: Fuck! Another Neil Diamond song? When are you going to fucking get it? NO MORE NEIL DIAMOND!
“The Girl I Knew Somewhere”: Mike Nesmith had one and only one thing in common with Bob Dylan: his songs often sound better when someone else is singing them. Linda Ronstadt did a bang-up job with “A Different Drum” for The Stone Poneys, and Micky Dolenz does a fine and relatively restrained job on this piece. The background vocals are decent, and while somewhat overused at the time, the harpsichord helps remove any trace of Texas from the arrangement.
“Shades of Gray”: This is one of the weaker pieces on Headquarters, a sappy, faux-reflective “when I grow up to be a man” number written by Mann and Weill. I doubt it would have improved things much to gag Tork, as the song has such a mechanical feel to it that I don’t think even a competent singer could have saved it.
“Randy Scouse Git”: Wow! Where did this come from? This is the song I was referring to when I wrote that Micky Dolenz had the greatest artistic potential in the group. After fourteen terribly predictable pop songs with Chinese food lyrics, the quality and depth of this piece literally caused me to leap out of my chair with excitement. Dolenz says he wrote it after attending a party The Beatles threw for The Monkees, so maybe they should have hung out with the Fab Four a bit more often. The strange arrangement combining the building thunder of the timpani, music hall piano, scat singing and a pre-punk vocal explosion on the chorus is one of my favorite arrangements on any record because of the way the music completely supports the surreal, ripping lyrics. It’s as if Micky Dolenz channeled a tiny piece of Thelonious Monk one night and said, “To hell with convention, let’s do it!”
The lyrics are reminiscent of the style of Joyce’s Ulysses: wry but unrestrained internal monologue on a life scene interspersed with random conformity messages from the Super-ego:
The four kings of E.M.I.
Are sitting stately on the floor
There are birds out on the sidewalk
And a valet at the door.
He reminds me of a penguin
With few and plastered hair,
There’s talcum powder on the letter
And the birthday boy is there.
Why don’t you cut your hair?
Why don’t you live up there?
Why don’t you do what I do,
See what I feel when I care?
The scene with The Beatles (“the four kings of E. M. I.”) is drawn very vividly, but even the presence of royalty cannot prevent the internal pressures from exploding into consciousness. The second explosion carries even more power, a withering attack on the American establishment, their wonderment at the strange goings-on of young people and their blind, murderous commitment to the war in Vietnam:
Why don’t you be like me?
Why don’t you stop and see?
Why don’t you hate who I hate,
Kill who I kill to be free.
The interpretation of the phrase “Randy Scouse Git” is literally “horny Northern loser,” but since “scouse” specifically refers to the Merseyside dialect, you have to conclude that Micky wasn’t entirely impressed with one of the Liverpudlians in attendance at the soirée. All very intriguing, but what’s more puzzling to me is why Micky Dolenz never wrote another song that approached the brilliance he displays here. Absolutely, positively my favorite Monkees song.
“For Pete’s Sake”: This became the closing theme in the closing months of the show. It contains the “we were born to love one another” message that permeated the collective psyche at the time. Bo-ring.
“You Just May Be the One”: Yawn. A rather choppy piece of Texas from Mike Nesmith with dull lyrics and a pretty predictable chord pattern, this track demonstrates another weakness of The Monkees: they weren’t very good at finding the groove. None of the songs on this album get my hips shaking. After a brief and failed experience at the drum kit, Dolenz went off to play with other toys, leaving The Monkees without a steady drummer to practice, practice, practice with the bass player (occasionally Tork, occasionally Nesmith, occasionally a studio guy) to get the rhythms as tight as possible. On one end of the spectrum you have The Monkees’ haphazard approach to rhythm, on the other end, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman. Now, who’s going to make you get up and dance?
“Pleasant Valley Sunday”: The big hit from the Pisces album is a big disappointment because they went back to Gerry Goffin and Carole King for the material. The message of “look at what boring, meaningless lives we all lead in our Southern California backyards” lacks any real punch. You know why? Because during all those backyard barbecues, those smug, self-satisfied, suntanned Southern Californians were serenaded by the mellifluous voice of Vin Scully calling Dodger games! Vin Scully meaningless? Impossible!
“Words”: Micky really overdoes the vocal here (Exhibit 3), imbuing it with a sense of urgency far beyond its meaning. Perhaps he was running late for an appointment with his agent.
“Daydream Believer”: One of my admitted Guilty Pleasures, I consider this Davy Jones’ best work. I loathe the recording studio chatter at the beginning, primarily inserted to remind the girls that short people like Davy are cute. This is easily fixed on iTunes by changing the song’s setting to start at 00:09. The horns are horrid, the strings worse, but Davy somehow makes it all work, the charming little bastard.
“Goin Down”: Oh, for fuck’s sake. “Sock it to me?” Silly scat is one thing, but Micky is out of his league trying to turn himself into a jazz singer. Ridiculous.
“What Am I Doing Hanging Round”: Yuck. A despicably light and cute country song from Mike Nesmith. Double yuck.
“Valleri”: Mike Nesmith called this “the worst record ever,” and I heartily agree. Cooked up a year or so before its release by Boyce and Hart in response to an order phoned in by Don Kirshner for a song with a girl’s name in the title, it sounds like the delivery boy got lost and left The Monkees with a cold, runny pizza.
“Porpoise Song (Theme from Head)”: Head was The Monkees’ foray into film, a strange psychedelic experience hatched from the brain of a young Jack Nicholson and his buddy Bob Rafelson. The two would later connect to produce the critically-acclaimed yawner Five Easy Pieces, not having learned much from the mistakes they made in Head. The most enduring memory I have of the movie is that Micky Dolenz, trying to emulate the disaffected, disillusioned alienation of the young Marlon Brando, wound up doing a superb imitation of someone suffering from acid indigestion. I’ve read that some people consider this the height of The Monkees’ musical career; given that they wrote very little of it and the studio was crawling with session musicians, I suppose it was, in a rather ironic way. This is yet another Goffin-King number with plenty of echoes of the music from Magical Mystery Tour.
“Listen to the Band”: No, I don’t think I will. I’m really tired of this band.
Look. If these guys had come together and formed a band on their own without the backing of millions of dollars and without the power of the entertainment industry behind them, there is no way in hell they would have made it. They weren’t very good musicians. They weren’t very good songwriters. They had no common vision and apparently very little collaborative chemistry when it came to making music. In the best of all worlds, Davy Jones would have had a long career as a character actor, Mike Nesmith might have had a nice life on the honky-tonk circuit, Peter Tork could have been a fifth wheel in a decent band, and who knows what would have happened with Micky Dolenz. But as a musical group, they left much to be desired. Compared to more talented contemporaries like Buffalo Springfield, The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Rascals, well, there is no comparison.
The Monkees simply weren’t very good.