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.
[…] The Best of the Monkees […]
I love the song Goin’ Down and I was pleasantly surprised to hear it during an episode of Breaking Bad. I think the song has a spirit of motion to it as in “Goin’ down” that is delivered impressively by Dolenz.
Revisionism has been rating the Monkees higher than in their heyday, and I subscribe to that. If not as great as the very greatest ones (Beatles, Kinks, Stones, Beach Boys et al), they aren’t bad either – their music having been written by them or by songwriting pros or played by them or some neighbours notwithstanding; yes, it’s the results that count.
I think this compilation you’ve reviewed makes the Monkees a great disservice, what with too much silly novelties (“Your Auntie Grazielda”, “Goin’ Down”) in place of much worthier tracks such as “Good Clean Fun” and “Circle Sky”. If the compiler(s) really had to choose a novelty track – well, The Monkees was a sitcom, and sitcoms feature humour, or at least they try – , he/she/they/whatever should have gone for “Gonna Buy Me A Dog”. (And, to me, More Of The Monkees is like the Byrds’ Turn Turn Turn: both are albums that everybody thinks are minor ones, but I love them anyway despite a couple of lesser tracks.)
OK, some details are part of the plan. The Beatles were the first 1960s group to have a big hit with a string-laden ballad (“Yesterday”, bien sûr), so these test-tube Beatles had to do it too (“I Wanna Be Free”). Of course, I won’t split hairs just because some Monkees song you despise (“She”, the Neil Diamond songs) are among my favourites, that’s the way with personal tastes. Well, some of my rock’n’roll-lovig friends keep asking me “Sgt. Pepper’s? Do you really like that bomb?” (Just a correction: the Yardbirds didn’t use session players out of necessity. A band uses session men or women for one of four reasons: incompetence (temporary or permanent from one, manyh or all band mambers), versatility (when a particular arrangement demands an instrument that no one in the band can play well enough), time schedules (remember Brian Wilson recording Beach Boys songs with session people while the band was on the road) or just plain camaraderie (e. g. George Harrison called Clapton to play on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” to impress the other Beatles into less fighting and more ensemble playing). The Yardbirds’ case was the second one: in “For Your Love” they wanted acoustic bass, harpsichord and bongo, but the session players played exactly as they were told by Paul Samwell-Smith, the band’s bassist and musical director.)
And one of the great ironies of life is that the raison d’être of all this music was a TV series that is much less remembered than the music it begat, and rightly so (I don’t find the series all that bad, but it’s not essential either except as a historical demonstration that USA enterprising exploited the Beatles movies for all they were worth…)
We will have to agree to disagree, but thank you for making your case!
You need to do more homework. Nesmith wrote 2 originals for the first album (and got Tork in the studio to play guitar). Nesmith wrote “Mary Mary.” The Paul Butterfield Blues Band covered it. As for your assessment of Nesmith, when you “researched” the Monkees on allmusic did you note how highly regarded and pioneering Nesmith’s country work was. There’s even a tribute album dedicated to his work. I think you underestimate Nesmith as a song writer. He rarely made a wrong step and was a very clever wordsmith.
I could go on, but, I’m not going to.
Oh, my! You seem to be implying that if I had “done my research,” I would have adopted the opinions of other reviewers and artists concerning Mike Nesmith. Sorry, but the opinions of mainstream reviewers, the Grammy committee, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the general public or any renowned artist are unlikely to influence my opinion, and I’m certainly not going to write that I think an artist or a piece of music is good simply because the “experts” think that. I have my own opinions, they have theirs, you have yours.
And on “Mary Mary,” the comment in the review was solely directed the comparison of The Monkees’ performance and Butterfield’s. The song itself is pretty unimpressive.
I occasionally throw on “The Birds, the Bees, and The Monkees,” and once in a while “Headquarters” or the soundtrack from “Head,” but that’s about it. They were assembled, as I understand it, through an ad in “Variety.” I don’t fault them for being what they were – the 60s equivalent of a boy band put together by Simon Cowell – and I like the fact that they tried to assert some independence later in their career. Still, the main reason to listen to them is the Boyce and Hart tracks you mentioned… they’re pretty good pop. But The Monkees were not in the class of the great majority of the British Invasion bands of the period they tried to imitate.
Thank you—I think they did do some pretty nice pop songs, but fully agree that the British clearly had the superior musicians and songwriters.
I always try to keep my comments brief, on ARC site
I will be a little expansive here .
“The American Network TV machine” quoted above and Hollywood from 1957 to 1980
Was controlled by MCA and one man; Lew Wasserman .
ScreenGems a subsidiary of Columbia pictures was home to the production
Of the Monkees , Gilligans Island was a product of United Artist television.
Both were very small players and frankly existed so that MCA //Universal television
Would not violate antitrust laws and comply with SAG waiver they were given.
Universal and NBC signed a 60 million dollar deal in 1966 for exhibition rights
To Movies and television produced by MCA.
MCAand NBC in effect let the Monkees and Screen Gems have a time slot to avoid
Antitrust issues .
MCA and Lew Wasserman controlled the industry in a way no one did before or since
The former talent agent packaged the talent , the production , and the distribution of
Television and movies for 30 years , the networks were essentially left as “exhibitors”
Screen Gems and United Artists followed and got what this monopoly left on the table
….not too much….
Raybert productions …that’s Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider were with Screen Gems
…Rafelson had been fired by Wasserman years earlier during a production…
With regard to the music end of things MCA owned Decca records …among other labels.
A nice cash cow.
MCA first album under an MCA relabel was Elton John in 1972.
Today David Geffen owns what was the MCA music business.
He is as an astute businessman as Wasserman was .
If the Monkees were starting up today….every one from the first casting
On up answers to Geffen as they did to Wasserman …it’s a product after all.
We may disagree about our likes and dislikes that’s fine .
Understanding how the show flickered on our screens
And how business is conducted is always helpful as well.
My source for the above…two biographies of Wasserman , called
“The Last Mogul” and “When Hollywood had a King ” the later by Connie Bruck.
Those books sound like horror stories, but I will have to check out at least one of them. I know some very good musicians from the City who were on their way until they started connecting with the people in the business and decided it wasn’t worth the sacrifice. What is the situation now—three companies control virtually all the music released today? Dreadful.
I think you managed to get through that OK and pretty fairly. I’m soooo glad you didn’t feel it necessary to explain ad nauseum how the Monkees were a fake, a hoax, an insult to anyone smart, etc. Even though you weren’t there when it unfolded, you understood that they were a TV show. I, as a six-year-old, understood that and really enjoyed the TV show but, even at the very start, was put on the defensive by my 13-year-old brother about what a fraud they were blah blah blah. Can you believe as a First Grader I was forced to defend something I liked? Hey, I liked the song Happy Birthday, too, even though the lyrics are kind of mailed-in and repetitive. Sheesh. By the time I was 12, I had given away all of my Monkee albums – yes, gave them away in shame! – and didn’t think much about them until their first greatest hits releases in the late 70’s. I bought the hits and discovered I still liked them, and here I am today buying Andrew Sandoval’s bio about them, buying their expanded re-releases, and liking it! I’m tired of explaining it – I like their music.
The TV show lasted two whole seasons before being cancelled. It never was a big ratings buster (hey, it had to go to against “Gilligan’s Island” their first season). I think the fascinating thing about the show is how wildly successful the music and concerts were with the promotion of a mid-ratings TV show. I mean, really, those two first albums are among the biggest sellers of all-time in a year that was the apex of rock/pop music. I’m a Believer sold over a million copies in England at a time when #1’s sold 250,000 tops, even the Beatles by then. “Randy Scouse Git/Alternate Title” was released as a single in England two weeks after the release of Sgt. Pepper and made it to #2. Can you think of another American “band” that invaded England back like this?
The Monkees were the greatest fake band of all-time, much better than the Archies, The Partridge Family, or the Banana Splits. They have three songs that are going to be with us forever – Clarksville and the two Believers – how many bands, real or not, can say that? So many ironies helped make it work. Their two best singers were actors who had had success at very young ages. The other two were very good musicians but unemployed nobodies with no acting experience. One of them could even write songs that weren’t so terrible; I think “Papa Gene’s Blues” is more interesting than you give it credit for, but what’s the point in arguing over Monkees songs?
Here’s my main quibble with your review. You make it sound like it was so easy for the American Network TV Machine to manufacture such success. It’s kind of like when you thought it was inevitable that Benoit would give up the HR to Ortiz. I don’t think success in anything at that level is ever that easy, even with the tables tilted in your favor, unless there is real talent involved. Otherwise, everyone would be doing it. You said the Monkees had to pay their dues through their first two albums to gain artistic control. That all transpired within six months! It was all happening so fast – Nesmith and Tork went from being nobodies to beating Don Kirshner in 6 months! Davy and Micky were clubbing with the Beatles and being asked the opinions of Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields before their release, all within 6 months! They were going against the toughest competition imaginable and did spectacularly well, not just in America, but worldwide.
My final point ( I hope I haven’t made you gag too much) – one of the expanded re-releases I bought has an alternate take of “I’m a Believer” on it with Micky delivering a very different vocal performance – he was still figuring the song out. It wasn’t as good and the song was strangely mediocre. The final version is Micky getting it right. The sighs, the “yayayay’s” are all his inventions in that final take. It’s really a wonderful vocal performance that Neil Diamond never could have pulled off. The song isn’t really that good, but Micky, the actor, pushes it to greatness. Kind of ironic, huh?
That The Monkees couldn’t beat Gilligan’s Island in the ratings race also blows my mind. American sitcoms of that era were execrable. But I think that reinforces my point: if the power of television could turn a piece of crap like Gilligan’s Island into a classic, it could turn a mediocre band into pop stars (unless you want to argue that Bob Denver was as talented as Olivier). There are dozens of no-talent performers today who are extraordinarily successful in a commercial sense, as the recent Grammy bash proved. So, I remain a Monkees-skeptic, but will defend your right to enjoy them with all my heart and soul! In fact, I envy you for going back and restocking your collection: when I listen to some of the stuff I liked as a teen, I am thoroughly embarrassed and deserve the shame.
You know, almost 50 years on, I’m still not sure exactly what happened with the Monkees. They were some combination of Frankenstein, Pygmalion, Starmaker, MTV, and Galaxy Quest. I understand your point about the power of 1960’s TV, but that’s only one part of it. Comparing Bob Denver to Olivier is off the mark when talking about the Monkees talent or lack thereof. It’s like asking Bob Denver for his survival expertise or Einstein asking Russell Johnson his opinion on the theory of relativity. Elizabeth Montgomery wasn’t really a witch, Barbara Eden wasn’t really a genie, Sally Field wasn’t really a nun, but what were the Monkees? The actors played characters with their real first names, they pretended to play music on TV, they really played music in their wildly popular concerts, and their records that they sang on and sometimes played on were wildly popular in the real world. Their TV show was the least successful aspect of it all, yet it all dried up and went away when the TV show was cancelled.
Let’s look at Mickey Dolenz’ career trajectory. Child star with his own TV show in the 50’s. Teenager still looking to act but also in a garage band plating guitar in the mid-60’s. Answers a casting call for the Monkees, which combines his two passions and gets it. Turns out to be a great professional singer. Volunteers to play drums because someone in the Monkees has to. Hears his songs on the radio before the TV show is even on the air. Instantly becomes a huge star. Within six months has Paul McCartney playing him an acetate of what would be the greatest rock/pop single of all time and asking his opinion. Does everything asked of an actor that he should, but also starts to become a creative musician. Within two years his show his cancelled and he can no longer get work as an actor for the rest of his life because he is a Monkee. Spends most of the rest of his life touring as a drummer for the Monkees.
Yes, I know you hate the music and I like it, but this is some weird shit to sort out, isn’t it?
I think I mentioned in the review that they had entered a surreal world, so I don’t know if you could break this down into a sequence of causal relationships. It’s clear to me that Dolenz was the most gifted one, but either the weird circumstances or his own personality got in the way of applying that talent on a consistent, long-term basis. Who was going to be his mentor? Don Kirshner? Mike Nesmith? He really could have used someone at his level to help bring it all together, clear out all the baggage from child stardom and Monkee fame and helped him chart his own course. Lennon and McCartney had each other and George Martin; Dolenz didn’t have a bandmate or music master to keep him on track.
I see your point. You just described Quincy Jones’ relationship with Michael Jackson to a T. Ah well, at least Micky is still alive and drumming.
After thinking more about this because of your review, I think the Monkees ripped a hole in the identity continuum. Many of us have identity crises, but especially performers and public figures. You must go through this a lot with your current identities – I know I have wondered who I am, a lot lately. As usual, I’ll turn to Ray Davies for the final word (and not from Soap Opera):
OK – The six-year-old inside me is insisting on the final final word on the Monkees. Their TV show was waaay better than the Beatles’ cartoons.
Rock at its best is transformative.
The Monkees were superannuated and sclerotic from the get go.
Bob Rafelson and Burt Schneider did what they could to work around
the problem when they produced the movie Head.
The sponsor to the show was Kelloggs …so much for snap crackle ; pop.
perhaps the Monkees stood at one end of the wormhole in 1967 -68
…on the other side in 74-75 were Patti Smith; Lou Reed; the Ramones; David Byrne.
Christ… where does one begin with The Monkees? I enjoyed your cynical jaded view on them and again, you pretty much hit the nail on the head in many areas regarding their talent and work in general.
A couple of bits of background info… When The Monkees had to go into the studio for the first time, Boyce and Hart sat them round a piano and listened to each of them sing. Their conclusion? Tork couldn’t sing a note, Davy was dreadful, Mike passable but bland and Dolenz? Straight away they recognised that Micky was the best singer and held much potential. When he played it straight, he proved himself to be a great pop singer but unfortunately, success, money and illegal substances went to his head and he believed he could get away with anything. Think yourself lucky you haven’t had to listen to any of the actual albums for review… trust me, you’d hate The Monkees even more!
Goodness knows how on Earth he managed to write “Randy Scouse Git” – an impressive songwriting debut and a wonderfully oddball piece of pop. He got the title from a comedy show he watched when in England, “Till Death Us Do Part” – it’s main character Alf Garnett regularly referred to his son in law as a “randy scouse git” and Dolenz noticed it always got a laugh, so decided to use it. Here’s the farcical irony – that comedy show was a BBCTV production, yet when the BBC got an acetate of the single, they told The Monkees that the title was “unacceptable” hence they were forced into releasing it as “Alternate Title!”
Their quest for artistic freedom ended up being a farce since once they did “Headquarters” they became little more than 4 solo acts. Their albums are the most absurd schizophrenic affairs, sounding like nonsensical ragbag compilations with schmaltzy shit from Davy, Country dirges by Mike, Micky being plain eccentric and Peter barely even bothering. At least in the case of The Beatles final year or so, most if not all members played on each song even if dubbed separately… The Monkees on the other hand rarely had more than the lead singer present. Mike simply spent as much money and time as possible doing his thing whilst Peter spent an entire year working on ONE song called “Lady’s Baby” with countless sessions and still it wasn’t good enough to be released in their lifetime!
I am very fond of “Head” – both the movie and soundtrack and regard that as their finest work as they gleefully ripped their image apart. They went one step further with the final project involving Peter, a TV special which is an absolute disastrous mess that showed The Monkees really never existed as, nor ever were truly “a band.”
You always write great supplements to my posts! I did listen to the albums (one must be thorough) and I simply couldn’t believe how bad they were. I remain puzzled by the whole thing and by the latest critical reappraisal of a third-bill band at a club about to go out of business.
The Monkees weren’t Masterpiece Theatre, they were Gilligan’s Island. Just like that TV show, the intangible element that captured the magic was the wonderful job done on casting. If you look at the casting clips from the show on Youtube, Columbia absolutely picked the right guys, and they did gell very nicely. It’s also good to see you give Dolenz his due as a vocalist – the success and distinctiveness of the groups’ best music rested squarely on his vocals.
The Gilligan analogy really puts The Monkees in context. I never understood the success of that show either.
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