Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Nuggets Record Buying Guide: The Monkees

I’d certainly heard music from the ‘60s before discovering The Monkees during their massive 20-year-anniversary revival in 1986, which saw their TV series snare a new generation on MTV, all of their original albums reenter the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and three of the original members mount a hugely successful tour. But, as much as Dylan and Beatles songs appealed to me, it was still my dad’s music. Seeing my grammar school peers dig The Monkees made them OK for me too dig, too, and their jangly guitars, irresistible pop hooks, and sweet harmonies were a welcome antidote to the shit purveying the contemporary pop scene. I was too young for college radio, so my love of R.E.M., Throwing Muses, Elvis Costello, and other great mid-‘80s acts that didn’t receive the air-time that Lionel Richie, Mr. Mister, and Peter Cetera did was still years away. The organic, guitar-based pop of The Monkees appealed to my twelve-year-old self far more than the glossy synthesized garbage that then littered top-forty radio and MTV.

As they were for twelve year-olds in the mid-‘60s, The Monkees served as a gateway to my interest in more sophisticated Rock bands during the mid-‘80s. They also sparked my obsession with '60s pop: The Monkees begat The Beatles, who begat The Rolling Stones, who begat The Who, who begat The Pretty Things, and so on, and so on. I did go through a phase in which I scoffed at The Monkees when I grew a bit older, but after rediscovering them a few years after the Listen to the Band box set appeared in 1990, I found that many of my favorite hooks were right where I left them. I was shocked by how well much of The Monkees’ music held up, even as I now recognized what critics had been hating about them for almost thirty years.

And here lies The Monkees problem. Their best music is often their least known. Their best known songs threaten to confirm the major criticisms lobbed at the group: (1) they were put together by cynical TV-producers bent on cashing in on the success of A Hard Day’s Night, a film starring a group that came together organically to make the decade’s greatest music, (2) they didn’t play their instruments (“Last Train to Clarksville”, “I’m a Believer”), and (3) they played lightweight, saccharine bubblegum sung with a mere trace of competence (“A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”, “Daydream Believer”).

The first of these complaints is the easiest to dismiss: the same thing could be said about The Sex Pistols, and no one questions their credibility just because they were assembled by Malcolm McLaren. The “Monkees don’t play they own instruments and therefore are completely illegitimate” gripe has always been a hollow one, too. The Beach Boys, one of pop’s most respected bands, rarely played the instruments on their records. Not a Beach Boy touched an instrument during the SMiLE sessions. Groups less monumental than The Beach Boys, but still more respected than The Monkees, used studio players at times, as well: The Byrds and Love being two (I’d never lump in, say, The Mamas and the Papas, with these groups as others do, because no one should expect a vocal group to play the instruments on their recordings). And as anyone with the slightest knowledge of pop history knows, The Monkees successfully fought for the right to play on their records after existing for little over six months. That is quite a feat, but one that never won them an iota of respect from the hip music press.

The final complaint is perhaps more legitimate, but one that can be traced to a single individual: Davy Jones. Davy’s little-boy good looks obviously won the group a gargantuan following of pre-teen girls, but his equally prepubescent voice did the music no favors. Much of his material is fluff, and that includes big hits like “Daydream Believer” and “A Little Bit Me”. Davy’s cloying numbers mar the best Monkees records. The fact that his material is better known by non-fanatics than Mike Nesmith’s sophisticated contributions has done immeasurable damage to The Monkees’ reputation.

Not surprisingly, when Rhino Records chose a Monkees track to include on Where The Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968 (2009) they went for a Nesmith composition. “Daily Nightly” was a good selection not just because of its quality, but because of its relevance to the box set’s theme (it is a surreal yet oddly journalistic report on the Sunset Strip curfew riots between hippies and cops in the summer of ’66). The track also helps counter The Monkees’ bubblegum image with its razor sharp bass lick, psychedelic poeticism, and genuinely cutting-edge squalls of Moog synthesizer (another well-traveled nugget of Monkees-lore is that Micky Dolenz was only the third person to own one of these futuristic instruments, the first being Paul Beaver and the second being, strangely enough, country legend Buck Owens).

“Daily Nightly” is nestled in the album most likely to entice non-believers into a serious Monkees habit. The Monkees (number one on Billboard for 13 weeks) and More of the Monkees (number one on Billboard for an astounding 18 weeks) may have sold more copies, and Headquarters may be the only album on which The Monkees serve as their own backing band on every track, but Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (1967) is the most consistently fine Monkees album.

As much as Peter Tork— the Monkee who most craved legitimacy— wanted the group to continue working together as they had on Headquarters, their intense schedule (which included media appearances, TV filming, and live performances, as well as recording sessions) and diverging interests made it impossible. As a result, Tork rates Pisces below Headquarters, but The Monkees’ fourth record offers a more confident selection of compositions and performances. And, in all fairness, The Monkees are still the backing band for the most part here. Chip Douglas, the former Turtle who played bass on Headquarters and produced that album and Pisces, was essentially a fifth Monkee spared having to appear on the hit-and-miss TV show. His consistently excellent bass playing can be heard on Pisces, as well. Micky Dolenz, who basically learned to play the drums while making Headquarters, sits out most of Pisces (he only contributes the fairly simple beat on “Cuddly Toy”). Instead, The Monkees used ace session man “Fast” Eddie Hoe, whose playing made the sessions run smoother and delivered monumental performances on tracks such as “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “Salesman” that could never be matched by Dolenz’s rudimentary chops. Otherwise, that’s still Nesmith playing guitar throughout the record and Tork playing keyboards and even Jones whacking his tambourine. This mixed approach suited The Monkees best, but the real strength of Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones Ltd. comes from its great songs and the ever-increasing presence of Mike Nesmith.

No other Monkees record contains as many lead vocals by the very adult-sounding Nesmith as Pisces does. Oddly, most of his vocals are on songs written by others, but the songs he chose to sing are all top-notch: the funky Tex-Mex twanging “Salesman”, a put-down of drug pushers written by Nes’s buddy Craig Smith from The Penny Arcade, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s spectacular “Love Is Only Sleeping”, on which Nesmith plays an infectiously wiry guitar riff and hits his eeriest falsetto, Lewis and Clarke’s Byrds-like “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?”, which is among The Monkees’ most beloved album tracks, and Chip Douglas and Bill Martin’s transcendentally beautiful folk-rocker “The Door Into Summer”, my vote for the group’s greatest creation.

Nesmith also sings his own “Don’t Call On Me”, a lounge-lizard experiment that manages to be both genuinely pretty and ironically amusing (his breathy sigh before the velveteen organ solo is hilarious). He handed “Daily Nightly” to Dolenz, who also played the avant garde Moog part, which starkly contrasts the more musical lines played by Paul Beaver on Goffin and King’s “Star Collector”. That particular track contains one of Davy Jones’s more bearable vocals, possibly because he mostly shouts it (no vomit-inducing whispers of “I love you” here) and possibly because the fabulously chaotic backing track still threatens to overwhelm him. Jones also does a fairly respectable job on the Tom Jones-like rocker “She Hangs Out”, a superior remake of a song that briefly appeared on the B-side of “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”. His other two performances are a bit harder to stomach: “Hard to Believe”, a smarmy bossa nova he co-wrote (and tellingly, the only Pisces track on which the other Monkees do not play), and Harry Nilsson’s sleazy combo of bubblegum melody and porno lyricism, “Cuddy Toy”. Despite recalling “a Hell’s Angels’ gang-bang” while trumpeting Jones’ sticky sweetness, “Cuddly Toy” became a sort of minor Monkees classic.

Micky Dolenz, who so dominated The Monkees’ first three records, makes less of an impression here, but each of his contributions are major. Aside from “Daily Nightly” he takes co-lead on the two tracks that made up the group’s best double-sided hit: Gerry Goffin and Carol King’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, one of the few Monkees tracks on which all members of the band make upfront vocal contributions, and Tommy Boyce and Bobby’s Hart’s spooky “Words”, which features a tasty call-and-response between Dolenz and Tork.

So, if you’re quick on the draw when it comes time to skip “Cuddly Toy” and “Hard to Believe”, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones, LTD. is the album most likely to convert you into a Monkees fan. The next step would be Headquarters (1967). Not as consistently rich as Pisces, HQ houses the pleasure of hearing a damn good garage band coming to life. Nesmith’s “You Told Me” and “Sunny Girlfriend” and the Little Richard-inspired band composition “No Time” rock hard and mean. The sweet and sour “Shades of Gray” and Boyce and Hart’s Simon & Garfunkle-esque “Mr. Webster” offer moments of true gravity off-set by the “we realize we’re just winging this” goofs of “No Time”, “Band 6”, and the weird a cappella experiment “Zilch”. Micky Dolenz’s “Randy Scouse Git” works as both comedy and a thrillingly inventive track. It’s the best thing he’s ever written and among the best Monkees recordings. Headquarters really only has one bad cut, the Jones-sung "I Can't Get Her Off My Mind", but it is considerably worse than anything on Pisces.

Bold listeners should then check out Head, the avant garde soundtrack to The Monkees’ avant grade 1968 cult film. The album contains the highest percentage of excellent Monkee songs, but the fact that there are only six of them on the record makes it less of an easy listen than Pisces and Headquarters. Aside from Nesmith’s ferocious “Circle Sky” (as far as I’m concerned, this studio version pulverizes the more lauded live one from the film), Tork’s exotic “Can You Dig It?” and exhilarating “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?”, the gorgeous ballad “As We Go Along” (with guitar by Neil Young), the monumental psychedelic excursion “Porpoise Song”, and “Daddy’s Song”, a better Nilsson/Jones confluence than “Cuddly Toy”, the record is filled out with bizarro montages of sound effects and dialogue from the Head film edited with cheeky mischievousness by co-screenwriter Jack Nicholson.

The Monkees' two biggest sellers lack the adventure of their albums that followed, but both The Monkees (1966) and More of the Monkees (1967) still have much to recommend them. No one but those addicted to TV theme songs needs to listen to “(Theme from) The Monkees”, and Davy commits two of his worst crimes with “I Wanna Be Free” on the first album and “The Day We Fall In Love” on the second, but Nesmith’s pioneering country-rock work-outs “Papa Gene’s Blues”, “The Kind of Girl I Could Love”, and especially “Sweet Young Thing” are great. So are the more garagey numbers, such as “Saturday’s Child”, “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day”, “Let’s Dance On”, “She”, “Mary Mary”, and “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”. Davy even manages to get off one terrific bubblegummer with his rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” on More.

The remainder of The Monkees’ catalogue is sketchier. Each album contains a handful of tracks essential for true-believers, but the less committed should stop with the first four records and Head. The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees (1968) is the best of the remainder, but it’s a hodgepodge with Nesmith’s freakiest experiments rubbing elbows with Jones’s fluffiest bubblegum. Still, you wouldn’t want to be without “Tapioca Tundra” or “Auntie’s Municipal Court”, Nesmith’s two greatest fusions of country and psych. The Monkees Present (1969) is more consistent, with Jones finally hitting on a more adult approach to his brand of pop and Dolenz discovering light jazz-pop, but the material is less exciting. Instant Replay (1969) is an unfortunately assembled outtakes compilation. The Monkees had a slew of great stuff in the can, so there’s no excuse for the inclusion of “Me Without You”, “Just a Game”, and “Don’t Listen to Linda” aside from attempting to confirm The Monkees’ reputation as pap for teenyboppers. Dolenz’s suite “Shorty Blackwell” may have been an attempt to cast the group as heavyweight freaks, but it isn’t particularly listenable. But “I Wont’ Be the Same Without Her”, a leftover from The Monkees’ earliest sessions, is gorgeous, and the lacerating “You and I”, which features a more prominent Neil Young lead than “As We Go Along”, is hands down Jones’s best song and vocal. Changes (1970), The Monkees’ last gasp after Nesmith finally quit the group (Tork departed after Head), is the worst of the bunch, but even this thin platter contains one great rocker, the Jones-sung “99 Pounds”, and one last superb Dolenz raver, “Midnight Train”. Anything released as “The Monkees” after this shouldn’t even be touched with a twenty-foot, poo-covered cattle prod.
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