The Monkees fought long and hard to dispel the initially true accusations that they didn’t play the instruments on their mega-selling records. After winning an unprecedented victory by actually becoming the musicians on records that had a lot of studio money riding on them, they still couldn’t seem to dodge the ersatz label that dogs them to this very day. Those in the know are well aware that Mike, Micky, Davy, and Peter not only played on many of their best recordings, but they often played very, very well. Without question, the most musically adept Monkee is Peter Tork. A brilliant banjo player, keyboardist, guitarist, bass player, and songwriter, Tork’s flourishes were some of the most memorable moments on The Monkees’ records. Here are ten examples.
1. “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” (harpsichord)
While The Monkees were struggling to take control of their records, they met up in RCA studios to cut a new Michael Nesmith composition for their next single. After an awkward early take with Nesmith handling lead vocals, they recut it with the more marketable Micky Dolenz singing and a classic morsel of brisk pop was born. Dolenz’s voice provides the uplift, while producer Chip Douglas’s bass grounds the track, but it is Peter Tork’s harpsichord solo that truly makes it something unique. Stabbing out offbeat chords through the verses, Tork breaks out for a mid-song solo, dancing ascending runs up the keyboard. Much to the group’s irritation, control-freak Don Kirshner relegated this excellent track to the B-side “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”, a mediocre Neil Diamond number cut with studio musicians. Fortunately, Kirshner’s move proved to be the last straw, and he was soon fired, leaving The Monkees free to make records their own way.
2. “You Told Me” (banjo)
The Monkees had worked as a live band almost from the very beginning of the T.V./recording/ marketing project bearing their name. So when it came time to make Headquarters, the first album they recorded as a proper band, they had already developed a decent playing rapport. The sessions weren’t easy and the resulting album required innumerable edits for it to pass muster, but the highlights were plentiful. One of the most dazzling occurs just ten seconds into the disc. The guys goof through a parody of the count-in to The Beatles’ “Taxman”, Nesmith picks a few rudimentary arpeggios on his guitar. Amateur hour? Hardly. Tork’s fleet-fingered banjo shudders into the mix. Suddenly the track whirls, and when Chip Douglas’s bass drops in and Dolenz slams into his four-on-the-floor beat, we’re knee deep in a country-rock funk no “pre-fab band” could ever pull off.
3. “You Just May Be the One” (bass)
Tasked with handling all the keyboard, banjo, and twelve-string guitar parts on Headquarters, Peter Tork mostly left the bass-work to The Turtles’ superb former bassist Chip Douglas, whom Nesmith had also brought on board to produce the sessions. Without any special duties required on Nesmith’s “You Just May Be the One”, Tork fulfilled his T.V. role for one time only on Headquarters by playing the bass. His tricky riff that opens the track proves he could have easily handled bass duties throughout the record if he so chose.
4. “Shades of Grey” (vocals, piano)
Though an exceptional musician, Peter Tork tended to fall a bit flat as a singer. With three good-to-great singers at The Monkees’ disposal, Tork was rarely elected to sing. Much to his, and the song’s composer’s, chagrin, Peter’s first vocal spotlight involved him making silly noises over the unintentional-novelty “Your Auntie Grizelda” on More of the Monkees. But what Tork lacked in technical skill, he more than made up for in commitment. Had squeaky Davy Jones been left alone to sing Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill’s “Shades of Grey”, the track may have been more saccharine than somber. But by counterpointing Jones’s inherent sweetness with his shaky yet sincere pipes, Tork transforms the ballad into a movingly grave duet. The incessant piano line he crafted underpins the track beautifully. Bonus points to Tork for notating the French horn and cello melodies Nesmith devised. Notating is a skill most pop musicians don’t possess, and that includes The Beatles.
5. “For Pete’s Sake” (composition, guitar)
Headquarters is a wonderful showcase for The Monkees as both musicians and songwriters. Nesmith, Dolenz, and Peter Tork all make major contributions to the record, but only Tork’s was deemed suitable to take a particularly prestigious position as the closing theme of season two of “The Monkees” television series. Tork’s roommate Joey Richards contributed a few lines, but “For Pete’s Sake” was mainly its namesake’s work. Tork roots his charmingly naïve hippie love-and-peace lyrics with a bluesy guitar figure, providing Dolenz with plenty of room to stretch out with his ad-libbed vocal acrobatics.
6. “The Door Into Summer” (keyboards)
Mike, Micky, and Davy were perfectly satisfied to win control of their music, but none had the desire to continue slogging away in the studio as a traditional band when it was completed. To keep their sessions running smoother, they welcomed studio aces back into the fold. Peter Tork, however, was disheartened by the end of The Monkees’ days as a tight little quintet. Still, the equal parts studio-musicians and Monkee-musicians formula resulted in their best album. Tork’s role is a bit diminished on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, LTD., but he still gets off some of the album’s key moments. In this writer’s opinion, the rendition of Bill Martin’s “The Door Into Summer” is not only the most beautiful thing The Monkees’ ever recorded, but it is also one of the most spectacular showcases for Peter Tork’s keyboard talents. He begins with a dirty clavinet riff that continues burbling beneath the verse. Exploding into the euphoric refrain, Tork adds an absolutely breathtaking music-box melody on piano, sparkling like sunlight glinting off a geode.
7. “Seeger’s Theme” (banjo)
Pisces, Aquarius marked the last time The Monkees would really collaborate in the studio for some thirty years. With those sessions behind them, each Monkee essentially commanded his own sessions, cutting songs of his own choosing with musicians he’d assembled. One such track was a brief yet exhilarating arrangement of “Goofing Off Suite” by Tork’s folk idol Pete Seeger. Retitled in tribute as “Seeger’s Theme”, Tork’s rendition may be the most jaw-dropping recorded evidence of his banjo virtuosity. Buddy Miles's avalanche of drums is mightily impressive too.
8. “Tear the Top Right Off My Head” (composition, vocals, guitar)
Peter Tork gave just a taste of this fusion of wacky psychedelic comedy and country-folk on his acoustic guitar in the “Hitting the High Seas” episode of “The Monkees”. Fans would have to wait more than twenty years to hear the completed studio version of “Tear the Top Right Off My Head”, with its inviting Lovin’ Spoonful stroll and bizarre interjections of fuzzed-out guitar and stoner in-jokes (“Hector plants”? What?). Micky Dolenz also cut a lead vocal for this track, but it’s somehow too polished. Only Tork’s yearning quaver does this delightfully shambling production justice.
(Sorry, I could only find this acetate recording of the Dolenz-sung version)
9. “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?” (composition, vocals, guitar)
All four Monkees worked hard to produce quality tracks for their fifth album, The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees, but when music-supervisor Lester Sill chose the record’s track listing, he shortchanged Peter Tork completely. Apart from his piano parts on “Daydream Believer”, Tork is not represented on the album at all. Perhaps this was punishment for the massive amount of studio time he’d devoted to his songs “Lady’s Baby” and “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?” The former track is a major footnote in Monkee lore, more for rumors that it cost more to record than “Good Vibrations”(!) than its musical quality. “Long Title” is a different story. Speedy and aggressive, spiced with tortured guitar bends, punk bass, and a heart-stopping shift to waltz time in the bridge, the track is a masterpiece of composition and ensemble playing. Tork supplies one of his best vocals, sounding not unlike Jim Morrison. Cut from the running of The Birds, The Bees at the last minute, “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?” found a home on the Head soundtrack later in 1968, winning him the distinction of placing more original songs on that record than any other Monkee.
10. “Can You Dig It?” (composition, guitar)
Tork contributes another query to the Head soundtrack, and it may be his most unique and intricate work of all. Though the sloganeering refrain has dated the track a bit, its mesh of whirling-dervish guitars, hard-hitting drums, and fluttering bass are utter excitement. Despite placing what may be his two finest songs on the latest Monkees album and the group’s sole feature film, Peter Tork had reached the end of his interest in the project that launched his career. Mike, Micky, and Davy would still make some pretty good music over the next year, but there’s no question that they lost their most accomplished musician when Peter flew the coop. Fortunately, he left behind many musical moments, such as these ten, that testify to his skill, creativity, and genuine love for playing in a band.
Today is Peter Tork’s 70th birthday.