Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Revolution Rock: The Monkees Take Control with ‘Headquarters’

January 1967. Music Supervisor Don Kirshner has called a gathering of Monkees at his Beverly Hills Motel suite to give the boys some good news. Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith file in. Nesmith seems more agitated than usual. The actors, Dolenz and Jones, take their seats. The musicians, Tork and Nesmith, decide to remain standing. Nesmith begins pacing the floor.

Screen Gems lawyer Herb Moelis stands at Kirshner’s side. Self-satisfied with his role in overseeing The Monkees’ shockingly sudden success, Kirshner grins, hands each of his young charges a gold record. It’s the second Monkees L.P., released less than three months after their debut. The Monkees had spent thirteen of those weeks occupying the number one spot on the Billboard 200 chart. Bolstered with the second number one single to bear The Monkees’ name, Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer”, More of the Monkees was even more phenomenal. It broke Billboard records by leaping from #122 to #1 in a single week. More of the Monkees would go on to enjoy an astounding 18 weeks at the top of the charts, eventually becoming the twelfth biggest selling album of all time. Not without justification, Kirshner believes the boys should be grateful that he’d masterminded their tremendous—and possibly, undeserved—success. They weren’t.

The actors are fairly indifferent, though Dolenz takes great issue with the tacky J.C. Penny’s togs he wears on the record jacket. The musicians are furious, humiliated by a media reveling in the revelation that they performed little more than vocals on their mega-selling records. Aside from the scant three tracks he’d been allowed to contribute to The Monkees’ two albums, Nesmith hates the music, feels hopelessly disconnected from it. He wasn’t even aware that More of the Monkees, a hodge-podge rush-released to capitalize on the guys’ likely fleeting success, existed until discovering it in a Cleveland record store. When he finally gave it a spin, he deemed it “the worst album in the history of the world” (Hit Parader). Wearing down the carpet in Kirshner’s suite just a few days later, Nesmith is raring to unload.

Kirshner congratulates the boys on “their” record. Nesmith cuts through his colleague’s half-hearted mumbles of thanks to ask when the next release is due. Kirshner has another single in mind for the end of February. In fact, he’d already commanded sessions for a new Neil Diamond song at RCA studio in New York, and he thinks it’s another sure hit.

Nesmith snaps.

He threatens to quit if Kirshner doesn’t step down and hand over control of The Monkees’ records. His fellow Monkees are agape. Even the veteran supervisor is floored by the threat.

Moelis finally speaks up: “You’d better take a look at your contract, son.”

That’s it.

Wham!

Nesmith rams his fist through the wall. Plaster rains to the floor. The Monkee gets in the lawyer’s face. “That could have been your face, motherfucker!” He stomps from the room. The gangly longhair with the reserved drawl and goofy wool hat is not the feeble adversary Moelis expected. His actions are nothing short of a declaration of revolution.
This incident is familiar to the fans who’ve long harbored, if only in abashed privacy, a fascination with The Monkees, their music, and their lore. It’s less well traveled among those who continue to scoff at the group, who continue to cast them as puppets, fakes, and musical incompetents. This same attitude is what sent Michael Nesmith into such a fury in Don Kirshner’s hotel suite 45 years ago. For decades The Monkees would remain synonymous with illegitimacy. They’d symbolize the record industry’s most crass schemes, forerunners of Milli Vanilli’s lipsynching shams, Lou Pearlman’s coterie of anemic boy bands, Kirshner’s own cartoon supergroup, The Archies, who had a 1969 smash with “Sugar Sugar”. But for any of these accusations to hold water, one must overlook a reservoir of facts.

Yes, The Monkees were assembled for a television series. They didn’t meet at a church fete like John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They didn’t share a decisive chance encounter on a train like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards or share the same last names like The Beach Boys. Television producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider got them together to make money, not art. But The Monkees were artists: singers, actors, comedians, multi-instrumentalists, songwriters, producers. Those who didn’t come into the project with these abilities proved to be quick learners.

The Beatles played all of these roles too, and for the most part, played them much better than The Monkees. The Beatles made revolutionary music that immeasurably influenced and altered pop music in ways that continue to resound today. Yet they never staged a revolution. In fact, during 1968, the year in which young people were all but required to take a radical stance against the conservative systems controlling them, their ringleader, John Lennon, sang that if a revolution was what they wanted, they could count him out. Mick Jagger made a high-profile appearance at London’s anti-Vietnam demonstration on March 17, 1968, but when it came down to enacting real change, he ineffectually wondered, “What can a poor boy do but sing for a Rock & Roll band?”

A year earlier, The Monkees not only staged a revolution; they won it. On their own small scale, they accomplished exactly what the anti-Vietnam protestors and every other band of insurgents throughout history hoped to achieve: they hit the powers ruling them where it counted, enacting a seismic regime shift. The puppets displaced the puppeteers; those guys playing a band on TV became an actual band; Pinocchio became a real boy. And they did it a lot earlier than many Monkee fans even realize, performing as a stage band almost from the very beginning of the Monkees project. But they didn’t cut their first album until banding together to overthrow the very corporate entity that made them. Perhaps The Monkees are more like the Frankenstein Monster.

Headquarters didn’t produce any U.S. singles, hit or otherwise, as The Monkees and More of the Monkees did, but it was undoubtedly a more consistent record. The band’s playing is ragged, and even with the innumerable edits that went into the final product, there are still a few flubs. Peter’s fingers fumble during a piano solo on “No Time” (and we hear him release a frustrated guffaw off mic). “Band 6” is a peek into how messy the sessions could get. However, Headquarters radiates a palpable joy missing from the first two records, largely cut by Phil Spector’s ultra-professional wage earners known as The Wrecking Crew. Behind the kit, Micky Dolenz is no Hal Blaine, but his rhythms are surprisingly inventive for a guy learning to play the drums while recording his first album. Established as the bass player on the TV show, and at the live performances where The Monkees got a crash course in being a Rock & Roll band, Peter Tork mostly stuck to what he does best on Headquarters, handling keyboards and the occasional banjo or twelve-string guitar part. Yet the one track on which he assumes his TV role, “You Just May Be the One”, sports the trickiest bass line on the record. With the most mature voice and songwriting talents in the band, it’s no surprise that Michael Nesmith shines anytime he steps to the frontline, but who could have anticipated Dolenz possessed the innate songwriting talent to compose something as far-out yet accessible as “Randy Scouse Git”, which became a big hit in the U.K.? Who knew Tork’s gifts were strong enough that his “For Pete’s Sake” would be chosen to score the closing credits during the second season of the T.V. show? These are not fluke achievements. This is the work of a talented group of guys who probably could have continued to develop into a formidable band had they kept at it. But they didn’t, which makes Headquarters an even more precious product of both the Monkees project and the fertile playground of ‘60s pop.

No other album in pop history has a story like that of Headquarters. There were certainly better records in the ‘60s, and arguably better Monkees records. The release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band exactly a week later brought a swift end to Headquarters’ reign at the top of the charts (it held the position briefer than any other chart-topping Monkees L.P.) and the kind of DIY garage Rock it championed. Still it remains unique and vital, a document of the revolutionary ‘60s spirit at its boiled-to-the-broth essence. And though it would be close to 30 years before The Monkees recorded as a true band again, Headquarters marked a significant change in the way Mike, Micky, Davy, and Peter made records, controlling their own sessions just as the deposed Kirshner once did.

But all of this would be mere history-book fodder if not for one essential point: Headquarters is a very, very good album. Perhaps it pales next to Revolver or Pet Sounds or Are You Experienced? , but how many garage bands of the era rocked with the chutzpah The Monkees exude on “You Told Me”, “Sunny Girlfriend” and “No Time”? How many folk rockers made mood music as moody as “Shades of Grey”, “Mr. Webster”, and “Early Morning Blues and Greens”? And how many wrote songs as forceful and imaginative as Peter’s jazzily chorded “For Pete’s Sake”, Micky’s vaudeville/avant garde mash-up “Randy Scouse Git”, Mike’s country-punk fusion “You Told Me”, or the entire quartet’s tossed-off rap “Zilch”?

The road to Headquarters is amazingly short. The very first Kirshner-helmed Monkees session took place on Friday, June 10, 1966; the first Monkees-helmed one happened Monday, January 16, 1967. But a lot went down during that brief span of seven months and six days. There were some forty sessions, the hasty construction of a media juggernaut, much churning within and without The Monkees’ ranks, gold records, and great, great sums of money. All of that continued as the band slogged through the three months it took to make Headquarters. For a time, it continued after the record’s release on May 22, 1967. But not for long. The Monkees seemed to falter commercially almost as quickly as they scored. And could Headquarters have been to blame for that too?

Commercially, The Monkees conquered a pop landscape populated by such formidable figures as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. They also made a genuine bid to compete on the same artistic level as their high-grade peers. Whether they succeeded or failed is up to the people who loved and loathed their music. Because perhaps more than any other band of their era, The Monkees were built and destroyed by the judgments of other people. Those judgments persist today but mostly drip from those who never actually sat down and gave Headquarters a listen. Their loss.

Headquarters was released 45 years ago today.
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