Sunday, March 8, 2015

21 Underrated Songs by The Monkees You Need to Hear Now!

I’ve done quite a few of these “21 Underrated Songs You Need to Hear Now” lists, but this is the one that matters most, because none of the other groups I’ve covered are as misunderstood as The Monkees. Ridiculed during their time for being phonies because they formed on a TV studio back lot and not in a garage, The Monkees were painted as a quartet of no-talent, bubblegum salesmen. Anyone with ears who heard their best hits could detect this wasn’t true, even if the guys rarely contributed more than their considerable vocal talents to those charting singles. But as far as I’m concerned, you have to dig a bit deeper to uncover the songs that really made The Monkees extraordinary. Some of these non-hits—such as “Randy Scouse Git” (which actually was a hit in the UK), “Shades of Gray”, “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?”, “Saturday’s Child”, “Mary Mary”, “Goin’ Down”, and “For Pete’s Sake”—have been well represented enough on hits compilations that they can’t really be called underrated anymore. A lot of other Monkees recordings have gotten a lot less exposure than they deserve. So for anyone who still holds to that increasingly outdated opinion that Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz (celebrating his 70th birthday today), Peter Tork, and Davy Jones weren’t truly talented, truly original singers, musicians, writers, and producers really does need to hear the following 21 underrated songs.

1. “Papa Gene’s Blues” (from the album The Monkees) 1966

The Monkees were rarely taken seriously during their own time, but fortunately a lot of the stupid prejudices to which they were subjected have faded over time. Today it’s hard to feature anyone not succumbing to the exhilaration of Mike’s Tex-Mex jambalaya “Papa Gene’s Blues”. With its rising and falling chord progression and simplistically joyful chorus, it remains one of Nes’s freshest compositions. With its intricate web of percussion and twangy guitars, it is one of his most magnetic productions. Mike deserves extra credit for demanding Peter Tork be allowed to pick his acoustic in the backline, thus taking the first tentative step toward making The Monkees a real group.

2. “Sweet Young Thing” (from the album The Monkees) 1966

Despite composing some high quality material on his own, Mike Nesmith still couldn’t catch any respect from music supervisor Don Kirschner, who insisted he work with the more seasoned duo of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. The experience wasn’t pleasant for anyone involved, and Mike apparently said something that reduced Carole to tears at one point. Fortunately, something great came out of the forced collaboration, the stomping, careening Cajun funk “Sweet Young Thing”. Like “Papa Gene’s Blues”, it was a real pop anomaly in ’66, and I certainly haven’t heard anything that sounds like it since. I don’t care if Mike wasn’t the guy whacking out those fuzz chords or sawing away at the fiddle (session man Jimmy Bryant deserves credit for that dizzying touch), he produced this thing, and it’s the production that makes the fairly simplistic composition come alive.

3. “All of Your Toys” (unreleased until 1987’s Missing Links compilation) recorded 1967

Now we jump ahead a bit (since so much of More of the Monkees ended up on Greatest Hits albums) to a decisive time in The Monkees’ career. A mere four months have passed since the first episode of their TV series aired, and already they were taking command of their career. Angered by product featuring his name and likeness he deemed subpar, Mike Nesmith led his cohorts in a true-blue revolution, slapping down a tough ultimatum: either Kirshner allows the guys to play on their records and choose their own material or The Monkees walk out on a money-making juggernaut while there were still a lot more dollars to rake in. Kirshner may have had a good ear for hits, but without The Monkees, there’d be no recordings. Their inaugural selection was Bill Martin’s pensive “All of Your Toys”, and yes, cynics, that really is Micky on the drums, Peter on the harpsichord, Mike on guitar, and Davy on percussion (Mike’s old buddy Jack London sits in on bass). The amazing thing is they sound like they’d been a proper band for ages, with Mike’s fluid arpeggios complimenting Peter’s dancing keyboard beautifully. But the MVP is Micky, whose vocal improvs on the fade out are as stunning as his muscular snare attacks. Sadly, the song wasn’t published through Screen Gems Music so “All of Your Toys” could not be the single The Monkees intended it to be. Fans would have to wait twenty years to hear it on the Missing Links outtakes compilation. I’m sure most of us agree it was worth the wait.

4. “You Told Me” (from the album Headquarters) 1967

Kirshner continued to hang on for a while even as he sneered at The Monkees’ attempts to be “a real band.” He had so little regard for their ambitions that he took it upon himself to put out two tracks Jeff Barry recorded with studio musicians—Neil Diamond’s “A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You” b/w Barry’s “She Hangs Out”—as the next “Monkees” single. The megalomaniacal move got Kirshner canned, and The Monkees celebrated by recording their first—and last—album as a basically self-contained band. Headquarters is a classic for its freshness, variety, and charming from-the-garage performances, and it all gets started with a seriously ass-kicking new Nesmith number called “You Told Me”. 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 producer/former-Turtle Chip Douglas’s drops in his bass and Dolenz slams into his four-on-the-floor beat, we’re knee deep in a country-rock basher no “pre-fab band” could ever pull off.

5. “Sunny Girlfriend” (from the album Headquarters) 1967

Mike wrote “Sunny Girlfriend” as a simple tune the guys could reproduce on stage with a minimum of fuss. It worked, and the song became a staple of The Monkees’ famed 1967 tour. On record, it was just as effective, borrowing the guitar riff from The Rolling Stones’ version of “It’s All Over Now” and the standard boogie bass line to create a jangly, country rocker that is as close to the “true” Monkees sound as it gets. Mike and Micky show off the unique Texas-twang-meets-blue-eyed-soul vocal blend that would be one of the most wonderful bi-products of the band’s most collaborative era.

6. “Early Morning Blues and Greens” (from the album Headquarters) 1967

The vocal blend of Peter Tork and Davy Jones was another interesting, though less used, product of this period, and it can be heard on two of the moodier Headquarters tracks: “Shades of Gray” and “Early Morning Blues and Greens”. While the former song was popular enough to serve as a sort of “honorary single” on the single-less (at least in America) Headquarters, the latter remains pretty obscure. Peter hoped to handle Jack Keller and Diane Hildebrand’s melancholic watercolor on his own, but was relegated to a harmony role. His slightly off-tune delivery provides delectable saltiness over Davy’s whispered sweetness. The arrangement is highly unusual, taut with Micky and Chip’s clockwork rhythm section, lazy with Mike’s loose guitar chipping. Peter’s organ stabs add a surprising, almost violent element to the instrumental interludes.

7. “Salesman” (from the album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, LTD.) 1967

Headquarters is The Monkees’ most playful sounding record, but it was apparently pretty grueling to make. Chip Douglas often had to piece together backing tracks from acceptable bits of otherwise unacceptable takes. Not surprisingly, most of The Monkees had little interest in recording this way again (ever the devoted musician, Peter was the only one who wanted to keep working as a true band). So for their next album, The Monkees settled on a compromise between the old studio musician method and the new “we play on everything!” decree. With all do sympathy to Peter’s Rock & Roll dreams, it really was the best approach, and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones is the best Monkees album. Crack session drummer “Fast” Eddie Hoh was one of the benefits of the new approach, and he gets a real showcase on Craig Smith’s sly “Salesman”. So does Mike, who gets to smirk his way through Smith’s put down of sleazy hawkers. Chip chips in with one of his best loping bass lines and Micky shows off his scary falsetto in the back ups.

8. “The Door Into Summer” (from the album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, LTD.) 1967

When we last left Bill Martin, he was getting shut out of The Monkees’ story because he failed to publish “All of Your Toys” through Screen Gems. Get on your knees and thank Zeus or whoever you worship that he sorted out his publishing by the time he wrote “The Door into Summer”, because this is the most beautiful, most perfectly executed thing The Monkees ever did. Martin took the title and a quick reference to time travel from Robert Heinlein’s really good sci-fi novel, but his lyrics mostly seem to be about the unattainable dreams of the greedy. Peter kicks off the track with a filthy clavinet riff out of which a fluttering nylon-string riff rises like a phoenix. Eddie Hoh (or according to some theories, Micky Dolenz) kicks in for a pulse-quickening tempo that off sets Mike’s almost offhand vocal. Mike and the rest rouse themselves for a heart-swelling chorus over which Peter adds a breathtaking music-box piano melody that sparkles like sunlight glinting off a geode. The vocal volley that ends the song is the most sublime such thing this side of “God Only Knows”. Can you believe people wrote off The Monkees as a bunch of talentless bozos? Can you fucking believe it?

9. “Love Is Only Sleeping” (from the album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, LTD.) 1967

The Monkees had interesting plans for their fifth single. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil had written some of the biggest hits of the sixties, including The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Kicks”, and The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, as well as The Monkees’ own “Shades of Gray”. Like that song, “Love Is Only Sleeping” is an unusually moody, reflective song for The Monkees, dealing with the ups and downs of a relationship in a more complex way than anything the band had recorded yet. Like “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, it is driven by a wiry guitar riff and crisp drumming, but the combination of Nesmith’s eerie wail, the psychedelic percussive clicks and clacks that flit through the mix, and a rather undanceable time signature that lurches between 7/8 and 4/4 makes for a less commercial and more unsettling sound. “Love Is Only Sleeping” had a better chance of establishing The Monkees as a serious group than any earlier single, but after a pressing delay, Colgems rethought the plan and decided to flip the B-side to the A-side and shift “Love Is Only Sleeping” to Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones, LTD. It probably would not have been the #1 monster “Daydream Believer” turned out to be if that song was left on the B-side, but “Love Is Only Sleeping” is still a hell of a lot cooler.

10. “Star Collector” (from the album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, LTD.) 1967

The two Moog-centric tracks from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, LTD. had to battle it out a bit. I figured more than five tracks might over-represent The Monkees’ best album, not leaving enough spots on this list for, say, Present or Instant Replay. “Daily Nightly” is a really cool song with a fabulous bassline and it allows Micky Dolenz to show off his weird ways with the Moog synthesizer undiluted by Paul Beaver’s more accomplished skills, and it’s probably a better track than at least a couple of things on this list. Nevertheless, I made my choice, and I stand by it. Congratulations, “Star Collector”, you’re in with your super catchy chorus scripted by Goffin and King and your head-spinning collision of Beaver’s very musical and clinical approach to the Moog and Micky’s trippier flights of madness. Davy shouts insults at a groupie from the middle of the electronic maelstrom and Eddie Hoh and Chip Douglas once again show off what a dynamic rhythm section they are. Bye bye!
Can you click it?

11. “Carlisle Wheeling” (unreleased until 1987’s Missing Links compilation) recorded 1967

Mike Nesmith wasnt happy with “Carlisle Wheeling”, hence its failure to appear on the next album, The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees. Mike tried rerecording the song several times before deciding its issues laid in its lyric and not the arrangement (he even tried renaming it “Conversations” for a solo remake that went on his Loose Salute). In my Mike Nesmiths Ten Greatest Monkees Songs list (much of which I recycled for this one) I wrote that the lyric is a bit heavy handedly poetic”, but Im not sure I still feel that way. The slightly awkward metaphors (“the phoenix of our love first flapped its silver wings”) may actually make the completely direct lines (I remember the time I said I really had to go / I remember the tears that filled your eyes) cleaner and more poignant in contrast. Mikes simple, astoundingly beautiful folk melody and the original recordings spare arrangement of acoustic guitar, drums, percussion, banjo, and organ are uncomplicated by any possible issues. Though it has been reedited and remixed for several compilations, the first and best version of “Carlisle Wheeling” simply must be heard with the ominous percussive introduction only included on Missing Links.

12. “Auntie’s Municipal Court” (from the album The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees) 1968

After basically making two albums as a band, The Monkees really went their separate ways, each guy producing his own tracks without the slightest regard for what the others were doing. Any semblance of cohesion was now gone, which became clear on The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees, a record largely split between some of Davy’s sappiest tracks and Mike’s freakiest. Overall, the LP doesn’t really work, but there are some great things on it. The greatest is a new song Mike co-wrote with Keith Allison of the Raiders. Mike had been experimenting with ways to replant his Texan country roots in stranger soils since the very beginning of The Monkees. That project flourished with “Auntie’s Municipal Court”, which is both down-home and extravagantly psychedelic. I won’t begin to pretend I know what the lyric means— or if it indeed means anything— but the track just sounds incredible, a perpetually churning murky sea over which little bits of metallic debris glimmer. Richard Deys bass arches out of the mix like a rainbow.

13. “P.O. Box 9847” (from the album The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees) 1968

Despite his out-sized talent, Micky did not share Mike, Peter, or even Davy’s ambitions, so he took the lead on fewer tracks when he became responsible for producing them himself. Still, when he got in the studio, he could still do wonderful work, as he proved with his mesmerizing vocal on “Auntie’s Municipal Court”. His best contribution to The Birds, The Bees that wasnt helmed by another Monkee is “P.O. Box 9847”, a song by veteran Monkees composers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Micky handed production duties off to them on this one (even though all production credits on the LP would still go to “The Monkees”), though this sounds completely unlike their work on the first two records. Inspired by Bob Rafelson’s suggestion that Boyce and Hart write something in classified-ad format, the song itself isn’t that special, but the heady mix of instruments—tabla, tack piano, swooping bass, shrieking strings, bone-jangling marxophone—and Micky’s ever dramatic voice make the recording extraordinary.

14. “Circle Sky” (from the album Head) 1968

The Monkees’ first— and, alas, final— feature film was an attempt to show the guys as they really were: hip to the artificiality of their creation and capable of making truly imaginative music as good as any of their pop peers. Part of the plan was to have them play one of the songs live in Head. For this assignment, Mike Nesmith wrote “Circle Sky”. With its surreal lyric and hypnotic Bo Diddley guitar riff, the track boasted the wildest psychedelia and the rawest Rock & Roll simplicity. The Monkees played the number with enthusiastic aggression in the film (though I never liked how Micky’s constant fills trip up a beat that should be propulsive), and it is usually held up as the definitive version. I still prefer the swampy studio version by a long shot. Mike’s vocal is mixed very low, forcing him to shout over the apocalyptic explosion of percussion and guitars. Everyone who thinks Mike Nesmith was some sort of pre-fab puppet who couldn’t make real Rock & Roll needs to hear the electrifying  “Circle Sky”. It will shut them right the fuck up.

15. “Can You Dig It?” (from the album Head) 1968

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 tracks, he shortchanged Peter Tork completely. Apart from his piano parts on “Daydream Believer”, Peter is not represented on the album at all. Perhaps this was punishment for the massive amount of studio time and money he’d spent on his songs “Lady’s Baby” and “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?” Fortunately, he was not shut out of Head, which he nearly dominates by contributing two of its mere six songs (Carole King is the only writer as well represented on the soundtrack). Though its title dates it, “Can You Dig It?” is one of Peter’s most alluringly melodic compositions, and the whirling dervish arrangement of clattering guitars, hard-hitting drums, and anxious bass is killer.

16. “As We Go Along” (from the album Head) 1968

Arguably, The Monkees’ finest single was Goffin and King’s cryptic, mesmerizing “Porpoise Song”, but its flip side is gorgeous too. Co-written by King and new collaborator Toni Stern, “As We Go Along” is technically odd because of its unconventional 5/8 time signature, yet it is so melodically fluid and so beautifully arranged (Neil Young contributes to the tapestry of guitars) that it sounds as pure and clear as a mountain brook. Micky’s lovingly rendered vocal really makes “As We Go Along” special. Although that time signature made the song tough to sing, Micky sure sounds like he’s navigating it effortlessly. When his voice soars up on the chorus, he’ll pull your heart with it.

17. “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?” (from the album The Head) 1968

Peter also plays with odd time signatures on “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?” but to very different effect. As lovely as “As We Go Along” is, “Long Title” is hectic, ferocious, fast, downright punky. Of course, few punk bands could handle its heart-stopping shifts from 4/4 to 3/4, and few could probably pull off what Lance Wakely accomplishes on his gnarly bass. Peter’s vocal may be his best. Don’t you think he sounds a lot like Jim Morrison on this one?  Unfortunately, “Long Title” also marks his final major appearance on a classic-era Monkees record. Fortunately he went out on a real high.

18. “I Won’t Be the Same Without Her” (from the album Instant Replay) 1969

Peter’s last minor appearance (a bit of acoustic guitar) is buried pretty deeply on Goffin and King’s “I Won’t Be the Same without Her”, a Nes production dating back to the earliest Monkees sessions. It is one of many oldies dusted off for the hodge-podge Instant Replay. Really, there was enough good recent unused material to assemble a fine LP, so there was little sense in pulling ancient tracks off the back shelves. Still, you can’t really complain about the inclusion of this one. “I Won’t Be the Same without Her” is not as innovative as other early pieces like “Papa Gene’s Blues” and “Sweet Young Thing”, but it is one gorgeous piece of melancholy pop. The weaving backing vocals on the pre-chorus make The Association sound totally unassociated.

19. “You and I” (from the album Instant Replay) 1969

Between “I Won’t Be the Same Without Her” and “While I Cry”, the most experimental Monkee is behind the prettiest pieces on Instant Replay, so it’s only fair that the prettiest Monkee is behind the record’s nastiest track. Davy claimed his “You and I” was not a reference to his disintegrating band, but it’s hard not to hear this bitter song in that light. Neil Young is back on guitar, but this time he’s stinging like a jellyfish. I love the sound of Joe Osborn’s hard-treble bass guitar, and its great to hear the usually cute Davy work himself up into such a froth on the vocal. The Monkees’ producers really missed the boat by not having him sing more tough-ass Rock & Roll numbers like “You and I”.

20. “French Song” (from the album The Monkees Present) 1969

The Monkees’ final album as a trio was purer than Instant Replay, but Colgems’ Lester Sill still made the cowardly decision to include two old tracks. This was an unfortunate decision because one of them was merely OK (the “Valleri” clone “Looking for the Good Times”) and the other was dreadful (“Ladies Aid Society”) and because they made up half of Davy’s allotted one-third of Present. Based on his other half, it’s clear that he’d been choosing and writing better material, pushing his usual balladry into less sappy, more mature directions. “If I Knew” is a lot more tasteful than regrettable schmaltz like “The Day We Fall in Love” and “We Were Made for Each Other”. Davy’s real stand out on Present is his rendition of Bill Chadwick’s “French Song”, a mysterious, elliptical number inspired by European film soundtracks. The light jazz arrangement featuring flute, vibes, chimes, and organ is lovely.

21. “Little Girl” (from the album The Monkees Present) 1969

Micky decided to fully commit to the whole Monkees thing again on The Monkees Present. He wrote or co-wrote three of his contributions to the record (charmingly, his mom co-wrote the fourth). The best is the record’s opening track, a speedy piece of jazz-pop called “Little Girl” that Micky sings like a breathy bumblebee. As he did on “Valleri”, Louie Shelton blazes out stunning guitar licks. “Little Girl” was featured on a couple of oddball compilations in the eighties but has been largely forgotten since then (possibly because the main curator of The Monkees’ legacy, Andrew Sandoval, doesn’t seem to have much love for Present—he only included four of its songs on the two Monkees box sets he assembled). That’s unfortunate for “Little Girl”, which deserves more attention… much like the other twenty terrific tracks on this list.
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