Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review: 'Long Title: Looking for the Good Times: Examining The Monkees’ Songs, One by One'

While examining “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” in his book Long Title: Looking for the Good Times: Examining The Monkees’ Songs, One by One, Michael A. Ventrella writes, “I’ve never been much of a fan of this song. I’m not sure why; I can’t really point to anything wrong with it.” Hmm. Are you sure you’re the best person to be examining The Monkees’ songs one by one? Because I expect better insight than what Ventrella and his co-author Mark Arnold try to pass off as analysis in this book. “I don’t know why I don’t like this; I just don’t” may cut the mustard in a Facebook comment, but it does not belong in a book. And beginning that book by stating, “neither Mark nor I claim to be Monkees experts” does not give you a pass when it comes to the facts either. If I’m reading a book about any topic, I expect the writers to really know what they are talking about, to do as thorough a job of tackling their goal as possible. And there certainly is a lot one could do with a book examining a discography like The Monkees’. There were so many composers, so many musicians, so many influences, so many genres attempted, so many varying circumstances under which the music was made, so much variation in quality. In a sense, The Monkees’ body of work is much riper for analysis than The Beatles’ because it is so all over the place.

The problem isn’t the approach. I like the format of two people basically rapping about songs they like and dislike, and I don’t need complex music theory-based explanations for why a song is or isn’t up to snuff. However, I do expect some basic musical knowledge. I expect the writers to know what an “arpeggio” is and use that term instead of a “chord being played string by string” and know the difference between a cuica and someone making gorilla noises.” I expect the writer of a book about The Monkees to not be mystified by why the corporately created “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” was not included on the band created Headquarters, and to know such basic Monkees history as the fact that “Goin’ Down” was based on an arrangement of “Parchment Farm”. I expect the writing to read like…well… writing and not a transcribed conversation full of grammatically challenged sentences such as this song shows a little bit too much strings. I expect enough attention to detail to recognize that the first recorded version of “You Just May Be the One” is very different from the band version on Headquarters and not “about the same” as it. I expect that entries on recordings so inessential that they prompt one of the writers to comment “I didn’t even want to list all these in the book” to be edited out. I certainly expect more insight than “I don’t know why I don’t like this; I just don’t.”

These are not minor criticisms, but there are things I like about Long Title: Looking for the Good Times: Examining The Monkees’ Songs, One by One (that title is not one of them though. These guys really could have used an editor). I like the fact that Ventrella and Arnold are not super fans, that they are willing to criticize some of The Monkees’ most beloved recordings and find more divisive things such as “Writing Wrongs”, the studio version of Circle Sky”, and “Shorty Blackwell” lovable. I appreciated bits of lesser known trivia, such as the allegation that Boyce and Hart’s decision to have The Monkees record such gruel as “Teeny Tiny Gnome” and “Ladies Aid Society” inspired Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider to hand music supervising duties over to Don Kirshner. I certainly love the fact that a couple of writers realized that The Monkees’ discography was rich and fascinating enough to deserve song-by-song analysis. I just think that task should have been performed by writers more willing to take the task seriously. 
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