As we noted before, yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the premiere of The Monkees on NBC. For most millennials, I’m sure, that date passed by with nary a blip on their pop culture radar. Not for me, though; because between 1996 and around 2000, I was a full-blown Monkees fan–nay, a Monkees scholar. I recorded as many episodes of the show as I could from cable reruns; I collected the vast majority of their then-recent CD reissues (thanks, Rhino Records/BMG Music Service!); I carried a vintage-style tin Monkees lunchbox to middle school; hell, I even watched their terrible 1997 reunion special, Hey, Hey, It’s the Monkees. At first, my Baby Boomer parents were indulgent: they, after all, had grown up with the Monkees, and had mostly fond memories of the “Prefab Four”’s benign bubblegum hits and pop-surreal TV antics. But by around year two of my obsession, after one too many recited facts from the Rhino CDs’ shockingly extensive liner notes, they were over it. How could any normal person like the Monkees as much as I did? Didn’t I know they weren’t even a real band?
I knew, of course–but, being a generation removed from the Boomer- and even Gen X-era rallying cries of “authenticity” in rock music, I didn’t particularly care. The Monkees were (and are) a fascinating story above all: manufactured as an American answer to the Beatles by TV and record company executives with a desire to cash in on both mid-’60s youth culture and transmedia marketing opportunities, they got stranger and more rebellious as the decade progressed, effectively turning into a microcosm of the very generation they were created to exploit. Imagine if the Archies started smoking dope and protesting the Vietnam War, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the appeal for a weirdo like myself. And, while I’m far from the Monkees apologist I once was, I still maintain that their catalogue includes some of the best pure pop music of the 1960s: they may have fallen short of the Beatles, but they were a damn sight better than the Hollies or the Dave Clark Five.
So here it is: the summation, at last, of my years of research into the Monkees phenomenon. As usual, I stayed away from the most ubiquitous hits; if you really want to hear “Last Train to Clarksville” or “Daydream Believer,” just tune in to any oldies radio station. What I’ve chosen to highlight instead are the genuinely progressive elements of the Monkees’ musical and, to a lesser degree, cinematic oeuvre. Their stylistic roots on both record and screen may have been inseparable from the decade that spawned them, but the Monkees were in many ways ahead of their time; and that, more than anything, may be one source of their continuing appeal to (again, weird) people from younger generations. Hey, hey, they’re the Monkees; and, like them or not, they’re an indelible part of pop music history. Let’s check ’em out.
The Monkees, the band, originated from The Monkees, the TV show, and an open casting call for four 17-21-year-old “Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers” to play the roles of the titular group. This being 1965, those roles were very much modeled after the Beatles’ nascent boy-band stereotypes; but The Monkees‘ roots in Los Angeles, with its unique intersection of mainstream show business and budding counterculture, ensured a much more eccentric mix from the start. Thus the Monkees’ “cute one,” David Thomas “Davy” Jones, was a former jockey and musical theatre actor from Manchester, England; their “smart one,” Robert Michael “Mike” Nesmith, was an aspiring songwriter (and heir to the Liquid Paper fortune) from Houston, Texas; their “funny one,” George Michael “Micky” Dolenz, was a former child actor from a Hollywood family; and their “shy one,” Peter “Tork” Thorkelson, was a folkie from Washington, D.C. via Greenwich Village. By its very nature, this was an odder and more heterogeneous crew than the “four lads from Liverpool.”
Perhaps that’s why even the Monkees’ self-titled 1966 debut album had a lot more personality than a glorified kids’ TV soundtrack had any right to have. “Last Train to Clarksville” was the big hit, of course, and a showcase for Micky’s strong, soulful (if a bit affected) lead vocals. But its B-side, the Gerry Goffin– and Carole King-penned “Take a Giant Step,” was the stronger song: a cod-psychedelic baroque pop number that dressed up its puppy-love sentimentality with harpsichord, glockenspiel, and oboe (!). As bubblegum went, it was a lot closer to “Green Tambourine” than “Sugar, Sugar.”
The two songs written by Nesmith–the only Monkee allowed to contribute his own compositions to the first two albums–were even better. “Papa Gene’s Blues” was straight-up country-rock two years before the Byrds released Sweetheart of the Rodeo. And the album’s penultimate track, “Sweet Young Thing,” was damn near indescribable: a demented psychedelic hoedown that paired Western swing fiddler Jimmy Bryant‘s frantic sawing with fuzzed-out guitar leads straight off the Beatles’ Revolver.
Indeed, the whole of the Monkees’ first two albums–if not their entire discography–was defined by the tension between assembly-line pop studiocraft and countercultural anarchy. One need only look at their principal handlers to understand the terms of the conflict: on the music side, there was Colgems president Don Kirshner, whose publishing empire basically defined the sound of American pop in the 1960s; while on the television side, there were Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who delighted in stretching the aesthetic boundaries of network TV before going on to produce “New Hollywood” classics like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. With these opposing forces in play–and four headstrong 20-somethings caught in the middle–it was only a matter of time before the tension came to a head. The breaking point, as it turned out, came only two albums in: with the imaginatively-titled More of the Monkees, rushed into stores a mere three months after its predecessor.
More of the Monkees would be effectively disowned by the members of the group–in particular Nesmith, who infamously put his fist through a hotel wall during a heated exchange with Kirshner and Colgems lawyer Herb Moelis shortly after the album’s release. Taken purely on its musical merits, however, it really isn’t that bad; in fact, its high points are arguably higher than those of its predecessor. Opener “She,” written by “Clarksville” tunesmiths Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, would have fit right in on the legendary garage-psych compilation Nuggets, had its grinding fuzz-rock not been played by members of crack L.A. sessioneers the Wrecking Crew; it would later be covered by pop-punk pioneers the Dickies on their own 1978 debut. Also ripe for revival by the punk set was the B-side to hit single “I’m a Believer,” the Boyce/Hart stomper “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”: originally recorded by Paul Revere and the Raiders, but later performed by artists including the Sex Pistols. Nesmith’s “Mary, Mary” had the most storied afterlife of all, when it was rediscovered as a popular breakbeat among early hip-hop DJs, eventually inspiring a loose 1988 cover version by Run-D.M.C.
Whatever the merits of its individual tracks, however, it’s tough to deny that More of the Monkees was a slapshod, cynical effort; and as the Monkees phenomenon grew in popularity, their use of session musicians and staff songwriters increasingly became a target of derision from their more “serious” peers in the music industry. By mid-1967–with Kirshner apparently deciding that the insurrectionary Monkees had become more trouble than they were worth–the lunatics had taken over the asylum. Their third album, Headquarters, was mostly written and performed by the band themselves, with guidance from then-Turtles bassist Chip Douglas. Its final release was aimed clearly at the naysayers, with a series of photos on the back cover conspicuously depicting the Monkees in the studio holding instruments, alongside a rather defensive statement from the band: “We aren’t the only musicians on this album, but the occasional extra bass or horn player played under our direction, so that this is all ours.”
In terms of pure musicianship, of course, Headquarters was a step down from the first two albums: Douglas reportedly had to stitch together multiple takes just to get a usable drum track out of Dolenz, and the band’s attempt to jam on the Looney Tunes theme (released as the instrumental interlude “Band 6“) is nigh-unrecognizable. But what Headquarters has that, say, More of the Monkees does not is a cohesive vision. Tork’s flower-power anthem “For Pete’s Sake”–used as the closing theme for The Monkees‘ second season–earnestly engaged with the spirit of the times, and was no more calculated or embarrassing than similar songs by more “legitimate” acts. The contemplative, Jones-led “Early Morning Blues and Greens” was written by Colgems songwriters–Diane Hildebrand and Jack Keller, in fact, co-writers of the previous album’s execrable “Your Auntie Grizelda“–but the haunting electric piano and organ played by Tork would never have made it off Kirshner’s assembly line. Most impressive of all was the closing track, “Randy Scouse Git”: Micky’s professional songwriting debut, with a playful, vaudeville-meets-acid-rock arrangement that proved the Monkees were as adept at mimicking the Beatles’ late-period reinventions as their TV show was at riffing on Help!-style zaniness.
After the release of Headquarters in May 1967, the Monkees took their act on the road for a second tour, following a previous series of engagements in late 1966 and early 1967. Today, the summer 1967 tour is notorious primarily for its short-lived opening act: none other than the Jimi Hendrix Experience, who faced the humiliating ordeal of being booed by crowds of teenyboppers who wanted to see Davy, Micky, Mike, and Peter. Live 1967, a document of the tour released by Rhino in 1987, is far from required listening, but it’s still worth a spin for anyone curious about how the Prefab Four sounded on stage: which is to say, charmingly ramshackle, turning studio-polished hits like “I’m a Believer” into manic garage-rock rave-ups.
You might think, after two tours, two albums, and a full-blown mutiny against their record company, that the Monkees had earned themselves some well-deserved rest in late 1967; if you think that, though, you’re obviously not familiar with the mid-1960s music industry. A fourth Monkees record, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., was released in November, and represented something of a step back from Headquarters‘ “do-it-yourself” ethos, with many more tracks employing session musicians and outside writers. But the experimental sensibility of the previous album remained intact. Along with the usual Brill Building suspects, for example, the boys brought in some hipper songwriters: including Harry Nilsson, whose “Cuddly Toy”–supposedly written about a Hells Angels gang bang–lent a subversive edge to Davy’s ever-saccharine vocal delivery.
More than anything, though, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones is a showcase for Nesmith, who took lead vocals on no less than five of the album’s 13 songs: including one of his very best country-rock performances, “What am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” Nesmith also wrote arguably the album’s most impressive track, the psychedelic protest song “Daily Nightly”; but it’s Dolenz who really made it, turning in a brilliantly untutored, unhinged performance on the then-new Moog synthesizer that probably gave more than a few kids nightmares in late 1967.
The Monkees‘ second season ran from September 11, 1967 to March 25, 1968, getting progressively weirder as it went. By the end, the credibility-starved Monkees were introducing underground musical guests like Frank Zappa and Tim Buckley to their no-doubt bewildered audience of preteens; the show’s final episode, the Dolenz-directed “The Frodis Caper,” is almost certainly the most bizarre thing to air on American network television in the 1960s. NBC saw the writing on the wall and, like Kirshner before them, cut their losses. But the Monkees remained signed to Colgems, and so another album, The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees, was released in April 1968: almost a month after the show’s cancellation. The real-life musical entity had officially outlived its televisual counterpart.
The trouble was that by this point, the Monkees had effectively ceased to operate as a band, instead holding separate sessions with their own teams of musicians and songwriters; The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees was thus their weakest album since the one that prompted their insurrection in the first place. The one big single, “Daydream Believer,” was left over from the sessions for the previous album; the next biggest hit, Boyce and Hart’s “Valleri,” dated back all the way to the show’s first season.
Still, Nesmith at least contributed some interesting tracks: his country-soul-psych effort “Tapioca Tundra” was released as the B-side of “Valleri” and actually made the Billboard charts, though it unsurprisingly fell well short of the Top 10. Another of his songs, “Magnolia Simms,” playfully pastiched the sound of a 1920s-era 78, complete with simulated surface noise and skipping–more evidence that the Monkees weren’t afraid of engaging in some sonic experimentation. Indeed, Nesmith was so prolific during this period that he ended up recording his own solo album, The Wichita Train Whistle Sings, comprised primarily of tracks demoed for the Monkees. One of those songs, the country-folk ballad “Nine Times Blue,” didn’t make the cut on The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees, but it’s better than the majority of the tracks that did.
With both the Monkees and Rafelson now cut loose from The Monkees, their next step was to collaborate on a feature film that carried on the more experimental direction of the second season of the TV show, but with less creative oversight and a hell of a lot more drugs. The result, released in November 1968 as Head, simply has to be seen to be believed. Part vicious self-parody, part acid-fried unlicensed sequel to A Hard Day’s Night, it’s easily the most extravagant act of career suicide ever committed to film (literally, in fact: the opening moments depict the Monkees leaping, seemingly to their deaths, from a suspension bridge).
Head was also notable for including some of the best music released by the Monkees in their latter-day career. Lead single “Porpoise Song (Theme from Head)”–written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King!–was as genuinely lysergic-sounding as anything on Jefferson Airplane‘s After Bathing at Baxter’s; it’s secretly one of the best psychedelic songs of the decade. And “Porpoise Song”‘s B-side, “As We Go Along,” is a genuinely affecting folk-pop ballad that could have been a legitimate hit, had the Monkees been able to secure an adult audience.
The soundtrack album itself is a minor masterpiece, with less of a focus on songs than on absurdist collages of incidental music and dialogue from the film, assembled by co-writer Jack Nicholson (yes, that one) in a manner reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s contemporary Lumpy Gravy. Perhaps most emblematic of the project is “Ditty Diego – War Chant,” a deeply sardonic paean to commercial artifice written by Nicholson and Rafelson and recited by the Monkees in robotic unison, with lyrics that riff on the ubiquitous “(Theme from) The Monkees“: “Hey, hey, we are the Monkees / You know we love to please / A manufactured image / With no philosophies.” I’m not even sort of exaggerating when I say that Head, the film and the album, are both deeply underrated works of postmodern art.
In fact, I’m convinced that Head might even have been hip enough to convince some of the Monkees’ countercultural critics of their grooviness, had anyone bothered to see it at the time; but alas, they didn’t, and it earned back only $16,000 of its $750,000 budget. The group made one more bid at underground legitimacy with their April 1969 NBC special 33 ⅓ Revolutions per Monkee: effectively a neutered version of Head mashed up with a contemporary variety show, with the inexplicable presence of British prog rockers Brian Auger and the Trinity as cape-wearing villains. It’s worth fast-forwarding to the highlights, but only the most devoted Monkees apologist will be able to make it through the whole thing.
After shooting completed for 33⅓ Revolutions per Monkee, Tork bailed out of the Monkeemobile, leaving Colgems to try and squeeze a decent return of investment out of the remaining trio. The resulting album, Instant Replay, is less a cohesive work than a stitched-together compilation of Monkees-related recordings: including at least one song, lead single “Tear Drop City,” that actually predated “Last Train to Clarksville.” Also hailing from the sessions for The Monkees was Nesmith’s Goffin/King-written “I Won’t Be the Same Without Her,” which also happened to feature Tork’s only (uncredited) performance on the album. Of the more recent tracks, Jones’ “You and I” is surprisingly the best of the bunch, with a stronger rock sensibility than usual: the lead guitar is provided by none other than Neil Young, fresh from his own sinking ship the Buffalo Springfield.
The Monkees Present, released later in 1969, was a much stronger effort. Originally intended as a double album with each vinyl side devoted to a single Monkee–think a much more transparent version of the Beatles’ White Album–that idea was scrapped when Peter left the group, though the concept of the individual Monkees working separately remained. Unlike the similarly-isolated The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees, however, Present actually captures each member developing creatively. Dolenz, especially, contributes some of his most impressive songs in the manic jazz-pop opener “Little Girl” and sardonic protest song “Mommy and Daddy,” the original lyrics of which were considered too controversial for release on a Monkees album: “Ask your mommy if she really gets off on all her pills / Ask your daddy, why doesn’t that soldier care who he kills? / After they’ve put you to sleep and tucked you safely down in your bed / Whisper ‘Mommy and Daddy, would it matter if the bullet went through my head?'” Meanwhile, Nesmith delivered the Monkees’ last and most anthemic acid-country rocker with “Listen to the Band,” a holdover from 33⅓ Revolutions per Monkee that made a solid swan song for the group.
Or at least, it would have, had the Monkees not been contractually obligated to deliver one last record to Colgems. The resulting album, aptly titled Changes, was released in June 1970 to widespread indifference, with only two Monkees, Micky and Davy, on the roster (it’s a good thing they only had one album left on their contract, or the next one would probably have been a Micky Dolenz solo effort credited to “the Monkee”). Amazingly, though, it’s nowhere near as bad as you might expect; tracks like Micky’s “Midnight Train”–another holdover from the TV show era–have a pleasant, era-appropriate roots rock flavor. As with several of the Monkees’ latter-day albums, however, some of the best songs recorded for Changes inexplicably didn’t make the cut: Davy’s prog-folky soft rock ballad “Time and Time Again” is probably his peak as a songwriter, but was left off the album in favor of the schmaltzy Boyce/Hart composition “I Never Thought It Peculiar.”
After Changes, the Monkees were effectively no more, living on only in television syndication and Clearasil-spattered fantasies. Dolenz and Jones released one last single as a duo on Bell Records in early 1971–the mildly racy, gospel-flavored (!) “Do It in the Name of Love”–but could no longer use the Monkees name: it was credited to “Mickey [sic] Dolenz & Davy Jones.” A few years later, the last two Monkees standing reunited with their old producers Boyce and Hart under the blindingly creative moniker of Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart; their eponymous 1976 album was pretty much unlistenable, with the dubious exception of “You Didn’t Feel That Way Last Night”: a bald-faced rewrite of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” included on this playlist mainly to prove that ’60s kitsch is a hell of a lot more durable than its ’70s equivalent.
By all rights, that should have been the end of the Monkees; but somehow, they kept coming back. The first revival came in 1986, after an unexpectedly popular 20th-anniversary marathon of The Monkees on MTV prompted a resurgence of interest in the group. Columbia Pictures disastrously attempted to reboot the TV show with a new group of youngsters as The New Monkees; this sparked the ire of the original group, who filed suit for use of the name. Then, three of the “Old” Monkees (Nesmith was apparently too busy directing innovative music videos and rolling in Liquid Paper money to participate) made their own, slightly less disastrous attempt to cash in on the new wave of “Monkeemania”: 1987’s Pool It!, a collection of grade-A mid-’80s butt-rock helmed by former Elvis Costello producer Roger Bechirian.
If Pool It! is remembered at all today, it’s for its hilariously literal cover, which featured a shirtless Micky, Peter, and Davy floating in a swimming pool; the latter, his teen idol days long past, sporting a damp, stringy mullet. Pitchfork called it one of the worst album covers of all time, and they weren’t wrong. Like Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart (which also had a pretty terrible cover, come to think of it), it’s a tough listen. But I’ve included “Gettin’ In” here to satisfy anyone’s morbid curiosity about what Peter Tork sounds like crooning over an instantly-dated synthpop arrangement.
The Monkees’ second reunion, marking the band/TV show’s 30th anniversary in 1996, was more successful, if still far from essential. For one thing, it was the first album since Head to feature all four Monkees’ musical contributions, not counting the technicality of Peter’s uncredited appearance on Instant Replay. For another, it was their first real group effort since Headquarters; dubbed Justus (geddit?), the new album featured Dolenz, Jones, Nesmith, and Tork playing all their own instruments and writing their own songs. The problem is that the material just wasn’t all that great. The best of the bunch, Nesmith’s “Circle Sky,” was a remake of a song from Head; its driving proto-punk riff has always been a good fit for the Monkees’ garage-band musical chops, though, and it sounded suitably contemporary for the grunge era. The other songs on Justus range from tedious to merely pleasant: the main thing they have in common is that there isn’t much reason for them to exist. By 1996, the Monkees’ critics were as irrelevant as the Monkees themselves; aside from salving a few middle-aged egos, was there really any need for the aging bubblegum quartet to get “justice?”
At least one aspect of Justus has acquired some poignancy in recent years, however, following Davy Jones’ sudden death in early 2012. His song “You and I”–confusingly not the same as the one from Instant Replay, but also previously recorded by Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart–is a moving tribute to his bandmates, looking back from a distance on a truly surreal 30-year career: “After all the spotlights and the flowers / After all the parties and goodbyes / There was something in the air / Something that we realized we would always share.” It’s cloyingly sweet, more than a little cheesy, and completely endearing–classic Davy, in other words.
In the wake of Jones’ passing, Dolenz, Nesmith, and Tork reunited to tour for the first time in almost 20 years; two additional sojourns followed in 2013 and 2014, followed by another (sans Nesmith) in 2015. This seemed like another natural end for the Monkees: I certainly doubt anyone was expecting them to release their best album since 1969. Somehow, though, that’s exactly what they did. Good Times!, released this May, finds the Monkees coming full circle: embracing their status as pure pop craftsmen, rather than attempting to fight decades-old battles over authenticity. Ironically, it also captures them at their most credible; 50 years after the debut of The Monkees, there are now multiple generations of pop artists who claim the once-reviled bubblegum sound as a legitimate aesthetic inspiration. Good Times! wisely makes that generational passing of the torch its central theme, with Adam Schlesinger of power pop revivalists Fountains of Wayne handling production duties and songs contributed by XTC’s Andy Partridge, Weezer‘s Rivers Cuomo, Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, and the Jam’s Paul Weller.
Despite–or perhaps because of–this cross-generational approach, Good Times! is somehow the most “Monkees”-sounding of the reunion albums: the younger artists have the perspective to understand what made the Monkees great and play to their strengths, while Dolenz, Nesmith, and Tork bring to the proceedings the full weight of their experience. Good Times!‘ title track, a refurbished 1968 demo featuring Harry Nilsson’s original guide vocal, is both nostalgic and surprisingly poignant: 50 years after their debut and 22 years after Nilsson’s death, the Monkees now feel less like bubblegum interlopers on the “serious” rock scene and more like the Sixties survivors they are. The Gallagher/Weller-co-written “Birth of an Accidental Hipster,” on the other hand, sounds so much like one of the Monkees’ latter-day psychedelic experiments that I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn it also dated from 1968. And Nesmith’s solo track “I Know What I Know,” while technically a love song, serves as the perfect elegy for the group: like Jones’ aforementioned “You and I,” it’s the sound of an older, wiser teen idol looking back on his youth with both sentimentality and wry bemusement.
I don’t know if there will be another Monkees album after Good Times! To be honest, I kind of hope that there isn’t; they’ve gone out on as high a note as it’s possible for a band–much less a “band”–to go out on. More than that, though, their legacy is one that doesn’t really require new music to persist. Today’s teens and 20- (or 30-) somethings might not have batted an eye over the semicentennial of the Monkees; but whether they realize it or not, they’ve felt their impact. Whenever a Justin Timberlake breaks away from a Lou Perlman, or a Nick Jonas from a Disney, or a Zayn Malik from a Simon Cowell, that’s the Monkees’ tradition living on. Whenever a critic insists on the artistic value of commercial pop music, that’s thanks in large part to the Monkees, too.
Indeed, we’re now in many ways living in the Monkees’ world: ours is a pop landscape where notions of authenticity, of the “real,” are permanently collapsed to the point of meaninglessness. Does Beyoncé play her own instruments? Who gives a shit? Lemonade is probably the best fucking album of 2016. And while I don’t love all Top 40 pop music, I’d much rather live in this post-Monkees universe than one in which arbitrary cultural hierarchies determine what we’re allowed to listen to and take seriously. So if you feel the same way–whether or not you specifically dig the Monkees–take a little time today to pour one out for the Prefab Four. They may have been “a manufactured image with no philosophies,” but in 2016, do we need or deserve anything more?