Editor’s Note: Today, September 12, 2016, marks the 50th anniversary (!) of the premiere of The Monkees on NBC. And as one of the few people under the age of 55 who actually gives a shit about the Monkees, I’m going all-out for the occasion: first by republishing this review of the 40th-anniversary reissues of their first two albums, and then (tomorrow) with a guide to the best of their whole discography. Yes, folks, it’s Dystopian Dance Party in a nutshell: marking an anniversary most people don’t care about with an old review of albums that weren’t relevant even when I wrote about them 10 years ago. Truly, this Internet thing is a miracle. – Z.H.
Forget N.W.A. Forget Judas Priest, Eminem, Marilyn Manson, and please, forget all about Axl Rose. The real most controversial act in pop music history were “4 insane boys” who shared a beach house and a red 1966 GTO, had bizarrely preteen relationships with a succession of twinkly-eyed Marlo Thomas lookalikes, and seemed to spend a lot more time grappling with pirates, mobsters, and Russian spies than playing music. But then, the Monkees weren’t exactly your average band; they were a kiddie television show on NBC that happened to put out records, and when they became rock’n’roll pariahs after outselling legitimate acts like the Beatles and the Stones–without even having the decency to write their own songs or play their own instruments–the controversy was pretty much the only “real” thing about them.
Of course, any attempt to make sense of the great Monkees scandal must first take into account its context: the years 1966 and 1967, a.k.a. the very height of pop’s Dylan– and Beatles-fuelled ascension to full-on art status, with all the self-important emphasis on creative authorship that designation implies. It was never unheard of for a pop artist to seek the help of studio musicians or staff songwriters–Motown did it all the time–but that mode of working was increasingly passé for the rock crowd, who saw it as a remnant of the distastefully commercial musical assembly line practices of Tin Pan Alley, fit only for bubblegum flashes in the pan and washed-up crooners like the Rat Pack. Ironically, such brazen distinctions between art and commerce would themselves seem quaintly anachronistic in today’s music industry: with transparently prefabricated acts like the Pussycat Dolls regularly topping the charts without incident, there’s reason to believe the Monkees would do just fine in 2006, TRL appearances, commercial spots, Rolling Stone cover stories and all. But suffice to say that 40 years ago, a non-writing, non-playing band reaching number one on the Billboard album chart with two consecutive records was kind of a big deal.
And the crazy thing is, the “real rock” cognoscenti had plenty to worry about. Not that the Monkees’ eponymous 1966 debut was going to give Blonde on Blonde, Aftermath, or Revolver a run for their money; this is, no matter what rabidly revisionist Monkeephiles might tell you, strictly kids’ stuff. But as kids’ stuff goes, The Monkees is the absolute cream of the crop: songs like “Saturday’s Child,” “Last Train to Clarksville,” and of course the indelible “(Theme from) The Monkees” demonstrate a natural charisma, evergreen melodic sensibility, and effortless aping of mainstream musical trends–with just enough individuality to set them apart–that puts almost any other teenybopper act in history to shame. The production work, mainly by veteran bubblegummers and frequent Monkees songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, is also surprisingly hip: with touches of light psychedelia that give tracks like “Take a Giant Step” and “This Just Doesn’t Seem to Be My Day” an exotic Eastern feel more sophisticated than the typical TV soundtrack fodder.
What really makes The Monkees work, however, is the fact that there was some real talent in this crew–whether their handlers recognized it or not. Lead singer/“drummer” Micky Dolenz happened to possess one of prefab pop’s most expressive voices, capable of lending excitement, emotion and even a subtle sex appeal to both soaring love songs like “Giant Step” and quasi-ravers like “Let’s Dance On.” Then, of course, there was Michael (“Mike”) Nesmith, whose abilities are already recognized by those in the know thanks to a pioneering early-’70s solo career in country rock, but whose contributions to the Monkees’ records are also among the group’s most crucial and distinctive. Admittedly, he was no Gram Parsons, but the country twang exhibited on “Papa Gene’s Blues” was one of the most important factors in making the Monkees a bona fide “American Beatles,” rather than just a British Invasion rip-off. And, thanks to Nesmith’s production and co-writing on the truly bizarre “Sweet Young Thing,” the Monkees could lay claim to one of the most mind-melting psych-pop nuggets this side of “Pictures of Matchstick Men“–with fiddle provided by Western swing notable Jimmy Bryant and guitar by former Elvis sideman James Burton, no less!
But remember, this is the “music as merchandise” business we’re dealing with, so it should come as no surprise that both of these vital elements to the Monkees’ sound were at one point questioned by the suits who tossed them together. In his liner notes to the new Rhino reissue, “Monkees historian” Andrew Sandoval recounts the story of how the “band”’s original producer, Thomas Lesslie “Snuff” Garrett, auditioned the boys and pinned Davy Jones as the lead singer, rather than the more talented Micky–doubtless because of his marketably English good looks. And then there are the quotes from infamous Colgems svengali Don Kirshner, who described the sessions he granted Nesmith as a “peace pipe” meant to keep the most malcontent Monkee from meddling with his corporate-approved formulas. Reading the story behind the Monkees’ turbulent early days, and discovering how rote and bland the businessmen behind the phenomenon wanted their product to be, one wonders how an album as warm, organic, and musically solid as The Monkees could have been made under such circumstances.
And yet, it was – and even more surprisingly, the rushed follow-up (in everything including name) More of the Monkees turned out to be a pretty damned worthy successor. On almost every count, More of the Monkees should have been a massive artistic failure: it was recorded when the Monkees were at their most overworked and beleaguered, with songwriting and production duties on its 12 tracks split between no less than five separate teams; if that wasn’t enough, it was also issued a flabbergasting three months after the debut. Somehow, though, the record holds together; it sounds nearly as cohesive as The Monkees, and thanks to the inclusion of genuine classics like “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” “She,” and “I’m a Believer,” it might be the better album overall.
Frankly, though, judging between two such haphazardly assembled records is something of an arbitrary pursuit. Kirshner and company hit more than they missed on More of the Monkees; but when you’re throwing darts with your back turned and a blindfold over your eyes, is that really much of an achievement? For every compelling experiment–such as Nesmith’s country/soul track “Mary, Mary” or Jeff Barry’s and Jack Keller’s Latin-flavored “Hold On Girl“–there’s a half-baked novelty like “Your Auntie Grizelda,” a solo spot by Peter Tork that makes his claims to musical legitimacy look as weak as his vocals. And while Davy’s blatant “I Wanna Be Free” rewrite “The Day We Fall in Love” is a welcome entry in the mid-’60s spoken word kitsch ballad hall of fame otherwise inhabited by tracks like Paul Revere & The Raiders‘ “Melody for an Unknown Girl,” it isn’t exactly the most satisfying song on its own merits.
So where does this leave us, really? What I can say with some certainty is that the Monkees as rockist controversy has never felt more distant to me than when I listen to these reissued albums; what I hear, rather than four untalented hacks who can’t play their own instruments, is some of the most expertly crafted–and, yes, performed–pop music of its decade or any other: a monument to be admired completely apart from the context of the Beatles, Stones, et. al. Had the Monkees performed on their first two records themselves, the result would likely have been all but indistinguishable from the work of (slightly) more respected acts like Herman’s Hermits and the Hollies; but with crack session musicians like the Wrecking Crew behind the scenes, even the most throwaway cuts (see: More of the Monkees‘ “Laugh“) sound pretty damn good to these ears.
And that’s just it: the greatest controversy of all, especially in this era of critical rehabilitation and high-profile reissues, is that there was no Monkees controversy–or at least, there shouldn’t have been. Some have pointed out that the Monkees’ use of session musicians did nothing to set them apart from, say, the Beach Boys, but that’s missing the point: Boyce and Hart put together don’t equal one Brian Wilson, and as much as I like these records, they ain’t no Pet Sounds. What’s more important is that the Monkees never needed to compete with the Beach Boys to be hip in the first place: they were the first postmodern pop group, and that’s plenty hip enough. Listen to the transparent self-reflexivity of The Monkees‘ “Gonna Buy Me a Dog,” and the prospect that this is supposed to be a “real” band at work becomes downright laughable; it doesn’t matter what instruments the sleeve says they play, Davy and Micky are clearly riffing over a prerecorded backing track. The vocals and instrumentation are even at drastically different volumes!
Along with an alternate mix of More of the Monkees‘ “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” featuring Peter’s deadpan introductions of each instrumental break in the song–including a lengthy stretch that exists because if it didn’t, “the record would be 17 seconds too short, and we’d have to do an interview at the end”–“Gonna Buy Me a Dog” brings out a strange, unintentionally arty subtext of the early Monkees: a knowing comment on the brazen cynicism behind the music’s construction. If these guys had been assembled by Andy Warhol and not Don Kirshner, they would probably be on every boho scenester’s MySpace profile even as we speak. Indeed, one could even argue that the real dupe didn’t occur until 1967’s Headquarters, an album recorded and released after Kirshner’s ousting with a concept–the Monkees play their own instruments!–that was undermined by the fact that producer Chip Douglas had to splice together multiple takes to get a decent drum track out of Micky. Sure, they were puppets, but who was really pulling the strings?
But here I am, getting ahead of myself. Rhino’s reissue of Headquarters hasn’t hit shelves yet–at least, not in the super-expanded double-disc royal treatment given to the first two releases. Neither has Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, the record with which the Prefab Four further mined their innate rock/bubblegum dichotomies by re-hiring the session musicians and tinkering with a Moog synthesizer–although, if you’re intrigued, I recommend keeping your eyes peeled; these packages are just too good to be the last word on the Monkees. (Editor’s Note: They weren’t, of course; both albums, and more, have since been reissued.) And if it seems strange that we’re here 40 years after the fact, talking about a group of actors who had the (mis)fortune of being packaged with a hit TV show in the mid-’60s, well, just listen to the music: when it’s this good, do we really need to worry about who’s playing it?