Not that this comes a huge shock, but I’m too young to remember when The Monkees were originally on the air. My mom does and was a fan (she actually held on to some of her Monkees’ albums so long that I was able to play them when vinyl made a comeback.) My father, who may have come out of the womb as a 55 year old man, will stick to his Dean Martin records, thank you very much.
However, I am old enough to (barely) remember the band’s revival in the 80’s, when MTV began airing repeats of the show. In the years that followed, my interest in the band grew (primarily through listening to my mom’s old albums.) Then the band experienced another (though less ballyhooed) revival in the 90’s. That’s when my full-on fascination started, as I collected all of their CDs and eventually every episode of the TV series. I’ve read books and watched documentaries on the group. And yes, I’ve gotten a few opportunities to see them in concert.
I’m hard-pressed to say why the band has fascinated me. Certainly, I enjoy the music and the show, both of which veer between good clean fun and genuine oddity. I love the notion that this TV-only band became, for a brief period anyway, an actual functioning group (something drummer Micky Dolenz has likened to Leonard Nimoy becoming a Vulcan.) Maybe its because I didn’t live through their original era and have seen prefabricated groups like ‘NSync and The Backstreet Boys come and go, so I’ve never felt threatened by the whole “corporate created rock band” thing. Maybe it’s a combination of all of those things, along with the enormous charm and talent of the four men involved.
Whatever the case, I’m an unabashed Monkees’ fan and was thrilled to find out they were were releasing a new album, Good Times, to celebrate their 50th Anniversary. The day before Good Times was released, I listened to all of their (non-greatest hits) albums. And in my inimitable rambling fashion, I present to you my results.
(BLOGGER’S NOTE: A lot of aspects of this article assume that you know a thing or two about the band’s history. I don’t have the space to go into it here, so if you want to take the time a learn a bit about the band, look them up on Wikipedia. I mean, we’ve got to keep that place in business somehow, right?)
Okay, here we go:
THE MONKEES (1966)
Probably the only Monkees’ album that sounds like it came from the same band. This is largely due to the influence of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. The pair wrote (or co-wrote) seven of the album’s original twelve tracks and produced ten of them. Mike Nesmith wrote and produced two tracks and his country-ish leanings dovetail nicely with Boyce and Hart songs like Last Train to Clarksville and Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day, lending the album a consistency (of sound at least) not found in future Monkees releases.
FAVORITE SONG: Sweet Young Thing. Don Kirschner, the band’s original music supervisor, put Mike Nesmith together with Gerry Goffin and Carole King in the hope that they would influence Nez to write more “commercial” songs. If Sweet Young Thing is any indication, the influence worked the other way around.
LEAST FAVORITE SONG: Let’s Dance On. A largely empty-sounding rocker from Boyce and Hart. Even Dolenz doesn’t sound interested in singing it.
UNDERRATED SONG: Saturday’s Child. The very first Monkees’ song I ever liked. It’s not remembered as a classic, but it’s catchy and sunny enough to STILL get played as part of the current tour. Clearly, this was the peak of David Gates’ writing career (he went on to form Bread, a band as bland as its name.)
MORE OF THE MONKEES (1967)
The beginning and (thankfully) the end of Don Kirschner’s assembly line approach to putting together a Monkees album. As Gerry Goffin later pointed out, when the show became a hit, every writer and producer in Kirschner’s employ wanted to get on a Monkees album. The ensuing land rush resulted in 19 different songwriters and 9 different producers being credited on the album’s 12 tracks. Because of this, the end product is wildly inconsistent. What works, works beautifully. What doesn’t work is either forgettable or execrable.
FAVORITE SONG: Sometime in the Morning. If you doubt the depth of The Monkees’ songbook, I’d like to point out that this absolutely lovely ballad (co-written by no less than Carole King!) was never released as a single. It’s a top 10 hit for any other band of that era.
LEAST FAVORITE SONG: The Day We Fall in Love. A spoken word “ballad” that is STILL the only song on any Monkees album that I simply can’t sit through. Beyond cloying and insipid, clearly aimed at ten year old girls with a massive crush on Davy Jones (which, to be fair, was pretty much The Monkees’ fanbase at that point.)
UNDERRATED SONG: She. There are only two Boyce and Hart contributions to the album and both were forerunners to punk (ret-conned as “proto-punk”). (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone is the more celebrated of the two, as it was frequently featured on the show, became a hit in its own right and was later famously covered by The Sex Pistols. She, however, is every bit as tough, angry and vengeful; maybe even more so (witness lines like, “She needs someone to walk on/So her feet don’t touch the ground”).
The first album the band released after wresting musical control from Don Kirschner and, depending on your point of view, one of only two “true” Monkees albums (in the sense that the band selected the songs and played nearly all of the instruments.) As various members of the band have pointed out, it’s a terrific mid-60’s garage band album. The diversity of the songs seems more authentic, as it represents the band members’ varying musical tastes rather than being the result of a hodgepodge of hired guns trying to get in on a good thing.
FAVORITE SONG: Randy Scouse Git. A far out (in the parlance of their time) song about Micky’s adventures in London in early 1967, it’s a extraordinary tune, made more extraordinary by the recognition that it was virtually Micky’s first attempt at songwriting. Poetic, diverse and flat out odd, it shows once again that the band members were not simply the vehicle for other talented songwriters. There was a considerable amount of talent within the group.
LEAST FAVORITE SONG: Band 6. This is a little bit of a cheat, as it’s not actually a song as much as it’s a bit of clowning around used as filler. Given that I didn’t feel right calling any of the songs a “least favorite”, I went with this. It’s really several seconds of Mike (on pedal steel guitar) and Micky (on drums) trying to play the Looney Tunes Theme. How good are they? I had to wait until the advent of Wikipedia before I realized what song they were trying to play.
UNDERRATED SONG: Early Morning Blues and Greens. A moody, atmospheric track with a smooth vocal by Davy Jones; nicely built by producer Chip Douglas. Good enough that it was still (with vocal by Peter Tork) a part of the band’s set as recently as two years ago.
PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN & JONES, LTD (1967)
By general consensus The Monkees’ best album, it was also the beginning of the end of them working as a functioning band. With barely a week to record a new album, they leaned heavily on session musicians in order to finish the tracks quickly. Shortly after, they’d rely on studio musicians altogether and rarely perform as a unit. Still, it clearly didn’t hurt the content of the album, which is their most mature, experimental and complete work; while losing none of the band’s commercial sheen. With song topics that poked fun at commercialism, suburban values and star culture, it’s as if the band found its best way yet to bite the hand that fed it. It’s the equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster not only turning on his creator, but becoming a better scientist.
FAVORITE SONG: Pleasant Valley Sunday. Not a particularly radical choice, as its the best-known song on the album. But it’s the album’s keynote address; a tuneful slap at mindless suburban values with a terrific vocal by Dolenz, beautiful harmonies from Nesmith and a mischievous piano riff from Tork.
LEAST FAVORITE SONG: Hard to Believe. Not a bad song at all, just a fairly banal one; that forgettable song that sometimes slips on to a great album. (And yes, I feel guilty because Davy Jones co-wrote it, but I calls ’em like I sees ’em.)
UNDERRATED SONG: Door Into Summer. A collaboration by producer Chip Douglas and Bill Martin, a song that captures the sense of emptiness and defeat in someone who’s built his life on valuing money. The sort of song the band NEVER would have been allowed to do under Don Kirschner’s regime. Nesmith sings this and four other songs on the album. His vocals take such command of tracks like this, Love is Only Sleeping and What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round that I was surprised to find out he’d written only one of them (Don’t Call on Me).
THE BIRDS, THE BEES AND THE MONKEES (1968)
An uneven, fairly empty-sounding album that’s likely the result of the band’s disintegration as a performing unit. At this point, each member was generally producing solo work under the banner of The Monkees. As a result, only Daydream Believer (recorded during the Pisces, Aquarius… sessions) features the entire band. Also, Peter Tork is nearly absent from the album. They attempted to reserve a spot for his song Lady’s Baby, but he wasn’t able to finish it in time (read Andrew Sandoval’s book The Monkees: The Day-by-Day Story of the 60s TV Pop Sensation for the full, torturous story of that song.)
FAVORITE SONG: Auntie’s Municipal Court. A Byrds-ish Nesmith tune with the customary Papa Nez nonsense title. Micky Dolenz provides the vocals, making it one of the few times on the album that the band members collaborate.
LEAST FAVORITE SONG: Writing Wrongs. Lest I be accused of favoritism toward Nesmith (although he is my favorite member of the band), this repetitive, mind-numbing, self-indulgent track has to rank near (or really at) the bottom of all Nesmith contributions. While We Were Made for Each Other and The Poster are clearly insipid, the two of them COMBINED aren’t as long as Writing Wrongs. Sorry, Nez, not your best work.
UNDERRATED SONG: Dream World. Kind of a hard call, as there just aren’t a lot of hidden gems on the album. I picked Dream World because I always thought it was a perfectly pleasant song and worked as an album opener. Plus, Davy co-wrote it, so it helps assuage my guilt over not liking some of his other songs.
By all rights, this should have been a double EP. At six songs and a lot of filler, it’s grossly flattering to call it an album. That said, at least all six songs were used in the movie (apparently the days of using tracks “inspired by the film” to fill out a soundtrack didn’t exist yet.) And ALL of the songs on the album are good. We also get the welcomed return (just before his departure) of Peter Tork, who wrote and produced two songs.
FAVORITE SONG: As We Go Along. It’s clear that from this, Sometime in the Morning and I Was Not Born to Follow that Goffin and King found a home for some of their prettier songs. Dolenz does a particularly nice job of delicately handling the vocal.
LEAST FAVORITE SONG: Supplicio/Gravy/Superstitious/Dandruff/Poll/Swami with Strings. All of these make up the filler between the songs. They’re collections of lines from the movie, put together by no less than Jack Nicholson. (I suspect they’re made up of Jack’s favorite lines.) As montages go, they’re well done. But montages that make up over half the album I just bought? Bulls**t.
UNDERRATED SONG: Daddy’s Song. A Harry Nilson tune that doesn’t get much love compared to Cuddly Toy from Pisces, Aquarius… It has the same “dark story wrapped in a pretty bow” effect of Cuddly Toy: a brassy show tune about a young man abandoned by his father. It’s use in the black-and-white dance sequence, featuring Davy and Toni Basil (yes, Micky Toni Basil) is one of the highlights of the movie.
COMING IN PART TWO: Peter leaves. Mike leaves. The band makes a couple attempts at a comeback album…and gets it right on the third try.