(Continuing my look at all of The Monkees’ studio albums. We pick up at the beginning of 1969. The TV show is off the air. The group’s movie, Head, has bombed at the box office. The TV special, 33 and 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee is about to do the same. And Peter Tork has left the band. It’s the beginning of the end. And, given everything that followed, the end of the beginning.)
INSTANT REPLAY (1969)
Originally, this was supposed to be a double-album called The Monkees Present (not to be confused with the album we’ll be talking about in a moment) in which each member of the band was given a side. The idea was scrapped when their commercial fortunes began to fade and there was no demand for a double-album from a band that could no longer sell single albums. A number of tracks intended for the double-album found a home on Instant Replay, but were sadly mixed with a bunch of bottom-of-the-barrel tracks left over from earlier Monkees sessions. Apparently, the band’s new musical supervisor, Brendan Cahill, thought this was the key to reviving their sagging commercial fortunes. It went over so well that the only context in which you’ll see Brendan Cahill and musical genius used in the same sentence is when I tell you those terms should NEVER be used in the same sentence.
FAVORITE SONG: You and I. For as much as Davy was (justifiably) criticized for his embrace of schlock-rock, he is the writer of this extraordinary piece; an angry lament on the all-too-brief lifespan of teen idols, couched in the guise of a love song. And that stinging guitar work? Courtesy of Neil Young. (Yes, THAT Neil Young.)
LEAST FAVORITE SONG: Teardrop City. A Last Train to Clarksville clone that bombed worse than Sara Jane Olson when it was released as a single. Cahill’s whole “scrape the bottom-of-the-barrel” approach was mutton-headed enough, but this release looks even worse in hindsight. Subsequent Monkee box sets and deluxe editions have revealed just HOW much great material was sitting in the vault at the time of Instant Replay. Certainly I’m not a music exec, but you’re going to tell me that this crap stood a better chance of becoming a hit than Neil Diamond’s Love to Love or Boyce and Hart’s Looking for the Good Times? (Both would eventually see the light of day, but why not on Instant Replay?)
UNDERRATED SONG: Shorty Blackwell. An almost-six minute long Micky Dolenz orchestration designed to build on the freaky and out there vibe of Randy Scouse Git. While it doesn’t get near that level, it’s still an interesting and at times arresting track. If it’s underrated, it’s partly because Dolenz himself seems embarrassed by the song, constantly dismissing it whenever the subject comes up. He should have had more faith.
THE MONKEES PRESENT (1969)
The last “original era” Monkees’ album to feature Mike Nesmith, Present is a strong collection of solo tracks from the band’s three remaining members. While almost everything after Head is generally dismissed by fans and critics, I’ve always found Present to be an interesting and diverse album, ranking with the best of the band’s work. If it’s largely forgotten, I’d attribute that to the band’s commercial fortunes being in an irreversible spiral. The material actually holds up pretty well.
FAVORITE SONG: Listen to the Band. Also my favorite Monkees’ song from any album, Nesmith’s masterpiece is a huge bit of country-rock orchestration, complete with horns, pedal steel and strings. A shame that supposed country-rock pioneers like the Flying Burrito Brothers were so dismissive of Nez because this track outshines anything those dudes ever did.
LEAST FAVORITE SONG: Never Tell A Woman Yes. Personally, I don’t think there’s a weak song on the album, but sadly, there’s no album-filler to let me sidestep this category. This Nesmith story song isn’t really weak, just kind of silly and forgettable. (Actually, so is the Davy-sung Ladies Aid Society, so it was pretty much a coin toss…)
UNDERRATED SONG: French Song. One of the things that makes Present such a strong album is that none of the three band members show up poorly. This is particularly true of Davy, who has two previously unreleased tracks (the aforementioned Looking for the Good Times and Ladies Aid Society), the expected ballad (the surprisingly restrained If I Knew) and this moody little piece. It’s not a particularly deep song, but the simplicity works in its favor. Think of someone looking at a street scene (or maybe a painting of one) and then let the song’s atmosphere wash over you.
Though it came out well before I was born, Changes has always invoked what I imagine was the forlorn feeling The Monkees’ few remaining fans had when it was released in 1970. There’s a sad sense of things coming full circle. They started as a group of actors being told to shut up and sing what they were told, progressed into a diverse group that controlled its own musical destiny and returned to being a couple of guys who did as they were told. Changes was produced (and largely written) by Jeff Barry and Andy Kim, with little input from Micky and Davy. Certainly, with three flops in a row, the guys had zero political capital in controlling the material (Micky said later he was just glad someone still wanted to record them.) But the scent of death hangs over this album, beginning with the cheap picture of just Micky and Davy on the cover. It gave rise to an industry joke that one of them would eventually just record an album as The Monkee. Yeah, that’s kicking them while they’re down, but there’s a truth to it. This whole exercise was less a genuine attempt to recapture the band’s popularity than it was an attempt by industry fat cats to squeeze one more dime out of the project. Those who dismissed The Monkees as a crassly commercial venture must have looked at this sad-ass attempt to whip a dead horse as confirmation of their worst fears.
All that said: it’s really not that bad an album. All you have to do is push away the circumstances and listen to the actual material. As far as knowing their way around a commercial album, you can do worse than Barry and Kim (the guys who gave us Sugar, Sugar for The Archies and Kim’s later solo hit, Rock Me Gently.) Certainly, they weren’t wasting their A material here, but that doesn’t mean the album’s worthless. It’s quite catchy and Dolenz and Jones don’t treat the material as if it’s part of a contractual obligation. Still, it lacks the diversity that contributions from Nesmith or Tork would have brought. A tuneful, though kind of shallow album, long regarded as a failure. It at least deserves reconsideration based on its material
FAVORITE SONG: Midnight Train. Micky Dolenz said in a recent interview that his mother used to listen to western swing albums when he was a kid, so most of his songs begin as country songs. I don’t know Micky’s solo material well enough to accept or reject that. But as far as The Monkees’ catalog goes, this is the only evidence I’ve found of that claim. It’s a fun little song, with spritely guitar work, quick patter vocals and a train-coming-down-the-tracks, chugga-chugga back beat. It sounds like nothing else on the album and that diversity alone is a HUGE plus.
LEAST FAVORITE SONG: 99 Pounds. It’s certainly not Davy Jones’ fault, as he sings the hell out of this empty, by-the-numbers rocker. Barry originally recorded this in late 1966 and pulled it out of the vault for Changes. Again, given what was in that vault, WHY would you pick something like this?
UNDERRATED SONG: Oh My My. The album’s lead single; a chunky thumper that Dolenz sells beautifully. Another common complaint, repeated again here, of the band’s late “original era”: this deserved to be a bigger hit than it was.
POOL IT (1987)
From my vague memories and ensuing research, I’ve concluded that The Monkees’ 80’s comeback could have been a complete triumph. From an unlikely beginning (MTV airing repeats of the show) the band captured a whole new generation of fans. They used this new demand to launch a reunion tour (sans Mike Nesmith) that went from playing small venues to stadiums in a matter of months. Had they ended it there, they could have ridden into the sunset, giving one last finger to their critics.
But it didn’t end there. They decided to keep riding the wave and released a new album, followed by a new tour, in 1987. They would continue to tour for two more years, until in-fighting within the band and indifference from their new fan base caused them to go their separate ways. Again. And we’re left this relic of the era.
The biggest problem with Pool It is that it IS a relic of the era. In an attempt to make the band sound “current”, the album forsakes The Monkees’ classic sound in favor of 80’s aural tropes. In fact, you could’ve wiped The Monkees’ vocals entirely, replaced them with the people from Animotion (F.U., I had to do a lot of research to come up with that band) and nobody would’ve known the difference. Strangely, Pool It now sounds more dated than any of the material that had been recorded twenty years before it.
FAVORITE SONG: Heart and Soul. The only song on the album that has anything in common with the best of The Monkees’ hits. Catchy and fun, with just a bit of guitar crunch added in, it was the album’s lead single and deserved to be a bigger hit. (The band had been thrown off MTV at the time. Doesn’t sound like much now, but these days it would be the equivalent of getting thrown off iHeart Radio and You Tube.)
LEAST FAVORITE SONG: Counting on You. The album’s biggest disappointment is the utter weakness of EVERYTHING Davy Jones sings (although I kind of like The Long Way Home, but that’s it.) Counting on You is the worst of the lot; a treacly bit of garbage. But don’t take my word on it, here are some lyrics: “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1/At 7:15, I’ll feel ten feet tall.” Prosecution rests, your honor.
UNDERRATED SONG: Gettin’ In. On something of a side note, I occasionally find myself having to defend Noel Gallagher of Oasis. Not about the things he does and says (those can be kind of indefensible) but against the accusation that he simply rips off the artists he likes. My defense usually starts with, “Yes, but he admits that”, continues to “Every artist from The Beatles and The Stones to a hundred indie bands you could name today have ripped off the artists they loved” and concludes with, “Does it really matter as long as it’s a GOOD rip off?” I bring that up because Gettin’ In, written and sung by Peter Tork, is an unabashed, unalloyed, unapologetic rip off of The Talking Heads, right down to Tork’s imitation of David Byrne’s “give me another shot of helium before my voice goes back to normal” style of crooning. But to that end, I have to say: it’s a pretty damn good rip off. And it’s the only song on the album written by a member of the band, so bonus points there.
Justus is an album that can appreciated a tad more than it can be enjoyed. It was the first album in 28 years to feature all four members of the band and it’s the other “true” Monkees’ album. In fact, Justus is truer than Headquarters, in that it’s the only album written, produced and completely played by the four band members. While it’s a very solid effor, it lacks the spark often provided by the “hired gun” songwriters the band had access to. It’s certainly less a product of the 90’s than Pool It was a product of the 80’s, but the heavy guitar sound and the occasional angsty moments DO sound like an ill-fated stab at relevance. While The Monkees catalog would somehow feel incomplete if they hadn’t attempted at least one album like this, Justus doesn’t have any more in common with the 60’s version of the band than Pool It.
FAVORITE SONG: I Believe You. Peter Tork’s downbeat, disaffected love song perfectly bridges the 60’s (it’s not hard to imagine some group like The Turtles doing this) and the 90’s (think of every alt band that wasn’t wearing flannel and playing grunge.) If only more of the album had been like THIS.
LEAST FAVORITE SONG: Circle Sky. It’s not that I genuinely dislike this song, but I’m registering a protest vote here. The band originally performed this Nesmith song at a live concert in Salt Lake City for use in the movie Head. The Circle Sky sequence is not only a highlight of the movie, but it captures what a great, kinetic live act The Monkees had become in just a few years. When it came time to put out the Head album, though, Nesmith replaced the live version of Circle Sky with a studio version he’d cut with his friends. It outraged the other members of the band, particularly Peter Tork. Cut to 28 years later and Nesmith gets the idea for the completely-autonomous approach to Justus after listening to (wait for it) the LIVE version of Circle Sky. As such, he still felt the need to re-cut the song for the new album, further removing it from the glorious original. Bad move, Nez.
UNDERRATED SONG: It’s Not Too Late. As much as I dislike Davy’s contributions to Pool It, he shows up much stronger here. He wrote or co-wrote three songs for the album and ALL of them are catchier and meatier than anything on Pool It. Clearly, Davy was doing better work when he took matters into his own hands.
GOOD TIMES (2016)
A funny thing happened on the way to this album, though it began with an event that wasn’t remotely funny. In 2011, Davy, Micky and Peter reunited for a 45th Anniversary Tour. It was a resounding success (“success” at this point being defined as “They were all still speaking to each other by the end of it”) and, depending on which source you believe, the band was discussing the possibility of a full reunion in 2012. Any chance of that disappeared when Davy Jones died suddenly of a heart attack in February, 2012. Shortly after, Micky, Peter and Mike discussed doing something to honor Davy. The result was a highly successful tour in the fall of 2012. They enjoyed it enough to continue touring in 2013 and 2014. When Mike stepped back in order to finish a novel, Micky and Peter concocted a new tour and played several dates in 2015, paving the way for this year’s 50th Anniversary Tour.
These recent tours have resulted in a transformation in the way The Monkees are perceived and there’s no easy way to mark the turning point. When Davy was still with the band, he was, for all intents and purposes, the face of The Monkees. The tours took on his aesthetic: showmanship, comedy, schmaltz. It seemed to reinforce the idea that The Monkees were a collection of charming lightweights; a guilty pleasure, never to be taken seriously. With Mike back in the fold, the live shows largely became Mike’s aesthetic: stand up there and play the songs. Because of this, there’s been one of those “rediscoveries” by which some people finally see what was right in front of them all along: The Monkees are (and were) four talented and underrated musicians who were also the delivery system for one of the great songbooks in pop music history. The music isn’t a guilty pleasure. It’s 60’s pop at its finest.
Good Times is either the end result or the next logical progression in this “rediscovery”. Commissioned by Rhino Records and produced by Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne, the album draws on three sources of material: previously unfinished (or unreleased) demos from the 60’s, contributions by the remaining band members and songs written by more contemporary songwriters whose styles have clearly been influenced by 60’s pop (Rivers Cuomo from Weezer, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, Andy Partridge, formerly of XTC, and Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller, formerly of Oasis and The Jam, respectively.) The end result is an album that accomplishes what Pool It and Justus failed to do: make The Monkees relevant to today. Everything that is great about The Monkees is invoked (and evoked) here: the mix of catchy fun and pathos, the melange of musical styles, the mix of hired guns and original material. It’s hard to believe that a collection of guys in their seventies are going to crank out too many more albums. But if this is the capstone to The Monkees’ career, I can’t think of a better one.
FAVORITE SONG: Me and Magdalena. A beautiful, Spanish-flavored ballad from Ben Gibbard, it’s a near-perfect vehicle for the harmonizing of Nesmith and Dolenz. Here’s hoping Nez is able to join the tour at some point so we can hear this live.
LEAST FAVORITE SONG: Me and Magdalena, alternate take. This is an unabashed cheat. The album and I are still in the honeymoon phase, so I didn’t feel right calling any of the songs a “least favorite”. So I went with this, found on the deluxe edition of the album. Not a bad song, but bland when compared to the superior original.
UNDERRATED SONG: Love to Love. Truthfully, with an album that hasn’t been out a month yet, it’s hard to call any song “underrated”, so this is really just another song I wanted to write about. This twisting, by turns catchy and dark, Neil Diamond-penned, Davy Jones-sung tune was one of the last recorded under Don Kirschner’s regime. The Kirschner stank might (might) be one of the reasons the song didn’t see the light of day for years. But given the Kirschner-recorded stuff that was recycled on later albums, there’s no excuse for this track being ignored. I personally stumbled across it a few years ago when I picked up a Monkees’ box set at a garage sale. When I first heard Love to Love, I must have played it about six times in a row, confounded that I’d never heard it before. When I found out that a (slightly) remixed version was going to be included on Good Times, I knew, before I’d heard a note of the rest of the album, that they were on the right path. (Honorable mention to the beautiful I Was Not Born to Follow, the insanely catchy She Makes Me Laugh and You Bring The Summer, another perfect Nez-Dolenz vehicle in Accidental Birth of a Hipster and the rollicking title track, a manufactured duet between Micky and his old buddy, Harry Nilson.)
Maybe I’ll do the greatest hits collections some day, but for now I’m pretty happy with this look at the catalog. If you haven’t heard them, go forth and check ’em out!