On The Monkees, Their Music, and Matters of Exclusion Part 2
On The Monkees, Their Music, and Matters of Exclusion
Pt 2: Memo to M. Nesmith & Co: ‘You Told Me’ ‘The Door Into Summer’ was ‘Good Clean Fun’ – But I’m Also In the Moog For Micky & Another Monkee Musical Pun
By Tony Maxwell
I know, I know, it’s already clear to me before it’s even happened- my ingenious subtitle will have your various and sundried LOL’s reverberating throughout the Ethernet for centons to come, and that’s okay, don‘t be ashamed of loving a good, shamelessly borrowed punfest- but really, how do I not unleash my 10-year-old kid-self whilst in the middle of yet another joyous reunion with Monkee Musical Memories? there isn’t a single decade that they haven’t helped brighten up since, and I’m old enough to know. There’s one benefit to having lived as long as The Monkees have been around, which would be- uummm- well, living as long as The Monkees have been around, I guess.
I’m terribly late on getting this second part completed, but thanks to instant (and invaluable) internet connections like this site’s own Brad Waddell, along with obtaining and absorbing a ton of new information from contemporary Monkees books and musical compilations over the last month or so, I’ve had to revise some perceptions developed over years of rediscovering this group and finding some not-so-impressive truths that have come to light; however, far outweighing any sobering insights that have surfaced, the continuing revelations of new history and unearthed recordings have been both fascinating and rewarding, and this nearly lifelong appreciation for The Monkees’ music, their iconic and timelessly refreshing television personalities, and endlessly entertaining history, only continues to evolve and reward that appreciation. Which is why completing this second part has been so time-consuming, so overly-written and clumsily analytical, and so much pure fun to write this 45th Anniversary Tribute to The Monkees. Tony Maxwell, 06/04/11
Throughout the jaded years following the incredible apex of rock/pop/psychedelic/garage band/folk mysticism/mind-altered introspective offerings of the late 1960‘s, into pompous seventies progressive rock, introspective singer-songwriters and laid-back west coast artists refining the ‘country-rock‘ sound first introduced by Chris Hillman and The Byrds, straight through the pit of hell known as disco, it wasn’t as easy to find new recordings or much of any media material related to The Monkees or other 60’s groups in general, excepting for the Beatles’ media machine, which could consistently be counted on to provide throughout the dismal 70‘s. But of course the Beatles recorded output alone exceeds a decade of musical dedication, countless hours of rehearsals and songwriting discipline, multiple refinements from a talented and creative producer, and the leisurely-tolerated studio hours of indulgent experimentation that the group had earned from the millions of pounds it generated from their efforts.
Shortly before the austere departure of Don Kirshner from the Columbia Records Division in early 1967, The Monkees were given a break from their TV series’ grueling schedule that was now well into its first season. This much-deserved vacation/hiatus also allowed a frame of time for the group to plunge into the process of applying their individual musical instincts and skills to a cohesive and identifiable sound, (hopefully) adhering to the concept of their character’s individual amateur beginnings as portrayed on television, but without compromising or sacrificing their own self-perceived artistic integrity. It’s important to note that, at this point, the only purely original group songwriting input had come exclusively from Michael Nesmith- he had written some great tunes that fit in with The Monkees’ sound, like ’Mary, Mary’ (which I still find hard to believe is his composition to this very day); however, an entire album of ’Papa Gene’s Blues’ and ’Sweet Young Thing’- variations would have shifted the paradigm to a more-decidedly ‘country rock‘ sound- Nesmith has even conceded that he wanted to steer the group into this direction once the series had ended- but it would have been too limiting a sound and antithetical to the all-consuming ‘pop’ sounds of the day. Thankfully, for the group’s musical endeavors, Michael was not controlling enough, nor was he so limited in musical language, as to think his preferred ‘country’ style would be the only absolute direction for The Monkees.
Maybe individual egos were predominant within the overall group objective, but it could not have been achieved without the willing participation of all four members. In any event, had separate and crucial talents not already been existent within The Monkees collective, regardless of how artificially it was manifested for the initial purposes of a television show, the music that the self-contained group recorded could well have been remembered as the most disastrous experiment in the history of rock and roll, rather than the vital and significant contribution to popular music that it is recognized as today.
As is the case with many of the most well-known bands throughout the history of all music and continuing, there is one driving force that characterized the very essence of these instantly-recognizable group “sounds“: Brian Wilson with The Beachboys, John Phillips and The Mamas and Papas, John Fogerty and CCR, David Gates with Bread. A duo songwriting team of the caliber of Lennon/McCartney, three incredible harmonies and distinct guitar sound with all-round ’extra texture’ provided by George Harrison and the always capable drumming of Ringo Starr, all combined in one band, was a rare exception to the norm and resulted in much more quality music than would be expected from a single creative vision. But the signature sound of a group was what sold the records. Mike Love’s lead vocal was a defining characteristic of the most enduring Beachboys tunes, as was Cass Elliott’s crucial harmony that distinguished The Mamas and Papas’ sound, or the foreboding atmosphere The Door‘s tightly-knit 3-piece group and epic extended instrumental jams provided Jim Morrison‘s dreamy, disturbing poetry .
The Monkees instantly-recognizable sound had been firmly established by Micky’s lead vocals on their first mega-hits, ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ and ‘I’m a Believer’, followed closely by Davy’s television appeal, conveniently translatable to his vocal skills, which broadened that sound with some fine pop vocals on equally important songs like ‘Daydream Believer’ and ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’ (he also provided the necessary schmaltz in songs like ‘The Day I Fall In Love’ and ‘Look Out [Here Comes Tomorrow])’, tunes guaranteed to attract a large female following and the lucrative revenue they were mostly responsible for- Jones‘ ‘beautiful boy‘ looks were enough to maintain the strong female pre-adolescent following, but his ability to occasionally sing a near-enough-to-pitch melody in a breathy ‘Sohhhndrahh— I need you’-type affectation was worth it‘s Davy-weight in Monkee gold).
The combination of superb outside songwriting, disciplined studio musicians, and Micky and Davy’s voices alone would have kept the musical ’ideal’ of The Monkees at the top of the charts for an untold amount of time. But the two self-proclaimed musicians of the group, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, grew increasingly resistant to the status quo, and it is reasonable to assume that the group dynamic would have imploded from this resistance, in a short span of time, had they not unilaterally chosen to support the allowance of musical input they eventually managed to attain. Time has proven that this input was never a guarantee of musical success, and had this fight for creative control gone in any other direction than it did, there could be an entirely new history of The Monkees’ musical career and their position in the history of rock music, one very real possibility being the self-destruction of a would-be rock group’s already frayed credibility and any residual commercial relevance generated because of that lack of control. Instead, The Monkees took a different route to becoming a functioning band, and this route was probably more remarkably ‘organic’ and creatively serendipitous than the back-stories and early origins of the most revered musical artists of the 60’s. Simply getting together with neighborhood friends in a garage and practicing rock and roll music together does not automatically qualify for recognition in the rock and roll pantheon- add that The Monkees didn’t even have that luxury, and each member was effectively joining a music group without the slightest clue of just what music they were going to make together, and that route is all the more remarkable in its execution.
The stage had been set earlier by one of the disgruntled instigators, Michael Nesmith (or ‘wool hat guy’ as he was referred to by TV crew members), who had the idea of obtaining an independent producer to be available when it came time for Nesmith to back up all of his ‘artistic control’ talk in the recording studio; true to his gift for seeing things further ahead than most others, Mike had realized that no less than a ‘fifth Monkee’ was required to help make the group’s successful transition from minor involvement in the music-making process to full-blown creative source, and a Don Kirshner- or Jeff Barry- dominance in that sound was no longer acceptable.
Chip Douglas had zilch experience as a music producer, in any technical or managerial sense; he had only recently found a modicum of success with his group The Turtles as a performer and arranger for their song ‘Happy Together’, and aside from Nesmith’s positive intuition of his friend’s musical sensibility, he was an otherwise inexplicable choice to take on such a demanding role as replacement for a very-capable producer like Columbia’s Lester Sill, and that was only one daunting challenge that would eventually include stepping on some very highly-polished shoe tips that had a proven track record. The ambitious and confident Music Division Head of Columbia, Don Kirshner, had every reason to be proud of the amazing sales that his carefully-constructed and handpicked songs representing The Monkees’ musical identity had made possible (‘Last Train to Clarksville’ was at the top of the charts before the record-buying public ever had a visual image of the group, as the television show had not yet premiered; however, this is a unique instance, as forever after it has been impossible to separate the visual image from the musical image of The Monkees – the main objective of introducing a “young generation“ to television audiences, the first regular teen pop band to visit the nation‘s TV sets every week, was met with unprecedented success, and ‘The Monkees’ television show stands alone as an innovative and groundbreaking original series).
Don Kirshner, like their ‘creators’ Rafelson and Schneider before him, underestimated the will and intelligence of a four-member phenomenon that had exceeded all previous expectations and wasn’t about to quit making their value known once the television series that existed because of them was beating all the competition and averaging upwards of 10 million viewers a week.
Kirshner pushed the envelope and made a bold decision to challenge that phenomenon by deliberately excluding The Monkees from the song selection and performance process that they were required to mimic convincingly as their own before the cameras, without any choice as to personal preference. Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones had no compunction towards this process- they were actors, not musicians, as Micky stated in January of 1967: “My job was [as] an actor and to come in and sing the stuff when I was asked to do so.” (‘Monkees day-by-day’, publ. 2005 & written by Andrew Sandoval[*]) Micky has steadfastly maintained that perspective for 45 years now, and his ignorance of the far-reaching impact his singing, playing and writing with The Monkees holds to generations of people up to this day, has been one of the unknowing ironies in the group’s career- he downplays his own achievements as a musician and recording artist, which may soothe his own humility, but he does so at the residual cost of the group’s reputation as a hard-earned rock and roll band. Micky, who played a competent guitar, learned the drums in an obscenely short amount of time, and had a classic rock voice that continues to endure, has always and presently wants to be known as an Actor, or Director, or entertainer- sucks for Peter and Mike’s hopes of artistic acceptance, but it really hasn‘t made Micky any more interesting and engaging than he seemed to be when he was nothing more than a member of The Monkees.
Davy Jones rather liked the insular comfort provided by Kirshner’s musical talent, and he willingly recorded the vocal to Neil Diamond’s ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’, one of his finest performances ever, even as the others were being more vocal about their independence from such machinations. But Davy had already been a none-too-successful Colpix Records solo artist, and singing what was written for him and played by session musicians was just another part of the “job” he was getting compensated for.
But in retrospect, it’s fascinating that, at the instant when Davy was recording this latest ‘job assignment’ for a very determined Kirshner and co., albeit it one of much higher quality than the miserable ‘failed-teen-heartthrob’ dreck he had been used to singing as a solo act, ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’ would soon become the undoing of Don Kirshner’s reign over The Monkees’ musical product, but not before a more profound chapter in the lives of the group’s two most-talented singers and creative forces would become a catalyst for the forcible rebellion against, and subsequent dismissal of, Mr. Kirshner.
Near-simultaneous yet separate visits to England by Micky and Mike, in February 1967, a vacation the group hadn’t been allowed throughout months of hard work followed by producing over a dozen episodes of the first television season thus far, resulted in two separate meetings with the most popular and prolific songwriting duo of the latter 20th century. As if their lives hadn’t already been a nonstop and ever-momentous whirlwind of going from virtual unknowns to the newest sensation of the nation, Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz were now being entertained by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, respectively, at their dual creative and collaborative peak of success and artistic freedom, a circumstance at the time nestled comfortably between the pre-release of the most critically-acclaimed 45 record of all time, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ b/w ‘Penny Lane’, and the following months of studio isolation that the Beatles and George Martin could now devote all of their energy and imagination to, for the completion of the most critically-acclaimed LP of all time, ’Sgt Pepper’.
Micky met a very gracious Paul McCartney and was invited back to his home, where he was one of the first to hear Paul and his band’s latest single, two songs originally intended for an LP release but rushed out at the behest of their manager Brian Epstein to fill in the void between their last chart-topping songs. Later on, Micky was one of the few allowed into the inner sanctum of Abbey Road studios to observe some recording mixes of Paul’s ‘Fixing A Hole’, a session remarkable for the easy discipline the lads possessed when it involved their strict work ethic.
Mike had written a self-conscious but sincere note that got through to John Lennon, who first and foremost admired the group’s television performances and compared their humor to such greats as the Marx Brothers. After inviting Nesmith to visit, Lennon spoke to Mike as a peer and solicited opinions regarding fresh new original music he had created that only months later would be absorbed by a worldwide audience and become a legendary document of music history. Mike was also present at the penultimate moment of completion of a song that would be climaxing this conceptual art piece, Lennon‘s ‘A Day In The Life’, a watershed event of 1960’s popular culture and standing remnant of music’s ability to transcend all pre-conceived restrictions.
“[Lennon] would come home and play the acetates from the day’s sessions. ‘What do you think of that sound? Do you think there’s too much bass on there?’ Of course, I just didn’t have any way to talk to him because he was rearranging my musical realities at the time. I said, ‘This is just miraculous. This is some of the most innovative and creative and interesting stuff I’ve ever heard.’” – Michael Nesmith, from [*] listed above
Micky Dolenz had been impressed enough after the “summit meeting” to compose his first fully-realized song, the offbeat and off-center ‘Randy Scouse Git’, another gem in The Monkees’ unique catalog of LP tracks and B-sides. It is also a quintessential musical ‘performance’ and one of the most memorable of the television series’ signature moments, where a now-curly-haired ‘veteran‘ of America’s favorite combo flails away unconsciously on a bass drum and scats with the timing and assurance of a veteran blues singer. He’ll also go on to record a stunning, horn-accompanied but uniquely ‘Monkee’ improv-styled tune called ‘Goin’ Down’, and an overlooked anthem as representative of, and for, a generation as much as Dylan’s ’Blowin’ In The Wind’ or the Beatles’ ’All You Need Is Love’; but sadly, Micky’s musical genius, whether by design or preference, was limited to only sporadic moments of such inspiration, even as he continued to be at the epicenter of the artistic community and defining events of the ‘Summer of Love’, with its attendant chemically-induced renaissance of the very foundation of rock music as a presence that demanded more and more to be taken seriously.
Michael Nesmith had started learning to play guitar at a later age than most others would be dedicating themselves to in attempting a musical career; however, Michael Nesmith wasn’t conventional in any sense of the meaning. He decided to become a songwriter and singer/musician after his dubiously short time in the military, and it’s difficult to define whether his will elevated his musical talent and individual genius, or if it was (and is) the other way around.
But back to the events of the time: Michael and his wife conclude their vacation in England and return to the states on February 13, 1967, the very day Davy arrives in the UK, his home country. Micky never sees Davy, and leaves Britain on a flight to Denmark two days later, not returning to the U.S. until 02/22, only to enter the studio the very next day to begin recording the second version of Nesmith’s song ‘The Girl I Knew Somewhere,’ while Davy is still in England and consequently not having to explain recent recording activity to his band mates.
How can an outsider even conceive of the brutally frustrating and imposed restraint level of personal creativity that a working musical artist such as Mike Nesmith endured, after already achieving modest success and recognition as a songwriter, and recording music for a barely-sustained company like the Colpix label (the same one a struggling Davy Jones had recorded for)? Mike had a great new career (and major break) as an actor, but was expected to keep his innate musical aesthetic to himself, to virtually disown a career he had invested deeply in. And to then be complimented, and untouchably validated by, the most popular and respected musical group in the world, who had very little interest in famous ‘celebrities’ otherwise, and were very selective in the company they kept? When one of that group had recently rearranged your musical realities? To gain the acceptance of, along with innovative young director Richard Lester and writer Alun Owen, the group that laid the groundwork for the model The Monkees were to later adopt as their own, with the visual appeal and energetic pulse of ’A Hard Day’s Night’, and their more comparable, cannabis-enhanced second feature, ‘Help!’ ? When this newfound validation is combined with a forceful but overly-sensitive ego, a realization of the worth of your contributions and the potential limited only by network and music industry executives, with their tunnel-visioned refusal to abdicate any aspect of the business to sources outside of their own limiting artistic constraints?
Michael Nesmith was a barely-adult, idealistic young man who went from playing small coffeehouses and brief TV appearances to nationwide fame in less than half a year. If his meeting with Lennon wasn’t motivation enough to accelerate his (and, by extension, The Monkees’) control over a musical product that was rapidly becoming symbiotic with their image as manufactured by others, a more justifiable motivation doesn’t exist.
The Monkees’ individual earnings averaged $400 a week, a ridiculously cheap amount compared to fellow television actors who starred in other, less-popular series at the time. Even when they were performing their first live concerts, they were intentionally withheld from public scrutiny, and their behavior on- and off-screen was closely monitored by their creators and clueless industry personnel. Like every other sad revelation The Monkees would eventually be confronted with, the realization of their exclusion from most aspects of their TV show and their music only fully articulated itself to them ‘after-the-fact’- in essence, being blinded with BS and fully exploited before they had a chance to notice it themselves.
Michael Nesmith was more responsible for, and farsighted enough to foresee, the musical DNA of The Monkees’ newly-born group, albeit in his unique image- one that could only be achieved by his persistence and musical contributions that evolved from something deeper than a pre-fabricated and coldly-calculated agenda to make The Monkees ‘industry’ as obscenely profitable as possible before fading from the scene as quickly as they conquered it. Nesmith could easily have been a non-talented, loudmouthed musician and been just as willfully passionate about turning out ‘quality’ material for the group as he judged it; fortunately, this was not to be the case.
While a select few of the following songs only peripherally involve the participation of Monkee members, the majority of Nesmith-written songs that followed the one-two impact of ‘Clarksville’ and ‘Believer’s top positions on the charts could very well have been just as successful, and historically memorable, top-selling singles for The Monkees all on their own, a missed business opportunity that was never considered by the ‘old pros’ in their immediate demand for commercially manufactured material that Don Kirshner’s 15 per cent ownership reaped the most immediate benefit from. As it is, these, and other classic tracks, are forever assigned to the ‘runner-up’ list, one far more interesting and revelatory than their official ‘greatest hits’ list would show.
THE GIRL I KNEW SOMEWHERE
From the very beginning of the year 1967, The Monkees had made the conscious and unified decision to create their own musical product with the very minimum of outside assistance required or desired. Michael Nesmith was noticeably more indulged initially by the musical executives at Columbia Pictures, as evidenced by regular series additions of plot-sustaining, ‘country-flavored’ compositions like ‘Papa Gene’s Blues’ and ‘Sweet Young Thing’ that helped to advance a storyline and at the same time provided good ‘filler’ material for the inevitable album releases. Michael’s voice and musical approach fit in very neatly with the musical landscape being constructed to define this struggling, teenage television garage-rock band.
The irony of Michael Nesmith’s labyrinthine genius in adapting to a musical style anathema to most any other one he would have preferred, is that he did it as well, and even better, than the formidable songwriting crew that Kirshner was using as leverage against further consideration of Nesmith’s (and, by extension, The Monkees’) original, ‘inferior’ songs. Michael was responsible for the most anemic, yet timely appropriate, early Monkees’ fabrication, ‘Mary, Mary’. With the cheesy generic guitar lick by Glen Campbell framing a too-self-parodying rhyme of elementary proportion, ‘Mary, Mary’ is barely redeemed by Micky’s earnest delivery; the lyrics are indefensibly horrid, forced, and – well, about pitch-perfect for a young struggling garage rock band like The Monkees were manufactured to be, later (permanent) sound to be determined. But Mike had also written ‘You Just May Be The One’, a certifiably jingly, jangly, made-to-order potential radio smash on the level of ‘We Can Work It Out’ and Tommy James and The Shondell‘s ‘I Think We‘re Alone Now‘. The Grass Root’s ‘Midnight Confessions’ can be seen as a prime duplication of the pop ‘urgency’ that ‘You Just May Be The One’ first offered, and Michael Nesmith has proven to be a much more proficient pop songwriter than he could ever equal as a ‘country rock’ innovator. Perhaps Nesmith is the only one who would take sincere offense at that opinion.
Producer Chip Douglas and engineer Hank Cicalo were among those present on Monday morning, January 16, 1967, when The Monkees held “their first recording sessions as a fully functioning, self-contained band.” (see [*] above) An attempt to record a non-group composition, ’She’s So Far Out, She’s In’, that they have otherwise performed live at all of their concerts so far, doesn’t even make it to attempted vocal overdubs. Their second effort, ‘The Girl I Knew Somewhere‘, is a turning point in The Monkees‘ musical direction. “The group loosens up considerably for this song and by take 16 they are, to use Chip Douglas’ word, cookin’.” (from [*] cited above).
While Michael’s lead vocal doesn’t hit quite the right tone, or crisp level of completeness, for a Monkees’ 45 record consideration, this slice of pure power pop has a strong melody and is eventually, properly translated to it’s status as the definitive original composition written and performed by The Monkees. Michael has long cited ‘Circle Sky’ as the perfect piece for live concert performances by all four fully participating Monkees; evidently, he had no idea that this complicated, energy-draining pop tune would be their first live studio performance.
Thanks to the patient guidance of freshman producer Douglas, ideas flow freely and unself-conscious experimentation is tolerated; John London, another close friend, is assigned the bass-playing to anchor the demanding, syncopated rhythm that Micky is first attempting to master on the drums in a rigid studio setting. An experienced drummer will acknowledge the difficulty in sustaining this staccato beat with the insistently false start kicking off the last verse (four bass notes? Five?? Is the beat in between or even later??? It seems to change with every attempt!) – quite possibly one of the most challenging drum chores in any musical interpretation, and it had to be Micky’s first full-fledged, recorded drumming assignment. It’s a tense performance, and far from perfect, but absolutely remarkable in the musical dynamic it serves, and Chip Douglas wisely keeps the intricacies of the beat buried in the final mix, until it comes out confidently at the end. Micky’s vibrant vocal is a much more necessary contribution.
“I just can’t put my finger on what it is – that says to me, ‘Watch out, don’t believe her’.” A lyric light years ahead of “Mary, Mary, where ya goin’ to?”, and a line that speaks to every human insecurity about the chances one takes when giving themselves to a new relationship. In ‘The Girl I Knew Somewhere’, Michael has crafted a perfect blend of tangential melody surrounded by concrete ruminations that are readily identifiable to anyone who has ever unwittingly fallen in love, and his echoing of the last verse that Micky has complete and knowing vocal control over (“Well goodbye dear, I just can’t take this chance again – my fingers are still burning from the last time”) is one of many small touches of genius in a song that manages to encompass both the desperation of the Beachboy’s ‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’ and the regrettable resignation of the Beatles’ ‘I’ll Be Back’, presented in an optimistically bright instrumental score with a novel harpsichord showcase straight from the imagination of Peter Tork. Whereas George Martin manufactured a speeded-up piano melody to evoke the quaint nostalgia of Lennon’s timeless classic ‘In My Life’, Peter’s harpsichord was a vitally original accompaniment conceived in the song’s initial recording, mainly because “It was just something that I wanted to do.” And so it became the final compliment to Nesmith’s lyrics and melody, coupled with Micky’s self-assured vocal rendition that Michael had obviously deemed superior to his original attempt, and the energetic performances all around: the higher key melded better with The Monkees’ existing musical translations; the professional bass ‘blueprint’ maintained the proper timing throughout hours of rehearsals and recorded takes that The Monkees as a unit had never experienced before; and the sympathetic cooperation of their most inherently-qualified producer and master engineer to preserve all of this effort on a 4-track open-reeled tape with a care and professional sheen befitting it’s unique structure. All the ingredients for a classic sound were there at the very outset of their independent recording.
The first ‘live’ group studio performance of this Nesmith song with his ‘guide‘ vocal, and the second one attempted after ‘Girl’ on the same day, ‘Sunny Girlfriend’ is a rousing number in the mold of ‘Sweet Young Thing’, except more playful and less deliberate than that tune, co-written with Carole King. It was a natural for their newly-independent LP debut, and another perfect fit for a future Monkees’ television episode. Mike’s vocal range is revealed to be every bit as versatile as Micky’s.
‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’, along with a whole lot of drama, is percolating just around the corner as the group at this point is completely unaware that their nemesis Don Kirshner has already commenced the production and distribution of The Monkees’ next official single- without ever having listened to their intended release.
“Around this time- Micky and his sister Coco cut two fantastic demos at RCA with Chip Douglas presiding over the board.” ([*]) ‘Midnight Train’ is never intended for release, but it provides an excellent example of Micky’s prowess on an acoustic guitar, his instrument of choice. Coco’s voice is so intricately intertwined with Micky’s that it recalls the razor-sharp harmony of other sibling duos such as the Everly Brothers and Bill and Charlie Monroe.
On Monday, February 27th, Don Kirshner is “officially dismissed as Music Coordinator for The Monkees project and head of Colgems Records.” ([*]) After appointing the release of the anemic, Davy Jones trifle ‘She Hangs Out’ as the B-side to the group’s third single, deliberately overruling “requests from Raybert and The Monkees to issue a ‘group’ performance on the flipside” of ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’ (a two-sided Davy single? Madness!), even the executives could no longer tolerate such a grandiose use of power wielded by Don Kirshner, and for the last time. A revised single is issued in early March that replaces ‘She Hangs Out’ with ‘The Girl I Knew Somewhere’, but the damage to The Monkees’ “claims to the press that they would create their own music” had been sufficient enough to add to persistent questions of their abilities.
RANDY SCOUSE GIT
Micky’s “not very significant” composition, inspired by and written during his recent vacation in England, was another dual convenience for The Monkees’ franchise: completion of another serviceable television musical romp, and more filler material for an album or B-side. This was about as far removed from a ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ as Micky would ever get, but as a time capsule of a momentous time in his early adult life, it effortlessly edges aside less oblique fare that Nesmith has been creating lately (see ‘Sunny Girlfriend‘). Once again, Peter’s musicianship is in full flower on the jaunty piano work, another essential addition from the collective pre-fab Monkees machine. The lyrics are complete nonsense, designed more by Micky’s flow of word association and piecemeal memory of a stoned-out party in London than actually conveying a comprehensive incident or attitude. The ‘tom tom’ pounding, an intentional afterthought punctuating and closing the manic-sounding song, is an improvised flash of absurd brilliance in a structure that welcomes such contributions. Songs like ‘Randy Scouse Git’, along with diversions such as ‘Zilch’ and ‘Band 6’, are a trademark unique to the spirit and intent of The Monkees’ recorded output; consequently, the absence of these familiarly surprising grooves in the original vinyl albums would be an incomplete group representation, disheartening and much more conventional than the personable quirks that only a group like The Monkees could casually slip into their albums- a tv bit insinuating itself on an LP side. There should have been more moments like that.
YOU TOLD ME
If ‘The Girl I Knew Somewhere’ is the definitive original Monkees’ track, ‘You Told Me’ is it’s deserved ‘I’m A Believer’ follow-up, perfect as the introductory ‘Headquarters’ album opener, but just as exciting as any individually-released 45 record. Peter consistently has the most printable quotes of all The Monkees’ musical explanations, and as the one who single-handedly transformed the 5-string banjo into a driving rock-and-roll instrument accompanying Nesmith’s deceptively simple story of a wounded love in ‘You Told Me’, he doesn’t disappoint on this occasion:
“Very interesting use of banjo on that cut; I thought it really kicked it… I always thought it was just a pretty rocky use of the banjo… It really kills when the banjo comes in and the band hits with that nice bass drop… That one moment whips the other two albums to hell.”
It’s hard to argue that point. Add Micky’s driving rat-a-tat-tat drumming and those ethereal backing vocals, and this great rocker ranks with the best ever recorded by The Monkees. It’s a driving, bouncy and truly satisfying group effort; I’m just ‘saayyiinnggg—gggaaahhhh’…
FORGET THAT GIRL
‘Fifth Monkee’ Chip Douglas’ sole musical composition recorded by the group; he was disappointed at every turn in trying to preserve his “original riff” for the final realization of his song: “Nobody could get the hang of that riff because of the way it started. It didn’t start on the downbeat. For some reason no one could get that, so we had to compromise. Which I wasn’t really crazy about… The way it turned out was a lot more bubblegum than I had hoped.” Tough break for Chip, but Davy was currently due another showcase, and ‘Forget That Girl’ delivered in exquisite fashion.
It’s become somewhat of a past-time to rag on Davy’s musical contributions to The Monkees’ catalogue, but he could give life to a tune like ‘Star Collector’, with a brilliant, crystalline vocal, or get downright ripping on tracks like ’99 Pounds’ (and, contrary to what Mike says, ’Valleri’ is absolutely not the worst song ever written- ’D.W. Washburn‘, anyone?) Davy gives ‘Forget That Girl’ the exact gravity that the “bubblegum” tune deserves, along with the listless ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ the backing vocals are pretty much resigned to including. But the production is immaculate nonetheless.
03 – 04/67
Full of inside jokes and general horsing around, the original version of ‘No Time’, featuring guitarists Keith Allison and Jerry McGee, is remade over a month later, “with superior results.” ([*]) The meaningless opening ‘lyric’, a musical impression of comedian Bill Cosby’s mumbled dialect, is followed by near instantly-improvised Nesmith and Dolenz rhymes, alluding from drugs (“The grass is always greener growing on the other side”) to simple clever ‘wordplay’ (“Never mind the furthermore, just plead in self-defense”). Most importantly, it gave the group a chance to cut loose with a rock and roll ‘pogo-jump’ tune similar to the Beachboy’s ‘Barbra Ann’ cover on their ‘Party‘ album. Engineer Hank Cicalo is given “the writer’s credit for this song as a gift.” ([*]) The Monkees could afford to be generous during these final days of collaborative recording to complete ‘Headquarters’, and their enthusiasm is palpable in this track.
FOR PETE’S SAKE
Simply.. Wow. Of the top five undeniably cool songs The Monkees alone were responsible for, Peter’s “first song on a Monkees record,” co-written with another fringe musician from Greenwich Village named Joey Richards, is firmly entrenched in the top two. ‘For Pete’s Sake’ doesn’t just gel into an entire song wrapped around one jazzy D-minor chord; it can also claim it’s own fancy ‘Aeolian cadence’-malapropism reminiscent of the fuss made over the Beatles’ ‘She Loves You’ – George Martin described that third harmonic ’yeah’ as “an odd sort of major sixth, with George doing the sixth and John and Paul the third and fifths, like a Glen Miller arrangement.” (‘The Beatles Recording Sessions’, publ. 1988, Mark Lewisohn) But for anyone as naturally confused by that description as they rightfully should be, in ‘For Pete’s Sake’ it occurs at the end of the line, “and what we have to beeee,” which then slides right back into that funky D-minor chord, with effortless bass, understated percussion and a Hammond organ ‘sweetener‘ by Mike. It was a new and strange-sounding ‘closing-credit’ song in The Monkees’ tv series’ 2nd season for unhip pre-adolescents like myself; but that’s how it was supposed to be- an 11-year-old has no business identifying with a lyric like “In this generation – in this loving time,” another requirement for qualification on the ‘cool’ list.
Harry Nilsson was a force of nature- he couldn’t have avoided making music if he tried, though he was the very last one to comment if it was any good or not. Chip Douglas was one of the songwriter’s earliest supporters, and of the many Nilsson demos he recorded, ‘Cuddly Toy’ was one that Chip liked immediately, with Michael not far behind; in fact, he was the original vocalist for the song, and Mike’s impressive vocal ability was once again underestimated, as the original recording clearly indicates. It’s a naughty song about a naughty girl, a ‘groupie’, actually, and the song is a rhyming joke about her promiscuity and easily-accessible… ‘personality’. It ends up working to Davy’s advantage, as Chip Douglas’ arrangement seems tailor-made for the former stage ham, so another tune under Davy’s diminutive belt has served its purpose (extra props for Micky‘s multi-tracked backing harmony vocals). And Peter’s keyboard and piano work is more impressive with each successive accompaniment, culminating in the beautiful work that makes ‘Daydream Believer’ such a significant musical highlight for both Davy and the ‘television’ Monkees.
Peter Tork was not a singer, and was never an accomplished enough musician to hold his own in an ordinary rock band. He was a diehard ‘Folkie’ who still played his banjo as a solo act on ‘Hoot’ nights at the Troubadour Club, and while he may have defended his ‘artistic credibility’ just as loudly as Nesmith, he could never contribute as much creativity and basic musical skills to the group as effectively as Mike had from the very beginning. In sharp contrast, as a member of the ‘television’ Monkees, Peter was indispensable, as vitally important and necessary as the fourth wheel of an automobile, and could accurately be described as the ‘heart’ of The Monkees’ onscreen persona- no one could have elicited more sympathy within the slapstick environment The Monkees inhabited on their weekly program. Peter would have fared much better had he embraced his gift for playing sincere and overly-honest television characters; as a musician in the ever-expanding field of youth-oriented popular music, he was never on the same wavelength as the awesome musical talent that surrounded him: former roommate Stephen Stills hadn’t stolen him away to join his Buffalo Springfield, and while Crosby and Nash, and Cass Elliott and Joni Mitchell, with various Byrds and Beatles were among the visitors to his ‘bohemian mansion’ in the Hollywood hills, there’s no record of Peter being approached by any of these young, confident talents to help form the next ‘supergroup’ of rock music, or to produce the next great concept album, or offer little more than some banjo music to a side project like George Harrison’s solo debut, ‘Wonderwall’, and that contribution never made it to the released album. For a young man as resolutely dedicated to the ‘purity’ of original, traditional Folk and Classical music, his desire far outweighed his ability. With The Monkees, Peter was a ‘big fish in a small pond’, allowed to express whatever musical idea he could in order to further the daunting maturation of “a fully functional, self-contained group,” which up to this point relied on every available resource to achieve just that. The Monkees ‘project’ gave Peter the biggest break he would ever get in his lifetime, and every contribution he made to their recorded music never failed to enhance a track or elevate it beyond its original conception. Beyond that, Peter would never equal that level of collaboration again.
06, 09, 10/67
Mike Nesmith had written a poem inspired by the kids who had made the Sunset Strip a community of their own, a “Hollywood street scene,” as he described it. I’m not sure if Nesmith also wrote the music or arranged Micky’s vocal, but I don’t really care: ‘Daily Nightly’ is one of my all-time favorite songs, from the 60’s or any other era, and belongs aside other ‘Summer of Love‘ anthems as Jefferson Airplane‘s ‘White Rabbit‘, The Strawberry Alarm Clock‘s ‘Incense and Peppermints‘ and Iron Butterfly‘s ‘In-A-Gadd-Da-Vida‘, though it wasn‘t officially released until a few months later. Dolenz provided a distinctly ’psychedelic’ effect to the song from a Moog synthesizer he had purchased at the Monterey Pop Festival in June, one of only three in existence at the time. Turns out that it was two more than the music world would ever need, as Micky did everything interesting that one could do on the Moog within the span of two minutes and some change on ‘Daily Nightly’; as for the lyrics themselves, they rival any ‘Alice In Wonderland’ imagery that Grace Slick brought to psychedelic music:
Darkened rolling figures move thru’ prisms of no color.
Hand in hand, they walk the night,
But never know each other.
Passioned pastel neon lights light up the jeweled trav’ler
Who, lost in scenes of smoke filled dreams,
Finds questions, but no answers.
Aside from being a neck-and-neck finisher with ‘For Pete‘s Sake‘ on the ‘cool list‘, ‘Daily Nightly’ is also one of the best music video ‘interludes’ in The Monkees’ television series- cool clothes, cool black and white cinematography, and that totally cool monolith of a Moog synthesizer, with it’s futuristic wires and foosball-table handles- “far out,” indeed.
LOVE IS ONLY SLEEPING
For years I had mistakenly believed Nesmith had written this Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil song, but it’s no less impressive or aurally captivating than his ‘Tapioca Tundra’ or Goffin and King’s brilliant ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’. Once again Chip Douglas is a key contributor on this wonderfully atmospheric track, with its Sergio Leone‘-sounding electric guitar-reverb and echo effects taken to new extremes with Douglas’ improvised vocal (and literally ‘tongue-in-cheek‘) ‘clicking’ sounds enveloping the chorus and ending. Micky’s assured harmony and near-identical vocal with Mike still gives me chills, as does most every duo vocalizing they’ve ever recorded. Davy’s formidable tambourine-shaking is also highlighted here as well.
WHAT AM I DOING HANGIN’ ROUND
“…the Monkees’ groundbreaking foray into country-rock… this recording will be seen by many as a landmark in the fusion of country and rock.” ([*]) I see it as an overly-produced but underwhelmingly-contrived ’fusion’ that ends up diluting the appealing characteristics of both country and rock. It’s a personal bias, to be sure, but like some other songs in The Monkees catalogue, like ‘Carlisle Wheeling’ and the execrable ‘Man Without A Dream’, I try to pretend that they don’t exist, and judging from Micky’s ham-boned mimicking of the song in a tedious TV number, one might think he wanted to, also…
…because the majority of Micky’s feature songs fit right in with the group personality and sound, even when seldom-heard brass or orchestra sections were introduced into the framework, like the orchestration in ‘Porpoise Song‘ and the brass-kicking fun of ‘Goin’ Down’. The latter “develops out of a jam at the end of (the rehearsing session of) ‘She Hangs Out’” ([*]) on Tuesday the 20th of June. “…originally meant to be The Monkees’ version of Mose Allison’s (blues number) ‘Parchman Farm’,” Michael stated that their version was so unlike that tune that they could claim it as an original, and new lyrics were written with credit given to all four Monkees. It’s a toe-tapper, all right, and Micky’s rapid-fire singing is complimented by Chip Douglas on bass, Eddie Hoh’s nimble jazz drumming and Mike and Peter’s electric guitar flourishes, later augmented by a very cool brass-section. But Micky owns this song above anyone else.
PLEASANT VALLEY SUNDAY
This Goffin and King composition is a masterpiece of melody and manic meanderings on a middle-American sensibility that is so normal and conventionally traditional as to be a subject of light-handed derision by a concerned ‘flower power’ aesthetic- the kids aren’t knocking their parent’s predictable existence, just commenting on the utter ‘mundane ness’ of it all. For all of the now-classic guitar introductions for the most iconic rock songs, ranging from ‘Satisfaction’, ‘I Feel Fine’, ‘Mystery Train‘ and ‘Surfin’ USA’ to ’Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘House of the Rising Sun’- the sharp, compressed, precisely double-tracked ‘eargasming’ effect of the Michael Nesmith-signature electric guitar intro to ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ is as singular an achievement of pure pop sonic ambience as has ever been invented, thanks once again to ‘fifth Monkee’ Chip Douglas’ immaculate production and original guitar riff that he taught Nesmith to play. With that nifty Hammond organ backing and propellant Eddie Hoh percussive beat, the music alone would be a significant achievement; however, the second verse, with Micky’s lead and Mike’s exquisite harmony vocal, is absolute Monkee nirvana- that they were both capable of flawless high-harmony backing vocals is awesome enough; the combination of Mike and Micky’s voices on any single record is a sound as goosebump-inducing as the best of John and Paul, CSN, Don and Phil Everly, the Beachboys or Simon & Garfunkel, and Davy‘s added vocal could be just as impressive as George Harrison‘s with Lennon and McCartney’s. If ‘Last Train’ and ‘I’m A Believer’ had never existed, ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ would be the immortal artistic zenith of The Monkees’ historic musical legacy.
The effortless piano hook by Peter belies an otherwise complicated melodic structure and arrangement for this uniquely original gem written by John Stewart and given vivid and inseparable life by Davy Jones’ pitch-perfect interpretation, with an always-welcome and perfect backing vocal by Dolenz. Not a personal favorite, but a recognized essential.
In the trilogy of songs written by outside artists in ‘67, ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’, ‘Daydream Believer’ and Boyce and Hart’s ‘Words’ are as indelibly associated with the genuine Monkees sound and history as Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ is to The Byrds or McCartney’s ‘Come and Get It’ is to Badfinger. Any passionate defender of The Monkees self-created sound and exclusive group performances will allow the caveat of a select few ‘non-group’ songs; after all, individual interpretation and revision of other material is as much a part of the ethos of Rock and Roll Music as the ‘sampling’ of Rock and Roll Music is in the contemporary Rap and Hip-Hop genres, not to mention Elvis‘s exclusive practice of borrowing and reinterpreting every song he ever recorded. The Beatles wrote some of the most popular songs of all time, but still did multiple ‘covers’ from artists like Chuck Berry, Larry Williams, Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly. The Beatles were praised for these interpretations of classic rock songs, but The Monkees were vilified for introducing new songwriting talents like Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson- such was the unfair perception so many detractors of The Monkees would stubbornly cling to.
One song that nobody has ever questioned authenticity of original authorship to is this legendary anomaly (and easy third track to comprise the ’cool’ list) from the grab-bag of intermittently brilliant Nesmith ‘brain-droppings’ that will pretty much never be adequately explained or qualified, but are nevertheless embraced and treasured by Monkees fans of every ilk. I still giggle uncontrollably at the near pitch-perfect but ‘entirely-different-key’ deadpan whistling accompaniment by Nesmith that starts out this bizarre yet completely Monkee-compatible tune of delicious ‘word salad’ imagery that Michael’s disembodied voice narrates over an irresistible Latin-flavored percussive maraca-shaking beat, playful bass line and jaunty electric guitar:
“Reasoned verse, some prose or rhyme
Lose themselves in other times
And waiting hopes cast silent spells
That speak in clouded clues.
It cannot be a part of me,
For now its part of you.”
In discussing his craft at the time, Mike mentioned ‘Tapioca Tundra’ as another poetic endeavor translated into song: “About the time that ‘Tapioca Tundra’ and ‘Daily Nightly’ came along I had been writing my own poetry for a while. The poems tend to be fairly complex and we were fourth album in at that point… I realized that I couldn’t continue to write pop tunes of the type that Neil Diamond and Gerry Goffin & Carole King and Boyce & Hart were writing.” ([*])
It was only recently that I had the thrill of hearing Mike’s original acoustic guitar demo of this song, which is beautiful in and of itself, though miles away from the recorded version, it’s mid tempo sounding more like a sentimental big-band blues rag, with it’s own distinct, catchy, ’Harry-James-on-a-bender’ identity- like Lennon’s ‘Revolution’, ‘Tapioca Tundra’ would have made an excellent number to record multiple versions of, minus a needless ‘Number Nine’ treatment, which is pretty well covered anyways in a separate incarnation that would eventually appear on The Monkees’ ‘Head’ soundtrack.
And unfortunately, I’ve reached the conclusion of The Monkees’ magnificent year of original, group-generated music, and will thus refrain from extolling the infinite revelatory qualities of later songs to come or others that I didn’t otherwise acknowledge. These equally important tracks include ‘Circle Sky’, ‘Listen to the Band’, ’I Won’t Be the Same Without Her’ and ‘The Porpoise Song’, along with other memorable tunes like ‘Teardrop City’, ‘Riu Chiu’, ‘Salesman’, etc.
For Pete’s, and everyone else’s, sake, I’ll wind it up here and let the reader go and take another listen if they‘re so inclined.
It has been a joy to re-visit these great songs, along with countless other fond memories of The Monkees, and those memories will be covered in as much similarly ponderous, bloviated and endless self-indulgent detail that I can cram into the third and final part of this article.
Special thanks to Brad Waddell, whose insight and perspective on all things ’Monkee’ provided some much-needed guidance in the research and writing of this Tribute; he has already provided a solid foundation for the concluding third part, and I deeply thank him for his graciousness in giving me the crucial confidence and extra motivation to write this Tribute and produce a labor of love that I may have abandoned under other circumstances, adding to an already uncomfortable number of life regrets. Long live The Monkees!