Rhino’s Monkees History
The 30th anniversary of The Monkees is here! A lot of water has passed under the bridge since those four hand-picked crazies – Davy, Micky, Mike, and Peter – conquered the airwaves and the TV screen with their spoofy humor and groovy sounds. Appreciation has progressed to the point where even the elders in rock’s critical estate can forthrightly proclaim, at no peril to their academic standing, that The Monkees were not just a good band, but an important one. This overdue revisionism means you no longer have to keep your fandom a secret from your hip friends. It’s okay to stand up and say, “I love The Monkees.”
Rhino is leading the charge in what might be termed the third wave of Monkees popularity – after the initial mid-’60s mania and the mid-’80s reunion – with a brand-new album called Justus on October 15, 1996 (the first album featuring all four members in more than 25 years); a new coffee table book (also October ’96) from Rhino Books titled Hey, Hey, We’re The Monkees; a complete career retrospective CD-ROM in the fall of ’96; and last but not least, a full-length documentary of the group (also titled Hey, Hey, We’re The Monkees) airing in January ’97 on the Disney Channel.
Justus offered the four pop phenoms their first opportunity to go into a studio and record an album completely on their own terms. They wrote the songs. They played the songs. They produced the songs. This was a true labor of love, and a long-overdue shot for one of pop music’s most well-known quartets to raid the record industry candy store.
The seed for the album was planted during a few casual conversations between band members about getting back together to just jam. The original thought wasn’t to make a new album, but simply to have some fun. Well, a few months later, and many late nights in the studio, that seed had grown into what every Monkees fan has been holding their breath for: Justus.
The album features 12 newly recorded tunes that showcase not only the wide-ranging musicianship of each band member, but also the diverse nature of their musical tastes. The Monkees were traditionally an eclectic group, blending straight-ahead pop tunes with surreal and humorously offbeat songs all on the same album. Justus will not disappoint as it continues this tradition with songs like “Never Enough,” “You And I,” “Regional Girl,” “It’s Not Too Late,” and a 1996 remake of the classic Mike Nesmith song “Circle Sky,” to name a few.
After Rhino’s 1994 purchase of everything Monkees-related, including all sound recordings released and unreleased; all 58 episodes of the TV series; the film Head; and the hour-long TV special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee (even the Monkees logo now belongs to Rhino), the label embarked on a massive reissue campaign of all nine original albums: The Monkees; More Of The Monkees; Headquarters; Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.; The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees; Head; Instant Replay; The Monkees Present; and Changes.
In addition to the original lineups, each album contains a bonanza of bonus tracks, alternate versions, different mixes, non-LP A- and B-sides, unissued songs, live cuts, and radio spots. For the first time, musician credits are provided for each track, at long last detailing who played what. There are some eye-opening revelations here, as such stalwarts of American music as Harry Nilsson, James Burton, Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine, Leon Russell, Jack Nitzsche, Ry Cooder, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Buddy Miles, and many more are identified as collaborators and contributors to The Monkees’ recordings.
On the video front, Head is available on Rhino Home Video. Rhino has released a limited-edition box set of 21 videocassettes, containing all 58 episodes of The Monkees TV show (individual videos featuring two half-hour episodes apiece are also now being released), plus 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee.
To put it simply, The Monkees were America’s Fab Four. They rapidly rose to a crescendo of popularity that rivaled and for a period even outstripped Beatlemania. Just as The Beatles had reenergized rock ‘n’ roll and revitalized youth culture with their arrival on these shores in 1964, The Monkees brought boundless wit, creativity, and high spirits to both TV and the Top 40 in 1966. At the height of their popularity, recordings by The Monkees outsold those of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined, and the group shattered sales records previously set by the likes of Elvis Presley and The Beatles.
The Monkees amassed a dozen Top 40 hits, including a trio of tunes that soared to #1 during the most competitive and high-quality period in pop music history. Between September 1966 and December 1967, “Last Train To Clarksville,” “I’m A Believer,” and “Daydream Believer” collectively occupied the top position for 12 weeks. Sales of their LPs were more phenomenal still: The Monkees occupied the #1 position for 13 consecutive weeks, More Of The Monkees for 18. Both Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. went to the top as well, for a four-in-a-row feat in the incomprehensible space of 13 months. The final tally: 16 million albums and 7 1/2 million singles sold in a mere 2 1/2 years.
Still, commercial clout and unrivaled popularity are just part of the story. The Monkees brought their fair share of musical innovation, as well as an often unrecognized measure of hard-won integrity, to rock ‘n’ roll. Not the least of their accomplishments was the determined fight they waged with the “powers that be” for creative control over their music. It is an interesting story, both as a commentary on the inherent (and misdirected) bias against the system they balked at and as a personal triumph for artistic self-expression that vindicated their standing as musicians.
The four Monkees came from vastly different backgrounds. Davy Jones was, prior to his tryout for The Monkees, a professional horse jockey and thespian who’d been dividing his time between racetracks and the theaters in London’s West End. Peter Tork was a happily ensconced Greenwich Village coffeehouse musician and humorist who was proficient on several instruments. Michael Nesmith headed up from Texas with a love of country and folk music, and a studious knack for songwriting. Micky Dolenz was a Hollywood whiz kid who’d been a child actor (in the TV series Circus Boy) and possessed an outgoing nature and strong voice.
Despite their respective talents, the four of them didn’t exactly add up on paper. How could four guys who’d never previously met, who variously hailed from New York, Los Angeles, Texas, and England, pretend to be a band in any organic, ordinary sense of the word? Somewhere along the way, an improbable chemistry developed. “We were a very visible part of pop culture, formed by a combination of creative people from movies and television,” Mike Nesmith once remarked of The Monkees’ TV personalities.
On the musical side, the group was aided and nurtured – controlled, you might say, at least in the beginning – by a combine of producers and writers overseen by Colgems label impresario Don Kirshner. Songs were picked and sessions were arranged for them. The Monkees sang always but played infrequently. The songs were outstanding, as the band’s handlers were given access to the best and brightest pop tunesmiths in America: Neil Diamond, Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, Harry Nilsson, Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart, and Jeff Barry, among others. The band’s first two albums (The Monkees and More Of The Monkees) captured this phase. They were filled with bright, fresh-faced pop songs, bristling with tuneful hooks and melodies. Those early records were perfect, hummable radio fare for those halcyon times, and they remain an undiminished delight nearly 30 years later.
At the time, however, The Monkees caught flak from certain holier-than-thou types in rock’s emerging progressive wing who chided them for the apparent breach of not playing instruments on their records. (Somehow, this judgment did not extend to The Beach Boys, The Mamas & The Papas, the early Byrds, and a profusion of recording artists from pop’s golden era who drew from the same pool of sessionmen as The Monkees.) The Monkees were not unaffected by these complaints. At the same time, they legitimately desired more creative leeway, having grown as musicians and songwriters in the short space of a year. In a showdown with Kirshner spearheaded by Nesmith, The Monkees demanded all or nothing.
In hindsight, it all seems a bit rash, a tempest in a teapot that could have been more diplomatically negotiated. In the end, though, The Monkees were issued their artistic carte blanche, and they backed up their words with solid records of their own design and execution. This was the second phase in The Monkees’ recording career. Album Number Three, Headquarters, was 99 44/100% Monkees, in terms of the playing and singing. Thereafter, commencing with Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., they became sufficiently self-confident to work comfortably alongside session musicians, and the balance between their own talents and those of well-deployed professionals resulted in some of their most satisfying music.
As musicians, they proved they could be innovators as well as entertainers. Mike Nesmith, who owned one of the only three Gretsch 12-string guitars ever made, presaged the country-rock synthesis with songs, dating back to the first Monkees album, that had an erudite twang and rootsy underpinning. No less a figure than Paul Butterfield deemed Nesmith’s “Mary, Mary” worthy of recording by his estimable blues band. Purists couldn’t believe that this cool a tune had been written by – gasp! – a Monkee. Nesmith’s songs were also recorded by such diverse artists as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ian Matthews (whom Nesmith produced), and Linda Ronstadt’s Stone Poneys, who had a #13 hit in early ’68 with his song “Different Drum.”
Micky Dolenz acquired for himself one of the first Moog synthesizers, and the group deployed it in the Gerry Goffin & Carole King-penned ode to groupies, “Star Collector.” Dolenz, who’d never played drums before, learned how to do so in the short space of a year. He got so good at it that Frank Zappa actually asked him to play drums for The Mothers Of Invention. (Zappa, incidentally, remarked that The Monkees’ records were better-produced than 90% of what he heard coming out of San Francisco.) Likewise, Davy Jones swiftly became a decent enough bass player that he could relieve Peter in concert when the latter moved to keyboards. As a musician, Tork was The Monkees’ renaissance man, adding decorative parts here and there much as Brian Jones had done with The Rolling Stones. It was Tork, among all of them, who pushed hardest for The Monkees to realize their creative potential after the Nesmith-led coup. He also helped midwife another band – Crosby, Stills & Nash – who met at his home in Los Angeles.
On the concert front, The Monkees most definitely played their own instruments, effectively silencing their critics. No one will claim that they’d ever have won an instrumental shoot-out with Emerson, Lake & Palmer or Mahavishnu Orchestra. Yet they played competently in a garage-pop style that was raw and appealing, certainly of a caliber with the zestful energy of the early Kinks and Beatles in concert. On occasion, such as the live version of “Circle Sky” (heard in the film Head), they could be downright transcendent. The Monkees could spit it out with the best of them. The Sex Pistols weren’t any more punky in their live version of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” than The Monkees had been. (Check out the Rhino release Live 1967 for confirmation of this.)
Prior to the recording of Justus, all four guys kept busy with side projects. Both Davy and Micky pursued acting, spending time last year performing and touring with a major road production of the hit broadway show Grease. The two played the role of the DJ, with Davy doing the first half of the tour and Micky finishing up the second half. Peter, who enjoys touring and playing his own music, released Stranger Things Have Happened, a solo album on Beachwood Records. And Mike, famous for his video innovation techniques during the ’80s with projects like Elephant Parts, has released several albums of brand-new material during the past few years.
Most recently Micky, Davy, and Peter embarked on a massive, 60-plus city, standing-room-only tour of the U.S. in celebration of the group’s 30th anninversary. Kicking off in the early summer of ’96, the tour is scheduled to go on until the end of the year, and talks are under way for a possible European leg.
Ultimately, The Monkees are a lot of fun. Let’s be honest about this: Fun has always been a key ingredient in the pop formula, yet it’s been in awfully short supply in the decades subsequent to The Monkees. Rock stars tend to retreat behind an assumed veneer so cool it’s crippling. The Monkees have never been afraid to laugh at themselves, and their brand of humor, embracing everything from dadaist whimsy to genial self-effacement, is endlessly appealing. “As a social document of their era,” writes music journalist Glenn A. Baker, “The Monkees are a precious artifact. But like the perpetual popularity of the Marx Brothers, Abbott & Costello, Charlie Chaplin, and Monty Python, there is an aspect of Monkees humor that proved timeless.”
The upshot of all this is that, absent the hype and commotion (pro and con) that surrounded The Monkees and their music at the time of its making, the group deserves to be reassessed in the present tense. Surely now they can be seen and appreciated for what they are: an exemplary pop band responsible for some of the most tuneful, luminescent, and lasting records of the rock ‘n’ roll era.
QUOTES ABOUT THE MONKEES
“The Monkees were blessed with singable songs, and they sang them creditably. The productions were clean, the studio musicians impeccable. Even The Monkees’ biggest detractors would have to admit that their albums have worn considerably better than some contemporaneous offerings from ‘serious’ groups.”
— Geoffrey Stokes, Rock Of Ages: The Rolling Stone History Of Rock & Roll
“Monkees music was genuinely enjoyable, ingenious, lightweight pop.”
— NME Book Of Rock
“I think you’re the greatest comic talent since the Marx Brothers. I’ve never missed one of your programs.”
— John Lennon to Michael Nesmith in 1967
“The Monkees are still finding out who they are, and they seem to be improving as performers each time I see them. When they’ve got it all sorted out, they may be the greatest.”
— George Harrison, 1967
“I’m sure The Monkees are going to live up to a lot of things many people didn’t expect.”
— Paul McCartney
“Headquarters: The most perfect example of the brilliance that results from uninhibited love of the music.” “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.: An album as worthy of attention as anything the majority of the hippie bands of the time were doing.”
— The Perfect Collection: The Rock Albums Everyone Should Have And Why (Proteus Books)
“Monkees music, given the benefit of a 20-year perspective, comes over in the ’80s with a vibrant buoyancy, far from the mindless pop its detractors claimed it to be. In the vast spectrum of 30 years of rock & roll, The Monkees hold an elevated position.”
— Glenn A. Baker, Monkeemania: The True Story Of The Monkees
“They didn’t meet in high school, spend endless time practicing in a garage, or drive to dive gigs in a broken-down van. People wrote songs for them to sing. Davy, Peter, Micky, and Mike made some money, and others made even more. But guess what? It worked! The songs were great, the show was way ahead of its time, and the ‘band’ became a real band.”
— Press release for Hear No Evil: A Tribute To The Monkees (Long Play, 1992)