“Hey, hey, we are The Monkees,
You know we love to please/
A manufactured image/
With no philosophies...”
- ”Ditty Diego/War Chant” from the album Head
Marge: But it's true. They didn't write their own songs or play their own instruments.
Psychiatrist: The Monkees weren't about music, Marge. They were about rebellion, about political and social upheaval [Marge smiles, relieved]
-The Simpsons, “Fear of Flying” (season 6, episode 11)
When Davy Jones died about a week ago, I didn't initially give it much thought, except for the usual “gee, that's too bad” that we tend to say when some celebrity who we kind of liked dies. Also, when you get to my age, there's also the “gee, he wasn't that much older than I am” factor, which is a bummer, but is soon forgotten as other things press on. But then I started looking at the obits, including this one in the New York Times and I realized that even after all this time the unfortunate Monkees are still not getting their due. Even before Jones' untimely death, a music-obsessed friend of mine (I guess that pretty much describes all my friends, but I digress) who is working on a meta-project examining the music made between 1967 and 1974 told me he was leaving the Monkees off the list of music to be considered (you can take a look at the music he did include here). They can't even get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - where even the talentless Red Hot Chili Peppers and TV-creation-playing-in-front-of-genius-sidemen Ricky Nelson are inductees.
To me it's kind of weird to have to defend the Monkees at this point, but I guess it just has to be done. It's amazing how the critical prejudices of the 60s have filtered down to the current time. Yes, it's absolutely true that they were “manufactured” in the sense that they didn't come together organically, but were assembled for a TV show, based largely on their charisma in front of a TV camera. And then, instead of working their way up the ladder of success from their basements, to clubs, to arenas, they were given a jump start with a popular program, which was based loosely on a de-fanged version of “A Hard Days Night” (and later on, more than a bit of “Help”).
Before they were ever a band they were four actors “playing” a band on TV. The “downside” of their historical legacy, if you want to call it that, is that they demonstrated for the first time a successful method for the entertainment industry's “good old boys” to try to “rein in” what had become an increasingly tumultuous and unpredictable period, especially in music. RCA and Columbia/ Screen Gems' ability to “create” a successful musical group that appealed to “the kids” (or at least some section of them) was the first step in the decade-long struggle by the entertainment companies to bring back “stability” to the industry. They also demonstrated, at a time when rock music was starting to “grow up” and demand that its listeners become more sophisticated, that you could still tap (and expand) what's now called the “tween” market of impressionable middle school to-junior-high-schoolers and cash in big time. Seen this way, MTV videos, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, The Twilight series, and Lana Del Ray are just the latest exits on a freeway that started with The Monkees.
However, since this is the ides of March (or at least I think it is - well, it's March, anyway) I have come not to bury the Monkees but to praise them. If you start to separate their output from the legacy I describe above and also look at their actual story, you get a very different picture, one well worth examining.
I like starting with the “play their instruments” thing: Just for argument's sake, let's say you had two recordings by “bands” that were put together by audition, or in some cases consisted of just whoever happened to be in the studio at the time and could sing. Let's say they both were recording songs by the best of the “Brill Building” songwriting teams of the time, like Goffin-King and Mann-Weil. Let's say the backing tracks were played by some of the ace L.A. studio musicians of the time, including people from the legendary “Wrecking Crew” like Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Glen Campbell, and James Burton. Based on that description, one of those recordings would probably be a Phil Spector production, one of the deservedly revered recordings by the master creator behind groups like the Ronettes and The Crystals. And the other? A Monkees record.
The string of singles that comprise the first two albums are still familiar to listeners today, and for good reason - terrific writing, solid production, great arrangements, and the singing of Micky Dolenz, who shed his “Circus Boy” TV image and became one of the better and more distinctive pop/rock singers of the era. To this day, Monkees recordings are still influential enough to produce a string of modern covers - even indy icons like Bongwater (who covered “Porpoise Song”), Paul Westerberg (who used to play “Daydream Believer” live in the early 90s) and Shonen Knife (who included the same song on an album).
You can argue about whether the Monkees were a “real” band, but it's hard to deny the quality of the material and the ability of the musicians. The only difference was that the Monkees were on national TV pretending to be a band that all lived together in the same house and played all the instruments you heard on the soundtrack. And that set people's teeth on edge. But if you get that picture out of your head, the music is undeniable.
In addition, the Monkees actually did play their own instruments and write their own songs. Mike Nesmith had been part of the Los Angeles Troubadour club scene since the early 60s and had played in bands and recorded (and was even offered a songwriting contract) as early as 1963. Peter Tork was a multi-instrumentalist who was involved in the Greenwich Village NY folk scene earlier in the 60s - in fact, it was Stephen Stills (future member of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills & Nash) who suggested Tork to the Monkees show producers when they were casting. Dolenz and Jones, who had both been actors before the show (although Davy Jones had also had a recording contract - that was the reason the “other” David Jones changed his stage name to Bowie) also had musical talent, especially Dolenz, who became a terrific rock singer and a serviceable drummer.
After their first two albums, the band chafed at the limited artistic input they were offered, and staged a successful “rebellion” which resulted in the recording of Headquarters, their third album, on which they played all the instruments (deposed svengali Don Kirschner, having learned a valuable lesson, went on to create The Archies, a “virtual” band that consisted only of animation backed by studio musicians). Headquarters and the following album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd., probably their two most “realized” works, situate them in their actual milieu - not the fake TV California of their half-hour sitcom, but the actual California of their Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles. This was the 'hood where members of the Doors, Byrds, Mamas and The Papas, the Turtles, Buffalo Springfield, Love, Joni Mitchell, and Frank Zappa rubbed shoulders with each other and the rebellious up-and-coming Hollywood bohemians like Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper.
The members of the Monkees were an active part of this community, and you can hear it in the music. Headquarters songs like Nesmith's “You Just Might Be The One”
fit right into the jangly, harmony-rich, energetic aesthetic developed in the Canyon. And the closing Headquarters track, “Randy Scouse Git”
echoes the off-kilter song structure and abstract lyrics of the early Byrds and Love. On Pisces, Aquarius ... the band combined their own playing with studio musicians, and probably reached their creative peak. “Love Is Only Sleeping”
, by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, takes the same L.A. influences but shows a developing maturity in the production and arrangement, including one of the first uses of a synthesizer on a rock recording. And Carole King and Gerry Goffin's “Pleasant Valley Sunday" is still a masterpiece, with its signature guitar phrase, galloping bass line, multi-vocal “instrumental” break, soaring Micky Dolenz lead vocal, and cataclysmic reverb ending.
After the band broke free from the studio's control, they took on the trajectory of an out-of-control satellite. Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius ... were deliberate and complete works of art created by four musicians and a group of producers and writers who had a certain unity of purpose. But the problem of the Monkees' “artificial” creation began to assert itself - once the TV show was winding down, they found they didn't have that much in common. Instead, incited by their Laurel Canyon neighbors and the general tenor of the times (remember, this is 1967-68), they started to get more and more “far out," less commercial, but also less in touch with each other and less interested in a unified artistic expression. The next album, The Birds, The Bees, and The Monkees, although it included the hits “Daydream Believer” (the late Davy Jones' finest moment
) and “Valleri” (Jones' best “pure” rock performance), also includes the psychedelic tour-de-force “Tapioca Tundra”
, the Byrds-like “Auntie's Municipal Court” and the anti-war novelty “Zor and Zam." But Peter Tork, the one member who most wanted them to be a “real” band, was almost absent from the sessions (that's him playing the piano on “Daydream Believer”, which he also arranged).
The finale of the Monkees as a unit was one of the more amazing final chapters in rock history. Caught up in the creative whirlwind of their L.A. pals and the culture of the time, and at the same time still driven by the international teeny-bopper adulation they had experienced only two years before, the band went down in a blaze of glory that pretty much mystified onlookers. They teamed up with Bob Rafelson, co-creator of the Monkees show (an L.A. movie hipster who would later go on to help create “Easy Rider” and direct “Five Easy Pieces”) and Jack Nicholson (an American International Pictures “B-movie” actor who went on to become Jack Nicholson) to make a feature film, titled “Head."
Nicholson wrote the script (according to Hollywood legend, fueled by prodigious amounts of marijuana and LSD) and Rafelson directed. With no discernible narrative structure, the film is a nearly unwatchable glorious psychedelic unraveling, in which the Monkees are figuratively (and literally, at the end of the movie) pushed off the bridge of popular culture, after continually trying to get out of the “box” they find themselves in (cleverly portrayed in the film as a box they can't get out of) and being forced to do things like play flakes of dandruff in a TV commercial. The film of course was a majestic flop. At this point the Monkees were fighting with each other and with Rafelson, and it was all over but the contractual buy-backs. Some members of the group, and finally all of them, would resurface as an oldies act years later, but that was a different world.
But this self-immolation did leave a weird and amazing by-product—the soundtrack album for the movie, the most powerful argument for the Monkees place in the 60s canon. One of the neglected masterpieces of Los Angeles psychedelic-pop, the album (put together by Nesmith and Jack Nicholson) combines random dialogue and sound effects from the film with eight remarkable songs, including Harry Nilsson's British music hall-style “Daddy's Song," about the effect of the death of a father on a young boy, Tork's very Laurel Canyon hippie epics “Can You Dig It” and “Do I Have To Do This All Over Again," and Nesmith's “Circle Sky” with its single chord structure and buried vocals, sounding like a weird Buffalo Springfield or Love outtake. And capping it all off is The Monkees' greatest performance, the “Porpoise Song," which was used as the theme song of the movie. I read once that Carole King has said this is her favorite song of the ones she wrote with Gerry Goffin - I'm not sure if she really said that, but facts are facts - and it is one of the best songs they ever wrote, recorded perfectly here.
From the subdued string part that opens it, through the church organ that forms its backbone, and the understated vocal
filigree that suddenly breaks into dissonance at the end of each chorus, they finally reach the place where there are no missteps. They finally got it exactly right, just as the closing credits were rolling. I guess this beautiful track, with its final coda of “goodbye, goodbye, goodbye...” is a fitting final statement on the whole experience, and now on one of its members. Goodbye.
Tony Are is a writer, critic, and occasional musician who lives in New York City. He started playing in bands in 1967 and finally gave up in 2003. Now he sits in a rocking chair and tells the young whippersnappers how much better it used to be in his day. His poetry is at http://tonyare.weebly.com/index.html.