Sunday, July 31, 2011

"Pieces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.," by The Monkees

Everybody knows The Monkees story: the Hollywood trade newspaper, “Variety,” listed an ad titled, “Madness!” enlisting actors and musicians to play a Beatles-like, “Help”-inspired television program, and Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith were selected out of hundreds of hopeful applicants, including (as legend has it) rock legend, Stephen Stills, and the murderous Charles Manson. After one season of the wildly successful “Monkees” television program and two number one albums, pressure from the rock press (who understandably questioned their rock cred - after all, they weren't actually a rock band, they just played one on T.V.) pushed the four actors/musicians to demand artistic control of their recorded albums, resulting in the firing of the golden-eared musical Svengali, Don Kirshner (who would soldier on to continued success in the 1970’s with “The Archies,” another studio invention spawning a number one hit in 1969 with “Sugar Sugar,” and the syndicated TV rock show, “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert”).

Their first album after Kirshner was the wonderful, Headquarters, one of the band’s very best albums (a significant accomplishment, considering it boasts no major radio hits and still rose to the pole position on Billboard’s album charts earlier in 1967), demonstrating that two actors and two musicians thrown together for a television show could hold their own, musically. “Headquarters doesn't show the band to be musical geniuses, but it did prove they were legitimate musicians with enough brains, heart, and soul as anyone else claiming to be a real band in 1967” (All Music Guide). And later that same year, the band submitted the sublime Pieces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., which stands as their very best.

Pieces is a psychedelic pop gem, which featured some of the earliest use of the Moog synthesizer ever recorded as well as the songs of some of pop music’s greatest songwriters, including: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“Love Is Only Sleeping”), Harry Nilsson (“Cuddly Toy,” with the royalties of this song allowing Nilsson to quit his then “day job” managing a bank), and Carole King and Jerry Goffin (“Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “Star Collector”). The album also featured some outstanding compositions by Mike Nesmith (“Don’t Call On Me” and the stunning, psychedelic, “Daily Nightly”). Monkees go-to songwriters, Tommy James and Bobby Hart, contributed one of my favorite songs on the album, as well, the haunting, “Words,” featuring Micky on lead vocals and Peter providing the memorable echo in the verse. Great stuff.

Home to two of their most memorable hits (the aforementioned “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” #3, and “Words,” #11), Pieces was the band’s final #1 album. To be sure, hits would follow after Pieces (the delightful and durable “Daydream Believer,” which became a #3 US Country hit for Anne Murray over a decade later, and “Valleri,” the Monkees’ ode to a female name which has received more than it’s fair share of pop homage – from Steve Winwood and Amy Winehouse to name a few), and some of the band’s best songs were yet to be heard (“The Porpoise Song,” "Daddy's Song," and “As We Go Along,” from their 1968 cult film, "Head," and “Listen To The Band,” “I Won’t Be The Same Without Her,” and “Someday Man, - go Roger Nichols and Paul Williams!)” from later albums as a trio, minus Tork, and finally, songs like “Oh My, My,” from the final “original Monkees” LP, the surprisingly strong bubblegum album, Changes), but Pieces was, by all accounts, the Monkees’ last hurrah.

A cartoon band? A manufactured image? A flash-in-the-pan? Criticisms and accusations followed the beleaguered band during their 60’s heyday, but what naysayers couldn’t know in 1967 was that the Monkees would endure: through a decade of 1970’s after-school syndication, through a late-1980’s, MTV-driven resurgence 20 years later, and still drawing sold-out crowds 45 years later for a world-wide summer tour. Maybe the lads (as Ringo calls them) will never be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but I’d argue that they should be, because regardless of how they came to be, The Monkees, Inc., made an indelible mark on the pop music business landscape: The Monkees are arguably the first “boy band” (okay, so maybe that’s not a check in the “plus” column, but it was influential, nonetheless), they are certainly the first rock group to leverage the power of music videos to successfully market their music (pre-dating MTV by 15 years and the "Glee" phenomenon by 43 years!), and they showcased some of the best pop writing of the era, establishing songwriters who were, in fact, later inducted into the same Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, largely due to the Monkees recordings of their songs. But whatever ones’ stance on the Hall of Fame question, Pieces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., stands as a classic post script from the “Summer of Love” and one of the very best examples of pop psychedelia of the 1960’s. So turn down the lights, turn on the lava lamp, put the needle on the record (or click your iPod), and listen to this groovy album.

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