Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Last Of The Monkees

You’ve heard the story: The Monkees were a made-for-TV rock band that’s first two albums were engineered in a hit-making studio-lab featuring the talent of pop music’s most reliable songwriting and studio pros of the moment. The rock press maligned the foursome for not playing their own instruments on the recordings and for not writing their own songs (which, today, is normative). But the lads, to their great credit, ultimately became a real band, writing, playing, and producing the entirety of their third album, Headquarters. As noted by All Music Guide, the albums the band made after wrestling artistic control from Don Kirchner proved “…they were legitimate musicians with enough brains, heart, and soul as anyone else claiming to be a real band...” And Micky Dolenz famously likens The Monkees becoming a legitimate band to Leonard Nimoy becoming a real Vulcan. And yet it happened.

The television program ended after two short, successful seasons, after which the radio hits quickly dried up (no longer having a weekly vehicle to promote the songs), which is unfortunate for Top 40 radio in the late 1960’s, as their subsequent, self-directed albums proved no less engaging. I’ll be addressing them here, taken together – the final four original albums by The Monkees. I encountered Monkee-mania in its second (or maybe third?) iteration, through the MTV-fueled, twentieth Anniversary resurgence, and as a result, a new generation of fans and I were exposed, ad nauseam, to the band’s 12 top-40 hits, mostly coming from their first five million-selling albums, which mainly demonstrated the vision of the producers, music directors, and the television program, but gave little insight into the four individual members of the band. I’d argue that the final four original albums, while not only revealing so much more about Nesmith, Jones, Thorkelson, and Dolenz, also contain some of group’s best musical moments.

The downward sales spiral and the band’s ultimate demise started with their ill-fated film, Head. The idea behind the movie was to explode the whole mythology behind The Monkees: “a manufactured image with no philosophies.” It was a declaration of independence, of sorts, for the four actors/musicians, who were eager to shed the baggage of the kid-friendly television program. The film touched upon every movie genre imaginable as well as a few made-up ones as well, and it ended where it began, with the band running away from what it had become and featuring some of the best pop songs of the moment, from the psychedelic warmth of the movie’s theme song, the Goffin/King gem, “The Porpoise Song,” to Nesmith’s rocking barn-burner, “Circle Sky,” to the mellow gold, Carole King-penned, “As We Go Along.” Interspersed with snippets of dialogue from the film, the soundtrack is eclectic, eccentric, fun, and well-worth seeking out. Rhino recently released a 60-track collector’s edition of the soundtrack, featuring live versions and alternate vocal tracks as well as a few interviews from the era. 

After Head, Tork left, and then there were three. Instant Replay was the first album from the group that wasn’t connected to either a television program or to a film. Released just two months after the film soundtrack, the powers-that-be at Colgems apparently presumed the band still had sales potential. And while not boasting any true hit singles, the album did manage to eke its way up #32 on the album charts in the spring of 1969. The first single, the Boyce and Hart-penned, “Tear Drop City,” was an outtake from some of their earliest 1966 recording sessions and sounds suspiciously similar to their #1 debut single, “Last Train To Clarksville.” Truth was, it was reportedly an attempt by the band to reclaim territory on the pop charts by reaching into the hit-filled Kirchner vaults. Either way, it was a likable, sunny pop song that just missed the top 40 that summer, peaking at #56. Other gems on this forgotten album include the Goffin/King songs, “I Won’t Be The Same Without Her” and “A Man Without A Dream,” Jones’ acidic vocal on “You and I,” which boasted equally acidic guitar work by Neil Young, and the Neil Sadaka/Carole Bayer-Sager coulda-been-a-hit-in-1966, “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” The album’s closer, the McCartney-esque, bombastically schizophrenic cat biography, “Shorty Blackwell,” featured three separate, yet intertwining sonic movements and was written by Dolenz, foreshadowing the quirky art pop to come from the actor turned drummer turned songwriter (and my favorite Monkee: I love you, Micky Dolenz!).

The Monkees Present: Micky, David, Michael was originally conceived back when Peter Tork was still with the group and had been planned as a double album, devoting one side to each Monkee. With Tork absent and sales dwindling, the main concept was retained, but the project abbreviated to two sides, with songs contributed separately by the remaining three. Standout tracks include Nesmith’s country-rock, “Good Clean Fun,” (#82) one of the albums failed singles, and the Nesmith’s fan-favorite and leadoff single, “Listen To The Band” (#63). Davy submitted some of his best recorded efforts ever in tried-and-true starry-eyed mode for which he had become most known, the self-penned, “If I Knew” and the eerie, lounge-act number, “French Song,” as well as a surprising rocker written by the reliable tunesmiths, Boyce and Hart, “Looking For The Good Times.” As with the last LP, Micky Dolenz turned-in the most experimental tracks, with the terse album opener, “Little Girl,” and the similarly claustrophobic and excellent, “Bye-Bye, Baby, Bye-Bye.” Dolenz also contributed the album’s third failed single, the overtly political and tightly coiled, “Mommy and Daddy,” (#109). More musically gifted than many might have presumed, I’ve often wondered what might have happened had Dolenz chosen to devote himself to a musical, post-Monkees career (sigh...).

After Present, Nesmith left, and then there were two. Changes was the final “original” Monkees album, which featured the two actors in the band, Dolenz and Jones, with industry insiders joking that the final remaining band member would eventually release an album as “The Monkee.” **Good one, industry insiders** This contractual obligation of an album was produced and largely written by Jeff Barry and Andy Kim (“Rock Me Gently,” #1, 1974) and is surprisingly strong. By my ear, Changes is a perfect representation of the type of preteen-oriented bubblegum music being released around that time (e.g., “A-B-C,” The Jackson 5, “Sugar, Sugar,” The Archies – which was another Andy Kim song, by the way, “Dizzy,” Tommy Roe, “Simon Says,” 1910 Fruitgum, “I Think I Love You,” Partridge Family…). Standouts include the album opener and sole single, “Oh, My My” (#98), the mournful, meandering melody of “Ticket On A Ferry Ride,” and “You’re So Good To Me,” which rounds out the album’s first three tunes. “Acapulco Sun” and the Dolenz-penned, playful, country-R&B tune, “Midnight Train,” which was recorded during the sessions for the previous album, also hold their own on this universally ignored, final Monkees release. While neither Jones nor Dolenz reported having fond memories of the recording sessions or of the album, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable and playful Polaroid of that era in pop music.

After The Monkees, Tork wandered aimlessly through the next two decades doing a stint in prison for marijuana possession and meandering in and out of various rock bands. Nesmith enjoyed modest success as a country-rock pioneer and early adopter of music videos, and the final two Monkees quietly made their ways into the tumultuous new decade, with Jones releasing a failed solo album in 1971 and making ends meet with guest appearances on The Brady Bunch, etc., and Dolenz, financially solvent from the success of The Monkees, eventually carving out a career for himself as a television director in the UK. Twenty years later came the MTV-fueled reunion extravaganza, which gave the group an unexpected (and unnecessary?) half-life, providing opportunity for the group to release new recordings in the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s in various incarnations. None of the new material comes close to the quality of their 1960’s recordings, and The Monkees story came to a sad end with Jones’ untimely death in 2012. “Goodnight, goodnight everybody; everybody everywhere, goodnight.”

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