The Monkees

TrackAlbum / Single
(Theme From) The MonkeesThe Monkees
Last Train To ClarksvilleThe Monkees
(I'm Not Your) Stepping StoneMore Of The Monkees
ZilchHeadquarters
Randy Scouse GitHeadquarters
Pleasant Valley SundayPisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.
Daily NightlyPisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.
Goin' DownColgems 66-1012 B-side
No TimeHeadquarters
Daydream BelieverThe Birds, The Bees & The Monkees

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Contributor: David Lewis

Ok, so who was the greatest pop band of the 1960s? Oh, right, yes, them. But who was the greatest prefabricated pop band, who were not formed as such, but cast in a TV show? The Pre-Fab Four, the Monkees, who at their best created perfect pieces of pop, can stake a claim to be one of the best of the post-Beatles pop bands.

The story is fascinating, but well documented. Four talented young men: one exceptional singer (Micky), three very good ones; a couple of terrific musicians; four accomplished songwriters, and five or six massive egos – mostly justified. Brainchild of Don Kirshner, the TV series which featured them was a marvellous anarchic fun slapstick whimsy which holds up still today. Filled with gueststars, including Tim Buckley and Frank Zappa, the Monkees were able to hold their own in any case. For someone of my generation (Gen-X), TV repeats introduced us to many of these acts.

Micky Dolenz, who possessed one of the finest voices in pop (still does), had had television experience – he’d been Circus Boy in the 1950s. Mancunian Davy Jones (Rest in Peace, and not to be confused with a slightly later David Jones who had to change his name because of the Monkees’ success) had been the Artful Dodger in Oliver!. Peter Tork had no acting experience but could play many instruments – guitar, bass, piano, banjo etc … Mike Nesmith, who was perhaps the genius of the group, had written songs and was to go on to write some of the very best songs of the Monkees and some superb songs after.

Of course, as was more common than generally admitted, the voices were the boys’, but the musicians were session crews – usually songwriters Boyce and Hart’s band the Candy Store Prophets, but often members of the Wrecking Crew would play the backing tracks. The Monkees themselves chafed against the restrictions: after all, they could play (though not as well at least at first as the session guys), and they could write their own songs. After they successfully got Kirshner sacked from Colgems, the producer and publisher of the show and music, they took control, releasing a variety of songs. Kirshner lost his major influence after this. The four clashed as well: Nesmith was a particularly difficult character at times, once famously punching a hole in the wall next to him during a fight with Kirshner, stating “that could have been your head, m*()*&($)%*er”. All, though, could be difficult. As a result, their albums range from the transcendent to the trivial, the brilliant to the banal, the marvellous to the murky. But let’s pick out ten of the great songs.

 

(Theme From) The Monkees: The one we all heard first – a total ripoff of the Dave Clark Five, but an effective one. Boyce and Hart wrote this as the introduction to the TV show. It’s fun, funny and joyous.

Last Train To Clarksville: Boyce and Hart again: a slight anti-war sentiment, and the first single they released. Clarksville was where you enlisted for Vietnam …

Off the second album, More Of The Monkees, we get the magnificent (I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone. An early example of garage rock, a ‘safe’ band like the Monkees should never in any logic have done such a gritty track. But they did. And it’s great.

Many would add the Neil Diamond penned I’m A Believer, but its oversaturation from the movie Shrek (by a mediocre band doing a mediocre cover) disqualifies it for me – Micky’s vocal is terrific though… Headquarters, the next album, is where the tensions which drove and destroyed the band really start to take hold, but where the band starts to hit the heights. They all actually play on this album, with only a few session musicians to augment them. Tork and Nesmith played guitars, bass and keyboards; Dolenz proved himself a capable drummer, and Jones took hand percussion.

Zilch is an amazingly creative song: four phrases repeated and looped – Mr Dobalina, Mr Bob Dobalina (later sampled for Del the Funkee Homo Sapien); China clipper calling Alameda … Zilch; Never mind the furthermore, the plea is self defense; and It is of my opinion that the people are intending. Whimsy, avant-garde, wit and craft all combine wonderfully. And could anyone imagine One Direction (say) getting away with it?

Randy Scouse Git (or Alternate Title). The title was changed for English listeners – I shouldn’t need to explain why. The original title was overheard from Till Death Us Do Part, and the lyrics are really Dolenz’s expression of his experiences in England – quite astounding in their own right, this is a masterpiece of arrangement and structure anyway. In Andrew Hickey’s definitive Monkee Music, he states Peter Tork has said the great tragedy of the Monkees was that Dolenz didn’t write more: Hickey agrees with this, and based on this track, so do I. Again, a slight anti Vietnam comment (“why don’t you hate who I hate, kill who I kill to be free?”: the United Kingdom did not send troops to Vietnam…).

 

The next couple of choices come from their absolute masterpiece, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. One of the great late 60s albums, there’s not a dud track on it (which can’t really be said of the albums before and after). Pleasant Valley Sunday is perhaps the most consistent: all Monkees (unusually) appear on it, and it’s perfectly arranged. It’s a Goffin/King piece, and it’s a marvellous word-picture of the bland way of life in ‘status symbol land’. Davy Jones’ backing ‘ta-ta-ta-ta’ is just perfect.

As I’ve praised Nesmith’s writing, my next choice is his Daily Nightly. Nesmith is a gifted composer and a briliant lyricist. One of the few, I’d argue, who got the lessons of Dylan right – the right word in the right place – sound followed closely by meaning.

Goin’ Down is perhaps Dolenz’s finest moment; listen to the rate of words: “floatin’ down the river with a saturated liver…“, and manages to make attempted suicide funny.

I have a soft spot for this next choice going back to Headquarters: it’s rather obscure, but no-one sounded more like the Beatles in their early rock period. To my ears it sounds like I’m Down, but was apparently based around an aborted attempt at either Chuck Berry or Little Richard. No Time is garbled syllables, and almost irrelevant sayings (including a redux of Dolenz’s “Never mind the furthermore the plea is self defense” from Zilch … yes, I know, it’s from Oklahoma originally)… I love the almost incompetent soloing, too.

 

Finally, perhaps the most perfect piece of pop ever written – perhaps … Daydream Believer. One of Davy’s best performances, the Monkees performed it after his death by letting the crowd sing it. Tork on the piano, who arranged it, it was written by John Stewart of the Kingston Trio. Sublimely beautiful.

So many near misses: She; Writing Wrongs (a psychedelic masterpiece, hated by many fans); Smile; Listen To The Band; Porpoise Song from Head. If nothing else, a surprising and astonishing breadth. And remember, nearly all done while making a half hour television show, an experimental movie and promotional duties. Once the TV show was cancelled, it was more or less over.

The Monkees could never last as a consistent band; the personalities and directions each wanted to take were way too different. Nonetheless, they reformed and reunited several times. Davy Jones had a minor career as an actor but continued singing his hits on tour – always the consummate professional. He loved his farm (he joked about his horse habit), and was a non smoking, non drinking vegetarian. It was a shock to everyone when he died of a congenital undiagnosed heart condition. Micky moved into directing and producing. Peter became a teacher, but like Dolenz, struggled with various addictions. Mike wrote some great music (he needs his own Toppermost – I’m looking at you Glenn Smith …); but also did such minor things as develop MTV and become a pioneer in multimedia … Nonetheless, all four men started well, and left a strong musical legacy before their solo careers. Hey Hey, we’re all Monkees.

 

Davy Jones (1945–2012)

 

The official site for The Monkees

The Monkees Live Almanac

The #1 Monkees Web Site Since 1994

Micky Dolenz – the official website

Videoranch – Michael Nesmith works and projects

Peter Tork facebook

The Monkees biography (iTunes)

David Lewis has written several posts for Toppermost. He lives in Sydney and lectures in Popular Culture and Contemporary and Roots Music at the Australian Institute of Music. He writes on History, Mystery, Music and Pop here.

TopperPost #401

13 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Jan 16, 2015

    Enjoyed this one, David. I had the Corky the Circus Boy Christmas Annual and many years later my kids loved Dolenz’s “Metal Mickey” kids’ TV show. I’m A Believer got in on video if not the ten. In the actual “Shrek” film, Donkey, i.e. Eddie Murphy, sings it and it works brilliantly for me in the context. On the OST album (produced by Robbie Robertson) you get The Smash Mouth version, but it’s not the one in the film. The same happened with Hallelujah – Cohen in the film, Rufus Wainwright on the album. As well as I’m A Believer, A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You (which would be my “Wot no?) and Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow) are also classic Neil Diamond. I’ve got a soft spot for D.W. Washburn, but I wouldn’t have chosen it because the Lovin’ Spoonful pastiche is too obvious. Good to be reminded of Listen To The Band as a near-miss, but it’s really more like solo Mike Nesmith. Imagine the band if Stephen Stills and John Sebastian hadn’t failed their auditions …

  2. Ian Ashleigh
    Jan 16, 2015

    Many thanks David for the memories that have surfaced reading your essay and listening to the ten on Spotify with a big smile on my face. Like Peter, there are some ‘wot no’ but the ten here are perfect.

  3. Glenn Smith
    Jan 16, 2015

    Great eclectic slightly off beat list, just like the band. I’d think both the Neil Diamond hit tunes need to be there, Little Bit Me being another superb Davy Jones vocal performance and their take on Nilsson’s Cuddly Toy from Pisces. And yes perhaps a Nesmith Toppermost could start with Listen to the Band, easily one of my favourite “Monkees” tunes.

  4. Rick Leach
    Jan 17, 2015

    Great piece, David. I think your opening point is excellent. The Beatles were just as “manufactured” as The Monkees. It was never the Beatles vs the Stones. It should have been the Beatles vs the Monkees. And I think the Monkees would have won on points.

    • Keith Shackleton
      Jan 19, 2015

      Wait a cotton pickin’ minute there, what say you to the ten thousand hours or so the Not So Pre-Fab Four cranked out in Germany? Manufactured? Made in Hamburg, more like.

      • Rick Leach
        Jan 19, 2015

        Good (& fair) point! I guess I was trying to have a go at their Epstein era makeover. Suppose there’s a case to be made for them being the first Krautrock band!

        • Keith Shackleton
          Jan 20, 2015

          We’ll gloss over the Epstein-mandated uniforms and haircuts. They did eventually rebel 😉

          • Rick Leach
            Jan 20, 2015

            Agreed! Never good to argue too much about the Beatles though!

  5. Ian Ashleigh
    Jan 17, 2015

    It is said that John Stewart originally wrote Daydream Believer with the line ‘Now you know how funky I can be’ which is what he always sang and the Monkees’ management changed it to the familiar ‘Now you know how happy I can be’ for Davy Jones to sing

  6. David Lewis
    Jan 17, 2015

    ‘Little Bit Me…’, yes, but what would I replace for it? Pleasant Valley in terms of the playlist – both Brill Building penned, with a bit of ‘edge’, I think.
    Ian, as Hickey points out, would anyone really believe Davy was ‘funky’? And Rick, the Beatles were huge fans of the music and the show… So there you go…

  7. Peter Viney
    Jan 19, 2015

    Rick, much as I love The Monkees (and David’s post had me replacing old vinyl and poor compilations with the “Original Albums Series” of 5 CDs this very day) … you can’t mention them in the same breath as The Beatles. The Monkees TV show idea derived from A Hard Day’s Night & Help films, at which point my generation were firmly into The Rolling Stones and The Animals and The Beatles were VERY BRIEFLY not cool. Then they came back and wiped the floor with everybody (and we realized that they had always been cool). The Monkees outgrew the producers’ intention, which had worked because the producers were using The Brill Building’s best songwriters with a fake band. The Beatles were never a fake band. The Monkees proved their own talent, but really only Mike Nesmith has lasting worth as a songwriter.

  8. Calvin Rydbom
    Jan 20, 2015

    Peter Tork still tours solo once in a while with a straight out Blues Band, he’s a heck of a good musician really. I’ve seen him play a couple of times. You know after the Monkees Kirshner said the heck with living musicians and produced the Archies Cartoon. And had a couple of huge hits with Cartoon characters as a band. That’s a man trying to prove a point.

  9. Ilkka Jauramo
    Jan 20, 2015

    Enjoyed this one too. A social aspect if you please: The Monkees revitalized the myth of four lads playing together. Merseybeat had the same social function. They were bands for four equal members and inspired boys to play in the suburban garages. The Beatles were too big, The Animals were too raw, The Rolling Stones were too much of everything. Later on British blues inspired too – mostly self-centered solo guitarists and sleepy bassists.

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