Saturday, July 17, 2010
My My, Hey Hey…We’re the Monkees!
My previous post might have seemed implausible to some. After all, Lawrence Welk was notorious for serving warm beer, but it is based on a true story, which goes (something) like this:
If memory serves, "Meet the Monkees" was only the second album of non-Irish music ever to play on our Victrola. Even my poor Dad, who only the year before declared that a Beatles album would "never enter this house", couldn't have imagined what a slippery slope we were now on.
My brother and I revered the album - record and cover both - as much as our months-old, but already battered copy of "Revolver". But it would only be a matter of days before Mickey, Davey, Peter and Mike would be sporting crude Dastardly Dan-like moustaches on the front cover. My sister eventually confessed to this desecration. I can only imagine what inter-sibling trifle was being avenged - her monstrous crime all out of proportion to the offense I'm sure.
Turning the cover over to the back, I see that it's now the record company's turn to show its contempt for us. (One would have to explore the Bobby Sherman and Partridge Family oeuvres to find more egregious examples of this.) I finally notice that the title is a direct rip-off of "Meet the Beatles". Then there are the credits:
Mike Nesmith - Plays Guitar and Sings
Peter Tork - Plays Guitar and Sings (like we kids didn't know a guitar from a bass!)
David Jones - Plays Guitar (yeah, right) and Sings. (What no maracas or tambourine?)
Mickey Dolenz - Plays Drums and Sings. At least they didn't say it was a guitar.
And what about those instruments? It should come as no surprise by now that the Monkees themselves didn't actually play them. But lest you think that I mock them for this, I know that they were hardly the only ones. Even the Who and Kinks occasionally used Jimmy Page and Nicky Hopkins (see the great Kinks song "Session Man"). So, why, then, do I draw the line at the Partridge Family, Osmond Brothers, etc. you ask? Because they, uh, SUCKED*.
So who did the playing? Well, amongst the dozens of studio pros, there's Glen Campbell on guitar. Connoisseurs of album credits would also recognize Hal Blaine, Jim Gordon and Larry Knechtel on drums, and Larry Taylor on bass. These guys have played with everybody from Frank Sinatra to Jackson Browne. They are good.
Anyway, let's keep reading. The boys hailed from Manchester, England, Dallas, Texas, Washington, DC and LA. In a savvy marketing move, there was not a whiff of New York ethnicity to be found.
At this rate, it's a wonder that I ever actually heard the record, but by now I've finally put it on. And amid the snap crackle and pop, the magic words come back to me…
Here we come, walking down the street
Sounds a little ominous, but don't worry ladies and gentlemen! It's not the Stones.
We get the funniest looks from everyone we meet
It's probably Mike Nesmith's pioneering wool hat in hot weather look.
Hey hey we're the Monkees, people say we monkey around
Well at least they got the bad joke out of the way early.
But we're too busy singing, to put anybody down.
Very passive aggressive and apolitical.
We're just trying to be friendly!
Isn't this what a drunk says when he's getting a little too friendly?
Come and watch and sing and play
Well, sing, anyway
We're the young generation
One of the more overused phrases of the time, it's less informational than it is marketing.
And we've got something to say.
Well, not really but that's okay. Don Kirshner meant something to sell, anyway
And that's pretty much it. "Visions of Johanna", it ain't. I shouldn't be making fun, but, God, it was so easy!
But now it's finally time to confront what I love about "Meet the Monkees". First, there's "Last Train to Clarksville", with its transcendent instrumental bridge, written by the Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who did the bulk of the songs. Then there's the lovely "Take a Giant Step", by Carol King and Gerry Goffin, that builds to a great climax. And the almost hard rock "Saturday's Child", written by future Bread leader David Gates, which beat out "Lady Madonna" to the day naming idea by a year or so. And finally, "Tomorrow's Gonna Be Another Day" which actually has a bit of soul to it.
What I like about it: Davey Jones isn't awful yet. Even "I'll be True to You" has a nice bridge, and "I Want to Be Free" is purty any way you look at it. Mike Nesmith's two songs are raw and rootsy. (I even saw Yo La Tengo cover "Sweet Young Thing". God, you just can't stump those guys/gal.)
The rest is okay, or, let's face it, sucks, which on balance makes this record not bad at all. But Jaybee, anyone with enough money can put together the right people for a decent album, right? I agree. But we're not done yet.
The title of the second album, "More of the Monkees", practically screams unoriginality, but do you know what? It's still an excellent record. This time around, the songwriting is stronger. First, Neil Sedaka and Carole Bayer (later Sager) contribute "When Love Comes Knockin at Your Door", one of the few Davey Jones songs I can stomach, along with Neil Diamond's "Watch Out, Here Comes Tomorrow". (Maybe they should have kept looking for more Neils. They might have found Young. Can you imagine Davey singing "Down by the River"? Well, no, neither can I.) Mike Nesmith comes through with "Mary Mary", which ended up getting sampled by Run DMC(!) Peter gets snarky with "Auntie Grizelda" and Mickey's actually angry on "Steppin Stone". Carol King and Gerry Goffin hit it out of the park with "Sometime in the Morning." The guitar part anticipates the Who's Acid Queen/Cousin Kevin/Eyesight to the Blind by two years.
Oh yeah, and Neil Diamond provides "I'm a Believer". Of course, there's some crap, too. But the good stuff easily wins out.
By now the boys are feeling like they really do have something to say and the skill to say and play it. So their third album "Monkees Headquarters" has no studio hotshots there to make them sound good, and no Neil or Carol songs. So, by all measures, it should have been a disaster. But in some ways, it's the best one so far. Howzat? Well, Mike Nesmith is writing better than ever, and Peter and Mickey are getting into the act with "For Pete's Sake" and "Randy Scouse Git". And what it lacks in studio polish, it makes up for in enthusiasm. And for faux significance, "Zilch" precedes the Velvet Undergrounds' "Murder Mystery" by almost two years.
I will leave it to someone even less cool than I to tell us how the remaining records are. I tried watching "Head" recently, but just didn't get it, which makes it no worse than "Alice's Restaurant" or "Easy Rider", when you get down to it.
In the wildly distorted timeframe that is childhood, the Monkees "era" lasted barely a year. During that time, we played the records incessantly, watched the show religiously, and even imitated them, using curtain rods for guitars and pillows for drums. But by 1969, I'm twelve, and needing to be cool, so the Monkees were out. When friend Mike and I found an old 45 of "Daydream Believer", we decided to fling it around the street like a Frisbee until it broke into a million pieces. And yet that song is now on a very short list of records that, if I hear it on the radio, I absolutely will NOT change the station. I might not let you change it either.
When they finally broke up, Mike Nesmith went on to make tons of country records (and tons of money from his mom's white out). The other boys just kind of faded away.
Then time speeds up, and it's the mid-1980s. There's Davey Jones, looking a little worse for the wear as a guest on "The Uncle Floyd Show" (basically Joe Franklin for hipsters), in the middle of the night, clearly wondering what he'd gotten himself into.
Mrs. Jaybee reports seeing Mickey Dolenz in "Aida" (the Broadway musical, not the opera). And I caught him singing the national anthem at a baseball game. He always was their best singer.
Mrs. Jaybee also reports that Peter Tork is not and has never been dead. God, they even ripped off their rumors from the Beatles.
There have been reunions of all sorts and combinations, sometimes even Mr. Nesmith comes down from the mountaintop to help out.
So laugh if you will, but now there's a weight off of my shoulders (monkee off my back? Ouch!). Can anyone seriously say that songs like "Last Train to Clarksville", "I'm a Believer", "Pleasant Valley Sunday" (one of the most intense songs ever) and "Daydream Believer" don't belong in the pantheon? Please. And I left a few of my other favorites out. If I kept going, you'd think I wasn't cool or something.
I hope you, dear reader appreciate how difficult this was for me. After all, I'm a mature adult who only listens to totally unique and non prefabricated music, by serious artistic geniuses who aren't in it for the money. Their music is of such high quality and artistic purity that the actual enjoyment of it is discouraged.
That, or the Bay City Rollers.
* Jaybee's wife say's that the Partridge Family does NOT suck. Yes dear. (Dear Reader, we'll talk later.)