Sunshine on my brain
The pop genius of The Monkees
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Sometimes I play a game in my head: name the five best American rock bands of the ‘60s. My list goes: The Velvet Underground, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Doors, and then I stall on the fifth. Creedence? The Band - although they’re mostly Canadian. Simon & Garfunkel? Jefferson Airplane? The Lovin’ Spoonful? But I plump for The Monkees. Song for song they are the best pop group of the period, and their story is one of the most intriguing. The myth which shadows them is that they couldn’t play, they weren’t really a band and their music was sugary top-ten fodder. Yet the excellent reissues of their first four albums with bonus discs, released by Rhino Records in the past couple of years, show a band with real depth - one that not only crystallised the very best qualities of west-coast pop but also pulled off one of the greatest inside coups in showbiz history.
The bones of the group, its talent and temperament, goes back to the two men who put it together. Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, who hatched and pitched the idea of a television show based on the wacky antics of The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, were west-coast hipsters with the pulse of the ‘60s within them. Their off-beat approach meant that the four actors/musicians they chose to play the band members in the series were not going to be the square-jawed, Brylcreemed types who usually played anyone under 30 in the TV shows and movies of the time. Those they picked from the 437 applicants to the Variety ad calling for “four insane boys” sealed the fate of the band, the show, the music and all those who worked with them. Put simply, if almost any people outside of Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork had made up The Monkees, we would now have only a slim greatest-hits album to evaluate from a show that might have lasted a year.
The casting net was thrown wide. Tork was a Greenwich Village folkie, Nesmith a wry Texan singer-songwriter, Dolenz an LA-based former child actor, most famous for playing Corky in the late-’50s TV series Circus Boy, and Jones was an English-born Broadway singer with roots in vaudeville. That was the band. Actually, it wasn’t a band initially because they were only actors playing a band, but then life began imitating art and they became a touring and recording group beyond the one they were hired to be, and they kept their name, The Monkees. So, if nothing else, long before MTV, American Idol and every ‘reality’ show blurring on- and off-camera life through the prism of mass entertainment, The Monkees were pioneers. And this being the ‘60s, and with the corporate screws not yet so down on the younger generation, the band had room to wriggle and rebel, leading to some fantastic music, some eye-popping TV, and finally a movie named Head that starred Frank Zappa and Victor Mature and began with the four Monkees busting a police cordon and diving off a bridge to their symbolic death.
The first four albums of their squashed (1966-70) recording career can be neatly cut in two. The Monkees (‘66) and More of The Monkees (‘67) are straight-up pop albums from what could be called the ‘fabricated’ era, when the instruments were mostly played by studio musicians and the production and direction of the records was out of the band’s hands. Notwithstanding this, both albums are crunchy, hit-laden collections of great songs. There’s a ridiculous number of hooks, and an exuberance and glee that is forever tuned to the golden pop of the last half of ‘66. The Monkees has about six potential hit singles on it, yet only one was released: ‘The Last Train to Clarksville’. More of The Monkees, which followed very swiftly, has ‘I’m a Believer’ and ‘(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone’ (later covered by the Sex Pistols), plus ‘Mary Mary’, ‘She’ and ‘Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)’ as further hits - if only there had been time to release them.
What separates the band from their one-hit garage-band and proto- psychedelic contemporaries is that they had a television show to push their music and a corporate music-business structure built into the show that delivered a constant flow of top-notch pop songs. The man behind this, and in some senses the villain of the story, was an old-school music-biz heavy from the east coast called Don Kirshner. He was the musical supervisor of the first two records. He liked songs with girls’ names in them. He discouraged the band’s involvement in the recordings, aside from their singing, but had a good ear and fantastic contacts: a horde of Brill Building songwriters struggling in the singer-songwriter world of mid-’60s pop. Kirshner brought in Carole King and Gerry Goffin (responsible for the sublime ‘Take a Giant Step’ and ‘Sometime in the Morning’), Neil Sedaka and Carole Bayer Sager, Neil Diamond (‘I’m a Believer’), and David Gates, later of Bread. On the west coast he had Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, members of the LA band The Candy Store Prophets (what a band name!), who wrote the show’s theme song and a host of killer tunes, including ‘Last Train’. And finally there was the stellar songwriting of Michael Nesmith, who by this time had already written ‘Different Drum’, later a hit for Linda Ronstadt, and who went on to write a dozen very strong songs for the band.
The Monkees had two geniuses: Nesmith and Micky Dolenz. Dolenz is the great unheralded white male pop singer of the era. Top-40 singers before him sound arch and histrionic; Dolenz purrs and glides, skating the curves of a song’s melody with a knowing confidence yet able to raise his voice and push and scream - he did a James Brown medley in Monkees concerts - and then pull back into the pocket. Listen to ‘I’m a Believer’. Nesmith is a different kettle of fish, and to list his qualities and achievements is to wonder how they could all be contained in one person. For a start, he’s a country-rock pioneer: his ‘66 recordings for the band have banjo, fiddle and steel guitar jangling and bouncing amid the usual guitars and drums. He’s a master songwriter who went on to have a fine ‘70s album career, capped by the hit single ‘Rio’. He was a music-video producer and director who in ‘81 won the first Grammy for a video. He was the executive producer for the film Repo Man. He wrote a novel (The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora), ran a large home-video distribution business and is now an internet guru expounding knowingly on virtual reality and Second Life. Back then, though, he was in The Monkees and causing trouble. It was he who demanded that they become the band they were pretending to be, play their own instruments and take control of the records coming out under their name.
For all the discussion that follows The Monkees, and the very keen criticism they received at the time for their supposed fakeness and plasticity, you wonder how many of the bands with their revolutionary rhetoric on full blast would have held a television network, a record company, an entire hit- and money-making machine to the fire in the name of artistic control. And the answer is, very few; but The Monkees did. Nesmith and Tork, mainly - the two musicians of the band - demanded the band choose the material for their records and play it, or they’d quit. The legacy of their move is Headquarters (‘67) and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (‘67), the group’s third and fourth albums. Perhaps they don’t seem too different to the first two records, but there’s a unity to their sound and a perceptible wind-down in the search for hit singles that signals The Monkees’ shift to being an album band. There is still the gloriously rich mix of songwriting and there is still the sound, a big warm studio mix of live instrumentation at the exotic end of the pop scale. But there is a voice here, hard won by four young men who in making two classic albums became the Frankenstein’s monster that walked.
Prejudice toward The Monkees reigns supreme. Nesmith still curses the fact that audiences his own age just don’t get the group. Yet if the music they made is dismissed, often on the basis of the singles only, then a closer look at the people around the band would lead you to believe that something was going on beyond a one-dimensional pop outfit and a TV show. The Monkees were a product - but not only of corporate television culture. They were also the product of an LA-based scene explosion, when people involved in rock and pop, film and television, drugs and art, gathered around the city from ‘65 to ‘75 to push a younger and wilder voice into mainstream American culture. Peter Tork’s house was one of the prime hangouts for the LA folk-rock scene. Schneider and Rafelson went on to produce Easy Rider and The Last Picture Show. Rafelson directed Five Easy Pieces. Jack Nicholson co-wrote Head. Tim Buckley and Jimi Hendrix got their first mass exposure through the band, and Micky Dolenz can be spied in full American Indian regalia at the Monterey Pop Festival. With friends like these, The Monkees just have to be fabulous.
I’m looking at an online petition. It’s to get The Monkees inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The fools that run this institution are obviously inclined to the old position that The Monkees just aren’t rock enough or hip enough to be inducted. The situation is the reverse: The Monkees are too hip for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They have skipped free, the same way they jumped off that bridge back in ‘68, and are outside rock history. But still, the next time you’re thinking of adding a record or two to a collection of classic rock albums, get Headquarters or Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. and put them up beside The Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday or The Velvet Underground’s first album, because it is where they belong.
Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.