I’d planned to do this later in the week, but Xianrex asked me on Twitter if I had a list of twenty Monkees songs for the neophyte, and in fact just last night I put together this twenty-song playlist. I’m posting it now, before finishing the Cerebus post, because my wife’s not a Monkees fan, and she’s out – I don’t especially want to subject her to multiple plays through of this music while I write about it.
I’ve been asked about this because I’ve been hugely excited that I’ve this week bought tickets to see the reunited Monkees (minus Mike Nesmith, who has decided to spend the time rolling around in his estimated $300M fortune and going “ha ha ha! I have *ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD!” Probably.) and most people have been saying “You mean the Monkees as in on the TV show? Why on Earth would you do that?”
I’m doing that because the run of four albums Headquarters, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd, The Birds, The Bees And The Monkees and Head is about as good as any four-album run in popular music, is the simple answer. But to explain why, before I get to talking about the individual tracks here, I’ll just deal with the two most common criticisms of the band.
The first one, and the stupidest, is “they didn’t play on their records!”.
It’s true that on the first two albums (of the nine they released during their original period together) they didn’t play on the backing tracks (though apparently Peter Tork added a few bits of guitar and banjo even there). That was, however, just common practice at that time. The Byrds didn’t play on Mr Tambourine Man, The Beach Boys barely played on anything during their commercial peak, the Mothers Of Invention were ‘augmented’ on their first album by session players, there are a couple of tracks on Forever Changes where Love don’t play, the Rip Chords didn’t even *sing*, let alone play, on their hit Hey Little Cobra… even in the UK, where the notion of the band was stronger, Ray Davies and Mick Avory of the Kinks didn’t play on their early records, Ringo didn’t play on Love Me Do, Jimmy Page filled out the sound of early Who records, and so on.
And unlike those other bands, the Monkees had a rather good excuse – they weren’t, at least to start with, a band. Rather they were performers in a TV show *about* a band. As they often say themselves, “no-one complains that William Shatner never really captained a Starship”.
What *is* worth noting is that after those first two albums, they *did* take control of their own music – even on the first album Mike Nesmith was writing songs for the band and producing tracks, in fact – and that the music *got better* when they got rid of the professional session musicians, producers and songwriters (or hired some of them on the Monkees’ own terms). On top of that they had the artistic bravery to make Head – a film which, as my friend Tdaschel puts it, is in a genre with only one other example, Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. (Head both came first and is far more adventurous than Zappa’s film. It also features Zappa in a cameo, along with Sonny Liston, Victor Mature and Jack Nicholson. Nicholson also wrote the script).
The other criticism is that they were a purely manufactured band. This is true – and it’s actually their greatest strength. Under normal circumstances, it’s impossible to imagine these four people ever working together. Micky Dolenz is a former child star who just happened to turn into one of the great soul vocalists of all time (it’s not just me who says that – Carole King apparently thinks Dolenz is the greatest interpreter of her songs ever, which given that she’s had songs performed by everyone from the Beatles to James Taylor by way of the Righteous Brothers and the Beach Boys says a lot). Mike Nesmith is an intensely literate country songwriter and vocalist, someone who manages to tie the simplicity and emotional power of country music of the Steve Earle or Willie Nelson style to a literate, complex lyrical style. Peter Tork is a folk and blues musician, and a virtuoso on several different instruments. And Davy Jones is a great song and dance man and showman.
To show the differences between them, we just have to look at the songs they perform (or performed) as their solo spots on Monkees reunion tours. Micky will sing the blues song Since I Fell For You (most famously performed by Nina Simone). Mike would perform his solo hit Rio. Peter would perform a Bach two-part invention, and Davy would sing a medley of songs from Oliver! (he originated the role of the Artful Dodger on Broadway).
That combination would never, under normal circumstances, have been brought together. They’re neither musically, nor by all accounts personally, compatible in any normal sense, but it gave their music a breadth and diversity matched by few other bands.
This playlist is a mixture of hits, fan-favourites and genuine obscurities that I’ve put together to try to explain why I think the Monkees deserve to be treated as one of the more interesting, inventive, and talented bands of the 60s. It’s biased towards songs by Mike, and towards songs with Micky on lead, because those are my personal favourites, but I hope it gives a good flavour of the band as a whole.
St Matthew from the rarities collection Missing Links Vol 2 is a country song written and sung by Mike Nesmith. The lyrics to this actually remind me of Leonard Cohen, but musically this – and many of Nesmith’s other songs from this era – could only be described as psych-country, with the ‘heavy’ sound of the era applied to arrangements that are at base standard country songs. This is the kind of thing that Gram Parsons would get a huge amount of credit for several years later.
(I Prithee) Do Not Ask For Love is a very odd track indeed – a pseudo-Elizabethan, almost madrigal, song by Nesmith’s friend Michael Murphy, turned into a baroque pop track by Nesmith’s production. This was actually recorded with vocals by three different band members – a version sung by Tork appeared on the 331/3 Revolutions Per Monkee TV special, and this backing track with vocals by Jones appeared as a bonus track on the CD release of More Of The Monkees. It’s sung here, though, by Micky, who is far and away the best vocalist in the band. This version is also from Missing Links vol 2.
Randy Scouse Git is written and sung by Micky and is from Headquarters, the band’s third album, on which they played all the instruments themselves. It manages to go through an astonishing array of different musical styles in its 2:34, from angry almost proto-punk to scat-sung semi-jazz. The fact that Micky didn’t actually know what a ‘randy Scouse git’ was when he wrote the song just makes it all the better.
Calico Girlfriend Samba is a Nesmith song that was recorded for The Monkees Present but not released until it became a bonus track on the CD reissue (though Nesmith later recorded it on his solo album Magnetic South. It is, as the title suggests, a samba, and a good one.
Mommy And Daddy is a rather sixth-formish political song by Micky, a bonus track on The Monkees Present, but it’s quite astonishing sounding, sounding to me like an early 80s post-punk thing far more than late 60s pop – until the ending, which is pure 60s pop apart from the dissonant horns and throbbing drums.
A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You is a non-album single included as a bonus track on Headquarters. A Neil Diamond song, this shows just what a master songwriting craftsman Diamond is, under his Vegas exterior. Davy Jones does a decent enough job on lead vocals.
Magnolia Simms is a Nesmith song, a gorgeous Western Swing number made to sound like an authentic 1920s 78, right down to the slight speed wobble and the needle hiss. (And note that this was from more than a year before the Beatles did something similar with Honey Pie). Nesmith is the only Monkee credited on this track, the rest of the instruments being provided by session musicians, but as well as Nesmith’s guitar there’s definitely a ukulele on there, and I think either a mandolin or banjo as well. I wonder if they were Tork?
Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun To Care is another Nesmith country song, left unreleased in this version until the Missing Links Vol 3 rarities collection. Nesmith gave this song to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and later recorded it himself on his solo album Nevada Fighter. As with many of Nesmith’s songs, this sounds now ‘just’ like extremely good country-rock, but Nesmith invented country-rock – this was before Gram Parsons and Gene Clark started following in Nesmith’s footsteps.
Cripple Creek is a low-fi live recording from 1967. I’ve included this because Peter Tork is often overlooked in the Monkees, because he took very few leads on the studio recordings (the only ones on the ‘canonical’ albums are the comedy track Your Aunty Grizelda and the second verse of awful ballad Shades Of Grey). However, he was the only first-rate instrumentalist in the band – and a multi-instrumentalist at that. This live performance shows off his banjo-picking on an old-time folk song.
Two Part Invention In F Major and here’s Tork on the piano, playing a Bach piece. He fluffs a couple of notes, but then this was just him playing around in the studio between takes, not intended for release. Pretty good for someone in a band who ‘couldn’t play their instruments’ – especially as keyboard is Tork’s third instrument, after banjo and guitar.
Don’t Call On Me is Nesmith stepping outside of his comfort zone, providing a gorgeous soft/lounge pop-jazz song in the vein of Paul Williams or Burt Bacharach. Melodically similar to Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying, Nesmith actually wrote this long before joining the Monkees, and it’s hard to see why it was left until the band’s fourth album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd, before they recorded this. Nesmith’s lead vocal also sounds utterly different to anything else he did.
Cuddly Toy is another track off Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd, this time written by Harry Nilsson. The bouncy, cheery melody covers up possibly the most vicious, misogynistic, nasty lyric ever written in pop music (though Nilsson was, of course, writing in character). Davy Jones takes the lead, and Micky is harmonising with him.
Love Is Only Sleeping a song from the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weill songwriting team, this actually sounds like a Nesmith original. A psych-country track in the vein of What Condition My Condition Was In, this has a driving riff in 7/4 time and a great air of menace. From Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd.
Goin’ Down was a B-side, now included as a bonus track on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd, that grew out of a jam session around Mose Allison’s Parchman Farm. This is one of the most startlingly good vocal performances in the Monkees’ repertoire, with Micky Dolenz apparently effortlessly managing a song whose rapid flow of syllables would tie the tongue of pretty much any rapper. The lyric (about an attempted suicide by drowning who eventually decides just to float down the river on his back) is a great one too, though it takes many listens to make it all out.
Porpoise Song is the theme from Head, the Monkees’ film, and seems to have been written by Goffin and King as a parody of psychedelia – certainly I can’t imagine them writing lyrics like “a face, a voice, an overdub has no choice, an image cannot rejoice” with a straight face (the line “riding the backs of giraffes for laughs is all right for a while” is a reference to the TV show Circus Boy, on which Micky had been a child star). But musically it’s gorgeous, and the vocals (by Micky on the verses and Davy on the choruses) absolutely sell the song. Jack Nitzsche’s arrangement is also stunning – the coda, with diving bells (representing the images in the film, where the band have all committed suicide by drowning at the start) is an extraordinary piece of arrangement work.
She Hangs Out is a great little garage rocker by Jeff Barry, of the sort that could have been done by a thousand bands of the time, but is still enjoyable enough. Davy turns in one of his better vocals here. From Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd
The Door Into Summer is, yet again, from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd (guess my favourite Monkees album? Bet you can’t…) . Written by the band’s producer Chip Douglas and Nesmith’s friend Bill Martin, this is a country rocker based on a Robert Heinlein science fiction novel, with Nesmith on lead.
A gorgeous Paul Williams/Roger Nichols soft pop song, this was the B-side to Listen To The Band and was eventually released on CD as a bonus track on Instant Replay, the band’s first album after Peter Tork left. Structurally, this is fascinating, with all sorts of different little melodies coming and going, and shows again why the easy listening and soft-pop end of the musical spectrum from that time is far more interesting than much of the supposedly more ‘progressive’ music of the same period. Davy Jones sings lead, and does a far better job than you’d expect.
Daddy’s Song is another Nilsson song, this time a Broadway-style uptempo song-and-dance number about Nilsson’s parents’ divorce. In the film Head this was sung by Davy Jones, but this version, a bonus track on the soundtrack album, has Nesmith singing lead in the style he used on Magnolia Simms.
Daydream Believer You probably know, but it’s still one of the best singles ever recorded. Written by folk musician John Stewart, this is sung by Davy Jones and has Peter Tork on piano – apparently the only track on The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees on which Tork features, the band having started to drift apart by that point (Tork would remain for one more album, Head, before quitting). Tork also arranged the track.