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Monkee Music 1: The Monkees

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on August 13, 2011

A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book Monkee Music, available as paperback, hardback, PDF, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK) and ePub (all DRM-free).

The Monkees’ first album was put together very quickly, in anticipation of the band’s TV debut. For the pilot of the TV show, several songs by Screen Gems writers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart had been recorded by Boyce & Hart’s band The Candy Store Prophets, as the four band members hadn’t yet been cast. As a reward, after sessions with legendary producer Snuff Garret (who wanted Davy Jones to be sole lead vocalist) had broken down, Boyce and Hart were allowed to supervise the initial batch of sessions for the show and the first album (albeit with assistance from the more experienced Jack Keller on early sessions).

In fact, so much material was needed for the show that songs originally recorded during these sessions, but put aside or only used on the TV, would turn up (sometimes in rerecorded form) for the rest of the band’s career. Sometimes two sessions would be going on at once, with Michael Nesmith (who was allowed to write and produce two tracks on the album) running one session in one part of town while Boyce and Hart were running another elsewhere.

Surprisingly enough, the finished product is a rather good album of its type. While nowhere near as musically interesting as the results once the band took control of their own career, there’s still some great pop music mixed in with the filler.

Theme From The Monkees

Writers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart and Jack Keller

Or “Hey hey, we’re the Candy Store Prophets”, as with the exception of Dolenz’s vocals this track, like much of The Monkees, was performed by Boyce and Hart’s band (Gerry McGee on guitar, Larry Taylor on bass and Billy Lewis on drums), with augmentation from a couple of session musicians – percussionist Gene Estes (a talented jazz vibraphone player, here reduced to hitting a tambourine on the off-beat, though he may also provide the finger-snaps) and guitarists Wayne Erwin and Louie Shelton. This group of musicians (with Hart on occasional keyboards and Boyce on backing vocals) would provide almost all the backing for the album.

While harmonically simple (staying for the most part in the key of Am in the verses apart from one V-of-V chord, and staying entirely in C for the choruses, and not using any chord more complex than a 7th), like most Boyce and Hart songs, the track is full of musical ideas. Starting with the famous ‘falling’ drum sound, the verse then combines Larry Taylor’s strutting bassline with fingersnapping and hi-hat to create an impressive air of swaggering cool, before going into the famous chorus.

The track is very blatantly “inspired” by the Dave Clark Five’s Catch Us If You Can, down to starting with a single throbbing bass note and “Here [we/they] come…” but is far more meticulously constructed, and a much more memorable record.

The one weak spot of the track is the way it shifts gears out of the chorus into the second verse, which doesn’t quite come off, but then the track really kicks off in the second chorus, with the key change up a tone for “We’re just trying to be friendly…”

The guitar solo – surprisingly late in the track, after the third chorus – is a pastiche of George Harrison’s Chet Atkins imitations, and the whole thing then builds to a powerful climax with a repeat of the second chorus with its key change.

Lyrically, the song is a perfect introduction to TV show for which it was the theme, though I’m not too keen on the line “we’re the young generation and we’ve got something to say”, which seems slightly patronising – especially since at the time the band members were prevented from saying anything even slightly controversial.

Saturday’s Child

Writer: David Gates

Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart and Jack Keller

Astonishingly for something written by the man who would go on to form Bread, one of the softest of all AOR bands, Saturday’s Child is close to heavy metal, especially in the mono mix (which is a much more powerful track than the comparatively weak stereo version). The lumbering bottom-string guitar riff and throbbing bass part could almost be Deep Purple or early Black Sabbath, though Dolenz’s soft, faintly sinister vocal is as far from that style as you can get – Dolenz at his best being one of the most controlled vocalists in the business, and heavy metal vocals being all about (perceived) loss of control.

Interestingly, this track was originally recorded with Peter Tork on lead vocals, and while he’s officially not on the finished track, one of the double-tracked backing vocal parts singing the chorus countermelody does sound an awful lot like him.

I Wanna Be Free

Writers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

And from Saturday’s Child we go to Sunday Morning… this track in its finished version bears quite an astonishing resemblance to the later Velvet Underground song, both harmonically and in the general shape of its melody and its feel.

Which makes it all the more surprising that while the finished version is a gentle ballad based around some lovely, sparse acoustic guitars, harpsichord and a string quartet, earlier that day the same song had been recorded in a totally different arrangement owing far more to Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone, with Dolenz and Jones singing the verses in unison and Dolenz, rather than Jones, taking the middle eight. (This faster version is available on various compilations and as a bonus track on the Deluxe Edition of The Monkees, as well as being featured in the TV show).

Truth be told, the fast, Hammond-led version that was originally attempted suited the lyrics far better than the version finally released on the album, because the lyrics are anything but romantic. The protagonist of the song is quite possibly one of the most unpleasant in any song, insisting on utter devotion from his girlfriend (“say you’ll always be my friend, babe/We can make it to the end, babe”), but on utter freedom from all commitments himself (“doing all those things without any strings to tie me down”). His girlfriend is not even allowed to say that she loves him – just that she likes him – but is to give him total freedom.

That said, this unpleasant – frankly almost psychopathic – lyric is backed by one of the most beautiful arrangements on any Monkees record, nicely understated rather than over-lush, and Jones’ wistful vocal almost sells the song.

Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day

Writers: Tommy Boyce and Steve Venet

Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

A quick knock-off track that probably took about as long to write as it does to listen to, this seems to have been written with the rough aim of trying to write something that sounded like the Beatles’ more country-flavoured songs like Another Girl, though the harmonica part and “hey hey hey hey” vocal line sound more reminiscent of the Rolling Stones.

The vaguely train-like rhythm (and “I’m gonna catch me the fastest train” lyric) suggest that this was essentially a failed attempt at writing Last Train To Clarksville, which would be recorded two days later. However, on its own merits this is a perfectly pleasant country-blues number.

Papa Gene’s Blues

Writer: Michael Nesmith

Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith

Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz (backing vocals), Peter Tork (guitar)

Producer: Michael Nesmith

If this sounds very different from the rest of the album up to this point, it’s because rather than being a Boyce/Hart production with an augmented Candy Store Prophets, this is a Nesmith production with members of the Wrecking Crew [FOOTNOTE: A term for the group of session musicians who played on most LA-based hit records in the 1960s, including drummers Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon, guitarist Glen Campbell and others. Note that Carol Kaye, a bass player who was often part of the Wrecking Crew, has claimed to have played on many Monkees hits. However, Ms Kaye's claims are, at best, unreliable, and she is only known to have played on two songs, both album tracks on More Of The Monkees.], who would play on most of Nesmith’s productions from this time. It’s also the closest thing to a group performance on the album, with Tork one of the several acoustic guitar players (as well as possibly providing some backing vocals on a rejected mix) and Dolenz harmonising with Nesmith throughout.

From this early, Nesmith was pushing for the band to have creative involvement in their own records, and so this track more than any others on this album points the way forward to the music the band would be making from their third album onwards.

A Latin-infused country song, with tons of percussion, this is musically not much more sophisticated than Boyce and Hart’s tracks, though much fuller sounding (and with some wonderful guitar work, presumably by James Burton). But lyrically, while still being a basic love song, there’s an awareness of language that is mostly absent from the Boyce/Hart material.

Nesmith’s lyrics are often slightly archaic in their word choices, and the tumbling Dylanesque phrases here (“So take my hand, I’ll start my journey, free from all the helpless worry, that besets a man when he’s alone”) are a joy. And the combination of Nesmith and Dolenz’s vocals, while all too rare, is by far the best vocal blend the band had.

Easily the highlight of the album.

Take A Giant Step

Writers: Gerry Goffin and Carole King

Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

The first of Goffin and King’s several attempts at cod-psychedelia for the Monkees, this works about as well as you’d expect two Brill Building songwriters attempting to be down with the kids by inviting you to “take a giant step outside your mind” to work.

That said, there are points of interest – there’s some nice pseudo-Indian oboe playing (by Bob Cooper), and the melody is as strong as all King’s work, especially the “It’s time you learned to live again at last” over descending chords, which is reminiscent of much of her best work.

But the whole thing sounds like it was written and recorded by people who’d heard about psychedelia and not understood it, but thought “well, if this is what the kids are listening to…”

Last Train To Clarksville

Writers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: None

Producers
: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Recorded toward the end of the sessions for this album, this became the Monkees’ first single and first number one. Based roughly around the structure of the Beatles’ Paperback Writer, which like this stays on G7 for the whole verse before switching briefly to C7 in the chorus, this was inspired by hearing only the tag of that song and thinking that McCartney was singing “take the last train”.

The almost-moronic guitar riff (based around an open G chord) was inspired by Day Tripper, but when combined with the train rhythm and the obsession on a single chord sounds almost like Smokestack Lightning, if Smokestack Lightning had been recorded by LA pop musicians rather than Chicago blues ones.

Of all the Boyce/Hart tracks on this album, this one is far and away the best-thought-out, both lyrically (actually having a story to it, with a very mildly anti-war sentiment) and musically – it’s simplistic, but in all the right ways, the product of people who’ve been listening to every record on the radio and stripped all of them down to their most basic essentials, then rebuilt them into a pop masterpiece.

I may occasionally seem a little harsh on Boyce and Hart in this book, and it’s true that some of their work was sub-par, but that’s because they were producing such a lot of music in such a small amount of time. When they were on form, as they were here, they were as good as anyone.

This Just Doesn’t Seem To Be My Day

Writers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart and Jack Keller

Three decent musical ideas (a rewrite of I’ve Just Seen A Face, a pesudo-Indian instrumental break, and a ‘cello-led baroque middle eight) jammed together with no real thought as to how they’d work together. Combined with a poor, sloppily double-tracked vocal from Jones, the end result is less than the sum of its parts.

Let’s Dance On

Writers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart and Jack Keller

A simple dance track based on the Twist and Shout riff, but also taking elements from two other songs that used the same chord sequence, Hang On Sloopy and Little Latin Lupe Lou, this is generic garage band filler of the sort that was being churned out by the ton in 1965 and 66.

I’ll Be True To You

Writers: Gerry Goffin and Russ Titelman

Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart and Jack Keller

A cover of a vapid ballad that had been a British hit for the Hollies the year earlier under the name Yes I Will, presumably chosen because Jones, like the Hollies, was from Manchester, this is a terrible song performed terribly. Jones sings the song consistently flat, and in a weird stage-school accent with strangely mangled vowels.

The lowest point is when Jones recites the lyrics of one verse, rather than singing them, letting you – yes you, teenage American girl in your bedroom – know that he will be true to you and only you.

Horrible.

Sweet Young Thing

Writers: Michael Nesmith, Gerry Goffin and Carole King

Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith

Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz (backing vocals), Peter Tork (guitar and backing vocals)

Producer: Michael Nesmith

A bizarre and rather brilliantly eccentric production, the distorted-guitar-and-country-fiddle combination here is eerily premonitory of the similar sound the Velvet Underground would get with John Cale’s viola a few years later. Almost exhausting to listen to, with the bass and drums pummeling the listener into submission, and Nesmith sounding audibly out of breath by the end of the track, this is another highlight from Nesmith.

This was apparently written at Don Kirshner’s insistence, Kirshner arguing that if Nesmith was going to insist on writing he should try to collaborate with more commercial songwriters. Nesmith apparently disliked the experience of collaborating with Goffin and King intensely, and the result is almost wilfully uncommercial.

Gonna Buy Me A Dog

Writers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

A terrible song made into a terrible “comedy” track, as an attempt to create a Ringo-style song for the album. Absolutely no redeeming features at all.

Strangely, Nesmith also produced a backing track for this song with his normal Wrecking Crew musicians (available as a bonus track on The Monkees) which has a slightly more bluesy feel.It still wouldn’t set the musical world alight, though.

Bonus Tracks

I Don’t Think You Know Me

Writers: Gerry Goffin and Carole King

Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith/Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: none

Producer: Michael Nesmith

A song that the band tried recording on several occasions, this rather preachy Goffin/King song (“If you think my goals could be so trivial and small/I don’t think you know me at all”) has been released in three versions. The deluxe edition of The Monkees contains versions with Nesmith and Dolenz taking lead, singing over the same backing track, while More Of The Monkees has a version with Tork on lead as a bonus.

While it was never released at the time, this has become a staple of Monkees reunion tours, with Tork singing lead. It has some nice moments (the Nowhere Man-esque ‘la la la’ break) but has neither the power of Nesmith’s songs nor the catchiness of the better Boyce/Hart tracks.

So Goes Love

Writers: Gerry Goffin and Carole King

Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones

Other Monkees present: Peter Tork (guitar)

Producer: Michael Nesmith

A vaguely Latin-infused track with a lovely, jazzy arrangement, this has been released in two versions (on Missing Links and on The Monkees deluxe edition) which sound like the same performance but run at different speeds/keys. The faster version (on Missing Links) is definitely preferable.

Jones does a very creditable job on the verses, where he’s comfortably within his range, but on the middle eight he’s audibly straining at points.

(I Prithee) Do Not Ask For Love

Writer: Michael Murphey

Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones

Other Monkees present: Peter Tork (guitar)

Producer: Michael Nesmith

Another song that was attempted by the band multiple times, this was recorded with Davy on lead over a harpsichord-based backing track (the version on The Monkees Deluxe edition), with Micky on lead over the same backing track (available as a bonus track on More Of The Monkees), with Peter over slow, heavily-reverbed electric guitar (on The Birds, The Bees And The Monkees deluxe edition) and finally with Peter over a sitar-based track (on the 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee TV special).

My own favourite version is the reverbed version with Tork on vocals, but every version of this pseudo-Elizabethean ballad by Nesmith’s friend Michael Martin Murphy is simply stunning.

Kellogg’s Jingle

Writers: Unknown (Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart ?)

Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz

Other Monkees present: None

Producers: Unknown (Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart ?)

A tiny snippet, presumably a Boyce and Hart production, used to introduce the TV show. Apparently Kellogg’s cereals are “K-E-double-L-O-double-good Kellogg’s best for you!”

So now you know.

All The King’s Horses

Writer: Michael Nesmith

Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith

Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Davy Jones (backing vocals)

Producer: Michael Nesmith

An early Nesmith song, originally recorded with his imaginatively-named trio Mike, John & Bill, this shows little sign of his later songwriting talent, but is still catchy enough that it’s surprising it was not placed on the album, especially since it’s apparently the only track on the entire CD to feature all four Monkees (though Jones is inaudible).

Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun To Care)

Writer: Michael Nesmith

Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith

Other Monkees present: None

Producer: Michael Nesmith

And here we have Nesmith’s first ever songwriting masterpiece. A gentle, beautiful country song, with the chorus line “I’ve known you for a long time but I’ve just begun to care”, Nesmith would record this three times. The version here is a demo, with John London (Nesmith’s former bandmate in Mike, John & Bill and his stand-in for the TV show) on bass and Nesmith on guitar.

Nesmith would re-record this with a full band in 1969 (that version is on Missing Links vol 3) and then again with the First National Band on his third solo album, Nevada Fighter. All these versions are wonderful, but this early version is possibly the best. The line “I’ve seen you make a look of love from just an icy stare” is still possibly the best line in any Monkees song.

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