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The Beatles: All These Years vol 1 — Tune In

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on January 1, 2014

Mark Lewisohn’s latest book on the Beatles is almost impossible to review sensibly. Possibly the simplest review is simply to describe it. It’s volume one of a projected three-volume biography of the Beatles. My copy runs to 803 pages of fairly small type, plus a further 129 pages of endnotes, index, etc.
And it ends on January 1, 1963, at the point where they only had one single out.

And what I have is the “standard edition”. There is an extended edition available which contains “hundreds of thousands of words” of extra material.

Knowing that, along with the fact that Mark Lewisohn is a scrupulously accurate researcher (I only found one error in the whole book — a persistent misspelling of The Tremeloes as The Tremiloes), will tell you if this is the kind of book you want. If you’re absolutely fascinated by the Beatles and want an utterly definitive biography, this is the book for you (although even someone as interested in them as myself can find it occasionally a little creepy to know quite that much about a stranger’s life). If you’re only mildly interested, then you can probably do without it.

I say “probably”, rather than definitely, because the book has some material that will interest even the more casual fan. In particular, Lewisohn finally provides a decent explanation for how the Beatles got signed to Parlophone after being turned down, one which also explains why they had multiple sessions in 1962 and why How Do You Do It? was never released:

It turns out that George Martin never actually wanted to sign the Beatles at all — Parlophone turned them down originally, and Martin disliked their demo tape. But then Ardmore & Beechwood, EMI’s publishing department, wanted to sign Lennon and McCartney as songwriters on the strength of Like Dreamers Do, which they wanted to publish.

Having been told that Brian Epstein wasn’t interested in just getting them a publishing contract, but that he wanted the band to have a record contract, Ardmore & Beechwood were so convinced of the potential of the couple of Lennon/McCartney songs on the demo that they actually offered to pay the costs of a single if EMI would put it out — that way they would get the rights to the songs, which they could then get recorded by a more successful performer.

No-one at EMI wanted the Beatles, and George Martin was made to take them as punishment, because his boss didn’t approve of Martin having an affair with his secretary while he was still married. Martin was unimpressed with the results of their first session (with Pete Best), and thought their original songs were terrible, so insisted they go away and learn How Do You Do It?

The second session, with Ringo, saw them record How Do You Do It? and Love Me Do, because Martin knew they had to record at least one Lennon/McCartney song for Ardmore & Beechwood. But Ardmore & Beechwood wouldn’t agree to having Love Me Do be only the B-side, and the publishers of How Do You Do It? wouldn’t let *that* be the B-side either, so Martin was forced to scrap that track — not because the Beatles didn’t like it, as people have assumed, but because the people who were actually paying for the session wouldn’t tolerate the idea.

This is why there was a third session, with Andy White on drums — who was brought in because while Ringo had played fine on Love Me Do and How Do You Do It? he had horribly cocked up an early attempt at Please Please Me and Martin didn’t trust the band’s judgement of drummers after Pete Best had been so terrible.

Ardmore & Beechwood then promoted the single, even though Parlophone didn’t do much with it, and only after it became a hit did George Martin start to take a real interest in the band — and the first thing he did was persuade them to stop being published by Ardmore & Beechwood (whose boss he didn’t get on with) and instead to go with his old mate Dick James…

There are fascinating things like that, things that quietly make sense of a whole lot of confusing information, throughout this book. Happily, despite Lewisohn relying on the Beatles for his career, he doesn’t pull any punches in his descriptions of their behaviours. Lennon comes across as a callous, severely troubled, but basically decent person, McCartney as almost inhumanly cold, Harrison as a decent person but one more concerned with music than people, Starr as a genuinely good man with no real faults at all, Brian Epstein as a flighty, overindulged, but basically decent person, and George Martin (surprisingly) as a Machiavellian, backbiting, nasty piece of work.

One also still feels sorry for Pete Best — not so much for his sacking (as is made abundantly clear in this book, he simply couldn’t play the drums, and if this book does nothing else it will hopefully clear up the myths around that forever), but for the way the other Beatles used him for two years while never liking him either as a person or a musician, and while planning all along to drop him at the first opportunity. While Lewisohn clearly takes their side, it comes across as a massively nasty thing to do.

The book is ridiculously detailed — it starts in 1845 with the earliest known ancestors of the Beatles, and contains far more information than even the most ardent fan will necessarily want to know. I could have lived perfectly happily, for example, without knowing that Ringo lost his virginity on the same day that Paul first heard Hound Dog and that both had been to the same fairground earlier that day. The level of detail is such that when Ringo forms his own group aged 18, but they split after two rehearsals (“We had a clarinet player who could only play in B-flat, a pianist who could only play in C, a guitarist who was quite good, a tea-chest bass, and a trumpeter who could only play When The Saints Go Marching In“), we learn the names of the guitarist, clarinet player and trumpeter in question.

There are some flaws to the book — in particular, Lewisohn keeps using bits of period Liverpool slang in otherwise fairly formal writing, and it jars. Even worse is his occasional habit of thinking it really, really amusing to use pseudo-phonetic spellings of words like “laugh” or “fucking”, which are pronounced differently in Liverpool to what Lewisohn (a Londoner) clearly thinks is the “proper” way, and so become “laff” and “fooking”. It’s nasty London-centric bigotry, and really beneath him.

A more excusable flaw is in the way the book treats Ringo. Quite rightly, he has the same space devoted to him as any of the others, but for much of the book John, Paul, and George are spending almost all their time together, and have complicated, changing, relationships with each other that can be explored, while Ringo’s life essentially doesn’t intersect with theirs until near the conclusion of the book. This makes Ringo’s life seem like a series of irrelevant asides to the main action, although it is hard to see how Lewisohn could have dealt with this more effectively.

It’s not a perfect book, then, but for anyone who wants a true understanding of where the Beatles came from, the cultural context in which they live, and the personal relationships which allowed them to rise to success, it’s pretty close to essential. I can’t imagine there ever being a better narrative biography of the band, and I’m already looking forward to volume 2 and seriously considering that extended edition…

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New Copyright Extension Releases

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on December 14, 2013

For those who don’t know, as well as the Beatles Live At The BBC Vol 2 set (already on my Xmas list), Universal are releasing two digital-only albums of previously unreleased music — one by the Beatles and one by the Beach Boys (plus various Brian Wilson productions and associates) — next week, to take advantage of the use-it-or-lose-it copyright extension rules that were added to EU copyright law last year.

Now, leaving aside the morality of the new laws (which I find disgusting — I am a strong supporter of copyright laws, but *only* when those laws allow things to revert to the public domain after a reasonable time. Copyright was created to allow artists to earn a living, not to create a perpetual aristocratic rentier class living off the creations of past generations) this poses a problem for me.

The Beach Boys release is fine — it’ll be available from Amazon as DRM-free MP3s (though with identifying metadata). But the Beatles release is, like all the Beatles’ digital releases, iTunes-only. And Apple not only do not have an iTunes client for GNU/Linux, they have repeatedly blocked any attempt by other developers to provide such a client. In other words, they actively refuse to sell me this album.

I’m still debating what to do about this. I could get a Windows-using friend to buy a copy of the album, dropbox it to me, and give them the money… but given that they are actually refusing to sell me the album *and* that I don’t approve of the copyright extension itself *and* that by giving money to iTunes I would be propping up a monopoly, should I?

There’s an extra moral problem, though, in that I may have much of this music already on bootlegs, and the only way I can morally justify owning bootlegs to myself is that I do, always, buy the music again should it become legally available.

“Neil Innes And Friends”

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on August 26, 2013

Today was the fourth time I’ve seen Neil Innes live, and you never know what to expect. He’s one of the true greats of both comedy and music, but precisely because of that he’s hard to fit into a neat category.

The first time I saw him was in a smallish theatre, with a two-man backing band playing songs from throughout his career and telling stories in between them. The second time was for the Bonzo Dog Band reunion, where there were about twenty people on stage including all the surviving Bonzos, Phill Jupitus, Adrian Edmondson, and the bloke who plays Paul McCartney in the Bootleg Beatles. And then last year I saw him play in a small pub in Chester to an audience of no more than fifty people, solo, playing mostly stuff from his recent Works In Progress and Recollections CDs.

But this show was unpredictable in more ways than normal. I’d seen it advertised as at three different venues, on two different days, and as “The Rutles”, “Neil Innes with Legs Larry Smith” and “Neil Innes and Friends”, with various people mentioned as being involved.

The reason for the confusion was mostly because this wasn’t really a show aimed at the general public, but at Beatles fans.

I’ve never really understood Beatles fandom. That’s not to say I don’t understand loving the Beatles — I have multiple copies of all their albums, tons of bootlegs, almost all their solo work, and twenty or so books on them (I even wrote one myself…). But… fandom as I understand it is as much about group membership, making friends and so on as anything else. And liking the Beatles, even liking the Beatles a lot, doesn’t seem to me to really be enough of a shared interest.

“I like the most popular band in the whole history of music!”
“Really, me too! So do these billion other people!”

I don’t know, it just seems a bit like being a fan of chocolate or sex or something — things that definitely make the world a much better place, but which are so ubiquitously loved that they don’t really count as a shared interest. (This should not be taken as IN ANY WAY being a knock on Beatles fandom though — it’s a group of people including many of my friends, and which has bonded around a shared love of my favourite band. I’m not going to knock that, ever.)

But anyway, Beatles fans-qua-fans do indeed exist, and Liverpool in the last week of August is the home to thousands of them, who come for Beatleweek, a week-long holiday where they get taken round all the Beatles-related tourist sites, see more Beatles tribute bands than one could have reasonably imagined existed (including The Bertils, The Beatelles, Let It Beatles, and Classic Stone, who just don’t seem to be trying), and also see performances by people connected in some way with the band. This year’s special guests included Joey Molland of Badfinger, Joe Brown (a minor British 50s rock star who was a close friend of George Harrison), Mark Hudson (of the Hudson Brothers, and Ringo Starr’s musical director for his solo tours for twenty years)… and this show.

It turned out that we weren’t going to get “Legs” Larry Smith, as advertised, but what we did get was more than enough.

The show openers were John Gorman and Mike “McGear” McCartney, two thirds of the Scaffold (Roger McGough is now a well-known poet and doesn’t perform very often). The two have worked with Innes many times over the years — they were the G and M in Innes’ post-Bonzos band GRIMMS — but they’re also locals, and most importantly to this crowd Mike McCartney has a rather well-known brother.

They opened with an a capella performance of Long Strong Black Pudding, their classic B-side, with the lyric changed to “A long strong black pudding up David Cameron”, which got a huge amount of applause from the front, which seemed to be mostly people who knew what they were getting themselves into, and utter bemusement from the bulk of the crowd.

The two Scaffold members, incidentally, were backed by a band calling themselves The Spiritualists (or something like that), but which contained Roddy and Rhino from The Muffin Men, the world’s best Frank Zappa tribute band, also from Liverpool.

After Long Strong Black Pudding, we got two of John Gorman’s songs from Tiswas, originally released as by “The Four Bucketeers” (described by Wikipedia as “an ad-hoc music/water-throwing group”) — Bucket Of Water Song (actually a top thirty hit), which involved Gorman throwing buckets of water onto the audience, and Raspberry Rock, an audience participation number which involved the audience blowing raspberries.

As you’d expect from someone with such a long pedigree in comedy, Gorman is an achingly funny performer, but Mike McCartney (who now looks like a camp cross between his brother, Alan Bennett, and Laurence Payne) is an equally good straight man. Most of their comedy routines were fairly standard stuff — reading out two diary entries, alternating phrase by phrase, so that innocuous phrases became doubles entendres, singing “Ten bottles of whisky hanging on the wall” and drinking each bottle as it falls, becoming progressively more drunk, the sort of thing one gets on a sub-standard episode of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue — but the performances were exquisite, master-classes in comedy and timing.

The people at the back were leaving in droves, saying “what is this shit?” (and to be fair, a bunch of American and Japanese tourists who are mostly interested in Beatles tribute bands would probably not be the audience Gorman and McCartney would have chosen either), but anyone who had some idea of what they were in for — which was the few hundred people at the front — was loving every second. It was a lovely, lovely performance.

We got all the hits — 2 Days Monday, Thank U Very Much, Liverpool Lou and Lily the Pink, and the crowd sang along with all of them. At the end, my sister, who’d come along with me but didn’t know anything about the Scaffold, said “Paul McCartney’s brother’s far better than Paul, isn’t he?”

She wasn’t far wrong.

As soon as they finished, half the remaining audience (who were presumably just there for the novelty factor of seeing a Beatle Brother) left, leaving a hard core of a couple of hundred people.

After a short interval, The Rutles came out, or at least two of them (the last couple of months seem to be “seeing two members of a band time” for me, what with seeing Two Beach Boys last month, and now seeing Two Of The Scaffold, Two Muffin Men and Two Rutles all in the same day).

This version of the band had Neil “Ron Nasty” Innes and John “Barry Wom” Halsey, along with a three-piece backing band whose names I didn’t catch (although I know the keyboard player also did some work with the Bonzos on their reunion album). As for the rest of the Rutles, Ricky Fataar is currently busy touring as Bonnie Raitt’s drummer, and Eric Idle never really performed on the music (and apparently has also badly fallen out with Innes as well). Ollie Halsall, who sang the “Dirk McQuickly” parts that Idle mimed to, sadly died around twenty years ago.

From the moment they came out and opened with Number One everyone was singing along with stupid grins on their faces. It’s not until you hear these songs live, with an audience that knows them and sings along, that you really realise how well they work as songs, divorced from any satirical context. They’re just bloody good songs, some of them very funny, which happen to sound quite a lot like some other, also good songs.

As my sister, who again wasn’t at all familiar with the Rutles songs (though she loves the Bonzos) said — “they’re so catchy you can sing along with them after the first verse even if you’ve never heard them before”.

Pretty much everything in the twenty-one-song set was a highlight, from hearing the crowd all singing along to “shoot me down in flames if I should tell a lie, cross my heart I promise that it’s true, I’ve been in love so many times before, but never with a girl like you” — there’s nothing quite like being in a crowd of people all singing along to a favourite song that almost no-one knows — to the reaction to the backing vocal argument in Rendezvous (most of the audience seemed less familiar with Archaeology, and so had a fresher reaction to it).

There were only two flaws with the show, neither enough to spoil it, and neither the fault of the musicians. The first was the amount of dry ice flooding onto the stage, which by about forty minutes in was having a clear effect on Innes’ voice (he said at one point “I’m what musicians call pony — a little hoarse”).

The other problem was that, as so often with what is nominally a comedy show (though this was the most music-focussed of the shows I’ve seen Innes do by far), a few idiots in the audience thought the show was about them, and shouted ‘hilarious’ responses to things he said — usually treading on a prepared punchline. Innes tolerated this with good grace, but it was easy to see his patience wearing a little thin when three of them started singing Raggy Dolls (the theme from a children’s cartoon that Innes did in the 1980s) while he was talking.

But these were minor flaws in what was an astonishingly good performance. Oddly, though, the best point came when Innes got out a ukulele and started playing All Things Must Pass, the only non-Rutle song of the evening. It was a lovely, touching arrangement, and brought out far more beauty in the song than the rather heavy-handed rock arrangement on George Harrison’s original.

The setlist concentrated on the first Rutles album, but with a smattering of tracks from Archaeology. I can’t reproduce it exactly, but it was something like:
Number One
It’s Looking Good
With A Girl Like You
Major Happy’s Up And Coming Once Upon A Good Time Band
Hold My Hand
Doubleback Alley
Good Times Roll
Cheese And Onions
Living In Hope
Love Life
Joe Public
Easy Listening
Eine Kleine Middle Klasse Musik
Piggy In The Middle
All Things Must Pass
Get Up And Go
Back In 64

The songs are all right, and the first few and last few are in the right order, but the middle is possibly mixed up quite a bit.

For those who don’t know Innes’ work, he has a *lot* of music available for free download here. Go and listen to it — and then go and buy the stuff you have to pay for, and go to his shows. He’s one of the true greats, and deserves a much wider audience than he has.

Paul McCartney, MEN Arena 19/12/11

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on December 20, 2011

I sometimes think Paul McCartney can’t win. One of the big complaints I’d read from reviewers after the previous shows on this tour was “He’s doing too many hits. Why doesn’t he do some more obscure stuff? It’s just the obvious set.”

And yes, of the thirty-six songs in the set, twenty-five are the absolutely obvious choices that everyone would expect. But then, if you were Paul McCartney, you’d put Can’t Buy Me Love, Michelle, Penny Lane, My Love, Mull Of Kintyre, We Can Work It Out, Silly Love Songs, Coming Up, Let ‘Em In, Another Day, Drive My Car, Here, There And Everywhere, Love Me Do, Things We Said Today, I’m Down, I’ve Just Seen a Face, I Saw Her Standing There and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the set, wouldn’t you?

And that’s the problem, of course. Paul McCartney is the most commercially successful songwriter in the history of the world, and has as good a claim as any to be the most artistically successful. So much so that he didn’t have space to fit *any* of those songs in last night. Nor did he do Mary Had A Little Lamb, Hi Hi Hi, Listen To What The Man Said, With A Little Luck, Goodnight Tonight, Waterfalls, Ebony And Ivory, The Girl Is Mine, Say Say Say, Pipes Of Peace, No More Lonely Nights, We All Stand Together or Once Upon A Long Ago, all of which went top ten. Yet he’s *still* apparently doing too many of his hits!

What he did do was a perfect mix of songs – weighted, yes, towards the Beatles years (and frankly I’d have loved him to have dropped at least three of those songs for solo songs, as he did Ob-la-Di, Ob-la-Da, Let It Be and The Long And Winding Road, none of which I have any time for) but with a good mix of solo material – both hits like Jet and Band On The Run and more obscure tracks like Mrs Vanderbilt and Ram On. He even did Sing The Changes, from the third Fireman album. And while there’s no such thing as an obscure Beatles song, choices like The Night Before or The Word are as close as it gets, and it was wonderful to hear them live.

McCartney is a stunning live performer – I can hardly even believe he’s human, frankly. His voice is *very* slightly gone at the very top end, but the set was chosen well enough that this was not noticeable, and in the mid and low ranges he sounds a good forty years younger than he is, and he can still scream with the best of them. He also got through the whole two-and-a-half hour show without as much as a sip of water, which given the amount of dry ice and the vocal gymnastics he was having to do is nothing short of miraculous. This is, remember, someone who was at school with my grandfather, yet there’s no way I could perform even half this show without taking a break.

The only thing that showed McCartney’s age at all was that he’s taking less strenuous instrumental parts these days, playing rhythm guitar or second keyboard for the most part. While he plays bass on a few songs, he leaves the complex stuff like Paperback Writer to his guitarists, and his few lead guitar spots are mediocre. But if he can no longer play complex counterpoints to his lead vocals the way he could when he was twenty-three, the fact that he can still sing those vocals at all is more than enough for me.

It was one of those shows that are all highlights from start to finish – whether the expected sort,like the mass crowd singalong to Hey Jude or the fireworks in Live And Let Die, or the unexpected, like Sing The Changes, a rather arty track on record, turning out to be a wonderful chantalong arena-rock song in a live setting (sounding spookily like a cousin of Stay Positive by The Hold Steady actually). Even Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da wasn’t too horrible, thanks to some ska keyboards from Wix Wickens. But a few of the standout moments:

Dance Tonight, with drummer Abe Laborio Jr dancing with his hands. When McCartney put on his mandolin, someone in the audience shouted “Petrushka!” which McCartney misheard as “Red Rooster”. (Oddly, this didn’t look like a scripted bit).

Ram On – just beautiful, one of those lovely little fragments that McCartney does so well.

Junior’s Farm – a brave choice for second song, and it worked very well.

A Day In The Life – the orchestral build works surprisingly well as a garage-psych rock section, though it was truncated to only 16 bars. Wonderful to hear the man who co-wrote this perform it live. Instead of the last verse and orchestral build, they went from the end of the “woke up” section into Give Peace A Chance.

Something – not performed solo like on the Back In The World tour, but instead done as he did it at the tribute to George, starting as a solo ukulele performance, but the full band coming in for the solo and finishing the song in the same style as the record.

But there were two moments that for me made the gig, and rose above the slick professionalism of the show to something approaching great art. The first was Here Today, performed solo on acoustic guitar. I’ve always loved this song, McCartney’s 1981 tribute to John Lennon, because even though the latter half is too generic by far, the first verse is as good a tribute to the loss of a particular kind of friend as I could imagine (“And if I said I really knew you well, what would your answer be/if you were here today?/Well knowing you, you’d probably laugh and say that we were worlds apart…”). I don’t mind saying I cried.

The other real highlight was Come And Get It, the song McCartney wrote for Badfinger in the late 60s. With McCartney banging away at the piano, for a moment he seemed to transform into the man he was when he wrote the song – a cocksure lad in his mid-twenties, able to turn out classic pop songs without even thinking about it, discovering the song as it came out of his fingers and mouth, and grinning a stupid grin at his own cleverness.

I really can’t recommend McCartney’s show highly enough. While I’ve seen better gigs, and certainly cheaper ones, he really is astonishingly good, and given that he’s nearly 70 and has had heart trouble in the past, I can’t imagine he’ll tour too many more times, so go and see him while you can.

If nothing else, when else are you going to get a chance to see the late lamented Liberal MP Clement Freud projected on a screen the size of several houses? (During Band On The Run they show footage from the album cover shooting, featuring Freud, Michael Parkinson, Christopher Lee and others).

There are only two complaints I could make about the show. The first, which McCartney couldn’t really do anything about, is the Everton supporter who was sat next to me. He confirmed my opinion of footballists (which some would call a low opinion – I prefer the term ‘accurate’) by deciding that what delicate, thoughtful ballads like Eleanor Rigby really need is a drunk moron bellowing along to them with no attempt to either keep his voice down or have any idea of the tune or the words. He even managed to sing the wrong words to the ‘na na na nanana na’ section of Hey Jude, which is impressive. Luckily, he also didn’t seem to know anything that wasn’t on the Beatles’ red and blue albums.

What McCartney *could* do though is augment his band. Wix Wickens is a fine keyboard player, but when you’re playing to 21,000-seater arenas, with audiences paying up to a hundred and fifty quid a ticket (not mine, I was in the nosebleed seats), there is no possible excuse for not having real strings and horns. If Brian Wilson or The Monkees can do it playing theatre venues with lower ticket prices, there’s no reason to skimp on the musical side of things. Leave Wix to play the piano and organ parts, but get some real cello and violin players for Eleanor Rigby, and real horns for Got To Get You Into My Life. Those songs deserve better than tinny synth patches.

Magical Mystery Tour
Junior’s Farm
All My Loving
Got To Get You Into My Life
Sing The Changes
The Night Before
Let Me Roll It/Foxy Lady
Paperback Writer
The Long And Winding Road
Come And Get It
Nineteen Hundred And Eight-Five
Maybe I’m Amazed
I’m Looking Through You
And I Love Her
Here Today
Dance Tonight
Mrs. Vanderbilt
Eleanor Rigby
Ram On
Band On The Run
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Back In The USSR
I’ve Got A Feeling
A Day In The Life/Give Peace A Chance
Let It Be
Live And Let Die
Hey Jude

First Encore
The Word / All You Need Is Love
Wonderful Christmastime
Day Tripper
Get Back

Second Encore
Helter Skelter
Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End

Monkee Music 4(5th Anniversary!) – Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on September 12, 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).

Today is the 45th anniversary of the debut of the Monkees’ TV show, so I saved this piece on their masterpiece, which I was originally going to post on Saturday, til today. Which is quite handy, as I’ve been off ill with a migraine today and wouldn’t have been able to write a proper post.

Also, I’ve got a mock-up of the cover to the book of these I’m doing. Let me know what you think:

Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd.

The second and last of the albums where the Monkees provided the bulk of the instrumentation is their absolute masterpiece. While Dolenz was no longer playing much on the records, the band were still working as a unit in the studio, albeit an augmented one, and all four members were contributing creatively.

The result is one of the great mid-60s albums, that easily stands up with Revolver, Absolutely Free, Forever Changes, Smiley Smile and so on as a serious piece of work. The fact that this was recorded by a band who were being dismissed as pre-teen pabulum (and who were having to work on a TV show full time at the same time) is nothing short of extraordinary.

If you want a sense of what was possible in popular music as 1967 drew to a close, you could do far, far worse than Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd, where influences as diverse as Frank Zappa, the Beatles, bluegrass, Mose Allison and Robert A Heinlein collide, and the result is something unlike anything else in popular music.

All tracks produced by Chip Douglas.

Writer: Craig Smith
Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith
Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz & Davy Jones (percussion and backing vocals), Peter Tork (possible guitar).

One can see from the very first song on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd that this is something very different from the earlier Monkees albums. For the first time ever, Nesmith is taking a lead vocal on a song he didn’t write. In fact, Nesmith dominates this album vocally, after previously having taken no more than three leads per album, here he takes five, of which he only wrote one.

This song was written by Nesmith’s friend Craig Smith, of the psych-pop band The Penny Arkade. Smith later changed his name to Satya Sai Maitreya Kali and recorded his own version of this with Mike Love of the Beach Boys singing lead.

The recording is loosely modelled on She’s About A Mover by The Sir Douglas Quintet (which was itself based on She’s A Woman by the Beatles), which Nesmith liked for its “Tex-Mex oompah”, and like both those earlier records is driven by a prominent bass-line with stabbing guitars on the off-beat.

This song caused some controversy for the drug references (more blatant in the extended mix, which features a monologue by Nesmith about different cigarette-rolling machines), with NBC not wishing to feature it on the TV show. Actually, the song is at least moderately anti-drug, or at least anti-dealer, with its portrayal of a salesman selling ‘every pot’ and ‘sailing so high’ but who has a ‘short life span’.

On many of the band’s other albums, this would have been a highlight, but on an album where nearly every song is a minor masterpiece, this is ‘just’ an album track.

While the Monkees were no longer playing together as a band in-studio, this album does feature a band of sorts, with Nesmith on guitar, Tork on guitar and keyboards, Chip Douglas on bass and Eddie Hoh on drums on almost every track. In this case it’s unsure whether Tork played on the track, but this studio unit would feature on nine of the thirteen tracks on the album.

She Hangs Out
Writers: Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich
Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones
Other Monkees present: Michael Nesmith (electric guitar), Peter Tork (organ), Micky Dolenz (backing vocals)

Pisces, Aquarius almost alternates between two very different types of song. The first type is either sung or written by Nesmith, and is a country-psych-pop track with oblique lyrics. Salesman, the opening track, is an example of this type.

The other type features Jones on vocals and is at least mildly misogynist. This great pop track is an example of the second type. One could write an entire thesis on the attitude towards women displayed on Jones’ tracks on this album, which is all the more bizarre when one considers that they were all written by different outside songwriters, and two of them were co-written by women.

Either way, this is one of the less offensive of these tracks, and the catchiest, being based around a warning – “How old you say your sister was? You know you’d better keep an eye on her” – about a young girl ‘hanging out’ with an older crowd, but its lascivious attitude (“I know you taught your sister to boogaloo…well, she could teach you a thing or two”).

This had originally been released as a quickly-withdrawn B-side to A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You, in a version featuring only Jones and produced by Jeff Barry. This version, re-recorded with the Nesmith/Tork/Douglas/Hoh backing band, keeps the best bits of that arrangement (the answering vocals and ‘doo da ron day ron day’s) while expanding the organ part (which in Barry’s version had been very similar to those in I’m A Believer or his later hit Sugar Sugar), getting rid of the incongruous fuzz guitar and adding a horn section. The result is a great, and for the Monkees quite funky, dance record, with Jones’ sleazy, strained vocals working perfectly in this context.

The Door Into Summer
Writers: Chip Douglas and Bill Martin
Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith
Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz (backing vocals, additional drums), Peter Tork (keyboards)

One of only two songs on this album to feature Dolenz on drums (he plays one of the two drum parts audible on the record, with Hoh playing the other), this song by the band’s friend Bill Martin seems musically to have been inspired by some of Love’s music at the time – the acoustic guitar intro sounding very like many of the acoustic parts on the Forever Changes and Da Capo albums.

Lyrically, the inspiration is more obvious – the title of the song comes from the Robert A. Heinlein novel of the same name. In the first half of the book, before it descends into the usual late-Heinlein sexual creepiness (though for a change it’s paedophilia, not incest, that Heinlein advocates in this one), the protagonist makes a lot of money from sales of stock in a company he founded, before going into cryogenic suspension and waking up in the future.

Douglas and Martin seem to have taken elements of this basic idea and used them as a metaphor for a businessman giving up most of his life and constantly postponing doing what he wants to advance his career for no real reason.

Easily one of the best tracks the band ever did, everything on this track works well, from Dolenz and Nesmith’s harmonies on the chorus, to the interplay between the banjo (played by Doug Dillard) and Tork’s keyboard, to the wonderful pseudo-Indian melismatic wailing on the end (by Dolenz, possibly with Harry Nilsson adding some extra vocals) in imitation of the Beatles’ Rain.

Love is Only Sleeping
Writers: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill
Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith
Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz (backing vocals), Davy Jones (percussion, backing vocals), Peter Tork (keyboards)

Another Nesmith-sung psych-pop track, this one seems to be modelled on some of John Lennon’s songs on Revolver, with their odd time signatures (the verse for this is in 7/4) and driving guitar riffs. One of the slighter actual songs here, this becomes a worthwhile track thanks to the production tricks, and to one of Nesmith’s very best vocal performances.

Nesmith here really shows off his versatility, from the low, speak-sung, “once I loved but love was dead” to the near-falsetto ‘sleeping’ at the end of the middle eight, he sings in a number of different voices, each one chosen perfectly for the section of the song in question. Dolenz – rightly – gets a lot of acclaim for his actorly phrasing, but Nesmith is at least as sensitive a vocalist here.

Cuddly Toy

Writer: Harry Nilsson
Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones
Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz (drums and backing vocals), Peter Tork (piano), Michael Nesmith (guitar)

The last Monkees studio track to feature Dolenz on drums for nearly thirty years, this song was brought to them by their new ‘discovery’ Harry Nilsson.

Nilsson had been working as a bank clerk while submitting songs to various people for several years, writing songs like the Lovin’ Spoonful rip-off This Could Be The Night for Phil Spector. (That song was given to The Modern Folk Quartet , who had featured both Chip Douglas and sometime Monkees studio bass player Jerry Yester).

But at a time when the Monkees were drifting apart musically as a band, Nilsson’s astonishing talents were something they could all agree on, appealing as they did both to Nesmith’s desire to expand his musical palette (both Nesmith and Nilsson were equally influenced by both pre-rock popular music and by the Beatles’ contemporary work) and to Jones’ desire to make ‘Broadway rock’ his father’s generation could enjoy.

Not that Jones’ father’s generation would approve of the lyrics – or at least one would hope not. This song has been variously described as being about various sordid practices up to and including gang rape, but in fact seems pretty clearly to ‘only’ be someone callously dumping a girl after taking her virginity – “You’re not the only cherry delight that was left in the night and gave up without a fight”, “I never told you that I loved no other, you must have dreamed it in your sleep.”

Not quite as callous a performance as Nilsson’s own recording (which includes tossed-off ‘sob sob’ asides), this song still works because of the way the jaunty, upbeat, vaudeville style music, and Jones’ cheerful performance (doubled almost all the way through by Dolenz) contrast with the vicious psychopathy of the lyrics.

Very, very far from a pleasant song, but still a great one.

Writers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart
Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork
Other Monkees present: Michael Nesmith (guitar), Davy Jones (percussion)

One of the few occasions on which Tork actually plays bass on record, this track, which closes side one, was originally recorded during the More Of The Monkees sessions with Boyce and Hart producing and the Candy Store Prophets backing, before being remade during these sessions.

There are very few differences between the two performances – the original has some extra lead guitar, a small bit of backwards recording, and has a flute part rather than Tork’s hammond organ solo, but otherwise the two tracks are almost identical, even down to the chimes that can be heard faintly (going across the stereo spectrum in the stereo mix).

Starting with a verse that stays on one minor chord for the whole verse, Dolenz and Tork overlap vocal lines (Tork’s only vocal leads on a Boyce and Hart song), in a moody downbeat manner, before Dolenz becomes sole lead vocalist for the bridge (which by the time this came out would have sounded like it was based on Heroes & Villains by the Beach Boys, having the same bass riff as that song, but which was probably, like the Beach Boys’ track, inspired by the version of Save The Last Dance For Me that Phil Spector had recently produced for Tina Turner).

The chorus is one of Boyce & Hart’s garage-psych classics – a two-chord riff played for four bars, then repeated a tone up, with a bassline that’s playing a variation on a boogie line (going constantly up instead of up then down), and is just ridiculously exciting.

This became the B-side to Pleasant Valley Sunday and charted in its own right at number 11.

Hard to Believe
Writers: David Jones, Kim Capli, Eddie Brick and Charlie Rockett
Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones
Other Monkees present: none

Side two of the album opens with the song that marks the end of the Monkees as a recording group. The first song Jones ever co-wrote with anyone outside the band, this was written with two members of the band’s tour support band The Sundowners, plus Rockett, their roadie, while on tour.

A bossa nova-lite track that fits in with the ‘Broadway rock’ idea Jones had been discussing in interviews for a while, this is the only proper song on the album to feature no Monkee involvement other than the lead vocalist. Instead Kim Capli plays the whole rhythm track, building up from the (excellent) drum and percussion parts.

Actually quite a catchy song (and the heavy breathing in the tag sounds like it may have inspired the similar effect in Time Of The Season by The Zombies), this could easily have been a hit for Tom Jones or Dusty Springfield at the time. But a faultline was appearing in popular music by this point, with Vegas-style singers like those on one side, and rock music on the other, and Jones was trying firmly to ensconce himself on one side of that line, while his bandmates were all on the other.

Possibly because it was the only song to feature none of the rest of the band, this is the only song from the album never to be featured in the TV show. But it points the way to the future of the band – by their next album they would be working independently of each other more often than not, and solo tracks like this would become the norm.

What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?
Writers: “Travis Lewis and Boomer Clark” (Michael Martin Murphey and Owens Castleman)
Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith
Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones (backing vocals)

In its own way, this track also shows the way the band were falling apart as a recording unit. While the track features Nesmith on guitar, Douglas on bass and Hoh on drums, the standard rhythm section for this album, the banjo is supplied not by Tork (who had played the banjo on Headquarters) but by bluegrass legend Doug Dillard.

While it sounds like a fairly standard country song, this is far more harmonically sophisticated than was normal in country music at that time. Nesmith points out (in an interview quoted in Andrew Sandoval’s liner notes to the deluxe edition of this album) the I7-vi7 change in the bridge as a particularly ‘uncountry’ element, but the song plays with key ambiguity quite a bit, not being able to decide whether it’s in C or F (in a mirror of its protagonist’s own self-questioning), and going to a Db in the chorus (at the start of the line “I should be ridin’ on that train to San Anton’”) which belongs to neither key.

Nesmith provides one of his very best vocals here, going from the resigned “boy I sure missed mine” to the almost howled last chorus.

While this has precursors in some of Nesmith’s own earlier work, and on some tracks on the Beatles albums Beatles For Sale and Help!, this song was, at the time, probably the most successful ever example of country-rock, managing to combine the emotional sophistication and musicianship of the former genre with the energy of the latter without sacrificing either.

This song has become a recent highlight of the Monkees’ (Nesmith-less) reunion tours, where Tork takes the lead vocal. As has the next track…

Peter Percival Patterson’s Pet Pig Porky

Writer: Peter Tork
Lead Vocalist: Peter Tork
Other Monkees present: None

A tongue-twister credited to Tork as arranger, this twenty-seven second spoken word track is just a bit of fun, with Tork showing how much fun plosives can be when you don’t use a pop-shield.

Pleasant Valley Sunday
Writers: Gerry Goffin and Carole King
Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz
Other Monkees present: Peter Tork (piano), Michael Nesmith (guitar and backing vocals), Davy Jones (backing vocals and percussion)

If ever proof were needed that the Monkees were capable of producing great pop records without the involvement of Don Kirshner, this is it. With an instrumental track by Tork, Nesmith, Douglas and Hoh (with additional acoustic guitar by Bill Chadwick and possibly Dolenz), this shows that the band could, when left to their own devices, create spectacular pop singles.

Every band member gets to shine here – Dolenz of course takes the lead vocal, and does his usual superb job, Nesmith plays the Day Tripper-esque guitar riff (composed by Chip Douglas) and adds harmonies (and the Dolenz/Nesmith harmony blend, while underutilised, is one of the band’s most thrilling elements), Tork adds the piano part under the middle eight (which otherwise would have seemed woefully poor, having as it does only a single chord), and Jones gives the vocal performance of his life, on the nasal, sarcastic ‘ta ta ta ta’ section.

Given that the song itself is relatively weak, being just an example of the mid-60s tendency to cruelly mock people for daring to want a comfortable life (see for example every song George Harrison ever wrote), the power of the track must be attributed entirely to the performance, production and arrangement. And every element here is spot-on (as can be heard on the ‘karaoke’ version made available on a Japanese best-of CD, where every detail of the backing track can be heard).

It’s not the song itself that made this a hit, but Douglas’ riff and the understanding of dynamics. This track builds from a relatively sedate beginning towards an almost orgasmic peak, with the riff and Nesmith and Dolenz’s wailing being lost in a wall of reverb that it turn gets fed back on itself. The ending wouldn’t be out of place on a Led Zeppelin record, but because it’s been contextualised as part of a piece of simple pop music, no-one blinked an eye.

Quite rightly, this is a favourite of the band members – Peter Tork recorded a truly odd remake of it with his band The New Monks in 1980, for example – because of all their classic singles, it’s the only one which allowed them all to shine as a group.

Daily Nightly
Writer: Michael Nesmith
Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz
Other Monkees present: Peter Tork (keyboards), Michael Nesmith (guitar)

Oddly, for an album so dominated vocally by Nesmith, his first songwriting contribution to the album is one of the handful of Dolenz lead vocals.

This song, in fact, shows the new songwriting style Nesmith would be trying out for the next few albums. While it’s harmonically simple (only three chords), the lyrics, which began life as an impressionistic poem about the Sunset Strip riots, give up on standard ideas of sense in order to play with language:

Startled eyes that sometimes see phantasmagoric splendour
Pirouette down palsied paths with pennies for the vendor
Salvation’s yours for just the time it takes to pay the dancer.

Meanwhile Dolenz turns in the performance of his life, not just on vocal, but on Moog. Dolenz had only bought the Moog (one of a handful in existence at the time) the previous weekend, and this was its first use on a pop record. Dolenz here just twiddles knobs and makes interesting sounds, but in so doing he manages to do pretty much everything worthwhile that there is to do with a Moog.

The whole thing has a dense, brooding feel, and is in a sonic world completely different from anything else on the album. Tork’s Hammond organ and Douglas’ bass are very much of their time – the basic backing track could be by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger And The Trinity or Jefferson Airplane – but adding Dolenz’s vocals and the Moog’s siren-like wails makes this something very special.

Don’t Call On Me
Writers: Michael Nesmith and John London
Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith
Other Monkees present: Peter Tork (keyboards), Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones (intro chatter)

And from a pointer to Nesmith’s songwriting future, we look to his past, with this song he’d written four years earlier.

This lounge-flavoured song was originally written as an exercise in learning how to use major 7ths (which are what give it its lush feeling), and an acoustic demo exists of it from the early 60s in an almost McCartney-esque style, but it probably came back to its composer’s mind after hearing America Drinks And Goes Home by the Mothers Of Invention.

Frank Zappa, the Mothers’ leader, had become a big influence on the Monkees, especially Nesmith, and would appear in the second series of the TV show and make a cameo appearance in the band’s film Head, and America Drinks And Goes Home is both harmonically and lyrically similar to this song, though Zappa plays it entirely for laughs, while Nesmith takes the song perfectly straight (though like the Mothers’ record, the track opens and ends with fake-drunk audience chatter and lounge piano).

This is actually a lovely ballad, with Nesmith singing right at the top of his range, sounding utterly unlike his normal baritone, and would be a stand-out track were it not for the fact that nearly every track on this album is a stand-out track.

Star Collector
Writer: Gerry Goffin and Carole King
Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones
Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz (backing vocals), Peter Tork (keyboards), Michael Nesmith (guitar)

Well, we’ve not had any Jones misogyny for a little while, so why not close the album with it? This rather nasty Goffin/King song about groupies (last line of the chorus “how can I love her when I just don’t respect her?”) is catchy, but after some of the wonderful music we’ve had it’s a shallow, heartless song to end on, although it’s easy to see why it was chosen as the closer, having as it does an extended Moog jam to fade on which would be difficult to follow. (The Moog here is played by session player Paul Beaver, far less inventively than Dolenz’s performance on Daily Nightly).

On any other Monkees album this would be a decent slightly-below-average track with an interesting ending. Here it’s easily the least interesting track.

Bonus Tracks

Special Announcement
Writer: unknown
Lead Vocalist: Peter Tork
Other Monkees present: None

This is a little spoken-word joke, with Tork imitating the voice of Robert Keith Morrison, who introduced the reference tones for Ampex alignment tapes (used by sound engineers to calibrate equipment), introducing tones at various levels, the last of which is inaudible – but we hear a dog barking instead. This was originally intended as the opening track of the album.

It’s been suggested that this was a joke about the ‘silent’ track at the end of Sgt Pepper, which could only be heard by dogs, but a few weeks prior to this recording, the album Safe As Milk by Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band had been released. That album, which had been recorded in the same RCA studio as this album, and with Hank Cicalo (the Monkees’ regular engineer at this time) engineering, opened on side two with the track Kandy Korn, which starts with producer Richard Perry doing a near-identical Morrison imitation. For that reason, The Captain Beefheart Radar Station [FOOTNOTE ] (from which I got some of the details here) calls this track ‘the first ever Beefheart cover version’.

Goin’ Down
Writers: Diane Hildebrand, Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and David Jones
Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz
Other Monkees present: Davy Jones (percussion), Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith (guitar)

This track developed from a jam on the Mose Allison classic Parchman Farm (which it resembles closely enough that it’s amazing Allison didn’t sue – it still has almost an identical melody). Nesmith liked the results, but didn’t see why the band should pay Allison royalties when they could just put a new vocal line on top, and so Diane Hildebrand (co-writer of Early Morning Blues And Greens and Your Auntie Grizelda) was asked to write a new lyric.

The result is stunning – Hildebrand’s lyrics turns this into a patter song or talking blues, with lyrics and internal rhymes tumbling out of Dolenz’s mouth in a flow that would shame most modern rappers. The lyrics themselves are hilarious – the thoughts of someone drunkenly attempting suicide by drowning in the Mississippi, regretting it, and eventually deciding to go with the flow, quite literally. Between Dolenz’s frenetic performance and the squealing saxophone, this is as exciting a record as it gets, and was released as the B-side of Daydream Believer.

Riu Chiu
Writer: traditional
Lead Vocalist: all four Monkees

And we finish with a stunning piece of vocal harmony, with the four Monkees singing a traditional Spanish Christmas carol.

I’ve got friends who believe that because Boyce and Hart provided the backing vocals on many of the early hits, that the Monkees themselves couldn’t sing in harmony. This track should prove them wrong – an a capella performance of a complicated arrangement that’s every bit as good as any of the harmony work pulled off by the Beach Boys, the Zombies or the Beatles.

In fact, there’s an even better version of this song on the Missing Links vol 2 CD – the version on here is taken from a TV performance, while the Missing Links vol 2 version is a full studio recording, properly EQd with reverb added. That version also features Chip Douglas, rather than Jones, taking the fourth harmony part. Both versions are absolutely lovely, though.


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