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

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

  1. TAD says:

    I dig the Nesmith/Dolenz harmony blend too. Definitely an under-utilized aspect of their sound. The best example is probably “Auntie’s Municipal Court.”

    I’m impressed that you didn’t slag off Davy at all in this review! I’ve always loved his “Ta ta ta” part in Pleasant Valley Sunday. Not that it’s genius or anything, but it’s provides a great release.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I do *try* to be fair to Davy, you know. I actually think from interviews etc that he’s a really decent person. Just quite clearly the least talented vocalist in the band by a long way – but here (and to a lesser extent on Headquarters) he’s got material he can work with.

      • TAD says:

        Perhaps Mike Nesmith had a big say in choosing the material for him to sing on this album. “Cuddly Toy” is a perfect song for him, and it’s just naughty enough to keep it from being nauseating. It’s a daring song choice actually, for a guy (Davy) who was previously singing only love songs to teenage girls.

  2. Pingback: Spotify Monkees Playlists « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

  3. Rick Holland says:

    Interesting that Davy added the “sob sob” refrain in later live versions.

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