California Dreaming: Pleasant Valley Sunday

With Headquarters, the Monkees had become a real band at last. Every guitar, keyboard, drum, or percussion part on the album, and all the vocals, was performed by one of the Monkees, with only bass, strings, and horns performed by session musicians. And even in the case of the bass parts, they’d been handled by people close to the band — either producer Chip Douglas, Douglas’ old Modern Folk Quartet bandmate Jerry Yester, or John London, who had been in Michal Nesmith’s pre-Monkees band Mike, John, and Bill.

However, working as a full band in the studio quickly became untenable. While Micky Dolenz was an imaginative drummer, he often took many takes to get a complete performance, and Davy Jones, who had been less keen than the others on the whole “real band” idea from the start, resented having to spend ten or twenty takes hitting a tambourine or playing maracas, just to make sure all four band members played on the track. Not only that, but the band’s time was limited. They were recording their second twenty-two-episode TV series and regularly touring, and simply didn’t have the time and energy for extended recording sessions.

But at the same time, the band didn’t want to lose control of their own material, and Tork in particular wanted the band to remain a band, rather than a group of solo performers.

So early in the recording for Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd, the follow-up to Headquarters, a compromise was reached, in which there would effectively be a “studio Monkees” consisting of the two best instrumentalists in the band — Nesmith on guitar and Tork on keyboards — augmented by Douglas on bass and session drummer “Fast” Eddie Hoh. Jones would add percussion to those tracks that really required it, and Dolenz could add acoustic rhythm guitar or Moog where appropriate. The result allowed the Monkees themselves to retain control in the studio, and to provide the core of the instrumentation on their own records, while still being able to work quickly and produce tight, commercial, recordings.

Nowhere is this more evident than on Pleasant Valley Sunday, a track which all the surviving Monkees refer to as a favourite. This is unsurprising, as of all the Monkees’ big hits, it’s the one that allows every member of the band to have his moment in the spotlight.

The song was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and is a fairly typical piece of mid-60s Baby Boomer sneering at suburbia and materialism, mocking “Mr Green, he’s so serene, he’s got a TV in every room”, and singing about how “creature comfort goals, they only numb my soul”. While King’s melody is, as always for her, superb, Goffin’s lyric seems, frankly, a little mean-spirited with several decades’ hindsight, and listening to King’s demo one can hear something that might have become a pleasant album track in the manner of Early Morning Blues And Greens from Headquarters rather than an absolutely massive hit.

That the track is a success is down to Chip Douglas’ arrangement. While previously the Monkees had followed King’s demos precisely, replicating the backing track and copying her vocal harmonies, this time everything except the basic song was scrapped, and Douglas came up with a new arrangement using the same sense of dynamics that had made Happy Together such a success.

The track starts with a guitar riff, composed by Douglas but played by Nesmith, in the manner of the harder pop-rock records that had been coming out over the previous couple of years — it’s reminiscent of the Beatles, but the Beatles of Day Tripper, Taxman, and, especially, I Want To Tell You. Dolenz comes in with one of his most successful vocal performances, and then in a masterstroke thought up by Tork, Nesmith starts doubling the vocal — while he occasionally sings harmony parts, for a large proportion of the song, Nesmith is singing in unison with Dolenz, and the band’s two strongest vocalists’ voices are blended into one “Monkee” voice.

Tork also gets his own moment to shine, in the middle eight, where his hammered, staccato, piano part manages to enliven what would otherwise be a very musically uninteresting section, and Jones gets a solo spot in the break after the middle eight, where he gets to sing-sneer a wordless verse of “ta ta-ta ta”s, in what may be his finest ever moment as a vocalist.

And then there’s that ending, when Chip Douglas and engineer Hank Cicalo push the faders up well past the point where the track becomes a mass of distortion, creating the most psychedelic thing the Monkees had ever done.

Pleasant Valley Sunday was by far the Monkees’ best single to date, from their best album — an album as consistent as Revolver or Pet Sounds. Unfortunately, it was also their least successful single to that point, “only” getting to number three in the US charts rather than number one — although being kept off the top spot by All You Need Is Love and Light My Fire is nothing to be ashamed of. Although they didn’t yet know it, the Monkees’ career had peaked…

Pleasant Valley Sunday

Composer: Gerry Goffin & Carole King

Line-up:
Micky Dolenz (vocals, acoustic guitar), Michael Nesmith (vocals, guitar), Peter Tork (piano), Davy Jones (vocals, percussion), Bill Chadwick (acoustic guitar), Chip Douglas (bass), Eddie Hoh (drums)

Original release: Pleasant Valley Sunday/Words The Monkees, ColGems 1007

Currently available on:
Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd (Deluxe Edition), Rhino Handmade CD

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One Response to California Dreaming: Pleasant Valley Sunday

  1. TAD says:

    I think Micky’s biggest improvement over Carole King’s demo vocal is in the bridge. Her vocal in the bridge is rather ho hum, while his vocal elevates the bridge into the highpoint of the song.

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