The Monkees at Hammersmith

So along with being ill and trying (and largely failing) to finish up California Dreaming (though that will be done Real Soon Now — it really is just a matter of pulling stuff together, and it’s a matter of days, not weeks, of work) the big thing that kept me away from this blog last week was traveling first to That London and then to Birmingham to see the Monkees.

Well, two of them, anyway. Seeing Davy is sadly no longer a possibility, while Michael Nesmith, after touring with the band through 2012, 2013, and 2014 — his longest period with them since the 60s, by a very long way — has declined to be part of the tour this year; annoyingly, none of those tours came to the UK, but we can hope he’ll reconsider for the fiftieth anniversary this year.

No matter which combination of members is present, though, the Monkees have an affection from their audience that I’ve never seen with any other band. I’ve seen bigger crowds, and more obsessive ones, but never crowds that are so happy to be there. Sat outside the Hammersmith Apollo, waiting for the doors to open, I saw dozens of people taking photographs of themselves below the marquee, just wanting a record of themselves going to a Monkees show. That’s something I’ve not seen before, and suggests a kind of love for the band that is not at all common.

After the opening music (a mixture of solo Monkees obscurities and covers of Monkees songs by other artists) and montage of video clips, the band that came onto the stage was much smaller than the band I saw in 2011. Not only was there (obviously) no Davy, but there were far fewer backing musicians — no horns, just one guitar, bass, drums (only one kit — Micky didn’t play drums on this tour) and keyboards, plus Micky’s sister Coco Dolenz on backing vocals and hand percussion. That, plus Peter Tork switching between guitar and keyboards, and Micky occasionally playing acoustic guitar, was the entire band.

This makes sense in a lot of ways. Davy’s “Broadway rock” stuff was the only music that they did that really needed the horns, and they’d always detracted from, rather than added to, the other music — Pleasant Valley Sunday isn’t improved by sounding like it’s being played by the studio band from a US late-night talk show.

But the combination of this, along with the lack of Davy as a frontman (and the concomitant lack of dance routines and much smaller number of old music-hall jokes) gave the show a completely different feel to that from 2011. Where the earlier show, even before they walked on stage, felt showbiz, this felt rock and roll. The earlier show was, for me at least, watching three of the stars of one of my favourite TV programmes from when I was a child, whereas this was watching the band who made some of the records I’ve loved the most in my thirties.

This meant that even the parts of the show that were most similar — Micky singing I’m A Believer or Porpoise Song — felt different, and like they were being asked to be judged by a different standard. Luckily, as a rock and roll show, the new Monkees (not to be confused, thankfully, with the New Monkees) are as good as any out there.

One could argue that the Monkees, as a quartet, were each a quarter of the perfect entertainer — Davy the frontman, Micky the singer, Michael the songwriter, and Peter the instrumentalist. Given that they still play many of Nesmith’s songs, the lack of the other two in musical terms is fairly minimal on the songs they do play.

The main way the lack affects the show is that the setlist chosen has almost no songs that originally had lead vocals by either Davy or Michael, with only two of each — A Little Bit Me and Daydream Believer in Davy’s case, and Papa Gene’s Blues and Listen To The Band in Michael’s. Everything else was something that had originally been sung by Micky or Peter.

This made for a truly odd setlist. Previous Monkees setlists have largely been ones anyone could write — take any Best Of The Monkees collection, add in a couple of extra songs that Peter can sing, and the job’s done. But while Dolenz sings almost every one of the massive hits (Clarksville, Steppin’ Stone, I’m A Believer, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Randy Scouse Git, She) and several of the more recognisable non-hits (Goin’ Down, Porpoise Song, Girl I Knew Somewhere), having a show where only Micky and Peter are singing means that many well-known non-hit songs (Daddy’s Song, Cuddly Toy, You Just May Be The One and so on) are out of bounds, and the setlist mixes the famous songs in with songs that are not completely familiar even to a dedicated fan like myself.

For the first, shorter, set, Dolenz utterly dominated proceedings. While Peter got two leads (Your Aunty Grizelda and For Pete’s Sake), took a part of the lead on No Time, duetted on Words, and was as good a visual clown as ever (and the man is an absolutely remarkable mime — he could have been Harpo Marx good if he’d gone in that direction), the bulk of songs were all Micky leads, and all utterly familiar to anyone who knows the Monkees at all — Clarksville, A Little Bit Me, Girl I Knew Somewhere, Mary Mary, Randy Scouse Git, She — songs that anyone who ever owned a Monkees Greatest Hits compilation, or watched the TV show, knows like they know their own mother.

The one exception was the interesting choice of I’ll Be Back On My Feet, an album track that had never been performed live before this year. Oddly, this rather muzaky song has become quite funky in the live arrangement — with a smaller band, the song has a real groove to it, in a way it doesn’t on record.

After an intermission, during which commercials featuring the Monkees were played (a nice idea of Andrew Sandoval’s), interspersed with videos of songs that wouldn’t be played live this time (largely Nesmith ones), the band came on for a semi-acoustic set, with Dolenz and Tork down the front on acoustic guitars. A brief snippet of Tork’s song Tear The Top Right Off My Head was followed by a rearranged version of Clarksville, done as a blues number with Tork on lead. This was followed by two Carole King numbers — Take A Giant Step and Sometime in the Morning — both rearranged by Tork to emphasise his finger-picked, almost ragtime, guitar style. Both of these were highlights, Take A Giant Step for Tork’s wonderful playing (and his singing — the pitching problems which he had in earlier decades are now gone, and he sounds almost like Willie Nelson), and Sometime In The Morning for Mick’s vocal. On the 2011 tour he almost bellowed this one, rather destroying the beauty of it — he has a tendency nowadays to project more than he did in the 60s, and this sometimes is at the expense of subtlety — but here, with a softer backing with which he didn’t have to compete, he sounded lovely.

These were followed by acoustic versions of Midnight Train (with Coco Dolenz brought up to join them) and Papa Gene’s Blues. Coco Dolenz is a far more important addition to the show than people might imagine, despite being “only” a backing vocalist, for the simple reason that she has *the exact same voice* as her brother. This makes the harmonies sound quite wonderful — and indeed this version of the band has astounding vocal harmonies all round, as a surprise a capella break at the end of The Girl I Knew Somewhere showed.

Papa Gene’s Blues was interesting as well, because both nights of the UK tour it was introduced with effusive praise for both the song and its writer, Michael Nesmith (both Tork and Dolenz said it was their favourite of his songs “except Rio”). With the fiftieth anniversary next year, they’re clearly trying to be as publicly complimentary toward him as possible so as not to burn bridges, and many times mentioned just how great a songwriter he is. This stands in contrast to Davy, who was only mentioned once, in the list of songwriters who’d written for the band — were it not for the video footage of him, one could be forgiven for thinking Davy was never in the band at all.

We then had two songs from Head — Porpoise Song and Long Title (though not, oddly, Tork’s other usual lead, Can You Dig It?), and a giant rush through the hits, interrupted only for solo spots for each Monkee (a torch-blues version of Sugar Sugar for Micky and Saved By The Blues, a song originally by Tork’s band Shoe Suede Blues, for Peter). During Goin’ Down, Micky made the lifetime of Iain Lee (yes, “TV’s Iain Lee” — he’s one of the biggest Monkees fans in the world, and a big fan of LA 60s pop stuff generally, and a very nice bloke) by passing him the mic to sing a verse from the audience.

There were flaws to the show — mostly because of the acoustics of the hall (the sound balance didn’t seem quite right in the first set, though it was spot on for the much longer second set) — but the show was about as good a representation of the Monkees’ music, and of why that music stands up completely outside the context of the TV series, as one could hope for.

Sunday’s show at Moseley was also special, in a rather different way, and I’ll talk about that tonight or tomorrow…

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