Monday, 28 December 2015

A Monkees Christmas Post (Song/Solo Album/Singles/Xmas Special)




Well it had to happen sometime: finally after eight years we've run out of AAA 'core' Christmas albums to review. What we do have however are a few bits and pieces from our Monkees book to 'preview' for you all linked to a festive theme.The Monkees have always brought goodwill to all men '...And I'll tell you something else too, the same thing goes for Christmas!' So here is a non album Spanish carol, an obscure band Christmas single, a Davy Jones solo album and the one and only Christmas episode of the Monkees TV series, which hopefully will be enough to keep you going till the new year (let's face it, you're still listening to all those albums we told to you to get as xmas presents this year to read this anyway!...) There'll be more monkee-ing around from us next year (after we've covered the Lennons, Lindisfarnes and McCartneys!)

Recorded for the Monkees' TV show's one and only Christmas episode in 1967, traditional Spanish carol [  ] 'Riu Chiu' was recorded by the band  in the studio as well, both versions a capella (the two versions have since been released on CD, though the studio one is more common).  Either versions is jaw-dropping - the TV version features only our third chance to hear all four Monkees at work (after 'I Don't Think You Knew Me At All' and 'Zilch') and is, amazingly, sung live with no mistakes; the studio version (with producer Chip Douglas on one of the last tracks he made with the band singing a quieter, higher part instead of Davy, missing for unknown reasons) is even stronger with some of the best vocals of any Monkee recording. Micky shines on both versions tackling the foreign language with aplomb, Peter finally gets to sing in his natural bass range and unusually Mike takes the falsetto part. Chip Douglas had long loved the song and probably taught it to the band when they discussed what track to do for their special - you can hear a very young Chip singing it as part of the Modern Folk Quartet on a 1964 album which, funnily given its two Monkee connections, was titled 'Changes' (they're the name of the band's last album and the working title for feature film 'Head' if you haven't got that far yet!)  It seems odd that the band should go to all the effort of singing it twice; was the studio take a 'backup' in case the band messed up on the day of the take? Interestingly the sleevenotes for 'Missing Links Two' state that the studio take was recorded as early as August 1967 - though I could well imagine the Christmas episode had been written by then, it didn' actually start filming until November. For those who didn't get to see our discussion of this lovely carol on our 'top Christmas songs' top ten a while back, it concerns the events shortly before The Nativity and the contrast between the primitive life on Earth and Jesus being carried safely in the Virgin Mary's tummy. Mary is apparently 'made impervious to sin and even original sin this virgin did not have', which is itself enough to fend off rabid wolves (don't try this at home, though, kids), while a choir of angels follow her path. The title doesn't actually translate at all and is a nonsense line attributed to the sound of a nightingale singing as she follows the Virgin along her way. Find the studio version on: 'Missing Links Two' (1990) and 'The Definitive Monkees' bonus disc, while the TV version can be heard on the deluxe edition of 'Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones LTD'  

Davy Jones "Christmas Jones"

(**, '1976')

When I Look Back On Christmas/Winter Wonderland/Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer/Silver Bells/God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/Hark The Herald Angels Sing/White Christmas/Mele Kalimaka/This Day In Bethlehem/Silent Night/Rockin' Round The Christmas Tree/When I Look Back On Christmas

The CD edition adds: Manchester Boy/The Greatest Story Ever Told/White Christmas (Fanclub Flexidisc Version)

"Above all this bustle you'll hear silver bells..."

It seems such an obvious idea that I'm amazed it didn't work - Davy was hired to make an album in a hurry for the Christmas market so he decided to do just that, revisiting lots of Christmas carols and a few more contemporary festive pieces for the yuletide market. After all, the few people still buying Monkee records were now mums and dads who got most of their records in their Christmas stockings and of all four Monkees, Davy's fans were in many ways the loyallest, ready to buy his records thick or thin. Longterm Monkees fans were relieved to hear that Davy was teaming up with Monkee producer Chip Douglas for the first time since 1968 (with a few recordings made with Micky in 1969): what could possibly go wrong?

Well, let's just say that the record label weren't as keen on a festive album as Davy was and did as little to promote it as they could get away with (few fans even know of this album, which disappeared quite quickly and has only been out since on a semi-authorised (ie Davy and estate didn't plan it but can't sue because the label licensed the rights) release in the mid-90s. The song choices are a bit odd, like many a Christmas record, and the slightly artificial anodyne production brings out the scrooge in me more than my inner festive cheer. This album was also recorded in the summer in Hawaii in the baking heat - every Christmas album in the Western world has to be made early, that's just the way they work, but this is the only Christmas album I know that was recorded in a Hawaii heatwave (Chip had a studio there, in case you're wondering why). This album is certainly not on a par with the quiet brilliance of 'Riu Chiu' as Davy wastes his voice singing songs not worthy of his talent like 'Winter Wonderland' and 'Rudolph'. In Beatle terms it's a 'Wonderful Christmas Time' not a 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)'.

As ever, though, there's a couple of interesting gifts along with the stocking full of coal. Usually I hate backing singers, but this lot go nicely with Davy's voice and add a lot of pizzazz to proceedings, covering up the fact that Davy is on auto-pilot and occasionally quite wobbly. 'When I Look Back On Christmas' is an ok-ish Chip Douglas original, 'Silver Bells' is a rarer carol with a touch of class most of the more famous songs don't possess, 'Silent Night' is pretty if very over-70sed and the more traditional 'This Day In Bethlehem' is nicely handled, with a seriousness the rest of this record sadly lacks. This album deserves to be much better known than it is - though at the same time don't expect a lost classic: this is a Christmas album with the tinsel turned up high, only one mark higher than a Christmas 'turkey'.

Perhaps the best thing about this record is the name: did the James Bond villain named 'Christmas Jones' from 'The World Is Not Enough' get her name from this record? She is, after all, quite short with twinkly eyes and seems to get muddled up in spy rings quite easily, although admittedly I don't remember a Monkee episode where Davy is a nuclear physicist who survives an attack on a nuclear submarine...



Given the speed at which The Monkees were made to record albums, I'm surprised they never did the ol' 1960s fallback of a festive LP. The Monkees' party sound and hopeful vibes  are well suited to Christmas spirit and as Davy, Micky and an inaudible Peter put it in a rare festive single (originally released solely to the core faithful who were still members of the Monkee fanclub and later released as a 'proper' but very poor-selling single) [  ] 'Christmas Is My Time Of Year'. Original Christmas songs are, famously, awful (especially AAA ones it seems) but actually Douglas/Kaynan's song isn't bad, with a calmer atmosphere and a more inventive melody line and chord changes than most (usually festive songs try to get away with murder by keeping things simple because it's 'only' a Christmas song). Often songs that try to be clever go too far the other way and don't sound that Christmassey either, but this song has the perfect beat for sleigh bells and 'steals' a burst from 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing' on the chorus that works rather well. It's nice, too, to hear Micky and Davy together as there are very few recordings featuring both so equally, with the pair swapping verses and coming together for the singalong choruses. Most excellent and it's a shame there wasn't a full album of this stuff to follow - Davy's rather Scroogelike Xmas solo is no substitute! Find it on: Good luck tracking this one down - it was only ever made available as a ** rare single!

For the B-side Davy solo was dreaming of a.... [ ] 'White Christmas', with a rather dreary version of the Irving Berlin classic that's...oddly paced so that Davy seems to be...pausing when he should be...singing and which is actually quite...off-putting (like every Christmas card I write). Though I usually love hearing Davy singing deep rather than high, this arrangement has taken things too far and he now growls like the love-child of Lee Hazelwood, Lee Marvin and Johnny Cash. An insipid backing behind tries hard to sound like a big budget orchestra with very little and the effect is closer to tinsel and turkey than goodwill to all men (and Monkees). The CD re-issue of Davy's own record 'Christmas Jones' sensibly added this song as a 'bonus track', though it's more of a titchy stockingfiller than a proper present. That arrangement of the song is pretty white. And the same thing goes for Christmas! Find it on: The original single and the CD version of 'Christmas Jones' 

TV Episode  #47

"The Monkees' Christmas Show"

(Recorded November 1967, First broadcast December 25th 1967)

"The Monkees' Christmas message of 1967 is peace, love and everything else!"

Music: Riu Chiu (Performance)

Main Writer: Dave Evans and Neil Burstyn   Director: Jon Andersen

Plot: It's the Monkees' festive episode! In a re-telling of 'A Christmas Carol', Monkee-style, the band are hired to go to a Stately Home, the wonderfully named Vandersnoot Mansions. Thinking they've been hired to play The Monkees arrive with instruments but find out that instead they've been hired to baby-sit a little boy, Melvin, who doesn't believe in Christmas. Melvin is old before his years, far more grown up than the silly Monkees will ever be, and pooh-poohs their attempts to teach him about Christmas spirit. The Monkees' ideas prove to be quite dangerous in fact, with Peter losing control of a scooter when the band go Christmas shopping, Micky coming down with a mysterious illness after mistaking poison ivy for mistletoe when the band go to chop down a tree and Davy falling over when trying to put the star on top of a Christmas tree. All these injuries also cost money, thanks to a generously charged doctor, and The Monkees don't seem to have helped Melvin's demeanour at all. Mike gives in and admits to Melvin that he was right all along - that the Christmas spirit really doesn't exist. Melvin goes back home, alone, but is deeply unhappy - he misses his new friends. Luckily The Monkees don't give up that easily and Santa Micky and Elf Davy arrive down his chimney, with Peter and Mike bringing presents at the door. One present they bring is the best of all - Melvin's aunt who the band have brought home so that this rather creepy and cold family can finally admit their love for one another. The episode then ends with 'The Monkees Christmas Message' where every member of their crew gets thanked and sends their festive greetings home.

What we learn about The Monkees In This Episode:  Mike: Is surprisingly the Monkee most insistent on believing in Christmas and it's the moment when the band become broke and Mike stops believing that's the real turning point of the episode. Peter bought him snow-skies last Christmas. Micky: Can't tell the difference between mistletoe and poison ivy, with the latter making him come out in bright red spots. Also makes a convincing Santa Claus. Peter bought him a chemistry set last Christmas which turned him into a werewolf -  he still has random 'turns' (usually when he's standing next to Davy!) Davy: Makes a convincing elf. In another insight into the character's persecuted childhood, he complains he never had the chance to hang the star on top of the Christmas tree at home and seems oddly hung about his height during the 'down the chimney' scene. Got a sports jacket from Peter last Christmas which didn't fit him at all. Peter: Can't ride a scooter very well and struggled to find suitable presents. The intelligence test he bought for himself last Christmas exploded when he tried to use it - the hint is that Peter is too thick, but as the cause is unspecified could it be he's really secretly highly intelligent?

Things that don't make sense: That doctor seems to be available an awful lot considering it's the Christmas holidays - and shouldn't poor Peter be in hospital? Also where did the band get the money to pay for all the presents at the end? (And why do they buy the reformed Melvin, a most un-athletic boy, a basketball instead of, say, a joke book?!)

Best Five Quotes: 1) Davy - "What did Peter buy you last Christmas, Mike?" Mike - "When I saw what you guys got I wouldn't open my present till July!" Davy - "And what was it?" Mike- "Snow skies!" 2) Micky "He's just a little kid, right? So let's use child psychology on him!" Davy "Yeah - do I beat him up now? Micky "No wait on second thought, we can't do that!" 3) Shopkeeper - "That's $20 for the stretcher!" Mike - "What's that for? A carrying charge?!" 4) Davy - "How come I'm clean and you're all dirty? You're always getting at me for being little teeny tiny Davy, you see, so I figured I'd come down the middle of the chimney and avoid the sides" Micky - "Oh right! (Micky blows smut into Davy's face) Davy - "Oh, that's charming that is!" 5) Davy, during the crew 'Christmas message' - "I don't know who this guy is or this guy - but they're very special too!"

End Segment: A gorgeous 'first version' of  traditional Italian Christmas Carol 'Riu Chiu' (a later re-recording with Chip Douglas stabnding in for Mike can be heard on 'Missing Links Two' (1997) with this TV version not released till the deluxe re-issue of 'Pisces Aquarius'). All four Monkees sing a capella, with Micky on lead, Mike and Peter sharing the bass and Davy at his more natural 'baritone' level. The song is an unusual choice and it's seriousness sits in great contrast to the rest of the rather slapstick episode, but it suits the Monkees' four voices to a tee and is a good place to start the next time your ill-advised friend tells you 'but The Monkees can't really sing!' A Spanish Carol about the birth of Christ and the baby being kept safe by all the animals, the strange title itself isn't Spanish and is thought to derive from the call of a kingfisher.

 Interview: Well, it's not strictly an interview this time but we're not sure what else to call it. This is instead the 'Monkees Christmas Message for 1967' where all the crew who don't usually get seen on screen and who'll be working across Christmas get to say 'hello' to their families. Davy makes for a good emcee controlling the chaos, with Mike and Peter chipping in but Micky seems unusually surly. Along with the names who can be seen at the end credits of The Monkees' series are two key figures who never were recognised with a proper credit: Property man Jack Williams who the band adored so much he got two unbilled cameo parts in the final two episodes of the series and Les Fresholtz, the sound recordist for the series. If what Davy says is true the camera is running without a cameraman at the end, as their normal person enters the shot - which must be a first for a TV series!

'Imagination' Sequence: Suddenly the rest of the band are horse-racing commentators as Peter breaks everything in sight on his scooter

Best Ad Lib: Micky gets his line 'How come I'm dirty and you're all clean?' wrong but given Davy's speedy response it seems likely Micky got it wrong in rehearsals and the gag was kept in.

Postmodernisms: 'You guys think you're so funny!' snarls the shopkeeper after Peter wrecks his stall. 'You should be in the movies - or better yet on television!'

Review: The only Monkees Christmas episode - broadcast in the prestigious Christmas Day slot - is part tinsel filler, part genuinely moving festive viewing. It's a curious mix of 'Scrooge', a Swingle Singers Christmas Special and 'Magical Mystery Tour' this one, too varied for it's own good as The Monkees try to appeal to a family audience who don't know who they are all over again - and risk leaving a lot of their 'real' audience behind. It's a shame that the band didn't shoot the episode the year before when they were sharper as their performance is one of the most tired shot for the second season (it doesn't help that the bulk of this episode was made over the Thanksgiving Weekend, so the end bit about The Monkees wishing they could go home and rest for the holidays is only a slight lie). Micky is particularly grumpy in this episode - the look he gives the actor playing Melvin when they're off buying Christmas Trees could kill. However the foursome still get lots of good material: the opening scene about what Christmas presents Peter bought them all is superbly done, with the usual Monkee wit and quickfire cut shots - and the final contrast between the oh-so serious 'Riu Chiu' and the chaotic 'Monkee Christmas Message' with cast and crew is very Monkees, going from one extreme to another in such quick succession as if both tragedy and comedy live side by side. The bookending material is a lot better than the actual plot then, which borrows a little too heavily from the tales of Scrooge and various comedy Christmas shows about orphans (the plot is very similar to the Hancock's Half Hour show 'The Christmas Orphans' - and that one didn't work as well as normal either). The plot just doesn't give everyone enough to do and the fifteen minutes of misery for the band can't be rescued by it all coming together at the end, however well played the final scene of them all together is. The story also seems weirdly plotted, veering from action scenes that are too short (Davy's Christmas tree scene could have gone for much longer) and other bits that are far too long (Melvin's dream sequence, set to some godawful classical Christmas carols, and, erm, 'Pop Goes The Weasel', takes forever with no dialogue being spoken). There are good bits even here though, such as Mike telling Melvin about the importance of the Christmas Spirit while still wrestling with an old lady for the last Christmas tree!  Perhaps the main problem is that this script just isn't Christmassey enough: yes there's a Christmas carol, a tree and a spread of Christmas joy by the end, but Melvin's realisation that the silly Monkees suddenly mean a lot to him isn't clear enough - it could be simply loneliness that changes his mind at the end (while The Monkees end the story more broke than ever). The plot itself is made considerably more watchable thanks to Butch Patrick playing the young Melvin (although he was actually fourteen when this episode was shot, much older than the eleven or twelve-year-old Melvin seems). Patrick is one of the few guest stars to ever outshine The Monkees (is that why Micky glares at him so?) and would go on to lead a fascinating rollercoaster life; he signed up to The Munsters as their son Eddie before The Monkees and went on to star in 70s drama 'Lidsville' as an adult before suffering from heavy depression when the work dried up and attempting suicide many times. His career went through an upsurge in 2010, though, when he married a Munsters fan whose letters of support moved him greatly and he fought off the diagnosis of prostrate cancer, saying that he 'realised how badly I wanted to live'.

 Things About This Episode You Might Not Know Unless You're A Mega-Fan: 1) Mike sings '#Deck The Halls With Boston Charlie' when he's meant to be doing 'Deck The Halls' a reference to a character in newspaper cartoon strip 'Pogo' by Walt Kelly 2) Look out too for how the Monkees sing the line 'don we now with 'gay' apparel' during 'Deck The Halls'. This is such an early use of the word for 'homosexual' (the original definition of ;gay' as used in the carol simply means 'happy') that you can imagine all the parents watching this saying 'what's going,. on, darling?' as hip teenagers everywhere spluttered into their Christmas pudding. It's a very Monkees moment of gentle subversion, with no attention really being drawn to it. 3) The dummy Mr Schneider makes his last appearance in this episode being attacked by Micky as a 'werewolf' - did he come to a sticky end during Micky's next transformation off-screen? 4) Look out for the word 'Beatles' scrawled on the Monkee chalkboard as the band try to decipher Melvin's maths problem (The answer is '263' in case you hadn't worked it out yet!) 5) This is the only Monkees episode ever to depart from the usual credit sequence and is unique in listing 'Micky' and 'Davy' the other way round 6) This was the only Monkees episode repeated in the 1970s but after 1970 itself, with a repeat on Christmas Day 1971 6) Currently writing his own script for the Monkee finale 'The Frodis Caper', Micky has the presence of mind to shout 'Frodis Forever!' during the Monkee Message. This will leave fans scratching their head until all is revealed three months later. 7) Mike Nesmiths' woolhat makes its penultimate appearance on screen - worn by Davy as part of his 'elf' costume rather than Mike 8) There is no Monkee 'romp' this week, the middle of three occasions where this happens.
Ratings: At The Time 7.1 million viewers/AAA Rating: 5/10

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