Monday, 24 December 2018
Hello dear readers! How was your 2018? What AAA albums did you get under your tree? Or did you even, perhaps, get one of our first seven books (very competitively priced and out at a store near you – assuming that by ‘near you’ that you have your kindle to hand and that an Amazon online warehouse counts as being ‘a store’!) Yes we have seven books out now and another twelve ready to roll once a month across 2019 (more on that at the end of the page!) As for the music, well, blimey, there I was thinking I’d finished the early books on this list when they all seemed to wake up, some of them (Croz and Mark Knopfler) waiting until the week before our book’s publication date to put their latest out and of course they had to end up in the books too, so the last few months have been a bit frantic even without ploughing ahead with the second drafts (I’m just starting volume 27 on cat Stevens though, so I have a few in hand. I might even finish writing this Gregorian knot of a project sometime in 2019, but then I think I said that last year - and the one before!) It has been a bit of an unusual year, dear readers, so we’ve slewed our usual year-end categories round to acknowledge this. There was, you see, only two AAA-related documentaries all year so we’ve rather shortened our top three, while I can only think of two books (Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones’ autobiography ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ and Roger Daltrey's thankyou note to his headmaster for expelling him) and I must confess I haven’t had a chance to read either of them yet, so the books category is out of bounds too. While it’s been a year fairly thin on the ground for new releases and split pretty equally between the great and ghastly for once, we’ve had a bumper crop of re-issues this year and instead of being poor some are just slightly less enticing than others, so we’ve extended our ‘positive’ re-issue listing and skipped the ‘negative’ one.
At the time of writing (the last day of November) the AAA has sold 107 books. Not bad considering our teensy tiny budget with our Beach Boys volume the runaway winner so far. We would like to add grateful thanks to everyone who has bought a copy of any of our first seven books for helping us out this year. Thanks as always to my wonderful support team who have been brilliant all year every year– Slack and BB (who designed our very wonderful book covers!), Stuart, Paul, Kenny and my flufflewina Vicki. Also a big thankyou to the new friends made since the books were released – Kevin, Mervyn and Jamie Lynn. Also a big thankyou to the moderators at ‘Beach Boys Rock Forever’ (Rebecca), ‘Belle and Sebastian – For Fans Only’ (Vinicius), ‘The Byrds’ (Dave), ‘McGuinn Clark Hillman’ (Miguel), ‘CSNY Fan Discussion Group’ (Jim) and ‘Stephen Stills/Manassas’ (Bill), not to mention the always wonderful ‘Kinda Kinks’ website (Dave). All of these groups are superb facebook groups so if you have a passion for these bands too then every reader should make it their New Year’s resolution to go and join! Finally to you dear readers – there might not be as much up at the AAA these days now that we have moved on to the ‘books’ phase of the project, but you are all still very much included on our ‘nice’ list. May all of you have a brilliant – and musical – 2019
1) David Crosby “Here If You Listen”
(Reviewed in full at https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2018/10/david-crosby-and-friends-here-if-you.html )
Croz has been more prolific than ever in the past six years with this his fourth solo album (it did, after all, take him eighteen years to follow up his first!) After propping up the bottom end of our ‘best releases’ or even our ‘worst releases’ in recent years this is finally the album we’ve been waiting for, consistent and courageous. Croz has combined his voice with Snarky Puppy’s Michael League and jazz singer Becca Stevens for a unique blend of folk, jazz, blues and a Madrigal style and the trio sound as if they have been singing together forever, bringing out the best in Crosby’s still ageless voice. It’s the songs though that really make this album, from a vision of global warming in the future leaving the world marooned at sea like Venice to Croz’s concern about encroaching mortality on ‘Balanced On A Pin’ to the recycling of two unheard scat vocals from the Crosby archives, this is a brave and memorable, moving CD. After albums that were too noisy or too quiet or too similar to what came before this is the ‘Goldilocks’ of modern Crosby CDs that gets the mixture just right and is easily Crosby’s best since his CPR days at the end of the last century. Highly recommended.
2) Grateful Dead “Filmore West February 27th 1969”
We have, I suppose, had this concert out before, but only as part of a pricey box set dedicated to four shows the Dead played into March during what I’ve always considered their ‘peak’ live year – but never on its own before and not on vinyl either. This is one of the best shows the Dead ever played (and I haven’t heard them all but I have heard a lot of them, especially from this period!) and are bursting with ideas, right on the cusp between the exhilarating experimentation of 1968 and the compact poetry of 1970. This is the period when fans really didn’t know what was going to happen next and on this night everything that happens is superb: Pigpen starts thinks off with an earthy ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’, there’s a thrilling take on oddball ‘Doin’ That Rag’ that beats the studio cut hands down and a hauntingly beautiful ‘Mountains Of The Moon’. All of which is merely a warm-up for The Dead at their peak: this one of the best ‘Dark Stars’ the Dead ever played, mysterious and poignant and ebbing and flowing with pure telepathy, while the twenty-three minutes of ‘That’s It For The Other One’ that runs the complete gamut of human experience and expression is my pick as the single best Dead performance of the single best Dead song ever. Only with this band could a stunning medley of ‘St Stephen’ and ‘The Eleven’ (a performance which appeared on the ‘Live/Dead’ LP) be the ‘comedown’ and even that is followed by Pig taking us back to Earth again with his best performance of ‘Turn On Your Lovelight’ topping nearly half an hour. After those three hours you will be exhausted, but in the best way that only the greatest live music can make you. Yes we’ve had this set out before – and it still costs too much, they should have made this an affordable sampler set for curious Deadheads, while the packaging of skeletons in pink is hideous and tacky for music of such beauty and depth – but if you haven’t heard this show before then you are in for a treat. I first heard this show a decade ago and I don’t think I’ve come down from it yet.
3) Mark Knopfler “Down The Road Wherever”
Though a patchy record that lacks the breadth of 2012’s ‘Privateering’ and the beauty of 2015’s ‘Trackers’, Mark’s latest nevertheless extends his terrific recent run. Best of all Mark has ditched the character songs for more autobiography than usual, with memorable songs recounting his teenage years trudging through the snow to a gig nobody turns up to, desperate to make a name for himself, or sitting alone at a bar with songs running through his head as he dreams that all the strangers in the room will one day know his name. It’s as if enough time has gone past now for Mark’s younger self to be treated like all his other dreaming working class characters, desperate to escape their lot in life through hard work and luck, still in shock that he actually had a fairytale ending to all his early misery. Better than the album – for the second album in a row – are the bonus tracks full of some truly poignant material including ‘Pale Imitation’ where Mark sees himself as a child and wonders how his younger self would view his adultness and Celtic finale ‘Sky and Water’ where the good and bad from love merge into one line of blue brilliance in Mark’s memory. Alas the first half of the actual album is pretty poor, which moves this album down a notch in ourt estimation. Even so, it’s another good one from a writer whose hit a whole new rich seam of creativity in the past decade, his most prolific period and consistent period since the early 1980s. Long may it continue!
4) Dave Davies “Decade”
In the early 1970s Dave suffered something of a nervous breakdown. He’d been worked too hard, taken too many drugs, suffered too many doomed romances while still trying to recover from the teenage sweetheart he still yearned for and felt increasingly apart from brother Ray. After being The Kinks’ dark horse of the 1960s Dave went quiet with no songs at all released between 1971 and 1978 which struck fans as odd – a talent as rich as Dave with so much on his mind surely had lots to say. This album is what happened to all those songs, which the liner notes describe being ‘stuck in drawers and forgotten’. You can see why to some extent: none of these songs would have matched his brother’s visions for The Kinks, being alternately too sweet, too dark, too rough or too feisty for his magnum opuses of the decade. Some of these songs are also too dark and ‘real’ for public consumption, at least while Dave was suffering from the malaise that inspired them. However they deserved their release at some point and 2018 is as good a time as any, with some truly wonderful additions to the Kinks katalogue here. Highlights include the psychiatric session masquerading as a pop song ‘Give Me All Your Love’, the first draft for ‘Bug’ classic ‘Why?’ when it was a blues song called ‘Mr Moon’ and the country-rock of ‘Shadows’ with its union of Dave’s loves of folk and heavy rock somehow sounding great shadowing each other. Admittedly there’s no classic here up to almost anything on the 1960s ‘lost’ Dave album (released belatedly as ‘Hidden Treasures’ in 2011) and Dave’s rough vocals are alarming on many tracks clearly not made for listening pleasure. However this is an important release Kinks fans have dreamed of for a long time and as usual with Dave it is delivered with a lot of love and care.
5) Neil Young “Songs For Judy”
Mysterious! The only Neil Young album in a busy year for his personal life (marriage to Darryl Hannah and the loss of his home to Californian wildfires) is another ‘archive’ set, this one an acoustic solo show from 1976. Only, for the first time in this lengthy series, Neil has released a ‘highlights’ set with songs taken piecemeal from different shows on the same tour (Neil being Neil, he recorded pretty much all of them!) What’s odd is that by Young’s standards he’s barely even mentioned this album coming out and admits that it was the brainchild of archivist Joel Bernstein rather than his own personal choice. As a result we don’t know much about this set – why we've got yet another 1970s live set (is there an Archives II on the way?), why Neil keeps banging on about cover star Judy Garland for instance (we don’t know why that would be, given that she died in 1969) or what Neil was thinking when he wrote this set’s unique song ‘No One Seems To Know’, a much bootlegged song that’s lovely and haunting but as opaque as Neil gets. The one performance fans have always known is ‘Campaigner’ from 1997’s compilation ‘decade’ and if that homely acoustic style is to your taste then you will love much of the rest of the show too which features old friends and new performed in much the same way. I’d still have preferred a live archive set of Crazy Horse from this same year (their Japanese tour especially was stunning and some of the best shows Neil ever played) but it’s typical Neil to ignore the obvious for a tour that rather fell through the cracks. Another fascinating release – and one that’s almost affordable for once, to boot!
1) The Beach Boys “With The Philharmonic Orchestra”
Here’s a confession, dear readers. I find the current trend for merging old recordings with new ones rather dumb. Elvis isn’t alive to sanction the string overdubs on his ‘latest’ set and they sound so out of place, as if an orchestra have wondered in off the street and started playing an entirely different song, showing up that Elvis’ original tapes are over forty years old. Cliff was at least alive when he did the same thing (barely, anyway) and it still sounds dumb: why add strings to something that didn’t need them in the first place? At least, I thought, you won’t find any of ‘my’ bands doing that! And then The Beach Boys let me down. I remain in a minority of people who think they worked better without an orchestra anyway – ‘Pet Sounds’ is horribly cloying in places and only the best of ‘Smile’ makes you feel that an orchestra is at all necessary to the arrangements. I much prefer the earlier – and later – unadorned recordings with the band playing everything themselves. Now, though the band (particularly Bruce Johnston who pushed for this album) have stuck a whacking great orchestra over every period and it sucks big time. The likes of ‘Fun Fun Fun’ and ‘darlin’ should be light on their feet – surfboards aren’t made for strings. Many of these tracks already had orchestra arrangements anyway, which makes you wonder why the likes of ‘Here Today’ and ‘God Only Knows’ are here at all, especially as the parts overdubbed on top are so much worse than anything Brian Wilson came up with in the 1960s. Maybe if the band had been brave and dusted off some rarer songs that could have used the higher budget I’d have been more willing (‘Marcella’ ‘Santa Ana Winds’ most of the synthesised ‘Beach Boys Love You’). But no: almost every song here is a top ten hit and those that weren’t are well known fan favourites. One other thing too: the tapes used have been recycled for so many compilations that they are really sounding their age now, sixty-five years plus. The orchestra has been recorded in modern-day surround sound. No attempt has been made to find a way of combining the two properly. The result is an absolute mess, an expensive waste of time and yet another Neanderthal reaction to keeping alive a quite brilliant back catalogue that nobody seems to know what to do with any more. This was a dumb idea that should have been shot down in flames the first time it was discussed. Still better than Cliff’s though!
2) The Moody Blues “Days Of Future Passed Live”
I confess I’m not a big fan of ‘Days Of Future Passed’, which despite its high reputation and record sales always sounded like the patchiest of the original seven ‘Justin ‘n’ John’ Moodies albums to me. There is, though, more to be said for the ‘other’ current trend of bands revisiting their most famous albums in concert in their entirety so I thought maybe this disc would give me some insight to the album I never got before. Oh dearie me. The Moodies have, it’s fair to say, never been the best live band. They are built for the perfection of the studio not the roar of the live arena. I have in my time as a fan sat through many a disappointing live album of theirs, almost all of them with a good half of this album performed in there somewhere anyway. I have never in my life heard them play as badly as this. Everyone has lost their voice and aged so much in the past few years. The much missed flautist Ray Thomas has been replaced by a female flute player (good idea) and his songs handed over to Justin and John without any compensation for a different voice such as a key they can actually sing in (very very very bad idea). The orchestra is once again the weakest link and boom and crash their way throughout the record as if playing an entirely different album. Graeme Edge’s narration was hard for Mike Pinder to do with a straight face but Jeremy Irons’ hammy version of it is a million times worse. Even the ‘greatest hits’ disc that starts the show is the worst the Moodies have released, the band on creaky autopilot as they struggle from first note to last. The blatant auto-tuning is distracting and embarrassing and the mix so poorly made that all you seem to hear are the drums and the backing singers going ‘aaaagh’ instead of ‘aah’ all the way through. This isn’t ‘Days Of Future Passed’, this is two hours of my life I will never get back again!
3) Roger McGuinn “Sweet Memories”
My real problem with this set is the way it was advertised: Roger’s ‘first solo album in seventeen years!’ The guitar maestro has, so we’ve been told, worked at crafting his new songs and has come up with his most substantial album in decades after dallying with his ;folk den project’ of covers. Well, the sad truth is that this is a set of demos recorded by Roger in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he couldn’t get a record deal on his own but wasn’t that fussed, writing songs about his holidays and his then-new wife that sound more like ways of passing the time than conveying anything was burning deep within his soul. This patchy set of badly recorded demos hasn’t been changed in any way, only added to with some later equally badly recorded demos (odd in itself that, given that the gadget-mad Roger would surely have had the latest technology at hand at all times). The result is an album that had it been marketed properly, as a ‘lost’ album full of homespun material, might have been worth a listen. Even so, I suspect I would have been disappointed with this lazy album on bootleg, never mind paying full price for it as it’s the sort of up-itself album punk was put on this Earth to destroy. The title track is, however, a good ‘un and a potential hit single in waiting that never was, so at least that’s something I suppose.
4) Paul McCartney “Egypt Station”
(Reviewed in full at https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2018/09/paul-mccartney-egypt-station-2018.html )
It is a sign of what a duff year 2018 has been for music that this distinctly mediocre album – Paul’s worst since 2003 – has been hailed such a strong seller and hailed as a brilliant album of monumental proportions. It really isn’t. By Paul’s usual inspired status its cheap and lazy, full of nursery rhyme lyrics and forgettable melodies on songs that have nothing to say and still find the worst possible way to say it. Take ‘People Want Peace’ which is to ‘Pipes Of Peace’ what The Spice Girls are to The Beatles, stating the obvious with no reason to listen. The deeply alarming ‘back In Brazil’ where a girl with dreams is effectively told to knuckle down and get a husband – a little worrying in this day and age and a lyric you suspect Linda would have given Paul a clip round the ear for writing. ‘Caesar Rock’ is by far the dumbest of Paul’s ‘let’s write a song on the spot with some daft words’ tracks. And ‘Despite Repeated warnings’ is meant to be a tale of how politics around the world has devolved into a worryingly right-wing trend to blame it all on minority scapegoats when it is all the fault of middle-class bankers…written in the style of The Frog Song Chorus and ‘We All Stand Together’. Paul is not immune to giving us bad albums (‘Flaming Pie’ ‘Kisses On The Bottom’ and ‘Chaos and Creation In The back Yard’ are easily within the top ten of the ‘weakest AAA albums of new material ever) but recent albums like ‘Electric Arguments’ and ‘New’ have been so good I really expected more from this record than three half-listenable love songs and one strong piece in ‘Confidante’ (which is about an imaginary friend, a guitar or John Lennon and ambiguous enough to work as all three). Oddly for a man whose taken a five year break (his longest ever between new studio albums) this record sounds rushed and is still on its first drafts, in desperate need of a co-writer to reign Macca’s worst tendencies in.
5) Paul Simon “In The Blue Light”
This record is the most Paul Simon idea ever. With retirement on the horizon next year Paul decided to give his fans one last present – an album of ten songs he didn’t think he got right the first time, re-recorded with a bigger budget so that he can feel at peace with his legacy. It is in many ways a great idea, especially as Paul chose not the songs everyone knows and loves already but ten obscure album tracks. Some of them, including the wonderful modern morality tale ‘darling Lorraine’ (about a couple who bicker endlessly until one of them dies), the poetic tale of emptiness ‘How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns’ (from the under-rated film masterpiece ‘One-Trick Pony’) and the quirky ‘Can’t Run But’ are all amongst Paul’s best work. However Paul got them right the first time: subjecting these and seven distinctly lesser songs (such as the boring plod ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte’ and the ugly ‘Some Folk’s Lives Roll Easy’) to an overblown jazzier sound only makes them sound artificial and sterile. This is an experiment that only really works on muted song ‘Love’ and elsewhere serves to make the good sound bad and the bad atrocious. This is not the way Paul’s catalogue should have ended and ‘In The Blue Light’ should have been given the red light on its first playback. Or sooner.
1) Paul McCartney and Wings “Wildlife”
I know, I know – three other major re-issues by Beatles alone this Christmas and I’ve plumped for the poor beaten scapegoat of the Wings catalogue that nobody else seems to like. But bear with me, for I have longed for this album to be given the McCartney Archives ‘deluxe’ treatment and finally get the credit it deserves, with the benefit of more ‘new’ recordings taken from the archives than any other archive set so far. ‘Wildlife’ remains the sort of album only a ‘fan’ could love, I know. The opening song is deliberately written in gibberish, the second song has the chorus ‘Bip bop bip bop bop bip bop bip bop bam’ and features the performances of a band who have only just met and don’t yet have the sort of telepathy to pull this raw and wacky album off. Even so there are some real hidden beauties in these grooves: Paul’s gorgeous love song for Linda ‘Some People Never Know, the world’s first ‘white’ reggae cover ‘Love Is Strange’ that is groovier than almost all of the ones to come by anybody, the world’s first non-folk purist ecological plea ‘Wildlife’ and the sweet gesture of olive branches and friendship in the Beatle wars with the poignant and powerful ‘Dear Friend’. Three extra discs include such new delights as an entire ‘rough’ acetate rehearsal tape that makes the album sound funkier and punkier (the way Moody Blues producer Tony Clarke wanted it – and he was right!), under-rated and courageous single ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’ plus rehearsal film of an early Wings getting the song just right and the 1972 version of ‘Rupert The Bear’ (abandoned as a full-length film for taking too long and re-made as a short cartoon in 1984) which is delightfully cute. Like all the Macca archive sets this one also looks gorgeous with unseen Linda Macca photographs of Wings’ first meeting (with more unseen shots than usual for these hefty boxes), handwritten lyrics and notes from the band. Like the best albums in this series (‘Ram’ especially) the extras really do add to your understanding of the original record and whilst it may never be a five-star classic there is enough of worth here to make ‘Wildlife’ seem even more like the Wings album that got away.
2) Grateful Dead “Anthem Of The Sun”
Rhino’s typically ambitious plan is to re-issue every single Grateful Dead album on each record’s fiftieth birthday, with an unreleased concert from as close as the label can get to the release date of each album as a ‘second disc’. The first for debut album ‘Grateful Dead’ last year was disappointing with a boring show that had very few of the actual album songs performed. ‘Anthem’, however, is another matter entirely. My pick as the Dead’s boldest and most unique album, this part-studio part-live album works as a sort of ‘parallel universe’ where eight performances (at times) of each of the four album songs are played and the engineer uses the band like an ‘instrument’, hopping between one ‘galaxy’ to another he goes. This always made ‘Anthem’ particularly ripe for a ‘bonus’ re-issue and while we only get one of those shows here (not 4-7 – I wait in vain for a ‘super deluxe’ show containing all of them!) it is a particularly great one. The Dead’s surprisingly late premiere of future concert favourite ‘That’s It For The Other One’ (a song making its second appearance in our review this year!) is fascinating, this complex jamathon already in place while the cool-out into ‘New Potato caboose’ is beautiful too. Both of these are bettered, however, by two Dead extremes: a brilliantly punchy ‘Cold Rain and Snow’ and a hauntingly poetic ‘Morning Dew’ full of real angst and terror. While the big finale of ‘Turn On Your Lovelight’ is a bit of a let-down, this 1968 show demonstrates just why this period was such an important one for the Dead and why even fifty years their live shows remain some of the most powerful committed to tape. After a shaky start to the series I now can’t wait for the re-issues of both ‘Aoxomoxoa’ and ‘Live/Dead’ next year to see if Rhino can possibly top them at all.
3) The Beatles “White Album – Deluxe Edition”
Somewhere somehow the Apple marketing department has hit upon the idea that The White Album is not only the fan’s favourite but the band’s best. It really isn’t. In truth this sprawling beast is both the best and the worst of the fab four sitting side by side and what they’ve conveniently forgotten to tell you is that the album lasts for 30 songs because it was the quickest way for the band to end their current record contract and get better negotiating terms than because all the songs were worthy of release. As with last year’s ‘Sgt Peppers’ re-issue I’m in two minds: there is some terrific stuff here never heard before, even on bootleg and the album has never sounded better – but so should it at current prices (£130!) and asking fans to fork out for so many extra discs of the same album in different mixes is an insult (the new mix may be sharper with odds and ends never heard before, but what it really shows is that The Beatles were masters of knowing what their best work was and cutting out the bits that didn’t work). There are nevertheless some truly great moments here: a whole disc of John Paul and George’s demos as recorded in the latter’s house post-India, the best of which (‘Me and My Monkey’ ‘Back In The USSR’ ‘Piggies’ ‘Bungalow Bill’) beat the album versions hands down. We also get such rarities as George’s ‘Not Guilty’ and ‘Circles’ (not released by Harrison in any form until ‘George Harrison’ in 1979 and ‘Gone Troppo’ in 1983 respectively) and John’s first draft for ‘Jealous Guy’ when it was still a maharishi lecture about wildlife ‘Mother Nature’s Children’ (odd, given the album above, that it wasn’t Paul who was inspired to write it but then he did write ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ around the same time).Over on the studio discs we get way too many repeats from ‘Anthology’ (seriously, what fan forking out over a hundred pounds for this set doesn’t own them already?) but also some real gems (the ten minute ‘Revolution #1’ that eventually becomes the opening two minutes of ‘Revolution #9’is superb and should have been released this way originally; the brilliant backing track for ‘USSR’ with Paul’s drums and piano up loud, the band take on ‘Not Guilty’ that’s all sharp corners and dissonance, a beautiful slower take of ‘Sexy Sadie’ that’s not so much angry as sad; a rough ‘n’ ready first take of ‘Hey Jude’ I’ve always preferred to the final slick version; a much longer extract of the slow bluesy version of ‘Helter Skelter’ which now runs to thirteen minutes) as well as a few misses (the album’s best song ‘Long Long Long’ went through millions of takes but was never bootlegged as far as I know – how frustrating the version released here is so fast and thrown away by a band who haven’t quite got ‘it’ yet, even on take 44; Macca sang ‘Blackbird’ so many times in the exact same way it’s often hard to hear a difference; why with so many songs to cover do we waste a whole twenty with Ringo singing us ‘Goodnight’ – most of which we’ve had before?) To be honest the best of this stuff should have been out on ‘Anthology’ anyway and I can’t help feeling short-changed by a band who used to be famous for looking after their fans for what seems like the thirtieth time this century already. Even so the best of this set is gorgeous and truly unmissable, while the packaging 9a big book, basically) is a huge improvement on the ‘peppers’ set.
4) John Lennon “Imagine – The Ultimate Collection”
Equally we are told by the publicity material that every fan thinks ‘Imagine’ was the best album John ever made. They’re wrong, as a recent poll to find the best ever solo Beatles album put this in fourth, behind George’s ‘All Things Must Pass’ Paul’s Ram’ and my own personal pick ‘John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’. In truth ‘Imagine’ is a mixed bag with Lennon at his best and worst and that goes double for this re-issue. On the plus side, a bootleg of the strings overdub for ‘Imagine’s title track has always been one of my favourites, perhaps the greatest achievement of Phil Spector’s life, warm and lush but with sighing minor chords trapped inside the treacle like pockets of air. An alternate take of ‘jealous Guy’ with Lennon singing once rather than multi-tracked is heartbreakingly poignant even if the rest of the mix sounds a bit ‘wrong’. Perhaps’ John’s loveliest solo ballad ‘Oh My Love’ sounds more ‘real’ somehow in this early take with his voice cracking under the strain. Closer ‘Oh Yoko!’ makes far more sense as a silly demo taped on holiday with Yoko gamely trying to keep up than it did over-recorded into a pop epic for the album. The rest though makes the album sounds ten times worse: the joyless ‘How Do You Sleep?’ heard twice over in different takes is a real slog, ‘Crippled Inside’ sounds even dumber than normal and you wonder to yourself again how someone at Lennon’s level of brilliance could ever have possibly sanctioned such lines as ‘I don’t wanna be a soldier mama, I don’t wanna fly’. The documentary –discussed below – doesn’t really add much either as do such bonus tracks as the oft-released throwaway ‘Do The Oz’ raising funds for a liberal magazine taken to court for ‘obscenity’. The fact that Lennon got away with such songs as this as a finished product is pretty obscene too. Even so, at £18 this is a far more reasonably priced set than the White Album or McCartney ones and for that price this is worth it to hear even half a disc’s worth of worthy new material. Please, though, stop messing around with this fluff and put the complete ‘Plastic Ono band’ sessions out instead!
5) Paul McCartney and Wings “Red Rose Speedway”
I have been calling for a re-release of ‘Speedway’ in the archives collection as long and as loud as I have for ‘Wildlife’ so those of you who read our original article (at ) may be surprised it isn’t higher in this list. Well, there was a great re-issue to be had, but this isn’t it. Back in 1973 Paul had plans to properly introduce Wings to the world and came up with a double set that would have cameos by Denny Laine, Henry McCullough and Linda as well as a lot more Paul, but EMI baulked at the poor sales of ‘Wildlife’ and told him to cut it down to a single LP. Paul being Paul he threw most of the best stuff away (his biggest problem has always been that he can’t tell his good material apart from his bad). What the compilers should have done, then, is re-create that original album because it works really well: the sequence alternates being playfully brave and impressively commercial putting silly pop songs and ‘My Love’ up against band jam instrumentals and weirdness. ‘Night Out’ has long been a bootleg favourite and is perhaps the last truly great ‘missing’ McCartney song not out on something (more below!) poignant ballad ‘Mama’s Little Girl’ for daughter Mary is Paul at his melodic sweet best, ‘Jazz Street’ has Wings trying to play like The Grateful Dead fronted by Miles Davis and is odd but in a fascinating way, ‘1882’ is a classy tale of Victorian working class poverty delivered with real menace, ‘best friend’ is a cute typically Mccartney song of friendship and hurt (directed at Lennon?) and ‘Tragedy’ a sweet if depressing cover song, whist Denny charms with ‘I Would Only Smile’ (hopefully its presence on this reissue will bring him some much needed finances) and Linda with classic ‘Seaside Woman’. That’s not a bad run for a ‘re-issue’ set, especially with classic B-side ‘The Mess’ added to the line-up, but this pricey box would have been better still had we had everything in order and surrounding the original album mixes (I much prefer the bootlegger’s rawer take on ‘Big Barn Bed’ and the spacier take on ‘Loup’ while the only thing this original line-up of the album left off was the closing clumsy ‘medley’, ten minutes that almost no fan anywhere would ever miss). For once the DVD disc is the saviour of the set with no less than two full unseen TV specials: ‘James Paul Mccartney’ hasn’t been since 1973 when Paul was ‘forced’ into making it as a way of avoiding a court case with Lew Grade (it’s a complicated story but basically with Apple in court Paul was getting no income and as Linda was helping draft his songs he credited her to get some ready cash; publisher Lew Grade wasn’t happy but also ‘owned’ ITV and offered the special as a way of both of them getting money) and ‘The Bruce McMouse Show’ which is an unseen Wings concert based around the adventures of a family of mice who travelled with Wings on their tourbus, which has never been seen till now.
6) Nick Mason “Unattended Luggage”
I’ll be honest with you: I doubt there are many takers for the Pink Floyd drummer’s extra-curricular projects, the first of which (‘Fictitious Sports’) is a Carla Bley album with a guesting Robert Wyatt the pair couldn’t get a deal for so ‘borrowed’ Nick’s drumming and his name, the second of which (‘Profiles’) is a collection of jingles turned into songs by 10cc’s Rick Fenn and the third of which (‘Whites Of The Eye’) was a film soundtrack never considered ‘important’ enough to release in the 1980s. Even so, it is welcome to have all these albums out again and in many ways they are the most under-rated of the Floyd catalogue, with some quirky ideas and – on the middle album at least – a couple of moments as great as anything the Floyd did in the 1980s (such as David Gilmour working as a guest vocalist on the song ‘Lie For A Lie’). This set is also the best way to release them, with the clever and very Floydian title and some Hipgnosis style packaging making this music look and feel more at one with the rest of the band catalogue. This is, it’s true, not a set for everyone with its 1980s jazz or doodled synths and most Floyd fans are probably still paying off the seven released in 2016 (!) But if you are a fan of the drummer or even the late-period, deeply under-rated 10cc albums then these albums have never sounded better and will fill a hole in your collection much easier than seeking out the original pricy editions.
7) The Kinks “Are The Village Green Preservation Society”
What was, fifty years ago, the most obscure and worst-selling Kinks record has gained in reputation over the years to the point where many fans and critics assume it is their best and the album recently went ‘gold’ – which would have shocked everyone at Pye who didn’t even see this record make the charts on release. It is, like all the Kinks’ 1960s releases, a very clever and consistent set full of some truly great music. However we have had so many re-issues of this album down the year already (two in the past decade alone) and I can’t help but feel out out that the world should be going nuts for superior, tighter sequel ‘Arthur’ instead, an album that in contrast is getting increasingly harder to get hold of. The sad truth is that there’s very little added to this fiftieth edition that wasn’t on the three-disc deluxe version a few years back and what is here isn’t all that interesting: there is a fine live version of ‘Last Of The Steam Powered Trains’ from a European radio show I’d not heard before, some session chat and a couple of backing tracks that are nice to have. The one ‘new’ Ray Davies track ‘Time Song’, on which much of the publicity material has focussed, is really not very good at all though full of the smug side of Ray’s writing that creep into his work in the 1970s and the modern live performances of Ray with an orchestra are atrocious, even if this is how Ray always wanted to present these songs in concert at the time had he had the budget (sounds a bad move to me!) There is worth in this set, then, but not £100’s worth and while the packaging is nice I actually preferred what The Kinks did the last couple of times out. Please, no more – let’s slap a ‘preservation’ order on the album and leave it alone for at least a generation and concentrate on a Klassik Kinks LP that always gets forgotten (which is, to be honest, almost all the other 22 Kinks records).
1) Mark Knopfler “Pale Imitation”
How very Mark Knopfler – his most important, revealing, beautiful song for many years is shunted away to a bonus track on a deluxe version of his new album where only a small handful of his most faithful followers will ever hear it. This song would, after all, be a game-changer if the greater world heard it as Mark recalls the moment when he turned his life around. As we’ve seen many times on our website he was late to the success game, getting his breakthrough aged twenty-nine after a decade married to his childhood sweetheart he was in the middle of divorcing and making ends meet as a lecturer and journalist. Here Mark happens to be passing where he used to live and is struck by seeing a blonde haired child who looks at first glance just like his young self. Though it isn’t, the child his ‘replacement’, he is moved enough by his doppelganger’s gaze to wonder how he must seem to the boy and how his adult self might well seem to his younger self. Figuring that while to every other adult whose settled for less he’s doing quite nicely for a boy from the slums of Newcastle, with well-paid jobs behind him, he also realises that he could never match his old dreams of being a pirate or king. Insteads he vows to make life better in a way his inner child would understand – which for him is clearly music and what sets him on his road to Dire Straits, though of course he doesn’t quite say that here. The result is a moving wistful song full of Mark’s characteristic big heart and eye for detail he wears so well on all his working class characters, but this time turned very much on his younger self. Magnificent.
2) David Crosby “Vagrants Of Venice”
The best of Mr Crosby’s exceptional latest batch of songs, this is a real warning message for our times. Set in the not too distant future global warming affects everyone, educated and poverty stricken alike, and turns us into uncaring isolated islands separated by water like Venice only nowhere near as romantic. The poor, never had the benefits of what their rich colleagues enjoyed before the ecological crisis began to hit but they pay for it all the same. Thoughtful words, a haunting melody and some stunning vocals make this one of the best Crosby efforts in a very long time.
3) Paul McCartney and Wings “Night Out”
At long last this bootleg regular can come and join the official AAA canon now that it has been included on the ‘Red Rose Speedway’ deluxe edition. A typically bonkers Wings piece from the period, it features one of the band’s toughest backing tracks based around a fiery snappy guitar riff and multiple criss-crossing Mccartney vocals debating what to do to spend their money at the end of a hard working week. The answer of ‘night out…party!’ might not be the most deeply thought out moment released all year but it is good fun and the punchy mix is delightfully menacing with Paul’s vocals so mithered in the smog of the backing track they sound as if they are fighting to get out.
1) The Beach Boys “Songs For The Soul” (Radio 4)
I’m not sure I quite buy this show – with even more pontificating about certain famous songs than even we do with half an hour dedicated to a single song – but there’s a good documentary in here somewhere. Discussing Brian’s decline and emotional needs, this song looks at the creation of ‘God Only Knows’. Alas there didn’t seem to be much discussion here of what a collaborative effort this was, with Tony Asher actually writing the words, but several people close to The Beach Boys do talk and what they say made a lot of sense: the words and music really are the perfect fit for this song as if they always belonged together, the risk of starting a love song with ‘I may not always love you’ and using the word ‘God’ in the title was a hugely brave thing to do, the sheer strangeness of having such a melancholy song out in the middle of such a sunny decade and The Beach Boys were both brighter and weirder than anyone ever gave them credit for. I’m not sure I could sit through a whole series of these programmes but there are some nice points well made, with Brian’s children remembering their dad composing it and playing it to their mum particularly moving (‘the moment we realised our parents had a life beyond ourselves’). There’s also clever sparing use of the song across the show heard in many different versions including the lovely sleepy ‘Hawaiian rehearsal’ version from 1967 and various cover versions (all of which are too slow by half!) I could have done without so many ‘this song means a lot to me because I got married to it’ type stories though.
2) “John and Yoko – Above Us Only Sky” (Channel 4)
Well, this was a weird one. Back when John and Yoko were making their ‘Imagine’ album they filmed around eighty hours worth of footage of everything (and I do mean everything, including the bathroom breaks!) Around four of these hours have come out now on various ‘Imagine’ promos, a ‘classic albums’ series episode dedicated to the album and the ‘Imagine’ career documentary film released in 1988. Rather than just tell the making of the story all over again, though, this 90 minute show was half and half the footage seen and unseen and half the John and Yoko love story told all over again. Both are flawed but had their moments with some great ‘extra’ material of George Harrison rehearsing with the others awkwardly mute and a whole cut sequence of John and Yoko filmed in a mirror while in a New York hotel waiting to do the overdubs (hilariously ruined by John pretending to ‘fight’ with his guitar and nearly bringing down a chandelier!) We also get Julian Lennon as he is now talking about his memories of the Tittenhurst house where the album was made and some priceless extra footage of him having a sleepover with three school friends. This Yoko-sanctioned documentary feels slightly more ‘hands off’ than usual too: yes we get the same old tales of how in love they were and lots of footage of Yoko’s ‘Indica’ exhibition where John climbed a ladder to see the word ‘yes’ on the ceiling through a magnifying glass and fell for her there and then (her style of thinking really was so similar to his own). However there’s also a hilarious sequence of people associated with the record reading her book of sayings ‘Grapefruit’ then and now, various musicians angrily bursting out how ‘pretentious’ it all is with one of Julian’s friends aged eight making the perfect comment: ‘You have to imagine it I guess…otherwise it is completely and utterly pointless!’ There really wasn’t enough footage here to keep your interest across the whole running time and could have been cut down to an hour easily, but for newcomers to the story this was a well told documentary and even for the rest of us there was the sheer thrill of seeing fifteen odd minutes of ‘extra’ Lennon. Like the new set it was promoting, though, it was something of a curate’s egg.
As you’re here and clearly interested enough in our music to have got this far, a quick plug! In case you hadn’t noticed the various adverts dotted across the internet in general and this website in particular, after ten and a half years of writing we are proud to have brought you the first batch of Alan’s Album Archives music guides. Yay!!! Featuring every studio album analysed in depth, shorter reviews for spin-off solo albums, live albums, compilations and rarities sets we also find room for key concerts, cover versions, a run down of a band’s surviving TV clips, the best outtakes, an essay and extracts from what used to be a regular feature, our ‘top ten’ column looking at things shared between our thirty bands. In addition to getting everything in order you also get a couple of extra features per book not on the website: a column we’ve named ‘Thematic Threads’ that looks at regular topics that crop up a lot in the songs and imagery of our chosen songwriters and a section on three key influences who inspired a particular band to get creative. All in all they run anywhere from 300 pages to 1000 9and are priced accordingly between £3 and £6!) There are at present moment seven books released in ebook form available at these links:
‘Add Some Music To Your Day – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…The Beach Boys’
‘Every Little Thing – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…The Beatles’
‘Rollercoaster Ride – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…Belle and Sebastian’
‘Flying On The Ground Is Wrong – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…Buffalo Springfield’
‘All The Things – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…The Byrds’
‘Change Partners – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’
‘Solid Rock – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…Dire Straits’
Keep your eyes peeled in 2019 for the next twelve volumes of our exciting series (all being well and assuming illness/Brexit/Trump/Putin/The Clandusprod aliens don’t interfere with our deadlines!):
In January 2019: ‘High Time – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…The Grateful Dead’
In February 2019: ‘Unknown Delight – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…George Harrison’
In March 2019: ‘Reflections Of A Time Long Past – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…The Hollies’
In April 2019: ‘Wild Thyme – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship’
In May 2019: ‘Little Girl Blue – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…Janis Joplin’
In June 2019: ‘Maximum Consumption – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…The Kinks’
In July 2019: ‘Remember – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…John Lennon’
In August 2019: ‘Passing Ghosts – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…Lindisfarne’
In September 2019: ‘Smile Away – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…Paul McCartney and Wings’
In October 2019: ‘Every Step Of The Way – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of….The Monkees’
In December 2019: ‘Little By Little – The Alan’s Album Archives Guide To The Music Of…Oasis’
In addition, once the second drafts are finished we have plans to release a free ‘best of’ edition featuring one article each per all of our thirty books and hopefully we will be able to make each of these books ‘physical’ paperback copies, with the Beach Boys, Beatles and CSNY editions each divided into two. We will always keep you posted on the site and will add links for everything when it is up and running, along with our usual lengthy review of any ‘new’ AAA albums out next year. Till then thankyou for reading, a very merry Christmas and may you have the most fantastic year!
You can now buy 'Every Step Of The Way - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Monkees' in e-book form by clicking
The Monkees “Christmas Party” (2018)
Unwrap You At Christmas/What Would Santa Do?/Mele Kalikimaka/The House Of Broken Gingerbread/The Christmas Song/Christmas Party/Jesus Christ/I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day/Silver Bells/Wonderful Christmas Time/Snowfall/Angels We Have Heard On High/Merry Christmas Baby/Riu Chiu/Christmas Is My Time Of The Year
Hey hey we are the Christmas Monkees
You know we love to please
A return to our manufactured image
With novelty Christmas trees
We feature all four Monkees
Even though there isn’t one
That is to say its mainly Micky
With a cameo from pete and Mike now Davy has gone
Though somehow it doesn’t matter
Because what fans always longed to see
Was a Monkees LP on Christmas Day
Wrapped beneath the tree
But it will jump from 1966 to 2018
And by the time we’ve lurched in time
It’s not just the trees that are green
As you long for The Monkees in their prime
For those who look for meanings
And form as they do fact
They’ll say it’s just a Christmas CD
And dismiss it along with all that tinsel crap
Come new year many fans will put it back in a box
Their players never again to grace
While others will go weak at the knees for Micky’s voice
No matter the time or place
We know its manufactured more than normal
To that we all agree
But in Monkees tradition this is a truly weird
And fitting Xmas CD
Hey hey they are still The Monkees
Even if they are no longer four
The money’s in, they’re made of tin
But they didn’t have to give us more
‘Here They come
Egg-nogging down the street
Because they’re tired of Christmas TV
And all the same old repeats’
This, dear readers, is a very weird CD. The Monkees are, it has to be said a very weird band. At their best their unusual birth as a manufactured pop group and the fact that the four genuinely talented people in it both hated that image and had four musical backgrounds that couldn’t have been more different from each other meant that their strangest moments (mostly on ‘Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd’ ‘Birds, Bees and Monkees’ and especially ‘Head’) are amongst some of the most pioneeringly indescribably bonkers music there is out there. Their return to fame and fortune two years ago with the hugely well received ‘Good Times’ (the first Monkees reunion album to go down well at the third time of asking) succeeded most when it was being self-consciously, undeniably weird, such as when Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher were clubbing together to deliver a 21st century psychedelic epic or Mike Nesmith was writing a typically impenetrable love song. The obvious move to go from there was always to accentuate the weird, to cut out the pop songs and make the most of their newfound standing to make it clear to the public just how courageously weird a lot of their back catalogue is. However The Monkees have never done the obvious thing and instead their next move is to make the seasonal cash-in album everyone expected them to make in 1967. So obvious is a Monkees album that I have genuinely seen reviews of this album saying ‘well, it doesn’t match up to the old one’ or ‘they sound just like they did on their last seasonal record’ – even though the closest The Monkees ever came are two songs buried away on the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition of this album: the hugely impressive five-voice a capella rendition of traditional Spanish carol ‘Riu Chiu’ from the one and only festive episode of their TV series and a sweet unreleased single Micky and Davy made in 1976 when no record labels wanted to know and extend members of this band an olive branch even at Christmas.
A festive album in 1966 when The Monkees were so big they would have had a million seller reading out haikus or again in 1976 when the band were all out of contract and all needed the money would have made perfect sense. Sitting here in 2018 it makes absolutely no sense at all: a Christmas album is traditionally what you do if your manager wants to milk your talent because he or she doesn’t think it will last into the new year or what a band does when they can’t think of anything else. Surely neither of these are true: Fifty-two years on The Monkees have long escaped their ‘next big craze’ tag to become a much loved and cherished section of the world’s record shops, the sort of band that give you a warm nostalgic glow and a smile, the legacy all bands long for even more than record sales and a cabinet of trophies. The Monkees also felt reborn in 2016, with the world’s best from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s all queuing up to be a part of ‘Good Times’ and a sound that covered all the years from 1966-1970 so well that you never knew what was coming next (even if, in truth, only a fraction of it really sounded like The Monkees). They are a band that, again, can go anywhere and do anything – which for all the better material on ‘Pool It’ in 1986 and the better band bonhomie on ‘JustUs’ in 1996 made ‘Good Times’ feel the most Monkees-like of the band’s trio of reunion albums, even more than the unfinished backing tracks and guest appearances from the archive. The Monkees have at last escaped the black box they always resented being put into as well as they are ever going to escape it – and instead they dive straight back into it again with the tackiest musical concept and most blatant cash-in any band can ever possibly make. I still can’t decide if this is a big mistake or the most Monkees thing ever. Whether The Monkees discussed this follow-up as a joke and then got deeply into it, or whether there was a scientist in the background going ‘You will be Christmas number one’ and the band replied ‘No I am a real musician…yes I will have a Christmas number one’.
This is a feeling I can’t quite shake off the whole album. There is, to be fair, a lower expectation that goes with a Christmas album where the best you can hope for is that everyone sings in tune and doesn’t ruin anything too much. On that level this album is a success – much more so than almost every other AAA Christmas album in fact (The Beach Boys’ famous LP is ruined by the tinselly orchestra on side two that’s more sugary than candy canes; The Moody Blues’ December’ makes me wish the band would all get their voices back in time for next Christmas; only Simon and Garfunkel’s half-planned record of Christmas carols has any class and the two songs they made for it didn’t even come out for thirty years). Micky Dolenz was always one of the best singers in the business and still sounds impressively like his old self from fifty years ago – if I have to hear the same old boring carols done over again then hurrah for it being done by someone who can actually, you know, sing. These songs aren’t entirely the usual suspects either with some real surprises in there good and bad: who would ever have dreamed that the surviving Monkees, all in their seventies, would kickstart this LP with their most overtly sexual song (the jaw-dropping ‘I’d like to unwrap you at Christmas’ which has Micky, uh, filling his stocking and is enough to make your Great Aunt choke on her brussel sprouts even if she was enough of a Monkee fan to understand that this sexual element was always sort-of there). Who would have taken bets that, when the inevitable question of cover versions came up and someone mentioned how The Monkees are The Beatles’ younger siblings, they would plump not for Lennon’s obvious ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ (a song so powerful even the worst singers can’t ruin it) and instead go for Wings’ openly hasted ‘Wonderful ChristmasTime’ (which is, let’s face it, a song even a singer of Paul McCartney’s calibre make listenable). Who would have guessed that this album would feature a cover of Big Star’s semi-controversial (did they mean it? is it sarcasm?) ‘Jesus Christ’? Who would have guessed that Mike Nesmith, surely the most out-there Monkee in his heyday and indeed on ‘Good Times’, would provide the album’s most traditional arrangement with a rendition of Claude Thornhill’s ‘Snowfall’ that sounds more like the Ratpack than Frank Sinatra does on his Christmas records. Who would have guessed that Micky would be singing a powerful song about loss and divorce masquerading as a song about gingerbread? And if, as might well be the case, this is The Monkees’ honest-to-goodness goodbye, then who would ever have guessed that the last word would go not to a Micky pop song or a postmodernist Nesmith original but to a traditional folk tune sung by Peter? Whether you were expecting a repeat of ‘Good Times’ or a more traditional Christmas album from a band who are still most famous for making money from singing what their managers told them to sing you are in for a surprise.
I would be surprised if this is the end this time though, actually. ‘Good Times’ felt like it wrapped everything up in a neat bow and was a thankyou to fans – this album doesn’t have quite the same impact somehow. That means The Monkees can’t possibly surely leave their reputation resting with this. The sad truth though is that 2018 has not been a good year in Monkeedom. Mike has been desperately ill, collapsing backstage at a gig and leading the band to postpone a few dates – something that has never happened before in their history. Peter has not that long ago recovered from a cancer scare and begged off the last Mike/Micky tour after a frightening episode with a stalker. And we lost poor Davy six years ago now. The biggest problem with ‘Good Times’ was that it was a Micky Dolenz solo album with a few cameos – admittedly not a major problem when you have a voice like Micky’s, but a bit of a waste given the chance to get the guys back together again for a last hurrah. On this album the problem is worse, with Mike singing lead on just two songs and Peter just one, even though there is a more understandable reason this time around. It is a real shame though given the Christmas spirit of goodwill and brotherly love that there isn’t just a wee bit more Monkee interaction on here, a Micky backing vocal and a Peter or Mike guitar lick here. Instead it sounds like three highly varying solo albums (Micky’s modern, Mike’s traditional, Peter’s in a completely separate world of his own) more than a Monkees effort (the one time Mike and Micky do this, reviving their astonishingly close harmonic blend on the backing vocals overdubbed onto the end of ‘Silver Bells’, is the single most moving moment of the record, so why isn’t there more of this?) As with last time out the dips into the archive might well be the best things on here too because they have a more readily recognisable sound. It was a gift for the compilers of this set that Davy had a whole obscure festive album to pick from (‘Christmas Jones’) which was heavily delayed and few people bought. ‘Mele Kalikimaka’ (thankfully not The Beach Boys one) is not the song I would have picked, though its Hawaiian cheer is at least closer to what fans would people would have been expecting from a Monkees Christmas album. However ‘Silver Bells’ is beautiful, Davy at his best on a Christmas song that could have been written with him in mind full of childlike awe and innocence and just a dash of wistful sadness.
However it’s the little-heard ‘Christmas Is My Time Of Year’ by Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart, released solely to the few loyal Monkees fanclub members still remaining by 1976, which is the only song here that really sounds like a Monkees ‘Christmas’ song: upbeat, uptempo, full of joy and love, it seems strange to think that it was sent out to the world (or a small fraction of it at least) at a time when The Monkees’ stock was never lower and the music and TV worlds still largely blamed them for everything that had gone wrong since 1966. Having this track at the end, while sensible in sending the album out on a high (deluxe editions at least) does however show up what an oddly sad Christmas album this is. I stress this album isn’t a Johnny Cash slit-your-wrists type Christmas record about how a poor boy who only got two lumps of coal in his stocking gave one away to charity. But it is, I would say, the saddest Monkees record. Once Micky has stopped being lustful on the opening track he’s singing ‘Bah Humbug!’ and saying that grinches are everywhere while wanting to punch everyone for being so miserable, sobbing over a ‘house of gingerbread’ and wishing he was in Hawaii. Mike roasts chestnuts on an open fire so slowly and with such sadness even the pedal steel guitar part sounds right at home, while his pick of ‘Snowfall’ and Peter’s of ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’ aren’t exactly traditionally happy traditional songs. Even Davy isn’t exactly a ball of fun here with the sort of voice that is really enjoying Christmas but is still worried about what will happen in the new year. Only the Wizzard and Mccartney covers sound like ‘real’ Christmas and even they are sung oddly slowly. This is not just your normal Christmas record, its not even your normal Monkees Christmas record and putting ‘My Time Of The Year’ only shows up how unexpected this feeling is.
This is, in truth, a patchy album. I wasn’t that sure about the song contributions from members of XTC and Weezer last time out and they don’t sound any more Monkees-like when turned into Christmas songs thanks to some even dodgier lyrics (‘The reindeer were hoofing on the roof!’) and having some holly and tinsel and sleigh bells forced on top. Of Micky’s contributions only the snappy beat of ‘Christmas Party’ and the sombre tones of ‘Broken Gingerbread’ sound like they really give him any real chance to show off his range and talent. Mike’s songs are growing on me but still sound far too square for a record that begins too, well, uhh, circly I suppose with ‘Unwrap You At Christmas’. Peter once again sounds like he needs new teeth for Christmas and doesn’t have anywhere near enough to do even though the loss of Davy should be exactly the right moment for his very valuable and under-rated talent to blossom. That leaves us with ‘Silver Bells’ from the 1980s, ‘Christmas Is My Time Of The Year’ from the 1970s and especially ‘Riu Chiu’ from the 1960s as the best of the record. However even then this isn’t an album that gets everything or simply settles for taking the easy way out. There are some great moments scattered across this CD if you search for them, like coins tucked away in a stodgy figgy pudding. The use of Davy’s voice praising the Monkees TV production team at the end of their Christmas episode at the start of ‘Christmas Party’ is genius, so in keeping with the Monkees message and a chance to make Davy feel more ‘involved’. The arrangement of ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’ adds a really delicious minor key chord progression break in between the verses that makes it more than just another cover. The slower, lusher, acoustic ‘n’ orchestral ‘Wonderful ChristmasTime’ is so clearly the way to go over Wings’ synth-heavy treatment that you wonder how Macca let that trick slip past him, even in a year when synths were brand new and ‘cool’. ‘Merry Christmas Baby’ is sung in a way that it’s never been sung before as a slowed down blues delivered with a cheeky wink. There’s a gorgeous oh so Nesmith guitar solo hidden away in the middle of ‘Gingerbread’ that really took me by surprise, a late Christmas present from a band to fans that most won’t even notice. This is a rare Christmas record that’s clearly had a lot of heart and love and care and attention and thought given to it – even if it’s one that again treats The Monkees rather like extras on their own album (especially Peter) without much actual active thought from them (and without the excuse of making a TV show at the same time as per the 1960s) and doesn’t always make the best choices of material or arrangements after all that thought. I would have put money on the Frank Zappa gag from ‘Head’ turning up here though (‘That song was pretty white’ ‘And I tell you something else too – the same thing goes for Christmas!’ In fact that’s a point. Isn’t ‘Mike’ – or at least the Monkee version of Mike – meant to hate the festive period, even shocking his ‘friends’ by saying it at a party when they’re quite happy for everyone in the room to make jokes at the disabled. Or maybe he was just in a cross mood back in 1968 because his presents were all wool-hats in different colours?)
Christmas records are never meant to be the highlights of an artist’s back catalogue. They aren’t meant to set the pulses racing or be known for their courage or be even played much into the new year until December comes round again. On that score The Monkees deliver more than they need to with some genuinely great gifts in here. At the same time, though, it feels like a waste given the album they could have made and even if they absolutely had to make a Christmas album there are many better ways to make it than this: get in a new lot of Monkee fan contributors, get the three remaining members at least there for the vocal overdubs and for goodness sake let them write something, even if it’s a sequel to ‘Shorty Blackwell’ involving reindeer or ‘Last Train To Santa’s Grotto’ or ‘Snow Goes Love’ or ‘Tinsel Tundra’ or ‘Randy Scouse Santa’ or ‘I Wanna Be Three’ or something. As a Christmas record its kinda ok, with some ambition and some good performances – it’s as a Monkees album it doesn’t stack up while as a Monkees Christmas record it’s….weird, full of downbeat lascivious and occasionally square renditions of Christmas songs old and new that have never been together on a festive album before and probably never will again. It is, you could say, the sort of a record an artist could only get away with putting out at Christmas and yet the band would surely have sold twice as many copies by now if it sounded even a tiny bit like everyone expected a Monkees Christmas record to sound.
Many teenage Monkee fans probably dreamed of one of The Monkees promising to undress them, but to be honest most were probably dreaming of Davy and weren’t dreaming of Micky singing it to them at the age of seventy-three. Better late than never for some I suppose but Andy Partridge’s ‘Unwrap You At Christmas’ sounds even more like an XTC song than his contributions to ‘Good Times’. Micky is game to break his ‘character’, lustfully purring as if he’s the lovechild of Prince and Madonna and would sound rather good if he wasn’t battling against fifty-two years in the spotlight as a sweet teenage pin-up. So good is the vocal that you almost miss what this song is really about – stripping a girl beneath a Christmas tree because he’s been waiting all year to get his girl naked. You wonder what her side of the story is and why she’s been rejecting him all year – maybe Micky’s narrator just isn’t listening to the word ‘no’ or maybe he’s just too shy to actually talk to her and express his feelings? Either way, his promise that ‘on Christmas Day you will be standing here’ feels more like a threat than romantic somehow. Not that ‘this’ Micky sounds shy but more possessed, subverting against the very innocent 1950s doo-wop sound of the song for something a lot odder and the inevitable Christmas sleigh bells and xylophone only add to the mixture of adult and childish glee. This song shows again that Andy’s favourite Monkee period is surely the ‘Head’ era, when The Monkees were unpopular enough to risk breaking their reputation and go all-out further than any liberal group people still paying attention to would ever dare and that’s my favourite era too. This song, though, feels wrong in a way ‘Head’ never did, more interested in making Micky sound like a criminal than a rounded character who is more than just a teenage idol. I’m all for innocent fun and there’s a place in music for these sort of songs, but the problem is Micky is such a good interpreter he’s instantly got the lust this song is ‘really’ about and conveys it so well it doesn’t feel like innocent fun anymore. A most odd opening to a most odd record.
Rivers Cuomo of the band Weezer may not be as bad as that band’s legendarily bad standing reputation in the music would suggest (they’re better than, well, The Spice Girls for one) but he’s hardly doing himself any favours with another generic Monkees contribution that suggests he still hasn’t heard any of their records yet. ‘What Would Santa Do?’ has a great pop chorus and more good use of sleigh bells, but again this is a most unlikely Christmas song. Micky is wondering why everybody is so grumpy in this period of festive cheer and goodwill to all men. But what’s his solution to the misery he sees around him in a world full of grinches spat out by a system that doesn’t care about them 364 days of the year and then expects them to prop up the economic system with extra sales for all their friends at yuletide? ‘I’d like to take my fist and sock ‘em in the mouth!’ Hmm, this is a second Micky narrator in a row to sound, well, nasty and once again Micky is such a good cover artist that he gets a little bit too far into character. While another sourer more sarcastic band could have made this song soar it’s a track written for The Pogues or The Smiths, not The Monkees and also for a second song in a row we get session musicians delivering a Monkee-lite ‘tribute act’ backing band with no sign of anyone but Micky from the ‘real’ group. What would Alan’s Album Archives do? Well I wouldn’t be doing this for a start. Even the idea that we should all stop being grouchy and start acting like Santa can’t rescue a song that’s too full of coal to suddenly give us sugar canes. And anyway if I was to act more like Santa as Micky wants me to the rest of this review would simply consist of 8000 words of me going ‘ho ho ho’ and telling Christmas cracker jokes and that’s no good to anybody (‘How many qualifications does Santa have? Three Ho-Ho-Ho levels!’ ‘What does Santa use in the garden? A hoe-hoe-hoe’ ‘Where does Santa go to dance? The snow-ball!’See, I told you, no good to anyone).
‘Mele Kelikimaka’ means ‘Dear God, turn this album off, put Alan’s Album Archives down and start carving the turkey pronto!’ Actually it still means ‘Merry Christmas’ in Hawaiian’ just as it did when The Beach Boys sang the same phrase in 1977 but this is only a marginally less excruciating song. It is, in fact, an older standard written by Hawaiian native Robert Alexander Andersen whose sunny neighbourhood and songwriting style enabled him to live to the ripe old age of 101. Alas Davy only made it to sixty-six and we miss his presence on ‘Christmas Party’ even more than ‘Good Times’ because he surely would have been perfectly cast for a Monkees Christmas record. Davy first recorded this song and ‘Silver Bells’ with legendary Monkee producer Chip Douglas in 1976 but the unpopularity of The Monkees meant we didn’t get a ‘finished’ version until the 1980s and even then Davy tinkered with the track selection another twice in the 1980s and 2000s. ‘Christmas Jones’ is a flawed record for the entirely opposite reasons to ‘Christmas Party’ in that it plays everything too safe and keeps Davy firmly in his ‘artful dodger pixie’ role. Even so, he got closer to the spirit of Christmas than the rest of the band and there are some real goodies on that album – a sweet ‘Silent Night’, an impressively ‘straight’ rendition of forgotten carol ‘On This Day In Bethlehem’ and Chip’s own rather good festive song ‘When I Look Back On Christmas’ which I would have gladly taken over ‘Kelikimaka’ any day. However it is still one of this album’s better cuts, mostly because despite being taped in Hawaii in a Summer heatwave Davy really hails the Christmas spirit and the audio equivalent of freezing to death while gathered round a fire and looking forward to the new year. Davy sounds as if he ‘belongs’ in this world of bells and sleigh-rides more than the other three and he was still in good voice by 1976. It’s the song that pals quickly, with nothing much to say other than ‘this is how we say Merry Christmas in Hawaiian!’ which is grounds more for a language course lecture than an actual song. It’s a sweet gesture to have the old boy back though and I’m glad Monkee fans get to hear at least some of this forgotten record again.
The Monkees’ 21st century producer Adam Schlesinger was the ‘hero’ of ‘Good Times’, co-ordinating the project, getting the budget and sticking all the disparate parts together. As a reward he deserved his song on that record ‘Our Own World’ even though it was one of the worst. For this album Adam teamed up with short story writer and came up with ‘The House Of broken Gingerbread’, easily the best of this album’s ‘new’ songs. Here the pop groove really works when set against less sugary lyrics than normal as Micky does what he’s born to do and digs into some real emotion on a song that matches ‘Blue Christmas’ for misery. This is a couple going through the motions at Christmas but they know they aren’t going to last long into the new year: their presents are in two separate piles full of very different things, Micky plays their child – he’s told he’ll have ‘double the Christmas’ with two parents to share the holidays with, but it feels like so much less than half the old days with less joy and frolics. His gingerbread house lying broken in the middle of treats is the perfect metaphor for something that used to be so full of sugary fun and he no longer feels innocent enough to enjoy the Christmas spirit, touched as the young lad is by all the things that went wrong since last year. Micky sighs his way through a verse of what he says to keep the peace but clearly doesn’t believe: ‘My stepmom is cool, dad gave me a brother, mom promised me a log’. However all the cakes and goodies in the world can’t make up for the gnawing empty feeling he holds inside him. With the great line that Christmas is still there but ‘St Nick and the three wise men got lost on the way’ and that ‘the mistletoe is hanging by a thread’ this song’s depth and reality check is the perfect counter-attack for the usual Christmas fair and is somehow far more Monkees-like even if it is as unfestive as this album’s other lesser moments. By 2018 many Monkee fans are on their second, third or more marriages, with an inevitable amount of broken homes along the way. Given that the sheer process of owning a Monkees album is giving a lot of this audience pangs of nostalgias for how they wanted their lives to turn out anyway this song must have come as a real emotional shock to a lot of people. This is also one of the best performances on the album – not only for Micky, who is almost always good, but for the quiet nagging harmony vocal from Mike underneath and a real sense of drama from the backing musicians who keep stabbing us with holly every time they open the tinsel box across the course of the song. One of the best things on the record.
Nobody remembers ‘The Christmas Song’ by that title – most people know it by its first line ‘Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire’. Mel Torme wrote the song originally as a gag; he was talking to co-writer Bob Wells that as the day was too hot to think straight maybe they should write a Christmas song full of snow imagery to cool them off? Nat King Cole had the first hit with the song in 1946 and Mike (who turned four the week the single peaked) doesn’t stay too far from that arrangement at all. Papa Nez manages to throw in a country vibe to the arrangement, with lashings of melancholy pedal steel to counteract the happy sleigh bells, but he sings this as close to a crooning laidback style as he can manage. His voice is, alas, a lot frailer than Micky’s and he doesn’t sing as well as he used to, but the dense production gives his vocals a ‘blanket of snow’ that allows him to just about get away with this frailty and he does, to be fair, sing this song rather better than Frank Sinatra ever did in the second half of his life. The real problem with this song is that its thrown us another curve-ball by not throwing a curve-ball after three straight songs of trying to give us the most unlikely Monkee Christmas songs ever. It is as if Mike got an entirely different brief to Micky to make a ‘traditional’ album and alas there are no Dolenz or Tork harmonies to help the song move along even though the arrangement badly needs something there to go along with Mike’s fading voice. The result sounds much more like a Nesmith solo album than Mike’s contributions to ‘Good Times’ and a little too safe and sure for an album that otherwise is more interested in ducking the obvious than decking the halls.
The one new celebrity friend taking part on this album after ‘Good Times’ is REM’s Peter Buck - and he’s about as unlikely a choice for a Monkees re union album as Andy Partridge and Paul Weller were. Interestingly his title song ‘Christmas Party’ is much more traditionally ‘Christmassy’ than any of the other ‘new’ songs on the album even though it retains REM’s loud and decidedly unfestive rocking beat. Micky sounds good, again, on a song that demands an entirely different performance from him on a vocal that oozes and purrs rather than rocks, working against the stomping feet of the rest of the band. Lyrically this is the dumbest song on the album: refuting what he sings later, Micky tells us that he’s glad it isn’t Christmas every year because having one party a year is special and its so epic he takes the rest of the year to recover! However the music works well and the arrangement is full of great touches from the ringing sea of backing guitars (including the first backwards guitar on a Monkees recording since the abandoned takes of ‘Valleri’ and ‘Words’ in 1967), to Micky on the karaoke machine doing his James Brown impression for the first time since 1967 (!) to the sweet opening snippet of Davy’s giggled comments from Monkees TV episode ‘The Christmas Show’ (‘I don’t know who he is or he is’ he says pointing to the army of soundmen and cameramen in the clip, ‘but anyway have a cool Yule!’) I’m less sure about the big finale: Micky yells that last year ‘the cops had to shut us down twice!’ after which the song stops and we get a brief reprise which is less a guitar solo and more like a guitar squiggle. Still, this sounds like the kind of party I want to join in with and you can’t say more for a simple song like this than that.
For my money Big Star’s best album is the one nobody ever talks about, their final one recorded in acrimony and released by a splintered band to a public that ignored it, simply titled ‘Third’ (though some fans know it as ‘Sister Lovers’, its original more controversial working title). A controversial song then (1975) and now was ‘Jesus Christ’, not least because Alex Chilton’s Christmas Carol appeared slap-bang in the middle of a decidedly non-festive LP. Debate still rages: why was this song there? Was this tale of Jesus’ birth sung straight, with sarcasm or was (as is my preferred reading) Alex meaning everything at face value while his bandmates were taking the piss out of him? What did he mean when Jesus was born ‘today’ – is this a future Jesus or is Alex time-travelling back to Bethlehem? Was this song written, as many assume, to ‘break’ his image as a rebellious hellraiser (many people, on first seeing the title on the record and knowing of Big Star’s reputation, assumed this was going to be a Satanist track). Nicking bits left right and centre from existing carols (most notably an opening burst from ‘Once In Royal David’s City’) this is more of a collage than a song and the original sounds not so much as if we’re at church than as if we are high on drugs. Which makes it a brave move for a Christmas record that’s not afraid to take chances. Micky once more nails this song by delivering a vocal somewhere between reverence and sarcasm and somehow this means that everybody wins – if you are a believer then this is a song about the son of God being born; if you are a non-believer then Micky is in on the joke too. Like many a Chilton ballad this is also quite a beautiful song behind the stuff going on across the surface and has a most lovely rising-and-falling tune that really does sound like a Christmas carol. It also has lots of space for warm harmonies, though sadly this is another missed album opportunity as these are mostly performed by Adam Schlesinger with no other Monkee accompaniment.
Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’ is one of those songs that’s everywhere between the beginning of November and the middle of January. It seems strange to think that when The Monkees split the first time in 1970 this song didn’t exist yet and wouldn’t for another three years and indeed won’t become a ‘standard’ for another couple yet (shockingly it peaked at #4 in the UK charts the first time around). Over-familiarity has, as it has with almost every rock and roll Christmas song, ruined this Roy Wood tune forever but it was a good song once with an actually very rock and roll plea that every day should be an excuse for a party and goodwill to everyone, not just the Christmas holidays. There is, in truth, more padding in the verses than there is in a Christmas dinner with antics of reindeers and snowmen that seem to belong to an entirely different song altogether. It is, though, a good song and the first chance Micky has on this album to deliver what people would be expecting from a Monkees Christmas album. It is, too, a fitting choice: Wizzard were pioneers of ‘glam rock’ which was the first real youthful music movement to come along after The Monkees with its bright colours and cartoonish exaggerations of personalities. Wizzard owe more, in fact, to The Monkees’ style than they do to Roy Wood’s old band ‘The Move’, with Christmas singles an obvious move for glam rockers (Slade did rather well with theirs too, but this is the better song compared to ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’). Thankfully The Monkees arrangement adds a little extra too: there are no massive harmonies (Wizzard’s original had a children’s choir) and the performance is acoustic here, with no instruments ‘plugged in’ which gives the song a folkier flavour and takes it to a fractionally more melancholy place that suits it. After all the sentiment is closer to sadness than joy really: why can’t it be Christmas every day?
Davy, though, is The Monkees’ Christmas expert as another song from ‘Christmas Jones’ proves. ‘Silver Bells’ was always one of the best performances on the album and this 1951 film song (from poverty tale ‘The Lemon Drop Kid’) is right up Davy’s street. The song was allegedly inspired by songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans passing the Salvation Army trying to call out to the homeless with free food and shelter over the festive period and while the lyric isn’t that obvious the song retains much of that inner melancholy. This is a narrator whose had a hard year in a hard life but Christmas always offers new chance of hope and salvation. This is, notably, a song set not on Christmas but in the days leading up to it, yearning for something brilliant to come. Davy sounds terrific on Chip Douglas’ moving arrangement and the few slight modern-day tweaks to get this recording in line with the rest of the album is less off-putting than on ‘Kelikimaka’. The result might be a song rejected in 1976 and ignored on three separate releases but is still easily the best thing here. Christmas isn’t just about the people who are there but the people who are missing, which makes Davy’s return appearance here so right and proper as he marvels at how beautiful life can be seen with new eyes, with even ‘stop-lights’ blinking brighter than usual and a stillness behind the mayhem of the shoppers.
Even I don’t usually have a good word to say about ‘Wonderful ChristmasTime’, a song that’s easily in the bottom five all time Paul McCartney songs from a man whose released about 500 of them in his lifetime. I’ve always maintained that Lennon and McCartney were roughly equal talents with more similarities than differences across their career – however the gulf between the political power of ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ and the triviality of this song tells you everything you need to know about John at his best and Paul at his worst. Released as Wings’ last single in 1979 (though recorded by Paul alone on his new synthesisers) many considered it karma when Paul was locked up in a Tokyo prison cell a couple of weeks later (though this was, technically, for drug possession). A woeful song about having a good time with no ambition beyond that, this crass song is designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator and sell more records with its advertisement-style riff and simple C Major chords. The fact that this song’s biggest hook is based around the word ‘simply’ rather says it all and you can almost hear Paul’s mindset at work on this one (how can I get away with a song this simple? Do I make a B-side or, hey, how about a Christmas song that everyone’s too drunk to pay attention to anyway? Sorted). Wings look rightly embarrassed miming to this song in a crazy promo video but at least they were paid to do it. Micky has no reason to cover this track – and yet against the odds he still finds something in it. Slowing the song down a fraction was a really clever move, giving this song a frisson of sadness and nostalgia for Christmases past (indeed it now sounds much more like another Mccartney 1980s single delivering just that, ‘Once Upon A long Ago’). Moving everything off the cold-hearted synthesisers and onto ‘real’ instruments gives this song a new warm glow, with the plucked strings sounding far more pleasant to the ears than anything on the original. Paul recorded this one in a semi-sarcastic arch way, but Micky sings it straight here. The result is a recording of a song that’s still pretty empty but which knocks spots off the original and proves once again that The Monkees were more than just an inferior Beatles copy band.
‘Snowfall’ is a more natural place for Mike to be than ‘The Christmas Song’. The backing on this one feels very like a ‘national band’ kind of performance despite the same glossy orchestra and glossy production sheen. Indeed it’s a dead ringer for ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’, another standard Mike recorded reverentially way back when on 1971’s ‘Nevada Fighter’. A bunch of The Monkees’ modern little elf helpers also flesh out the backing vocals this time, though sadly there’s still no Micky or Peter. Produced, as with the other song, by Mike’s son Jonathan with brother Christian playing guitar, this jazz standard from the 1940s doesn’t sound as much of an anachronism as it seems on paper. Even so it’s a shame this haiku-like tale of falling snowflakes isn’t just a tad braver or more Monkees like. You would be hard pressed to know the original was quite daring in its day, breaking the tradition of verse-chorus-verse and with jazz chords still not that common in the pop market. Mike just sounds like an old crooner again here and his performance isn’t as strong as on ‘The Christmas Song’ even if the arrangement and everyone else taking part play much better. The last time we saw The Monkees in snow it was the middle of ‘Head’ and the sequence for Carole King’s ‘As We Go Along’, one of the most daring rule-breaking songs ever taped. This is, by contrast, a simple sleepy standard that hasn’t been changed much from the original at all.
‘Angels We Have Heard On High’ is the only presence of Peter Tork on the album, which is again the biggest missed opportunity of yet another Monkees reunion album. Predictably Peter’s brought his banjo along. Less predictably he sings the most religious song on the album (assuming, for now, that Big Star’s ‘Jesus Christ’ really is sarcastic), a traditional piece of music which is probably where ‘Ding Dong Merrily On High’ originated. Predictably, this piece of music doesn’t seem like it fits anywhere with the others and it’s a real shame Micky at least wasn’t persuaded to sing along with his own pal (for one thing it would have covered up the ugly auto-tuning on Peter’s voice, which couldn’t possibly be as distracting as hearing the real thing). Peter sounds as if he’s ailing even more than Mike, the surgery that took out part of his tongue after an operation for cancer in 2009 making its presence far more felt here than on ‘Good Times’. It’s a shame, then, that he chose a song that put quite so much emphasis on his voice, although even that seems like a typically brave album decision putting Tork’s frailness front and centre. This is, at least, a pretty tune and one well suited to banjo even if it’s a piece written, like most carols, to be sung by a whacking great congregation in a whacking great place of worship.
‘Merry Christmas Baby’ is a final oddball move from an album that doesn’t ever take the easy way out. Micky re-writes the old Les Baxter and Johnny Moore song to the point where it’s nearly unrecognisable, slowed down to a crawl and given a 12 bar blues feel. Micky’s narrator is much unhappier on this re-write too, alone at yuletide and feeling the loneliness until he sticks some records on and starts to feel better about life. He does, at least, get some presents thanks to Santa coming down the chimney, but the most hopeful line this gets from Micky is that it means ‘I ain’t had a drink yet this morning’. Micky is again the star of another performance trick that demands yet another style from him, as he’s just authentic enough to feel the blues but not so miserable he stays there. Even so, this song has no business being at the end of a festive album and is an oddly off-key, downbeat way to say goodbye to The Monkees for at least a bit longer. In contrast to last time out Micky was there - and he knows he had a rotten time. Oh and incidentally a merry Christmas to all of you at home. No, it doesn’t quite work does it? Perhaps the biggest misjudgement on the record since its opening song and an attempt at an experiment so far.
The deluxe version of the album then ends with ‘Riu Chiu’ (not the superior version already out on CD on ‘Missing Links Two’ but a direct lift of the soundtrack of TV episode ‘The Monkees’ Christmas Episode’ from 1967) and ‘Christmas Is My Time Of Year’, both easily the best things here and closer to the style most would have been expecting from a Monkees record. **These have both been reviewed by us before – and here they are!!!
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 together. The Monkees' party sound and hopeful vibes are well suited to Christmas spirit and as Davy, Micky and an inaudible Peter in his first recording with them in eight years (he had to get time off his ‘dayjob’ where he’d become a teacher!) 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 Scrooge-like Xmas solo is no substitute!
Overall, then, ‘Christmas Party’ is as we said before a really weird record. Trust The Monkees to break the rules and not give us the standard Christmas record we were expecting – but even the idea of giving us a Christmas album at all right now when they had fought so hard to get their reputation back seems a strange move. There’s very little here you’ll want to play into the New Year and some of the mistakes made on this record are atrocious, but at the same time this is not like most Christmas records an attempt to find an ‘easy way out’ or to make some quick cash. There is a lot going on across this record which demands a lot of lead singer Micky and he is ably supported by four welcome dips into the vaults, although the usual mixed array of outside writers and the lack of input from Mike and Peter again drag this album down a peg or two. It is an album that somehow manages to be both naughty and nice on alternating tracks, a record with some real Christmas treats such as ‘Gingerbread’ and ‘Silver Bells’ alongside some real pieces of coal such as the needlessly sexy ‘Unwrap You At Christmas’ and needlessly bluesy ‘Merry Christmas Baby’. In the end it’s less of a Christmas cash-in than the Monkees lunchbox being unwrapped on the cover and less gaudy than the baubles of Micky, Mike, Davy and Peter hanging on the tree, braver than any Christmas record ever needs to be. However in one very major way this album is too brave: it sounds even less like ‘The Monkees’ than ‘Good Time’ did and with time pressing short and the band in ailing health it feels like another missed opportunity somehow. A lesser problem is that this album isn’t ‘Christmassy’ enough, with less trademarks of festive albums – it’s this that, strangely, makes it feel most Monkees-like out of anything actually here as its arguably the most successful of all four reunion projects at capturing the postmodernism of the series (this is, after all, a Christmas record that’s constantly breaking the fourth wall by asking what a Christmas album is, throwing in sex, alcoholism, parental breakups and an is-it-heartfelt-or-is-it-a-gag? reflex of including that Big Star song about Jesus). The result is a downright bonkers album that hopefully is just a stepping stone to greater things to come if we still have the time for them – but one that’s constantly pushing against its remit as ‘only a Christmas album’ and refusing to be a mere Steppin’ Stone. Like we said, truly truly weird – sometimes in a bad way, thankfully more often for good.