Thursday, 14 April 2011
The Monkees "Changes" (1970) (Ever So Slightly Revised Review)
The Monkees “Changes” (1970)
Oh My My/Ticket On A Ferry Ride/You’re So Good To Me/It’s Got To Be Love/Acapulco Sun/99 Pounds//Tell Me Love/Do You Feel It Too?/ I Love You Better/All Alone In The Dark/Midnight Train/I Never Thought It Peculiar
When you reach a level of devotion that’s enabled you to write 203 articles on music without stopping and to read around the subject to the greatest extent that your bank balance will allow, you come to question huge anomalies in the lives of the artists you collect. There are many of these in the annals of the AAA: why did the Moody Blues split just as they were reaching their artistic and commercial peak and writing their biggest songs about ‘brotherly love’; how on earth did The Kinks manage to survive another 20 years with the same line-up after drummer Mick Avory smashed in Dave Davies’ head with one of his cymbals live onstage?; how on earth did Neil Young get away with leaving Buffalo Springfield a total of five times – and then spent most of the next 40 years reminiscing about how great it all was?; why did Murray Wilson suddenly decide to support his son Brian’s interest in music after telling him he was a ‘loser’ and hopeless at everything else he touched; how on earth did Brian Epstein ever pluck up the courage to see the Beatles at the Cavern the first time – wrong environment, wrong class, wrong type of music, wrong age-range, wrong wrong wrong? It’s as if there’s some overall genie plucking the planned destinies of each member and changing their lives – for better or for worse - for ever. If so, then the mischievous spirit must have responsible for one of the biggest puzzled in my record collection – why on earth did The Monkees fall from grace so quickly and so across the board through 1968 and 1969 into 1970?
This final album, ‘Changes’, is so obscure that it took 16 years and a re-issue on the Rhino record label before it even charted – and today there are still fans who can’t track the thing down. And yet, just three years before, The Monkees were the biggest band on the planet, with four #1 albums and five top two records in Britain inside a year. And yet, as we’ve seen elsewhere on this site, The Monkees were jaw-droppingly good for a group who were literally thrown in together at the deep end but amazingly consistent too throughout their four year run. There are lots of little reasons for a slight fall in fans and sales: the band were always marketed as a ‘youngsters’ band whose fans were always going to grow up and moved on (albeit the same could be said of The Beatles and The Monkees raise their game to similar heights across the four years and nine original albums); Mike Nesmith’s famous ‘we don’t play on our records’ scandal (which was hardly news at the time – nor did The Beach Boys, The Mamas and Papas or indeed The Byrds on some of their biggest hits, anyway as if a fan will care if the right band member is singing!); the jealousy of a music industry that saw a TV show giving the band’s songs the kind of publicity they could only dream about (fair enough, but in that case why did it take so long to break The Monkees down?)The real reason for the Monkees’ fall from grace records wise is, of course, due to the cancellation of their TV series – but that asks a bigger question, namely why should the highest rated new television programme of 1966 become unpopular to such an extent that the band’s TV special farewell ’33 and 1/3rd Revolutions Per Monkee’ didn’t even feature in the top 100 views programmes of the week?
‘Changes’ gets short shrift from the few fans who do get to hear it because it always appears symptomatic of this sudden fall and no one quite knowing how to steer The Monkees vessel onwards. Peter Tork had left the band after album number six and film project ‘Head’ and Mike Nesmith is so desperate to escape the group and go his own way that he effectively bankrupts himself by walking out of his contract after album no eight (the second of many bankruptcies for Mike). Only Micky and Davy are left – and neither of them are particularly happy about the idea; famously Davy recalled the sessions years later as a ‘con’, with the pair of Monkees forced to overdub their vocals on top of a bunch of pre-recorded backing tracks and even Micky said that he was fulfilling a ‘contract’ with the record label Screen Gems that had signed the band up to 1972 (and yet managed somehow to terminate the contract when this album sank like a stone). The pair of Monkees contribute just one song between them – and that’s an old one, dating right back to Micky’s time with his own band The Missing Links in the pre-Monkees days (the perfect name for a pre-Monkees band!) 'Changes' is to some extent a really backwards step with the duo having lost all of their 'star power' and weight, which means that they have even less say in arrangements and song choice than the old days. Add in the fact that the band are forced to work with producer Jeff Barry – the right hand man of Don Kirshner who’d produced such a division within the band in 1967 and whose biggest hit since had been ‘Sugar Sugar’ by saccharine animated Monkees clones The Archies – and ‘Changes’ should be a horror, a last gasp dying of an engine that was running at full throttle just 18 months before. Mike Nesmith's own country-western records released the same year couldn’t be more different to ‘Changes’ by the way, being spontaneous, informal and way way way over the cliff of inventiveness and experimentation. ‘Changes’, ironically given the name, plays it safe.
And yet, ‘Changes’ wasn’t that unpopular at the time, despite disappointing sales. The Monkees’ two TV series were being screened for a third time with the new music from this album (and various outtakes) and was becoming quite a big ratings success all over again, not scoring as highly as the originals but doing a million times better than any TV series having a second repeat in four years has any right to be. A whole new audience were buying up The Monkees, the younger brothers and sisters of those who’d loved the band in 1966-67, and given a bit more leeway and enthusiasm on the part of band and record label 1970 could have been ‘Monkeemania’ all over again’. ‘Changes’ is also nothing like as bad as its reputation suggests: there are three or four moments of magic, about on a par with the last two ‘trio’ albums and I actually prefer this album to the faux energy and spirit of the first two albums (when the band weren’t even consulted as to what was going on each record). Best of all, Jeff Barry keeps his own pop tastes to an easily digestible minimum, letting his new protégés Bobby Bloom, Steve Soles and Any Kim handle most of the credits and taking the band into a whole new soul/r and b direction.
That definition might sound daft to a soul purist out there and ‘Changes’ is hardly at the emotional level of ‘Otis Blue’, but the sudden move isn’t as daft as it sounds. What did The Monkees jam during the ‘Headquarters’ sessions? Not pop or even rock and roll (barring a brief ‘Blue Suede Shoes’) but the R and B soul of ‘Parchment Farm’ (eventually tuning into the horn-filled B-side ‘Goin’ Down’) , with a soulful take on the theme tune ‘Peter Gunn’ for good measure. What was Micky singing on his two-pre-fame singles (released after he'd become a 'star')? Soul. Plastic comedy soul maybe, but soul all the same.Who did The Monkees tour with during their last concert appearances of 1969? Sam and the Goodtimers, an R and B combo who made even ‘I’m A Believer’ sound like it had been recorded in Memphis. It's a rare rich musical seam in the Monkees' mine that hadn't been tapped into yet and while it's not exactly mined with care and consistency over the course of this album there is enough here to show that The Monkees should have done something down this route and that there was still a tiny gasp of musical life in the band yet. Some songs on the album are more successful than others (and for only the second album in The Monkees’ canon, Davy gets by far the better material - Micky's voice has never been as wasted as it is here), but ‘Changes’ isn’t a last gap attempt to destroy or forget the Monkees as so many think, it’s a credible attempt at re-launching them for a new audience in a slightly different style. Fans can and have been sniffy about the material and it’s not up there with the best Monkees songs admittedly (but then what is?) – but treat ‘Changes’ with the respect you’d give to another AAA band stretching out on a musical limb (Neil Young fans will know what I mean – Neil switches styles every other week sometimes) and the album doesn’t half hold some rewards. It is, after all, meant to signify a big ‘change’ in the band’s direction (the album title was, famously, the working title for ‘Head’ – and I’ve yet to come across a bigger change in a band’s direction than on that project).
The slinky single 'Oh My My' - actually a last minute substitution to the album because Andy Kim didn't think the Monkees would be able to do it - is a good example of what this album could have been with a bit more time and confidence. We're used to hearing Micky soaring on his vocals - that's what his voice is born to do - and while we've heard him play a little with stop-start passages on his own songs he's never had to make a performance like this one before. The song is sultry and staccato, a series of beats and short notes that only turn into a song when strung together, but Micky is a consummate actor and nails the song including a glorious burst of passion heading out of the instrumental break and into the final verse. 'Tell Me Love' features the other extreme of Micky's singing, with his single greatest love song since 'Sometime In The Morning' and 'I'm A Believer', proving that there's something to be said in going back to basics after all. Micky's own 'Mystery Train' his last published song until the reunion album 'JustUs' a quarter of a century - is a whole lot of fun too, perfect for the Monkees romps even if those days are sadly over now. As for Davy he's on great form, with pop songs that, while similarly simple, are far better suited to his style than the sort of thing Jeff Barry was giving him in the band's early days. Both 'You're So Good To Me' and 'Do You Feel It Too?' are classics, Davy returning to his roguish 'Artful Dodger personality'. The singer might not have enjoyed making this album at all, but actually the cover material he's been given makes a lot more sense than some of the songs he's been getting in recent years (if no substitute for his own classic writing, which was getting really good across 1968 and 1969).
Alas, five great songs don't make for a great album. ‘Changes’ could and should have been so much better. When Jeff Barry started work on the album, he asked The Monkees’ usual; recording engineer Pete Abbott to send him tapes of all unreleased Monkees songs still in the vaults. It must have taken him hundreds of hours to listen to that lot because The Monkees recorded approximately double the amount of tracks that they ever released in their lifetime – the three remarkably consistent ‘Missing Links’ outtakes are testament to that and there are at least another four CD-length sets the band could release if they so choose. The band had done it before as well – barring four new tracks all of the ‘Instant Replay’ record (no 7)had been recorded earlier – and two tracks on the immediately previous LP ‘Monkees Present’ (no 8) had dated back to the band’s earliest sessions in September 1966! Perhaps Jeff Barry took one look at the pile of tapes, said ‘I’m not listening to that lot’ and decided it would be easier to cook up a new album of his own. Either way, alas, Jeff Barry chose to use just two of these old recordings, two from his original sessions in October 1966 and January 1967 (when Davy sings in a noticeably higher voice), passing over dozens of what are now Monkee standards thanks to the Rhino re-issue series and the two Monkees box sets, all of which were seriously considered for the album at some point: Davy’s gorgeous ballads ‘Time and Time Again’ ‘War Games’ and ‘Smile’, as good a trio of songs as the band ever released in their lifetime, Micky’s Leiber and Stoller cover ‘Shake ‘Em Up’, Micky’s rocking soul song ‘You’re So Good’, Davy’s soulful ‘Look Down’, Davy’s string-fest ‘I’m Gonna Try’ and two unknown songs that are still to be let out of the vaults: ‘The Ceiling In My Room’ and ‘That’s What It’s Like Loving You’ (editor's note: 'Ceiling' has since come out on the deluxe edition of 'Monkees Present' and sounds rather good, a slow smoky orchestrral Davy ballad - no sign of 'Loving You' as yet though). Barring this and the rather trite ‘Shake ‘Em Up’ and ‘Look Down’ songs, everything here is vastly superior to this album in every way, making you wonder why on earth Jeff Barry didn’t take the easy way out and release yet another album of leftovers. It had worked for 'Instant Replay' after all. And that’s just what made the shortlist; even without the cornucopia of unreleased Nesmith and Tork songs still in the vaults there’s half of the three Missing Links albums to choose from too!
But instead we got ‘Changes’, an album that in many ways is a two-steps forward, two steps back scenario. Micky and Davy veer greatly between huge commitment and technique (‘Oh My My’ and ‘You’re So Good To Me’) to sounding asleep on their feet (‘Acapulco Sun’, ‘I Never Thought It Peculiar’). The cover artwork says it all too: the two Monkees have been spliced in from separate photos of them on the 1969 ‘Sam and the Goodtimers’ tour, perhaps because they didn’t spend any time together anymore. They also have their backs to the cover and – ironically enough – appear on an album cover playing instruments for the album they were probably least involved with musically (even if it is just tambourine and maracas). Interestingly, they appear together only once out of these dozen recordings even though they both say that they were getting along in this period (and indeed they spar off each other well on both A and B side to ‘Do It In The Name Of Love’, the last ever release to feature more than one Monkee until 1984 and credited to ‘Dolenz and Jones’ in late 1970, making you wish ‘Changes’ was more like the follow-up single). But for all that, Micky Dolenz has the perfect voice for pop records whatever his commitment and at times his singing across the album is as good as his more famous vocal tracks for ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ and ‘I’m A Believer’. Davy, too, has been growing nicely during the past few years after some truly awful performances on the band’s early records and now that he’s found a lower, more suitable vocal tone of his singing Davy’s performances here are excellent, finding a whole raft of subtlety and depth in songs like ‘Do You Feel It Too?’ and ‘You’re So Good To Me’ that, to be truthful, probably aren’t there.
Not that I’m as dismissive about the material on this album as other critics. Andy Kim, Steve Soles and Bobby Bloom and even occasionally Jeff Barry himself sound like they are genuinely trying, giving up some of their best material of the period – only to find, perhaps, that the sessions are more rushed than they’d liked (‘Changes’ was recorded in four sessions, less than half the amount of sessions it took to record Peter Tork’s ‘Lady’s Baby’ in 1968!) and too often they have to settle for second best. Andy Kim, after all, was a big name in 1970 – he’s scored several big hits in 1968 and 1969 and was in big demand at the time, even if he ultimately lost his own passionate following about the same time that The Monkees lost theirs. Bobby Bloom, too, was working on his own record (‘The Bobby Bloom Album’) at the same time, which was hoped to be his big break through, and could be forgiven for not having his heart fully in the sessions. In fact, so generous is he that he even swaps one of his songs (‘Oh My My’) with one intended for this record (‘Heavy Makes You Happy’) when Jeff Barry decided that it was more ‘Monkees-like’. Steve Soles, too, had originally recorded the backing track to ‘All Alone In The Dark’ as a demo to be released by him and songwriter Ned Albright, before it somehow got turned into a Monkees track. You really can’t fault the commitment of the people working on this album, who really wanted it to be a success and that energy and enthusiasm really shines through, even if you really do miss the presence of Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork and any substantial original songs from Micky and Davy. It does speak volumes, though, that the single best lyric on the album is by a teenage untrained Micky Dolenz put together to entertain his younger sister. Still, though, none of it’s that bad either – I mean we’re not talking Spice Girls banal type lyrics either. ‘Changes’, then, is unlikely to be your favourite Monkees record, unless you have a real burning passion for pop-soul hybrids, but is a good album and despite its troubled history far too good to languish forgotten at the end of The Monkees’ brief but brilliant discography.
Opening track ‘Oh My My’, also released as the last single under The Monkees’ name, sets out the album’s stall from the get-go. Micky Dolenz’s voice still sounds the same and the instrumentation hasn’t changed that much from before, yet everything about this record sounds so different to anything else The Monkees had done before. The opening acoustic guitar riff sounds like the work of a much more ‘adult’ band, one with all the time in the world to put a message across compared to the histrionics and grab-em-quick hooks of the past. Micky sings deeper than normal yet sounds fully at home on this track’s lounge cool slow build up of passion (has there ever been a better vocal chameleon able to sing in more styles and mean it than Micky?), while the backing musicians cook up a slow groove that reaches an almost un-bearable climax on the middle eight (the closest things to it in the AAA archives is the peak of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’ which takes a full 20 minutes to reach that point or The Who’s live version of ‘Amazing Journey > Sparks’). We’ve had rise-and-fall and tension in The Monkees’ canon before, but it’s never been handled like this before, on what is one of the most rounded and impressive songs on the album. I’m especially impressed with the middle eight – the song drops out to leave just a soaring guitar solo (most likely played by Hugh McCracken, who will become Paul McCartney’s right hand man on the ‘Ram’ album the following year yet turned a gig with Wings down) and Micky switching gears from casual laidback cool to unbridled passion; we know exactly what’s going through the narrator’s head despite the fact that Micky has no better lyrics to sing than ‘oh my oh my oh my oh my’ over and over again, evidence of how a good arrangement can overcome a sometimes weak song. Full marks to Jeff Barry for recognising just what The Monkees (and specifically Micky) could bring to this track and taking the brave decision to replace a much more Monkees-like tune with this largely successful experiment. If you want to hear the original song that was meant to be on this album – ‘Heavy Makes You Happy’ – then look out for The Staple Singers’ hit version of it from the 1970s on YouTube; it’s pretty good – better than most of the material here – but it’s not in the same league as this song which smoulders truly adult emotion. Hear what Micky can do with quality material and curse the fact that, for much of The Monkees’ run, he was reduced to singing pap like the next track.
Not that I hate ‘Ticket On A Ferry Ride’ as much as many Monkees fans, who occasionally single it out as being ‘worst track’ of the band’s career, never mind this record. Certainly the tension that made ‘Oh My My’ is sadly lacking and Micky just kind of sleepwalks his way through a record that’s the dictionary definition of understated. The lyrics too are pretty hopelessly weak: ‘I got a ticket on a ferry ride and it hurts inside’ runs the chorus, a rather un-poetic and lumpy way of saying that the narrator is going away on a long journey and half hopes his missus will make such a fuss he won’t have to go. And yet, taken as a whole, this song is quite charming. Going away is a key theme on Monkees records from day one (‘Last Train To Clarksville’) and reaches its peak on whole series of Nesmith songs and Nesmith sung covers from the two 1969 albums (and outtakes) that use the metaphor for going on a journey to Nesmith preparing to leave the band, sometimes happily, sometimes sadly (‘Don’t Wait For Me’ ‘Good Clean Fun’ ‘If I Ever Get To Saginaw’ ‘St Matthew’ etc) so it makes perfect sense for this theme to crop up on the last Monkees LP. It’s also nice that Jeff Barry chooses to go in quite a different direction to the all-singing all-dancing Clarksville – this song does it’s best not to draw attention to itself because the narrator wants the first move to come from the girlfriend – he doesn’t want to force her to say she wants him to stay, he wants it to be genuine so he quietly sings this more to himself than to her. That’s an interesting idea for a song and even if it’s occasionally clumsy lyrics could be a bit better, it’s got charm enough to work this song. Micky, though, has nothing to work with now that his chance to ‘show off’ has been taken away and he turns in a dreamy, insipid performance that arguably is exactly what this song needs and yet still ends up being one of Micky’s weakest ever performances on a Monkees track (there aren’t that many at all, really, given how hard the band were working during their lifetime, making 52 TV episodes and enough tracks to fill ten albums between September 1966 and December 1967 alone).
‘You’re So Good To Me’ is the opposite problem – a sterling Davy Jones vocal (amazing given his hatred of this album’s sessions and the way the production team had gone about it behind The Monkees’ back) on a so-so song that wouldn’t have passed quality control even a couple of albums earlier. The song begins in ‘Oh My My’ mould with a verse that lives to create tension, the guitars bouncing against each other in 12 bar blues format, before a shout-out chorus explodes out of nowhere offering quick release. The lyrics to this song are again quite weak by Monkees standards – ‘Let me give you love, love love, love, love, love, all of my love, holy smoke, woah darling!’ does not belong in the same catalogue as crafted compositions such as ‘Zor and Zam’ and ‘The Door Into Summer’ – but fit the verse’s tension and the choruses joy quite well. Davy certainly seems to click well with the song, offering one of his best vocals of all on the track, seemingly revelling in the song’s pull between awe at his partner and happiness at being love (either that or he’s very good at acting; never have I seen Davy more angry in an interview than when discussing this record, the ersatz nature of which still weighed heavily with him 25 years on and clearly rankled more than the band’s first two similarly collage-like albums). I’m intrigued to know if this song meant something to writers Jeff Barry and Bobby Bloom too – certainly it sounds more believable and more ‘real’ than the pair’s usual work, a close cousin of Boyce and Hart’s ‘I’ll Spend My Life With You’ ( a similarly ‘real’ song from a duo best known for writing pop hits to order). Alas, the song seems to be building up for some big climax which never happens – the song just kind of fizzles out and fades, but there is much promise within these grooves.
‘It’s Got To Be Love’ is the last song ever to be recorded under the Monkee name – well, until 1986 at any rate. Alas, it’s a sugary ballad with an irritating riff that goes nowhere and an insipid repetitive lyric that must be one of the worst things the Monkees ever did. Micky Dolenz, left alone at the microphone after Davy wasn’t needed yet again at the sessions, must have wondered what on earth had happened: just a year earlier he was recording his own ‘Mommy and Daddy’, one of the greatest and heaviest compositions to ever come out of America and now here he is singing a generic song about love. Lyrically, this song makes a sort of sense as a Monkees farewell – in a more experienced pair of hands than newcomer Neil Goldberg’s this song could have been a second ‘I’m A Believer’, with Micky’s narrator in denial after several broken hearts before realising that all the symptoms he and his girl share must mean that at last he’s found true love. The backing vocalists – Kim, Bloom and Soles – do well to create an ersatz Monkees (nothing new there – it’s nearly always Boyce and Hart singing back ups on the Monkees’ first years’ worth of releases) and will do on the next track too, but suddenly – without the R and B trappings of the rest of the album – there’s nothing left here but empty space.
Amazingly, the album gets worse. ‘Acapulco Sun’ is another bland ballad about the sun shining and life being happy that not only gives Micky no space to work his normal magic, it’s also pitched in an embarrassingly awkward key for him to sing. The song was, apparently, written by Soles and Allbright during a holiday to Jamaica– having never been out of America before until they were asked to work on a Bobby Bloom album there, they decided to write another hit song that would enable them to pay their way to get their again some other year. That didn’t quite work out – even now the royalty rate from ‘Changes’ must be pretty negligible – and it’s not really a good idea for a song, as there’s nothing new here really that can’t be heard in hundreds of other songs. There’s also a curious noise partway through the song that sounds like someone bleeding a radiator midway through recording – apparently it’s a glitch on the tape, but it speaks volumes that it’s about the most entertaining sound on here (there’s also no way as big a cash cow as The Monkees would be allowed to release a product as ramshackle as this before 1970, a real sign of how low the band have slipped).
’99 Pounds’ is a real oddity. One of only two full songs by Jeff Barry alone that the band ever recorded despite his long years with the band, it’s also notable that the producer had waited three and a half years before finally issuing the song. Curiously, it wasn’t one of the tracks given to Barry when he asked for unreleased material to consider for the album, so the producer must have remembered and liked the song after all that time. Good as it is, though – and while no masterpiece it’s undoubtedly an improvement on the last two songs – it sticks out like a sore thumb on this album. A burst of pure unbridled pop energy, a close cousin to the first album’s party piece ‘Let’s Dance On’, it features Davy singing in his original higher-pitched vocal and sounding about 10 years younger than he does on his other tracks on ‘Changes’. There’s even a Hammond organ break – the instrument that just was the sound of The Monkees on the first two albums and hasn’t been heard since ‘Little Bit Me, Little Bit You’. Above all, this song sounds ‘fun’ – it’s not trying to be anything ‘worthy’ or ‘adult’ as The Monkees will start trying to become as early as ‘Headqaurters’, but a slice of nicely polished nothing, the sort of track outsiders think are on all Monkees albums. Davy does well with a song about how much of an energyball his new slim and short girlfriend is, adding plenty of energy of his own. Davy even adds a cheeky ad lib at the end of the song (‘62 inches!!’), forcing the backing singers to make an ad lib of their own to respond to him (some do, some just sing ’99 Pounds’ again!) Out of place – this song sounded dated in early 1967 never mind 1970 – and out of step with the rest of the album, when taken on it’s own this song is still good clean fun and makes for a fine farewell to the band’s original sound on what turned out to be their last LP. Well done Jeff Barry for remembering the song after all those years!
‘Tell Me Love’ is the second Jeff Barry solo song the band recorded and reveals that, in three and a half years, his tastes have changed quite a bit. ‘Tell Me Love’ isn’t quite pop and it isn’t quite soul, being caught somewhere in between. It’s another of those slow and steady ballads that seem to make up quite a lot of this record – and an interesting choice for the first cut on side two – but it’s vastly superior in every way. Micky at last gets a bit of dynamic contrast to work with and the chance to bounce off the backing singers who seem to be growing in confidence with every track, offering up a dreamy breathless vocal that nevertheless raises itself to some great hollering in the middle eight. There aren’t all that many love songs in The Monkees canon – a few on the first two records but only sporadically after that – and ‘Tell Me Love’ is one of the best, with the narrator feeling doubt and worry over whether he’s good enough for his girl, pleading with her to tell him the truth because he can’t quite believe she wants to be with him and he can’t bear to lose her for the sake of a lie in the future. There’s even the line ‘sometimes it kind of scares me’ – who on earth was writing material like this in 1970? (apart from John Lennon?) Nobody but nobody admitted to being scared in a ‘pop’ song back then- never mind sounding as if they’d meant it! Suddenly three and a half years seems like an eternity, if it’s enabled Jeff Barry to move from a song about his girl being ‘made out of TNT’ to genuinely moving lines like this one. Excellent.
That isn’t the best song on the album, though. For my money, that’s Davy’s second and last vocal on the record ‘Do You Feel It Too?’, which takes delightful simplicity to new heights. There’s a rolling good-time riff that really stands out on this album of largely understated dream-like meanderers and Davy sounds far more at home with this soul-pop hybrid than he did on such outtakes as ‘Look Down’ and ‘Penny Music’. While at first glance this is just a very 1960s funky pop song (complete with the line ‘life is like a cartoon movie, being with you makes it groovy’, a line that couldn’t possibly have been included in a song any later than this), it does appear to tie up a few loose ends with The Monkees story as well. Remember the 33 and 1/3rd TV special, the last time the quartet were together? Well, just before the band end their last TV project with a magnum opus version of Mike Nesmith’s ‘Listen To The Band’ (which is actually more about him wanting a solo career than the band themselves), Davy sings a mournful ballad about how his kite only needs a string and he can set it off to fly in the sky again and go ‘anywhere’. It clearly isn’t meant as a big band comment, but it perfectly fits the mood of broken bonhomie of the special, the band patting themselves on the back and saying goodbye because nobody else is likely to want to by late 1969. It’s very very brief, but very very touching.
‘Do You Feel It Too?’ is the follow-up to that song. Davy starts the song as a balloon – someone’s cut the string and it’s been left to drift, hopelessly, ever since (perhaps because Monkees creators Schenider and Rafelson moved on after the ‘Head’ project). The lines of confusion in this opening verse are matched by a wobbly almost a capella vocal and a restless, frustrated melody that matches the sentiment – and yet, by the time the chorus cuts in, things gradually begin to right themselves (while, at the same time, Davy sings about meeting his soulmate and hoping that she, too, feels for him what he feels for her). The song pulls off the same trick in the second verse when the relationship gets a few knocks, mainly from other people telling him not to be with his ‘girl’ – but when Davy’s narrator is with his partner it all seems right. This lovely lilting song features an almost comical rhyming scheme (AAABBB, a cross between a limerick and a nursery rhyme) which seems to laugh at the whole idea – and yet the sudden switch back to the minor key for the verses feels like right ‘tug’ at the song, throwing the rug out from under our feet and making us question whether this song too isn’t a smokescreen for something very real. There’s another pretty spiffing guitar solo from Hugh McCracken (though, alas, the mix makes it a bit quiet compared to the rest of the song) and there’s one of this album’s better backing tracks which mixes folky piano, rock guitar and Caribbean percussion. And so ends possibly the last piece of Monkees genius in their catalogue (although reunion tracks ‘Heart and Soul’ ‘Gettin’ In’ and ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ are 90% of the way, it has to be said).
‘I Love You Better’ is more simplified pop, but not quite as good. The only track to feature both Monkees (although Davy’s singing in such an uncomfortable key he’s rather swamped by the backing singers on this one), this is a simple song with some terrible puns/rhymes held together by some more sterling guitar work. The lines should really grate: the narrator tries to go out with a belly dancer but didn’t ‘stand a chance-r’, a gospel singer who tries to ‘wrap me round her finger’, tries a teacher but ‘couldna reach her’ and finally a model whose just won the title ‘Miss November’ – but she made such little impact he ‘couldn’t remember’ her after she’d gone. So far, so groan-worthy. But something strange has happened in the song – it’s being played for real, not for laughs, so that Micky’s garbled lyrics become a wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-a-bam-boom type of fun gibberish and its’ the insistent chorus that sticks in the head, the narrator’s claim that despite his past conquests it’s his current girl he really loves. The ‘I-I-I love you better’ pretty much invents disco eight years early (this song sounds much more like an early Bee Gees song than a late period Monkees one) and the tight criss-crossing guitars and the most Monkees like of production tricks on this album, handclaps, enhance the air of fun. Micky, however, plays the song for real not for fun – as he will do to excruciating effect on the next track – and the song works largely because of his firm steady presence, making the stakes in the song sound that much higher.
‘All Alone In The Dark’ is remembered by writer Steve Soles as being like ‘the worst of song Ringo would sing on a Beatles record’. If that’s the sort of sentence you’ve been dying to read then this song is for you – it’s an in-places quite genuinely funny song about the narrator being so worried about his appearance and that of his girl that, after the pair fall in love, they’re afraid to turn the light on to see what each other look like. However, if you’re the sort of fan who uses Ringo’s numbers on the Beatles records to go out and make a stiff drink, then you will positively hate this track – all insincere laughter, mock applause and twee chord changes. To be honest, you have to be in the right mood for this song, which works a little too hard to persuade us to love it and yet has nothing to offer but an offbeat charm. And kazoos. And let me tell you, offbeat charm and kazoos is not my idea of a great song. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a travesty for a Monkees record (though OK for Ringo!), right up to the plaintive middle eight which offers the spot-on advice that its, ironically enough, the darkness that allows the narrator to ‘see’ true love for the first time and not be blinded by prejudices or ideas of beauty. It also mimics Lindisfarne’s ‘The Things I Should Have Said’ (see review no 37) which has been recorded by this time but not issued yet, with the narrator letting the listeners into the secret of what he wants to say, but never actually plucking up enough courage to speak to his girl. That middle eight alone makes this a worthy song and Micky is revelling in the tongue-in-cheekness yet seriousness of the whole thing, but somehow you can’t help but think that Soles and Allbright would have been better off to write a whole song around the middle eight, not those awful verses. The backing, by the way, was left untouched from the Soles-Allbright demo the pair had intended for their own album, with only Micky’s vocal overdubbed on top.
‘Midnight Train’ is much funnier and it’s a travesty that Micky had to wait so long to get one of his earliest compositions onto record. Jeff Barry only added this song to the album at the last minute – replacing the unreleased and now lost recording ‘Which Way Do You Want It?’ - having heard this record from a tape of unreleased recordings dating back to July 1969 (at the same session and using the same musicians as Micky’s ‘Bye Bye Baby Bye Bye’). I first heard this country and western pastiche overdubbed onto a repeat of one of the Monkees’ earliest TV programmes, the ‘chaperone’ one I think (screened accidentally by channel 4 in place of the original song ‘This Just Doesn’t Seem To Be My Day’ – an improvement I think) and it fitted the band’s zany TV humour so well I was amazed it wasn’t on one of the first two albums or recorded specially for the soundtrack. In actual fact, it even pre-dates The Monkees, the earliest example yet released of Micky’s songwriting. There’s a version of it on ‘Missing Links III’/’Headquarters Sessions’ from early 1967 with Micky’s sister Coco duetting which works even better, treating the song as a comedy ballad and allowing you to hear all the words much clearer. This version pulls out the stops – massed background vocals, mouthorgans, etc – but somehow never quite matches up to the demo. Never mind: this song is one of the true hidden Monkees gems, full of wisecracking lines about a cheating girlfriend getting jilted and the narrator getting drunk and gambling in the old west (I’ve got a dog, Bingo – now famous from his appearances on our YouTube videos – who took this song to heart and has been a penniless alcoholic ever since, so be warned about the effects this song can have on you!) The closing guitar tag – recorded separately by Monkees regular Louie Shelton after Micky decided the song needed a better ending – is the perfect finale, part seriousness, part knowing, playing with the song’s high-strung riff until finally collapsing down a tunnel. A song that deserves to be much better known.
Somehow it seems terribly fitting that long-time Monkee writers Boyce and Hart get the final word, with their only song on the album, just as they had the first word with the Monkees Theme, ‘I Wanna Be Free’ and ‘Clarksville’ three and three quarter years earlier. What a long way The Monkees have travelled since then and yet, despite wrapping things up with an unexpected return to the band’s pure pop roots, ‘Peculiar’ fits on the album strangely well (it was a last minute addition, replacing ‘Time and Time Again’ as the album’s last track). ‘Peculiar’ is probably the most obscure of all the songs the duo did for the band and it’s not one of their best, sharing the awkwardness that makes some of their material so heavy going as well as the tunefulness and inventiveness that makes most of their work so great and powerful. Jeff Barry was probably right to pass over this song way back in October 1966 (when this song was first recorded, at the same session as ‘Apples, Peaches, Bananas and Pears’ plus the first unissued version of ‘Don’t Listen To Linda’) and it’s revival in 1970 – in place of one of The Monkess’ lost great masterpieces – seems odd. Interestingly, the song is produced not by Barry (who was working on the excruciating misfires ‘Laugh’ and ‘The Day We Fall In Love’ in the studio next door) but by Boyce and Hart, who back then were still under the impression that they were the only writers and producers working with Colgem’s newest band! It’s as if Barry is giving a last late tip of the head to the pair’s musical creators (Schneider and Rafelson were undisputedly Tghe Monkees’ creators but didn’t give much thought to the band’s musical direction until hearing Boyce and Hart’s demos), in the acknowledgement that they probably should have been left alone to create the band’s sounds in the 1960s (certainly, they had a better idea of what should be on a Monkees album than Barry in this period, both of whose songs from this session are among the worst they ever did).
Indeed, ‘Peculiar’ might even be the first song Boyce and Hart wrote especially for the band, rather than an ‘old’ song brushed up to date for them or re-worked from a song the duo originally wrote for themselves. Boyce recalled years afterwards that they wanted to give Davy a nice ‘Englishy’ sounding song to sing – interesting, both that this is an American’s idea of what sounds ‘English’ (Victoriana would be closer to the mark, very in vogue in October 1966 remember) and in that Davy is clearly struggling to sing in tune to a song written specifically for him (it even features a rare case of a Monkee double-tracking the vocal, rather than getting in the backing vocalists to cover up for him). The duo weren’t satisfied at that, however, choosing to stick in a heavily stylised psychedelia guitar solo in the middle ‘just for fun’ (this is, after all, the same pair that gave us the version of ‘Words’ with backwards guitar tapes and a flute solo!) which sums up The Monkees’ sound rather well: unexpected switches from something light to something heavy, with a sound so esoteric you could never pin it down. There are many many better songs in the band’s canon, many of them Boyce and Hart ones, yet somehow this Davy Jones ballad seems like a fitting end, encompassing all the madness of those years when The Monkees were pulled this way and that by hundreds of people and yet still managed to come up with a fascinatingly original sound all of their own.
So ‘Changes’ for ‘Changes’ sake it doesn’t seem to stack up too badly, with a good third of tracks as good as any in the Monkees’ canon, a third showing promise and a third being pretty poor – not bad given the circumstances both of the short-term (no record company backing, only four sessions to record in) and long-term (the death of The Monkees as a band). It’s only when comparing this album to past greats that it falls down, with simply not enough faith and confidence and backing to be anything more than a whimper of a farewell. The weakest Monkees album? Quite possibly (although I’d personally nominate ‘More Of The Monkees’, I’m up for discussion on that album thanks to the sublime ‘Sometime In The Morning’ and a couple of impressive early Nesmith songs). But if so then it just to proves just how good even the worst Monkees releases are and how badly they need re-appraising by a new audience to whom the idea of a TV band releasing their own records makes perfect sense (at least The Monkees had more right to being a ‘band’ than those awful ‘pop star idol’ competition programmes, although I have a scary feeling that the idea of using multi-media to sell records owes a lot to The Monkees’ story).
This album could have been so much better of course (just listen to the beauty of ‘Time and Time Again’, which follows the album on the superlative Rhino CD re-issue and weep for what was lost) but then again it could have been far far worse (just listen to B-side ‘Lady Jane’, another frustratingly one-note song also included as a bonus track on the re-issue). As a farewell, it’s a curious mix of the suitable (certain themes, the R and B direction to it’s natural end) and the not suitable at all (unwise comedy, pointless ballads, lack of original songs). Had this album really been a ‘change’, a whole new start for The Monkees, one that went hand in hand with a successful re-run of the TV series re-introducing the band to a whole new group of kids, then what I have to tell you now would be easy. ‘It’s not great in itself, but oh the promise – just listen to how this album is a stepping stone for what’s to come later...’ Sadly, of course, there will be no later – well, only a couple of patchy reunion records, the best tracks of which take their cue from this one and put The Monkees in pop soul hybrid land circa the mid-1980s. The fact that even the record label formed to promote The Monkees’ records drops them, with two years to run on their contract, after this album says much about the band’s dismal final end (and must have really riled Nesmith, who’d bought out of his contract at a cost opf a few million dollars just a few months before).
But the fact that’s its an ‘end’ not a new ‘beginning’ is not ‘Changes’ fault. It’s not perfect, it doesn’t have the hits of the first two Monkees album, the pioneering work of the next two, the sheer eccentricity of the next two or the returning-to-roots, left-to-their-own-devices hits and misses of the two after that. But ‘Changes’ does have a lot of heart and packs in quite a lot into it’s half an hour – which is no mean result considering the time pressures and lack of interest from band and record label alike in making another Monkees record. This record must have been a bit of a disappointment for the few remaining Monkees fans left in 1970, a bit of a backward step after all that trailblazing. But heard in 2011, as the coda to a career that went in so many wonderful and unexpected directions we never could have expected or anticipated in 1966, it sounds like a worthy end, a final roll of the dice that seeks to mop up a bit of all the Monkees eclectic influences from the beginning to the end. The only trouble is, I think I’ve just spent longer discussing this album than its creators did making it and it may all have been by accident rather than design...