Monday 15 July 2013

"The Monkees" (1966) (Album Review)

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“The Monkees” (1966)

(Theme From) The Monkees/Saturday’s Child/I Wanna Be Free/Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day/Papa Gene’s Blues/Take A Giant Step//Last Train To Clarksville/This Just Doesn’t Seem To Be My Day/Let’s Dance On/I’ll Be True To You (Yes I Will)/Sweet Young Thing/Gonna Buy Me A Dog

Here they come, walking down the street...and more importantly into your television sets. Never before had the young had a programme that was ‘theirs’, that revelled in short snappy colourful half-hour plots where nobody got hurt and everyone was alright at the end and whose moral wasn’t fighting for your country or following the wishes of your parent’s generation but in simply being yourself. The Monkees show often gets overlooked by television scholars nowadays - simply because of the fallout over the ‘band who doesn’t play their own instruments’ furore which TV scholars should have seen through more than anyone else – but I stake a claim that it is the most important show of the 20th century: it was the first show that made several cuts a minute (instead of one or two – all TV shows are like this now, even The News!), it was the first great multimedia experiment (using music and television to create a third ‘new’ medium long before MTV and music videos), the ‘actors’ used their own names for (pretty Much) the first time, further blurring the line between ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’ and the series actually laughed at itself, making jokes about the writers, the cast, the directors, even the fans back at a time when most television shows were pompous and those that weren’t mocked figures in the news, not themselves. Unlike some writers I can imagine ‘The Monkees’ being made at an earlier time – but they’d be some wise-cracking hip young jazz band or something who were always the ‘heroes’ of the day; the brilliance of The Monkees was that all four were ‘losers’, struggling for even basic success along with several hundred over rock and roll bands around the world; it was only the success of the Monkees went sky-high and the band started revealing that (shock! Horror!) these four actors hired to play parts in a TV show weren’t real musicians that things got ugly, as if the band had ‘betrayed’ people’s ‘trust’ (which only goes to show what a believable, lifelike series The Monkees was: no one ever wrote in complaining that the Beatles hadn’t saved the world at one of their gigs like they did in the Beatles Cartoon series most weeks!) More importantly, though, The Monkees gave the youth movement of the day – which had been growing in numbers ever since the first Beatles single in 1962, maybe even the first Beach Boys single in 1961 – their own voice, their own identity and their chance to look their parents in the face and say ‘look at these long-haired youngsters having harmless fun; all those stories of awful hippies bringing down civilisation as we know must be wrong, surely?’ America has long had a policy of nominating the most important films ever made, to be stored within a concrete bunker in case of nuclear fallout so that future generations can experience what life was like in the 20th and 21st centuries (if they can ever work out the technology to play them on!) They’ve recently started adding key episodes from TV series too – let’s hope that The Monkees are included very soon, because no other visual format so catches the colour, the spectacle or the fun (whilst being brave enough to speak out on issues occasionally too). The Monkees only lasted two seasons – barely the blink of an eye in TV network terms – and few involved with making it expected it to last the entire first run (hence the fact that so many second season programmes were simply abandoned scripts from the first series), but it’s importance in television history should never be under-estimated: it broke so much new ground that it was 20 years before anyone caught up with tit’s pace and panache and has still never been beaten for 99% of us.

By contrast with the sheer effort of putting the TV series on (never did a show have so many edits of pilots – never before had a show been given so many ‘second chances’ to get onto the air), few people in charge seemed to care that much about the music. Certainly not creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider who – after despite realising the importance of music to the youth of the day and making their four characters a wannabe ‘band’ – figured they didn’t know enough about music and left it to other people. This concept could have worked as the young writers hired to make the music for the pilot – an up and coming duo named Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart – did spectacularly well grasping what at the time was only as ‘concept’ on a bit of paper and writing the perfect theme song and perfect first single before the actors were even hired. Naturally, they thought they’d be asked to write the whole series and, unprompted, came up with dozens of songs for The Monkees, most of them recorded in the next few hurried months and almost all of them as good as the ones that made it to the album. However here comes mistake #1: Colgems figured they’d be too ‘inexperienced’ the pressure of writing new music every week and hired producer Don Kirshner, the ‘man with the golden ears’ who knew a hit song when he heard one. Older, conventional and the only man linked with The Monkees who had a track record of success, Kirshner naturally assumed he knew best and hired lots of different writers to compose songs for The Monkees, putting the nose of both Boyce and Hart and The Monkees out of joint. Some of these decisions he got very right indeed: Neil Diamond and David Gates (later of ‘Bread’) both got their big breaks submitting songs for The Monkees. Others he got very wrong indeed, filling up second LP ‘More Of The Monkees’ in particular with the very worst songs the band recorded, not the best (the embarrassment of riches on the three Monkee outtake sets ‘Missing Links’ shows how great the first two – or maybe even four – Monkees LPs in an alternate universe might have been). Kirshner was undoubtedly a great producer, born for the 1950s market where songwriters were king and singers were hired hands - but he was completely the wrong sort of producer for the mid-1960s when The Beatles had changed the way of making music for teenagers forever. Everyone else in the Monkees project understood this – for all his brilliance (and ability to ‘think like a 13 year old schoolgirl’ as he often proudly boasted, which is harder than it sounds or everyone would have done it) Kirshner never quite ‘got’ what The Monkees was all about.

Worst still was mistake no #2: originally the TV series was meant to be a ‘hook’ for viewers to hear new music every week and it would be ‘that’ illicit thrill that would keep them tuning in every seven days as much as the ‘plots’. Certainly that was the plan when the first recordings for ‘The Monkees’ took place, with an impressive 71 songs being taped between June 10th 1966 (the date of the first official Monkees recording session) and October 1st 1966 (when ‘The Monkees’ was released in America) – enough for almost seven albums! Unfortunately, the people involved got greedy when they saw how well ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ – released before the first episode of the series had even aired – had sold and someone (probably Krishner) decided that instead of ‘risking’ new material each week they would just keep repeating the same songs over and over (almost always the ‘singles’, which would then receive a nice extra ‘plug’ every week for ‘free’ when the TV programme was on). This decision would still make sense had, say, the powers that be relied exclusively on Boyce and Hart, the songwriters who’d been ‘allowed’ to write the band’s first single and come up trumps, but no – every songwriter in town was eager to be part of a ‘successful’ project and there were suddenly several mouths to feed, with writers giving alleged ‘bribes’ and ‘promises’ in return for getting a song on a guaranteed million-selling single or album. Suddenly the very ugly side of the modern world - which the penniless Monkees TV characters successfully evaded every week – had got involved and the result was a decision that robbed the series from being even more colourful and exciting week on week.

Furthermore it lead to big mistake #3: The Monkees were worked to death. Ask an actor to record 26 partly improvised half hour shows per year nowadays and you’d have the unions and lawyers onto you. Ask them to then record 71 vocals onto backing tracks in their ‘days off’ within four months (that’s how seriously the music was taken on The Monkees project!) and you can see why the Monkees were more like Zombies by the end of their first year. Frankly, I don’t know how Micky Dolenz in particular did it: there’s barely a scene of the TV series he isn’t in and perhaps a fifth total of the songs he doesn’t at least sing a ‘backing part’ on. This also leads to big mistake #4: having specifically advertised for four ‘actors/musicians’ for the TV series – and splitting the band between two actors (Micky and Davy) with some musical experience and two musicians (Mike and Peter) with a little acting experience, the powers that be then went and ‘ignored’ their two lead musicians. Someone – probably Kirshner again – decided that Micky and Davy had the more commercial voices and decided to use them on the ‘crucial’ singles. Fair enough: Micky especially has a voice born for radio and the wonder really is that his ‘teenage band’ ‘The Missing Links (in which Micky played guitar, not drums, by the way) hadn’t been more successful for his golden voice alone. But surely the albums were an opportunity to give fans who followed one of the other Monkees their chance to gaze in rapture at their ‘favourite Monkee’? Add in the fact that Mike Nesmith was already a successful songwriter (writing hits for the Stone Ponys featuring a young Linda Ronstadt as well as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, even if his many own recordings had never quite clicked with the public) and that Peter Tork had all the right background credentials (his best friend of the time was Stephen Stills who was at number one the month the first TV episode aired and – as a regular visitor to the recording sessions - was only a phone-call away from a cameo appearance) and you’d surely be idiotic to not cash in on all that talent? You’d be even more foolish to risk alienating your young cast who – however amateurish in your eyes – were earning colossal amounts of money for your firm? (Tork had since said that he walked into his first session quite innocently with his guitar and got such a look of sarcasm he was looking for ways to leave The Monkees from that moment on). But that’s what happened: Nesmith gets two songs (one of them a ‘co-write’ with the ‘established’ Goffin and King team) onto the album by sheer force of personality; poor Peter meanwhile gets to play just one guitar part, during a session Nesmith was producing, and appears on the front cover). Had The Monkees split the workload (I really don’t get the criticism of Peter’s voice by the way – compared to what other bands with ‘token cameos’ were doing in the day, Ringo’s Beatle songs included, it makes perfect sense to me as part of a 12 track album) there would have been less of the jealousies and fall-oust to come – and the Monkees project would have been spared an awful lot of criticism about not having ‘real’ musicians involved in the show.

One thing I don’t consider a mistake, however, is the one everyone else considered a mistake: the decision to not have the Monkees play on their own recordings. We’ve already seen how heavy The Monkees’ workload was: could they really have been expected to rehearse and arrange this material as well? Not to mention the fact that, in July 1966 when the first recording sessions were booked, the four Monkees still barely knew who each other were and had only met for the first time mere weeks before in most cases (barring Micky and Peter, who had ended up in one ‘audition’ group together). To put this in context too, the record-buying public didn’t seem to have a problem when other bands did it: The Mamas and The Papas could play a total of a guitar between them and often John Phillips didn’t do even that, leaving it up to the session musicians of the day; Simon and Garfunkel too would have looked pretty silly pretending their have band sound was played by just the two of them; it was an open secret among musicians that The Beach Boys hadn’t played on a Beach Boys album at all between late 1964 and 1966 and even The Byrds, who jumped on the bandwagon by writing the malicious single ‘So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star?’ at least partly about The Monkees, had only sung on their first and biggest selling single ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (aside from a brief McGuinn guitar part). The problem perhaps was that the Monkees were seen miming to their songs every week – but then the Monkees actors were playing the ‘parts’ of a band after all (and in Dolenz’s oft-quoted phrase ‘the fact that the Monkees became a real band later was akin to Leonard Nimoy becoming a real Vulcan!’) Even so, what else could they have done? At most, Colgems were mistaken in not putting the ‘real’ musician’s names on the sleeves – but even that was a rarity back in the day. The fact that the music press jumped on this and that so many fans followed seems ridiculous to me – what they should perhaps have done is talked about the sheer amount of plugging of the band’s singles every week and the fact that The Monkees barely ever sang harmonies on these recordings (Boyce and Hart doing most of the background vocal work – surely this is something simple that could have been changed to make the Monkees seem more of a band?)

The tensions and pressures involved in the making of these early recordings are best shown in the front cover. To many fans it’s ‘the’ key Monkees image and adorned several bedroom walls over the years (including mine, incidentally – thanks for the gift Judith!) and one of the few where the whole band are smiling. Look closer, however, and you’ll realise that Mike Nesmith isn’t so much smiling as talking – years later he revealed that The Monkees had been badgered into having this shot taken during their ‘lunch break’ from a long week filming their TV series and that, stressed to the gunnels, Nesmith had blown his top for the first (but not last) time. The photographer was taking an age to line-up the shot so Papa Nez – knowing how rare it was to get all four Monkees together even then – told him ‘you’ve got two minutes and that’s it!’ He’s apparently mouthing the word ‘three!’ in the photograph, which is all the seconds the band had left before he would get up and walk away - signs of things to come...

Given the haphazard way it was put together, though, with little input from The Monkees themselves (barring those two Nesmith songs), with four different names in the ‘producers’ list on the back page as well as Kirshner’s (though ‘More Of The Monkees’ features many, many more!) and the fact that the album was split between four main songwriting partnerships, ‘The Monkees’ is a pretty good collection of pop songs. Micky’s voice, which dominates this record more than any other Monkee album (with seven lead vocals from the 12 songs) helps gloss over the often different styles of the album, which varies from pure Nesmith country to twee Davy Jones balladry and the ‘average’ quality of the record is certainly higher than ‘More Of The Monkees’ to come. However, like many fans I mourn for the great record this could have been: recorded at these sessions alone are such important and wonderful Monkees songs as ‘All The King’s Horses’ (an early Nesmith song heard in the TV series soundtrack), three separate goes at Boyce and Hart’s moving ‘I Don’t Think You K Now Me At All’ (better than any of their songs for this album barring ‘Theme’ and ‘Clarksville’), the moving ballad ‘So Goes Love’ (on the first ‘Missing Links’), Nesmith’s howlingly anguished take on Goffin and King’s ‘I Won’t Be The Same Without Her’ (which won’t be released till as late as album seven ‘Instant Replay’ in 1969), an early version of the ‘Headquarters’ classics ‘You Just May Be The One’ (which sadly doesn’t have the rough and ready swing The Monkees will bring to the song) and ‘I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind’ (which is admittedly a bit dull without the tack piano part), the still unissued ‘Jokes’, alternate versions of ‘I Wanna Be Free’ (faster, poppier, with Micky and Davy in harmony) and ‘I Wanna Buy Me A Dog’ (sung straight this time – well, sort of) and best of all a Micky Dolenz vocal version of ‘Prithee’ (Do Not Ask For Love) which fans know best as Peter’s vocal appearance in the ’33 and 1/3rd Revolutions Per Monkee’ TV special from late 1968). I don’t know about you but personally I’d rather have heard any of those songs instead of some of what did make the album: the silly ‘This Just Doesn’t Seem To Be My Day’, the generic ‘Let’s Dance On’ which must be Boyce and Hart’s weakest song on a Monkees album, a rather nasally take on Hollies single ‘Yes I Will’ and a genre-defining ‘outtake’ version of Boyce and Hart’s ‘Gonna Buy Me A Dog’ which was included to showcase the band’s humour (contrary to what some fan sites will tell you, it is really funny – but gets less funny each time you hear it and should, perhaps, have been a B side).

‘The Monkees’, then, is a record that in many ways is far better than it should have been given how hard the people involved with it were working at the time, how many opposing views were already clashing over what should and shouldn’t make the album and how little importance really was given to the music in favour of production on the TV series. Then again, it could so easily have been even better than this: had The Monkees been allowed to at least sing the background parts across the record or added one or two little guitar parts, has Schneider or Rafelson substituted the weakest third of the album for any of the dozen or so superior outtakes sitting in the vaults and had The Monkees been given firmly into the hands of Boyce and Hart to produce (surely a best-selling #1 single and a theme tune everyone was singing was more than enough credentials for producing an LP?) then ‘The Monkees’ could have been the ‘giant’ of the record industry instead of merely a good pop record that was good enough to keep the band’s TV audience happy when they weren’t on air. ‘The Monkees’ is a hard record to review. Compared to the later, more involved Monkee records there’s not much depth on this album: rough and raw as the recording is, even ‘Headquarters’ has a sophistication on a songwriting and arranging level far above this first album, which really is just an afterthought, a bit of merchandising to go along with the Corgi Monkeemobile (I really really want one of those!), The Monkees lunchboxes and the ‘playing cards made out of knickers’. But at the same time there is a certain grace and depth about certain tracks here (Nesmith’s two songs, plus ‘I Wanna Be Free’ ‘Clarksville’ and especially the album’s hidden highlight ‘Take A Giant Step’) that shows that at least some of the people involved with this album were taking it seriously and wanted to do something just that little bit special. The future evolution of The Monkees is already on its way and in time it will lead to one of the greatest back catalogues of them all (albums three to six, especially, are among the best work by any band anywhere at anytime), but all that most general members of the public remember today about The Monkees is this first album, with ‘that’ cover ‘that’ theme tune and ‘that’ debut single. Ah well, as reputations go that’s not a bad one to have – and the fact that the powers behind The Monkees got it right from the first, hitting the ground running with the first work written eve before there was a ‘band’ is staggering; it’s just a shame that so many of the later decisions made across the course of this first album were so costly in the end.

Every group should have a theme song: a record that sums up what a band are all about and where they’re heading. The Monkees have the perfect one: it manages to be cool enough for kids to take seriously and unthreatening enough for parents to leave the television on. The opening 45 seconds of ‘The Monkees’ TV series are so key to the project that you’d have expected Boyce and Hart to have sleepless nights over it (after all, not a single piece of footage had been shot for them to ‘get a feel’ for the series and the few scripts around were pretty basic, without the Monkee ‘romps’ and improvisations the four not-yet cast members came up with). By emphasising the band’s harmlessness but also their intrinsic cool (the finger-snapping – actually more a 50s sound than a 60s one – works very well, despite being ‘stolen’ from the ‘Jets’ fights in ‘West Side Story’) and adding in both a drum hook and a guitar hook that sounded like nothing else around at the time Boyce and Hart wrote their masterpiece. If anything the album version – extended to 150 seconds now – is even better, adding in a frenetic instrumental section that gets increasingly out of control and a glorious second verse of anarchy of which any number of 19th century philosophers would be proud. ‘We go wherever we want to, do what we like to do’ is the perfect statement for a band who go somewhere new every week (for the first 15 or so anyway, before the formula begins to repeat itself) and the fact that these four people are ‘like’ the young audience at home, not some super-heroes like Superman or Batman but ‘ordinary people’ who might be ‘standing there’ behind your shoulder gives a real frisson of excitement for the time. Best line of the song: ‘We’re the new generation – and we’ve got something to say’. The Monkees were (generally) watched by the younger brothers and sisters of passionate Beatles fans who were a little bit young for ‘Revolver’ and ‘Sgt Peppers’ but still wanted their own ‘op’ group to cherish which gives this line a clever double meaning: not only is this something your parents wouldn’t do, it also means you can be like your elder siblings. Note, though, the way this verse is tempered with the lines ‘we’re just trying to be friendly’ – Boyce and Hart having their cake and eating it. All that said, though, its not just the lyrics that work on this song – you only need to listen to the Italian version of the theme tune (‘Tama Dei Monkees’ from ‘Missing Links Three’) to realise how infectious and energetic the tune is too. In retrospect, this kind of music seems far too exciting to be made by a lot of middle-aged session musicians – no wonder the band’s fans took it to heart so much when they found out that out of the four Monkees only Micky actually appears on the band’s theme tune – and it’s one of the best band performances on the record, topped only by Micky’s note-perfect vocal, full of fun and energy that simply pulls you in. More than perhaps any other AAA band, The Monkees was a ‘team’ project, shaped by producers, script-writers, songwriters and musicians as well as the band themselves. At times during the Monkees project this batch of people get out of synch with each other, pull in different directions and all but kill the project by 1968. Here and now, though, they are all working together perfectly, capturing a moment in time that’s irresistibly enticing and making The Monkees sound like the greatest band on the planet. There are many great theme tunes out there, but only the ones for ‘Dr Who’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’ come close for mirroring contents and audience. Simply superb.

The momentum is maintained in next song ‘Saturday’s Child’, which is another highlight of the record. The lyrics may be daft, a re-telling of the ‘Saturday’s child works hard for a living’ nursery rhyme from slightly more modern eyes, but the melody and arrangement are as good as any The Monkees will ever do. Written by a young David Gates, long before he, err, became the ‘toast’ of ‘Bread’ in the 1970s, it’s another lucky accident, submitted before the TV series made it to the air and recorded in the band’s earliest days (it was recorded on July 9th 1966, along with five other songs from this LP!). In fact Gates has always claimed that it was ‘pushed’ to be the Monkees’ debut single before ‘Last Train To Clarksvislle’ came along – which makes giving how much commitment seems to be going on in the ‘take’, although Boyce and Hart were surely always a shoe-in for the first single given their central role on the series. Micky is on top form again, full of breathless excitement and this time Davy’s on hand to deliver some excellent ‘nagging’ backing vocals along with Boyce and Hart (he’s not listed on the otherwise comprehensive CD credits, but I know Davy Jones when I hear him!) The triple guitar attack of Wayne Erwin, Gerry McGee and old hand Louie Shelton is superb, more like The Who or The Creation than the usual Monkee sounds to come and there’s no sense of the band ‘throwing away’ the song as on some later Monkees sessions. The instrumental section is especially thrilling, Shelton’s guitar suddenly leaping over the twin groove of the other guitarist’s and flying into space before being whalloped back to earth by drummer Billy Lewis in the best drum lick until ’50 Ways To leave Your Lover’. Yes, it’s a shame that the lyrics aren’t better (as a ‘Sunday’ child I object to being told I’ll ‘make a good wife one day’, in true 60s parlance, although at least ‘my’ day has a line all to itself; poor ‘Friday’ is mysteriously missing from the song), but even they are a cut above the sort of rubbish most teenage songs from the 1950s songs have (‘Calendar Girls’, I’m looking at you!) It’s the tune and the performance you’ll remember most though: thrilling, exciting, exhilarating, it’s amongst the best of these early Monkees songs, although surprisingly it only appeared in the TV show twice (most notably during the romp in TV episode highlight ‘Monkee Vs Machine’).

‘I Wanna Be Free’ is another song central to the early Monkees sound. Boyce and Hart wrote it for the pilot (along with ‘Theme’ and ‘Let’s Dance On’) and wanted it to be another song summing up the younger aspirations of the day that’s actually quite daring (no manufactured teenage idol had ever spoken about wanting no-strings commitment before!) and Davy’s personality in particular, already groomed as the ‘heart-throb’ of the band. However, Boyce and Hart were never quite sure what they wanted from the song and ended up cutting three versions of the track all on the same day (July 19th 1966). Amazingly it was experimental take one that made the record, a very un-hip 1966 backing track of harpsichord and cello that may or may not have been inspired by the release of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ the month before that actually ended up sounding more like The Kinks, slowed down to a crawl. While version two, a mid-paced version of the song, has never been heard version three (released on ‘Missing Links Two’) is a surprise: vocals are shared between Davy and Micky and the song is given a fast upbeat tempo and a Rickenbacker-guitar fuelled rattle reminiscent of The Byrds. To be honest, it’s the outtake I prefer although the original, slower, Davy-led version of the song does have a certain grace and style that’s a cut above what most songwriters would have delivered to a ‘teen’ product. Boyce and Hart are often accused of coming up with songs by rote (only fair in as much as that’s what they were always being asked to do their whole career), but a handful of their songs (‘Words’ and ‘I’ll Spend My Life With You’ to name two more) show just how emotional and believable their work could be at it’s best. ‘I Wanna Be Free’ might not be the best Monkees song on this debut LP, but it’s arguably the bravest, with its very ‘modern’ take on relationships that won’t necessarily grow into marriage and children and it’s slow, very un-teenage backing. Davy does one of his better jobs on the vocal, too, revealing an earnest, sensitive depth that – unforgivably – the powers that be will ignore for most of his time with the band, instead giving him bland teen fodder to sing on most of these first two LPs (and the last, come to that).

‘Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day’ (heard twice in the TV series) is a little bit Monkees-by-numbers, even this early in the Monkees’ evolution. Another Boyce and Hart song, it actually pre-dates their days with the band and was co-written with Steve Venet, the ‘original’ Bobby Hart before Boyce found his soulmate. The gesture seems to have been a kind one: Boyce’s career hadn’t exactly taken off since leaving his old friend but he had gone on to better things whilst Venet had had a bit of nervous breakdown, stopped writing and – by some accounts – ended up homeless by 1967. This was Boyce’s way of making sure his old friend at least had some kind of an income – which is a worthy thing to do, but hardly makes for the most riveting song. More country and western than most (non-Nesmith anyway) Monkees songs, the song is driven by Chet Atkins-style guitar-picking and a windswept mouthorgan. Micky still gives the song his all, but he’s way out of his comfort zone here and badly needs another voice to keep him company (despite being one of the best double-trackers in the business, there’s not much variety in this song as it is). Lyrically, too, there’s a slightly artificial air about a song that has a simple ABAB rhyming scheme and lyrics that are uncomfortably close to ‘Clarksville’ without telling such a strong story (both songs have narrators leaving town on a train with their hearts breaking, but ‘Clarksville’ adds in more details to make the plot convincing). The highlight by far is Louie Shelton’s latest guitar solo, one that bubbles with so much excitement and merriment it accompanies the two single most frenetic Monkee romps in their whole series! (from ‘Monkees See Monkees Die’ and ‘Monkees In A Ghost Town’ respectively).

‘Papa Gene’s Blues’ is such a typical Mike Nesmith song than I’m impressed a) that his art was so fully-formed this early in his career and b) that the powers-that-be let it through at all – even without a struggle. While as melodious and energetic as anything else on the album, the country trapopings are about as far away from the template ‘Beatles’ sound as its possible to get and Nes’ lyrics are typically confusing, never linking with the title once (a life-long Nesmith songwriting quirk) and featuring a very unusual, staggered rhythm that makes it sound more like a Gilbert and Sullivan ‘patter’ song than a pop hit. However, it’s great to hear The Monkees give Micky a break (even if he still sings a harmony vocal to sweeten Mike’s rather rough lead) and try something different and Nesmith is already a class above most of the ‘professional’ songwriters writing for the group. No other song on this first album is quite this complex, in fact, although unlike some future Nesmith songs that try perhaps a little too hard to be ‘different’ (‘Tapioca Tundra’ or ‘Writing Wrong’s for instance) there’s a nonchalant relaxed air that makes it quite enjoyable to listen to too. Half rhymes are scattered throughout the song, sometimes cropping up twice in the same line, sometimes replacing the rhyming scheme altogether (‘destination’ and ‘inspiration’, ‘journey’ and ‘worry’ and ‘I have no more than I did before’, for instance), while ‘Papa Gene’ never gets a look-in. Listen out for a real tour de force backing track, too, featuring several big names appearing on a Monkees session for the first time, including James Burton and Glen Campbell amongst the six (!) guitarists and Jim Gordon and Hal Blaine on drums. Listen out especially, though, for an acoustic part you can barely hear: that’s Peter Tork, roped in on this Nesmith-produced session to give him something to do and cheer him up and it ends up becoming the only ‘musical’ section of this whole album played by one of the Monkees themselves as well as Peter’s only contribution to the music. Originally this was meant to be the ‘one’ song on the first album to feature all four Monkees, Nesmith (the producer for the session) insisting on multi-layered four-part vocals for the group which were taped (but sadly appear to have been wiped); history hasn’t recorded what Davy and Peter thought of their precious work being ‘deleted’ on their colleague’s whim, which is probably just as well! Perhaps recognising the fact that the music press are already on the band’s back about not playing their own instruments, Mike mischievously jokes ‘pick it, Wilson!’ during the solo, even though no one on the session has that name! (Contrarily, is this Nes’ sarcastic response to working in a genre completely different to Wilson Pickett and the blues? Future Nesmith ‘sayings’ during the solos of his songs include such gems as ‘somebody give the piano player a glass of water!’ and the sales rap from ‘Salesman’). Despite it’s unusual, uncharacteristic sound and style, ‘Papa Gene’s Blues’ ends up becoming something of a TV series regular, heard three times during the course of the first season (usually whenever the band are in the ‘country’).

‘Take A Giant Step’ is the album highlight for me, a Goffin and King song that cuts a tad deeper than most of the songs on the album without sacrificing any of the commerciality or energy. Micky always had a particular strong spiritual link with Carole King and the two often inspire the best out of each other – certainly Dolenz was born to sing this optimistic song about better tomorrows and ‘leaving yesterday behind’. To a wounded America, with civil rights marches and Vietnam protests on the news every night The Monkees were a balm that was badly needed; however ‘Giant Step’ goes a stage further than the other songs, promising a better future, with ‘wonders to be seen’ and best of all the promise that life would be like it ‘used to be’, ‘when you woke up and morning smiled’. Writing for teens and pre-teens is no excuse not to care and Goffin and King do well here not to ‘write down’ when asked by Kirshner to write something for a ‘kiddies programme’. In fact ‘Take A Giant Step’ is the first song ever recorded at a Monkees session as early as June 10th 1966 – although that’s not the recording that makes the album (which was taped about six weeks later); the first version by producer Snuff Garrett (sadly since lost) is rejected when the Monkees actually agree on something and ask to work with a different producer (Boyce and Hart getting a brief promotion). Despite featuring just two verses, there’s nothing simplistic about this song which features very ‘adult’ themes (the ‘girl’ locked up in her ‘silent room’ is surely suffering from depression, not a light theme for a teenage TV series in the 1960s) and the narrator’s kindly, enthusiastic response could easily have become tactless; instead his promises of ‘wonders to be seen’ and his gentle urge to ‘step outside your mind’ sound like a concerned elder brother. Best of all is, again, the instrumental section when the oriental flavour heard in the beginning of the song boils over and the session musicians lurch sideways into an exotic landscape filled with harpsichords, oboes, throbbing ‘tomtom’ drums – in fact everything but the ‘hookah pipe’ (which is coming in feature film ‘Head’!) Despite having nothing to do with the track, Tommy Boyce is one of the song’s four guitarists and Bobby Hart picks out the glockenspiel part, although sadly Micky is the only Monkee present vocally once again. Brave, quirky, unusual and fascinating, but still with a strong hook and an enjoyable arrangement caught between the fairytale and the everyday, ‘Take A Giant Step’ is one of the greatest pop songs the Monkees ever recorded and the true highlight of the record, ‘Theme’ and ‘Clarksville’ notwithstanding. Shockingly it was only used on the TV series soundtrack once, in the memorable episode ‘The Chaperone’ (in which Micky looks so like his sister Coco, later a Monkees backing singer, it must have caused a lot of giggling back home!)

Talking of ‘Clarksville’, the Monkees’ debut hit had a lot riding on it and in retrospect it seems odd that it was released as early as August 1966, six weeks before the first episode of the TV series was on the air. The fact that it was a colossal success even without the TV soundtrack promoting it every week shows what a great song it is – and what a terrific performance the ever-reliable Dolenz gives. Boyce and Hart wrote the song especially for The Monkees after promising for years they’d write a ‘train song’ together; walking in on the fade-out of the ‘new’ Beatles single ‘Paperback Writer’ on the radio for the first time they’re meant to have mis-heard the lyrics and gone ‘darn, we wanted to do a song about ‘take the last train...’ After realising they’d simply mis-heard the song, the duo decided that they’d better write ‘their’ version of it, taking ‘Paperback Writer’ as their musical template in the same way the TV series was based around ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (play ‘Take the last train...’ opening phrase against the ‘paperback writer’ fade by The Beatles; the two are identical). Built around a memorable guitar-hook (played by Louie Shelton again, with Boyce’s support on acoustic), it’s actually a pretty unlikely subject matter for a pop hit: the narrator is encouraging his lover to meet him for one last fling before he moves onto pastures new, swamped by guilt (although we never quite finds out why). This is far from the ‘we just want to be friendly’ theme of the – umm – ‘Theme’, but few people ever listened to the lyrics properly anyway, what with the memorable ‘trrrrrraaaaaaaiiinnnnn!’ backing vocals from Boyce, Hart and a rather muted Davy Jones, the ‘no no no nonononononono’ tagline and the brilliant bit of scat singing from Micky in the middle. Like the train that will depart, whether the lovers are on it or not, there’s a breathless rush of energy in the performance of this song that’s simply intoxicating, the hardened Hollywood session musicians sounding like a band half their age on a song that couldn’t be anything else but a hit. There is no station called ‘Clarksville’ in America by the way: there is a ‘Clarksville’ RAF base in Tennessee but that didn’t have a train station then or now; the station was originally ‘Clarkdale’ after one Bobby Hart knew of near Arizona but the name got changed to something more ‘memorable’. As a shocking example of just how hard The Monkees were being worked in this period, the backing track for this debut song was taped and in the can before any of the Monkees ever heard it – they were busy shooting the TV episode ‘Your Friendly Neighbourhood Kidnappers’ at the time!

‘This Just Doesn’t Seem To Be My day’ just doesn’t seem to fit on this album. Another early Boyce and Hart tune, it’s probably the simplest song on the album and it’s pop structure is closer to the pop songs of three years earlier than anything around in 1966. Just look at those lyrics: ‘She didn’t have to say a lot, her pretty eyes revealed the plot, it was someone else she wanted more and so I walked out to the door...’, this is the sort of teenage poetry people get teased about in their adult days. That said, someone’s had a go at updating the sound with a sitar playing a line very close to the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’ (a new release back when this track was recorded in July) to at least try to add a bit of excitement in the track; however its not as successful as the similar go in ‘Take A Giant Step’ (or the later one in ‘Can You Dig It?’ from ‘Head’) and is too obviously added later. Better is the melody, which features the now trademark Boyce-Hart technique of increasing tension by slowing up and speeding down – in times to come it’s a device that will work very well indeed (‘Words’ is perhaps the ultimate ‘contrasts’ song), but there’s something rather unsubtle and forced about its use here. Like many a Davy Jones song to come, this song paints him as a very English sort of twit (close your eyes and it could be a Mancunian Hugh Grant singing this song) but frankly this template for so many songs to come doesn’t suit Davy one bit. Indeed, in many ways its an anti-Davy song: you can’t imagine the ‘character’ of the TV series losing so many girls or moping over their absence this much (perhaps they should have given this song to Peter?) Worse still, instead of roping in the other three Monkees to help with the song Davy sings triple-tracked, something which brings pout the worst in his harsh, slightly nervy vocals (to be fair he was, after all, only 19 at the time). Not as bad as some of the ‘More of the Monkees’ songs admittedly (particularly ‘Laugh’ oh ha ha ha!) but easily the weakest song on the record (assuming you have enough of a sense of humour to find ‘Gonna Buy Me A Dog’ funny anyway!)

‘Let’s Dance On’ is another Boyce-Hart song that’s a little bit too primitive for it’s own good, but at least this song has an excuse: asked to cook up a ‘dance song’ for a ‘dance segment’ of the pilot episode (for which no script was available) the duo do everything they can to make this simple song listing dance steps interesting. It’s no ‘Twist and Shout’ certainly and ‘Dance On’ is perhaps more than all the other songs here mere ‘soundtrack fodder’ not designed to be listened to too closely, but another strong performance by the usual session crew and Micky audibly having fun do half-salvage a pretty average song. To be fair, the session musicians probably knew this song backwards by the time they came to tape this version – this is actually the third attempt, what with aborted takes with Snuff Garrett and a ‘demo’ recording made simply to give the producers an idea of what the finished pilot would look like, so there’s a real swing and poise about this song’s arrangement many of these other songs don’t possess. In fact, I’ve just discovered by accident that if you listen to just the left-hand speaker/headphone on the stereo copy of the record you end up with Micky solo-ing over Billy Lewis’ fantastic drumming, which sound more like jazz than rock and roll! Louie Shelton is the other star of the show, ripping through the guitar parts like an American Pete Townshend despite the terrible shame that his usual ‘solo’ piece is given over to a terribly cheesy vox organ played by Hart (Vox had made a ‘deal’ with Screen Gems long before The Monkees to provide them with ‘free equipment’ in return for plugs on TV; usually it sounds fine ‘hidden’ in the Monkees’ sound but here, up front, it sounds ghastly; perhaps The Monkees were just paying back their main inspirers, The Beatles, for their similarly ghastly voc organ sound on ‘Mr Moonlight’ from ‘Beatles For Sale’?!) Listen out too for an un-credited Peter on the backing tracks along with Boyce and Hart and – I think – Davy in there somewhere too, making this is the single most ‘group effort on the whole album (after the harmonies on ‘Papa Gene’ got cut). A fairly nondescript song about dance-steps that somehow manages to transcend it’s limitations and sounds great, it’s a shame that this song was only ever featured in the pilot episode and not in more episodes in the first season.

‘Yes I Will’ aka ‘I’ll Be True To You’ is a Goffin-Titleman song (back in the days when Goffin hadn’t met Carole King yet) best known for being an early Hollies single. Their version is all about the harmonies and the mood-changing unexpected key change in the middle eight that sounds like the sun darting behind a cloud and the much more welcome change back again, the very sound of comfort after danger and kindness after cruelty. The Hollies may have been around Davy’s age when they recorded that song (mostly 19 or 20, although guitarist Tony Hicks was all of 17!), but they sound much older and wiser, more sure of their ability to put things right whilst understanding why the girl in the song has her doubts about getting into a long-term relationship. Davy’s version is all about boyish charm and although Davy sings it well (especially the middle eight, where instead of sounding ‘wrong’ or ‘strange’ the band simply play in the same key, but louder) you don’t quite believe his claims of being ‘true’ as much as his Mancunian colleagues. It doesn’t help that Davy is occasionally ‘flatting’ by the end (something Boyce and Hart’s sugary backing vocals emphasise rather than cover-up) or that someone (probably Kirshner) encouraged him to add a very corny ‘spoken word’ section in the middle. ‘Yes I Will’, then, ends up being the opposite of the ‘other’ songs on the album: it’s a great song, one of the finest from the first half of the 1960s in fact, full of simple but very believable feelings and a wonderfully warm and golden melody, but given to a singer who isn’t yet mature enough to handle it and a backing band who sound like they’d rather be somewhere else, anywhere else. Perhaps if I’d known this version before The Hollies’ one I’d have liked it rather more – but there’s something false and cloying about this arrangement that misses the point of the song somehow. How this got through the band’s quality control when gems like ‘Prithee’ and ‘All The King’s Horses’ were rejected I’ll never know. This version of ‘I’ll Be True To You’ (The title the Monkees use on the sleeve, even though the original and almost every other version since calls it ‘Yes I Will’) – ironically enough – collapses because it isn’t actually true enough to the song. This is, incidentally, by far the longest song on one of the shorter AAA albums, clocking in at 2:50!

‘Sweet Young Thing’ is an interesting beast. Figuring that Nesmith was going to be a thorn in the producers’ side until he at least partly got his way, Kirshner called in old hands Goffin and King to work with him, hoping that their commercial instincts would win over Nesmith’s less commercial sound (you can hear their influence best in the more conventional middle eight). In actual fact, it worked out the other way, Goffin and King’s trademark ‘sensible’ verse-and-choruses inverted by the song’s angular melody, as if the singer is mocking at the sentiments rather than joining in. The trademark 4/4 pop beat is also undermined by a curious sped-up fiddle part in the backing and a backing track where the musicians seem to have been encouraged to emphasise all beats equally (instead of the ‘first’ and the ‘third’ as in most traditional pop songs; playing around with this supposed ‘rule’ of time signatures is a Monkee past-time, especially on Nesmith’s songs, and even gets told to us via brief ‘lesson’ from Davy and collaborator Charlie Smalls in a coda to the penultimate ever Monkees show). The result is a song that’s decidedly weirder and more eccentric than anything else on the album (and which must have made Kirshner and co groan when they heard it), but it’s actually the album’s dark horse, the song that proves that one member of the group at least had a real musical palette over and above miming to pop songs. Nesmith’s gruff vocal (taped before his tonsil operation in early 1967 that ‘lightens’ his voice) has rarely been better, the most ‘Texan’ he ever sounds on a Monkees record but with deliberately over-enunciated consonants that add to the song’s alluring, slightly lopsided feel. Micky provides the harmony vocal, starting a career long habit of backing Mike’s vocals with some sweeter, more commercial vocal chords, but here the use of Dolenz is particularly striking: Micky singing an ominous contrasting vocal that sounds like a ticking clock while Mike handled the ‘commercial’ lead. Add in one of the most eccentric guitar solos from 1966 that Jimi Hendrix didn’t play (by James Burton this time) and you have a manic but wonderful track, one which seems to go anywhere and everywhere despite sticking more or less religiously to the same simply four-bar phrase. Nesmith’s triumph, this song manages to beat most of the songs delivered for the album by the more traditional writers with far more experience and ends up as one of the most memorable early Monkees songs of them all. Lyrically, too, this song is ahead of its time: ‘I know that something very strange is happening to my brain, I’m either feeling very god or else I am insane!’...Despite seemingly being very anti-drugs as his career gets going, is Nesmith slipping a secret drug reference into this most teenage of teenage albums? Certainly there’s something very, err, ‘different’ about both the mood and words as Nesmith talks people trying to split him and his girl up, their words ‘ugly sounds’. Even without the possible drug link, this is a daring set of lyrics, using rhymes very few songwriters were daring to put into pop songs of the day and with a ‘sweet young thing’ chorus that’s also borderline suggestive for 1966 (perhaps, being asked to ‘think Beatles’,, Nesmith’s plumping for the ‘she was just 17, you know what I mean’ line in ‘I Saw Her Standing There’?!) Shockingly ‘Sweet Young Thing’ only ended up in the TV series once (when the Monkees are auditioning for a singing contest by telephone, before realising that their money ran out some time ago): Nesmith should at least have been allowed to use it as ‘his’ song during the episode when a songwriting publishers fleeces him by stealing his song (quite why they gave him ‘Gonna Buy Me A Dog’ instead, a song Micky and Davy have already laughed their way through due to mutual contempt, is unknown).

Talking of which, ‘Gonna Buy Me A Dog’ might be the single weirdest Monkees song, up there with ‘Zilch’ ‘Band 6’ and the spoken word passages of ‘Head’ as the group’s did-they-really-put-this-out? moment. The band weren’t meant to do this song as a ‘comedy’ moment: Boyce and Hart meant the song to be genuine, a ‘my dog will always love me even if you don’t sort of song that Cat Stevens actually scores a hit with barely weeks later in early 1967. Certainly that’s what Mike Nesmith thought when he produced an ‘early’ version of the song at only his second session in early July (a version sadly still unreleased!). But the song is easily Boyce and Hart’s weakest early song, with very basic lyrics that are hard to take seriously and so it’s no surprise that a bored and tired Micky and Davy, at the end of what must surely have been the busiest month of their young lives and a draining eight hour shift doing vocals for two versions of ‘I Wanna Be Free’, decided to take the mickey out of it (‘don’t ruin my song!’ ‘It’s already ruined so I thought I might as well!’). What is a ‘surprise’ is that Kirshner and Lester Sill allowed this ‘outtake’ through onto the record when – as we’ve seen – they were hardly short of alternatives. Rafelson and Schenider made it a dictate early on to keep the Monkees apart in the recording studio because they were forever trying to ‘outdo’ each other and that, for many years, is how fans have treated Micky and Davy’s take on this song (presumably because of Davy’s barbed comment ‘babe, you need all the friends you can get!’, which at least sounds like it was sung in jest). Actually I take a different view: Micky and Davy show a real rapport here, becoming each other’s straight men, improvising lines mercilessly and joining in on each other jokes (they even make the same joke at the same time near the end, turning ‘now now...’ into ‘how now brown cow’). Davy’s laugh is particularly genuine and infectious, while Micky’s response to Davy’s snores are hilarious: this isn’t a band at war, this is a band getting to know each other and finding that even if their backgrounds and musical preferences are very different, they at least have the same sense of humour. One line that’s puzzled many over the years is Micky’s comment ‘I’d buy a raccoon, but John already has one...’ – he’s referring to Nesmith’s friend John London, who will play on many of the band’s later albums and end up in the ‘First’ and ‘Second’ National Bands’ with Pap Nez, and how much he’d rather have a raccoon than a dog! Davy’s closing comment ‘They’re coming to take us away!’ is a reference to a novelty song by DJ Emperor Rosko’s pretending to be Napoleon that was big in the charts at the time (1966 had the strangest chart entries of any year on record!) Many fans hate ‘Gona Buy Me A Dog’ and certainly no other band apart from The Monkees would have dared been so ruthless to their own material, but I genuinely find this recording funny and hearing Micky and Davy sparring off each other is always fun. The Monkees were always a band that were as much about comedy as music and by using the arguably funnier ‘outtake’ instead of the ‘proper’ take the powers that be are simply doing the same with the Monkees music as they did with the TV series, so this track is fully in keeping with the ‘Monkee’ ethos, however peculiar it sounds in context. However, funny as ‘Gonna Buy Me A Dog’ is once, you have to question why this song got a slot on such a celebrated guaranteed money-spinner as this first album when so much better material was still in the vaults: had I been in charge I’d have released this song ‘Beatle-style’ as a flexi-disc for fans or stuck it on a b-side, not made it the last track on such a ‘key’ record!

Overall, then, ‘The Monkees’ is a real time capsule of a record, from a day when pop music wasn’t quite all about high-falluting concepts just yet and where so much effort and time was going into the Monkees project as a whole that even ‘after-thoughts’ like the music have a better average strike than most. That said, there’s no getting away from the manufactured-ness of this album and its successor, with the four Monkees merely hired hands along with the scriptwriters, producers and session musicians. There’s no one clear vision for what’s going on here and those that are shouting the loudest (mainly Kirshner vs Nesmith, with Boyce and Hart looking on) aren’t always working together. Still, most of the songwriters here are on the ball most of the time and The Monkees themselves never give less than their all, especially Micky (who delivers some staggeringly good vocal performances across this record) and Mike (who already has a sound all of his own and the bravery with which to insist on using it). Davy isn’t quite there yet and Peter is all but silenced, but you can already hear the band’s talent beginning to form, just waiting for the day when at the start of the ‘Headquarters’ sessions in march 1967 they get to do things ‘they’re’ way and considering that the band knew each other just weeks when this album came out and were busy hard at work on their ‘day’ job (making the TV series) their work is so much better than anyone had a right to expect. To put it bluntly there’s not enough depth about ‘The Monkees’ to make it an all-out Alan’s Album Archives classic like ‘Headquarters’ or ‘Head’ and about a third of the record is curiously below par. But ignore ‘The Monkees’ at your peril: one of the world’s greatest pop singers singing some of the best pop songs is a hard combination to beat and there’s just enough depth and deeper thoughts from the likes of Nesmith, David Gates and Goffin and King to make this album worth your while. After all, like everyone else in those pre-‘they-don’t-play-their-own-instruments’ craze of 1967 that made no sense, I’m too busy singing along to put anybody involved in this album down.


‘The Monkees’ (1966)

'More Of The Monkees' (1967)

'Headquarters' (1967)

'Pisces Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones LTD' (1967)

'The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees' (1968)

'Head' (1968)

'Instant Replay' (1969)

'The Monkees Present' (1969)

'Changes' (1970)

‘JustUs# (1996)

'Only Shades Of Grey' : The Monkees In Relation To Postmodernism (University Dissertation)

Auditions, Screen Tests and Pre-Fame Recordings

Surviving TV Clips

The TV Series - Season  One (19966-1967)

The TV Series - Season Two (1967-1968)

'HEAD/33 and a third Revolutions Per Monkee/Episode #761'

Monkee Sidetrips: The Boyce and Hart Catalogue

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part One 1967-1975

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part Two 1976-1986

Key Concerts and Cover Versions: