Monday, 20 June 2016
Good Times/You Bring The Summer/She Makes Me Laugh/Our Own World/Gotta Give It Time/Me and Magdelena/Whatever’s Right/Love To Love/Little Girl/Birth Of An Accidental Hipster/Wasn’t Born To Follow/I Know What I Know/I Was There (And I Was Told I Had A Good Time)
“Looking for the good times, gonna have a ball – but there’s more to life than you’ve been living, girl”
There’s an episode of the original run of the Monkees TV series (the eighteenth to be exact) where a mad scientist ‘steals’ the band’s musical abilities and adapts them to his own Monkee monster. The typically Monkee twist is that the monster’s actually pretty good and turns people on as much (more?) than the real thing, by sounding just enough like the original to make no difference with added hype and novelty factor. By the end of the show you’re rooting for the monster almost as much as the band themselves, even though he didn’t deserve all that success and luck which all came direct from what The Monkees were doing in the 1960s – which is kind of how I feel about the response to ‘Good Times’ at the moment. The world is currently going mad for The Monkees all over again, which is a delight for us fans to see in any form – who’d have guessed (certainly not the band it seems, judging by interviews) that they’d get a #1 hit album (at least on Amazon sales figures) out of it after the last two reunion projects managed a high of just #72 between them? After thirty odd years in limbo (after the point when MTV briefly made the band ‘cool’ again) and aborted reunion projects for the 20th and 30th celebration birthdays it seems the world was finally ready for Monkeemania again after 50 years and that a diet of boy bands, outside writers and talent shows (the word ‘talent’ is used loosely) alongside pure nostalgia has made the world a Monkee-friendly place again. That’s the good news about ‘Good Times’: no one whose ever dived into the lesser-spotted ends of this under-rated band’s great back catalogue could ever begrudge the band this belated success and five star reviews this record is receiving. Also as so many people have pointed out it’s just a shame that Davy didn’t live to see how loved The Monkees really are, beyond the ‘artificial band who don’t play their own instruments’ sniping; the outpouring of love for The Monkees is long overdue and more than deserved, whatever the cause of it.
However the bad news is this is far less of a ‘real’ Monkees album than anything we’ve had since Don Kirshner picked the songs, the singer and the studio time for the first two records. The band have gone back to the lesser 1966/1969 approach of barely appearing on their own records, undoing the one good thing about previous record ‘JustUs’ in favour of a slightly artificial and anonymous 1960s sound. Despite having twenty years to come up with something, the three remaining Monkees write just one song each between them – the same amount as ‘Pool It!’ in 1986 and less than every original Monkees album of the original run barring ‘Changes’ in 1970. Micky sings lead on no less than eight of the thirteen songs – perhaps inevitably after Davy’s sad death in 2012, but remember this is a band that was always bursting with more talent than could ever fit on one LP: this could have been a valuable chance to demonstrate just how much Peter Tork meant to the sound and shape of the band (he gets just two vocals and one composition, which is a waste given that they're two of the stronger here) or how eerily well those Monkee harmonies fitted together considering the four men had never met each other before the band auditions in 1965 (only two songs feature all three singing). Instead it seems like a Micky album that features a few special guests – and frankly the songs on Micky’s ‘real’ solo albums of late have been better. Adam Schlesinger’s (once of The Fountains of Wayne) much praised 1960s sounding production is, admittedly, far more suitable and ageless than the 80s eccentricity and 90s grunge of the other two reunion albums and is clearly made with care – but it’s not very Monkees-like to these ears, whether it be the slick but exciting inventions of the session musicians from the early days or the raw and even more exciting performances of The Monkees themselves. This is The Monkees given a makeover, the pre-fab four given plastic surgery and I can’t help shake off the feeling that I preferred them warts and all, trying (if failing) to be themselves as per last time out. Fans of the band’s first two teenybopper, mainly-covers albums might well enjoy it (The general public who only know ‘this’ Monkees certainly seem to love it!) – ‘Good Times’ is closer in feel to these two with the band ‘puppets’ to another man’s project and putting the time in the studio time when they need to rather than living and breathing this album and being there all the way through; unfortunately for this album I’m far more of a fan of ‘Headquarters’ and ‘Head’, real albums made by a ‘real’ band (whatever people said then and now) and can’t help but feel that this is a step backwards in terms of Monkee evolution (there’s nothing on this album that wouldn’t have been improved by having the band write, sing and play more – especially together. There are enough 60s soundalike bands out there after all, The Monkees’ sound is too precious to waste). ‘Good Times’ is a great soundtrack to a party – but like most plastic surgery it’s not going to last the way the band’s genuine youth did. I guess it really comes down to whether the band wanted a hit album or another cult; at least, having chosen the hit-making process the band have actually got a hit record this time around. If this turns people onto The Monkees back catalogue this can of course only be a good thing and for any newcomers reading this review here’s the good news: the original recordings are almost all far better than this – and this isn’t, after all, too low to start from.
There are, at least, more than a handful of things going for ‘Good Times’ which enables it to feel a little like the 50th birthday party it so badly wants to be. The Monkees finally get round to finishing off a few songs they’ve had hanging round since the 1960s – including four by the quartet of key Monkee writers who played such big roles in the band’s development. Micky has great fun duetting posthumously with Harry Nilsson in an early part-finished vocal demo from January 1968 (if that seems an odd mix then remember The Monkees gave Harry his first real break with B-side ‘Cuddly Toy’ back in 1968); ‘Whatever’s Right’ is a track by original Monkee songwriters Boyce and Hart which was never actually intended for The Monkees but suits them just fine, with Bobby’s own unfinished harmony track left hanging in the air as a reminder of the days when Boyce and Hart appeared on far more Monkee recordings than Mike and Peter ever did; it’s great to have Goffin and King represented by ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’, an unfinished backing track recorded during ‘Birds and Bees’ sessions in February 1968, even if it’s a rather obvious choice (and The Byrds already did better). Most unexpectedly, even largely disliked producer Jeff Barry (who worked with the band in 1966 and 1970) sees his song ‘Gotta Give It Time’ from January 1967 (is the sessions just-past ‘More Of The Monkees’) completely re-made into one of the most contemporary songs on the album.
It’s especially great to have Davy turn up to the party with the appearance of one of the band’s most celebrated outtakes, Neil Diamond’s ‘Love To Love’ (which really should have been the sequel to ‘I’m A Believer’) and which features Davy at his vocal best – although even this feels like a cheat; we were promised a whole new invention of the song rebuilt from scratch to enable Micky and Peter to appear alongside their old friend – instead we got a few barely audible backing vocals that didn’t add much. How much better might this album have been if The Monkees had been given more input, recording one of the classy and truly unfinished Davy Jones compositions from his days with Charlie Smalls and Bill Chadwick; the vaults are full of them, with several turning up on Rhino’s deluxe editions of ‘The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees’ and ‘The Monkees Present’ amongst others (how great would an ‘Anthology style ‘The Girl Named Love’, as sung by Davy and Charlie in the TV episode ‘Some Like It Lukewarm’, have been if re-created with Monkee backing?) At least on the positives it feels as if producer Schlesinger knew his Monkee history (probably thanks to the help of Monkee historian Andrew Sandoval, who fulfilled a lifetime wish of producing sessions here and there): this is an album with its heart and the writing credits in the right place, a nice use of outtakes as the basis for new recordings (something The Monkees themselves got away with on 1969’s ‘Instant Replay’) and the presence of dear old friends like Coco Dolenz (Micky’s equally talented sister) and Nick Thorkelson (Peter’s under-rated writer brother, who sadly only turns up on the bonus tracks) is heartwarming too. I just wish I could hear them underneath all that production noise and sizzle, that the songs from the ‘big four’ had been slightly more interesting choices and that Micky, Peter and Mike had come up with more than one song each.
Still, there are plenty of good times to be had from this record if you adjust your sights to more of a consistent, enjoyable, three-star rating than an oh-my-God-best-album-since-1967 reaction like all the papers have been doing. Micky’s voice has barely aged and retains that golden purr that made him one of the 1960s’ best interpreters. How great too to hear that voice ‘properly’ without the Monkees’ lo-fi rocking of ‘JustUs’ or production extravaganza of ‘Pool It!’ getting in the way. His blend with Mike (perhaps the luckiest accident of the Monkees’ entire run, given that they had nothing in common before both becoming Monkees) is truly wonderful to hear again and we get to hear it lots – on ‘You Bring Me Summer’ ‘She Makes Me Laugh’ ‘Birth Of An Accidental Hipster’ and especially the album highlight ‘Me and Magdelena’. In fact Mike is the album’s dark horse – despite admissions that he hadn’t really been involved all the way through (and would only appear via skype on the accompanying tour) there’s actually quite a lot of Papa Nez here and in the end there’s only four of the eighteen songs that doesn’t feature at least his guitar. Some of the ‘guest writers’ really get The Monkees too: impressively so given that the two best songs were written by stars who weren’t born when the band were top of the pops. I groaned when I heard The Monkees had hired Ben Gibbard of cult modern band ‘Death Cab For Cutie’ who seemed about as right for The Monkees as Jimi Hendrix did as their support act back on 1967 package tour. I was wrong: ‘Me and Magdelena’ may not have any one thing that sounds terribly Monkees but put together with Mike and Micky’s vocals it’s the single most Monkee moment here and clearly written by a fan (or at least someone whose heard more than just the hit singles). We know Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher are both music fans first and foremost and that both adore the 1960s so their grasp of the psychedelic era on ‘Birth Of An Accidental Hipster’ is less of a surprise – and yet this song too is terrifically Monkees like, recalling Micky’s bonkers suite ‘Shorty Blackwell’ with the gritty surreal confidence of anything from ‘Head’. XTC’s Andy Partridge’s ‘You Bring The Summer’ is the single most 1960s sounding song around since Britpop even though Andy was all of thirteen when The Monkees formed (that’s even younger than Davy was at the time!) Mike’s own ‘I Know What I Know’ is also pretty good for a writer whose been delivering nothing musical except instrumental film scores and CD-with-a-books for the past twenty years, even if it’s not terribly Monkees. Peter’s ‘Little Girl’ (not the Micky Monkee song from 1969 sadly) is another good number, though again more of a solo track – and indeed a solo track fans have known for many years already.
That’s a pretty strong core for an album anyway, especially a reunion album, but it’s noticeable how much stronger ‘Good Times’ is when it stops wallowing in nostalgia and takes a risk. The Monkees are at their best here when aiming for the stars, not trying to return to cutesy pop from fifty years ago. Harry Nilsson’s title track was left unreleased and unfinished for a reason – to be frank it’s not very good and Micky over-sings it badly for perhaps only the third time ever in his career (The Monkees should have polished off the far more interesting Nilsson song ‘The Story Of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ from the Headquarters sessions). Rivers Cuemo (from the band Weezer, perhaps the only rock and pop group to split opinion more than The Monkees) pens ‘She Makes Me Laugh’, which sounds like one of the trite Boyce/Hart songs even Don Kirshner couldn’t stomach (it’s the original poppier recording of ‘Don’t Listen To Linda’ with less inspired words); producer Schlesinger’s own ‘Our Own World’ is the sort of teeny treacly love song Davy always used to get lumbered with (here sung by Micky) – in a case of history repeating itself it’s very much like Headquarters producer Chip Douglas’ ‘I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind’, an unbearably twee song from the man whose just re-invented a harder, more inventive Monkees sound in front of our ears; even Micky’s own ‘I Was There (And I Was Told I Had A Good Time!) is – aside from cleverly shoehorning a second reference to the album title in there – more like his self-referencing ego-trips of ‘Just Us’ than the golden Dolenz compositions of years past. Had The Monkees come to this album as a sort of 21st century exploration of psychedelia, with the inventive spirit of ‘Birds, Bees and Monkees’ with the consistency of ‘Head’, well they almost certainly wouldn’t have got a #1 record out of it. But fans like me (and maybe you too) who love The Monkees at their most daring and bold and unique would have been crying tears and throwing this album at all our Monkee-doubting friends shouting ‘this is why they were a real group!’ The biggest problem with ‘Good Times’ is that it considers the band’s early years-little input formula a winning one and the true Monkees spirit only peeps through occasionally – where it sounds not only like another band entirely but a far better and more satisfying one.
Oh well, half a decent record is still better odds than anyone expected twenty years after ‘JustUs’ tested our patience (and our hearing). Back at the end of 2012 it didn’t seem like we’d ever get a Monkees record again, with Davy’s sad passing taking everyone by surprise. One wonders what Jones might have added to this album – whether he’d have added more treacle (the other two reunion albums are big on Davy ballads and love songs, which is odd given that he was one of the band’s most adventurous writers in their first incarnation), or picked up on this album’s eccentric character struggling to make itself heard beyond a wall of conformity. Davy was in fact on something of a creative upturn in his final decade or so: 2001’s ‘Just Me’ (a far better album than ‘Just Us’) had seen him back to his writing best at long last while the unfinished ‘Let Them Be Little’ may be short but it features many compact gems (not least the title track, which would also have made a good extra here with its Monkee humour and Davy twinkle). Even without Davy’s songs the harmonies would no doubt have been that bit sharper and that bit closer to that distinctive Monkee sound. The album does a good job at covering up Davy’s absence, with a sort of Beatles Anthology-style pretend-he’s-still-here-and-we’re-finishing-the-song-up-for-him song, but the album still feels slightly empty without him (compared to the three-way ‘Pool It!’, which never really sounded as if it was missing Mike’s contributions).
So why, if this album is missing the band's original heart-throb, has this album done so much better than 'Pool It!' or 'Just Us'? Timing for one: twenty years is a long time to miss a band and if you can't forgive and forget a band's faults for their 50th anniversary when can you? Production is another: the band aren't chasing a current trend but offering a rough forgery of their original sound, which makes far more sense. It helps that The Monkees as a concept makes far more sense in 2016 than it did in 1966 when bands didn't do auditions or TV shows or meet up for the first time on the day of rehearsals. But the biggest factor in all of this is the genuinely joyful mood of most of the album. It sounds as if the band (or at least their producer) had been doing a lot of listening to three of their biggest hits: 'I'm A Believer' 'Daydream Believer' and 'Pleasant Valley Sunday' (not 'Clarksville' oddly). Yes there are sad songs, but most of them share 'I'm A Believer's wild-eyed wonder stare that good times are happening or about to happen and the narrators thought that good times were meant for someone else, never for them. 'She Makes Me Laugh' is the lyrics to 'Believer' all over again, with the music to 'Daydream Believer' while other songs speak of bringing sunshine and good times back again (the album title is name-checked twice in two songs that bookend the album after all) and share a similar call-to-arms as the chorus of 'Sunday'. This is no bad thing: The Monkees are one of the few bands who never really had a formula in the 1960s (all their singles are very different to each other, except perhaps 'A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You' and Clarksville clone 'Tear Drop City'). Fifty years is a long enough time to wait for capitalising on the Monkees feel-good factor (and weirdly it's something neither of the other two reunion albums really seized on). The Monkees were indeed a source of good times for the writers on this album, whether they were the band who helped make their name or they were still in short-trousers watching the TV episodes or re-runs and the joy of the first half of The Monkees project is captured nicely. That's why this album has been such a big seller: not so much because it sounds like The Monkees always did but because it captures what people felt The Monkees did for them: songs of high summer, laughter and hope.
It isn't all good times though. This album had a lot of problems to overcome: the loss of the Monkees’ biggest idol, twenty years of silence, a slowing down for all three remaining songwriters and an attempt to make old 1960s recordings sound as if they belong on an album from the 21st century. On all those scores ‘Good Times’ is a highly impressive success, still sounding by and large like The Monkees in a way that neither of its predecessors ever quite did and giving Davy a voice without dwelling on his death (although a ‘Porpoise Song’ style track musing on mortality theme wouldn’t have gone amiss, this isn’t really that sort of an album) while making The Monkees appealing again to both those who were there (whether they had a great time or not) and curious newcomers who want to know why their heroes Noel Gallagher and Andy Patridge are writing pop songs for a manufactured band. Even the album’s ‘perfect imperfections’ have their moments - a Monkees harmony vocal blend here or a Nesmith Rickenbacker part there – so that very little on this album is truly bad either. I just wish that instead of being dashed out in a few hurried sessions either side of February 2016 (which will show you just what a rush this album was made in) and with the band barely passing each other in the studio corridors this record had been properly structured and worked out, giving Peter and (via the vaults) Davy a lot more to do and with less emphasis on turning the clock back to 1966 where The Monkees were told what to sing and when, despite all the victories won in 1967 and 1968. As a one-off 50th birthday party this is a pretty fair facsimile of the old days and The Monkees are well worth remembering, with fans feeling just about included enough to be here at the party with the proto-1960s production (though it’s most decidedly not ‘psychedelic’ as every other reviewer seems to think, barring ‘Hipster’ anyway), vault dips and old guitar vocal and even banjo sounds in the mix like the days of old. Please, though, if this album’s runaway success leads to a sequel, let’s skip a couple of year’s worth of development and move straight to 1968 when The Monkees weren’t just a bunch of talented charges recording songs in a few snatched hours but a genuinely brave, adventurous, pioneering and talented band that was as strong and committed as any other out there. Good times? Of course – a splendid time has always been guaranteed for all (except perhaps for ‘JustUs’), but remember in their time The Monkees weren’t just ‘good’, they were ‘great’!
'Yeah, Harry!' Micky has fun duetting with his one-time protégé, beefing up an unfinished recording from January 10th 1968 he probably didn't even know was being recorded at the time (and thus recorded either side of sessions for Monkees tracks 'Your Auntie's Municipal Court' and 'Zor and Zam'). Micky 'James Brown' Dolenz' was clearly always intended to get this track as it appeals to his r and b instinct and sounds like Monkees B-side 'Goin Down' being re-made by Sha Na Na. Had it been released in 1968 this song would have been an embarrassment - even in the year rock and roll got back to basics (see Lady Madonna, 'The White Album' and The Beach Boys' 'Wild Honey' etc) this would surely have been a throwback too far. In 2016 it's less of an embarrassment given that to most ears 1958 now seems nearly as long as 1968, but even so it's a curiously clunky and unlovable track. Nilsson's vocal is clearly a guide one, without the magic or energy of Micky's and the pair's vocals make for an uneasy blend, even if you can tell the affection from Dolenz's die of the microphone. Nilsson was often a great writer ('Cuddly Toy' and 'Daddy's Song' are evidence of that), but he was quite often a poor and derivative one too, far more than his passionate fanbase ever admit to, and 'Good Times!' is just 'Dancing In The Streets' with less interesting lyrics. Many fans have commented on how seamlessly Micky's vocals have merged with the original backing track - that's not strictly true as Micky over-sings horribly. However what does merge in well is the twin attack of Nesmith (rhythm) and Schlesinger (lead) guitars which sound so authentically 1960s I had to check with the sleevenotes they weren't made at the time (Harry nearly always used piano on his demos, not guitar). The end result is still rather unconvincing though, both as a song to kick off a reunion record and as a song that sounds as if it really is having a 'good time'. The Monkees' instincts for adding to an old recording are good, but they chose the wrong one - get back in the studio and re-make 'The Story Of Rock and Roll' (as heard on the 'Headquarters Sessions' set) right now!
Andy Partridge's 'You Bring The Summer' sounds more like The Turtles than The Monkees (the two bands' DNA was after all pretty close, thanks to Chip Douglas' involvement with both), but at least sounds like a song The Monkees might well have sung back in 1967 (probably on one of the Don Kirshner albums). After all what could be more summer of love than a girl who brings the summer with her every time she shows up? Chances are Partridge was thinking of The Monkees themselves and his own fond feelings for them and their show (note that the first line has the narrator bringing out 'chips and dips' and to all intents and purposes settling in front of the TV). Sadly the song gets a bit stuck after an interesting beginning, but there's a neat conclusion where the song's middle eight gets tacked on the end and Mike and Peter take over for some harmonies that sound mighty good after so many years apart (they sound very Beach Boysy actually, especially Mike Nesmith's Mike Love style bass notes). The band themselves also seem to have been far more involved with the making of this song which features Mike's guitar and Peter's organ alongside Schlesinger doing double time on bass and keyboards (presumably the one-note mellotron, a nice nod to 'Daily Nightly') and the usual host of backing session musicians. However it's a shame they didn't go the whole hog and get Micky on drums too: this is a song that would benefit from happy-go-lucky sloppiness; the version heard here is just that bit too sterile and 'perfect' without the warmth a 'Headquarters' era Monkees would have brought it. I don't know why we get sped-up laughter at the end either when this isn't that sort of a song (keep the effects for 'Hipster'!) Still, at least this song feels like a Monkee song should and has a good riff underpinning everything too.
'She Makes Me Laugh' is right on the borderline between catchy and embarrassing. One wonders if anyone had told Rovers Cuemo that Davy had died as this sounds very much at one with his drippy soggy teen ballads from the first two Monkee albums ('The Day We Fall In Love' 'Laugh' 'When Love Comes Knockin' At Your Door And Gets Re-Delivered Down The Street Because It Arrived Four Days Earlier Than It Was Meant To Like My Copy Of This Album - Thanks Amazon!') Instead it's Micky trying to sound all silly and to be honest it's too silly even for Micky's silly side. Cutesy and teenagery, it's not what a bunch of 70-year-olds should be recording on their reunion album (sample lyric: 'I think about her all the time - cross my heart and hope to die!') Only the lyrics about sending 'text messages and pictures' date the song past the 1960s, but truly this is one of those songs weedy music pin-ups deliver in all eras. At least it is until the chorus, which comes over like a warm hug with some belated authenticity as the narrator admits that his girl 'makes me cry' as well as laugh and he shyly admits he wants to be with her 'for a while'. Some more Mike and Peter harmony vocals really embellish this chorus too, while the bass riff, which rises in octaves in the middle, is pure mid-1966 and can be heard on everything from 'Last Train To Clarksville' to that song's main source of inspiration 'Paperback Writer'. It don't make me laugh in other words (these lines are cheap and ordinary and nothing like as clever as we're meant to think), but the chorus makes me smile, so that's halfway there I guess.
Perhaps the album's weakest song, Schlesinger's 'Our Own World' is another moon 'n' June song Davy would have been saddled with had it been written 50 years before. The song is also more Rutles than Monkees, copying bits from all sorts of 'Magical Mystery Tour' era Beatles songs (notably 'Your Mother Should Know' and 'Hello Goodbye') and not doing enough interesting things with the source material to be clever (it's the sort of thing everyone accuses this album's guest writer Noel Gallagher of doing, even though he'd never be as blatant or as unimaginative as here). The idea of the song has been done to death too: the narrator and his girl have their 'own little world' that 'no one can see except you and me'. No song from the 1960s would really use the expression 'you blow my mind' (well, only Eric Burdon - he was a law unto himself) and the opening supposedly 'witty' counted introduction is so unfunny for a band as naturally funny as The Monkees for you to wonder how this got past quality control. At least there's a nice harpsichord part from Peter though which recalls genuine good times, most of them during the 'Headquarters' sessions and a pretty thrilling guitar solo (by Schlesinger). As for this song, though, it's not in its 'own' world at all but has simply stolen bits from lots of other people's - and then the least interesting bits.
Back on January 21st 1967 a whole new Monkees era was being born. Forced to choose between loyalty to the band or musical director Don Kirshner, Colgems went with the former - but their original concept was to get a whole new musical man in to keep the band sounding commercial. Jeff Barry was effectively sold the band under false pretences - he'd only get to release one single with them ('A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You' - it's a sign of how big The Monkees were doing at the time that it's chart high of #2 was considered 'disappointing') and The Monkees were, rather bravely, given the go ahead to make music by themselves under their choice of producer (The Turtles' Chip Douglas). Barry, though, thought he'd been hired to make album number three and recorded all sorts of backing tracks that day that The Monkees never added vocals too (though Davy, 'Kirshner's favourite Monkee', was persuaded to flesh out '99 Pounds - which appeared on 'Changes' in 1970 - 'If I Ever Learnt To Play The Violin' and 'You Can't Tie A Mustang Down'). 'Gotta Give It Time' is an unheard backing track from the same day that's never been heard before (even on bootleg) and perhaps because it features the original Monkees wrecking crew sounds more immediately Monkees than anything else on the album. Like everything else recorded that day except 'Little Bit Me', this is a Barry composition and shares the same 'bubblegum soul' flavour as most of his tracks, but with rather more joy, energy and depth than most. Micky's 2016 vocal is a delight, amongst his best work on the album, while Peter and Mike make their last appearance together on the very Beatley backing vocals. It helps that the middle eight ('You gotta take it slow girl...') is, unwittingly, identical to the chorus of 'Pleasant Valley Sunday' which Carole King hadn't quite written yet (maybe she heard a copy?) Fittingly for a song that's waited some 49 years to be finished off, this is a song about the benefit of taking things slow in relationships - probably not what most teenagers would have wanted to hear in 1967 (though at least it's less morally dubious than the skinny girl praising of '99 Pounds'), but with so much of a passing of time and so many failed Monkee marriages it makes one hell of a lot more sense in 2016.By far the best of the album's four dips into the vault, despite Barry's relatively unloved status within Monkees fandom.
The album highlight though has nothing to do with 1966, vaults or Monkees formulas - 'Me and Magdelena' is just a gorgeous song performed with real gusto by Mike and Micky whose vocal blend seems to have got even better together with the passing years. Ben Gibbard is clearly enough of a Monkee fan to know that they would handle a sensitive heartfelt ballad well and this song feels like the best of them ('Sometime In The Morning' 'As We Go Along' 'Early Morning Blues and Greens') while also sounding quite unlike anything the band have ever done before. Fittingly for a duet it's about a couple suddenly realising, apropos for nothing, how close they've become over the years, a nothing 'journey South through Monterey' delivering a destination neither of them quite realised when they set out that day. With its tale of summer sun going down and a maturing couple finally finding true love and holding on with all their might, it sounds like what The Beach Boys album 'That's Why God Made The Radio' was aiming at but failed miserably at getting: by contrast with that overdone over-written auto-tuned album this is natural and easy-going, the slight blur or mistake in Micky or Mike's vocal only making this song more heartfelt. Sadly that's not Peter playing the lovely circling piano part but Schlesinger again, but that aside this is a welcome attempt to breathe new life into the Monkees sound and I could listen to these two vocalists sing the phonebook together all day - hearing them on a heartfelt, gorgeous song that does them proud is the icing on the 50th birthday cake. Magical.
'Whatever's Right' is something of an oddity. Original Monkee songwriters Boyce and Hart recorded the song very early in the Monkees run (July 26th 1966, three days after 'Tomorrow's Gonna Be Another Day' and three weeks after 'The Monkees Theme' if that helps with the dating), but despite the best efforts of record label Rhino and the Monkee fanbase no tapes have ever been located (unusual for The Monkees). More unusual still, Boyce and Hart didn't recycle their Monkees rejects for their own career (suggesting they didn't like it much in any case - did they destroy the tape? To put this in context remember the deeply unfunny Boyce/Hart song 'Ladies Aid Society' from the same time not only survived the furnace but ended up on record). Wanting Boyce and Hart on this album somewhere, Schlesinger persuaded Bobby Hart out of semi-retirement to help manage the session for this song and sing backing vocals on it. Unfortunately the song all too obviously reveals the limitations of the first rush of Monkee recordings before anyone knew what the band's identity quite was yet. Far from being a long lost classic, this is one of those cheesy Boyce/Hart songs that simply rips off The Beatles while sounding vaguely sexist and patronising to the girl in the song (see 'Don't Listen To Linda' and 'Me Without You' - even the riffs of these last two are similar). Like so much on this album had it been released in 1966 it would have been a disaster - hearing it as a fan-pleasing curio in 2016 allows you to forgive its faults a little more. It's still a very empty-headed song though and it's given a very empty-headed performance here. Personally I'd have given The Monkees one of the spin-off Boyce/Hart singles they never got to sing such as the mini-masterpiece 'Sometimes She's A Little Girl' or the lovely ballad 'Shadows', which are far more 'Monkees' as we know them rather than 'I've-got-to-write-for-a-group-called-The-Monkees-but-all-I-know-about-them-is-they-sound-like-The-Beatles'.
'Love To Love' is, depending on how you look at it, either the album's greatest moment or the most wasted opportunity. If you're the kind of fan who gave up after the first few albums and mainly know about the band through compilations you might not realise that the band left as much quality material in the vaults after their split as they let out - thankfully there's a whole outtakes series of 'Missing Links' CDs that rectify this and are (by and large) as good a listen as the albums themselves. Neil Diamond's smoky, grown-up take of a woman playing games with a man who still cares too much to let go was highly praised when finally released on volume three in 1998 (why wasn't it on the first two?!) and remains one of Davy's greatest vocals: sassy, snarling, hurt, betrayed - and yet still bursting with love. Schlesinger sensibly decided that Davy had to be on the album somewhere and though he could have taken the safe route and given us a re-make of 'Daydream Believer' thankfully he went for this lesser known option only true fans adored. Many new-ish fans who don't know the original already think this is the best song on the album and I'm not going to disagree. However when news leaked that work was being done on this song it sounded amazing: 'You won't recognise it!' said everyone involved on the project down to the tea-boy it seemed, 'We've rebuilt it from the ground up and it's going to sound fabulous!' As it turned out it just sounds like the original, with less double-tracking on Davy's voice on the ear-grabbing opening verse and some half-hearted Micky and Peter backing vocals (Mike's missing this time). Take nothing away from this recording - it's truly great - but the Monkees could have done so much more to this song or better still paid proper tribute to Davy by re-cutting any of the dozens of unfinished backing tracks in the vaults or starting from scratch with one of the songs Davy wrote with his best collaborator Charlie Smalls. It's a little like toasting the friend who never lived to see your family/school reunion with stories everyone knows when there are so many better, more fascinating tales nobody knows which, all these years on, are in danger of getting lost.
Peter's 'Little Girl' oddly shares a name with a mournful Micky song from 'The Monkees Present' but the two have very little in common. Peter's simple tale of love is sweeter and more heartfelt than anything he wrote for 'Pool It!' or 'Just Us' and it's great to actually hear him singing lead at last. The track sounds as if it was written with Peter's gentler folk idiom in mind (that's how he performed it live across the 1990s to present in solo shows), but it's been slightly awkwardly re-worked into an unwieldy electric monster here, with no other Monkee appearing at all according to the sleeve notes (though guitarist Mike Viola does sound a little like Micky on the harmonies). It's nice to hear Peter so obviously in love after quite a few difficult years and his postmodern take on songwriting (he's trying to be 'shining and soft' in his songwriting because that's what his girl is like) and he performs the song well in an au natural Peter sort of a way. However this song doesn't sound even remotely like The Monkees and sounds rather out of place on the album. It's a shame too we couldn't get a totally new track out of Peter like we did from Mike and Micky.
Switching nauseatingly to 'Head' era psychedelia, 'The Birth Of An Accidental Hipster' appears to be the most dividing song on the album according to reviews I've seen. The song was 'commissioned' for the album by Schlesinger from no less than Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller, both quiet Monkee fans who've kept their allegiance rather under wraps! These good friends had never written together before though they've performed together lots and - perhaps inevitably - the track has ended up coming out as pure 1967 Beatles. However it's more Monkees-like than the other Beatley tracks here, recalling the multi-part writing of Micky's own Beatlish 'Shorty Blackwell' and the sheer weight of feeling heard in 'Porpoise Song'. My guess would be that Noel wrote the more psychedelically tinged verses which recall Oasis' own trippy drugs phase on 'Be Here Now' which turns from cocksure to paranoid in a heartbeat ('I'm gonna make it out on Tuesday - that's if I can make it out at all!') and the 'sunsheeiine' lyrics give it away particularly, while Weller added the 'Cuddly Toy' style music hall middle eight (again, did they not know Davy had died as this verse is very him?) and possibly the sudden glorious burst of adrenalin-fuelled guitar as well (which is actually Mike Viola doing a pretty neat Weller impression). Amazingly, Oasis are now at the same 20th anniversary point The Monkees were during their first big reunion with 'Pool It!', a fact which seems to have struck a chord with Gallagher. The lyrics to this song ring true for both bands: they were once the world's darlings, got too full of themselves, their audience parted ways and they're left abandoned and lonely and (the worst thing possible for a band from the ever-youthful 1960s) 'feeling old'. Mike and Micky trade lines superbly, their voices treated with Beatley echo and reverb so that they sound other-worldly and, well, 'high', imagining choirs of angels joining in with the song. Some people have got the wrong end of the stick and gone either 'The Monkees were never about drugs!' (oh yeah? Have you heard 'Can You Dig It?' or 'Daily Nightly' recently?) or 'how cliched to write a song for a 1960s band about a drug trip!' This song isn't either: it's about the drug-fuelled feeling in the 1960s that time was an illusion, that we knew what we were doing and we would never grow old; suddenly the narrator's fears have come true and it's fifty years later and he still doesn't know where he's going or what he's doing. If you take the 'Head' and '33 and a Third Revolutions Per Monkee' TV special as gospel Monkees (and you should, the first project anyway) then this may well be the most Monkee moment on the whole record: what once seemed so certain and so golden and so magical has become stifling and confining and cynical. This song nicely captures that late 1968 feeling of confusion and distress in the Monkees camp, even if it is also clearly written by two people who are 1960s fans first and foremost, rather than survivors. Another album highlight.
I wish there was more Peter on this record. I think that about many Monkees records, but especially this one with less Davy here. His low-key cover of Goffin and King's 'Wasn't Born To Follow' is the album's quiet heart, a folk-roots song that's as daring as any of Micky's psychedelia or Mike's country-rock (actually there's notably little of that on this album) that's the album slow 'grower', the equivalent of Head's 'Long Title' or Missing Links' 'Lady's Baby'. The last of the sessions' vault lucky dips, the backing track was recorded on March 9th1968 (the same day, but in another room, as the re-make of 'I'll Get Back Upon My Feet' that appeared on 'Birds, Bees and Monkees') but like the other 'old' songs here has been given a new lead vocal. This time round, however, it's pretty likely that the original intention was never for the song to sound like this. Carole King was notoriously sniffy of Peter's vocals and had no folk blood running in her veins at all. She almost certainly wouldn't have allowed either that vocal or that banjo on this song - which makes you wonder what would have happened to this song. Micky's bright hopeful vocals would have been a good fit (so good you wonder why he's not on this version), but the slightly chugging harpischord-heavy backing is, in truth, something of a drag without the folk vibe and the snarling lead guitar part from Dennis Buidmir sounds rather out of place. What once looked a fascinating prospect on paper (the song's own writer producing a version of one of her most famous songs, a mere two months after The Byrds released their famous version on 'The Notorious Byrd Brothers' and the 'Easy Rider' soundtrack; we've seen this song in session lists for years) would actually have been deeply boring had Peter not completely re-worked the song into a quiet statement of personal rebellion (very Monkees) rather than the preening chest-beating pop song it usually is. Though poor Peter struggles to sing and sounds like he needs new teeth, that only enhances the song's tale of returning to nature and all things being feted. Unexpectedly moving - this song took a while to click with me but is quickly becoming my favourite on the album.
Mike's slow earnest piano ballad 'I Know What I Know' is pretty good too for a man who hasn't written a 'normal' song since '...Tropical Campfires...' in 1992. Actually it's a little bit too 'normal' (back in the old days Papa Nez was the Monkee you relied on to stretch the envelope after a side's worth of Micky pop songs and Davy ballads), but no matter: this song is heartfelt and pretty and Mike sounds mighty good singing it solo. The song reflects Mike's own 'I Am Not That' via the 'I've just begun to care' lyric of 'Propinquity', a postmodern song of refusing to be labelled or pigeonholed, this time reflecting that he can only go on what he sees and knows - and he's confused because without his soulmate he can no longer see or think. This brings up the realisation that actually he does know more than he's ever realised before - that without his lover in his life he feels nothing and that, at long last, he's come to the conclusion he's in love, probably several years too late. By far the simplest song Mike's written since 'Mary Mary' back in 1967, this is nevertheless a very effective and emotional tour de force, nicely sung, nicely performed (Schlesinger performs everything - Mike just sings and neither Micky or Davy appear) and nicely 'real'. More original songs from the heart like this and less pop songs from the bank balance and 'Good Times' might have been 'Great Times' after all.
Unfortunately this uneven album has to end with a mess. Micky and Schlesinger wrote 'I Was There' together, based around a saying of Micky's about the 1960s ('I'm told I had a good time!' is his stockline in interviews since 1976, quoting the Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner's line about 'If you remember the 1960s then you weren't there'). Unfortunately one line (and a derivative one at that) doesn't make for a song and this track soon descends from wannabe 'Sgt Peppers Reprise' into a song full of nonsense 'dit dit doo-dah's before repeating the song's only line again. At least the creepy echo on Micky's voice is new, giving him a Liam Gallagher-style sneer that's more effective than it has a right to be (had he been trying to work out how he might sound on a typically Oasis style Noel Gallagher track before 'Hipster' arrived and he realised it didn't sound like that at all?) As a song though this is another track that's more Rutles than Beatles though ('Sgt Happy's Up and Coming Ragtime Band' especially) and curiously empty considering this is from the writer who once wrote with the depth of 'Randy Scouse Git' and 'Mommy and Daddy'. Let's hope, too, that The Monkees' catalofue doesn't end forever with the forced humour of Micky dropping his drumstick and cracking a joke about it (not coincidentally, The Rutles did that joke too...)
Oh well, this is what tends to happens at a lot of birthday parties: things take a while to warm up and for everyone to lose their frostiness, end badly with everyone drunk and talking gibberish while the old faded family memories don't always seem as good revisited with real recordings from the times. In between that, though, there were old friends to catch up with, old stories to enjoy being re-told and even a few new exploits to enjoy that nobody would have guessed the men in the room would have been capable of half a century ago. We didn't always have a good time, sometimes at this party we had a lousy time - but sometimes we had a ball. Better to have had this party to have turned up to than not, even if I can't quite understand why the world that's been stubbornly refusing to accept my love of Monkees for the past twenty years has suddenly decided they loved them all along after yet another reunion album that's lukewarm at best. Like 'Pool It!' and 'JustUs' this record just needed a bit more work and it really could have been the album everyone says it is: ditch the lesser new songs, choose a couple of stronger tracks from the vaults from the same writers, get The Monkees to actually turn up and work together for more than a couple of songs and force Micky, Mike and Peter to start writing again and the world could have been the limit, even for a band as once-hated and under-rated as The Monkees. Maybe, judging by all the glowing reviews and mega-sales, it still is - though I can't help feeling that has more to do with how genuinely great The Monkees were in their day than what they represent now. Next time (assuming there is one - and hopefully it won't be another twenty years wait) hopefully the real band will turn up to the show, not just the artificial monster who does a good job at sounding like them.