Monday, 25 September 2017
The Monkees “JustUs” (1997)
Circle Sky/Never Enough/Oh What A Night?/You and I/Unlucky Stars/Admiral Mike//Dyin’ Of A Broken Heart/Regional Girl/Run Away From Life/I Believe You/It’s My Life/It’s Not Too Late
‘I forgot the trash can!’
Oh the old age question for a group in the mid-1990s. Do you sell lots of records by being a soppy boy-band? Or do you keep your ‘credibility’, such as it is, by becoming a garage band? The Monkees always had problems with what they ‘really’ were (a manufactured boyband or a genuinely inventive musical force) and so, on their thirtieth anniversary reunion, bizarrely did both. This reunion was unexpected and caught even the band’s biggest fans napping. The first time Mike Nesmith had been in the band since 1969 and the first time all four Monkees had been together on the same patch of ground for anything more arduous than accepting a star on the ‘Hollywood Walk Of Fame’ came at the moment when most fans had accepted that, ten years after ‘Pool It!’, the band were a spent force . Surely Mike, having inherited his mother’s millions from the sale of her liquid paper patent, had no need to wear his wool-hat anymore and The Monkees were dead? Suddenly The Monkees were everywhere (at least if you were American) and celebrating two very different anniversaries for the two very different bands they had become. Over on TV, on the nearest-as-dammit thirtieth anniversary of their TV series’ first transmission, their ‘loser’ characters were still at the beach, still trying to make a living and still getting involved in lots of exploits which they laughed at in a very knowing postmodernist way. Over on record The Monkees were big box office business and this album, released on the exact thirtieth anniversary of their debut LP, was once again given mass market appeal, an album so of its time it hurts: on the plus side 1996 was the era of Oasis when rock and roll was starting to mean something again. Unfortunately it was also the age of The Spice Girls when music was also in danger of seeming meaningless. The Monkees, always adept at juggling several career directories at once, went straight down the middle for an album that still divides fans to this day.
‘JustUs’ could have been brilliant, but it had a somewhat muddled brief from the start. Mike was inspired to jam with Peter and Micky again after hearing – I kid you not – the theme from TV show ‘Friends’ and thinking it sounded like ‘Headquarters’ (personally it sounds more like The Spice Girls being backed by Nirvana – actually that ‘s uncomfortably close to what this album ended up becoming). Davy wasn’t too keen, but went along for the ride anyway and suddenly, without thinking about it, this band of old friends who hadn’t played together in decades were back in a studio staring at an engineer and making music. Originally the band was intending to make this a ‘covers’ album where the band merely added vocals to already-established backing tracks, the way they did in 1966 and again in late 1968-1970. Somewhere along the way Mike said wouldn’t be a great idea if the band released a whole-new album of original material – their first not to have a single cover song in there somewhere – and the others acquiesced. That sounds a brilliant idea, what fans had been asking for across years and would really show everyone just what a creayive unit The Monkees really were at their core. That was a problem though: Mike himself had hung up his pop-writing shoes a long time ago and hadn’t made an album of new material since his least Monkee-ish poetic stream of consciousness album ‘…Tropical Campfires…’ in 1991, billed at the time as his very last (an announcement he’s only broken with film soundtrack albums and the last in his Prison/Garden/Ocean story-with-soundtrack trilogy). He ends up writing just one new song for this album – and that really doesn’t sound like The Monkees. Peter has been in creative limbo since his slight return on ‘Pool It’, figuring that his musician days are over and scratching a living off talk shows, low-key concerts and a bit of teaching on the side. Suddenly here he is being asked to write songs to order in a hurry – and what he comes up with doesn’t sound like The Monkees. Micky hasn’t been doing much writing either – with no new material to his name since 1972 – but he gamely tries and decides what The Monkees need to be is the pop his children are listening to. Which probably helped widen The Monkees’ market for this album, but didn’t really sound much like The Monkees. And Davy has had a very strange career, the one Monkee still writing new songs regularly now that Mike had slowed down, but he’s since long ago given up the daring and original compositions he once worked on in collaborations with others and ended up tagged as a balladeer whose work is only a fraction of what The Monkees could be.
You see the problem? It’s not The Monkees aren’t talented, but they’ve spent thirty years trying to move on from being Monkees (bar the Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart tours of the mid-1970s and the brief three-way reunion in the mid-1980s), turning their backs on their ‘old’ careers and trying to find new ways to say new things for decades now. Suddenly here they are, being asked to sound like ‘The Monkees’ within the space of a few weeks and they’ve forgotten how. Also they can’t decide on what ‘Monkees’ they want to be like as they were really multiple bands in one: the innocent pop of the early days, the deep and brooding psychedelic band of 1967, the way-out experimentalists of 1968, the country-rock pioneers of 1969 and back again to the bubblegum of 1970 where they left off, reduced to a duo. In the years since Mike has pioneered country-rock, Micky has turned to Broadway, Peter had got back in touch with his rockabilly roots and Davy has got drippier with age. These four men never had much in common in the 1960s, but they found a consensus because they were surrounded by some of the best names in the business and there was just enough of a ‘Monkee’ feel to make their songs sound vaguely related to the same band, however extreme the changes. Now they are older, their voices sound different, their styles have gone in four very different directions and for a decade now they’ve been living as strangers to each other, their lives never really crossing much. Mike has said since that he regretted making The Monkees the ‘creative focus’ of both reunion projects because they were really the tip of an iceberg of creative people all pulling together. Actually that’s fine – it worked pretty good on ‘Headquarters’ – but The Monkees aren’t as instinctively, naturally creative in their fifties as they were in their twenties and everyone needed more time to get together to know each other, to learn how to write for this band, to play as part of this band, to remember what it was like to be Monkees again and then work out how to update their sound.
Given more time (say had the reunion been discussed a year early or not hung on the peg of an anniversary at all) it could still have worked. But then someone had the bright idea of saying ‘Hey, instead of simply writing all our own songs why don’t we play them all too?’ Again on paper this was an inspired suggestion. The only time The Monkees had done this was on ‘Headquarters’ in 1967 and many fans, me included, still hail it as one of their big success stories. But again there’s a problem: three albums and multiple TV episodes in, The Monkees could read each other really well on ‘Headquarters’ and they were hungry to prove they could make a whole record themselves. They also had Turtle Chip Douglas as producer and occasional bas player, one of the few people all four genuinely seemed to like and trust and who enabled Peter to switch to guitar, piano, bass or banjo as he felt like it. Suddenly in 1996 a group of four near-strangers with a shared history a long time in the past are being asked to play together. While Mike and Peter still played from time to time, Micky hadn’t played the drums for a long long time. The lack of a bass player also means that, apart from his own piano-based songs, Peter is stuck playing bass – an instrument he only started playing on Monkees tours in 1967 and which he had less affinity than other instruments. Also, rather than passing each other in the corridors and talking about old times The Monkees were ushered into an atmosphere where they had to nail backing tracks together and every time one of them ‘blew it’ start again. That’s really not circumstances designed to help ease old tensions or soften old grievances. ‘JustUs’ then, named for the idea that at last the band would get ‘justice’ by proving they could make their own creative way and that only the four band members were playing, is badly misconceived and was never going to work in a month of Sunday Monkee re-runs. Too raw for fans who wanted polished pretty pop, too poppy and often soppy for fans who wanted more evidence of what a pioneering and inventive band the really were, the end result falls between two stools. The reunion, vaguely talked about as being semi-permanent, disappeared amongst a deluge of poor reviews (for the bonkers TV show as much as this album) and bad vibes, as can be seen if you have a look at the ‘making of’ on Youtube which I’m amazed nobody from the band’s management has taken down yet (The Monkees have long since given up talking to each other by the time the cameras roll in and the most exciting interaction is Davy and Micky talking about where they’re going for lunch).
Which is a shame because, by the time I saw them a few months later in concert, The Monkees had really gelled into a quite brilliant garage band. The quartet played the backing to all their old hits, threw in some stunning rarities (‘Only Shades Of Gray’, as sung by an older Peter and Davy staring at each other, gave me goosebumps) and even the new material didn’t sound quite as…odd as it did on album. By mid 1997 The Monkees had remembered who they were and come to terms with what they could do together, while gaining in experience and confidence all the time. But it was too late. The gravy train to Clarksville had already rolled and the world had forgotten about The Monkees – at least until the very real outpouring of grief at Davy’s sudden death in 2012. I wish, more than ever, that I had a time machine so I could go back and get the band to delay this album until they had spent more time writing apart, more time rehearsing together and more time just generally thinking because it could have been amazing. The band I heard weren’t strangers, but old friends. They weren’t unpractised musicians but sudden pros. They weren’t four men getting together for the money, but for the love of the music.
Unfortunately ‘JustUs’ just sounds like a love of the money and feels more like a ticking-box exercise than an actual record. The band record one old favourite (sadly Mike’s only lead vocal on the album and then heavily treated with effects as if The Monkees are a boy-band) and ‘Circle Sky’ should have been a good choice given that the band recorded it with just the four of them once before (before, strangely, their live raw take with lots of energy got replaced by one with session musicians). Instead it just shows up the difference between then and now, the band playing it safe while playing grunge, which makes for a very odd sound indeed. Mike also writes one social commentary song given to Micky, but his heart really isn’t in it and ‘Admiral Mike’ is no ‘For Pete’s Sake’ and instead is taking the ‘Mickey’ of modern culture a little too brutally (particularly as this dig at ad-men was started by a band who made merchandising for teenyboppers mainstream). Davy writes two drippy ballads that sound like clichéd re-writes of the sort of things he got given when he was seventeen, even though by now he’s fifty. Peter writes two songs that sound unfinished and hesitant, overly repetitive and sketchy, as if he was asked to come up with them at the last moment (as in all likelihood he most probably was). Micky writes the most interesting material, but none of his pop songs sound like the others and all seem to play things safer than the safest thing on any past Monkees album, even the first two. Add in the sound – which out of necessity given that these songs were all recorded in two months in the summer of 1996, the last just two months before release - which is all simple grunge chords and whallop whallop whallop and you end up with an album that has very little shade and colour, no sense of depth and apart from the joy of hearing the band back together again not really much point to it. It also feels so po-faced, without the fun of any Monkees before it (even ‘Head’ in a subversive, diabolical dialogue kind of a way). In short, its how The Monkees were in 1996, rather than how the world remembered them back in 1966. How much better would it have been if the band had laughed at their younger selves a bit more, but returned there the way they did in the TV special (however weird and dodgy some of the jokes were?)
My biggest problem with this record is the sound of it. By the mid 1990s the music market was diverging in multiple different directions. A little like the 1960s, you couldn’t be a fan of one part and love the others equally: you just wouldn’t have the money to buy them all and anyway most of these different directions were diametrically opposed. No Nirvana fan would ever buy a record with The Monkees’ name on it or put up with the sappy or retro filler pop that fills up a good half of this album. No pop lover of the top forty would ever listen to this album’s noisy repetitive grunge guitar riffs and think this was the album for them. Mike’s son Christian was by the mid-1990s making a name for himself in the grunge band ‘Nancy Boy’ and you can tell that his dad is both proud and intrigued by the possibilities. Grunge bands just did what The Monkees did: told to go into the same room together and make up something, it’s basically skiffle with amplifiers. Mike has a real ear for grunge guitar solos and is the one Monkee at home in this strange new musical universe. But grunge bands never played pop songs and with only one new Nesmith composition on the record that’s in this style (plus a second ‘oldie’ that sounds like it, just to make a point) this a record that doesn’t hang together at all well. There’s too big a divide between what the songs are telling us in word and what they’re telling us in music. The lyrics are all ‘I love you’ (give or take a couple oddly mean-spirited songs against advertisers and Micky’s exes). The music is all ‘I hate you’. The two mixed together ends up leaving you with indifference – and a headache. It’s all so inauthentic too as neither half seems like the ‘real’ Monkees: it seems odd to say that a band as manufactured as The Monkees could only release an inauthentic album at this point in their careers, but just play it back to back with even ‘Changes’. Micky and Davy still ‘meant’ what they were singing back then. Here they’re kinda lost, unable to live and breathe these songs, while Mike and especially Peter are all but silenced.
No Monkees record is terrible (even if this one arguably comes closest) and there are enough magical moments here to make fans feel like holding onto this record instead of throwing it away. Micky’s ‘Never Enough’ isn’t really a Monkees song, but it’s a good song whatever it is, a bluesy angry pop song that has Micky singing in a deeper voice against Mike’s guitar at its grungiest that’s at least semi-effective. There is what sadly turned out to be the only ever collaboration between Micky and Davy on album single ‘You and I’, which is sweet and pretty, if a bit flimsy. ‘Admiral Mike’ at least has teeth, even if it sinks them into some very odd targets and some belated attempts to censor the song with ‘twit’ instead of swearing like a trooper as you can tell it longs to. Mike plays some glorious guitar solos the few times he’s ever allowed to let fly from the basic heavy metal riffing going on. And the Monkees harmonies, however old and scrappy, still warm the heart the few times they’re used across this album. What it lacks though is a sense of Headquarters’ might and majesty. Somebody somewhere seems to have taken The Monkees joke that they were ‘a great garage band’ seriously and decided to make them that and only that, equating them with grunge five years too late. Back in 1967 those strong complex songs being played the band themselves opened them up to a whole new level of excitement and energy, as you sensed the very real joy in the room. I still love that album for its flashes of colour and scale. Grunge is a whole different prospect and simply makes songs sound like teenage angst even when they’re happy and carefree, as if everything is coming with an extra weight attached to it. This album is pure noise for ten songs – and so ridiculously wet and sentimental for the other two that you wish they hadn’t bothered. ‘Headquarters’ has the feeling of freedom, of four musicians being freed from the little black box they’ve been trapped in for the past year in an effort to show the world how great they could be. ‘JustUs’, with that sound and those simple songs, has more the feeling of being trapped: the band have to sound ‘modern’ and have to play all together or else (Headquarters broke the rules when it needed to, it just didn’t need to that often) on their own songs or else. ‘JustUs’ tries harder and deserves marks for that, but ‘Pool It’ was much more fun and the 1980s daft pop suited the band much more than a unique 1990s grunge-pop hybrid ever could.
The end result, sadly, hurt the band’s image rather than helped it. There are fans out there who love this record, who used it as their ‘open door’ to the brilliance of The Monkees’ back catalogue and who love it for the fact that it existed at all when we’d all long ago assumed this record could never ever happen. There are others, though, who saw it as the band yelling ‘hey, look at me!’ and then falling over at the time of their big chance, who blew the ability to prove themselves as writers, as players, even as Monkees. You want to cry that ‘it’s not too late to turn this ship around!’ and it wasn’t, this project could have been stopped at any stage when the band realised they were onto a loss. But too many people needed this album to come out on time and so what could have been a promising reunion got lost in there somewhere, too much capitalist monkey business getting in the way of the music, just like the bad old days of Don Kirshner (some things never change). Rumours abound that The Monkees started this album wary and ended it surly, realising that the project was a bad idea partway through but having to go with it (in that sense Micky seems to have been the album’s star, putting in extra effort on drum lessons and writing more than half the album’s songs himself as well as taking most of the lead vocals, much as he will again on ‘Good Times’). That might not be true, but it sounds it: this is the album of a band who don’t belong together in the same room never mind the same band – and while The Monkees was always a group of four very different individuals who really shouldn’t have gone well together, this is the only time that old Monkee magic didn’t really come into play and make it work anyway. This sounds like an album that’s waiting for the magic wand to wave all the way through to the mixing process, by which time everyone realised it was a bad idea and moved on. Which makes the pull-out quotes in the album’s cover booklet (by far the most moving part of the album) particularly poignant. Micky is overjoyed that Mike brought them back together. Davy is telling us ‘it’s not about age – it’s about life’. Peter is urging us all not to ‘quit just before the miracle’. And Mike feels comfortable to make a surrealism joke. Had ‘JustUs’ had a little bit more of that very Monkees zest and unity then it could have been a great piece of art. Instead it’s just another low-key pop album, badly performed by a band who can only ever play in the key of grunge. ‘Good Times’ will try to put this right with a much more Monkees-feel twenty years later and will learn from m any of this album’s biggest mistakes: a longer gestation period, outside writers, outside musicians and a return to an ‘old’ style production especially. But even that album is a record by four men (one of them posthumously) going in four very different directions and still doesn’t use Peter or their own writing voices anywhere near enough. One day, if there’s still time to make a ‘true’ Monkees reunion album, let’s give them a longer time to make it, a short tour beforehand to blow away the cobwebs and remind them of their links to each other – and no attempt to be modern ever, ever again.
Back in 1968 Mike Nesmith wrote ‘Circle Sky’ more or less on the spot (the lyrics at least) when the band were asked to come up with a simple rock and roll song The Monkees could play live for the ‘concert’ part of their ‘Head’ feature film. Figuring that the band hadn’t been seen in public for a while, Mike wrote a stream-of-consciousness song about how ‘it looks like we’re here again’ pandering to the Beatles idea of ‘Sgt Peppers’ with a group going back on stage and throwing in random things that caught his eyes in the studio – ‘Hamilton smiling down’ being the name of the microphone stand he was leaning on and ‘energy falling free’ his take on what it felt like to be part of a raw and exciting rock and roll band. Oddly The Monkees’ live take was replaced by a studio take for the album, reportedly the trigger point when Peter Tork decided to leave the band in horror (Monkee historians remember this as a row with Mike, but he wanted the live take on the album too, or so he says in Rhino’s excellent sleeve-0notes in the 1990s anyway). In 1996 those lyrics suddenly seemed prescient for The Monkees’ reunion album – rather than write a new simple rock and roll song Mike decided to re-hash his old one that would serve the same purpose and the lines about how ‘it looks like we made it once again’ are even more poignant in context. Unfortunately this recording sets out JustUs’ problems from the first. What was once a genuinely thrilling rock and roll song, where Mike’s fierce rock and roll snarl met Peter’s bouncy bass head on, has just become a noisy thrash. Micky’s drumming has got worse with age not better and The Monkees’ vocals are audibly older, with the studio treatment not helping. The result is heavy-handed and hideous, complete with heavy metal ‘urrrgh’s and a pointless change of spelling to be ‘hip’ with ‘energy’ now reading as ‘NRG’ for no apparent reason. While the song itself is a good choice, it does feel rather like an elderly parent trying to be just too trendy by wearing a baseball cap back to front – or an old friend being bludgeoned to death, the choice is yours.
‘Never Enough’ is the album’s relative highlight, as Micky’s surprisingly adult take on the teenage romance the younger Monkees used to take as read is well-suited to the simplistic groove of the record and comes as close to rock (as opposed to pop or grunge) as the album ever comes. The Micky-Davy blend sounds fabulous too and even though this glum and moody song sounds nothing like any previous Monkees composition, at least the recording of it does (especially the full on ‘Daydream Believer’ ending that comes out of nowhere). Mike plays a glorious solo in addition to his grunge guitar riff too, the closest he ever comes to regaining his old 1960s signature sound. As for the song itself, while Micky probably wrote it about his divorce from second wife Trina in 1991, like ‘Circle Sky’ it sounds like a comment from band to fans. ‘Why is it never enough no matter what I do?’ sighs Micky, coming to the conclusion that it’s not worth the effort to please a girl (and fans?) because they’re always going to have a fixed perception of him in mind. Micky regrets time wasted when he should have quit earlier, ‘wasted’ on ‘endless tears’ and adds in a Rolling Stones reference that would normally be considered too risqué for The Monkees, as he worries about filling his missuses’ ‘sweet loving cup’, pretending not to care but clearly being moved close to tears by the thought of loss. Micky has never sung as deeply as he does on the verses, his signature pop voice reduced to a growl and only Davy’s twinkle can take the pain away. When the most ‘Tigger’ member of a Tigger band is turning Eeyore you know you’re in trouble, but even though that makes this track distinctly un-Monkees, its just about the only song here that sounds like it just might be coming from the heart. Alas even this song runs out of steam quickly though, ending up stuck in the repetitive hell of the chorus for what seems like hours by the end. Still, ‘Never Enough’ does just enough to prove The Monkees have a feel for this song.
‘Oh What A Night’ is an oddball song of Davy’s. The happiest-sounding song on the record, it sounds as if it’s filling the cheery cutesy Davy slot of ‘I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind’ on ‘Headquarters’. Davy spent most of his career being pegged as a lovestruck teen, so that’s probably not so surprising. But this song isn’t cute at all, but actually quite vicious, in tone if not in tune. ‘Oh what a night!’ he croons to some flamenco guitars, as if he’s chatting up a girl on a moonlight night, but no – next he sings that ‘now I must forget you’ and he’s actually getting rid of the object of his affections. Most of the song is told in flashback, with Davy regretting not doing more to stay in love and wishing that he would ‘stay another day’. Even so, though, the chorus concludes that it wouldn’t make any difference – that if he went back in time he would ‘only do the same’. By the end of the song he’s gone back to being with his old flame – but even then the song switches back again to have her telling him she loves another and he again moves on to love somebody else. After singing ‘oh yeah’ on the backing vocals for much of the song, suddenly Mike and Micky intone ‘oh no!’, the most Monkees moment on the record, but it’s too late to save this rather drippy oddball waltz which can’t decide what it wants to be and is too ‘light’ for the rest of the album. It’s also way too close to The Four Seasons’ ‘December 1963 (Oh What A Night)’ for comfort. The rhymes of ‘city and pity’ and ‘magic’ and ‘tragic’ mean this isn’t even a better re-write: back in the late 1960s Davy was in many ways The Monkee with the most songwriting promise and while his solo albums are hit and miss there’s usually something good on them. This song is just cheap filler on an album that can’t afford it. ‘I forgot the trash can!’ yells Micky at the end, the snippet kept on I the spirit of ‘Band 6’ and ‘Zilch’. But we don’t know why he yells it – and it sounds instead as if Davy’s romantic leanings have caused him to be sick!
Alas it speaks volumes that one of the very best songs on the album is ‘You and I’, even though it’s a pretty meagre re-recording of a song that didn’t sound that great twenty years earlier on the first reunion album by ‘Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart’. Davy and Micky wrote it together and Davy still sounds very fond of it, with its sweet harmony-drenched melody and it’s nostalgic reminiscences of a time long ago – presumably the mid-1960s when The Monkees started given the ‘feel’ of this song. The opening lines refer to ‘spotlights’ and ‘parties and goodbyes’ which makes for a nice rosy nostalgic tingle, but Davy and Micky are perhaps a bit too false in their take of ‘promises not broken’ to their fans. Actually The Monkees broke their promises more than most bands, refusing to be what they were created for and always stretching their creative palette as much as their format allowed – so it’s rather a shame to hear them going backwards here, back to the idea of The Monkees as a safe and cosy band when they were actually anything but. Naturally this track became the album’s single, given that it’s about the only one here that doesn’t have the heavy grunge riff running all the way through it, but the single flopped despite heavy publicity because it really doesn’t sound much like The Monkees. The lyrics about ‘staying together when all the others never made it through’ sound even more wrong here, after split number three, than it did on first release though and you only need to play this track back-to-back with Davy’s ‘other’ song named ‘You and I’ (a stinging rocker with Neil Young on lead guitar from ‘Instant Replay’ in 1969) to hear this song’s lack of ambition and emotion. This is a clever pop song, but it ends after just one verse and a chorus, with multiple repeats and writing a song from the heart instead of borrowing one from two decades past would have been more clever still. At least the harmonies are rather special though, especially the four-way chorus sigh on the final line.
Rock and roll lesson number one (learnt right before ‘stay on the right side of the guy who picks your music’ ‘don’t make a weird postmodern film about committing suicide to scare your teenybopper fans’ and ‘always take your laundry to your audition because you’ll always be remembered’) is that if you want to be hip to a younger audience and sound like them do not ev-uh sing a song based on the styles of your own childhood. ‘Unlucky Stars’ is so 1950s it would shock the cast of Grease and sounds like lots of oldies pasted together and sadly none of the good ones: the chugging piano of Fats Domino’s ‘Blueberry Hill’, the falseness of Elvis at his worst and the slick-back-haired pop of Bobby Vee. Micky’s weakest song on the album says even less than the other album tracks on yet another album song about a breakup. Micky sees his fortune teller who ‘cries’ when she reads his palm, sees unlucky stars in his sky and sighs that ‘my lucky ship is lost’. So he breaks up with his girl, without apparently giving any reason except the ‘omens’ and the ending is particularly odd: ‘I adore you to the end’ Micky sighs, ‘but I would rather have a friend’. Big finale. Wait, hang on a minute, what? That’s the crux of the song right there, not the star-gazing or feeling sorry for himself. What impact has this ‘friendship’ had on the marriage? Has she run off with his best friend in an Eric Clapton-George Harrison type way? Is this a subtle song about a character coming out as gay and the fact he would rather be with a boy than a girl? Alas we don’t get that potentially interesting and groundbreaking song, we get this loony cod-1950s blues song instead. The Monkees sound oddly flat-footed on it too – you would think Peter at least would enjoy this one given his own band (with the wonderfully punning name ‘Shoe Suede Blues’), but both his piano and bass playing are flat-footed. Micky, meanwhile, is ‘playing’ at his vocal and trying to make it out to be a comedy – but considering that he has always been one of life’s most natural comedians (even more than he’s a natural musician) it’s just not that funny. Perhaps the weakest track on a pretty awful album.
‘Admiral Mike’ has split fans ever since release. The noisiest, grungiest, angriest song on the album, this Micky-sung-Mike song really doesn’t sound like The Monkees in anyway shape or form. In many ways that’s a good thing: freed of the need to sound the way the band always did, The Monkees turn in one of their best backing tracks here, with Mike’s echoey grunge guitar smelling like teen spirit, even though the band are in their fifties here. For any other band, too, this snarling attack on the media in general and advertising in particular would be a golden war cry: how dare you present a ‘fake’ version of the world when it’s so messed up? But The Monkees were the band who understood ‘advertising more than any other and can’t quite bring themselves to ‘bite’ the hand that feeds them the way that another band without their ‘baggage’ of creation could have done. You can hear that throughout this song as a natural place for swearing after three minutes of bile turns into the far less offensive comment ‘you stupid twit!’ This track could have been so much better had Mike been more explicit in his attack and what inspired it. Nesmith read a newspaper article about a Navy Admiral who committed suicide after the media – wrongly as it turned out – blamed him for some mistake in some minor skirmish. Instead of printing an apology, the media then went with yet more coverage about the suicide and treated the man really badly, even though a court of law had seen him acquitted. Mike, of course, had been attacked enough himself for no good reason for just being a Monkee and turns ‘himself’ into the ‘admiral’ here, on a different kind of crusade. What could have been a fine and spirited song about the hypocrisy of the media (‘Don’t smile at me and shake my hand!’) that leads to mistake and effectively murder sadly becomes diluted and just sounds like a rockstar moaning at the fact a newspaper has been mean to him. We need more context in this song to make it work and sadly we didn’t get it. The chorus is also questionable: ‘Because you’re only ‘only selling ads’ is too much of a mouthful for even Micky to sing, even if he’s clearly having fun snarling the rest of this track like a born-again punk. At least this song has heart though and the line ‘realities are crushed beneath the ads your copy sells’ is such a gloriously Nemith-like line, being so overtly poetic and erudite about the mundane. The album really needed more songs like this one, however misguided.
‘Dyin’ Of A Broken Heart’ really ain’t that smart as a song: Micky’s lyrics about going to a doctor because he’s feeling bad and being told that it’s because he’s got a ‘broken heart’ have been better done many many times before. However as a recording it’s powerful stuff indeed, The Monkees really getting behind this song and turning in b y far their best performance on the record. Mike grooves away like the love child of Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix, Peter’s bass purrs growls and grooves and Micky’s vocal is easily his best on the record while his monotonous drums clatter relentlessly, without mercy. The lyrics are also a rare moment on this album where The Monkees admit their age: Micky is shocked that he’s fallen for something so dumb as a ‘broken heart’ when he’s lived through the cynical 1970s when The Monkees were dead, there was a crook called Nixon in the White House and drugs turned out to be killers of bodies as well as freers of minds. The song also has a few digs at the medical industry along the way: the doctor wants $40 for ‘taking some blood’ and the analyst wants $100 for a ‘test’. The American medical system must be more thorough than the British one, though, as both of them comes back with the same result: a broken heart (can they really find it through blood tests and X-rays now?) Micky, of course, knew it all along: he’s been here before and he’s in pain. What could have been a very silly song is delivered impressively straight and best of all the recording and arrangement makes this song sound so physical it hurts. The ‘problem’ is that The Monkees seem to have spent most of their session time on a song that’s one of the flimsiest and silliest on the album and rushed the rest and you don’t need an X-ray to tell that.
‘Regional Girl’ is the album’s weirdest Micky song. You’d never ever guess that this was The Monkees without being told: the heavy dirty guitar sound, the heavy thumping drums, the treated vocals and most of all the rough and edgy lyrics are totally different to anything this band had ever done before. Micky’s lyrics deal with a girl whose come from a little village to make her fortune and soon discovers that the big city is remorseless and doesn’t care a thing or her dreams, as this small minnow drowns in a big pond. Micky cuts no slack in this song as he mocks and taunts her (‘Did you really think you could make it on your own?’) and there is no happy ending here as instead of fame, fortune and glory ‘I think you’re gonna wind up flipping burgers for some bitch!’ If the swearing seems out of place for The Monkees, it’s a sign of how different this song is that it makes perfect sense here and the song would be out of place without it. Just to remind us that this is still The Monkees, Micky fits in a reference to ‘Mary Mary’, updating this song so that it could be about Mike’s 1967 character’s offspring, equally lost and confused and apt to bouts of daydreaming, here matched by ‘Eddie, good and Ready, always playing with your pants!’ There’s even a reference to ‘coke’ thrown in for good measure to bust The Monkees’ image for good – and it’s clear that Micky isn’t singing about the soft-drink here. This is still a song that would be nothing without the second best band performance on the record though and even with Micky’s vocal ducked way too low in the mix it’s a good one, with Mike’s angry piercing guitar and Peter’s inventive rocking bass perfect for the song. Whether this song and performance is perfect for a Monkees record, though, that’s another matter. Most fans are shocked by the time they get to this one.
Peter wrote ‘Run Away From Life’ after hearing the biting sarcasm of the rest of the album and figuring he could have a go at that too. The song is about fantasists and escapists who can’t cope with the real world, Peter viewing them with a sneer as he pours acid on the hippie utopian dream where ‘there’ll be no more fights – we won’t even disagree’. The most ‘Head’, like moment on the album, it’s basically a take-down of everyone still beliving in the hippie ideal, as sung by one of the era’s biggest idealists who has become angry and cycnical with old age, disillusioned by the mad twists of his own life. ‘IT’s all sarcastic as Hell, Tork recalled later, ‘pretty nasty!’ Had Peter sung it in his off-key sneer, it could have been amazing. Instead the band give it to Davy to sing, which instantly takes all that bitterness away. Even though Davy sings this song tougher than normal, he still sounds like he means it (maybe he did?) as he dreams of life being ‘perfect’ with the ‘perfect’ woman by his side. You can almost hear the stars blinking in his eyes the way it did in the TV series. Suddenly this song becomes not a groundbreaking song of acidness but a cutesy hippie song that just happens to be performed by a band who didn’t get the memo and play it as a grunge attack, as loud and heavy as anything on the album. Peter’s own bass playing is disappointing, but his madcap synth solo in the middle, with lots of random phrases stuck over each other playing snatches of lines, is one of the more arresting musical moments on the record.
Peter did sing lead on ‘I Believe You’m but I suspect that’s more because nobody else wanted to. As recently as ‘Pool It!’ Peter was writing groundbreaking pieces of complexity and emotional resonance with lyrics that any writer would love to have in their back catalogue. But this odd song sounds written on the spot: a three-note piano phrase (played on what sounds like an out-of-tune one), a repetitive lyric that repeats ‘I believe you’ no less than twenty-five times in 3:40 (that’s once every eight seconds!) it’s easily his weakest release under the Monkee name. For fans like me who’ve long held that Tork was the Monkees’ hidden creative talent who only needed more of a spotlight to make his mark against the poppier commercial tones of previous Monkee albums, this song is a disaster. Peter was alone of all The Monkees in releasing precisely nothing since the last album ten years before this one – was this really the best he could come up with? There is, to be fair, an excellent ‘woa-a-ah’ chorus full of massed harmonies that works any better that it has any right to and a moving middle eight that stops being grounded and full of doubts and instead takes off into the stratosphere on a metaphor of a rocket heading for space that enables him to believe that things will work out after all. But for the most part my biggest problem with ‘I Believe You’ is that I don’t believe it.
‘JustUs’ then ends with two treacly ballads. The first is Micky’s, named ‘It’s My Life’. Taking up responsibility for how his life turns out and not blaming it on ex wives, ex bands or ex managers, it’s very nice for about thirty seconds. But then the song gets stuck and Micky is way too over-the-top as he effectively fills in the rest of the lyrics, sometimes oddly (‘I remember a cave and shadows on the wall’. I don’t remember that Monkee episode!) ‘Excuse’ and ‘truth is’ also feels like a rhyme too far: he might have gotten away with it had he hidden it in the song, but he keeps coming back to it as the central hook of the record. As a writer for The Monkees Micky was, traditionally, the ‘realest’ one, writing from the heart on most of his songs be they about his experiences in London on ‘Randy Scouse Git’ or his Indian heritage and worries about Government hypocrisy on ‘Mommy and Daddy’. Alas, even though this song keeps referring to ‘my life’, there’s no ‘Micky’ in this song and any band could have done it. Arguably any band could have done it better than The Monkees in 1996 too, as on this subtler sweeter song they don’t really know what to do with it. Peter’s piano is basic and a little too lighters-in-the-air, Mike’s acoustic playing is dumb and Davy’s percussion is awful (dum dum chink!) No excuses, the truth is, this is a very clichéd song that nobody believes in at all.
The album then ends with Davy’s drippy ballad ‘It’s Not Too Late’. Given that Davy was the most resistant to making this album, won over by tales of constant touring that ended up being cut short, it could be that this song is his plea to the others about how the sessions were going: ‘It’s not too late to turn this ship around!’ he urges, writing the closest song on the album to a traditional Monkees track. More likely he was writing about his second wife Anita, with whom he was in the middle of divorcing during album sessions (the alimony may have been another incentive for him getting involved), trying to give his marriage one last go. Perhaps remembering his Davy character from years before, he promises to send her flowers ‘every day’, to ‘show you that I care’ and that given a second chance ‘our love will last till the end of time’. It’s a sweet simple song with a catchy chorus that would have made for a nice Eurovision entry, made one of the album highlights thanks to a spirited lead vocal and some glorious harmony vocals from Micky (at least until he goes for a faux soul finale which doesn’t suit song or album). However it’s the middle eight that’s again the most poignant thing here: ‘If I knew my time was near…your name would be my dying prayer’ promises Davy, on the last ‘new’ Monkee track he will ever appear on. Thankfully his story will have a happy ending, of sorts, when he meets his third wife Jessica, though sadly the couple only get three years together. It’s hard not to shed a tear at that and this is the one song on the album where Davy sounds like he ‘means’ it.
Unfortunately, though, it’s too little too late to rescue ‘JustUs’, an album that tries perhaps a little bit too hard to stick to the ‘Headquarters’ idea of The Monkees doing everything, even though for the past twenty years The Monkees haven’t been doing that much at all (since 1976 Mike made three records, Micky two full of cover songs, Peter one and Davy only a few singles). Asking this band to turn back the clock to when they were full of creative expression and things to say at a moment’s notice was just too much. Asking the public to then accept anything under the Monkees name, however creative, in the Britpop era of the mid-1990s when music was again ‘authentic’ (Spice Girls and boy bands aside), was also asking too much however good the album would have been. Further ruining their standing with fans by having The Monkees ‘devolving’ into a grunge-pop band, with very little let-up from song to song, was then the icing on the cake, asking fans to like the sort of music their children were creating (musicians moving on is fine – musicians pretending they’re thirty years younger isn’t). The result is easily The Monkees’ weakest album, misguided in idea and usually lacking in execution. There is, though, still a delight in hearing this band back together again at all and the chance to hear those wonderful harmonies alone makes sitting through the roughest parts of this album worth it. Also, unlike ‘Pool It’, this album is a step forwards in terms of all-original songs and performances and is closer in style to the stronger later period Monkees albums than the flimsier bubblegum first, with any band thirty years the band’s junior surely proud to put the snarl of songs like ‘Never Enough’ ‘Admiral Mike’ and ‘Regional Girl’ to tape. Alas, though, in trying to become a modern-day version of a garage band, The Monkees forget the creative spark and variety that made them a househoild name in the 1960s every bit as much as their humour, commercial records and pin-up status. Back in 1966 you never quite knew what was coming next on a Monkee record. Sadly, after the shock of the first track, on this album you very much do. What could have been a lucrative and telling comeback from a band with much to say sadly disappeared in a puff of smoke and The Monkees won’t be back for another fifteen years by which time, several manufactured talent shows and the loss of Davy later, the media will be much kinder to them all round. Is ‘Good Times’ really a better album though? Only in terms of production perhaps. As for The Monkees in 1996, I was there – and I’m afraid after longing for a reunion for so many years I hated this CD and wasn’t having a good time at all.