Monday, 24 December 2018
The Monkees "Christmas Party" (2018)
The Monkees “Christmas Party” (2018)
Unwrap You At Christmas/What Would Santa Do?/Mele Kalikimaka/The House Of Broken Gingerbread/The Christmas Song/Christmas Party/Jesus Christ/I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day/Silver Bells/Wonderful Christmas Time/Snowfall/Angels We Have Heard On High/Merry Christmas Baby/Riu Chiu/Christmas Is My Time Of The Year
Hey hey we are the Christmas Monkees
You know we love to please
A return to our manufactured image
With novelty Christmas trees
We feature all four Monkees
Even though there isn’t one
That is to say its mainly Micky
With a cameo from pete and Mike now Davy has gone
Though somehow it doesn’t matter
Because what fans always longed to see
Was a Monkees LP on Christmas Day
Wrapped beneath the tree
But it will jump from 1966 to 2018
And by the time we’ve lurched in time
It’s not just the trees that are green
As you long for The Monkees in their prime
For those who look for meanings
And form as they do fact
They’ll say it’s just a Christmas CD
And dismiss it along with all that tinsel crap
Come new year many fans will put it back in a box
Their players never again to grace
While others will go weak at the knees for Micky’s voice
No matter the time or place
We know its manufactured more than normal
To that we all agree
But in Monkees tradition this is a truly weird
And fitting Xmas CD
Hey hey they are still The Monkees
Even if they are no longer four
The money’s in, they’re made of tin
But they didn’t have to give us more
‘Here They come
Egg-nogging down the street
Because they’re tired of Christmas TV
And all the same old repeats’
This, dear readers, is a very weird CD. The Monkees are, it has to be said a very weird band. At their best their unusual birth as a manufactured pop group and the fact that the four genuinely talented people in it both hated that image and had four musical backgrounds that couldn’t have been more different from each other meant that their strangest moments (mostly on ‘Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd’ ‘Birds, Bees and Monkees’ and especially ‘Head’) are amongst some of the most pioneeringly indescribably bonkers music there is out there. Their return to fame and fortune two years ago with the hugely well received ‘Good Times’ (the first Monkees reunion album to go down well at the third time of asking) succeeded most when it was being self-consciously, undeniably weird, such as when Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher were clubbing together to deliver a 21st century psychedelic epic or Mike Nesmith was writing a typically impenetrable love song. The obvious move to go from there was always to accentuate the weird, to cut out the pop songs and make the most of their newfound standing to make it clear to the public just how courageously weird a lot of their back catalogue is. However The Monkees have never done the obvious thing and instead their next move is to make the seasonal cash-in album everyone expected them to make in 1967. So obvious is a Monkees album that I have genuinely seen reviews of this album saying ‘well, it doesn’t match up to the old one’ or ‘they sound just like they did on their last seasonal record’ – even though the closest The Monkees ever came are two songs buried away on the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition of this album: the hugely impressive five-voice a capella rendition of traditional Spanish carol ‘Riu Chiu’ from the one and only festive episode of their TV series and a sweet unreleased single Micky and Davy made in 1976 when no record labels wanted to know and extend members of this band an olive branch even at Christmas.
A festive album in 1966 when The Monkees were so big they would have had a million seller reading out haikus or again in 1976 when the band were all out of contract and all needed the money would have made perfect sense. Sitting here in 2018 it makes absolutely no sense at all: a Christmas album is traditionally what you do if your manager wants to milk your talent because he or she doesn’t think it will last into the new year or what a band does when they can’t think of anything else. Surely neither of these are true: Fifty-two years on The Monkees have long escaped their ‘next big craze’ tag to become a much loved and cherished section of the world’s record shops, the sort of band that give you a warm nostalgic glow and a smile, the legacy all bands long for even more than record sales and a cabinet of trophies. The Monkees also felt reborn in 2016, with the world’s best from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s all queuing up to be a part of ‘Good Times’ and a sound that covered all the years from 1966-1970 so well that you never knew what was coming next (even if, in truth, only a fraction of it really sounded like The Monkees). They are a band that, again, can go anywhere and do anything – which for all the better material on ‘Pool It’ in 1986 and the better band bonhomie on ‘JustUs’ in 1996 made ‘Good Times’ feel the most Monkees-like of the band’s trio of reunion albums, even more than the unfinished backing tracks and guest appearances from the archive. The Monkees have at last escaped the black box they always resented being put into as well as they are ever going to escape it – and instead they dive straight back into it again with the tackiest musical concept and most blatant cash-in any band can ever possibly make. I still can’t decide if this is a big mistake or the most Monkees thing ever. Whether The Monkees discussed this follow-up as a joke and then got deeply into it, or whether there was a scientist in the background going ‘You will be Christmas number one’ and the band replied ‘No I am a real musician…yes I will have a Christmas number one’.
This is a feeling I can’t quite shake off the whole album. There is, to be fair, a lower expectation that goes with a Christmas album where the best you can hope for is that everyone sings in tune and doesn’t ruin anything too much. On that level this album is a success – much more so than almost every other AAA Christmas album in fact (The Beach Boys’ famous LP is ruined by the tinselly orchestra on side two that’s more sugary than candy canes; The Moody Blues’ December’ makes me wish the band would all get their voices back in time for next Christmas; only Simon and Garfunkel’s half-planned record of Christmas carols has any class and the two songs they made for it didn’t even come out for thirty years). Micky Dolenz was always one of the best singers in the business and still sounds impressively like his old self from fifty years ago – if I have to hear the same old boring carols done over again then hurrah for it being done by someone who can actually, you know, sing. These songs aren’t entirely the usual suspects either with some real surprises in there good and bad: who would ever have dreamed that the surviving Monkees, all in their seventies, would kickstart this LP with their most overtly sexual song (the jaw-dropping ‘I’d like to unwrap you at Christmas’ which has Micky, uh, filling his stocking and is enough to make your Great Aunt choke on her brussel sprouts even if she was enough of a Monkee fan to understand that this sexual element was always sort-of there). Who would have taken bets that, when the inevitable question of cover versions came up and someone mentioned how The Monkees are The Beatles’ younger siblings, they would plump not for Lennon’s obvious ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ (a song so powerful even the worst singers can’t ruin it) and instead go for Wings’ openly hasted ‘Wonderful ChristmasTime’ (which is, let’s face it, a song even a singer of Paul McCartney’s calibre make listenable). Who would have guessed that this album would feature a cover of Big Star’s semi-controversial (did they mean it? is it sarcasm?) ‘Jesus Christ’? Who would have guessed that Mike Nesmith, surely the most out-there Monkee in his heyday and indeed on ‘Good Times’, would provide the album’s most traditional arrangement with a rendition of Claude Thornhill’s ‘Snowfall’ that sounds more like the Ratpack than Frank Sinatra does on his Christmas records. Who would have guessed that Micky would be singing a powerful song about loss and divorce masquerading as a song about gingerbread? And if, as might well be the case, this is The Monkees’ honest-to-goodness goodbye, then who would ever have guessed that the last word would go not to a Micky pop song or a postmodernist Nesmith original but to a traditional folk tune sung by Peter? Whether you were expecting a repeat of ‘Good Times’ or a more traditional Christmas album from a band who are still most famous for making money from singing what their managers told them to sing you are in for a surprise.
I would be surprised if this is the end this time though, actually. ‘Good Times’ felt like it wrapped everything up in a neat bow and was a thankyou to fans – this album doesn’t have quite the same impact somehow. That means The Monkees can’t possibly surely leave their reputation resting with this. The sad truth though is that 2018 has not been a good year in Monkeedom. Mike has been desperately ill, collapsing backstage at a gig and leading the band to postpone a few dates – something that has never happened before in their history. Peter has not that long ago recovered from a cancer scare and begged off the last Mike/Micky tour after a frightening episode with a stalker. And we lost poor Davy six years ago now. The biggest problem with ‘Good Times’ was that it was a Micky Dolenz solo album with a few cameos – admittedly not a major problem when you have a voice like Micky’s, but a bit of a waste given the chance to get the guys back together again for a last hurrah. On this album the problem is worse, with Mike singing lead on just two songs and Peter just one, even though there is a more understandable reason this time around. It is a real shame though given the Christmas spirit of goodwill and brotherly love that there isn’t just a wee bit more Monkee interaction on here, a Micky backing vocal and a Peter or Mike guitar lick here. Instead it sounds like three highly varying solo albums (Micky’s modern, Mike’s traditional, Peter’s in a completely separate world of his own) more than a Monkees effort (the one time Mike and Micky do this, reviving their astonishingly close harmonic blend on the backing vocals overdubbed onto the end of ‘Silver Bells’, is the single most moving moment of the record, so why isn’t there more of this?) As with last time out the dips into the archive might well be the best things on here too because they have a more readily recognisable sound. It was a gift for the compilers of this set that Davy had a whole obscure festive album to pick from (‘Christmas Jones’) which was heavily delayed and few people bought. ‘Mele Kalikimaka’ (thankfully not The Beach Boys one) is not the song I would have picked, though its Hawaiian cheer is at least closer to what fans would people would have been expecting from a Monkees Christmas album. However ‘Silver Bells’ is beautiful, Davy at his best on a Christmas song that could have been written with him in mind full of childlike awe and innocence and just a dash of wistful sadness.
However it’s the little-heard ‘Christmas Is My Time Of Year’ by Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart, released solely to the few loyal Monkees fanclub members still remaining by 1976, which is the only song here that really sounds like a Monkees ‘Christmas’ song: upbeat, uptempo, full of joy and love, it seems strange to think that it was sent out to the world (or a small fraction of it at least) at a time when The Monkees’ stock was never lower and the music and TV worlds still largely blamed them for everything that had gone wrong since 1966. Having this track at the end, while sensible in sending the album out on a high (deluxe editions at least) does however show up what an oddly sad Christmas album this is. I stress this album isn’t a Johnny Cash slit-your-wrists type Christmas record about how a poor boy who only got two lumps of coal in his stocking gave one away to charity. But it is, I would say, the saddest Monkees record. Once Micky has stopped being lustful on the opening track he’s singing ‘Bah Humbug!’ and saying that grinches are everywhere while wanting to punch everyone for being so miserable, sobbing over a ‘house of gingerbread’ and wishing he was in Hawaii. Mike roasts chestnuts on an open fire so slowly and with such sadness even the pedal steel guitar part sounds right at home, while his pick of ‘Snowfall’ and Peter’s of ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’ aren’t exactly traditionally happy traditional songs. Even Davy isn’t exactly a ball of fun here with the sort of voice that is really enjoying Christmas but is still worried about what will happen in the new year. Only the Wizzard and Mccartney covers sound like ‘real’ Christmas and even they are sung oddly slowly. This is not just your normal Christmas record, its not even your normal Monkees Christmas record and putting ‘My Time Of The Year’ only shows up how unexpected this feeling is.
This is, in truth, a patchy album. I wasn’t that sure about the song contributions from members of XTC and Weezer last time out and they don’t sound any more Monkees-like when turned into Christmas songs thanks to some even dodgier lyrics (‘The reindeer were hoofing on the roof!’) and having some holly and tinsel and sleigh bells forced on top. Of Micky’s contributions only the snappy beat of ‘Christmas Party’ and the sombre tones of ‘Broken Gingerbread’ sound like they really give him any real chance to show off his range and talent. Mike’s songs are growing on me but still sound far too square for a record that begins too, well, uhh, circly I suppose with ‘Unwrap You At Christmas’. Peter once again sounds like he needs new teeth for Christmas and doesn’t have anywhere near enough to do even though the loss of Davy should be exactly the right moment for his very valuable and under-rated talent to blossom. That leaves us with ‘Silver Bells’ from the 1980s, ‘Christmas Is My Time Of The Year’ from the 1970s and especially ‘Riu Chiu’ from the 1960s as the best of the record. However even then this isn’t an album that gets everything or simply settles for taking the easy way out. There are some great moments scattered across this CD if you search for them, like coins tucked away in a stodgy figgy pudding. The use of Davy’s voice praising the Monkees TV production team at the end of their Christmas episode at the start of ‘Christmas Party’ is genius, so in keeping with the Monkees message and a chance to make Davy feel more ‘involved’. The arrangement of ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’ adds a really delicious minor key chord progression break in between the verses that makes it more than just another cover. The slower, lusher, acoustic ‘n’ orchestral ‘Wonderful ChristmasTime’ is so clearly the way to go over Wings’ synth-heavy treatment that you wonder how Macca let that trick slip past him, even in a year when synths were brand new and ‘cool’. ‘Merry Christmas Baby’ is sung in a way that it’s never been sung before as a slowed down blues delivered with a cheeky wink. There’s a gorgeous oh so Nesmith guitar solo hidden away in the middle of ‘Gingerbread’ that really took me by surprise, a late Christmas present from a band to fans that most won’t even notice. This is a rare Christmas record that’s clearly had a lot of heart and love and care and attention and thought given to it – even if it’s one that again treats The Monkees rather like extras on their own album (especially Peter) without much actual active thought from them (and without the excuse of making a TV show at the same time as per the 1960s) and doesn’t always make the best choices of material or arrangements after all that thought. I would have put money on the Frank Zappa gag from ‘Head’ turning up here though (‘That song was pretty white’ ‘And I tell you something else too – the same thing goes for Christmas!’ In fact that’s a point. Isn’t ‘Mike’ – or at least the Monkee version of Mike – meant to hate the festive period, even shocking his ‘friends’ by saying it at a party when they’re quite happy for everyone in the room to make jokes at the disabled. Or maybe he was just in a cross mood back in 1968 because his presents were all wool-hats in different colours?)
Christmas records are never meant to be the highlights of an artist’s back catalogue. They aren’t meant to set the pulses racing or be known for their courage or be even played much into the new year until December comes round again. On that score The Monkees deliver more than they need to with some genuinely great gifts in here. At the same time, though, it feels like a waste given the album they could have made and even if they absolutely had to make a Christmas album there are many better ways to make it than this: get in a new lot of Monkee fan contributors, get the three remaining members at least there for the vocal overdubs and for goodness sake let them write something, even if it’s a sequel to ‘Shorty Blackwell’ involving reindeer or ‘Last Train To Santa’s Grotto’ or ‘Snow Goes Love’ or ‘Tinsel Tundra’ or ‘Randy Scouse Santa’ or ‘I Wanna Be Three’ or something. As a Christmas record its kinda ok, with some ambition and some good performances – it’s as a Monkees album it doesn’t stack up while as a Monkees Christmas record it’s….weird, full of downbeat lascivious and occasionally square renditions of Christmas songs old and new that have never been together on a festive album before and probably never will again. It is, you could say, the sort of a record an artist could only get away with putting out at Christmas and yet the band would surely have sold twice as many copies by now if it sounded even a tiny bit like everyone expected a Monkees Christmas record to sound.
Many teenage Monkee fans probably dreamed of one of The Monkees promising to undress them, but to be honest most were probably dreaming of Davy and weren’t dreaming of Micky singing it to them at the age of seventy-three. Better late than never for some I suppose but Andy Partridge’s ‘Unwrap You At Christmas’ sounds even more like an XTC song than his contributions to ‘Good Times’. Micky is game to break his ‘character’, lustfully purring as if he’s the lovechild of Prince and Madonna and would sound rather good if he wasn’t battling against fifty-two years in the spotlight as a sweet teenage pin-up. So good is the vocal that you almost miss what this song is really about – stripping a girl beneath a Christmas tree because he’s been waiting all year to get his girl naked. You wonder what her side of the story is and why she’s been rejecting him all year – maybe Micky’s narrator just isn’t listening to the word ‘no’ or maybe he’s just too shy to actually talk to her and express his feelings? Either way, his promise that ‘on Christmas Day you will be standing here’ feels more like a threat than romantic somehow. Not that ‘this’ Micky sounds shy but more possessed, subverting against the very innocent 1950s doo-wop sound of the song for something a lot odder and the inevitable Christmas sleigh bells and xylophone only add to the mixture of adult and childish glee. This song shows again that Andy’s favourite Monkee period is surely the ‘Head’ era, when The Monkees were unpopular enough to risk breaking their reputation and go all-out further than any liberal group people still paying attention to would ever dare and that’s my favourite era too. This song, though, feels wrong in a way ‘Head’ never did, more interested in making Micky sound like a criminal than a rounded character who is more than just a teenage idol. I’m all for innocent fun and there’s a place in music for these sort of songs, but the problem is Micky is such a good interpreter he’s instantly got the lust this song is ‘really’ about and conveys it so well it doesn’t feel like innocent fun anymore. A most odd opening to a most odd record.
Rivers Cuomo of the band Weezer may not be as bad as that band’s legendarily bad standing reputation in the music would suggest (they’re better than, well, The Spice Girls for one) but he’s hardly doing himself any favours with another generic Monkees contribution that suggests he still hasn’t heard any of their records yet. ‘What Would Santa Do?’ has a great pop chorus and more good use of sleigh bells, but again this is a most unlikely Christmas song. Micky is wondering why everybody is so grumpy in this period of festive cheer and goodwill to all men. But what’s his solution to the misery he sees around him in a world full of grinches spat out by a system that doesn’t care about them 364 days of the year and then expects them to prop up the economic system with extra sales for all their friends at yuletide? ‘I’d like to take my fist and sock ‘em in the mouth!’ Hmm, this is a second Micky narrator in a row to sound, well, nasty and once again Micky is such a good cover artist that he gets a little bit too far into character. While another sourer more sarcastic band could have made this song soar it’s a track written for The Pogues or The Smiths, not The Monkees and also for a second song in a row we get session musicians delivering a Monkee-lite ‘tribute act’ backing band with no sign of anyone but Micky from the ‘real’ group. What would Alan’s Album Archives do? Well I wouldn’t be doing this for a start. Even the idea that we should all stop being grouchy and start acting like Santa can’t rescue a song that’s too full of coal to suddenly give us sugar canes. And anyway if I was to act more like Santa as Micky wants me to the rest of this review would simply consist of 8000 words of me going ‘ho ho ho’ and telling Christmas cracker jokes and that’s no good to anybody (‘How many qualifications does Santa have? Three Ho-Ho-Ho levels!’ ‘What does Santa use in the garden? A hoe-hoe-hoe’ ‘Where does Santa go to dance? The snow-ball!’See, I told you, no good to anyone).
‘Mele Kelikimaka’ means ‘Dear God, turn this album off, put Alan’s Album Archives down and start carving the turkey pronto!’ Actually it still means ‘Merry Christmas’ in Hawaiian’ just as it did when The Beach Boys sang the same phrase in 1977 but this is only a marginally less excruciating song. It is, in fact, an older standard written by Hawaiian native Robert Alexander Andersen whose sunny neighbourhood and songwriting style enabled him to live to the ripe old age of 101. Alas Davy only made it to sixty-six and we miss his presence on ‘Christmas Party’ even more than ‘Good Times’ because he surely would have been perfectly cast for a Monkees Christmas record. Davy first recorded this song and ‘Silver Bells’ with legendary Monkee producer Chip Douglas in 1976 but the unpopularity of The Monkees meant we didn’t get a ‘finished’ version until the 1980s and even then Davy tinkered with the track selection another twice in the 1980s and 2000s. ‘Christmas Jones’ is a flawed record for the entirely opposite reasons to ‘Christmas Party’ in that it plays everything too safe and keeps Davy firmly in his ‘artful dodger pixie’ role. Even so, he got closer to the spirit of Christmas than the rest of the band and there are some real goodies on that album – a sweet ‘Silent Night’, an impressively ‘straight’ rendition of forgotten carol ‘On This Day In Bethlehem’ and Chip’s own rather good festive song ‘When I Look Back On Christmas’ which I would have gladly taken over ‘Kelikimaka’ any day. However it is still one of this album’s better cuts, mostly because despite being taped in Hawaii in a Summer heatwave Davy really hails the Christmas spirit and the audio equivalent of freezing to death while gathered round a fire and looking forward to the new year. Davy sounds as if he ‘belongs’ in this world of bells and sleigh-rides more than the other three and he was still in good voice by 1976. It’s the song that pals quickly, with nothing much to say other than ‘this is how we say Merry Christmas in Hawaiian!’ which is grounds more for a language course lecture than an actual song. It’s a sweet gesture to have the old boy back though and I’m glad Monkee fans get to hear at least some of this forgotten record again.
The Monkees’ 21st century producer Adam Schlesinger was the ‘hero’ of ‘Good Times’, co-ordinating the project, getting the budget and sticking all the disparate parts together. As a reward he deserved his song on that record ‘Our Own World’ even though it was one of the worst. For this album Adam teamed up with short story writer and came up with ‘The House Of broken Gingerbread’, easily the best of this album’s ‘new’ songs. Here the pop groove really works when set against less sugary lyrics than normal as Micky does what he’s born to do and digs into some real emotion on a song that matches ‘Blue Christmas’ for misery. This is a couple going through the motions at Christmas but they know they aren’t going to last long into the new year: their presents are in two separate piles full of very different things, Micky plays their child – he’s told he’ll have ‘double the Christmas’ with two parents to share the holidays with, but it feels like so much less than half the old days with less joy and frolics. His gingerbread house lying broken in the middle of treats is the perfect metaphor for something that used to be so full of sugary fun and he no longer feels innocent enough to enjoy the Christmas spirit, touched as the young lad is by all the things that went wrong since last year. Micky sighs his way through a verse of what he says to keep the peace but clearly doesn’t believe: ‘My stepmom is cool, dad gave me a brother, mom promised me a log’. However all the cakes and goodies in the world can’t make up for the gnawing empty feeling he holds inside him. With the great line that Christmas is still there but ‘St Nick and the three wise men got lost on the way’ and that ‘the mistletoe is hanging by a thread’ this song’s depth and reality check is the perfect counter-attack for the usual Christmas fair and is somehow far more Monkees-like even if it is as unfestive as this album’s other lesser moments. By 2018 many Monkee fans are on their second, third or more marriages, with an inevitable amount of broken homes along the way. Given that the sheer process of owning a Monkees album is giving a lot of this audience pangs of nostalgias for how they wanted their lives to turn out anyway this song must have come as a real emotional shock to a lot of people. This is also one of the best performances on the album – not only for Micky, who is almost always good, but for the quiet nagging harmony vocal from Mike underneath and a real sense of drama from the backing musicians who keep stabbing us with holly every time they open the tinsel box across the course of the song. One of the best things on the record.
Nobody remembers ‘The Christmas Song’ by that title – most people know it by its first line ‘Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire’. Mel Torme wrote the song originally as a gag; he was talking to co-writer Bob Wells that as the day was too hot to think straight maybe they should write a Christmas song full of snow imagery to cool them off? Nat King Cole had the first hit with the song in 1946 and Mike (who turned four the week the single peaked) doesn’t stay too far from that arrangement at all. Papa Nez manages to throw in a country vibe to the arrangement, with lashings of melancholy pedal steel to counteract the happy sleigh bells, but he sings this as close to a crooning laidback style as he can manage. His voice is, alas, a lot frailer than Micky’s and he doesn’t sing as well as he used to, but the dense production gives his vocals a ‘blanket of snow’ that allows him to just about get away with this frailty and he does, to be fair, sing this song rather better than Frank Sinatra ever did in the second half of his life. The real problem with this song is that its thrown us another curve-ball by not throwing a curve-ball after three straight songs of trying to give us the most unlikely Monkee Christmas songs ever. It is as if Mike got an entirely different brief to Micky to make a ‘traditional’ album and alas there are no Dolenz or Tork harmonies to help the song move along even though the arrangement badly needs something there to go along with Mike’s fading voice. The result sounds much more like a Nesmith solo album than Mike’s contributions to ‘Good Times’ and a little too safe and sure for an album that otherwise is more interested in ducking the obvious than decking the halls.
The one new celebrity friend taking part on this album after ‘Good Times’ is REM’s Peter Buck - and he’s about as unlikely a choice for a Monkees re union album as Andy Partridge and Paul Weller were. Interestingly his title song ‘Christmas Party’ is much more traditionally ‘Christmassy’ than any of the other ‘new’ songs on the album even though it retains REM’s loud and decidedly unfestive rocking beat. Micky sounds good, again, on a song that demands an entirely different performance from him on a vocal that oozes and purrs rather than rocks, working against the stomping feet of the rest of the band. Lyrically this is the dumbest song on the album: refuting what he sings later, Micky tells us that he’s glad it isn’t Christmas every year because having one party a year is special and its so epic he takes the rest of the year to recover! However the music works well and the arrangement is full of great touches from the ringing sea of backing guitars (including the first backwards guitar on a Monkees recording since the abandoned takes of ‘Valleri’ and ‘Words’ in 1967), to Micky on the karaoke machine doing his James Brown impression for the first time since 1967 (!) to the sweet opening snippet of Davy’s giggled comments from Monkees TV episode ‘The Christmas Show’ (‘I don’t know who he is or he is’ he says pointing to the army of soundmen and cameramen in the clip, ‘but anyway have a cool Yule!’) I’m less sure about the big finale: Micky yells that last year ‘the cops had to shut us down twice!’ after which the song stops and we get a brief reprise which is less a guitar solo and more like a guitar squiggle. Still, this sounds like the kind of party I want to join in with and you can’t say more for a simple song like this than that.
For my money Big Star’s best album is the one nobody ever talks about, their final one recorded in acrimony and released by a splintered band to a public that ignored it, simply titled ‘Third’ (though some fans know it as ‘Sister Lovers’, its original more controversial working title). A controversial song then (1975) and now was ‘Jesus Christ’, not least because Alex Chilton’s Christmas Carol appeared slap-bang in the middle of a decidedly non-festive LP. Debate still rages: why was this song there? Was this tale of Jesus’ birth sung straight, with sarcasm or was (as is my preferred reading) Alex meaning everything at face value while his bandmates were taking the piss out of him? What did he mean when Jesus was born ‘today’ – is this a future Jesus or is Alex time-travelling back to Bethlehem? Was this song written, as many assume, to ‘break’ his image as a rebellious hellraiser (many people, on first seeing the title on the record and knowing of Big Star’s reputation, assumed this was going to be a Satanist track). Nicking bits left right and centre from existing carols (most notably an opening burst from ‘Once In Royal David’s City’) this is more of a collage than a song and the original sounds not so much as if we’re at church than as if we are high on drugs. Which makes it a brave move for a Christmas record that’s not afraid to take chances. Micky once more nails this song by delivering a vocal somewhere between reverence and sarcasm and somehow this means that everybody wins – if you are a believer then this is a song about the son of God being born; if you are a non-believer then Micky is in on the joke too. Like many a Chilton ballad this is also quite a beautiful song behind the stuff going on across the surface and has a most lovely rising-and-falling tune that really does sound like a Christmas carol. It also has lots of space for warm harmonies, though sadly this is another missed album opportunity as these are mostly performed by Adam Schlesinger with no other Monkee accompaniment.
Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’ is one of those songs that’s everywhere between the beginning of November and the middle of January. It seems strange to think that when The Monkees split the first time in 1970 this song didn’t exist yet and wouldn’t for another three years and indeed won’t become a ‘standard’ for another couple yet (shockingly it peaked at #4 in the UK charts the first time around). Over-familiarity has, as it has with almost every rock and roll Christmas song, ruined this Roy Wood tune forever but it was a good song once with an actually very rock and roll plea that every day should be an excuse for a party and goodwill to everyone, not just the Christmas holidays. There is, in truth, more padding in the verses than there is in a Christmas dinner with antics of reindeers and snowmen that seem to belong to an entirely different song altogether. It is, though, a good song and the first chance Micky has on this album to deliver what people would be expecting from a Monkees Christmas album. It is, too, a fitting choice: Wizzard were pioneers of ‘glam rock’ which was the first real youthful music movement to come along after The Monkees with its bright colours and cartoonish exaggerations of personalities. Wizzard owe more, in fact, to The Monkees’ style than they do to Roy Wood’s old band ‘The Move’, with Christmas singles an obvious move for glam rockers (Slade did rather well with theirs too, but this is the better song compared to ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’). Thankfully The Monkees arrangement adds a little extra too: there are no massive harmonies (Wizzard’s original had a children’s choir) and the performance is acoustic here, with no instruments ‘plugged in’ which gives the song a folkier flavour and takes it to a fractionally more melancholy place that suits it. After all the sentiment is closer to sadness than joy really: why can’t it be Christmas every day?
Davy, though, is The Monkees’ Christmas expert as another song from ‘Christmas Jones’ proves. ‘Silver Bells’ was always one of the best performances on the album and this 1951 film song (from poverty tale ‘The Lemon Drop Kid’) is right up Davy’s street. The song was allegedly inspired by songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans passing the Salvation Army trying to call out to the homeless with free food and shelter over the festive period and while the lyric isn’t that obvious the song retains much of that inner melancholy. This is a narrator whose had a hard year in a hard life but Christmas always offers new chance of hope and salvation. This is, notably, a song set not on Christmas but in the days leading up to it, yearning for something brilliant to come. Davy sounds terrific on Chip Douglas’ moving arrangement and the few slight modern-day tweaks to get this recording in line with the rest of the album is less off-putting than on ‘Kelikimaka’. The result might be a song rejected in 1976 and ignored on three separate releases but is still easily the best thing here. Christmas isn’t just about the people who are there but the people who are missing, which makes Davy’s return appearance here so right and proper as he marvels at how beautiful life can be seen with new eyes, with even ‘stop-lights’ blinking brighter than usual and a stillness behind the mayhem of the shoppers.
Even I don’t usually have a good word to say about ‘Wonderful ChristmasTime’, a song that’s easily in the bottom five all time Paul McCartney songs from a man whose released about 500 of them in his lifetime. I’ve always maintained that Lennon and McCartney were roughly equal talents with more similarities than differences across their career – however the gulf between the political power of ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ and the triviality of this song tells you everything you need to know about John at his best and Paul at his worst. Released as Wings’ last single in 1979 (though recorded by Paul alone on his new synthesisers) many considered it karma when Paul was locked up in a Tokyo prison cell a couple of weeks later (though this was, technically, for drug possession). A woeful song about having a good time with no ambition beyond that, this crass song is designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator and sell more records with its advertisement-style riff and simple C Major chords. The fact that this song’s biggest hook is based around the word ‘simply’ rather says it all and you can almost hear Paul’s mindset at work on this one (how can I get away with a song this simple? Do I make a B-side or, hey, how about a Christmas song that everyone’s too drunk to pay attention to anyway? Sorted). Wings look rightly embarrassed miming to this song in a crazy promo video but at least they were paid to do it. Micky has no reason to cover this track – and yet against the odds he still finds something in it. Slowing the song down a fraction was a really clever move, giving this song a frisson of sadness and nostalgia for Christmases past (indeed it now sounds much more like another Mccartney 1980s single delivering just that, ‘Once Upon A long Ago’). Moving everything off the cold-hearted synthesisers and onto ‘real’ instruments gives this song a new warm glow, with the plucked strings sounding far more pleasant to the ears than anything on the original. Paul recorded this one in a semi-sarcastic arch way, but Micky sings it straight here. The result is a recording of a song that’s still pretty empty but which knocks spots off the original and proves once again that The Monkees were more than just an inferior Beatles copy band.
‘Snowfall’ is a more natural place for Mike to be than ‘The Christmas Song’. The backing on this one feels very like a ‘national band’ kind of performance despite the same glossy orchestra and glossy production sheen. Indeed it’s a dead ringer for ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’, another standard Mike recorded reverentially way back when on 1971’s ‘Nevada Fighter’. A bunch of The Monkees’ modern little elf helpers also flesh out the backing vocals this time, though sadly there’s still no Micky or Peter. Produced, as with the other song, by Mike’s son Jonathan with brother Christian playing guitar, this jazz standard from the 1940s doesn’t sound as much of an anachronism as it seems on paper. Even so it’s a shame this haiku-like tale of falling snowflakes isn’t just a tad braver or more Monkees like. You would be hard pressed to know the original was quite daring in its day, breaking the tradition of verse-chorus-verse and with jazz chords still not that common in the pop market. Mike just sounds like an old crooner again here and his performance isn’t as strong as on ‘The Christmas Song’ even if the arrangement and everyone else taking part play much better. The last time we saw The Monkees in snow it was the middle of ‘Head’ and the sequence for Carole King’s ‘As We Go Along’, one of the most daring rule-breaking songs ever taped. This is, by contrast, a simple sleepy standard that hasn’t been changed much from the original at all.
‘Angels We Have Heard On High’ is the only presence of Peter Tork on the album, which is again the biggest missed opportunity of yet another Monkees reunion album. Predictably Peter’s brought his banjo along. Less predictably he sings the most religious song on the album (assuming, for now, that Big Star’s ‘Jesus Christ’ really is sarcastic), a traditional piece of music which is probably where ‘Ding Dong Merrily On High’ originated. Predictably, this piece of music doesn’t seem like it fits anywhere with the others and it’s a real shame Micky at least wasn’t persuaded to sing along with his own pal (for one thing it would have covered up the ugly auto-tuning on Peter’s voice, which couldn’t possibly be as distracting as hearing the real thing). Peter sounds as if he’s ailing even more than Mike, the surgery that took out part of his tongue after an operation for cancer in 2009 making its presence far more felt here than on ‘Good Times’. It’s a shame, then, that he chose a song that put quite so much emphasis on his voice, although even that seems like a typically brave album decision putting Tork’s frailness front and centre. This is, at least, a pretty tune and one well suited to banjo even if it’s a piece written, like most carols, to be sung by a whacking great congregation in a whacking great place of worship.
‘Merry Christmas Baby’ is a final oddball move from an album that doesn’t ever take the easy way out. Micky re-writes the old Les Baxter and Johnny Moore song to the point where it’s nearly unrecognisable, slowed down to a crawl and given a 12 bar blues feel. Micky’s narrator is much unhappier on this re-write too, alone at yuletide and feeling the loneliness until he sticks some records on and starts to feel better about life. He does, at least, get some presents thanks to Santa coming down the chimney, but the most hopeful line this gets from Micky is that it means ‘I ain’t had a drink yet this morning’. Micky is again the star of another performance trick that demands yet another style from him, as he’s just authentic enough to feel the blues but not so miserable he stays there. Even so, this song has no business being at the end of a festive album and is an oddly off-key, downbeat way to say goodbye to The Monkees for at least a bit longer. In contrast to last time out Micky was there - and he knows he had a rotten time. Oh and incidentally a merry Christmas to all of you at home. No, it doesn’t quite work does it? Perhaps the biggest misjudgement on the record since its opening song and an attempt at an experiment so far.
The deluxe version of the album then ends with ‘Riu Chiu’ (not the superior version already out on CD on ‘Missing Links Two’ but a direct lift of the soundtrack of TV episode ‘The Monkees’ Christmas Episode’ from 1967) and ‘Christmas Is My Time Of Year’, both easily the best things here and closer to the style most would have been expecting from a Monkees record. **These have both been reviewed by us before – and here they are!!!
Given the speed at which The Monkees were made to record albums, I'm surprised they never did the ol' 1960s fallback of a festive LP together. The Monkees' party sound and hopeful vibes are well suited to Christmas spirit and as Davy, Micky and an inaudible Peter in his first recording with them in eight years (he had to get time off his ‘dayjob’ where he’d become a teacher!) put it in a rare festive single (originally released solely to the core faithful who were still members of the Monkee fanclub and later released as a 'proper' but very poor-selling single)  'Christmas Is My Time Of Year'. Original Christmas songs are, famously, awful (especially AAA ones it seems) but actually Douglas/Kaynan's song isn't bad, with a calmer atmosphere and a more inventive melody line and chord changes than most (usually festive songs try to get away with murder by keeping things simple because it's 'only' a Christmas song). Often songs that try to be clever go too far the other way and don't sound that Christmassey either, but this song has the perfect beat for sleigh bells and 'steals' a burst from 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing' on the chorus that works rather well. It's nice, too, to hear Micky and Davy together as there are very few recordings featuring both so equally, with the pair swapping verses and coming together for the singalong choruses. Most excellent and it's a shame there wasn't a full album of this stuff to follow - Davy's rather Scrooge-like Xmas solo is no substitute!
Overall, then, ‘Christmas Party’ is as we said before a really weird record. Trust The Monkees to break the rules and not give us the standard Christmas record we were expecting – but even the idea of giving us a Christmas album at all right now when they had fought so hard to get their reputation back seems a strange move. There’s very little here you’ll want to play into the New Year and some of the mistakes made on this record are atrocious, but at the same time this is not like most Christmas records an attempt to find an ‘easy way out’ or to make some quick cash. There is a lot going on across this record which demands a lot of lead singer Micky and he is ably supported by four welcome dips into the vaults, although the usual mixed array of outside writers and the lack of input from Mike and Peter again drag this album down a peg or two. It is an album that somehow manages to be both naughty and nice on alternating tracks, a record with some real Christmas treats such as ‘Gingerbread’ and ‘Silver Bells’ alongside some real pieces of coal such as the needlessly sexy ‘Unwrap You At Christmas’ and needlessly bluesy ‘Merry Christmas Baby’. In the end it’s less of a Christmas cash-in than the Monkees lunchbox being unwrapped on the cover and less gaudy than the baubles of Micky, Mike, Davy and Peter hanging on the tree, braver than any Christmas record ever needs to be. However in one very major way this album is too brave: it sounds even less like ‘The Monkees’ than ‘Good Time’ did and with time pressing short and the band in ailing health it feels like another missed opportunity somehow. A lesser problem is that this album isn’t ‘Christmassy’ enough, with less trademarks of festive albums – it’s this that, strangely, makes it feel most Monkees-like out of anything actually here as its arguably the most successful of all four reunion projects at capturing the postmodernism of the series (this is, after all, a Christmas record that’s constantly breaking the fourth wall by asking what a Christmas album is, throwing in sex, alcoholism, parental breakups and an is-it-heartfelt-or-is-it-a-gag? reflex of including that Big Star song about Jesus). The result is a downright bonkers album that hopefully is just a stepping stone to greater things to come if we still have the time for them – but one that’s constantly pushing against its remit as ‘only a Christmas album’ and refusing to be a mere Steppin’ Stone. Like we said, truly truly weird – sometimes in a bad way, thankfully more often for good.