by Jon Hunt
Listen: it’s been a rough 2016 so far. I’m definitely feeling the burn — not The Bern, which I already feel plenty, but the other thing, just total mental burnout. And when that happens to me, as it does once in a while when it seems like the world is burning down, I turn to things that give me comfort. In this case, The Monkees.
God knows I’ve written about the Monkees before. They are, as I’m certain I’ve mentioned 100 or so times, the first band I ever loved. Apart from a very brief minute when I couldn’t listen to them due to a terrible breakup (see: my last article), they’ve been possibly the most comfort-causing band I know. I don’t care what mood I’m in, if a Monkees song comes on the radio, I’m there.
So the one thing that has always bugged me — always, always — is the lack of critical legitimacy the band gets. Sure, that’s changing — I don’t know a single my-age critic who doesn’t at least tip the hat to their Greatest Hits. But man, when I first took a look at the Rolling Stone Record Guide entry on The Monkees — both the original 1977 edition and the followup early 90s edition — it just galled me. Dave Marsh, in the original Guide, at least praised their hit-making ability, but Paul Evans, in the revised Guide, refused to back down — he called the group massively overrated and ranked each of their non-hits album with one or two stars, not even making the distinction between, say, Headquarters and Monkees Present.
I’ve always been determined (even though I’m sure AllMusic has done the same — oh yeah, they have) to more accurately rank and review the Monkees’ studio albums. And so, since it’s the group’s 50th Anniversary, and since they have a new album (Good Times) coming out in June (!!!), what better time to take a good ol’ look at the good ol’ Monkees, the best prefab assembled-by-committee group outside of the Detroit area.
The Monkees (1966, **** 1/2) — You’d have to be a pretty bleak character not to love at least something on this flawless collection of hits from the group’s first TV season. The early hits are all here, from “Last Train To Clarksville” to Davy’s remarkable “I Wanna Be Free” to Carole King’s magnificent “Take A Giant Step” (yeah, the Monkees version is way better than either the Rising Sons or Taj Mahal’s version — I’ll fight you about it!) to the odd and ominous and future-predicting “Sweet Young Thing,” still my very favorite Nesmith vocal. There really ain’t a dud moment, unless you wanna be a little harsh to Davy and dock half a star for the treacley “I’ll Be True to You” or maybe 1/4 star for Peter’s goofy “I’m Gonna Buy Me A Dog.” But I won’t. Instead, I’ll dock my half star for knowing the absolutely staggering “I Won’t Be The Same Without Her” was cut at the same time and left off.
More of the Monkees (1966, *** 1/2) — Really a market-desired odds-and-sods, More fails simply because its got a little more treacle than the first album, a few straight-up weaker tracks and for whatever reason the absence of a whole passel of terrific tracks cut at the same time (impressario Don Kirshner was asleep at the wheel, I guess). “She” is garage-rock bliss, and so is “Steppin’ Stone.” And damned if “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” ain’t one of my favorite songs of all time — and a slightly better Neil Diamond song than “I’m A Believer,” also included here. And I guess Mike Nesmith’s cool “Mary, Mary” has been elevated to pure classic status by its rap-song inclusion (I’ve always liked it but not loved it). But man, “Laugh?” “Hold On Girl?””The Day We Fall In Love?” Especially frustrating knowing that “Through The Looking Glass,” “Don’t Listen To Linda,” an early and garagey “Valleri” and “Words” and especially the lost hit “Tear Drop City” sat in the vault.
Headquarters (1967, *****) — released around the same time as Sgt. Pepper, while nowhere near as earth-shattering, it is, nevertheless, the group’s purest (it’s really mostly just them playing on all the songs) and arguably most consistent album, and just as full of great songwriting as the Fab Four’s more beloved LP. I can’t listen to just one song, it’s an album I have to spin top to bottom — “You Told Me” and “You Just May Be The One” are two of Nesmith’s best performances ever, while Micky’s “Randy Scouse Git” is his best bit of songwriting and Peter’s “For Pete’s Sake” is his. And even goofy fare like “I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind” and Nez’ silly “Sunny Girlfriend” get over on sheer, raw enthusiasm and knockout harmony singing. And damned if “Early Morning Blues and Greens” ain’t Davy’s best vocal ever (rivaled only by his verse on “Shades of Grey.”) Close to perfect, this one, and an album I play every Monkees skeptic.
Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones LTD (1967, *****) — even though Headquarters is maybe more “them” (the session musicians return in force on this ‘un), I have to tip it to this one as their best ever, on the strength of side one which I’d argue is maybe — maybe — the best side anybody released in the whole decade. Don’t believe me? Find me the weak link: “Salesman” (Nez’ drug-pusher anthem), “She Hangs Out” (Davy’s wildest vocal), “The Door Into Summer” (their most pristine baroque moment), “Love Is Only Sleeping” (their most psychedelic!), “Cuddly Toy” (fergodsake, Nilsson at his best!) and “Words” (perfect, perfect garage rock enhanced by gorgeous psychedelia.) See what I mean? Not a crack, not a flaw. Side two is quite damn good, too, but Peter’s goofy “Peter Percival Patterson” is, well, silly as hell, and one could quibble just slightly with Nez’ psychedelic try “Daily Nightly” (just slightly, mind — it’s not any sillier than any other psych tune, it’s just a little thinner). Anybody wanna argue for the inclusion of Micky’s soul belter “Goin’ Down” which almost made the lineup?
The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees (1968, *** 1/2) — The cracks in the Monkees org begin to appear here, and it’s a far weaker set than Pisces (how could it not be?), but man oh man are there some great tunes here — Davy’s killer “Dream World” is about as perfect as you can get, Nez’ cool “Auntie’s Municipal Court” and “Tapioca Tundra” are wild psychedelic country tunes, “I’ll Be Back Up On My Feet” was a show staple that somehow hadn’t made wax yet, the remade “Valleri” features one of the best guitar licks ever set to vinyl, and “Daydream Believer” is — well, it’s a stone classic by any standards. I could live without “We Were Made For Each Other” ( I guess — I mean, it’s pretty!) and “The Poster” and “P.O. Box 9847” and, heresy of heresies, I think Moby Grape’s take on “old 75 spinning in the distance” beats the crap outta “Magnolia Simms.” Poor Peter couldn’t get “Lady’s Baby” on the damn thing despite his best efforts.
Head (1968, **** 1/2) — This seems mean, but I’m docking the soundtrack to Head half a star for being too damn short. In many ways it’s their best record — you could fight over this one vs. Pisces Aquarius all day and never come to a conclusion. Every song is a classic, from the staggering psychedelia of “Porpoise Song” to the Indian-flavored “Can You Dig It” to the gorgeous “As We Go Along” to Mike’s garage anthem “Circle Sky” to Nilsson’s marvelous “Daddy’s Song” to Peter’s wild “Do I Have To Do This All Over Again” — problem is, that’s it, just that perfect lineup and lots of little goofy clips from the movie. Three, four more songs and I think we’d have a contender. Even still, this is a hell of a listen, and don’t let its brevity convince you against its essentialness.
Instant Replay (1969, ****) — I’m so used to the various “alternate” versions of this album that make the rounds (featuring the album’s original concept of one side of killer songs per Monkee, including Peter) that I almost forgot about the original LP, which is terrific if a bit odds-and-sods-y. A lot of the tunes on this album were recorded earlier on (“Looking Glass,” “Linda,” “Won’t Be The Same Without Her,” “Tear Drop City”) and consequently sound a little removed from time, though marvelous — and anybody wanna justify why the career-best single “Listen To The band” b/w “Someday Man” wasn’t included? But wow, the Neil Young guitar playing on Davy’s killer “You and I” is worth writing home about, and man, is Mike’s “Don’t Wait For Me” gorgeous, and wow if “The Girl I Left Behind Me” isn’t just a total stunner. And you may love or not love Micky’s cute and tragic “Shorty Blackwell” depending on your tolerance for his bouncy storytelling songs (I love it).
The Monkees Present (1969, ***) — I dunno, when I say this is the group’s weakest main-era album, that’s not really saying much against it — it’s still got its share of pure stunners, like Mike’s “Good Clean Fun” and “Listen To The Band” and Davy’s killer late-60s party anthem “Looking For The Good Times.” There’s also a couple of stinkers (“If I Knew” is about as sappy as Davy ever got, though it’s pretty, of course, and Boyce & Hart’s goofy “Ladies Aid Society”) and a couple of “good but not as good as could be” tunes, like “French Song” and the slight “Pillow Time.” And “Oklahoma Backroom Dancer” sounds out of place (shoulda been on Mike’s first solo, right?). Of course there were plenty of Nez outtakes that could have bolstered this album (including “Calico Girlfriend”) and honestly, it’s still quite a fun listen.
Changes (1970, **) — With Mike out, the group turned to a killer production team — Jeff Barry and Andy Kim, who were about to score huge with Kim’s solo career and the Archies. The result: a slightly baffling bubblegum Monkees album that sometimes scores huge (especially on the sly, sexy “Oh My My” and the cool “You’re So Good To Me” and “I Love You Better” which sounds just like an Archies tune). And you could argue that the oddly-titled “99 Pounds” is a cool ‘gum garage blast, I guess. But man, you also get Micky’s weak “Midnight Train” and a dull Boyce and Hart outtake (“I Never Thought It Peculiar”) and kind of a general, all-over weary tone. The bonus edition adds the cool “Do It In The Name of Love” which was later a hit for Candy Staton — great soul ‘gum, honestly.
Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart (1976, ***) — This almost reunion is actually really great — featuring Dolenz in top form, Jones in damn near in top form, a passel of great tunes from their primary songwriters (no more throwaways helps!) and killer backing from the usual session cats (including Chip Douglas!), all in prime mid-70s AM radio form. It probably wasn’t a hit just ’cause it wasn’t called “Monkees,” but damned if it’s not a really entertaining record anyway — “Moonfire” was the hit that never was (it’s stunning), “Savin’ My Love For You” is damn cool disco fun (I’ll buy it, why not?) and “Sweet Heart Attack” is a perfect 70s update of the Boyce/Hart garage sound. And “I Remember The Feeling” is niftily “oldies” without sounding removed from its era — shoulda been huge. It’s not perfect, but man, it’s way more entertaining than it has any right to be.
Pool It! (1987, **) — Coming at the end of the MTV Monkees revival, just after the group supposedly refused to play some kind of Super Bowl thingy (they claimed they had no idea it was even happening), this album went nowhere — and for good reason, it’s mostly awful, a terrible 80s updating containing very little of what made the Monkees cool int he first place. That said: even this album has some good songs on it. The opening track “Heart and Soul” is absolutely killer 80s pop and should very much have been a hit (it woulda been if MTV hadn’t left ’em high and dry). Micky’s cover of Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World” betters the original (it does! even with the 80s production!) and god, if I could strip the terrible 80s drums off of Davy’s “Every Step of the Way” it’d be almost as good as the previous two songs. And I do love Micky’s smooth vocal on “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Secret Heart” — what can I say? Meanwhile, only Peter’s “Since You Went Away” is worth a damn, and I’m still not sure what he’s doing with his voice. A very, very, very mixed bag, but hey, I still own it.
Justus (1996, ***1/2) — Justus was a mid-90s attempt at a Headquarters type album, featuring only the band’s playing and writing (including Mike’s, which is awesome), and you have to admire their conviction — it sure is that. It’s also as mixed a bag as you’d figure it would be — the production is baffling (I’m not sure the producer had heard an album since the 80s) and the song choice is interesting as heck but, well, not as inspired as you’d hope (a couple Carole Kings or Boyce and Harts would help, but hey, they were doing a thing). Mike’s contributions are probably the best moments here — the redux of “Circle Sky” is scathing, the Micky-sung “Admiral Mike” is angry as hell and straight-up mean (though oddly produced). Micky has a few cool bits (“Never Enough,” the cute “Regional Girl”) and Pete wisely lets Davy handle the vox on his quite great “Run Away From Life.” Micky gets a little corny here and there (“Unlucky Stars”) but for the most part its listenable stuff and has aged oddly well (if you can forgive the thin, weedy production).