The Monkees return to the Bell Auditorium this Sunday, July 24, for the first time since 1969, and their third visit to the Augusta Entertainment Complex, having played to a sellout crowd at the James Brown Arena in 1987.
You might say a few of us are excited (ahem).
Celebrating 50 years together as America’s pop culture and television answer to The Beatles, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork headline this tour, with Michael Nesmith along only in spirit, and occasionally dropping in to play a few songs with his mates via closed circuit Skype hookup.
No time to waste here summarizing the biography of the group. Google them. We are going to skip the oft-told pleasantries and get right to the heart of the matter: These guys were good, damn good, and in their golden anniversary year they have given their fans an incredible gift with the release of a new album which, according to critics far more qualified than I to examine the material, is “nothing short of a masterpiece.” More on that in a moment.
The conventional wisdom on The Monkees has been blown up and refuted more times than Donald Trump’s resume, but given their genesis, most can understand the confusion: Four young men assembled to play a struggling Southern California rock band in 1966. The Hollywood production team that cast the show could not have had a clue that they were assembling one of the greatest pop culture phenomenons of the 20th century.
A debut album that went to No. 1, only to be succeeded at No. 1 by their second LP. From November 1966 through June of 1967, there were only two No. 1 albums on the Billboard charts: “The Monkees” and “More of the Monkees.” In 1967, the group spent 29 weeks at No. 1 on the album charts with four different LPs. For that year, The Monkees sold more records than The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined.
A hit TV show that won an Emmy in its first season for Best Comedy, beating the likes of “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Get Smart” and “Hogan’s Heroes” in the process. The innovative series staging that season also won an Emmy for Best Direction for James Frawley. The combination of the TV success, record sales and sold-out concerts from coast to coast made The Monkees the most profitable American rock group of the ‘60s, second worldwide only to The Beatles.
Ah, but there was always the albatross. Early in the process a few critics picked up on the fact that the group was largely “pretending” to be accomplished musicians for their TV audience, and aside from their obviously well-executed vocals, they had little to do with the music they were selling. Even Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith’s honest frustrations with the “musical process” were used against them, with their own quotes taken out of context at the time as a means of discrediting the material.
While the angst of the two talented musicians was real at the time, the body of work has been preserved by history and even the most jaded snobs would have a hard time calling the Monkees’ catalog anything less than impressive and versatile.
The band’s well-documented revolt and emancipation from the creative control (and dictatorial rule) of their original music supervisor Don Kirshner for their third LP, “Headquarters,” is legendary. But closer examination of the material that was produced even under Kirshner’s watch proves an amazing amount of technical know how, and artistic depth, from the young group themselves. The proof can now be played for all to hear.
The “sessions” disc from the Rhino Records special reissue of The Monkees 1966 debut album (a 2014 release) provided an amazing amount of bonus material, but, more importantly, included was “pre-roll” musical direction from Michael Nesmith as he produced several well known Monkees songs for that first LP. The world knew Nesmith wrote and sang lead on “Papa Gene’s Blues” and “Sweet Young Thing” for that monster debut album, but listen in and hear old “wool hat” himself produce and guide “The Wrecking Crew,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame enshrined legendary session musicians appearing on countless million selling records, in playing the riffs and setting the back beat for the songs which were featured prominently in the first few episodes of the TV show.
Then you have Nez diagramming his incredibly catchy “Mary, Mary” to the personnel laying the track with this admonition,
“… Glen… when you hit that country thing, and you hit that C sharp… don’t get real busy with it… (he plays the riff)… yeah like that…”
That is Nesmith’s direction of guitarist Glen Campbell. You can also hear similar guidance offered to Peter Tork, who was also playing on the track.
In the next breath, he is leading Hal Blaine, perhaps the greatest drummer in pop music history, through the beat time, and demonstrating the prescribed tempo. This recording session took place July 25, 1966. Six weeks before the debut of the TV show, and many, many months before any controversy arose over the “real talent” of The Monkees.
Nesmith and Tork are, simply put, unassailable and brilliant musicians. The depth of Nesmith’s gifts is no surprise to anyone paying attention to the music world over the last half century, and the respect for his body of work is nothing short of immense.
His fellow Monkee Peter Tork never got the respect he deserved over the years, likely because of his lack of lead vocals on their most familiar tunes. Damn shame, because he is the most versatile instrumentalist of the bunch, perhaps one of the best all around “utility players” of ‘60s pop music. Tork’s yeoman’s work on the “Headquarters” album is canon for those familiar with the group. He is all over the place on that project. Stirring background vocals (“Shades of Gray”), and amazing harpsichord, keyboard and banjo work as well.
But his greatest contribution to the album is the song he wrote (with Joseph Richards) that became the TV show’s closing theme in season two, “For Pete’s Sake.”
Featuring a simple but soulful lead vocal from Micky Dolenz, and an impressive organ base line from Nesmith (Nez on keyboards, who knew?), Tork played lead guitar with Davy Jones contributing percussion. Jones, Tork and Dolenz combined on background vocals, with producer Chip Douglas, the lone non-Monkee on the tune, playing bass. Simply put, it is the perfect Monkees song, with all four members contributing strongly.
All this information, limited as it is, is presented in the quest to debunk one of the greatest lies in American pop music history. The Monkees were not simply four guys who were props for a TV show. Yes, they were cast as shallow caricatures of their real personalities (except Tork, who played a simpleton on the show, but is a renaissance man and philosopher in real life), but almost on a dare became a real band producing an amazing amount of substantial music of their own making.
Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz got a lot of attention for their very different (but substantial) talents and contributions, but in countless interviews over 50 years, both always credited Nesmith and Tork for pushing the group to its artistic destiny. Paraphrasing Dolenz’s favorite analogy on the topic, it was like the crew from Star Trek becoming real space explorers. There is little doubt that Dolenz and Jones were the “star power” that provided the lead vocals and “teen idol” qualities that brought the band its greatest commercial successes, but anyone looking close saw as true a “team effort” as there can be in the work they did as a quartet.
There are stories, so many more stories that go with this legendary band: The Jack Nicholson presence/leadership on the group’s sole movie project, the cult classic “Head.” The fact that Michael Nesmith is widely credited for the concept that became MTV. The legendary careers launched/aided by their early association with The Monkees (Harry Nilsson, Paul Williams, Neil Young, etc.). The financial windfall The Monkees brought to their creators, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, that bankrolled their future Hollywood successes in “Easy Rider,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Five Easy Pieces,” etc.
But of course the music is the thing. And for your consideration, here are several examples of The Monkees’ very best songs, and what made them special for so many millions of fans. (In no particular order.)
“Pleasant Valley Sunday”: Often called the best song of their catalog, written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, it is hard to argue the pedigree. At the time the song was recorded, for their fourth album, the group had found the perfect balance between control and collaboration with others. They proved they could do it all themselves by this point, but they weren’t too stubborn to allow contributors. Yes, that is Nesmith’s opening guitar riff. Yes, that is Tork playing piano like a madman. Yes that is Dolenz on one of the best lead vocals of the ‘60s, and you better believe that is Jones and Nesmith contributing awesome contrasting and echoing background vocals that nail it to the cross and take it home. This song alone is proof positive that The Monkees belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I believe we could get a professional review of this tune to have Jann Wenner (Rolling Stone’s publisher, and the lone voice keeping them out by decree) institutionalized as criminally inept, hopelessly tone deaf and 100 percent worthy of a good, sharp punch in the throat. I volunteer to sit in jail for the pleasure of taking the swing.
“Daydream Believer”: The opening piano riff of this monster hit was dreamed up in the fertile mind of one Mr. Peter Tork. It wasn’t there until he put it there. Written by Kingston Trio founding member John Stewart, it was a song Davy Jones had to be talked into recording. He hated it. For a minute. It later became his signature song, and it is used by the band’s surviving members in concert as a memorial to The Manchester Cowboy.
“The Girl That I Knew Somewhere”: Written by Michael Nesmith, with the lead vocal by Micky Dolenz and an incredible harpsichord bridge by Peter Tork. Another piece of evidence that Jann Wenner doesn’t know his fanny from a hole in the ground. All four Monkees on this tune, which is both complex in arrangement and catchy to the ear.
“Randy Scouse Git”: One of the few songs Micky Dolenz wrote for The Monkees, it is a personal homage to the groups first trip to England to meet and hang out with the guys that would become their life-long friends (and fans), The Beatles. Incredibly original, and an iconic sound that was pure fun.
“Sweet Young Thing”/”Papa Gene’s Blues”: From their debut album, both written by Nesmith, singing lead on both, with strong background vocal contributions from Dolenz and Jones. Neo showed he could rock with the best of them on “SYT,” then turn around and play hillbilly with the feather light “PGB.” Both songs featured prominently in the TV show, it is amazing to me that neither ever charted.
And holy cow, lest we forget their new album, released last month, “Good Times.” Discovering this album was like meeting your first love 40 years later and seeing that she still has it. Dave Swanson from ultimateclassicrock.com says it better than I ever could. Check out his full review online, here are some highlights:
“Good Times!” is certainly the best Monkees LP since their ’60s heyday, but it also stands firmly on its own as one hell of an album circa 2016. To be honest, you’d be hard-pressed to find another act from the same era who has made an album this good in recent memory, and that includes any of the heavyweights still alive and kicking out there.”
“The songs written by the new generation (all lifelong, dedicated Monkees fans) hold their own, as well. The first single, the naggingly catchy “She Makes Me Laugh,” was written by Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, while the second single, the effervescent “You Bring the Summer,” which is embedded above, was penned by former XTC leader Andy Partridge. “Birth of an Accidental Hipster,” by Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher, is a blast of pop art pop with Nesmith and Dolenz swapping lead vocals. “Me & Magdalena,” written by Death Cab for Cutie‘s Ben Gibbard, features a world weary and slightly fragile lead vocal from Nesmith, which works to the song’s benefit as Dolenz provides beautiful harmonies.
Producer Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne) and executive producer John Hughes certainly had a big hand in guiding the process, but it’s the spirit in which Tork, Nesmith and Dolenz took to the idea of making a record this way that makes it all work. Dolenz, at age 71, has retained the power and control of his amazing voice, and all three also contribute via guitars, piano, banjo and drums.
The fact that there is a new Monkees album in 2016 is miraculous enough, but that said album, Good Times!, is nothing short of a masterpiece is astounding.”
See you guys Sunday at Bell Auditorium. Tickets online at augustaentertainmentcomplex.com.