Tuesday, March 7, 2006

The Music of The Monkees

Tomorrow is Micky Dolenz's birthday. My birthday is two days later (although I should point out that I was born several years after Mr. Dolenz...). In a way this is fitting, given the impact The Monkees had on my early life. As a kid, when The Monkees came on television, I simply would not move from the TV set. My parents simply could not rouse me to go anywhere or to do anything else. I have written about the TV show on this blog, but I have never written much about their music. In a way this is a huge oversight on my part, as in the earliest years of my life (keep in mind I was only three when The Monkees debuted), The Monkees were my favourite band besides The Beatles.

Of course, The Monkees have always been a source of controvery in the music world. On the one hand, while the TV show received critical acclaim (even winning Emmys)--despite its low ratings, the group has in the past been lambasted by music critics-- despite the success of their records. The reason for the music critics' scorn has always been fairly obvious. The Monkees were clearly a "manufacured group," four young men hired for a television show. For many rock critics this somehow made the "Pre-Fab Four" inferior to groups that came together "naturally" or "by accident." What these critics miss is that they were hardly the first "manufactured" rock performers. Fifties teen idol Fabian Forte was largely the creation of Bob Marcucci and Peter de Angelis, a team of record executives and songwriters, who controlled nearly every aspect of his career. Similarly, the British instrumental group, The Tornadoes, had been formed by studio engineer Don Meek by placing an ad in a London trade paper in 1962. Their hit "Telstar" went to number one in 1962. Barry Gordon, the head of Motown, exercised such control over the careers and images of its artists that they might as well have been hired hands. That The Monkees were brought together to perform on a TV series then should not play a role in determining the quality of their music.

Of course, another source of controvery has always been the fact that on their early records The Monkees did not play their own music. Many critcs have always been eager to point this out, ignoring the fact that this was pretty much standard procedure for the recording industry in the Sixties. Even The Beach Boys did not play their own instruments on many of their early songs. Sadly, the fact that The Monkees were not allowed to play their own instruments on their early recordings has led to a commonly held fallacy--that The Monkees could not play their own instruments! Mike Nesmith had already recorded albums under the psuedonym "Mike Blessing"--in fact, he wrote the song "Different Drum" (later a hit for the Stone Ponies) before he was even a Monkee! Like Nesmith, Peter Tork also had an extensive musical background. His entire family were highly trained in music. In fact, prior to The Monkees, Tork was the member of a folk group, The Phoenix Singers. And while Micky Dolenz was best known as an actor (the son of character actor George Dolenz had been on the Fifites series Circus Boy and guest starred on many shows), he did know how to play guitar. In fact, he was a member of a group known as The Missing Links prior to joining The Monkees. Only Davy Jones did not have considerable experience with musical instruments prior to being cast on The Monkees, although he did have a lot of experience singing. He was the Artful Dodger in the Broadway version of Oliver!. He even released his own solo album in 1965 (which appeared in the first season episode "The Monkees at the Movies").

As music recorded for the TV show was meant to be released on records from the very beginning, music impresario Don Kirschner was hired as the series' music supervisor. It was Kirschner who decided that The Monkees would not play on their own records, deciding instead to use top flight studio musicans. This chaffed some of The Monkees, in particular Mike Nesmith who had dreams of a music career (composing and performing his own songs). It would ultimatley lead to a confrontation between Kirschner and The Monkees which would result in the band being allowed to play their own music and an agreement which was struck wherein The Monkees would recieve some control over what was releasead. When Kirschner violated this agreement (releasing the single "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You"/"She Hangs Out" without The Monkees' consent), he was fired.

An argument can be made that Kirschner did hurt The Monkees' career in not allowing them to play their own instruments--they probably would have been taken more seriously had they been allowed to do so. That having been said, Kirschner did help The Monkees' career in recruiting top flight songwriters to compose their songs. Indeed, in the early days the only Monkee whose songs were recorded by the group was Michael Nesmith. Of course, when most people think of "The Monkees sound," they probably think of songs written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart (who were brought onto the project by Monkees producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, not Kirschner). They wrote "The Monkees Theme," their first big hit ("Last Train to Clarksvile"), and four of the 12 songs on their first album (a fifth was co-written by Tommy Boyce with some one other than Bobby Hart). Ultimately, I believe about five of The Monkees' hit singles were composed by Boyce and Hart (I'm not real sure about that number--I'd have to get a hold of a list of their Billboard hits to know for certain). Outside of songs written by The Monkees themselves (namely, Mike Nesmith), I've always thought the best Monkees songs were written by Boyce and Hart. In fact, my favourite Monkees song is "She (which a roommate of mine once described as the world's most depressing song)." "Valleri" also numbers among my favourites as well. Boyce and Hart provided The Monkees with a distinctly American sound, yet one that still drew on the guitar work and harmonies of the British Invasion. In some respects, their work could be argued to be an early prototype for Power Pop. Boyce and Hart did have a career of their own, recording their own albums and singles. They even guest starred on both I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. Sadly, they would produce only one hit of their own, "I Wonder What She's Doing Tonite."

As to the other composers who wrote for The Monkees, they were among the best in business. The writing team of Carole King and Gerry Goffin, responisble for such hits as "The Locomotion" and "Chains," contributed many songs to The Monkees, even after the group gained control of their own recording careers. They wrote "Pleasant Valley Sunday (which went to #7 on the Billboard charts in 1967)," "Star Collector," and they also contributed "Porpoise Song" to the movie Head. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were another experienced song writing team who produced hits for The Monkees. Together they'd produced such classics as "I Love How You Love Me" and "Walking in the Rain." For The Monkees they wrote "Words" and "Love is Only Sleeping," among other songs. The Monkees also gave a boost to young songwriters early in their career. Neil Diamond wrote some of his first hits for The Monkees. He wrote their biggest hit, "I'm a Believer" as well as the songs "A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You" and "Look Out Here Comes Tomorrow." Harry Nillson's first big success came when The Monkees recorded "Cuddly Toy."

Of course, eventually The Monkees would write their own songs. And quite frankly, in my humble opinion, their songs measure up to those of the established song writers. Indeed, I honestly believe that Mike Nesmith, the only Monkee who composed any songs for their earliest recordings, wrote the best Monkees songs besides Boyce and Hart. Indeed, a list of Nesmith's Monkees songs would include "Sweet Young Thing," "The Kind of Girl I Could Love," "Tapioca Tundra," and "Circle Sky." The other Monkees did not write as much as Mike, but they did make their own contributions. Among my favourite Monkees songs number "Randy Scouse Git" by Micky Dolenz, "For Pete's Sake," co-written by Peter Tork, and "Can You Dig It (from the movie Head)" also written by Peter Tork. I must point out that when The Monkees got control of their own recording career, their music became bolder. They started handling subjects beyond love songs. Mike Nesmith's song "Daily Nightly" was written about the Sunset Strip riots of 1966. "Zor and Zam," written by Bill and John Chadwick, was a protest against war. The Monkees were also not afraid to experiment musically. The first use of a Moog syntesizer on a commercial pop album were on the songs "Daily Nightly" and "Star Collector" from the album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd.

Sadly, following the cancellation of the TV show, The Monkees' popularity as a band declined sharply. It is hard to say why this was. Perhaps the TV show, as low rated as it was, played a bigger role in promoting The Monkees' music than one would have thought. It could be that with the show cancelled, many of their fans simply thought that The Monkees had broken up. That the TV show may have had a major role in their musical success could be indicated by the fact that their last album to do well on the charts was The Birds, The Bees, and The Monkees, released in April while the show was still on the air. Eventually, The Monkees would slowly disband. Peter Tork left the group in April 1969. Later that same year Mike Nesmith would do the same. Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz recorded one last album, Changes, released in May 1970.

At any rate, like the TV show, the music of The Monkees would not be forgotten. They would make various comebacks and hold various reunions. Their songs would continue to be played on the radio. Run DMC covered the Mike Nesmith song "Mary, Mary," while Smash Mouth remade "I'm a Believer." Regardless of what rock crtics thought at the time (what many rock critics still think...), regardless of the fact that their musical career in the Sixties evaporated with the show's cancellation, The Monkees' music has been remembered. I have a feeling it won't soon be forgotten.

1 comment:

Pauline said...

Hard to believe 40 years have gone by already.

Here's hoping for just one more reunion!!