Hey Hey, They’re Still The Monkees
Even after 50 years and the loss of Davy Jones, the band is winning us over
On Sept. 8, 1965, the following advertisement appeared in both The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety: "Madness!! Auditions. Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running Parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21. Want spirited Ben Frank's types. Have courage to work. Must come down for interview."
The series and the band became The Monkees, of course, and the so-called "Pre-Fab Four" became one of the most popular musical groups of all time. Though their image was squeaky clean, their status as musicians was controversial. Could you even call this “manufactured” band a band since they didn't even record the music played on their TV show and early albums? Or should they be judged for what they later proved: that they were gifted musicians who deserved their enormous fame. At their peak in 1967, they outsold The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined.
These questions are still the subject of debate in music circles. But I say it's time to put all that behind us. The truth is The Monkees have stood the test of time.
Fifty years after their debut, the band has just released a new album, Good Times! to favorable reviews. And the album is pure Monkees — clean, lively, innocent, fun, singable and endearing. Two of the original members ,Mickey Dolenz and Peter Tork, have embarked on 50-city nationwide tour that’s selling out venues from coast-to-coast. Bandmate Mike Nesmith joined them on the Good Times! album but not on the tour; vocalist/percussionist Davy Jones died in 2012.
The band (which counts the likes of John Lennon, Brian Wilson, Glen Campbell, Kurt Cobain, U2 and REM among its admirers) tapped more modern chart-toppers including Weezer, XTC, Death Cab for Cutie, Oasis, The Jam and Fountains of Wayne to write songs for Good Times!
So why the detractors? Blame it on Hollywood.
Scrambling frantically to take advantage of the burgeoning youth culture brought on by The Beatles and television, producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider decided to hand pick and assemble a made-for-TV rock band composed of those “spirited Ben Frank’s-types” who hung out at a popular Sunset Strip restaurant “where the mods mused over burgers and fries,” according to the book, Monkee Business. In that book, Rafelson said the line, “Must come down for interview” was “a sly reference to being high.”
Soon after the auditions, Jones, Nesmith, Tork and Dolenz were introduced as The Monkees. Due in part to the amount of time required to film the television series, the four actor-musicians were allowed only limited roles in the recording studio, meaning studio musicians played much of their music. Purists cried foul, and it didn’t help when Jones told Newsweek "This isn't a rock 'n' roll group. This is an act.”
Eventually, The Monkees fought for, and earned, the right to collectively supervise all musical output under the band's name. And even though their TV sitcom was canceled in 1968, the band continued to record music through 1971. Those songs remain ageless — a joy to the ears. Here’s a selection of vintage Monkees’ tunes to brighten your day:
The Girl I Knew Somewhere
The is the first self-contained Monkees song. Written by Nesmith, the group played all the instruments and performed all the vocals. There’s an especially good riff by Tork on harpsichord.
Written by Monkees’ stalwarts Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Valleri was originally recorded in 1966 and included in The Monkees TV show in 1967. But it wasn’t officially released until 1968 after The Monkees took control of their artistic process and started producing their own music. They re-recorded the song with an added brass section.
A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You
This upbeat tune, written by Neil Diamond and featuring Jones’ debut on lead vocals, reached the top of the Cashbox charts and No. 2 on Billboard. Supposedly, the song was recorded without input from any of The Monkees except for Jones, which inflamed the conflict between the band and record label personnel over artistic control of the group's music, prompting the firing of music executive Don Kirshner.
I’m a Believer
Another Diamond-composed hit for the band, I’m a Believer features Dolenz on lead vocals. The song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966, remaining there for seven weeks and was the bestselling record of 1967.
(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone
Paul Revere and The Raiders first recorded this Monkees hit, yet another great tune written and produced by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. In fact, it’s actually the B-side for The Monkees' biggest hit single, I'm a Believe , but became a hit in its own right, peaking at No. 20 on the pop charts.
Pleasant Valley Sunday
The legendary songwriting team of Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote Pleasant Valley Sunday, a piece of social commentary about status symbols and suburbia. The inspiration for the name of the song was a street named Pleasant Valley Way in West Orange, N.J. Pleasant Valley Sunday featured musical input from the entire group and landed at No. 3 on the pop singles chart.
The B-side of the mega-hit Pleasant Valley Sunday, Words deserves its own praise. Written by Boyce and Hart, the song is a unique change of pace for the band — a dark breakup song featuring wind chimes, poignant vocals (by Tork) and an alternating rock edge.
A sweet piano introduction, created by Tork, makes this hit song instantly recognizable for fans of the band. Composed by John Stewart shortly before he left The Kingston Trio, Daydream Believer would be the group’s final No. 1 pop hit and the signature tune for Jones on lead. It was featured on their 1968 album, The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees.
Love to Love
This song appears on the new album Good Times! But it’s a 1960s track written by Diamond and sung byJones, with just a touch of the old Zombies-style psychedelic sound.
Last Train to Clarksville
The debut single by The Monkees, written and produced by Boyce and Hart, premiered on their TV show in September 1966. It has a special meaning for me and other Vietnam vets because the lyrics tell of a man phoning the woman he loves, urging her to meet him at a train station in Clarksville (near an U. S. Army base) before he must leave and may not return from the war. The lyrics “and I don’t know if I’m ever coming home” are seared into many a veteran’s memory.