The Original (And Still Best) Princes of Pop

When I was ten or eleven years old and just discovering the Beatles, my attention was briefly diverted by the syndicated exploits of another group of boys with long hair and catchy songs. The Monkees was in repeats on one of the local stations and I enjoyed what I heard enough to look through my brother’s record collection to see if he had anything. This collection included the LPs that had been owned by all three of my brothers, and was large enough to encompass a lot of stuff I’d never heard. And there it was: The Monkees’ first, eponymous LP. I put it on, and loved it.

Not long after that, I went to my brother who had first turned me on to the original Fab Four. I asked him about The Monkees.

“The Monkees are the second worst band in the world,” he replied.

“Who’s the worst band in the world?” I asked.

“The Grateful Dead.”

My brother was half-right. The Grateful Dead were the worst band in the world and their stench still emanates from jam bands everywhere, but nearly fifty years later the music of the Monkees stands up with the best pop of the 1960s.

I get it. The Monkees were the Pre-Fab Four, a collection of actors who responded to a casting call and then were thrust together and told to act like a band. Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones could sing, but couldn’t play anything. Mike Nesmith fancied himself a musician and had a collection of songs to back him up. Peter Tork was an itinerant folkie who could play a little. As musicians go, they were lacking in almost all areas.

But here’s the thing: the songs they were given to record were extraordinarily good pop songs. Forget the dumb TV theme. “Last Train To Clarksville”, “Saturday’s Child”, “I Wanna Be Free”, “Sweet Young Thing” and “Take A Giant Step” graced the first album by the group. All of them are near-perfect slices of pop music. Add in Nesmith’s original “Papa Gene’s Blues” and you’re suddenly looking at an album that has stood the test of time far better than a lot of their more “serious” competitors. It may sound superficial and light compared to Blonde on Blonde or Revolver but it holds up as well or better than albums by The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Mamas And The Papas, both of whom were riding high in 1966 and are now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Go ahead. Listen to the first Monkees album and then listen to Daydream or If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears and tell me which album you enjoyed the most. And More of The Monkees, Headquarters, and especially Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd are even better.

The simple fact is that the Monkees were blessed. Their impressario, Don Kirschner, may have been a pompous buffoon and an insufferable gasbag in a lot of ways, but he understood that “I’m A Believer” was a smash hit single when Mike Nesmith was convinced it was a lousy song that would never be a hit. The group had people picking songs by some of the best pop songwriters of the time: Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and Neil Diamond among others. They also were lucky to have a gifted songwriter in their own ranks. Mike Nesmith was a country boy at heart, but had an instinct for blending country and pop that served him well. In fact, months before the Monkees appeared on TV screens and radios, none other than the truly heavyweight Paul Butterfield Blues Band recorded Nesmith’s “Mary Mary” on their landmark East-West album. A few years later The Stone Poneys, featuring a very young Linda Ronstadt on vocals, had a huge, well-deserved hit with “Different Drum” a song Nesmith had written before the Monkees. (Funnily enough, in an early episode of the TV show Nesmith pretended to be a bad folk singer and strummed his way through a sped up version of “Different Drum”.) Today Nesmith is considered one of the pioneers of country rock and is also thought by many to be the father of modern music videos due to his work setting up the fledgling MTV.

The group’s blessings continued with the people who really did play the instruments. Most of their music was provided by L.A.’s famous “Wrecking Crew”, a group of studio musicians who were considered the best in the business. In 1968, post-Buffalo Springfield and pre-legend Neil Young played on some tracks.

But the greatest blessing the Monkees had was that their main singers, Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones are two of the most listenable singers of their, or any other, era. Dolenz’s crystal clear tenor and Jones’s Manchester-by-way-of-Broadway tones were so easy on the ears that you can listen to them for hours and not grow tired of their voices. Jones is often considered the “lead” singer because in the show Dolenz was sitting awkwardly behind a drum kit he couldn’t play, but really the voice of the group is Mickey’s. Davy Jones had several fantastic songs that he voiced, but was also given every saccharine sweet “romantic” ballad they did. This left Dolenz with the lion’s share of the classic pop hits.

The backlash against the Monkees started when Mike Nesmith told the press that they didn’t play their own instruments. In fact, with the exceptions of Nesmith and Tork, they couldn’t play their instruments. It was an age where “credibility” was considered very important among the hip crowd. The growing numbers of rock fans disdained the Monkees for their artificiality (likely the reason my brother hated them way back when). Nobody from the “In Crowd” would admit to liking the pseudo-band that was built especially for pre-teen girls to swoon over.

But the Monkees did have some highly placed fans. The Beatles loved them. John Lennon said they were “the new Marx Brothers” and Dolenz and Nesmith were both invited to hang out with the Beatles on various occasions. Nesmith even makes a cameo in the video for “A Day In The Life”; he was an invited guest to the studio when the Beatles recorded (and filmed) the orchestral surge. This puts Nesmith in the company of not only the Beatles but also Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Donovan. Peter Tork introduced Buffalo Springfield on stage at the Monterey Pop Festival at the request of his friend Stephen Stills. It must be remembered that the four Monkees were still young men of their time. They may have been actors and itinerant musicians but they had more in common with their peers at the Love-In than they did with the screaming girls in their audience. They bristled at being told what to do and began to believe in their own myth: that they were a band. This led to some remarkably good music and some delightfully subversive moments. One doesn’t usually think of the Monkees as being subversive, but examples abound.

The Monkees

Do these guys really look that clean cut?

  • They selected The Jimi Hendrix Experience to be the opening act on their first tour (Hendrix was pulled quickly)
  • In one episode, Peter is setting up a row of dominoes, standing them on end. “What’s that game called?” asks Mickey. “Southeast Asia,” replies Tork as the dominoes fall.
  • The song “Last Train to Clarksville” is about a soldier going off to Viet Nam. “I don’t know if I’m ever coming home,” he tells his girl.
  • Mickey’s song “Randy Scouse Git” tells the true story of a druggy party with groupies and the Beatles (“the four kings of EMI”). The title also translates to “Horny Liverpudlian Idiot”. Both “Star Collector” and “Cuddly Toy” are about groupies (the former featuring one of the first ever uses of a Moog synthesizer on a pop/rock song. The first was “Daily Nightly” by…the Monkees).
  • The second-to-last episode of the show features a hilarious appearance by Frank Zappa, destroying a car while the song “Mother People” plays and Nesmith acts as a conductor.
  • The last episode, directed by Dolenz, shows Tim Buckley singing an acoustic version of “Song To The Siren” while sitting on the hood of the car Zappa destroyed. The episode, called “The Frodis Caper”, is such a blatant advertisement for marijuana that it might as well have been produced by NORML. The word “Frodis” was the group’s slang term for pot, and it appears a few times during the show’s run.
  • The song “Mommy and Daddy” features Dolenz instructing the group’s very young audience to ask their parents questions like “What happened to the Indians?” “Who really killed JFK?”, “Why doesn’t that soldier care who he kills?” and “Would it matter if the bullet went through my head?” before the climax of Dolenz wailing “It’s all a lie.” Considering who their audience was, that one song is more subversive than anything Marilyn Manson ever did.
  • And then…there’s Head.

The one movie the Monkees did, Head, was a psychedelic mashup of scenes, skits, bits, and some of the best songs the band ever did. The title refers both to oral sex and marijuana. It begins with the group committing suicide and gets progressively stranger from there. It’s a terrible movie. It’s so bad it makes Magical Mystery Tour look like Citizen Kane. Okay, maybe not that bad.

The music, on the other hand, is fantastic.

Nesmith’s brutal “Circle Sky” (performed live by the band) is as heavy as anything coming out of San Francisco in 1968. “As We Go Along”, sung beautifully by Dolenz, may be the best ballad they ever did. Best of all is “Porpoise Song”, the seemingly nonsensical lyrics actually telling the audience that the band was leaving their image behind them. Written by Carole King and played over the opening scene as the Monkees jump off a bridge, the lyrics are a coded suicide note and tell the story of the band and why they’re doing what they’re doing. They are nothing but “a face, a voice”, but “an overdub has no choice/And it cannot rejoice”. The old Monkees are gone. “Riding the backs of giraffes for a laugh is all right for awhile” but now they’re free to pursue their own agenda.

The problem with believing your own myth is that it’s a fatal flaw. It turns out they had no agenda. After Head and with the TV show over, the band splintered. Tork left first, leaving the rest to carry on as a trio. Then Nesmith left and suddenly the Monkees were just Dolenz and Jones. But there was nothing there. A few good songs pop up from this era when the band was fracturing, but there was nothing approaching the quality of their first five LPs and the songs they did for Head. They ended with a whimper; a last-gasp television special as a trio was the lowest-rated TV show in history (and it’s worse than Head).

They tour occasionally now, minus Jones who died of a heart attack in 2012. I met Jones once in the mid-90s at my local pub after he’d played a show nearby. He was gracious and very nice, a true class act. But even without the warm blanket of nostalgia, those songs they did in their prime are as rock solid today as they were in the sixties. Now that the issues of “credibility” are behind them (and people know that other famous bands, notably the Mamas and Papas and even, to a degree, the Beach Boys didn’t play their own instruments either), all that’s left is the music in the grooves. And that music is overwhelmingly good, largely great, and sometimes stone cold brilliant. As a teenager and in my twenties I considered the Monkees a guilty pleasure. Now they’re just a pleasure. They may not have been a real band until the very end, but the Monkees were a truly great group.