The Monkees often get sidelined as an amusing footnote in the world of pop music, a “Pre-fab Four” that was hastily thrown together in the mid-’60s for a U.S. version of Beatlemania. But the four Monkees transcended their pre-fab status to become an actual band, and the transition is unlike any other in pop-music history.
The four were drawn together by an audition for a Beatles-esque show, which was inspired by the success of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night. The four young men who were cast consisted of two actors and two musicians. Davy Jones had witnessed Beatlemania firsthand: As the Artful Dodger on Broadway, he had the dubious distinction of opening up for The Beatles during their 1964 Ed Sullivan appearance. Micky Dolenz had starred as a child actor on a TV series called Circus Boy. Guitarist Peter Tork was encouraged by his friend Stephen Stills to try out for the band after he auditioned, but didn’t get cast, while country-folk artist Mike Nesmith was the only one of the four cast who had answered the original ad:
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.
From the TV show’s very beginning, the band was unlike any other on the pop circuit. For one thing, The Monkees (made up of four strangers with immediate chemistry) had a national platform that other bands (including their soon-to-be-friends like Chip Douglas from The Turtles) could only dream of: Their songs quickly became hits after being performed on the show. They had a love-hate relationship with the series’ music supervisor Don Kirshner, who set them up with the greatest pop songwriters of the day like Neil Diamond, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, and the duo of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Hired to play the part of a struggling rock band, the four players soon desired to create their own music for real.
While the level of how much each of the individual Monkees contributed to the music varied (with parts often filled in by studio musicians), their vocals were always front and center, leading to one key element of the band: They had three exemplary, disparate lead vocalists. Davy Jones, pegged as the show’s first heartthrob, brought a teen-idol sensibility to his English-accented vocals, straight out of the teeny bopper cannon. Micky Dolenz was possibly the series’ true find, a winning rock vocalist with tremendous reach and empathy. Mike Nesmith, who wrote more songs than any other Monkee, refined his country-rock sensibilities with the band, later penning hits like “Different Drum” for Linda Ronstadt. But even he was capable of crafting a trippy cut like “Daily Nightly,” which introduced the Moog synthesizer to the rock music canon. Even better, these three voices somehow brought out the best in each other: Micky Dolenz’s strong backup against a twangy Nesmith vocal on “You Just May Be The One,” or Jones clearly having a blast in the chorus as Dolenz does a decent James Brown impression on “No Time.”
But there was an interesting transition for the fictional band that eventually became real (Micky Dolenz often comments that it was like Leonard Nimoy actually becoming a Vulcan, or Pinocchio turning into a real, live boy). The Monkees, fueled by the success of TV show they were starring in, kicked off with two No. 1 records, under Kirshner’s supervision. But the actual musicians in the group, Nesmith and Tork, were frustrated by the bubblegum sound. When Kirshner released the second album More Of The Monkees without the band’s knowledge or approval, The Monkees protested, resulting in Kirshner getting kicked out, despite the group’s considerable musical success.
After the orchestrated fabrication of the first two albums, for their third release, Headquarters, The Monkees were determined to make a real record. They wrote all but two tracks on the album, and played the instruments themselves, even though it meant dozens of takes, where the studio musicians who had played on their earlier albums had only needed a few. The resulting album was not as successful commercially (although it still hit No. 1), but much more successful musically and artistically. It displayed a band that was experimenting in the studio: Nesmith was embracing his country-rock roots, while other members were finally writing their own songs (Dolenz’s “Randy Scouse Git” and Tork’s “For Pete’s Sake,” which became the closing song for The Monkees’ second season).
After the exhausting efforts related to Headquarters (while still shooting a TV series), The Monkees went back to using more session players and other songwriters on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, resulting in their best-ever record. Carole King and Gerry Goffin returned to pen “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” which, like Chip Douglas’ “The Door Into Summer,” pleaded with listeners to leave the rat race and embrace the real world, a popular sentiment in the year of The Summer Of Love. Boyce and Hart contributed “Words,” while Nesmith got his usual few songs in. It was a hippie mosaic with an undeniable pop sensibility. Pisces, Aquarius became The Monkees’ fourth No. 1 album in a single calendar year.
After the TV series ended in 1968, various band members trailed off (Tork was the first to depart), and later efforts only offered an occasional stellar cut (like “Porpoise Song” from the Head soundtrack). After a slew of reruns garnered renewed interest in the group years later, various reunion tours followed, which brought the group a 1986 single with the appropriately titled “That Was Then, This Is Now,” as well as the 1996 album Justus.
Davy Jones died in 2012, but the three remaining Monkees are now on a 50th reunion tour. To mark the anniversary, music producer Adam Schlesinger (Fountains Of Wayne) helped pull together a bunch of Monkees fans, like Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Paul Weller (The Jam), Noel Gallagher (Oasis), Andy Partridge (XTC), and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie) to pen songs for a new album, Good Times! The result is the best (and only) Monkees album in decades, written by fans who still appreciate what the band brought to the music world in the ’60s: a pop sensibility that quickly segued into country-rock and psychedelia.
There are easily hours of great Monkees music. But we’ve streamlined our 60 minutes here into cuts you may not be that familiar with, but show that The Monkees brought a lot more to the music world than “I’m A Believer.” And just released a new album that is better than anyone could have hoped for, 50 years later.
This Headquarters outtake was reportedly the first song in which The Monkees played all their own instruments, although licensing issues meant that it didn’t get released until 1987. It features a menacing vocal by Dolenz, despairing against a fashion- and status-minded love interest, a frequent theme (“(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone,” “I Don’t Think You Know Me At All”). Some drippy guitar is laid over some melodious group vocals and a toylike keyboard: Then notice how Nesmith kicks strongly into the backing vocal, building to a straight-on pop onslaught.
Neil Diamond not only wrote the Monkees’ biggest-ever hit, “I’m A Believer,” but a few other tracks that brought out the best in Davy Jones’ dreamy vocals. “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” lightly explores some relationship in-fighting, featuring the pop-era Monkees’ favorite percussion methods of tambourines and handclaps.
An outtake from Headquarters, this quick acoustic version shows the best of what Mike Nesmith brought to the Monkees’ table: a quick, sad song apology, with some pretty acoustic work, and a twang that would make the song equally at home in Nashville or Hollywood. No idea what he means by the “stone legal” line, however.
The funky beginning of this song will have you thinking that you turned on a Beastie Boys record instead of a Monkees track. Micky Dolenz then sunnily steers the song into a positive pop jaunt that would have fit right into one of the band’s Kellogg commercials.
Davy Jones finally gets a chance to go psychedelic in this Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. cut. The band is obviously enjoying playing with Micky Dolenz’s new Moog synthesizer, which spices up a typical (but hooky) cut about groupies, penned by Goffin-King. Giving Jones a break from lovelorn ballads, the song lets him show his versatility and just have fun with it, until the Moog goes nuts again and Dolenz starts chanting for some reason.
Surprisingly, Peter Tork was the first Monkee to buy out his contract after the TV show died but the band did not. So for awhile, The Monkees’ albums only had Dolenz, Jones, and Nesmith on the cover. “Listen To the Band” is one of the last great songs from the band’s original era, kind of a more marching band version of “Sgt. Pepper’s,” complete with fakeout ending. Then the horns kick in to sway the listener to the song’s titular plea. Nesmith liked the cut so much he re-did it when he formed his post-Monkees outfit, The First National Band.
The Monkees’ best song was penned by Carole King and Gerry Goffin as a knock on lame suburbia (“Rows of houses that are all the same”) in “status symbol land.” The best way to take this kind of conformity on is with a killer guitar riff and Micky Dolenz’s anguished vocals. Everyone gets a chance to stand up in this song, as Davy Jones’ Broadway “da-da-da-da”s are juxtaposed against Dolenz’s inspired wails. Dolenz was never stronger than when he screams the song’s title at the end, showing just what a superior vocalist he was.
To kick off Headquarters in spectacular fashion, “You Told Me” begins with all The Monkees counting off with mismatched “one-two-three-four”s, to prove that they were, in fact, actually in the studio. Mike Nesmith may have penned this song especially just for Peter Tork’s expert banjo-playing, which jauntily steers the song forward, backed by Jones’ sturdy hand percussion. As happened so often, Dolenz’s backing vocals added an otherworldly quality, just as that banjo takes off.
Another Neil Diamond song as translated by Davy Jones, this torn-between-two-lovers song really kicks in at the chorus. When Jones laments, “I see all kinds of sorrow,” he’s showing what a powerful vocalist he really is, with or without his accent, and the Dolenz backups just make the chorus that much more dominating. This version has a few quirky asides by Peter Tork, having fun in the studio.
The tracks on new album Good Times! are heart-warmingly great, written by seasoned songwriters in homage to a long-beloved band. Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher teamed up with Nesmith to write this spectacular bipolar track, firmly rooted in Nesmith‘s country sensibilities, with a psychedelic pop layer by Dolenz on top. “Hipster” is a perfect trippy epilogue for the band that went from “Last Train To Clarksville” to Head.
Mike Nesmith wrote this song after the Sunset Strip Riots, which had cracked down on a bunch of young people breaking curfew. Aided by the fact that Micky Dolenz had just purchased a Moog synthesizer (one of the very first to do so), the song left Nesmith’s usual country landscape to launch into something much more psychedelic. Dolenz was a much better translator for a track that reads as poetry more than anything else (no chorus, just verses), while the love-bead wearing Monkees appeared to be ditching their old pop sensibilities far behind them.
The song was most famous with a poppy version with Dolenz’s vocals. But Nesmith wrote it, and the world got to hear his twangier version in an extended Headquarters release. Peter Tork makes a flub at the end of the organ solo, but it just adds to the more sincere version of this song, about a guy who can’t take a chance because his “fingers are still burning from the last time.” The overlapping Tork and Dolenz backing vocals make this track sound much fuller than the single version.
Monkees fan Ben Gibbard wrote this tune for the new album Good Times!, and finally accomplishes what seems like a no-brainer: melding Nesmith and Dolenz’s vocals into a combined lead. The lovely result, a Spanish-flavored ballad, makes it seem as if no time at all has passed since the two first sang together.
The B-side to “Daydream Believer” was an unbelievable showcase for Micky Dolenz as a vocalist. He wisely and confidently builds the tension, as his scatting vocal speed never lessens, but his circumstances just get progressively more dire, alluding to an intentional near-drowning in a river. Throughout, Dolenz holds his own against a horn section of sax and trumpets like James Brown himself. The song saw a brief resurgence after its use in a 2012 Breaking Bad episode.
The Monkees had a minor hit with this sweet Harry Nilsson song, a perfect fit for Davy Jones’ candy-coated vocals. Dolenz and Nilsson stayed friends until Nilsson’s death, no doubt drawn together due to their love of partying. Dolenz told Behind The Music that “Harry Nilsson would call me and ask me if I wanted to go out to lunch. I’d wake up three days later in a massage parlor in Phoenix.”
One of the loveliest of the Goffin-King collaborations, Micky Dolenz’s sincerity sells what could be a too-sweet concoction of a man suddenly realizing he’s in love. One of the earliest instances of Dolenz embracing the emotionality of his vocals, with lines like, “It could be done so easily / Now you know.” King’s own version of her vocals over the backing track proves what a hidden gem this song is.
Another short, piercing cut by Nesmith, from Headquarters. This is an almost-joint lead with Dolenz, as an ode to a girl who runs some sort of drug lab, or perhaps just to the drug itself. An unlikely subject for such a cheerful country trek (even though “She can make it slow while making your mind move fast” seems pretty clear), but the bizarre juxtaposition makes its two minutes irrepressible.
Micky Dolenz loved to tell people about all the pop-culture references he sprinkled into this song: “the four kings of EMI” were The Beatles, there are many allusions to his future wife, etc. The result is a fun, psychedelic creation that careens from a lyrical description of a scenester party, to a rant making fun of the people who were ranting against him (“Why don’t you cut your hair / Why don’t you live up there”), to an out-and-out scat like only he could do. He underlines the message throughout with imposing timpani percussion that seems like a call to battle.
One of two of his own songs Mike Nesmith was able to get onto The Monkees’ first album (co-written with Goffin and King), the undeniably catchy “Sweet Young Thing” doesn’t even hit the two-minute mark, but makes an unforgettable impact nonetheless. Dolenz’s overlay of the song title just adds to the song’s jam feel, complete with angry fiddle, and guitar session work by Glen Campbell.
The video for this song is notable, as it features the lineup that made the most sense, according to the players’ particular musical strengths. Davy Jones was actually the best percussionist, but the show producers thought he would get lost behind the drum set, so that job usually went to Micky Dolenz. Peter Tork was a more accomplished guitar player than Mike Nesmith was. Dolenz was the most obvious frontman. It made for a perfect lineup for this song, another angry rant, laced with a flute solo, wind-chime percussion, and backward guitar.
The Monkees’ movie Head kicks off with Dolenz jumping off a bridge to his apparent death, a dark beginning for fans who loved them as a sunny pop group. Fortunately, that moment is scored by Head’s absolute high point. Yes, it’s basically a song about conversing with a porpoise. But as Dolenz’s verses get dreamily psychedelic, while Jones loftily chimes in on the chorus, “The porpoise is laughing goodbye, goodbye,” the song becomes a silky, sad finale.