Where would I be without the Monkees?
Quite possibly dead.
Throughout my life, the Monkees have been a source of comfort and laughter even in the darkest of moments. I cringe at the racist and sexist plot points, but there is an anarchy in the humour I appreciate, and the music remains absolutely perfect fifty years later. I’ve been watching them a lot over the last nine months (broken heart= eternal Monkees binge). A typical depressive episode involves Curly Wurlys, Cherry Coke, and my Nesmith fix. The increasingly absurd second season is far better than the Emmy winning first season, save the Paris episode. The music got better two, with many of the band’s best songs coming in 1967.
Yes, they were manufactured. So were the Sex Pistols. Yes, they didn’t play on all of their records. Neither did the Beach Boys. The Wrecking Crew existed for a reason, everyone. Hell, so did the Funk Brothers. These metrics are idiotic. We frequently hail artists who neither write their own songs nor play the instruments on their records. Stop being snobs. The pure joy of the band’s music should be enough. And they brought me more joy than most.
10. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones Ltd. (1967)
Pulling directly from the Brill Building, the Monkees often had the best songwriters on hand to produce pop confections of the highest quality. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, two of the best Screen Gems had in their back pocket. Ostensibly about unfettered consumerism (or as Nesmith once said, a mental institution), the song’s cheerful melody belies a cynical underbelly. Top it off with a fantastic Dolenz vocal, and you have a pretty perfect pop song.
9. “Me & Magdelena” Good Times! (2016)
Celebrating their fiftieth in 2016, the band’s acolytes (including Adam Schlesinger and Rivers Cuomo- and even the elusive Andy Partridge from XTC) helped pen classic-sounding Monkees songs that didn’t sound creepy or deluded. The best song on the album is the country-tinged ballad “Me & Magdelena”, written by my eternal musical nemesis Ben Gibbard from Death Cab. Dolenz supplies gorgeous harmonies to Nesmith’s weary vocals, in a love song of tender beauty. Acting your age reaps huge benefits, everyone.
8. “Porpoise Song” Head (1968)
It’s a Goffin-King song that sounds nothing like a typical Goffin-King song. It’s so lovely. It’s also so unexpected. Dolenz’s distorted vocal, the porpoise squeaks in the mix, the gentle melody all make this the perfect song to curl up and contemplate life. So much so that’s precisely what Don Draper did when “Porpoise Song” was used as a music cue on Mad Men. Residing on the Head soundtrack, it never seems to quite breakout of its cult classic label, much like the film. It needs to be heard more, in my opinion.
7. “Take A Giant Step” The Monkees (1966)
Another Goffin-King composition, its sweet bubblegum psychedelia still feels fresh fifty years on. Another fantastic Dolenz lead vocal complements the music, and the lyrics about living in the moment are both very late sixties and very now. The B side for “Last Train to Clarksville”, the song remains a beloved lesser known track (it only appears twice in the series, very early on).
6. “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Around?” Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones Ltd. (1967)
I love the country influence Nesmith brought to much of the music he wrote and sang. Written by Michael Martin Murphey (the man responsible for killing of a horse with a killing frost- a.k.a. “Wildfire”) and Owen Castlemen, Nesmith’s twang is buoyed by the band’s playing (and it was the band) plus some expert banjo work by Doug Dillard. Nesmith would take country rock to the next level with the First National Band in his post-Monkees days. It nice to see some of that here.
5. “Daily Nightly” Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones Ltd. (1967)
Nesmith wrote this comment on the Sunset Strip Curfew Riots. Dolenz brought his Moog synth along, adding a trippy space vibe to Nesmith’s unusual song. The song consists of a narrative, but no chorus and no bridge. The band always got flack for being manufactured, but it took a member of the band to write this unique psychedelic track, and another band memeber to purchase a Moog and use it on record before any other rock band did.
4. “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)”More of the Monkees (1967)
Neil Diamond started out writing tracks for Colgems, and “I’m A Believer” is the one that may stand the test of time. But “Look Out” is in my opinion a better song overall. It has the feel of a Diamond track- it’s got his typical non-chorus choruses and the guitar line is all him. It’s one of the more depressing lyrics in the world of the Monkees, as Davy can’t choose between two girls. Poor Davy. So cute. So British.
3. “Randy Scouse Git”Headquarters (1967)
Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith once went to a party hosted by the Beatles while in London. This song tells of the experience. An early example of a poppy soft verse and an atonal loud chorus, later the go to move for bands like the Pixies and Nirvana, Dolenz and the band have some clear fun making as much of a mess as possible. The feeling extends to the music video for the song. Even though it is the typical Monkees clip from the TV show, there is a chaotic feeling as a result of the camera angles and the zooms employed.
2. “Listen to the Band” The Monkees Present (1969)
The Monkees get a lot of negative reaction from so-called music fans who deride the fact the band was prefab and didn’t play on their albums. Those people are assholes who deserve condemnation. The band didn’t play on every song, we all know that. They didn’t write every song, either. None of this is shocking news to anyone who is a fan. Turns out that the Wrecking Crew was Brian Wilson’s go to band while the rest of the Beach Boys did whatever they did elsewhere. The Monkees did play sometimes- Headquaters is pretty much all them with an assist or two. And Nesmith in particular fought hard for the right to include their songwriting. “Listen To the Band” is one of his finest songs bar none, but it also has the lesson we all should learn. Listen to the band, they might surprise you.
Below, the extended version from 33 1/3 Revolutions, the last thing the four did before Peter quit. If you thought Head was weird…
1. “Daydream Believer” The Birds, the Bees, and the Monkees (1968)
I don’t do happiness. Any attempt I have done to achieve happiness in my life has backfired spectacularly. But there is always music around that makes me think I can at least fake happy for three-minute blocks of time. “Daydream Believer”, written by former Kingston Trio member John Stewart, it’s a slice of cheery wonder. It’s one of my all time favourite songs, and my love for it never waivers.
Also, my middle name is Jean, so I always felt like I was the sleepy Jean in the chorus.
I do know how to fake happy. Even if it’s not happy I feel in the end, the sense of calm it brings is sometimes enough. I might not be with the love of my life, and I most certainly never will be, but at least when I hear Davy and the guys play this song, I have a moment in which I think that there is wonderful love and joy in this world. It’s not real, but maybe, just maybe.
Further ten: “I’m A Believer”; “Goin’ Down”; “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”; “Words”; “Star Collector”; “You Just May Be the One”; “Sweet Young Thing”; “Mary Mary”; “The Door into Summer”; “Early Morning Blues and Greens”