Dec 17, 2009, 05:08
The advent and popularity of Bob Dylan as an acoustic avatar and Elvis-like icon for the educated, resulted in the pop scene of the mid 1960s—the fans, musicians, biz types and burgeoning critics and journalists—actually developing a certain aesthetic based on a notion of authenticity and assumed credibility, and reeking of a disposition that rejected the artifice of the so-called straight culture. If you weren't part of the solution, you were part of the problem. And in that black and white world the real Mr. Jones/Mr. Zimmerman screwed so subtly and succinctly with the misconceptions of the dogmatists by adopting the crude and electric instrumentation of that base rock and roll music. What side of the net would you have been on at Forest Hills? Influenced textually and herbally by Bob, the Beatles added Art to their Pop and were freed to follow their own bouncing ball. Dylan and the Fabs had a baby and they called it ROCK.
The back door opened on the teeny bopper Brinks truck. A vacuum in the marketplace was perceived and set on suck. According to the book, Hey Hey We're The Monkees, aspiring film maker Bob Rafelson, was inspired by his travels through Mexico with a folk group and influenced by A Hard Day's Night director Richard Lester's proto-MTV commercial cut-ups. His buddy Bert Schneider, whose father was President of Columbia Pictures, was treasurer at Screen Gems. Very convenient. Together, they figured a TV show about “four insane boys” (from the Variety audition notice) in a pop band, had the potential to attract a lot of viewers and sell a lot of records. They were right. As the show's producers, Rafelson and Schneider hired songwriting duo Tommy Boyce and Richard Hart to create The Monkees' music. Through Columbia Pictures Schneider acquired pop publishing impresario Don Kirshner's Aldon Music and his stable of (relatively) old school Brill Building song slaves. Kirshner was made head of Colgems, the record company essentially established to produce The Monkees' records, and put in charge of supervising them. And four young men were chosen: the aping and ape-like Micky Dolenz, the English and diminutive theater hound Davy Jones, the multi-instrumental Stephen Stills manqu© Peter Tork and finally and perhaps most significantly, the wool hatted Texan Mike Nesmith. A songwriter already signed to the tiny Colpix label (get the picture?) the producers promised him an outlet for his songs. And while the group, especially Tork and Nesmith, bristled under the era's demands for pop star accountability and the critics' skewering of their seemingly falsified multi-platinum music, no one involved in the show turned down a paycheck. And while no one ever denied the fact that it was all based on a fictional TV show, no one could've known that the guys representing the public face of the operation would be mere grist for the show biz mill, lambs to the video slaughter.
Thirty years hence, an entertainment mega-corpse like The Monkees can be reanimated and regenerate power profits from their sometimes pretty, sometimes persnickety pop. But are the actual simian sounds worthy of attention beyond the FAQ fanatics and Goldmine geeks? Is acquisition of Monkees music more than just stock sops to a baby boom market? And why does the now ancient and discredited notion of authenticity remain influential to the point where new generations of open minded music enthusiasts are disinclined to see past a VH1 visual crutch and enjoy the unique, distinct and surprisingly cohesive catalogue of this multi-noggined musical Frankenstein? The answer may be blowin' in winds passed. But if you simply “Listen To The Band” (as Nesmith's song goes) the question may be poot.
During this current and particularly flush decade, Rhino has released a whole slew of Monkees documentation, including videos of the show, the film Head, and their NBC special, and even the aforementioned and impressive coffee table tome of photos and quotable quips and tales. All the official LPs have been issued on CD. Remastered and resequenced by Bob Irwin, they feature rare tracks and alternative takes, original art, additional photos and fascinating liner notes. In addition, Rhino has seen fit to actually expose a live concert from 1967, and two volumes of rarities entitled Missing Links. The folks at Sundazed have done us all the favor of issuing the first five Monkees records on colored vinyl, with all the original artwork, reconfigured liner notes from the Rhino CDs and a smattering of the extra tracks. Again taken from Bob Irwin's expertly remastered tapes, they sport red and white Sundazed labels that mimic the original Colgems sticker. The stuff is good enough to eat! But there are some good reasons to just put 'em on your stereo.
Boyce and Hart's tunes, represented the bulk of the Monkees music on the first two albums. The Monkees and More Of The Monkees reveal a duo capable of creating hits fashioned from teenage tracts full of tension and tease. They utilized classic songwriting in a context of suburban Yardbirds, Stones, Leaves and Love influenced garage punk. Songs were based on key words or phrases (“Words”), choruses were repeated ad-infinitum and served frequently as an opening salvo (“Steppin' Stone,” “Valeri”). And like the best tunesmiths, they knew a good idea to steal when they heard it. “Last Train To Clarksville” with its indelible descending guitar intro, was fundamentally based on “Paperback Writer.” In fact, it was Boyce and Hart's reliance on strikingly catchy guitar hooks and thick organ chords to support the insinuating melodies that elevated their work beyond typical evanescent AM ephemera. “Steppin' Stone” is now a well worn teenybop punk put-down. It's got an insistent punk beat, Steve Cropper-esque wrist-snapping chords and the sneering guitar figure of the chorus; it's followed by the slithering arpeggios and simplified Dylan of the verse, and all topped off with a double time coda straight out of the Standells song book. “Words” also brandishes a spooky verse, dominated by a vaguely Eastern bass line, that gives way to a bridge of yearning and a stomping chorus, with a shouted and desperate vocal over a brilliant ascending chord modulation. In general, the Monkees songs and records for which Boyce and Hart were largely responsible were imaginatively and creatively produced LA fake phoke and somewhat sykedelick. Regardless of a persistent presence on Oldies Radio that might render them insignificant, these tracks warrant a closer listen.
Kirshner's less than stable stable of bucking Brill Building boys and girls contributed some of the Monkees best and most boffo high class hits. Any inclusion of a song on a Monkees album would guarantee a nice chunk of change for the writer, and all were surely quite willing to give their best shot for the buck. For instance, Gerry Goffin and Carole King gave up faves “Sometime In The Morning,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” and “Star Collector.” All fit neatly in the Boyce and Hart canon. “Porpoise Song” from the Head soundtrack is an amazing anomaly, obviously a late period pastiche of psychedelic soup a la Beatles, it stands alone for its bizarre lyrics and winsome melody sweetly sung in a tasteful nasal whisper by Micky, who in fact sang most of the Monkees tunes. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill's “Shades Of Grey,” a fully orchestrated teenybop ballad was simultaneously affecting and maudlin. And their creepy and somewhat sinister “Love Is Only Sleeping,” coasting bumpily on an odd-metered guitar riff, was beautifully crooned by Mike Nesmith. Kirshner also secured Neil Diamond's characteristic tunes “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” and of course, “I'm A Believer.” Plenty of other talented writers, including non-Kirshnerites, had a shot at a record slot. David Gates, Harry Nillson and even the band's Peter Tork, amongst others, all handed in worthy tuneage. Ironically, while Micky and Davy were the most recognized vocalists, their creative contributions were not very good. Peter's songs, on the other hand, while only numbering a few, were quite notable. His contributions to the Head LP, “Can You Dig It” and “Do I Have To Do This All Over Again?” were surprisingly groovy.
However, it was the cracker in the wool hat who was largely to blame for the Monkees chicken fried fuzz twang that is at the heart of their conflicted sound and being. His songs were temperate twists, subtly odd of style and obtuse in plain English, sung in an ambitiously well enunciated drawl. In fact, songs chosen and/or merely sung by Nes always bore his distinct tattoo. His unique arrangements were certainly precursors to country rock, anticipating the advances of Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds and The Grateful Dead by at least a couple of years. And in general his membership in the Texas rock family can easily be perceived in his long cascading melodies, generous use of maracas and cowbells, double strummed Buddy Holly chords and a strong streak of iconoclasm. It's not much of a stretch to place Nesmith beside Mr. Holly, Bobby Fuller, Roky Erickson, ZZ Top, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Butthole Surfers. His best songs reflected all this and more. The jaunty “Papa Gene's Blues” features quick pickin' and a melody of gorgeous green hills and valleys. “Sweet Young Thing” is a vaguely malevolent stomp with shit-kicking barefoot hillbilly bass quarter notes and a maniacal hoe-down fiddle that rivals John Cale's black viola of death. “Kind Of Girl I Could Love” has a rhythm track of textbook Holly/Fuller strum and drum and a lickety split dose of sassy slide. “You Told Me” is based on a rockin' banjo. The majestic “You Just May Be The One” is structured on a stately Ronettes beat, and more twelve string guitar. Nesmith's Kreepy Krawl Kountry rock with its ersatz Nashville groove certainly put a Tex-Mex hex on Hollywood's hep and was indeed a contributor to what was later wrought by such questionable dignitaries as Linda Ronstadt (who had a hit with his “Different Drum,” while in the Stone Poneys) and the Eagles. His contribution may represent The Monkees greatest legacy.
But, Nesmith and the rest of The Monkees were indeed doomed from the start. They gave their one Y chromosome to buy a teenage screamed “AIEEEE” cast off by the Beatles. The literal chosen ones, stranded on the Sunset Strip, neutered in their pocketless slacks. Like brine shrimp with a bone to pick, these monkey-men were sent on a show biz space odyssey. Life was given and not so ironically cut short by a jump start delivered unto them by a synergistic union of the monolithic television and record industries. They were a corporate cartoon canard, but the goose that laid the golden record was cooked. Via customized Pontiac, The Monkees landed on the Plymouth of rock. And it rolled over them. They remain somewhat unacknowledged pop pilgrims. The Monkees' grunts of salty bubblegum rock in a soft place, doesn't really need consideration, it just needs to be heard.
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