The Monkees are often mentioned as a manufactured band – made for TV. It’s true, ads were placed and the aim was to make an imaginary band, an American version of something that channelled the spirit of Beatlemania.
The band members would eventually go on to show their enormous musical talent – in some cases with The Monkees, in other cases away from the band too. Mike Nesmith made a couple of albums that were antecedents to the alt-country movement, and pioneering country-rock records in their own right.
I first heard The Monkees in the way they were meant – as part of the TV show of the same name. A second (or third) wave of re-runs, part of the late-1980s’ fixation with recycling the music, and occasionally fashions, from the 1960s.
The story was always told, as if to stop them in their tracks, this was a fake band. A manufactured group. They couldn’t play, they didn’t write, they were made for TV. It wasn’t quite like that. That was the starting point.
Frustrated with only a small say in what they played and how they recorded it the members of The Monkees took control of the name and the sound of the band away from the show – and invented some of the best music of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Psychedelic pop and folk-rock and even when they weren’t writing the hits they had incredible success with some amazing songs. They had the best writers handing them tunes: Harry Nilsson, Neil Diamond, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, David Gates, Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. But in and around the gems from the pens of these great writers, Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and particularly Michael Nesmith started to prove themselves as writers.
More than that they had the acting chops to help sell the performances. They created, in 1968 one of the great countercultural milestones with the movie Head. Well, actually the actor Jack Nicholson co-wrote the film with the movie’s director Bob Rafelson. But its enduring head-scratch, acid-trip-as-film appeal comes from the appeal and performances of The Monkees, from the weirdness of the concept and from the strength of the movie’s soundtrack, at the time just another new Monkees album. (But then, more than just another new Monkees album…)
I loved the TV show as a kid. It was silly-fun. And quickly became appointment viewing. But it was the songs that stuck around more than anything that ever happened in the show.
And when the Monkees albums were reissued with extra cuts on deluxe edition CDs, and the Britpop players and the best of America’s 1990s power-pop band-leading songwriters stepped out to praise the cleverness, the intricacy and great pop hooks of the songs by The Monkees it felt like the ultimate validation.
This was not just a TV band.
The best of the music by The Monkees still moves me. So much of it hangs there still ripe for discovery.
This might be the best ever “comeback” album. More than just a reunion record – but also entirely that. It features a few songs from the 1960s, including a demo-vocal by the late Davy Jones. Including a demo vocal by the late Harry Nilsson for that matter.
Mike Nesmith has re-joined Peter Tork and Mickey Dolenz (Tork and Dolenz have sporadically toured as The Monkees, tossing out greatest hits sets on a nostalgia circuit).
The new album features some fine writing – and singing – by the remaining Monkees. But it also features songs by original Monkees writers (Nilsson and Neil Diamond) and songs written by that next generation of pop tunesmiths. Noel Gallagher and Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Paul Weller and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie), Andy Partridge and the album’s co-producer and super-fan, Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne).
And you can listen to the whole album right here.
I’ve also included a playlist of some of the old Monkees hits and album highlights. There’s so much more than what I’ve included here, of course. But it’s a good-enough memory-jogger of the joyful pop and odd, weird moments of delight too.