THE MONKEES: GOOD TIMES!

(RHINO RECORDS; 2016)

Monkees-Good-Times

If you had told me last year that the Monkees were not only going to come out with a new album, but that it would be an extremely good one that added a new chapter to their legacy and would feature all four band members, well, I’d have said you were nuts. Davy Jones was deceased, Mike Nesmith had apparently gone into a new phase of ambivalence, and the other two, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, were keeping the group’s popularity high through frequent live shows, but hardly seemed capable of putting anything new together. How, then, did this mini-miracle occur – a fantastic new Monkees record coming out in 2016. If you wanna know who to give the lion’s share of the credit to, well, it’s Adam Schlesinger. Best known as the frontman for Fountains of Wayne and the composer of the titular hit song from the Tom Hanks-directed film THAT THING YOU DO, Schlesinger is a huge Monkees fan, the kind of person who found inspiration and delight in their music and wondered if they could recapture some of that old-time magic again. A kind of “That was THEN, this is NOW” redux. Schlesinger had talks with the three remaining Monkees and suggested putting the call out to today’s indie rockers and closeted Monkees fans for material in the Monkees’ vein. And everyone was excited by the fact that it was the Monkees’ fiftieth anniversary – wouldn’t it be kick-ass to celebrate with a brand-new album?

You bet! Songs began arriving by composers as cool as XTC’s Andy Partridge (“You Bring the Summer”), Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo (“She Makes Me Laugh”) and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (the luminous gem “Me and Magdalena”). Schlesinger himself wrote “Our Own World,” produced the record and plays on ten of the album’s 13 songs. If that isn’t about as auteur-ish as you can get with such a project, well, I don’t know what is! The masterstroke here, and another place where credit should be given, is the honchos at Rhino Records, the Monkees’ label, a couple of guys who love the band and began scouring the vaults for old material that might be worthy for this project. They dug up a Neil Diamond-penned tune from 1967 that had a perfectly fine Davy Jones vocal on it (well done, lads!) and simply needed a bit of overdubbing and engineering work to make it a go, a Goffin/King gem called “Wasn’t Born To Follow” which finds Peter Tork pouring all his energy and enthusiasm into (he says THIS of the song in the liner notes: “What a joy to be singing a Carole King song! This dreamy, Dylan-esque song is a tapestry unto itself.”), and even a Harry Nilsson tune, the title track, which gives Dolenz a chance to “duet” with the songwriting legend. All this, man, and even some originals! An attempt was made to recapture the sound and feeling of the late ’60s – production slickness was avoided at all turns, something that sorely diminished the appeal of two previous attempts by the Monkees to release new material (POOL IT! From 1987 and JUSTUS from 1996). So what you get is an album that almost sounds like it could have been the next project the band really put their “heart and soul” into after their amazing late ’60s run, mixing snappy rockers like “She Makes Me Laugh” with multi-textured psych-rock as represented by “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” (a truly unlikely offering from Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller that is one of the album’s high points) and seamless originals (Tork’s breezy “Little Girl” and Nesmith’s melancholy “I Know What I Know”). You just wouldn’t think the Monkees could’ve come up with something like this. It’s the nicest of surprises for long-time fans.

The Monkees, circa 1967 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

The Monkees, circa 1967 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

I have two quibbles with the album, one that could have been helped and one that maybe couldn’t. The latter is the fact that they could only find one Jones song to include. If they were gonna go that route of making sure Davy’s presence was felt, was there really NOTHING else in the vaults that could’ve been dusted off and messed with a bit? So pleasant is it to hear Jones sing again on “Love To Love” that you kind of LONG for the stronger balance that would’ve existed if he’d been on one more song. That balance issue brings me to my only real criticism, the fact that GOOD TIMES! opens with five songs in a row featuring Dolenz on lead vocals. Now, it’s funny for me to say this, because Micky Dolenz is my favorite Monkee, but I’m puzzled that the first half of the record is sequenced this way. Moving a Nesmith or Tork vocal to an earlier slot would’ve solved this problem – as it is, a kind of repetitiveness sets in that diminishes the listenability of “Our Own World” and “Gotta Give It Time.” That loses half a letter grade in my book, although others may not feel that way. But, from track 6 to track 13, you get pure, unadulterated Monkees bliss, and nary a misstep. “Me and Magdalena” is so beautiful, so haunting, that you can’t believe you are getting this gift of a tune from these guys. Schlesinger plays sweet, lovely piano and Nesmith turns in an intoxicating vocal just about matched by Dolenz as the secondary singer. “Whatever’s Right” sounds like a long-lost Monkees hit, even penned by their old writing mates Boyce and Hart, but no, this is a new tune. I’ve already mentioned my fondness for the Davy Jones contribution. But it’s worth commenting again that “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” is just amazing. It’s the second best song here, with inspired performances, mulitple hooks and another wonderful vocal pairing by Nesmith and Dolenz. This song breathes, shimmers and kicks serious conceptual ass. Peter Tork is another sort of hero on this record… he was often a creative underdog in the past, but both his original, “Little Girl,” and the fetching Goffin/King entry are complete delights. And the ending is perfect, a songwriting collaboration by Dolenz and Schlesinger called “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time)” that could sum up the band’s feelings about their wacky pop culture odyssey. It rocks (a little), it’s got sass (a LOT), and it exudes spontaneity and minimalistic charm. “We are here, and we’re gonna have a good time/Like we did before/Supposedly,” Monkee Micky sings, filled with both the wry knowledge of the band’s storied and often controversial past, and his obvious glee at being here, 50 years later, not only still doing it but making one of the band’s best albums. GOOD TIMES! is just a nice surprise all around, not necessarily a masterpiece but way better than any fan could possibly have predicted. I’m a believer, that’s for sure. Nez, Peter, Micky and um, gosh, Mister Schlesinger? Thank you, and Happy 50th Anniversary!


HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES: HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES

(JOHN VARVATOS RECORDS/REPUBLIC RECORDS/UNIVERSAL MUSIC ENTERPRISES; 2015)

Though I am an avid connoisseur of all things Alice Cooper, as well as a fan of the Joe Perry Project (and the guy’s other, lesser known band, Aerosmith), I have had a falling out with Johnny Depp over the past 13 years or so (I suppose I can forgive him for DARK SHADOWS, but… THE LONE RANGER? No my friend… that is a step too far… a step too far, I say!) As you can imagine, I was trapped betwixt the proverbial rock and an unyielding hard spot. My hard-headedness nearly cost me the chance to hear what turned out to be a really cool record but, thanks to a dear friend and her Christmas spirit, I was soon the proud owner of HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES… on magnificent black vinyl, no less. At first blush, this would appear to be the covers album that the Coop has been touting for the last few years… with a couple of tasty originals bookending the nostalgic trip down Alice’s drunken memory lane; apparently, though, that one’s still in the works. Oh… the record also features a butt-ton of special guests and old friends. Did I forget to mention that?

HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES (Joe Perry, Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp) (publicity photo)

While HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES is essentially a covers record dedicated to Alice’s “dead, drunk friends,” those delectable morsels are indeed bookended by a pair of originals… well, three, actually, with “The Last Vampire” acting as an introduction to the album, as well as to “Raise the Dead.” The short piece features Sir Christopher Lee reciting a vampiric lament from Bram Stoker’s DRACULA over a soundscape created by producer Bob Ezrin and Depp (with a little help from Justin Cortelyou). This may actually be Sir Christopher’s – forever Count Dracula to me – last performance before his death. “Raise the Dead” itself is the kind of song that Alice Cooper (the band) could have come up with. In fact, it’s so good that I’m a bit miffed that Depp had a hand in writing it and plays some pretty good guitar, to boot. One of Alice’s regular guitarists, Tommy Henriksen, also makes an appearance, evoking the memory of Glen Buxton and his psychedelic freak-outs. Current Alice Cooper drummer, Glen Sobel (who I thought was just mailing it in of late, particularly on the RAISE THE DEAD – LIVE FROM WACKEN release), also makes his first (recorded) Vampires appearance and, though he lacks Neal Smith’s percussive finesse, powers the tune along quite nicely. Along with bassist Bruce Witkin (who also gets a co-writing credit), he delivers a magnificently sludgy Zombie-like rhythm bed for the others to play over. Don’t you just love redemption stories? This early into the game, I’m already wondering what a full album of Vampires originals would sound like. So, now, it’s on to the covers. First up is “My Generation,” a song that the Coop has done off-and-on as an encore for a couple of decades with his tongue firmly set in his cheek. This salute to fellow Vampire (the drinking variety) Keith Moon is kind of a stripped down version for this group, with only bass, two guitars (again, Depp and Henriksen) and drums from the Who’s longtime skin basher, Zak Starkey (who I think is related to Paul McCartney or one of those other Beatle-type guys), who adds an extra bit of thunder to the proceedings. Zak sticks around to represent another of Alice’s departed drummer friends, John “Bonzo” Bonham, on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” The intro to the song is absolutely mesmerizing, with Alice’s harmonica and slow burn vocals bolstered by some awesome Kip Winger bass playing and Joe Walsh’s slide guitar before the song kicks in full force. AC/DC’s Brian Johnson joins in on vocals, singing some serious ear-damaging high parts (I initially thought that it may have been Ann Wilson singing) and hot-shot guitarist Orianthi (again from Alice’s band) adds a wicked solo. Holy crap, boys and girls… this one may actually be better than the original!

Walsh sticks around for a rousing version of the Spirit classic, “I Got a Line On You,” as does Winger on bass. Perry Farrell (of Jane’s Addiction fame, for you kids who don’t listen to the “new” music) joins Alice on vocals and longtime session drummer, Abe Laboriel Junior, shows us exactly why Paul McCartney keeps him on his payroll. This is a far better version than the hair metal version that the Coop did for the TOP GUN II soundtrack. Cooper, Depp, Henriksen, Witkin and Laboriel deliver fairly faithful versions of two songs from the Doors, “Five To One” and “Break On Through (To the Other Side),” with Alice channeling Jim Morrison’s Lizard King persona. Charlie Judge makes an appearance as Ray Manzarek while the legendary Robby Krieger (yeah… THAT Robby Krieger) absolutely tears it up on lead guitar. A nearly forgotten member of the original Hollywood Vampires, songwriter par excellence Harry Nilsson, is represented by a pair of his most well-known pieces: “One,” which Three Dog Night rode to the top of the charts (well… number 5, actually) in 1969 and “Jump Into the Fire,” from Harry’s 1971 masterpiece, NILSSON SCHMILSSON. Perry Farrell is back and Krieger continues to shred on the solos. Foo Fighters front-man Dave Grohl joins the festivities on drums… I guess old habits die hard.

HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES (Abe Laboriel Junior, Johnny Depp, Paul McCartney, Brian Johnson, Alice Cooper, Joe Perry) (photo credit: KYLER CLARK/UNIVERSAL MUSIC GROUP)

If you’ve ever wondered what a duet featuring Sir Paul McCartney and Alice Cooper would sound like, wonder no more. Abe Laboriel Junior’s boss lends a few of his many talents to the song that launched Badfinger’s career, “Come and Get It,” playing piano and bass, as well as singing. Joe Perry finally makes an appearance, joining the guitar frenzy alongside Johnny Depp. Alice, Tommy, Glen and Bruce get a bit funky with Marc Bolan on “Jeepster,” from the T Rex album ELECTRIC WARRIOR. Joe and Johnny add some glamorous guitar, as is only fitting. The same group also delivers a very heavy version of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey,” with Perry soloing nicely. The heaviness adds – if you’ll pardon an unintended pun – weight to Lennon’s lyrics. While there may be better Lennon songs for the boys to cover, this is a really cool version of this one. “Manic Depression” sees the return of Joe Walsh and Zak Starkey to the studio. Though Jimi Hendrix was well-known for his guitar histrionics, this tune was more in line with the Rhythm and Blues he loved, with the fiery soloing replaced with a more riff-based sound that allowed Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell a lot of free space to kinda go wild. Here, the Vampires do the same thing, keeping things simple over the top while Witkin’s bass rumbles and Starkey’s drums steamroll through the understated guitar work of Depp, Walsh and Henriksen. While it’s hard to beat the original ARE YOU EXPERIENCED version, this is one of the better cover versions out there.

HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES (Joe Perry, Johnny Depp, Alice Cooper) (photo credit: ROSS HAFLIN)

Alice goes mod with the psychedelic pop of the Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park,” a weird sort of song for this band to try to tackle. But, you know what? They pull it off, with a wink and a nod to the whole “Peace and Love Through Altered States” late ‘60s mentality (and Alice’s – as well as Johnny’s – own well-documented bouts of altered states), especially near the end, when the music is brought to an abrupt, record-scratching end and Alice asks, “Uh… because I’m HIGH?” before the background singers bring us back around to the tune. Musically, Tommy does most of the heavy-lifting on guitar, though Depp proves himself a stand-out guitarist, as well. For quite awhile now, Alice’s solo shows have featured the no-brainer coupling of “School’s Out” with Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In the Wall, Part Two.” The track bristles with electricity, as Brian Johnson returns to hit some high notes to counter balance the Coop’s growl and Slash and Joe Perry join Depp and Henriksen (oh… and Bruce Witkin, too) for some wicked soloing and a little slash-and-burn riffing along the way. And, of course, what better rhythm section to have behind this magnificent mayhem than two-fifths of the original band, Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith? In an album of highlights, this may very well be my favorite, as the basic “School’s Out” groove weaves it way in and out of both songs. “My Dead Drunk Friends” is a tune that Alice has played for a couple of years now. It certainly puts a fitting exclamation point to the first Hollywood Vampires album, with the group pared down to the five songwriters (Cooper, Depp, Henriksen, Witkin and producer Bob Ezrin) and drummer Glen Sobel. The tune is a swinging waltz with a bluesy kinda sway and a Depp (I’m guessing) solo to match. It features a particularly snotty vocal from Alice as he toasts the carnage that drink and drug wrought on the original Vampires. The zombie-fied (or, should that be “zombie-fried?”) chorus and the wind-down fade, with Ezrin’s just slightly off-kilter tack piano, definitely add to the faux drunken feel of the song, highlighting the spirit – if not the reality – of those bygone days of stupefied revelry.

HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES (Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp, Joe Perry onstage) (uncredited photo)

There is a “deluxe version” of HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES out there, with three extra tracks: The Who’s “I’m a Boy” (seems a natural for Alice to sing), “Seven and Seven Is” by Love’s Arthur Lee (a song that Alice recorded back in 1981 for his SPECIAL FORCES album) and an original called “As Bad As I Am.” If, like most of us, you are digitally tuned-in, you can buy this digital album and pick up these tunes as a bonus. While much of the music I receive nowadays is of the digital variety, there is still something very special to me about holding an actual record in my hand and watching as the needle drops on that first track, especially with this release.