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!


THE MONKEES

(June 5, 2014; THE FOX THEATRE, Saint Louis, MO)

The Monkees Fox Theatre ad

Any band that was a significant part of your youth is one that you tend to make allowances for, years later, if they continue to make music. The memories you associate with their songs, the deep familiarity of their music and personas, means you are predisposed to love their show and surrender to the excitement as you did all those years ago. Such is the case for me with the Monkees, a band second only to the Beatles in their pervasive impact on my life in the mid to late ’60s. The first riff I ever played on a guitar was that of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.” The album PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED was on constant rotation in 1967 in my circles. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was no less than an anthem. And my favorite Monkees song of all, a Mike Nesmith tune called “Tapioca Tundra,” could very well serve as the soundtrack for my childhood, those peak carefree days of fun TV shows (THE MONKEES among them), innocent crushes, bicycle rides and, always, neighborhood games with my pals. A whole slew of memories are conjured by the spectacle of seeing the Monkees live in concert, and for this tour, with the previously MIA Mike Nesmith leading the charge, things were bound to be interesting. And they were, definitely.

The Monkees, 1966 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith) (publicity photo)

The Monkees, 1966 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith) (publicity photo)

This isn’t the space to discuss the many reasons why Nesmith came aboard only after the band’s heartthrob, Davy Jones, passed away unexpectedly in 2012. It can certainly be said that Nesmith was always a champion for the Monkees’ musicianship and control over their legacy, and perhaps he felt both needed to be reasserted and “freshened up” after the Vegas-style theatricality of several previous Monkees tours that were certainly Jones-centric. Having seen at least half a dozen previous Monkees shows, I can say with confidence that the goofing around and animated stage patter the band is known for was dramatically lessened at their Fox show, relegated to continuous clips from their TV show that screened both during and between their performances. Sometimes these clips were hysterical, sometimes they were monotonous, but they reminded you of where these four guys came from and what they were called upon to do, at least from 1966 until their disastrous (commercially speaking) movie, HEAD, ended one phase of their career. Nesmith, with thinning hair and wearing a dapper white jacket over a Sun Records t-shirt, was a quietly commanding presence at this show. He didn’t say that much, nor did the expression on his face change much, but he was authoritative and he meant business, musically speaking.

The Monkees, 2014 (Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

The Monkees, 2014 (Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

After a slightly tame “Last Train to Clarksville” got things under way (Micky Dolenz sings that one), Nesmith took the mic for quite a handful of tunes: “Papa Gene’s Blues” (an early country-ish outing; Nes was a pioneer of what came to be known as country rock), “The Kind of Girl I Could Love,” “Sweet Young Thing,” “You Told Me,” “Sunny Girlfriend” and more. Fans hadn’t gotten to hear these songs performed live, for the most part; with Davy’s stuff out, with rare exceptions, the set could be reconfigured to accommodate Nesmith’s many fine compositions. If Nes didn’t move much on stage, however, the same can’t be said of the amazing Mister Dolenz, dressed sharp in gray hat and suit, and always ready for his closeup. Dolenz is acknowledged as the finest singer in the band, and he is a consummate entertainer, involving the audience, shimmying from one side of the stage to the next, and belting out classics like “I’m a Believer,” “She” and the utterly peerless “Goin’ Down” with dedication and real joy. He’s clearly happy to be doing this, all these years later, and he always hits those high notes, sometimes to shivery effect. On “Shades of Gray,” a tender ballad where Dolenz shares the vocal duties with Peter Tork, he wryly grabbed a tuft of Peter Tork’s hair as the “shades of gray” chorus came up for the third time; not everyone saw this, but it was a more subtle brand of goofiness than what we’ve seen before.

The Monkees, circa 2013 (Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork) (ncredited photo)

The Monkees, circa 2013 (Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

And speaking of Tork, fans were NOT cheated out of seeing him in the spotlight; there was “Your Auntie Grizelda” (a weird song, even now), “For Pete’s Sake” (which featured Tork introducing the song with a speech about how badly the group wanted to make and play on their own records in the ’60s; Tork declared that the band “were guilty only of NOT being the Beatles, also true of 6 billion other people”), and a rousing “Can You Dig It,” among others. Hits such as “I’m A Believer” and “ …Steppin’ Stone” naturally thrilled the audience, but in terms of musical ecstasy, it was the tunes from HEAD that delivered the biggest impact. “The Porpoise Song” was transcendent, preceded by clips from the infamous film, then easing into a thrilling Dolenz vocal and all the psychedelic layering a fan could reasonably expect. What Monkees fan doesn’t get a shiver from that “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye” refrain? Even better was “As We Go Along,” a truly beautiful song featuring clips of band members wandering through serene landscapes and Dolenz nailing the vocal to the wall in a perfect sonic picture frame. Fun fact: this tune in its recorded version is one of four the Monkees recorded with a young Neil Young adding guitar to the sessions. “Circle Sky” was a chance for Nesmith to rock out more than usual, but I thought he was even better on “The Door Into Summer” and the classic “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round”. The band wanted a big, well-adorned sound for this show: on “Mary, Mary,” four pairs of shakers were utilized by the added musicians on the tour (an ensemble that included Micky’s sister Coco and Nesmith’s son Christian). Female harmonies insured a properly lush vocal sound when needed, and though Mickey played drums fairly often, most of the percussive duties fell to a second drummer that was added.

The Monkees (Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork with the late Davy Jones on screen behind) (photo credit: JEFF DALY/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The Monkees (Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork with the late Davy Jones on screen behind) (photo credit: JEFF DALY/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Some other highlights included a vibrant “Randy Scouse Git,” the Jones gem “Daydream Believer,” in which, touchingly, all three remaining Monkees took a verse (encouraging the audience to belt out the chorus), and a poignant clip of Jones effectively punctuated the tune, and the closing encore of “Listen to the Band” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” I was disappointed that “Tapioca Tundra,” while played, seemed to get short shrift in the arrangement department; it sounded tossed off here and lost the eerie melancholy of the original. Some of the vocals here and there were also hard to understand (Tork didn’t always intone his lyrics clearly), and the sound was almost subdued at times. It wouldn’t have killed the band to turn things up here and there and just madly rock. But professional? Yes indeed. Musically diverse? Check. Generous with serving up both hits and deep album cuts? You betcha. There’s no doubt that Mike Nesmith added a whole new dimension to this version of the Monkees onstage, and he’s a crucial balance to the madcap antics that sometimes went overboard in the past. There’s also no doubt that Micky Dolenz is an amazing singer and the real focal point of this band. He just IS. A real BAND was on stage at the Fox Theatre, playing and singing their hearts out, and offering more classics than most bands have in their entire repertoire. How amazing that the Monkees can still surprise after all these years. They’re the old generation. And they got something to say!