Episode 21: Bruce Walker / The Monkees
Scot and Jeff talk to Bruce Walker about The Monkees.
Introducing the Band
Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) with guest Bruce Walker, policy advisor for the Heartland Institute, contributor to The Federalist and host of the Acton Institute’s “Upstream” pop-culture podcast. Follow Bruce on Twitter at @BruceEdWalker.
Bruce’s Musical Pick: The Monkees
Here the gang comes, walking down the street, getting the funniest looks from everyone they meet as this week they discuss the Monkees. Long dismissed as a “fake band,” the Monkees underwent a critical renaissance in the late ’80s and early ’90s as a new generation of fans discovered the ’60s TV show that spawned them and the older generation of listeners who had once dismissed them returned to their music shorn the cultural preconception that once burdened them and discovered just how consistently great it was.
Bruce was there from the beginning, listening to them as a kid in the late ’60s, while Jeff and Scot (who are roughly the same age) remember them from their late ’80s revival era. All are pretty emphatic that this was a pretty great band, and are entirely uninterested in questions of “authenticity” that mean even less in the modern era than they did back in the ’60s, despite noting that the band had managed to wrestle complete creative control away from their creators after a mere year into their career.
The Prefab Four: The Monkees and More Of The Monkees
Between late 1966 and 1967, the one band that owned the U.S. charts wasn’t the Beatles or the Stones, it was The Monkees, who spent a whopping 36 weeks at #1 in Billboard between October of 1966 and December of 1967. The band started, obviously, with the TV show of the same name introducing the four guys: Mickey Dolenz (vocals, “drums”), Davy Jones (vocals, “percussion”), Peter Tork (vocals, “bass”) and Mike Nesmith (vocals, “guitar”). The scare-quotes are intentional, but not entirely accurate: Dolenz couldn’t play drums and Jones’ instrumental contributions were little more than the occasional shake of a tambourine, but Tork and Nesmith were actual musicians and Nesmith in particular had been playing (and pioneering) country-rock on the local Los Angeles scene for years before he got cast in the show. The stubbornly independent streak of the latter two would soon assert itself, but for these two records they were primarily singers, and aside from Nesmith (who as a songwriter got to record his own numbers) they were performing songs written for them by professional songwriters.
But so what? These are great albums. The gang rolls its eyes at schlock like “I Wanna Be Free” or “Gonna Buy Me A Dog,” sure, but you’d have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy “Last Train To Clarksville” or “Take A Giant Step,” or the assured proto-country-rock of Nesmith’s “Sweet Young Thing” and “Papa Gene’s Blues.” And More Of The Monkees (an album, as Scot points out, that the band didn’t even know was being released until they saw it on store shelves) is even better. “I’m A Believer” is arguably the best song Neil Diamond ever wrote (Bruce and Jeff want you to check out the Robert Wyatt cover version!), but that’s only the loss-leader; “Sometime In The Morning” is a lovely ballad, “She” and “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” are incredibly catchy could-have-been singles, Nesmith’s “The Kind Of Girl I Could Love” again signals his country allegiances, and “Steppin’ Stone” is so punkish that it didn’t sound out of place being covered by the Sex Pistols.
Masters of Their Own Destiny: Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones
After the release of More Of The Monkees behind the band’s back, Tork and especially Nesmith put their foot down and demanded more artistic input into the music. To make a long story short (recounted by Jeff on the podcast) that is exactly what they got on Headquarters (1967): an album the band recorded with complete creative control, writing over half the songs and playing every single instrument themselves. A lot of Monkees fans consider this to be their best record, and while the gang doesn’t quite agree, they think it’s a great record nonetheless. Nesmith in particular is unleashed during these sessions, with four songs (“You Told Me,” “You Just May Be The One,” “Sunny Girlfriend,” and the B-side “The Girl I Knew Somewhere”) that rank among the Monkees’ finest. Tork gets his first songwriting credit and in doing so manages to come up with what would become the TV show’s end credits theme in “For Pete’s Sake.” And Mickey Dolenz, who had literally never written a song before in his life, ends up writing the album’s sole hit single, the ridiculous “Randy Scouse Git,” which Jeff observes sounds exactly like the sort of thing a non-songwriter would have come up with, and is all the more interesting for it.
As good as (and as important a declaration of independence) Headquarters was, the gang agrees that it’s not a patch on the remarkable Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. (1967), which the gang agrees should be regarded as one of the classic albums of the Sixties. Scot laments that people don’t recognize this record as one of the greats of its era, citing to Nesmith’s drug-pusher ode “Salesman” and intense psychedelic hysteria of “Words.” Bruce, Scot and Jeff all align on Nesmith’s “What Am I Doin’ Hangin’ ‘Round?” as one of the best songs of the Monkees’ entire career and one of the truly great founding tracks of the entire country-rock genre. Jeff amuses himself by pointing out to people how pivotal the Monkees were, via Nesmith, in laying the groundwork for country-rock that other bands like the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers later took credit for. But he’s got bigger fish to fry on Pisces, raving about Nesmith’s other amazing contributions to the record, namely the pastel sci-fi of “The Door Into Summer” and the heavy rock workout of “Love Is Only Sleeping.” And with all of that said, there’s still “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (one of the band’s finest singles), and “Goin’ Down” (their best B-side and a favorite of Scot’s). Buy this album.
Drifting Apart: The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees and Head
The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees (1968) was the first Monkees album released after the cancellation of their show, and (not coincidentally) the first one not to reach #1 on the Billboard charts. But that wasn’t the only reason for its lesser commercial performance: the gang agrees that this is an unusually fractured and unfocused record, the sound of the group splintering and going their separate ways, recording their own material with their own chosen musicians in separate studios. Nesmith’s four songs on The Birds sound almost like their own discrete EP that got trapped within a larger LP: each one showcases a different compositional style ranging from avant-garde psychedelia (“Writing Wrongs”) to yodeling 78RPM country-folk (“Magnolia Simms”), and all are fine songs…but it’s hard to see how they fit in amongst the almost uniformly unbearable harpsichord slop of Davy Jones’ contributions. (The sole exception: the hit single “Daydream Believer,” which tellingly was actually an outtake from the Pisces and is the only time Tork even appears on the record.) Dolenz’s work is more of a mixed bag, but the Grace Slick imitation of “Zor And Zam” and the bouncy “I’ll Be Back Up On My Feet” are both great, and “Valleri” was one of the band’s last hit singles.
The Birds should have marked obvious beginning of the Monkees’ decline phase, and it would have were it not for the singular Head (1968), the soundtrack to the Jack Nicholson-written/Bob Rafelson-directed Monkees movie of the same name. Jeff takes this time to make a serious pitch for the film Head as a bizarro landmark of counterculture cinema and a key signpost on the way to Easy Rider (which is not really a stretch given the people who made it), but he also praises the album as nearly The Monkees’ best despite the fact that it contains only six actual songs glued together by sound collaged excerpts from the film assembled by Jack Nicholson. The music on this record is, quite simply, among the best The Monkees ever recorded. (In the case of “As We Go Along,” it is among the best recorded by any band during the 1960s, period.) But the manner in which this music and sound is all assembled into a 29-minute-long record, with all of its cleverly self-aware juxtapositions and recursions, turns it into one of the more weirdly compelling (and inexplicably thought-provoking) cultural artifacts of the immediate post-hippie era. Compiled at the precise moment when the liminal innocence of the Summer Of Love was curdling over into the dark cynicism of the “1968 generation,” Head is that least expected and least comprehensible of things: a genuinely profound cultural statement from The Monkees, of all people.
Denouement: Instant Replay, Present, Changes and the Reunion Albums
The final two years of the Monkees’ original career feel mostly like a footnote to the musical bounty of the previous three. Tork leaves the group after Head, and the three-piece band delivers 1969’s Instant Replay, which barely troubles the lower reaches of the charts. Of interest, however, is the magnificent Nesmith-sung “I Won’t Be The Same Without Her” (an outtake from the sessions for the 1966 debut album, tellingly), and the have-to-hear-it-to-believe-it collaboration between Davy Jones and Neil Young (yes, that Neil Young), “You And I.” By the time The Monkees Present rolled around in late 1969, the Monkees’ record label had ceased really caring about the group, which freed Mike Nesmith to indulge in all of his country-rock desires. That led to at least one clear success: “Listen To The Band,” the last truly great song of the band’s career. The less said about 1970’s Changes, a pure contractual obligation, the better.
In subsequent years there have been several reunions, both partial and complete, of the band. The one the gang is most interested in singling out as (almost shockingly, after all these years) a legitimately fantastic album is 2016’s Good Times!. This is no mere cash-in, but a collection of remarkable songs brought to the band by everyone from Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller to XTC’s Andy Partridge and Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo. People: it will shock you how great a record this is.
Bruce, Scot and Jeff each name their two key albums and five key songs by The Monkees.