Who They Are: A quartet of singer-actors originally brought together by television producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, with music supervised by producer Don Kirschner, and supported by the songwriting team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Micky Dolenz and Davey Jones were both child actors in their pre-Monkees days, while Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith emerged from the folk/rock singer-songwriter world, developing their acting chops in front of the camera. Their television show, appropriately named The Monkees, was a huge hit during its original run from 1966 to 1968, living on as a syndicated favorite for decades thereafter. The group’s recordings were even more successful, with their first four albums topping the American charts, and scoring nearly as highly in Canada, the United Kingdom and elsewhere; their fifth album approached those levels of commercial success without quite reaching them, followed by a long, slow decline through the group’s original run, which ended in 1971, after Tork and Nesmith had already fled the group. The Monkees were ostensibly assembled to offer an American alternative to The Beatles (also film and radio stars, with recognizably quirky on-screen personalities and talents), leading them to be unfortunately and unfairly dubbed “The Pre-Fab Four,” with a strong media backlash about their alleged shortcomings for not penning and playing all of the instruments on their (many) hit songs. But that’s a bogus critical position, especially in those times. Can’t abide performers who don’t write their own songs? Okay, then Elvis Presley, Linda Ronstadt, and Frank Sinatra are verboten. And can’t handle groups whose studio recordings were fleshed out with session player support, usually from the acclaimed Wrecking Crew team? Well, then The Beach Boys, The Righteous Brothers, The Mamas and the Papas, Simon and Garkunkel, and The Byrds should all fall under the lens of your opprobrium. The Monkees were talented, engaging performers, at bottom line, producing an extraordinary body of work, under the rules and rubrics for record-making that were normal at and in their time. While they spent the better part of two decades in something of a cultural doghouse, saner minds infused with warm nostalgia eventually prevailed, and various combinations of the quartet began touring and recording together in the ’90s, a practice that continues to this day, even after the deaths of Jones and Tork. As it turns out, the first (post?)-COVID-era concert that I’ll be seeing will be Nesmith and Dolenz together in Phoenix next month, and Micky’s recent album Dolenz Sings Nesmith (arranged and produced by Mike’s son, Christian Nesmith) is easily among 2021’s finest records to date.
When I First Heard Them: As a child of the ’60s, I would have first been exposed to them via their wonderfully a-kilter and akimbo television show, and their hit singles were mostly ubiquitous and unmissable on radio in the years after their release. Marcia and I had the chance to see Mike Nesmith with his latest incarnation of the highly-influential country-rock First National Band (now featuring Christian as on-stage band leader) while we lived in Chicago, and it was an utterly wonderful show, filled with Mike’s delightful songs, arranged sweetly and strongly within the twangy modern musical paradigm that owes a deep debt of gratitude to Mike’s albums from the 1970s. I can’t wait to see what he and Micky do together next month in Phoenix, and I regret not having had the chance to see them with Peter and Davey.
Why I Love Them: The Monkees made and make, together or apart, beautiful pop music, gorgeously arranged, finely sung, with ear-worm melodies that most artists would kill to have a chance to record and release. Despite their “pre-fab” origins, they worked hard over the years to establish themselves as a legitimately creative collective that made great music on their own terms, and I believe they achieved that goal. Yes, as a general rule, I do tend to like it when artists sing their own songs (which they did, sometimes, with Nesmith as a particularly strong songwriter), but I also deeply appreciate the role of the world’s “song stylists,” who can take words and melodies crafted by others, and make them transcendent. The Monkees have often been damned in critical circles for not living up to standards set by The Beatles, but (a) who the hell else lives up to those standards, and (b) it’s important to note that The Beatles loved The Monkees, with John Lennon declaring his American counterparts to be “the greatest comedy team since the Marx Brothers.” Which is fine and deserved praise, as the group were as good on screen as they were on record, creating a collective persona that’s been enduring and endearing for over half-a-century now. How many other acts can claim such acclaim and fame for so long? A: Not many. (Note: Since the visual aspects of the group’s heyday were such an important part of the full experience, I’ve used television or film clips in my links below, when available, instead of just posting the straight studio recordings).
#10. “I Believe You,” from Justus (1996)
#9. “Randy Scouse Git,” from Headquarters (1967)
#8. “Last Train to Clarksville,” from The Monkees (1966)
#7. “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” from Good Times (2016)
#6. “Listen to the Band,” from The Monkees Present (1969)
#5. “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round,” from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones (1967)
#4. “For Pete’s Sake,” from Headquarters (1967)
#3. “Circle Sky,” from Head (1968)
#2. “You Just May Be The One,” from Headquarters (1967)
#1. “Me and Magdalena (Version Two),” from Good Times (2016)