Monday, 27 July 2009

The MONKEES: More Of The Monkees

(#48: 13 May 1967, 1 week; 27 May 1967, 1 week)

Track listing: She/When Love Comes Knockin’ (At Your Door)/Mary, Mary/Hold On Girl/Your Auntie Grizelda/(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone/Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)/The Kind Of Girl I Could Love/The Day We Fall In Love/Sometime In The Morning/Laugh/I’m A Believer

Around this time the first, and only, single by the Soft Machine, “Love Makes Sweet Music,” was around, a song which the Monkees at their best could have recorded and which I’m sure they would love to have recorded (although the heavier sonic picture, bottomed out by Kevin Ayers’ diagonally descending bass, is perhaps more in keeping with the early work of the Guess Who). Not only was it fitting that Robert Wyatt’s next venture into 45 rpm pop some seven years later was a re-reading of “I’m A Believer,” but I was also put in mind of his characteristic “mouth music” vocal improvising while listening to the middle section of the Monkees’ own “Your Auntie Grizelda.” This was Peter Tork’s first major recorded contribution to the group’s work, as lead vocalist, and Tork probably gave the song the treatment it deserved; written as a derivé of the Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown” with (hopefully) deliberately ludicrous lyrics (“I know she’s having a fit! I know she doesn’t like me a bit!”) and a liberal spread of whole tones in its melodic topline, Tork literally chews up the song and spits it out anew. Over the long instrumental break he begins to scat, mimic, raspberry, bleat, and the effect is simultaneously disturbing and uplifting, as the rhetorical emphasis of the drummer’s tom toms seems to confirm. I am certain that the younger Wyatt would have heard it and loved it.

The B-side to “Love Makes Sweet Music” was the extraordinary “Feelin’, Reelin’, Squealin’” with Ayers’ gravedigger vocal holding the song down while all goes untethered around him, including the uncredited guitar of Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix and his Experience were booked to support the Monkees on tour in the States in the spring of 1967 but it was a disaster, and it is probable that the manufactured outrage of the likes of the Daughters of the Revolution was a convenient trope for Hendrix to get off the tour (in contrast, Hendrix’s British package tour conducted at around the same time, in the unlikely company of Engelbert Humperdinck and the Walker Brothers, seemed to work far more effectively; indeed Hendrix went on record saying how much he learned about stagecraft and handling audiences from watching Humperdinck onstage from the wings). Still, it’s hardly surprising that by the middle of 1967 the Monkees wanted to be more where Hendrix was, at least in terms of credibility (and in the case of Dolenz and Tork wandering around that year’s Monterey Festival, they literally wanted to be where he was). They were apt to conclude their stage act of the time with a purposely “freak out” performance of “Steppin’ Stone” and were therefore naturally impatient with their would-be paymasters who wanted them to stay clean cut, wacky and neutral, or work them into the ground in attempting to do so.

More Of The Monkees is the first album in this tale to be was released against the artists’ express consent; indeed, the group didn’t know that their second album existed until a slightly shamefaced Don Kirshner presented them with copies, complete with its cover shot originally intended for a JC Penney’s advertising campaign. Dolenz and Jones shrugged their shoulders and resigned themselves to the way showbiz went, but Nesmith and Tork spoke out virulently against the record; they had been assured that the second Monkees album would have given them scope and space for their own material, their own voices. The record was effectively disowned by the band since it was mostly taken up with songs supposedly only ever intended for use in their TV series, and mostly recorded against the band’s will.

Side one, however, holds together pretty well in itself. “She” begins with a “Wild Thing”-referencing guitar dive before moving into interestingly-constructed pop, the deadpan steadiness of the organ balanced out by the vigorous tambourine rattling throughout the bridge. Its stop/start motions and its varying angles of vocal intensity – group “HEY!”s answered by Dolenz’s anguished “Yeah?” (“YEAH!”) and downhill ski ride of “SHEEEEEEE…..” – are reminiscent of Them’s “Here Comes The Night” as filtered through the Arthur Lee of Da Capo (again, writers Boyce and Hart were keen to reference Love and the Doors, as well as the Leaves – who also covered “Hey Joe” – as aesthetic markers; they were almost as anxious to be hip as the Monkees themselves). Set against that, Neil Sedaka and Carole Bayer’s “When Love Comes Knockin’” is efficient but unspectacular Brill pop although it does at least locate Davy Jones in his real, relatively undemanding element.

Nesmith’s “Mary, Mary,” however, is still a knockout; immediate exposure to its breakbeat – one of the finest uses of the tambourine in all of pop – signals how right Run-DMC were to acknowledge it, in their 1988 reading, as a forebear of hip hop. Unlike many of the album’s tracks, which literally required the group to do nothing more than put down a vocal or guitar line on top of a backing track pre-recorded in New York and bussed into Hollywood with firm instructions to do it as Carole King or whoever did it on their demo, everyone here sounds committed, even happy. “Hold On Girl” is necessarily a lesser piece, but still notable in terms of the album’s increasingly strange deployment of Davy’s vocal leads; here we have a harpsichord streaking downhill and Jones’ bizarre tiptoe croon of “Help is on its way” accompanied by dramatic pauses, moments of minimalism, and then sudden onsets of Latin percussion and handclaps.

After the aforementioned “Auntie Grizelda,” we reach “Steppin’ Stone” – a song deemed, largely thanks to the fact that the song was one of the first the Sex Pistols ever learned to play, the Monkees’ “punk” record and still a snarlingly startling pre-emptive declaration of independence. Its steely-scissored organ drive probably owes more to the Seeds than the Doors – and both melody line and rhythm are in considerably greater debt to “Liar, Liar” by the Castaways – but as a pop record it remains spectacular, Dolenz providing one of his most ardently scything vocal performances as he growls and hisses about fashion magazines and public scenes. “No girl, not ME!” he yells, before whooping (again, proto-Iggy style) “WHOA!” as the band race into the uptempo dodgem-dodging section of the song.

So how could Nesmith dismiss an album which by the end of its first side can be argued to have presaged punk, hip hop and Robert Wyatt’s End Of An Ear as “the worst album in the history of the world”? Even given the circumstances of its creation, some evidence for this is audible on side two. Neil Diamond’s “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” is a fine side opener and continues the writer’s early stylistic trend of gospel-type song structures sometimes pressed into modest lyrical irony. “Oh, how I wish tomorrow would never coooooome!” sighs Davy in mock-ecstasy as he rides the tough chorus, and then cymbals, handclaps and organ combine to increase the arrangement’s intensity with the arrival of the second chorus, before ducking down again to allow Jones’ spoken whisper of “I love you…darling!” (N.B.: the bonus tracks on the CD edition of this album include a far superior alternate take complete with hilarious spoken commentary by Tork over the instrumental breaks. Also featured is a prototype, Tork-sung version of “I’ll Spend My Life With You,” later to appear on Headquarters, which is quite, quite beautiful, Peter taking the band right back to Greenwich Village) Nesmith’s “The Kind Of Girl I Could Love” refines the Latin/country fusion set out in “Papa Gene’s Blues,” the simmering fury of massed percussion and hissed cymbals supported by a furiously insistent tom tom beat (perhaps slightly influenced by, or influencing, the work of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich – though it’s hard not to think of what a living Buddy Holly might have been doing in early 1967 - and certainly with more than a tinge of “Love Is Strange” in its structure) and some guttural guitar work from James Burton and Glen Campbell.

“The Day We Fall In Love,” a spoken word and string section feature for Davy, however, is simply creepy. Intended by Kirshner to be “I Wanna Be Free ’67,” the track almost entirely lacks the gormless innocence of its predecessor and its staginess is rather embarrassing, even though Jones does get slightly endearing on lines like “Whether roses are blooming, or snowmen stand by” and there’s a moment of genuine stillness when a lead violin hiss seeps into the cavity of silence caused by Jones’ “Time will stop”; the overall effect is not one of poignancy, but similar to that of Peter Wyngarde’s “The Way I Cry Over You”; in other words, one wants to walk very carefully and quietly away from it, one stealthy step at a time, before vanishing from the speaker’s view and running like blazes, and the Monkees themselves appear to have been of a similar opinion. “Sometime In The Morning” is a flaccid, under par Goffin/King midtempo number – another of those ‘phoned-in backing tracks - with a markedly bored-sounding Dolenz vocal; it aspires to the airborne harmonic adventures of the Association but remains firmly grounded.

But “Laugh” was the straw that broke many backs. Written by four anonymous hacks, doubtless all graduates of the Mitch Miller Academy of Yellowing Bouncing Ball Wholesomeness and noticeably absent from Kirshner’s otherwise gushing sleevenote, this song provides an unwelcome antecedent to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and one can hear the hapless Monkees grinding their teeth trying to keep their countenance throughout this thankless shit. “It’s based on the beat. Ain’t that neat?” is as visionary as the lyric gets, and soon the band are reduced to “Ho, ha ha ha!” mirthless backing vocals as Davy manfully negotiates the locker of “When you can’t find your shoes to cover your feet” and has to utter the verb “chuckle,” the latter answered not only by the band’s “ha ha ha!”s but by the most sardonic floor tom roll to be heard this side of Levon Helm. After this, even the normally imperturbable Dolenz and Jones had had enough, and soon Kirshner and other Screen Gems yeasayers were shown the door; Kirshner retaliated by inventing a group that wouldn’t talk back or get uppity, namely the Archies.

“I’m A Believer” was used to flesh out and conclude the album and it is impossible for this writer to be objective about its power and friendly persuasion; I will content myself here by saying that for someone who always considered himself an actor first and musician second, Dolenz is one of the great sixties singers; on “Believer” he sounds renewed, confirmed, reborn, euphoric, and all of the record’s irreducible elements – the steamship calliope organ, Dolenz’s “Ohhhh!”s and “AaaaaaaAAAHH!”s, his dazed disbelief at the rediscovery of life, the rhythm’s easy swing, the subtle “Wipeout” quote in the central instrumental break, the kissing curls of that guitar figure, the released ecstasy of that final, crucial vocal octave leap – point to the kind of 1967 that its generation wanted.

But finally its generation wanted more than the Monkees. They finally gained control – of a sort – and gratifyingly saw the apocalyptic “Randy Scouse Git (Alternate Title),” the first Monkees single to be entirely written and performed by the band themselves, become their second biggest UK hit. Of their subsequent albums, Headquarters (#2 through July/August 1967) and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn And Jones (#5 through February/March 1968) are both superb and nearly faultless. Then their actual creators – Rafelson and Schneider; remember them? – got bored and decided to kill them off with the help of Jack Nicholson; Head, as both movie and soundtrack album, is neither a deathless classic nor an unmitigated disaster – nothing including “Porpoise Song” could ever be thought of as the latter – but the producers’ self-imposed drift would continue into the likes of Five Easy Pieces and The King Of Marvin Gardens. As for the Monkees, they slowly disintegrated and wandered off to invent MTV or Metal Mickey, breed racehorses or return to the folk club circuit; but grown-up nostalgia demanded a partial reunion in 1980 with the surprisingly effective and timely Pool It! comeback album. Since then they have intermittently come together for old times, sometimes with Nesmith but usually without, but unlike the Beatles or the Experience they have all survived, intact, as individuals. And, by virtue of their TV show, they managed to get Tim Buckley on peak-time television for one of the few times in his entire life. How could their sweetest music not be loved?