Infectious hit singles, a zany TV show, the rise of the manufactured pop group: The Monkees are synonymous with all of these. But albums ranking with the ’60s’ finest? Not so much. The Monkees’ legions of detractors, including Rock Hall of Fame gatekeeper Jann Wenner, would argue this is just.
The band’s 1967 albums Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. argue otherwise. An objective listen reveals both to be troves of some of the era’s most compelling pop, rock, psychedelia, country, and folk—on par with revered opuses like Buffalo Springfield Again and The Notorious Byrd Brothers.
No, that’s not hyperbole. They’re that good. Monkees critics could never get past the group’s test-tube origins and show the albums due respect.
Fortunately, Rhino has. Last year, it reissued the band’s self-titled debut and its sequel. Now, with the rerelease of Headquarters and Pisces, the deluxe treatment is being bestowed on the Monkees LPs that deserve it most. This means two-disc packages replete with a vast array of Headquarters- and Pisces-era bonus tracks, stereo and mono mixes of both albums, and extensive liner notes courtesy of Monkees expert Andrew Sandoval. Also, a vinyl single containing a pair of additional outtakes comes free if the sets are purchased from Rhino’s Web site. Some will cry overkill. But recognition of the albums’ excellence is overdue.
At ’67’s outset, Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones seemingly had it easy. Cast together to “play” the Monkees, they had watched their first two singles and albums top the charts. Two Emmys awaited the first season of their TV show. They were performing before hysterical crowds. And in the recording studio, music supervisor Don Kirshner merely required that the Prefab Four add their vocals to immaculately produced, prerecorded Monkees tracks.
Yet all was not well. The Monkees had grown increasingly frustrated by their exclusion from the recording process in previous months. Nesmith succeeded in wresting a handful of songwriting and production credits on the group’s first two albums, but the ambitious “Monkee with the wool hat” was particularly adamant that his talents weren’t being fully utilized. This resentment took physical form in January 1967, when Nesmith put his fist through a hotel room wall during an argument with Kirshner over his refusal to grant the Monkees more creative control. The battle lines were drawn; Kirshner lost his job the next month.
With him out of the way and former Turtle Chip Douglas on board as producer and de facto bassist, the Monkees were finally free to craft a “group” album. In March, sessions for Headquarters officially commenced.
They should have been disastrous. Nesmith and Tork weren’t virtuosos at their respective instruments of guitar and keyboards, and Jones stuck to percussion. Dolenz’s only prior drumming experience had come via the group’s inaudible live concerts. Intra-band clashes were inevitable given the Monkees’ disparate personalities and musical leanings. But despite these obstacles, Pinocchio came alive, so to speak, and in spectacular fashion.
The group’s lack of instrumental proficiency actually worked in the album’s favor. Headquarters pulsates with a primitive garage fervor, the joyous sound of four eager musicians taking the wheel after months of riding in the backseat. Douglas’ rough-hewn production—emphasizing flubs and goofs while shunning embellishments—captures this perfectly and is a key component of the album’s appeal.
Then there are the songs. While Nesmith’s southern-fried contributions to the Monkees’ first pair of albums are distinctive and enjoyable, the Texan’s three Headquarters efforts are nothing short of stunning. “You Told Me” kicks off proceedings, exploring adult themes of trust and insecurity to heartrending effect. “You Just May Be the One” boasts a harmony-laden middle-eight that’s as thrilling as anything in the band’s catalogue. And “Sunny Girlfriend” hits a remarkably prescient country-rock groove that should have made Gram Parsons jealous.
But Nesmith wasn’t the only Monkee in the middle of the action. A spirited Dolenz vocal and propulsive drive make Tork’s “For Pete’s Sake” a true highlight, in spite of the track’s hippy-dippy lyrical sentiment. Dolenz’s first and best Monkees composition, “Randy Scouse Git”, closes the album with an onslaught of frenzied choruses and menacing tympani. Douglas even pitched in with “Forget That Girl”, a wistful pop nugget given a tender reading by Jones.
Though Kirshner had been ousted, the Monkees retained access to his formidable stable of tunesmiths. This allowed the group to supplement its in-house Headquarters compositions with the terrific, folk-tinged likes of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart’s “I’ll Spend My Life With You”. Some of the other selections don’t scale these same heights, but all are pleasant enough and one with the album’s do-it-yourself aesthetic.
Headquarters’ release in May 1967 did little to change the widespread perception of the Monkees as synthetic hacks. Nor did the album match the commercial success of its predecessor, More of the Monkees—partially due to the curious absence of a tie-in single stateside. Regardless, Headquarters was and is a major artistic triumph.
The band was sufficiently buoyed by the Headquarters experience to enlist Douglas to produce its follow-up, dubbed Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. His second tour of duty with the Monkees would prove more difficult than the first, however. The group’s grueling summer tour left little time for composing or recording new tracks. And Douglas has recalled that when the Monkees were available to record, they appeared to be losing interest in making music together—most evident in Dolenz’s decision to hand the drumsticks over to studio musician Eddie Hoh for the majority of the Pisces sessions.
So why did these sessions yield the band’s second consecutive masterpiece? In part because of the material provided by outside songwriters. The Monkees’ well of self-penned tunes was beginning to run dry by mid-’67. But both veterans of the Kirshner days (Boyce and Hart, Gerry Goffin and Carole King) and newcomers to the Monkees project (Michael Murphey, Harry Nilsson) picked up the slack with an abundance of superb Pisces offerings.
Douglas was no less responsible for the album’s quality. In between concert dates and in a variety of locations, he managed to corral the Monkees into the recording studio and harness what enthusiasm they had left. His production was also typically exceptional—trading Headquarters’ grittiness for a more florid sonic sheen.
None of which should overshadow the performances of the Monkees themselves. It might have been hard for Douglas to motivate them, but when he did, the results were magical.
An early dose of this magic was unveiled on Pisces’ preview single, which backed Goffin and King’s anti-suburbia anthem “Pleasant Valley Sunday” with Boyce and Hart’s “Words”. The former is a confluence of timeless songwriting, soaring group vocals, indelible guitar riff, and innovative production (listen to the track’s thunderous, reverb-drenched coda). The latter is a haunting gem that rode outstanding vocal interplay between Dolenz and Tork all the way to number 11 on the charts, just eight spots shy of its flipside.
This set a lofty standard, but one Pisces lived up to. A tip of the stocking cap must again go to Nesmith for assuming lead vocal duties on five first-rate tracks. “Salesman”, “The Door into Summer”, and “Love Is Only Sleeping” brilliantly marry his Texas twang to a heavy psych vibe—presaging the iconoclast’s “acid-country” experiments with the First National Band three years hence. Michael Murphey and Owen Castleman’s similarly progressive “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ’Round?” is one of the group’s best country-rock fusions. And “Don’t Call on Me” possesses a languid beauty atypical of a Nesmith ballad.
Just as impressive are two surprisingly risqué Jones-sung tracks. Harry Nilsson’s “Cuddly Toy” employs a jaunty music-hall setting to assail its promiscuous female subject. That it’s the Monkees’ baby-faced, hat-and-cane-wielding teen idol delivering lewd lines like “You’re not the only choo-choo train / That was left out in the rain / The day after Santa came” adds to the song’s delicious irony. Jones also turns in a searing performance on Goffin and King’s “Star Collector”—an indictment of the groupie phenomenon. Its lyrics rival those of “Cuddly Toy” for sheer ruthlessness (“Give her my autograph and tell her / It’s been nice knowing you!”). But Pisces’ final track is equally memorable for its frenetic climax, full of machine-gun drum rolls and some of pop music’s first celestial Moog blasts. Making the conclusion to “Pleasant Valley Sunday” sound tame, it’s a breathtaking finish to a great album.
When released that November, Pisces fared much the same as Headquarters. It hit number one but didn’t shift copies the way the Kirshner LPs had. And the cognoscenti predictably paid the album scant attention. Around this time, the group decided to split with Douglas, cease recording as a collective unit, and produce their own individual “Monkees” sessions. Their careers paid a price. Still, it remains remarkable that four mismatched novices were able to work with a small group of outsiders to create albums of Headquarters and Pisces’ caliber.
Many critics will continue naysaying. But those who do haven’t given these classics a close listen. Have they, Mr. Wenner?
// Notes from the Road
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