Counterbalance: The Monkees' 'Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.'
This week's Counterbalance serenades the weekend squire who just came out to mow his lawn. A pop-psych delight, or the only choo-choo train that was left out in the rain the day after Santa came? Let's find out.
Klinger: I'm just going to come right out and say it: The Monkees' fourth album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.. is a great album. I realize that the Monkees have never gotten their due as one of the all-time great pop acts. I get that the fact that they were formed to star in a TV comedy will forever be held against them. I even understand that when they do receive grudging praise from "serious" rock snobs, it's more likely to be for their previous album Headquarters (mainly because they played most of the instruments themselves). I don't care. Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.. is a great album, and one that I listen to with surprising regularity.
This album passes from strength to strength musically, from the better-known tracks like "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and "Words" to deeper cuts like the punchy opener "Salesman" or the folk-rock "The Door Into Summer". Lyrically it's got enough sneaky subversiveness to cause a few double takes here and there. "Cuddly Toy", written by Harry Nilsson, is famously about a gang bang (or perhaps more accurately, a young man's cavalier dismissal of a woman who "gave up without a fight"). And it doesn't take a genius to figure out what the Salesman is peddling.
I could go on, but perhaps I'm saying too much without hearing your take on this. So go ahead, Mendelsohn — you may fire when ready.
Mendelsohn: I too like this album. But I liked it much better when the Beatles released two years earlier and called it Revolver. “Salesman" is “Taxman", “Love Is Only Sleeping" is “I'm Only Sleeping", “She Hangs Out" is a terrible “And Your Bird Can Sing". Want me to keep going? It gets a bit tenuous once you get that far out on this limb, but since I'm out here, why not take a few more steps?
Klinger: You might as well, since nothing you've said so far makes any sense. We've covered this before, Mendelsohn — pop music from the '60s is probably going to sound like the Beatles, in part because the Beatles sound like the music of the '60s. The fact that a couple of the songs have the same word in the title is not the slam dunk that you think it is. And you're really going to have to play "She Hangs Out" and "And Your Bird Can Sing" back to back to show me how they're even remotely similar. Unless you meant that it's terrible in the sense that they sound nothing alike. In which case we're really through the looking glass here.
Mendelsohn: The Monkees were two years behind the curve, Klinger. That's why they don't get any respect. They were making well-appointed pop from 1966 in 1968. The Beatles were world-beating with Sgt. Pepper, the Band was about reshape the way musicians thought about music, and the Rolling Stones were gearing up for an epic run. The reason Headquarters is slightly more respected is because the Monkees played most of their own instruments and wrote more than a quarter of the songs. You've essentially handed me the equivalent of a 1966 Miley Cyrus record. We get it. The Monkees are rock 'n' roll. They take drugs and have sex. Whoopity doo.
Klinger: Wow. Maybe I misstated something somewhere. I didn't say the Monkees were paving the way for the future of music. I said this was a great pop record. One that has some really good songs on it. Go back and listen to “What Am I Doing Hangin' 'Round" for further proof. But sure. Miley Cyrus.
Mendelsohn: I'm sorry. That was really harsh. The Monkees aren't Miley Cyrus. That's just mean of me, I apologize. I'm trying to be a better man, Klinger. I don't want to be so banal about music that comes with preconceived notions. I'm trying to relax and go with the flow. Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. ain't a bad record. The Monkees know what they are doing. If you want to chalk up a couple of points in the pro column, they did go out and enlist Nilsson along with Carole King and Gerry Goffin to write some epic songs about meaningless sexual encounters. They dabble in proto alt-country and they recorded “Pleasant Valley Sunday" — and even my sad, hateful little heart can't hate that song.
On the one hand, they didn't really write or play any of this record. On the other hand, it's a really good record and I probably shouldn't care that a manufactured band gained cognizance, fought for autonomy and then turned around, farmed out the hard work, and manufactured this record. And … I've just fallen down the meta-record hole. Please throw me a line.
Klinger: Sure, let me help you with that, since you've been so charitable. First of all, Nesmith did write "Daily Nightly" on this record (and wrote a number of other great songs both for the Monkees and in his solo career), and the group does play throughout the album. Micky Dolenz was one of the first to bring the Moog to the pop audience. Second of all, many of the songs on the album were written by friends of the group (Chip Douglas, Bill Martin, John London, Harry Nilsson), and regardless, the idea that they didn't write enough songs or play all the instruments is a complete strawman argument. Does it matter who wrote “The Door Into Summer?" A great song is a great song, and a great song deserves to be heard.
What sets a pop singer apart is the idea of taste — the ability to, left to one's own devices, choose the right song, the right arranger, the right producer, and then collaborate together to create something memorable. And the Monkees, once they got rid of Don Kirshner, had impeccable taste. Which could explain why they were appreciated by “real" musicians like Jimi Hendrix (who they brought on to play on their 1967 US tour), the Beatles (who invited them to Abbey Road during the recording of "A Day in the Life"), and Crosby, Stills and Nash (who formed at Peter Tork's house).
Mendelsohn: The Monkees did have great taste. You can't be a success in a town like Los Angeles without the ability to judge a situation, person, or song and make the right decision to benefit you (and maybe some other people — but mostly you). Given the opportunity, the Monkees made all of the right decisions, until they didn't, but I think its pretty clear that no one was making good decisions in the 1970s. The fact remains, though, that they were a simulacrum of 1960s pop. They were a created as an American analog for the Beatles. They played cute, slightly subversive pop music that the masses lapped up from half-hour TV shows. They did skits and told dumbed-down jokes. Sure, they had a hand in creating an excellent pop record — PAC&J is an excellent record — I'm not arguing that fact. All I'm saying is there is a reason they received no critical love. Yes, other musicians respected them, but they sort of had to. The Monkees were famous. They knew the right people and had access to the hearts and minds of the American populace.
Let's get hypothetical for a moment. In 20 years, if I hand someone a copy of Justin Timberlake's Justified and tell them that it is a great record that I listen to with surprising regularity, should I be upset that they act like I'm completely daft?
Klinger: You mean Justified, the 2077th most acclaimed album of all time? The one that has three songs on the Great List's the Top 3000 songs list? No, I don't think I'd act like that person is daft necessarily. But that's the difference that a couple decades makes in the mind of a pop fan, Mendelsohn. I mean, I hear Justin Timberlake's music and it sounds more like something I hear in the store where I'm buying a sweater for my niece's birthday. But the Monkees, as you so nimbly pointed out a while back, sounds more like the Beatles. So it resonates with me in a way that newer stuff doesn't. Pop music isn't actually built to stand the tests of time — the fact that it ever does is a wonder in itself. But that's what I was talking about before, the idea that there are pop artists who set themselves apart through their taste. Timberlake chose the Neptunes to produce his record; the Monkees got songs from Nilsson, Carole King, and Jeff Barry.
And again, I'm not suggesting that the critics need to bow before the genius that is Dolenz (although they really could stand to give Nesmith some props — as this insane clip suggests, Nesmith might have joined the Byrds, and that would have turned the rock world on its very axis). I'm saying that these guys made terrific pop records throughout their run, and on a couple occasions that translated into some surprisingly solid pop albums. I'm still going to come back to Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., probably more often than I'll come back to Headquarters (mainly because Davy Jones forwent his usual wispier stylings in favor of the trippier "Star Collector"). And when I do I'll come away feeling like the people who turn up their noses are missing out on something pretty cool.