I'm used to catching grief from friends for some of the quirky stuff I listen to, so whenever the Monkees come up in conversation, I'm always prepared for a lively debate. I'm not naive enough to pretend they were one of rock's great bands, though I do feel as though their music has been a bit shortchanged by history.
Their groundbreaking series lasted just two seasons, and was followed by a delicious stream-of-consciousness feature film (Head) and an even more bizarre TV special (33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee), which had the lousy fortune of airing opposite the Academy Awards. By this point, of course, the Monkees were hellbent on blowing themselves up from within. Scornful of the ridicule they faced from much of the "serious" rock cognoscenti, the pre-Fab Four made every attempt to shed their bubblegum image and strike out on their own.
It began somewhere around the time they recorded their third album. After playing sparingly on tunes for the first two Monkees' records, the band took over for themselves. With the assistance of Chip Douglas on bass, the Monkees turned into a semi-actual band on Headquarters. It wasn't a virtuoso collection by any means, especially when compared to many of other rock albums released in 1967. Never mind the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper; that year also saw seminal works drop from Love (Forever Changes), Captain Beefheart (Safe As Milk), the Velvet Underground (The Velvet Underground & Nico), Pink Floyd (Piper at the Gates of Dawn), 13th Floor Elevators (Easter Everywhere), the Doors (The Doors) and the Jimi Hendrix Experience (Are You Experienced?).
Still, Headquarters is the work of a pretty alright garage rock band, one with a keen interest in experimentation. That thread would follow on the band's second album of the year, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., which featured forays into country rock, vaudeville pop and psychedelia, the latter including what has often been regarded as among the first uses of the Moog synthesizer on a rock song (both on "Daily Nightly" and "Star Collector").
1968's Head may be the Monkees' creative zenith, both on film and vinyl. The script, such as it was, was written over a drug-fuelled weekend in a cabin in the woods with Jack Nicholson. Yes, THAT Jack Nicholson. Nicholson makes a brief cameo in the film as does Dennis Hopper (the two worked together on Easy Rider the following year, a film financed, in part, on Monkee money), Frank Zappa, a very young Teri Garr, a very puffy Sonny Liston, Annette Funicello, Victor Mature, Carol Doda, Toni Basil and American football great Ray Nitschke.
Opening with Micky Dolenz jumping from a bridge to certain doom, the movie sunk like a stone in limited theatrical release, but went on to become something of a cult classic.
The soundtrack features just a handful of original Monkees' material, but what's there is among the very best music they ever recorded. "Porpoise Song" is a swirling epic, and "As We Go Along" (with guitar by Neil Young), is a love song of fragile beauty. The oft-marginalized Peter Tork has two songs on the album, including the Indian-influenced "Can You Dig It?" (with vocals by Dolenz) and the sprawling stomp of "Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?" Even the sometimes schmaltzy Davy Jones is in fine form, on the Harry Nillson-penned "Daddy's Song". Nicholson compiled the album, gluing the songs together with dialogue and sound effects from the film. The only misstep -- replacing the incendiary live version of Mike Nesmith's "Circle Sky" shown in the film with a flaccid studio recording -- was undone when Rhino Records remasted the album for CD release over a decade ago.
Following the disastrous results for 33 1/3...,Tork wriggled his way out of his contract and split. As a trio, the Monkees released two more albums in 1969, much of which included songs recorded as early as 1966 that had just been sitting in a Colgems vault collecting dust. Nesmith's "Listen to the Band" (originally given a psychedelic freak-out paint job with Tork still on board for 33 1/3...) was the last great Monkees song. The last "musician" in the band, Nesmith left to form his own country rock pioneering outfit, the First National Band. Dolenz and Jones put out one last album under the Monkees' name before finally pulling the plug.
There's no question the Monkees were fabricated. But so was the cast of your favorite film, and they made great art together. And when the Byrds or the Beach Boys used studio musicians on some of their now-classic tracks, no one blinked an eye.
While stuffy critics like Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner have always pooh-poohed the musical relevance of the Monkees, perhaps their greatest detractors of all have been themselves. Both Nesmith and Dolenz have frequently said in inteviews they didn't think much of their music, with the former especially dismissive.
However, because they actually sorta gave a crap at the time, it's impossible to objectively lump the Monkees in with other teenybopper acts of the day. Even if one doesn't think much of them, they've got to at least fall somewhere in the chasm between the era's rock and pop rather than at one end or the other.
I love the Monkees. Not just because I enjoy watching them on DVD with my eight-year old daughter (her fave rave is Nesmith, though she's got bobblehead dolls of the whole group), but because I actually do enjoy their music. Some of it is simple to the point of hardly being there at all. And a few of their attempts to create art flamed out when they tried to fly too close to the sun, like Dolenz' "Shorty Blackwell" (which is a total mess) and Nesmith's "Writing Wrongs" (which is also a mess, but a curiously satisfying one). Yet there are gems to be unearthed far beyond the confines of a hits compilation. You may even find it's worth doing a bit of exploring.