When Monkeying Around Becomes Serious Business

The Monkees
The Monkees

Yet there was one man who had a vision of what an album with the right sound, the right marketing, and the right angle could do: Don Kirshner. “I told people I would outsell the Beatles, and they laughed at me”, says Kirshner. “Then the first album sold four million.”

From Andrew Sandoval’s liner notes for The Monkees

“The first album shows up, and I look at it with horror because it makes [us] appear as if we are a rock ‘n’ roll band”, [Mike Nesmith] says. “There’s no credit for the other musicians. I go completely ballistic, and I say, ‘What are you people thinking?’ [The powers that be say], ‘Well, you know it’s the fantasy’. I say, ‘It’s not the fantasy. You’ve crossed the line here. You are now duping the public. They know when they look at the television that we’re not a rock ‘n’ roll band; it’s a show about a rock ‘n’ roll band. It’s witty and wacky, and nobody for a minute believes that we are this somehow accomplished rock ‘n’ roll band that got their own television show. It’s absurd, and your putting this record out like this is just beyond the pale.'”

From Sandoval’s liner notes for More of The Monkees

The Monkees’ brief but memorable career was defined by conflict between seemingly opposed notions of fantasy and authenticity. Although this dichotomy was at the time a novel development, it would go on to dominate critical and popular discourse for the remainder of pop music history through to the present. The Monkees themselves were the unfortunate victims of this burgeoning trend. The men and women behind the group — impresario Kirshner and the legion of professional songwriters and studio musicians responsible for crafting the Monkees’ sound — were mostly oblivious to the changes on the ground, tone-deaf to the fast-paced evolution of rock from a pop novelty to a cultural movement with its own established mores and conventions.

At some point, the intimation of youthful rebellion behind pop music in the late ’50s and early ’60s became codified as an authentic ethos: it wasn’t just playing around anymore, it was a mindset, an implicit rejection of the grown-up world and its presumed insincerity and callous professionalism. Whether or not there was any truth to such a blanket condemnation, this was the growing perception. The squares listened to music produced by people in three-piece suits who commuted in from the suburbs and relaxed in the evening with the aid of a stiff martini — their parents, in other words. Rock ‘n’ roll had been a scruffy and disrespectful antidote… that is, until it was systematically neutered, commodified, or killed in airplane crashes. By the early ’60s it had become just another pop commodity to be manipulated by the aforementioned men in the three piece suits. The folk musicians came along with a new sense of aching sincerity to serve as a counterpoint to the establishment stiffs; the R&B being produced in places like Detroit stole some energy from the early rock ‘n’ rollers and succeeded in returning it to the native black idioms from which is had grown.

It’s obvious and reductive to merely say that everything changed with the Beatles, but to a large degree it’s unavoidable, especially when discussing the Monkees. The Beatles may have initially seemed like nothing more than another in a long line of pop sensations, but the fact that they lingered long past their initial explosive success and were soon claiming an unprecedented degree of creative control changed the pop landscape almost beyond recognition. The generational differences that underlay the pop movement had been solidified — everything that followed, from Dylan’s embrace of pop through to the Stones’ creative awakening and Hendrix’s wildcat psychedelia, flowed from the altered premise that the gap between youthful sincerity and aged cynicism was not just a temporary attitude held by a passive marketing demographic in the crucial years between elementary school and college, but a hardened stance assumed by knowing culture warriors. A massive phenomenon like the Beatles was an irresistible lure for entrepreneurs like Kirshner, who saw the bubblegum hooks and unthreatening sexuality as components of a formula that could with little effort be synthesized and replicated in a laboratory environment. The Monkees were, first and foremost, a calculated attempt to repackage and sell a slightly more docile version of the Beatles to a broad television audience.

And certainly, there is little argument that the formula was incredibly successful. In 1966, The Monkees sat for thirteen weeks at number one on the Billboard charts, eventually selling four million copies — this despite the fact that the album had been initially conceived as little more than a sideline, an afterthought to the aforementioned television program. More of the Monkees lingered at number one for eighteen weeks in 1967. The latter was eventually confirmed as the third best-selling LP of the ’60s (a higher ranking than any Beatles album), the twelfth best-selling of all time (of course, this is before the Soundscan era, so caveat emptor). If numbers told the whole story, Kirshner’s dream would have been an unqualified success.

But time was not on Kirshner’s side. The Monkees’ massive popularity actually worked against the group, their high-profile providing a handy target for external criticism as well as a crucible for internal pressures. Kirshner thought he was buying a group of actors who could be depended on to play the part of a rock ‘n’ roll band on television and in the recording studio. What he actually got was a group of actors who became a rock band by default. The ground had shifted underneath the feet of men like Kirshner, who had once confidently manipulated the tastes of teenie boppers across the globe. Soon he was alienated by a culture of musical authenticity that reviled the prefabricated nature of the Monkees’ music and image. Obviously, any backlash the music press and nascent critical cogniscenti could muster had a minimal effect on the group’s sales, but runaway success emboldened the Monkees themselves.

When the Monkees did eventually wrest control of their career, the results were startling, at least in terms of their vociferous rejection of the methodically-tailored manufactured celebrity roles they had been assigned. Beginning with their third LP, Headquarters, the group became more and more responsible for their output. Although Nesmith, as the group’s most musically ambitious member, had lobbied for increased participation from the beginning, their unexpected success as a legitimate live touring band allowed them further leeway. Eventually, their quest for legitimacy culminated in 1968’s Head, a surreal, downright unclassifiable film and soundtrack that that served as the biggest kiss-off possible to an entertainment industry that had commodified their likenesses at the cost of their perceived integrity. For his part, Kirshner learned from his mistake, later producing entirely fabricated groups like the Archies — a group of actual cartoon characters who could not, under any circumstances, demand increased creative input or release weird psychedelic movies designed specifically to alienate midwestern mothers.

Considering the group’s tremendous legacy as a cultural bellwether, the music itself has traditionally received short shrift. Unfortunately, there’s a reason for this: outside of a handful of extremely memorable singles, the early music released under the Monkees name was just not very good. The first two albums were the product of multiple songwriters and a host of studio musicians, and while the group’s own vocals are not without charm, the results are wholly mediocre. The Monkees seems, in hindsight, very much what it was conceived to be: a schematic cross-section of then-popular rock ‘n’ roll styles, sanitized for your protection. The group’s primary songwriters were Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. The duo had achieved relative success producing hits for Jay & the Americans and the Ikettes, but were still perceived as, in Sandoval’s words, “second-stringers” — at least, in comparison to titans such as Goffin & King. Boyce and Hart were never less than perfectly professional, but the majority of their compositions carry the unenviable whiff of filler. Even a track like “I Wanna Be Free”, a gorgeously arranged ballad sung by Davy Jones, lacks the kind of hook that would mark it as truly memorable. (It’s ironic that Jones was initially chosen to be the group’s lead singer, as he has probably the weakest voice of the three primary singers, especially compared with Mickey Dolenz’s confident tenor and Nesmith’s country-influenced adenoidal drawl.)

Of course, Boyce and Hart also wrote “Last Train to Clarksville” — the group’s first monster hit, and still just about perfect. But the fact that “Clarksville” was such a great tune stands out all the more in the context of the album, sitting uneasily between bargain-basement psychedlia like “Take a Giant Step” and faux-Carnaby Street novelty like “This Just Doesn’t Seem to Be My Day”. (“Take a Giant Step” was a Goffin & King composition, but by their own admission they weren’t selling Kirshner their best material.) Goffin and Russ Titelman also contribute a toothache-inducing ballad called “I’ll Be True to You” that again showcases Jones’s weaknesses as a singer. Nesmith produced some of the album’s highlights, sharing cowriting credits with Goffin & King on the garage-rock “Sweet Young Thing”, as well as his own “Papa Gene’s Blues”, a novelty country tune that spotlights Glen Campbell’s guitar to fine effect. Although “Papa Gene’s Blues” appears on the album as something of a sop to Nesmith, it holds up better than almost anything else on the album. Whereas most of the Monkees’ material was a fairly canny synthesis of established trends, a track like “Papa Gene’s Blues” actually looked forward, staking a claim to the then-nascent country-rock revival in Southern California.

More of the Monkees is a slightly more consistent affair. Boyce & Hart’s “She” and Nesmith’s “Mary, Mary” set the tone, and serve as fine examples of what would become the Monkees’ signature sound — British Invasion-based rock with a solid grounding in American soul and a twist of California flavor in the form of twanging guitars and Byrdsian open chords. Pretty much the default mode for any American band in the mid-’60s. Of course, there are a few more classics scattered throughout, from Boyce & Hart’s “Stepping Stone” (a strong track regardless of a few questionable rhymes), Jack Keller and Diane Hilderbrand’s oddball “Your Auntie Grezelda”, and of course “I’m a Believer”. Such was once Neil Diamonds prowess as a songwriter that he could casually toss-off a gem like “I’m a Believer” and think nothing of it — of course, it became the Monkees biggest-ever single, by default one of the most popular songs of the rock era. Even a Smash Mouth cover has done little to tarnish its appeal.

The Monkees’ recording career has been copiously anthologized and documented, and as such these editions offer little in the way of unrealized revelations for the studious collector. The albums are presented in both stereo and mono, a necessary concession to the collectors that is nevertheless superfluous to more casual aficionados. (Seriously, outside of a select few audiophiles, who ever listens to these mono mixes? Of course, I realize that’s the primary audience for any kind of exhaustive rerelease, but still.) The bonus material, most of which has been previously released, has been wisely selected to shine a spotlight on the group’s evolving creativity, both in terms of their producers’ interpretive abilities and the band’s own burgeoning capabilities. There are lots of alternative versions and first recorded cuts — again, for the audiophiles — but tracks like the demo of Nesmith’s “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care)” point to a far more sophisticated musical sense that would begin to emerge, if tentatively, on Headquarters.

It’s difficult to judge the Monkees in hindsight, because so much of their importance has become identified not with the music itself, but how they embodied the symbolic struggles at the heart of their career. “Prefabricated” pop music would struggle for acceptance despite its enormous success throughout every phase of modern music history. The critical vocabulary we use today is still defined to a large degree by the kind of divisions that emerged during the Monkees’ tenure on the top of the charts — now we’ve got “rockists” who defend the conventional rock status quo, and “anti-rockists” who defend the multiplicity of modern music against the critical exclusivity of the rockists. The only difference nowadays is that the rockist perspective on matters of authenticity is by no means accepted as the default. Rock music, as it is traditionally defined and as it has been produced for over forty years, really isn’t the mainstream of pop anymore, and “pop”, be it radio-friendly hip-hop, girl-group bubblegum, or MySpace-bred emo bands, can only be judged as authentic as the emotional response it elicits in the listener. (If the vast majority of popular music is stunningly insincere in both execution and effect, well, that’s another matter entirely.) Even large portions of “indie” rock, for a long time the sole province of rockist authenticity and tortured artistry, has succumbed to the idealization of pop facility and songwriting craft. Surprisingly, this has not proven a particularly harsh pill for diehard rockists to swallow… and, by the way, have you heard the latest New Pornographers album? Perhaps there simply isn’t any appreciable difference between rock and pop attitudes on any except the most highly exaggerated Platonic scales — Jandek and Britney saluting each other from across the gaping chasm.

In any event, the vocabulary remains, even if the conflict has withered. The differences between pop and rock have never really held up to closer scrutiny, because there is always more show business in professional music than conscientious musicians would care to admit. There is something inevitably elitist in the presumption of judging art based on the motivations of the artist, as opposed to the virtues of the art itself. Who is to judge? Authenticity is no guarantor of originality. The Monkees’ greatest songs were good not despite their prefab, assembly-line origins, but simply because they were good songs, no caveats. It’s a lot harder to mythologize a professional songwriter with a posse of studio musicians than it is a talented artiste, and a lot of mediocre-to-bad music has been excused throughout the years simply by virtue of this supposed authenticity. It’s not rockist to point out that most pop music just isn’t very good, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be judged on its own merits and not on the listeners’ preconceptions.

It would be easy to dismiss the Monkees based on the fact that their million-selling albums were mostly mediocre. There’s nothing new about a popular act building an album by surrounding a handful of good tracks with superfluous filler, but the conscientious critic is tempted to cast a forgiving eye on the Monkees early material. It is charming when seen as what it is: An attempt to synthesize changing musical mores; a slightly quaint attempt that would soon be rendered entirely moot by shifting tastes. Pretty soon after the Monkees, pop producers would abandon the rock template altogether, with its viscous politics and presumptuous critical establishment. Pop eventually became an entirely separate entity, with its own kind of critical consensus and social networking, and while it would occasionally masquerade as rock, there was always a popular consensus that conferred a legitimacy on the one that was denied the other.

Consequently, regardless of the periodic backlashes against egregiously artificial product (pop disco in the ’70s, Milli Vanilli), the markets for popular music and the markets for “authentic” rock ‘n’ roll separated, with only occasional overlap. Not coincidentally, the market for “authentic” rock ‘n’ roll, with all its commensurate abnegation and asceticism, has continued to shrink. You could make the argument that regardless of brief blips like Nirvana, pop won the war — a rock band can’t achieve much success in this day and age without channelling at least a little of what made the Monkees so malleable. The Monkees were the first skirmish, after which battle lines were irrevocably drawn. These lines have remained in place more or less to this day, at least in the minds of those who care to write about such things in the first place.

RATING 4 / 10
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