Thursday, May 10, 2012

MONKEES ’69: An Alternate History



So at the risk of coming off sounding like a complete dork, I’m going to go ahead and post this anyway. Yes folks, this is what I actually think about when I get bored.

 I guess it’s no worse than collecting comic books or, God forbid, action figures, but holy Jeff Spicole do I feel like a loser by even sharing the fact that I spend my free time considering stuff like this, when I should be out getting laid or doing other approved alpha male activities like ultimate fighting while riding motorcycles.

Wait a second!  Do you see what I just did there? I just admitted feeling guilty over my own pet passion. I mean really, why should I be ashamed?  Just because I spend far too much time making up fantasy career paths for a 45 year old manufactured pop band?  Now that’s just silly!




Okay, so anyway let’s set the scene. It’s November of 1968, and The Monkees were just experiencing the first major commercial failures of their collective career: the motion picture Head, its corresponding soundtrack album and its accompanying single “The Porpoise Song”/ “As We Go Along”. This lack of success in the charts reflected a group that was splintering at its core.  Since the departure of producer Chip Douglas only a year before, the four Monkees were now operating as a coherent recording entity in name only. While they would still tour together for the time being, all studio recordings were now being held at independent sessions by each band member. Each of the four could pick whomever they wanted to work with in the studio and produce their own sessions if they so chose.

This arrangement was inarguably most beneficial to Michael Nesmith, who during the past year had been writing music that was less Monkee-like, and more in the emerging vein of what would soon be labeled “country rock”.  Back in May, Nesmith had taken a sojourn down to Nashville to record a handful of sessions with many of the city’s crack backing musicians, known collectively as Area Code 615.  The resulting material was of the highest quality, and it brilliantly anticipated the coming country rock trend that would weave its way throughout the pop landscape over the next few years.

With the addition of a few cuts recorded back in L.A., the results were released by Dot Records in December of 1968:



The album was largely ignored commercially (#108 Billboard), but found favor amongst musicians and “in the know” industry types, ultimately laying the groundwork for Nesmith’s post-Monkees deal with his First National Band. Jim Miller, writing for Rolling Stone, gave the record a positive review citing both Mike’s improved singing and his ability to pen memorable material.  A single pulled from the record, the Glen Campbell-esque “If I Ever Get to Saginaw Again”, did relatively well on both the Billboard country and adult contemporary charts, as well as briefly scraping the bottom reaches of their pop charts at #87.


As mentioned previously, despite the band’s independence within the recording studio, The Monkees were still being sold to America as a self-contained entity. And so to honor the terms of the network deal that ended their TV show after just two seasons, the group set about working on the first of three planned made-for-TV specials. 33 1/3 Revolutions per Monkee would be directed by legendary Shindig! auteur Jack Good, with music produced by Bones Howe who was currently riding a hot streak with The Association, The 5th Dimension, The Turtles and others.

As with Head, 33 1/3 was a surreal Rafelson/ Schneider mind fuck designed to simultaneously mock and tear down viewers’ preconceptions of The Monkees.  Yet despite guest appearances from everyone from Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino to Brian Auger, Julie Driscoll and Buddy Miles, the TV special failed to register with mainstream America, most of whom were busy watching the Oscars during the premier of the Monkees' new special on April 14, 1969. Nevertheless, Colgems did compile a limited edition soundtrack LP and released it a month after 33 1/3 debuted. The soundtrack was to be sold only in Hallmark stores, instantly turning original copies into sought after Monkee collectables.




During the interim period between the filming of 33 1/3 and its release, the busy Monkees also released their first non-soundtrack studio album in nearly a year.  Titled Instant Replay after the newly invented technological gimmick, the new record was the result of a long standing group initiative.  Since the end of the Chip Douglas era, an idea had been circulating throughout the Monkee organization to release a double LP featuring one album side devoted to each band member.  With the amount of individual recording sessions the four had been holding throughout the previous year or so, realizing this ambition was not hard to do; and in the wake of the successful Beatles White Album, it was decided that the time was now right for The Monkees to release their own double album masterpiece the following February.

However, unbeknownst to the general public, Peter Tork had already made a decision to part ways with the group prior to Instant Replay’s release.  Following the band’s 1968 tour of Japan, Tork was exhausted and generally disenchanted with the way things were going within the group, as he was the main proponent of keeping The Monkees a self-contained recording entity.

Wrote Micky Dolenz in his autobiography I'm a Believer (1993 Hyperion Press; co-written with Mark Bego): "Peter had never gotten over his disappointment when we decided not to go back into the studio and work together as we had on Headquarters. He even cited that as his main reason for resigning. But I suspect there were other influences as well. The truth was, we were all living in the eye of a hurricane. The world was falling apart around us, the winds of change were tossing our careers and our lives around like so many paper puppets, and, for the most part, we were oblivious to it all."

After his strong contributions to both the Head and 33 1/3 soundtracks, Peter donated six more of his songs to Instant Replay to fulfill his contractual obligation and quietly bowed out of The Monkees for nearly another 20 years.


A shame then, as unlike with the group’s past few efforts, Instant Replay was ultimately both well received and a modest commercial success, peaking as high as #15 on Billboard’s pop albums chart. For perhaps the first time in The Monkees’ career, reviews in the press were mainly positive, largely focusing on the individual talents of the four musicians as heard within. And since Colgems’ publicity machine was now for the first time making no effort to portray The Monkees to the public as a unified group, the critics tended to be much less concerned with that fact in their respective analyses.

Of course the main reason for the relative success of Instant Replay was the fact it contained the group’s strongest batch of new material since Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, Ltd.  While The Birds, the Bees and The Monkees had been bogged down by some weaker songs, and the Head soundtrack presented some great musical selections engulfed in a sea of oddball sound clips from the movie, Instant Replay was simply a heaping helping of great tunes that most everyone could enjoy.

The new album’s artwork was quite unique as well, featuring an eye-catching collage on the front cover and a famous black-and-white Henry Diltz photo in the gatefold. In the picture the four Monkees are seen standing around in a rundown section of San Francisco. Michael, wearing his black leather jacket while standing next to a cherry 1969 Pontiac Ram Air IV Judge GTO, is in the foreground looking perturbed, while Micky is seen leaning over the car’s open hood, admiring its engine. Davy is further off to the right hand side of the photo, smoking a cigarette and seemingly trying to hustle a disinterested looking blonde, while Peter stands on the far left in a flowered Nehru and Indian boots, pensively looking off towards something far away from the rest of the action.

The track order for Instant Replay was also conceived in a distinctive fashion. Rather than tagging either face of each disc as side 1, 2, 3 or 4 respectively, each label on the original pressing simply bared the name of whichever band member the side belonged to. However, observant fans would note that the track credits in the gatefold are listed side by side, left to right, in the following order: Michael, Peter, Davy, Micky. This would heretofore be seen as Replay’s “proper” running sequence.



Two singles were ultimately derived from Instant Replay, one as a trial balloon and one shortly after the release of the album proper. “Teardrop City”, an old recording of a Boyce & Hart number that had been dusted off and sped up, did quite well, hitting #23 and giving the group its biggest hit in a year, while its flip “A Man without a Dream” also charted in the lower regions, peaking at #88.

The follow-up 45, the Bones Howe produced “Someday Man”, experienced the rare occurrence of actually being eclipsed by its own flip side, Mike’s own “Listen to the Band”. An embellished version of a track first found on Carlisle Wheeling, the re-worked Instant Replay take of “Band” caught on with certain radio programmers who began flipping the record over, pushing it all the way to #34 nationwide. (“Someday Man”, still the featured side in certain U.S. markets, would also make the charts, reaching as high as #62).



With the relative success of Instant Replay providing a much needed kick-start to the group’s ailing career, plans were immediately drawn up for the now-trio to tour and record a follow-up album. Complicating the scenario however was one David Jones, who with the tacit approval of Colgems had recently arranged for a covert, multi-album deal between his independent production company and Bell Records. This deal would not only allow Jones to record any artists he signed, but also allowed for the licensing of any unused Colgems-owned masters of his material.

Out of such a complicated business arrangement came the new album Davy!, released by Bell in July of 1969. Despite being cobbled together out of songs that were mainly deemed unworthy for The Monkees, and featuring a cover clearly designed to play off Jones’ teen idol image, the record was not too shabby artistically speaking and became a modest hit, rising as high as #38 on Billboard.  The associated single, “Love To Love” b/w “Don’t Listen to Linda”, also did well, peaking at #26.




While the group continued to make the rounds on a variety of television shows in support of Replay (including a memorable performance of Mike’s “Nine Times Blue” on The Johnny Cash Show) their main agenda remained the summer ’69 North American tour. While out carousing on Sunset one night, Mike stopped by a small club on the Strip called Soul'd Out and discovered a black r&b unit by the name of Sam & The Goodtimers, whom he thought would make a perfect choice to both open for and back The Monkees during this upcoming set of dates. The Goodtimers had previously functioned as Ike & Tina's backing revue and were all crack instrumentalists, and they agreed to go do the tour. While the venues The Monkees were now booked at were for the most part smaller than the ones they played during their previous American tour back in ’67, they still performed to enthusiastic crowds, and the reviews in the press of their new stage show featuring The Goodtimers were generally superb.

But while the collective conglomeration known as The Monkees could still pack ‘em in, it was becoming apparent to all but the most unobservant listener/ spectator that this was no longer a band in any real sense, but rather an amalgamation of three individual performers with little in the way of common ground to hold them together.  While Micky’s soul music influence, Davy’s Broadway pop sense and Mike’s countrified leanings gave the group an attractive assortment of modern sounds, for the most part each individual was incapable of assisting the other, apart from the occasional exception such as Nesmith’s “My Share of the Sidewalk”, which he wrote and produced specifically with Davy in mind.

Thus the trio’s final album together, The Monkees Present, effectively represents the work of three separate individuals more than anything approaching a unified group sound.  While this approach made sense on the clearly delineated Instant Replay, when mixed together indiscriminately the results now sounded a bit haphazard, though the songs themselves remained strong for the most part.  The best of the new tracks was Micky’s reading of Chip Douglas’s “Steam Engine”, which was released as a single (backed by Mike’s own “Little Red Rider”) just before the album hit stores.  This soulful rocker gave the band their final hit, charting as high as #44 in October of ‘69.  (Present itself would fare slightly less well, peaking at #50 on Billboard.)




EPILOGUE:

With the departure of Mike Nesmith during the waning days of the decade, The Monkees were over in all but name.  Accordingly, Colgems flew Micky and Davy out to New York for a final series of sessions with producer Jeff Barry in a last ditch attempt to capture lightning in a bottle.  Comprised mainly of leftover compositions by Barry and his protégés Andy Kim and Bobby Bloom, the resulting LP Changes and its accompanying single “Oh My My”/ “I Love You Better” weren’t half bad, but underperformed on the charts.  Dolenz and Jones amicably parted ways to pursue solo careers, and despite a final single released in 1971 (“Do It in the Name of Love”/ “Lady Jane”) The Monkees were over, and would remain so until their 1986 reunion.

However one interesting curio managed to find its way onto the trader’s circuit later in the decade: a discarded mono master reel of an early assemblage of Instant Replay. This fascinating oddity not only revealed many never-before-heard vintage mono mixes, but it also featured a slightly different track line-up including several unheard alternate versions of familiar songs, and even contained two previously unreleased Peter Tork compositions, "Alvin" and “Tear the Top Right Off My Head”. This was a great discovery for Monkees fans who may have thought they had heard it all.




The Monkees story doesn’t end here thankfully, as the 1986 reunion saw the original four members get back together for the first time in nearly 20 years.  We hope you all have enjoyed this latest installment of phony Monkees history, and as always, we invite you to please dig the music and spread the word!

19 comments:

  1. Awesome re-post! Thank you! Could you please re-post this one? http://crystalsphere1.blogspot.com/2007/01/jefferson-airplane-this-is-our-life.html

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  2. Thank you! I've grown to be such a Nesmith fan over the years.

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  3. Me too! (Can you tell?)

    I'd like to get your opinion on the Mike solo album I dubbed "Carlisle Wheeling", if you get a chance to download it. I think it flows amazingly well. Kind of a shame he didn't get to release something like it back then.

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  4. I've listened to it a couple of times already, first time back to back with the released versions of the songs. You're right, the flow is perfect--would have been a great release.

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  5. I love the combination of straight laced Nashville session cats playing Nez's skewed country rock. The Jobim track in particular is a fascinating hybrid.

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  6. This was uniformly excellent. From the writing to the compilations themselves, top-notch work. Fantastic!

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  7. Hey right on, glad you enjoyed it my man! I figured this was something that was only going to appeal to the hardcore if anybody, but folks seem to be enjoying it if my analytics are accurate.

    Were you a big Monkees fan to start with?

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    1. Huge, huge Monkees fan. A bit of a late bloomer, though, as I didn't really start getting into them until 2002. But I fell for them big time and really immersed myself. Lots of great material in the catalog, a lot of really fantastic stuff beyond the hits. Nesmith's material is consistently amazing. Loved what you did with all the stuff here!

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  8. Another huge Monkees fan here, and many thanks for a well-informed post. And the music! IR in mono is a real treat, the Nesmith set would make an incredible twofer with the Witchita Train Whistle l.p. (hey, I like it!). Even the Davy! album is a good play; where some of his slower, softer pop Monkees material brings those albums to a halt for me, it all sounds great in this context.
    I'll admit to never giving Peter Tork his due until seeing the Monkees tour last year. His vocals are as strong, if not stronger than ever, his sense of pitch better than in their peak popularity years, and he contributed some of their best material.
    Please, post about the Monkees whenever you feel the urge! If Monkees nerdom is a crime, might as well strap me into Ol' Sparky right now!

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  9. Thanks, James, for taking the time to listen and post back! I'm glad you enjoy everything I posted.

    I think I'm in complete agreement with you. The Nesmith album (had it been released) is an easy 4, maybe even 5 stars. Brilliant, cutting edge stuff. Like you, I think Davy's songs are often the weak spots in the official catalog, but they really do work so much better in the solo context. I actually find myself spinning the Davy! record quite a bit-- Something I never would have figured myself on doing.

    I'm envious you got to see the guys on the final tour. I skipped it due to financial constraints, figuring I'd catch them next time. A damned poor decision on my part.

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  10. Thanks for Monkees stuff. You probably know that a fair amount of it has disppared already. Any chance of re-ups?

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  11. Thanks for Monkees stuff. You probably know that a fair amount of it has disppared already. Any chance of re-ups?

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  12. Davy & Mike's albums have disappeared. But thanks for the rest!

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  13. I'm not sure where you guys are coming from... Both Mike and Davy's albums are working fine for me off the links provided, at least on this end.

    Please try it again and if you are still having problems, leave another message, but they should all work. Thanks.

    Jason

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  14. Davy! and Present are missing. Any chance of a track listing (or *gasp* re-upload)?

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  15. Davy and Present links aren't working...

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  16. Thanks for your great shares. If you get a chance to fix the Present link i'd like to hear it.

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  17. Thanks for your great shares. If you get a chance to fix the Present link i'd like to hear it.

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