By Eleni P. Austin
“We were born to love one another, this is something we all need/We were born to love one another, we must be what we’re going to be, and what we have to be is free.”
Those lyrics were written back in 1967, just ahead of the Summer Of Love, and it’s message was as potent as Buffalo Springfield’s clarion call, “For What It’s Worth” and Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” But it was written by Peter Tork and recorded by his band The Monkees, therefore it was never given serious attention from critics or snobbish Rock fans. To those pretentious elitists, The Monkees weren’t a genuine Rock band.
Back in 1965, fledgling filmmakers Bob Rafaelson and Burt Schneider (who went on to produce influential Counterculture films like “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces”), were influenced by the runaway success of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” movie. They immediately proposed a TV series centered around the musical misadventures of a struggling Rock group. They sold the idea to Screen Gems set about casting the band.
The producers placed an ad in “Daily Variety” and the “Hollywood Reporter” looking for “spirited Ben Frank’s-types” (a reference to a 24-hour coffee shop located on the Sunset Strip that attracted young people, hipsters and musicians). After winnowing down over 400 applicants, the four guys that made the final cut were two musically inclined actors, Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz, along with two musicians, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork.
British-born Davy had already made a name for himself as the “Artful Dodger” in the Broadway production of “Oliver.” Micky had grown up in a show business family, as a child he’d starred in the “Circus Boy” TV series. During his teens, he fronted his own Garage band, the Missing Links. Texas transplant Mike moved to L.A. after a stint in the Air Force, intent on pursuing a music career. Initially he gigged around town under the name Michael Blessing, then as part of a trio called Mike & John & Bill. Peter (born Peter Thorkelson) grew up on the East Coast. A talented multi-instrumentalist, he quickly found a place in the burgeoning Folk scene of Greenwich Village.
The series premiered on CBS in September, 1966, it was preceded by The Monkees’ first single, “Last Train To Clarksville,” which began its rapid ascent up the charts. By hiring veteran music producer Don Kirshner to supervise the band’s music, Screen Gems guaranteed Don would cherry-pick songs from a pool of talented songwriters like Boyce & Hart, Neil Diamond and Goffin & King. Although the guys sang on The Monkees’ self-titled debut, they weren’t allowed to play any instruments. Mike was able to include two of his own songs “Papa Gene’s Blues” and “Sweet Young Thing” alongside hits like “I Wanna Be Free” and “Take A Giant Step.” The album shot to #1.
The show was an instant hit. The band’s antics could be broad and subversive in equal measure, combining the whimsy of the Beatles with plenty of slapstick and a dash of Marx Brothers-style sarcasm.
The guys warily adhered to Screen Gems’ terms, Monkeemania was in full swing and the band returned to the studio, dutifully recorded More Monkees. That album spent an astounding 18 weeks at #1 and ended up selling 70 million albums. Now, in addition to filming the series and recording sessions, they were required to go on tour.
On the road, Mike, Peter, Micky and Davy proved their musical proficiency. They insisted that they should be allowed to play on the upcoming Monkees album. Bob Rafelson and Burt Schneider took their side, and following a particularly contentious meeting with Don Kirshner, the band was given creative control.
Their next two albums, Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. were released within months of each other in 1967 and the results were consistently wonderful. Not only did they play their own instruments, but Mike, Micky and Peter contributed original cuts like “Sunny Girlfriend,” “Randy Scouse Git” and the aforementioned “For Pete’s Sake.”
Unfortunately, music critics continued to belittle the band, derisively nicknaming them the “Pre-Fab Four.” Conveniently forgetting the fact that beloved bands like the Beach Boys and the Byrds received assistance from from the same studio professionals that the Screen Gems initially insisted the Monkees use. Meanwhile, their records continue to sell, and they won praise from the actual Fab Four, who befriended Micky, Davy, Peter and Mike.
They continued to tour, even adding an unknown Jimi Hendrix as their opening act in 1967. They recorded more albums, and their show remained popular, that allowed them to champion new talent on the show. Tim Buckley and Frank Zappa both appeared in separate episodes as themselves. The show was cancelled at the end of the second season, allowing Bob, Burt and the band to make a feature film, “Head.” Hallucinogenic, trippy and covertly anti-war, it was written their pal Jack Nicholson, who was a few years away from becoming a critically-acclaimed actor. The film flopped, and by the close of the sixties, the guys went their separate ways. Micky moved behind the cameras, Davy continued to act and make music, Peter and Mike also continued to record.
In 1986, MTV began airing programming blocks of the original “Monkees” series and a whole new generation was introduced to the show’s timeless appeal. Soon their old Greatest Hits collection was surging up the charts. Micky, Davy and Peter capitalized on the renewed interest by going out on tour (Mike opted out). They also recorded a new album, Pool It. Unfortunately, the album leaned closer to a synth-heavy ‘80s sound, rather than the effervescent ‘60s Jangle that characterized their original hits.
The trio continued to tour occasionally, coming together for milestone years. In 1996 they released Justus, produced by Mike, but that also missed the mark. In 2011, they launched a massive tour to commemorate their 45th anniversary. Sadly, Davy suffered a fatal heart attack in early 2012. As a tribute to their old compadre, Mike joined Peter and Micky for a series of concerts later that same year. In 2013, Micky released Remember, a rueful solo album that paid affectionate tribute to Davy as well as the late Harry Nilsson.
In 2016, to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary, their longtime label, Rhino Records recruited avowed Monkees acolyte, Fountains Of Wayne bassist, Adam Schlesinger (R.I.P. fucking COVID 19), to produce a new album. Even though critics have always disputed the Monkees authenticity, musicians who grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s appreciated the band on a more visceral level. When Adam asked some famous fans to contribute something to the project, he received new songs from XTC’s Andy Partridge, Weezer architect Rivers Cuomo, Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and even a collaboration from ex-Jam front man Paul Weller and Oasis’ leader Noel Gallagher. Not only did Good Times receive rave reviews, it also debuted at #8 on the Billboard charts.
The band quickly followed this feat in 2018 by releasing Christmas Party, which was also produced by Adam. It wound up being Peter’s final album with the band. In 2009 he had been diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, after undergoing treatment it seemed as though he had beat it, but it returned nine years later and he passed away in early 2019.
That same year, Mike and Micky decided to perform as a duo. As far back as their series days, the pair had enjoyed harmonizing between takes, jokingly referring to their sound as “The Everly Monkees.” Delving into the band’s catalog, they cherry-picked songs they thought might highlight their fraternal blend. The duo put together a crack nine-piece band and hit the road. To document the tour they have now released The Monkees Live: The Mike & Micky Show.
To paraphrase the “Sound Of Music,” the 25-song set starts at the very beginning, and it’s a very fine place to start. “Last Train To Clarksville” rattles to life with ringing guitars, sidewinder bass, shaded keys, a tick-tock beat and tambourine shake. Micky’s sunny tenor is slightly huskier than it was in ’66, but it’s lost none of its warmth. There’s a joyous chime to this Boyce & Hart hit that never gets old.
The hits just keep coming, Mickey is front and center on two Mike compositions, “Mary, Mary” and “The Girl I Knew Somewhere.” The former is a slice of shaggy Psychedelia powered by stinging shang-a-lang guitars, spidery bass lines and a zig-zag rhythm. A bit of back-and-forth between Micky and the backing vocalists adds a Soulful call-and-response flavor.
On the latter, kaleidoscopic harpsichord runs weave in and out of an aural tapestry featuring splattery guitars, throbbing, stop-start bass and a tribal tattoo. The lyrics unfurl a tale of suspicion and Déjà vu, as the girl Micky’s wooing seems to be a tad too familiar: “Well, goodbye dear, I just can’t take this chance again, my fingers are still burning from the last time/And if your love was not a game, I only have myself to blame, that as maybe I can’t explain, just ask the girl I knew somewhere.”
He’s also the lead on signature cuts like “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” The melody and instrumentation on Gerry Goffin/Carole King tune redefines the term “catchy.” Revved-up guitars, prowling bass lines and shimmering piano notes are wed to a whipcrack beat. All of it serving trenchant lyrics that paint a vivid picture of suburban ennui; “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday, here in status symbol land/Mothers complain about how hard life is, and the kids just don’t understand.” Almost magically, the tempo shapeshifts on the bridge, locking into a sunshiny Samba groove.
Then there’s the prickly Proto-Punk of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” which is fueled by snarly guitars, stutter-y bass and a stompy beat. Micky spits out class-conscious lyrics with caustic contempt. The arrangement wigs out on the break, augmented by swirly keys that push the song toward a Frug-y conclusion. Conversely, “Goin’ Down” is a showstopper that allows Micky to channels both Louis Prima and Bob Dylan. The only song credited to all of the Monkees, it’s a stream-of-conscious, syncopated Jazz number that sports Gypsy Django guitars, lonesome pedal steel and a fiery trumpet solo.
Mike is given full-reign to showcase his Country-comfort vocals as well as his prodigious songwriting skills. From the bucolic bliss of the banjo-riffic “Sunny Girlfriend,” the skittery, Psychedelic hoedown of “Circle Sky,” and the whirring see-saw of “Sweet Young Thing,” along with the insistent “You Told Me” and ringing jingle-jangle of “You Just May Be The One.”
He slows down the intro of his penultimate hit, “Listen To The Band,” lingering on the sorrow of a broken romance; “Hey, hey, mercy woman, plays a good song and no one listens, I need help I’m falling again,” as he strums a solitary acoustic guitar. Rather quickly, the band rides to his rescue, locking into a majestic fanfare replete with fluttery keys, willowy pedal steel and stately brass accents, hammering home the hard-won belief that music can lighten our cosmic load.
The collection makes room for deep cuts from the band’s later years, including two from Mike, the cryptic Cowboy-Psychedelia of “Auntie’s Municipal Court” and the Dixie-fied drone of “St. Matthew.” “As We Go Along” is another flash of Carole King brilliance. A Countrified lament in ¾ time, it unfurls slowly, revealing a more contemplative side of Micky, who has to be one of most underrated singers in Rock N’ Roll. The result is both intimate and cinematic.
They also include a couple of songs from the triumphant “Good Times” album, “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster” written by Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher, and “Me And Magdalena” from Ben Gibbard. The former is a blurry blend of trippy Brit-Pop and traditional Music Hall whimsy. The latter is utterly gorgeous, a soulful Country charmer, beautifully suited to Mike’s wistful croon. Burnished piano notes encircle dusty guitars, homespun pedal steel and a kick-drum beat. Micky’s harmonies tenderly shadow this slice of Laurel Canyon arcana.
Halfway through, the action slows for a mini three-song set. It’s a welcome surprise. Stripped-down and strictly acoustic, it features a strummy sing-a-long of “Papa Gene’s Blues” which includes a filigreed, finger-picked guitar solo. “Randy Scouse Git,” Micky’s first foray into songwriting, was originally a droll chronicle of his first trip to England, powered by tripwire piano and thundering timpani drums. With couplets like “The four Kings of E.M.I. are sitting stately on the floor, there are birds out on the sidewalk and a valet at the door/He reminds me of a penguin with few and plastered hair, there’s talcum powder on the letter and the birthday boy is there,” Micky revealed himself to be an adroit lyricist. This rendition is slightly recalibrated, adding flickering guitars, walking bass lines and a shambolic backbeat. The set closes out with Mike’s “Tapioca Tundra.” The song marries opaque and enigmatic lyrics to a loping, Tex-Mex melody propelled by weepy pedal steel, Honky-Tonk piano and brushed percussion. Naturally, Mike’s vocals are suitably spacey and yodel-tastic.
There are some bittersweet when Mike and Micky pay tribute to their fallen Monkee brothers. Micky acquits himself nicely handling Davy’s vocals on the sweetly sincere “Daydream Believer,” and his passion is evident on Peter’s anthemic “For Pete’s Sake.” But the whole band kicks out the jams on the Shagadelic Boogaloo of Davy’s “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” Anchored by rippling guitar riffs, boomerang bass lines, ping-ponging keys, handclap percussion and a rollicking back beat, Micky’s vocals echo Davy’s lithe and playful vibe. A serpentine organ solo on the break is aided by an extra percussive kick.
The show closes with the bubblegum crunch of “I’m A Believer.” Written by future superstar Neil Diamond, it’s iconic Vox organ intro folds into one of the most infectious Power Pop songs of all time. Waspish guitar riffs stack on top of rumbling bass lines and a snap, crackle beat. The joy is palpable as the band and back-up vocalists converge on this last hurrah.
This record is an unmitigated triumph, not only for Mike and Micky, but also for their ace backing band which includes guitarist Wayne Avers, bassist John Billings, drummer Rich Dart, Pete Finney on pedal steel and acoustic guitar, Alex Jules on keys and backing vocals, Circe Link on backing vocals and percussion and the legendary Probyn Gregory on banjo, acoustic guitar, trumpet and melodica. This endeavor is also a bit of a family affair, with Micky’s sister Coco Dolenz on backing vocals and percussion and Mike’s son, Christian adding backing vocals and guitar.
The Monkees might never receive the same acclaim afforded the Beach Boys and the Byrds, but like those bands, their music continues to resonate. The Mike & Micky show just reaffirms their greatness.