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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Monkees reissue reviews

When I freelanced for Goldmine, I had the opportunity to review all of Rhino's mid-'90s CD reissues of the original nine Monkees albums.  I didn't save digital copies of those reviews, but the good folks at monkees.net edited all those reviews together, and saved 'em for posterity.  I very much appreciate the ability to present them here without having to re-type them.
Reissues: The Monkees
from Goldmine, March 17, 1995 and June 9, 1995
Rhino’s recent acquisition of the Monkees catalog is cause for joy and merriment among fans of the first made-for-TV rock group. Rhino has been a conspicuous friend to Monkees fans for over a decade (commencing with the 1982 picture disc Monkee Business), and the label has always treated The Monkees with a level of respect that hasn’t always been easy to come by for the much-maligned Prefab Four.
The Monkees, The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees, and Changes are the first of three blocs of discs, reissuing The Monkees’ entire original nine-album ’60s output. Each bloc includes one of The Monkees’ earliest albums, one from the middle of their career, and one from the later period, after Peter Tork left the group in 1968. Each individual disc includes bonus tracks (most previously unreleased), and the series as a whole is already an immense improvement over Arista’s patchwork attempt to reissue the Monkees albums on CD in the late ’80s.  The second bloc includes More Of The Monkees, Head, and The Monkees Present. With the third and final bloc of reissues, we see that Rhino saved two of the group’s best albums for last:  1969’s Instant Replay may not be anyone’s favorite Monkees albums, but most dedicated fans will probably point to either Headquarters or Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (both from 1967) as the high-water mark in the recording career of Micky, Davy, Peter and Michael.
The Monkees
The Monkees’ eponymous 1966 debut album has aged well. It’s a sprightly collection of brisk pop that frolics joyfully under the benign influence of The Beatles, The Byrds, The Beau Brummels, The Dave Clark Five and The Beach Boys, roughly analogous to a less raucous Paul Revere and the Raiders or a (much!) more rock-solid Herman’s Hermits. That’s pretty heady company to keep, but The Monkees hold their own here.
The familiar “(Theme From) The Monkees” remains a delight, immediately evocative of the light-hearted romps of the TV show. The obvious high point is the chart-topping, “Paperback Writer”-derived “Last Train To Clarksville,” but it’s joined by “I’ll Be True To You” (a British hit for The Hollies as “Yes I Will”), “Saturday’s Child,” “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day,” “This Just Doesn’t Seem To Be My Day,” the Carole King-Gerry Goffin “Take A Giant Step,” and Michael Nesmith’s “Sweet Young Thing” (co-written with King and Goffin), each an effervescent example of pop song craftsmanship.
There’s also country-tinged pop (nearly two years before The Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, mind you) in Nesmith’s “Papa Gene’s Blues,” and a prototype for The Ramones in “Let’s Dance On.” Even the goofy “Gonna Buy Me A Dog” and Davy Jones’s puppy-eyed “I Wanna Be Free” are basically agreeable, although the Byrdsy alternate version of the latter song (found on the Missing Links, Volume Two collection) remains the real keeper.
Bonus tracks on The Monkees are all previously-unreleased: an alternate version of “I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind” (slightly smoother than the version on the Headquarters LP), the always-wonderful “I Don’t Think You Know Me” (the same backing track as the version on Missing Links, but with Micky Dolenz’s vocals alternately replacing the mingling with Nesmith’s), and an early version of “(Theme From) The Monkees” (with Boyce and Hart on vocals; Dolenz is also credited, but not clearly audible).
More Of The Monkees
1967’s More Of The Monkees, the group’s second album, was by all accounts immensely disliked by The Monkees themselves, particularly Michael Nesmith (who once called it “probably the worst album in the history of the world”).  Much of the group’s distaste for the record can be attributed simply to their lack of involvement in its creation, as it was assembled largely without their input.
But for those of us on the outside looking in, time has been very kind to More Of The Monkees. There are a few regrettable clunkers (“Your Auntie Grizelda,” “Laugh” and the indescribably goopy “The Day We Fall In Love”), but the set is otherwise filled with terrific songs and performances. Micky Dolenz puts his best pout and sneer into “She” and “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” Boyce and Hart’s two classic punk tunes. Dolenz also shines on the Nesmith-written “Mary, Mary,” the King-Goffin “Sometime In The Morning” and Neil Diamond’s little-known (ahem) “I’m A Believer.”
“I’m A Believer” was the album’s big smash hit, but Davy Jones actually got the better Diamond tune in the engagingly bouncy “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow).” Jones is also allowed a couple of other decent tunes here, and Nesmith contributes a rockin’ “The Kind Of Girl I Could Love.” But the album as a whole belongs to Dolenz.
Bonus tracks on More Of The Monkees include a previously-unreleased version of “Don’t Listen To Linda” (livelier than the subsequent version on Instant Replay), the alternate version of “I’ll Spend My Life With You” (previously issued on the Listen To The Band boxed set, and even better than the version on Headquarters), a different mix of the Peter Tork-sung “I Don’t Think You Know Me” from Listen To The Band, and a great alternate version of “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” ruined by a Tork voice-over that somebody at some time must have thought was a good idea. The set closes with an appealingly tentative take of “I’m A Believer.”
In the context of continuing complaints about how The Monkees weren’t a real band (yawn) and they didn’t even play their own instruments for Chrissakes, Headquarters stands as the only album The Monkees ever made as a band:  Michael Nesmith on vocals, pedal steel guitar, six-string guitar and organ; Davy Jones on vocals, tambourine, jawbone, maracas, etc.; Micky Dolenz on vocals, drums and guitar; Peter Tork on vocals, keyboards, 12-string guitar, bass and five-string banjo.
Not to belabor this point–even rock critics know this really doesn’t matter by now–but the above credits mean that Dolenz was the only drummer on Headquarters. Tork was the only keyboardist. Aside from assistance from Jerry Yester and Keith Allison on one track (“No Time”), Nesmith, Tork and Dolenz were the only guitarists.
Supplemented only by producer/fifth Monkee Chip Douglas on bass and by cello and French Horn players on “Shades Of Gray,” The Monkees on Headquarters were as much a “real” band as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Hell, they were more of a “real” band here than The Beach Boys were on Pet Sounds.  Not bad for a bunch of TV idols with a manufactured image.
Sure, it’s all irrelevant. But Headquarters’s authenticity lends it a hard-won aura of credibility. That gives it a special place in the hearts of Monkees fans, but its virtues go beyond merely transcending the perceived limitations of The Monkees’ artificial origins. It’s a terrific record, a wonderful melange of pop, rock ‘n’ roll, folk and country influences.
Most of the album’s best moments are spearheaded by Nesmith, who pilots the band through irresistible performances of his songs “You Told Me,” “Sunny Girlfriend” and “You Just May Be The One.” Jones, perhaps physically restrained from rendering any puppy-eyed ballads, turns in two of his best vocal performances on the decidedly non-drippy “Forget That Girl” and “Early Morning Blues And Greens.”
Still, the album’s best moment is probably “For Pete’s Sake,” a wonderful peace-and-love anthem co-written by Tork (with Joseph Richards) and sung winningly by Dolenz. It’s chiefly remembered as the closing theme for The Monkees TV series’s second season, but it should have been a single.
(The album’s weak moments? There aren’t any. Even the goofy larks “Zilch” and “Band 6,” Nesmith and Dolenz’s inept attempt to play the Looney Tunes cartoon theme, are diverting and agreeable.)
Bonus tracks on Headquarters include two more tracks by The Monkees band (with John London on bass): the previously-unissued single mix of “All Of Your Toys” and a previously-unissued Nesmith-sung version of “The Girl I Knew Somewhere.” Both of these fit in perfectly with the original album.  There’s also Nesmith’s solo take on his own “Nine Times Blue,” a Tork instrumental (a weird version of “Peter Gunn”), an impromptu singalong of the traditional “Jericho” and a revealing listen to Dolenz in the studio, chatting with Douglas and singing “Pillow Time.”
Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.
The Monkees retired the group concept for Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., though the individual Monks still played alongside a varied selection of studio personnel on scattered tracks. The result remains the single strongest Monkees album, simply loaded with great tracks:  “The Door Into Summer,” “Love Is Only Sleeping,” Harry Nilsson’s “Cuddly Toy,” “Words,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” the self-consciously psychedelic “Daily Nightly,” “Star Collector” and, best of all, Michael Martin Murphy and Owens Castleman’s incomparable “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?”
Unlike Headquarters, PAC&J Ltd. does suffer from a couple of sub-par tracks in Jones’s once-more-into-the-drippy “Hard To Believe” and Tork’s annoyingly cutesy spoken-word “Peter Percival Patterson’s Pet Pig Porky.”  Bonus tracks offer previously-unissued mixes of “Goin’ Down,” “Salesman,” “The Door Into Summer,” “Love Is Only Sleeping,” “Daily Nightly” and “Star Collector,” plus another spoken-word piece by Tork. On the negative side, this was the album that introduced the dreaded Moog synthesizer to pop music, but the statute of limitations has passed on that particular Crime Against Humanity.
The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees

1968’s The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees is ambitious, though not quite in the same league as any of the four Monkees albums that preceded it. Time has been kind to its virtues–it’s a perfect encapsulation of the prototypical low-key late ’60s pop album–but its excesses are still evident.
Nesmith contributes equally to the album’s success and failure ratio. On The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees, Nesmith took full advantage of the relative freedom that the then-new “produced by The Monkees” recording policy offered him. His contributions here range from indulgent (the interminable “Writing Wrongs” and the campy “Magnolia Simms”) to accomplished (“Tapioca Tundra” and the Dolenz-sung “Auntie’s Municipal Court”). Aside from “Tapioca Tundra,” none of this really ranks with Nesmith’s best Monkees work.
As for the other Monkees, Tork is effectively shut out here, his only appearance on the original album limited to playing piano on “Daydream Believer.” Dolenz’s breathy vocals grace three winning tracks–“Auntie’s Municipal Court,” “I’ll Be Back Up On My Feet” and the simplistic but effective “Zor And Zam”–plus the not-bad “P.O. Box 9847.” As for Jones, his prerequisite drippy ballad–“We Were Made For Each Other”–isn’t really all that drippy, while “Dream World” and “The Poster” (both co-written by Jones with Steve Pitts) are decent straight pop. And the hits–“Daydream Believer” and the dynamic, perennially underrated “Valleri”–are his to sing forevermore.
Bonus tracks: Tork makes his belated appearance on The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees with a short spoken-word piece (“Alvin”) and an alternate version of his easy-going but undistinguished “Lady’s Baby.” There’s also an alternate mix of “P.O. Box 9847,” and two more Jones tracks:  the previously-unreleased “I’m Gonna Try” and an alternate version of “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” which beats the version on the Instant Replay album hands down.
Head, the 1968 soundtrack to The Monkees' only movie (so far), remains as loopy and weird as the film itself. Amidst a collage of audio snippets from the movie, six actual songs emerge. Chief among these is the gorgeous Goffin-King “Porpoise Song,” which is one of the most majestic tracks ever done under The Monkees’ aegis. Each of the six songs on Head is a worthy effort, but “Porpoise Song” and the lovely Goffin-King “As We Go Along" simply tower above the rest.
Of the other songs, Jones’s much-maligned take on Nilsson’s “Daddy’s Song”is a perfectly engaging guilty pleasure, Nesmith’s studio “Circle Sky” lacks the bite of the now-familiar live version (included as one of the bonus tracks here) and Tork’s “Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again” and “Can You Dig It” (the latter sung by Dolenz) offer a heavier sound than that usually associated with The Monkees. And, although not really a song, “Ditty Diego — War Chant” deconstructs The Monkees’ image, origins, career and reasons for existing with hysteric delight.
Aside from the live “Circle Sky,” other bonus tracks include a revealing early work-in-progress version of “Ditty Diego — War Chant” (coached by “album coordinator” Jack Nicholson), replete with an extra verse and uncluttered by varispeed effects. There’s also a Tork-sung version of “Can You Dig It,” a Nesmith-sung version of “Daddy’s Song,” a rendition of “Happy Birthday To You” from the movie and a Head radio spot. In its expanded form, Head remains a trip. (Though it’s too bad Rhino couldn’t figure out a way to reproduce the original album’s mylar-mirror cover. Or maybe not.)
(Note: At this writing, the film itself is due for imminent reissue from Rhino Home Video. Even if you’re not a Monkees fan, Head is one of the most gleefully subversive rock movies ever made, and is well worth your time.)
Instant Replay
Instant Replay,” the first Monkees album released after Tork left the fold in 1968, is obviously in a different class from Headquarters” and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. It’s not a bad album, but the high points aren’t quite as high as before, and there are fewer of them. The best track is Jones’s “You And I,” a rockin’ little number flavored with some tasty Neil Young guitar.
Nesmith also contributes some satisfying, low-key country pop, and “Tear Drop City” is acceptable as the brazen “Last Train To Clarksville” retread it is. The rest is largely forgettable, with Dolenz’s interminable, self-indulgent “Shorty Blackwell” the album’s nadir.
The non-LP single “Someday Man” leads off the bonus tracks. It’s joined by alternate versions of Nesmith’s “Carlisle Wheeling” (which he later redid post-Monkees under the title “Conversations”) and Dolenz’s “Rosemarie,” plus Jones’s previously-unissued (and not bad) “Smile.” Alternate mixes of “St.Matthew,” “Me Without You” and “Through The Looking Glass” bring the disc to its conclusion.
The Monkees Present
1969’s The Monkees Present is a generally overlooked item in the group’s album catalog. Oh, there’s some genuine drek here, notably Nesmith’s wacky “Never Tell A Woman Yes” (it’s flabbergasting to consider the many fine Nesmith tracks that were left in the vault at the time in favor of this!) and Jones’s take on Boyce and Hart’s just-plain-dumb “Ladies Aid Society.”
But there are also some real gems. Two of Nesmith’s very best country tunes, “Good Clean Fun” and “Listen To The Band,” are here, aided and abetted by his lively take on Michael Martin Murphy’s “Oklahoma Backroom Dancer.” Dolenz contributes three fine originals: the exquisite “Little Girl” (with some mesmerizing, jazzy guitar courtesy of Louie Shelton), “Bye Bye Baby Bye Bye” and the heavy-handed social commentary of “Mommy And Daddy.” Jones doesn’t fare quite as well, but “If I Knew” is agreeable enough, and he’s fully redeemed via “Looking For The Good Times,” a very nice track that dates back to the More Of The Monkees sessions.
Bonus tracks: the previously-unreleased “Calico Girlfriend Samba” (later recut by Nesmith solo), an alternate version of “Listen To The Band” and a radio spot for the album. The two other bonus tracks represent polar extremes in approach. “The Good Earth,” a spoken-word piece by Jones, is the sort of self-important sentiment that rock writers generally prefer to rip to shreds, burn to a crisp and piddle on the smoldering ashes. This writer, preparing to welcome his first child into the world and actively searching for some sign that there’ll be a good Earth for that child to live in, found it affecting and moving. So there.
On the other hand, the alternate version of “Mommy And Daddy” is genuinely shocking, primarily for the incongruity of these incendiary alternate lyrics offered by one of the nice ‘n’ cuddly Monkees. A terrific cut, but we can practically guarantee you won’t believe The Monkees actually did this.  Yikes! And we mean it, man — yikes!
From 1970, Changes features just Dolenz and Jones and was the last original album released under The Monkees’ name until 1987’s Pool It!  Changes has long been considered the low point of The Monkees’ recording career, but it has its moments. The opener, “Oh My My,” is a splendidly soulful single that should have been a hit. And “I Love You Better” is a good example of radio-ready bubblegum, vaguely reminiscent of Neil Diamond’s early singles.
Meanwhile, Jones rocks out half-convincingly on the dumb-but-endearing “99 Pounds,” while “I Never Thought It Peculiar” fulfills the dreaded Guilty Pleasure spot: it’s a gawky, guileless Boyce-Hart pop tune, devoid of definable merit yet utterly, utterly charming. Dolenz’s bubblesoul vocals almost save “Tell Me Love” (why didn’t this guy have AM radio hits in the ’70s?!), and Jones’s essential cuddliness redeems “Do You Feel It Too?”
But too much of this stuff is lame and faceless, more suited to the bland pop stylings of Andy Kim and Bobby Bloom (both of whom were involved in making Changes) than to The Monkees. It’s no real surprise that this album was effectively The Monkees’ swan song.
Changes' bonus tracks are all previously-released; attempts to come up with unreleased tracks from the vault–specifically, “Which Way Do You Want It” and “Ride Baby Ride,” which were recorded during the Changes sessions–came up empty. Instead, we have the appealingly atmospheric “Time And Time Again” (previously issued on Missing Links) and both sides of a 1971 Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones single, “Do It In The Name Of Love” and “Lady Jane,” the latter of which has never been reissued before.
Typical of Rhino reissues, each of these discs sports very nice liner notes and clean sound, and each is assembled with evident care and affection.
Although this completes the reissues of The Monkees’ original albums, Rhino has promised a new greatest-hits set, a third volume of Missing Links (yay!) and even, to the horror of many, an expanded reissue of 1987’s Pool It! One hopes that the unreleased 1970 live album mentioned in the booklet to the Listen To The Band boxed set will also finally see the light of day.
But whatever happens vis-a-vis future Monkees releases, faithful fans hereby doff their caps to the good folks at Rhino. In a cruel pop world that feels no obligation to even acknowledge the viability of The Monkees’ recorded legacy, Rhino’s fine efforts are certainly appreciated. MonkeeMen, away!