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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.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

SHE MAKES ME LAUGH: The Monkees' U.S. Singles

                             

Okay, may as well get the confession out of the way right away:  on Thursday, while all my other pop-fan friends were flipping out over "She Makes Me Laugh," the brand-new single from The Monkees, I was thinking to myself, "Is that it?  That's all?"

Oh, put away the tar and feathers.  I'm still the unrepentant Monkees fan you all know and love..er, sort of tolerate.  By Friday morning, I'd come to like "She Makes Me Laugh" quite a bit, thanks, and my enthused anticipation for The Monkees' forthcoming new album, Good Times!, remains undimmed.

My initial reluctance to embrace "She Makes Me Laugh" boils down to two factors, one of which was unreasonable.  First, my expectations were just too damned high; The Monkees have always been one of my favorite pop groups, even when it was decidedly unfashionable to like The Monkees.  And I so, so wanted "She Makes Me Laugh" to be fantastic, better than even "Pleasant Valley Sunday" or "Sometime In The Morning" or "Words."  With  that mindset, even "Pleasant Valley Sunday" or "Sometime In The Morning" or "Words" themselves would have fallen short.

My second concern was the seemingly juvenile nature of the lyrics (written by Rivers Cuomo of Weezer).  Granted, The Monkees have often been seen as a kiddie band--created for TV, marketed via teen magazines and lunch boxes, their appeal perpetuated by Saturday morning reruns--but their records generally didn't sound child-like.  The lyrics of "She Makes Me Laugh" came across to me as puerile, simplistic, maybe even patronizing--I wasn't looking for depth, but I did expect sincerity, commitment.  Experiencing the song first via its official lyric video, with graphics from the 1960s Monkees comic books, didn't help, because it cast a spotlight on those lyrics, distracting me from the stellar performance itself.



With all of the above, though, I still found myself liking "She Makes Me Laugh" a bit more each time I heard it.  The moment of truth was when I had finally had the chance to listen to it the way God intended us to hear pop music:  in the car, heading down the highway, with the car stereo blastin' away.  Driving through the murk of what passes for Spring here in Central New York, I played "She Makes Me Laugh" three times straight before allowing my iPod to shuffle forward (through Gilbert O'Sullivan, Lesley Gore, The Sun Sawed In 1/2, and--fittingly--"Sometime In The Morning"; Blondie woulda been next, but I hadda get out of the car and go to work).

Context.

Heard in the proper context, "She Makes Me Laugh" sounds terrific, perfectly of a piece with The Monkees' irresistible existing body of work.  It sounds great on the radio, playing alongside other great pop songs that also sound great on the radio.  Man, that Micky Dolenz can sing.  The studio craft is impeccable.  In context, the lyrics work fine, and they don't sound as juvenile as they seemed at first blush.  Songs about new love may automatically make us think of youth, but the story can apply at any age:  even later in life, it's possible that a lonely heart can be redeemed by the giddy salvation of a kindred soul, the perfect succor of what Joni Mitchell called "the dizzy dancing way you feel."  And pop fans are always ready to fall in love with a new pop song.

And that video?  It's perfect.  Now I can appreciate it.  And I can't wait to hear the rest of the new album. Forgive the phrasing, but yeah:  I'm a believer.

So now we have a new single from The Monkees, the group's first in nearly three decades (since "Every Step Of The Way" in 1987), and the first to be issued as digital-only, with no physical release. There was never a single issued from the 1996 Justus album.  I don't think there's ever been a collection of The Monkees' singles, and that's fine, actually; for a group remembered by some as a hit singles factory, The Monkees' story is not told adequately by just their singles.  The Monkees had too many essential LP-only tracks (including the entire Headquarters album) for us to ever understand and appreciate them if we only look at their singles.

But what the hell.  Let's just look at The Monkees' singles.

From 1966 to 2016, The Monkees released 17 singles in the U.S.  With A-sides and B-sides, this totals 33 tracks in all; taking the 1986 remix of "Daydream Believer" out of the conversation, but retaining its B-side ("Randy Scouse Git," a British hit under the less-rude name "Alternate Title," and--belatedly--the only U.S. single appearance of any track from 1967's superb Headquarters album), that leaves us 32 tracks to play with.  For kicks, we'll tack on five tracks that were considered (but never issued) as single sides:  "All Of Your Toys" (a track blocked by Don Kirshner), "She Hangs Out" (a track Kirshner did issue in Canada, an action that precipitated his expulsion from The Monkees' machine), "Love Is Only Sleeping,""Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere" (from Then And Now:  The Best Of The Monkees), and "Never Enough" (from Justus).  So, ignoring chronology and common sense, let's put together a program of The Monkees' U.S. singles:

SHE MAKES ME LAUGH:  The Monkees' U.S. Singles (Plus) (Carlgems 001)

1.  She Makes Me Laugh
2.  Oh My My
3.  A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You
4.  Tapioca Tundra
5.  The Girl I Knew Somewhere
6.  Daydream Believer
7.  Heart And Soul
8.  Take A Giant Step
9.  I'll Love You Forever
10. I'm A Believer
11. I Love You Better
12. Good Clean Fun
13. D.W. Washburn
14. Never Enough
15. Mommy And Daddy
16. All Of Your Toys
17. Valleri
18. Last Train To Clarksville
19. It's Nice To Be With You
20. Randy Scouse Git
21. Words
22. Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere
23. Tear Drop City
24. A Man Without A Dream
25. Porpoise Song (Theme From "Head")
26. Goin' Down
27. She Hangs Out
28. That Was Then, This Is Now
29. Someday Man
30. MGBGT
31. Pleasant Valley Sunday
32. As We Go Along
33. Every Step Of The Way
34. Love Is Only Sleeping
35. (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone
36. Listen To The Band
37. (Theme From) The Monkees

Of these 37 tracks, that's 23 lead vocals by Micky Dolenz, 9 by Davy Jones, 4 by Michael Nesmith, and 1 by Peter Tork.  Remember those numbers the next time someone tells you Davy was the lead singer for The Monkees.

But that's just the singles, anyway.  The true story of The Monkees' musical legacy can only be told by considering the above along with album tracks like "She,""You Just May Be The One,""Cuddly Toy,""Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),""For Pete's Sake,""Sunny Girlfriend,""Sometime In The Morning,""The Door Into Summer,""What Am I Doing Hangin' 'Round?," and many, many others. Add to all of that the great number of fine tracks originally prepared under The Monkees' aegis in the '60s, but unreleased until we started raidin' the vaults in the '80s, and you're presented with compelling evidence of The Monkees' viability among all-time great rockin' pop acts.  I never cared much about the manufactured image; the music of The Monkees is real.

And now, "She Makes Me Laugh" proudly joins the ranks of great Monkees singles.  On May 27th, Good Times! seems certain to join the ranks of great Monkees albums.  Listen to the band, my friends.  Good times, indeed.