From the very beginning, The Monkees had no right to be any damned good at all. Manufactured band. Made-to-order songwriting. TV shows, teen magazines, a prepackaged product meant to be sold, not savored. It can certainly be enjoyed as a product, as one would enjoy a breakfast cereal, or a soft drink, or a new car or perfume, but it should be--could be--nothing more than product. It can neither serve nor achieve any greater aesthetic. It cannot have a soul. It can't be beautiful. It ain't art.
And yet, The Monkees somehow shattered all of these myths as a matter of course. The Monkees immediately defied the perceived limitations of a prefabricated entity--even when they were still a prefabricated entity--and enhanced it with their own talents, their own personalities, their own individual gifts. If they'd never done anything more than that, we'd still recall The Monkees fondly; they'd already earned respect just on the basis of what they did while coloring within the lines they were provided: those first two albums, and the first two (and a half) singles, all sterling examples of pop craft directed by a hitmaking machine, but invested and made timeless, in part, because Micky, Michael, Davy, and Peter were just plain better than they had to be.
That achievement, even taken by itself, is unmatched. Hell, even within the straight jacket of workin' for The Man, Michael Nesmith managed to get his own compositions on to Monkees LPs from the get-go, and was even able to be the studio producer for his own songs. Do you really think anyone, any schmoes off the street, could have accomplished all of this just by using the same peerless Hype 'n' Hit factory The Monkees used? You're wrong. Because if someone could have figured out a way to duplicate the success of The Monkees without bothering with those pesky individual Monkees themselves, it would have been done by now. It would have been done dozens of times by now. There have been many, many attempts, but no one--not The Partridge Family, not The New Monkees, not any vapid boy band--has ever come close, ever come within light years, of matching what The Monkees did while still attached to those silly puppet strings.
But The Monkees wanted more. The Monkees wanted a voice--a face, a voice, an overdub has no choice, an image cannot rejoice--and The Monkees wanted a say in the music released under their brand. They wanted to play the music, not just sing it. They wanted control. They couldn't take over the whole thing--they were still, effectively, employees who didn't even own the legal right to their own band's name--but the results of their efforts were glorious. Headquarters. Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. "Goin' Down." "Porpoise Song." Even as The Monkees' dark, brilliant film Head warned of a manufactured image with no philosophies, The Monkees transcended the plausible and the practical. The Monkees had an aesthetic. The Monkees had a soul. The music of The Monkees is beautiful, and it is indeed art.
Earlier this year, the announcement of a new 50th anniversary studio album by the three surviving members of The Monkees (Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, and Peter Tork; Davy Jones passed away in 2012) was greeted with an odd mixture of delight and dread, of nervous apprehension and cautious optimism. The album, Good Times!, is finally due out next week, and advance word has been uniformly promising. Both of the first two tracks released from Good Times!, "She Makes Me Laugh" and "You Bring The Summer", have served up buoyant, frothy pop music, perhaps not terribly substantive but nonetheless irresistible, irresistible, irresistible. Perhaps Good Times! would be less Headquarters or Pisces, and more along the lines of their second album, More Of The Monkees. That would have been fine, and it would have been a dramatic improvement over previous Monkees reunion albums in 1987 and 1996.
"Me And Magdalena," the third advance track from Good Times!, was released today (following a premature leak when it was played on NPR early last week). Written by Ben Gibbard of the band Death Cab For Cutie, "Me And Magdalena" is brooding, melancholy, and achingly beautiful. Michael Nesmith sings lead. While the lead vocals of Micky Dolenz have long been a chief component of The Monkees' enduring appeal, the beguiling, easy blend of Dolenz's voice with Nesmith's has been one of the group's secret weapons. A Monkees record with Micky's voice accompanying a Nesmith lead--see "The Door Into Summer" from Pisces for an example--is pure, pristine magic.
And so it is with "Me And Magdalena," a song that is at once of a piece with The Monkees' past while simultaneously sounding unlike anything else they've ever done. Nesmith's lead vocal sounds sad, wistful, full of longing; harmony and counterpoint from Dolenz add to the tracks's overall ethereal, haunting quality. I have no idea what the song's about--I've only just been informed that pop songs often have something called lyrics--but it all sounds so fragile, so delicate, so world-weary, yet somehow so filled with...hope. It sounds real. The Monkees have always sounded real to me.
Combined with the pure pop of "She Makes Me Laugh" and "You Bring The Summer," the yearning of "Me And Magdalena" further enhances the eager anticipation of Good Times! as a blissful union of More Of The Monkees and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. If we imagine for just a second that all three of these songs are about one person, we discover a stunning portrait that stings our eyes and fills us with a restless wonder of what tomorrow may hold in store: she makes me laugh; she brings the summer; and I don't know if I've ever loved any other as much as I do in this light she's under. As pop fans, as creatures of emotion and desire, vulnerable to the frailties our hearts expose, we will sing along--with conviction--with every single note. It's the only thing we believe that's true.
Good Times! will be released on May 27th. This next week can't go by fast enough to suit me.