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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, September 10, 2016

THE MONKEES: Welcome To The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame


 


The Monkees should have been inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame years ago. I don't care if you think the Rock Hall is a joke, mismanaged, bloated, a blight on the good name of Cleveland, and/or a glorified Hard Rock Cafe with worse food. I support the idea of rock 'n' roll honoring its own, and there is a long list of artists that I think are long overdue for such recognition. To my mind, The Monkees are The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame's most egregious omission to date.

It's been speculated (with quite a bit of supporting evidence) that Jann Wenner is specifically opposed to allowing The Monkees to be inducted into the Hall, and will categorically block any effort to recognize them. Whether or not that's true, Wenner is certainly not alone in his myopic eagerness to dismiss the Hall Of Fame merit of The Monkees; there are many, many others who likewise view our Micky, Davy, Peter, and Michael as disposable, ephemeral, artless, made-for-TV product--it may be catchy, it may be good clean fun, but it's not important, and it's not worthy of any higher-minded discussion than water-cooler chat about, say, Bonanza, or Star Trek, or Batman, or American Idol.

But lately, there seems to have been a small stirring of light, just bright enough to be seen even through the blinders of decades-old must and rock-critical stuffiness. The Monkees have been getting good press.  Critics--even in Rolling Stone!--have praised The Monkees' records, praised The Monkees' concerts, praised The Monkees' TV series and movie, and praised The Monkees' new album, Good Times! In the words of noted Monkees fan Mr. Dylan ("Marshall Dillon?""No, Bob Dylan--he'll write a song about your problem!"):  The times they are a-changin'.

For years, I've said that The Monkees would never be inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall OF Fame, even though they richly deserve that honor. But I dunno--I'm starting to wonder if it may be possible.  I'm starting to believe. And so I imagine what I would say if I were inducting The Monkees into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.  #inductthemonkees

I'm a believer.

Doesn't it feel good to say that? Doesn't it feel good to acknowledge that giddy feeling of joy that wells up within you when you hear a terrific, transcendent pop song on the radio? Isn't it great to let the music fill you with that grand, unspoken sensation of freedom, to turn the volume up as loud as you can, and just sing along, even if you don't really know all the words? Your troubles don't vanish; your cares won't slip away; your work still has to be done, your heart still requires mending, and your body and soul still shudder from the unnamed ache that never quite surrenders its grip. But for approximately two minutes and twenty-nine seconds, you are able to transcend much of what's wrong in the world.  As the song ends, you may silently thank the performers who saw you through--Weren't they good? They made me happy!--for as long as you can listen to the band.

Listen to the band.

Don't listen to critics. Don't listen to cynics, or hipsters, or tastemakers, or anyone else who claims to know you better than you know yourself. Well, scratch that--on second thought, do listen to them, in case you can learn something, on the off chance you might add some new perspective you didn't appreciate before. But don't listen to their conclusions. Listen to the band, and listen to yourself. You'll figure out what works.

That's what I had to do, anyway. I was six years old when The Monkees debuted on the charts and on TV screens in 1966, with a # 1 hit single called "Last Train To Clarksville," and a vibrant weekly NBC-TV show at 7:30, 6:30 Central time.  I didn't know they weren't cool. Because, obviously, they were cool: they were like a magic, irresistible combination of Batman and The Beatles--and really, in the '60s, what could be cooler than that?

Of course, The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame wasn't created to validate the tastes of clueless six-year-old suburban kids. That's fair. The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame is a celebration of rock 'n' roll music, an embrace of its history and the people who made it happen. It's a tribute to the power of that music, to rock's ability to express and embody rebellion, to break down barriers, to inspire, to transcend, to elevate, to unite. It's about more than catchy pop songs, more than a manufactured image, more than photogenic faces on the cover of a teen magazine. It means something. It matters.

But you wanna know something? It turns out The Monkees somehow did all of that: The Monkees rebelled. The Monkees broke down barriers. The Monkees inspired, transcended, elevated, united. The Monkees mean something. The Monkees matter. This shouldn't be true--this was supposed to be soundtrack music for a TV sitcom, for God's sake--but the evidence is there, and it's been there from the start. The evidence will make a believer out of you, too.

The Monkees were indeed a manufactured band. Producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson wanted to do a TV show about a struggling rock 'n' roll group. They didn't want to cast actors proficient at playing a smooth, safe cathode-ray likeness of the American teen; they wanted verisimilitude and some semblance of authenticity--believability, if you will.

So out went the call, to one and to all, and auditions brought in such notable almost-Monkees as Stephen Stills and Paul Williams. The casting call also brought in a folksinger called Michael Blessing, who then reverted to his real name, Michael Nesmith. Another folksinger, Peter Tork, was recommended to the producers by Stephen Stills. Singer and actor David Jones--already a veteran of the Broadway stage and multiple TV appearances--was under contract to Colpix Records, the precursor to The Monkees' newly-created record label, Colgems. And actor and singer Micky Dolenz, a former TV child star, was sent to the auditions by his agent. Natural selection. Evolution. Schneider and Rafelson winnowed down their choices, and selected these four prime mates to be their pop puppets. Micky, Davy, Peter, Mike. The Monkees.

That was the prefabricated process that created The Monkees. But even that's an unfair dismissal of the talents these individual Monkees brought to the project. People think it's easy to assemble a pop phenomenon, that--in the words of that other Prefab Four, The Rutles--all you need is cash. If you have enough money, if you can create your own slick, shiny infrastructure, then you can grab just any quartet of poor schlubs off the street, and presto! You've got your own answer to The Monkees!

Bullshit.

Does anyone really think it's that easy? If you think so, fine--you do it. Go ahead. A lot of folks have tried, and no one has come close to succeeding on the scale of The Monkees. There have been short-term success stories--plastic, interchangeable boy-band and girl-band hitmakers--but there has been nothing in this category to compare to the prevailing impact of The Monkees.

Impact.

That's what a hall of fame is all about. When we look at the careers of artists and performers, we measure their impact, a combination of artistic merit, influence, and yes, popularity. Really, a Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame-caliber act needs at least two of these qualifications; The Monkees have all three.

The Monkees' popularity is indisputable fact: # 1 singles, # 1 albums, the best-selling musical act of 1967, famously outselling The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined; The Monkees' recordings have remained radio staples for five decades, and show no sign of ever fading away. Reruns of the TV series have continually renewed the group's fan base, as new generations of fans have discovered the enduring appeal of four guys walking down the street, getting the funniest looks from everyone they meet. The Monkees charted again, with both old and new recordings, in 1986. The Monkees charted yet again in 2016, with a fantastic new album, Good Times! Their live shows have continued to draw crowds and earn rave reviews. People like The Monkees.

Popularity alone does not make an act worthy of induction into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame; there are dozens and dozens of mega-selling pop entities that will never be considered Hall Of Fame material, and rightly so. But The Monkees were also influential. More than any other act--even more than The Beatles--The Monkees brought the burgeoning '60s counter-culture into everyday American living rooms, via their weekly TV showcase. They had long hair. They brandished peace symbols. Timothy Leary called The Monkees TV series "a classic Sufi put on. An early-Christian electronic satire. A mystic magic show. A jolly Buddha laugh at hypocrisy." John Lennon called The Monkees "the greatest comic talent since The Marx Brothers," and said he never missed a show. As lead singer for The Stone Poneys, Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer Linda Ronstadt had her very first hit with a Michael Nesmith composition, "Different Drum." Rock And Roll Hall Of Famers Run D.M.C. and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band both recorded Nesmith's "Mary, Mary." Rock And Roll Hall Of Famers The Sex Pistols covered "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone."  Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer Elvis Costello has praised The Monkees, and Michael Stipe of Rock And Roll Hall Of Famers R.E.M. has specifically cited The Monkees as a key influence. Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Frank Zappa, and George Harrison have all publicly defended The Monkees against naysayers. That ain't bad for a group that claimed to be a manufactured image, with no philosophies.

The Monkees' recordings have likewise stood the test of time. Many were too quick to dismiss this stuff as puerile, bubblegum, pure pabulum for know-nothing preteens. This was never accurate. The Monkees' hits in the '60s--"Last Train To Clarksville,""I'm A Believer,""A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,""Pleasant Valley Sunday,""Daydream Believer,""Valleri"--are sterling examples of brilliant pop songcraft, effervescently performed, and no more bubblegum than "Paperback Writer,""California Dreaming,""I Get Around," or "Ruby Tuesday." Beyond the hits, even The Monkees' earliest albums were just loaded with nonpareil pop gems, from the Boyce and Hart garage pop stomper "She" through the Neil Diamond confection "(Look Out) Here Comes Tomorrow" to a wealth of Michael Nesmith originals, produced by Nesmith himself. Any one of these--all of these--could also have been another hit record for The Monkees.

Part of the ongoing rap against The Monkees, even among critics who may concede that some of the records were okay, is the claim that Micky, Davy, Peter, and Michael were just small cogs in a bigger machine. It's true that the Monkees phenomenon doesn't happen without a significant number of players behind the curtain. We should give an enormous amount of credit to Raybert--Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson--for creating The Monkees, to Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker for developing the concept and writing the pilot episode, to director James Frawley, and later to an unknown actor named Jack Nicholson, who was brought in to help concoct The Monkees' only movie, the dark, bitter, and fascinating film Head. Credit is due to music mogul and Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer Don Kirshner, who put together The Monkees' initial music-making machinery; to songwriters and producers like Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Neil Diamond, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Jeff Barry, Chip Douglas, and Harry Nilsson, among a long list of others. Credit also to the amazing session musicians who helped to make The Monkees' sound, from members of the legendary Wrecking Crew to Boyce and Hart's Candy Store Prophets, and to guests like Keith Allison, Glen Campbell, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young. So yeah, credit to all of these worthy parties.

But it's equally true that the Monkees phenomenon doesn't happen without the unique, specific talents and contributions of The Monkees themselves. The Monkees had a rock-solid infrastructure behind them. So did Elvis Presley. So did the Motown groups. We should always credit the talent and magic that works behind the scenes. But the spotlight falls on the performers. The whole thing falls apart if the performers aren't great, too.

It's been said before, and it's cliche, but it's nonetheless worth repeating: The Monkees were lightning captured in a bottle. Micky Dolenz was an incredibly gifted pop and rock 'n' roll singer. Davy Jones' stage and screen experience forged a charming personality and the impeccable instincts of a consummate showman. Peter Tork was a classically-trained musician. Michael Nesmith was a talented songwriter with a decidedly maverick point of view. The group didn't form organically; they were put together, assembled (like The Sex Pistols). Alchemy. It can produce combustible results. It can create utter, useless crap. The alchemy of The Monkees created gold.

The Monkees began as puppets, with Don Kirshner pulling the strings. The results were splendid, but The Monkees wanted a say in their own musical fortunes. This ad hoc combo had become a functioning, concert-playin' garage band. They wanted to play on their records. They wanted some level of input on the songs they were recording.  They wanted a voice--a face, a voice, an overdub has no choice, an image cannot rejoice--and Don Kirshner wanted them to cash their checks and shut up when they weren't singing. The Monkees stood firm in their Thom McCann's, and Raybert dismissed Kirshner from the project. Micky Dolenz tells the story often: Leonard Nimoy had become a Vulcan, Pinocchio had become a real boy...and The Monkees had become a band.

1967's Headquarters album was the immediate result. Working with producer Chip Douglas and only a small number of supporting studio personnel, The Monkees made a terrific album as The Monkees. Aside from one single track recorded with outside musicians, Nesmith, Tork, and Dolenz were the only guitarists on Headquarters; Dolenz was the only drummer. The album was charming, authentic, and real--something to believe in. It became the first pop album to reach # 1 in Billboard without the benefit of a hit single; it was # 1 for a whole week before being replaced by the second pop album to reach # 1 without a hit single, something called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Throughout that summer of '67, Headquarters would remain at # 2, just below Sgt. Pepper. I love Sgt. Pepper, but I gotta tell you I listen to Headquarters more often.

(Headquarters also merits a passing comparison to one other classic album, The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. Brian Wilson's masterpiece Pet Sounds is one of the all-time greatest albums--probably the greatest, I think. Headquarters isn't as good as Pet Sounds--there isn't anything else as good as Pet Sounds--but I like to point out that Brian Wilson created most of Pet Sounds with studio musicians, rather than with his fellow Beach Boys. The Monkees were more of a real band on Headquarters than The Beach Boys were on Pet Sounds.)

Is that point relevant? No, of course not. But it illustrates the sheer silliness of the stupid litmus tests that have so often been used to deny the artistic viability and credibility of The Monkees. The Monkees were teen pop idols who didn't (initially) play on their records? That is also true of Elvis Presley. They were sold via carefully-marketed PR hype? Yep, just like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. They didn't write they own songs? Well, my friends, The Monkees wrote more of their own material than did The Drifters, The Animals, The Four Tops, The Supremes, Elvis, and maybe The Yardbirdscombined. It would be absolutely ludicrous to deny any of these legendary acts their rightful place in The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. And now, we finally recognize that The Monkees belong here, too.

The Monkees' records are full of highlights, including Nesmith's pioneering country-rock, which was roughly contemporary to Gram Parsons' work with The International Submarine Band, but appeared on record before Parsons did, and before Gram's work with The Byrds on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. The Monkees were among the first, and possibly the first, to use a Moog synthesizer on a pop album. Forget the hits, even as unforgettable as they are: listen to some of the album tracks. Listen to the singles that weren't hits. Listen to some of the wealth of material The Monkees recorded in the '60s, but which we didn't get to hear until decades later. Listen to "Porpoise Song." Listen to "Early Morning Blues And Greens." Listen to "Tapioca Tundra." Listen to "All Of Your Toys" and "The Girl I Knew Somewhere." Listen to "For Pete's Sake," the track Peter Tork co-wrote with Joseph Richards for Headquarters, and which became the closing theme for the TV series: "In this generation, in this loving time, in this generation, we will make the world shine."

Listen to those first two Kirshner-approved records. Listen to Headquarters. Listen to Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. Listen to The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees. Listen to Head, and see that film, for cryin' out loud! Listen to it all. And listen to the band.

After two seasons, the TV series ended in 1968. The feature film Head was a box office disaster, though its considerable virtues are widely recognized today. Peter Tork left The Monkees. Michael Nesmith stayed for two more albums, then also split. Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones did one final album as a Monkees duo in 1970, and that was the end of The Monkees.

But The Monkees never ended. The TV show remained in perpetual reruns. In 1986, marathon Monkees airings on MTV heralded resurgent Monkeemania, and Micky, Davy, and Peter regrouped; Michael declined the invitation, but did rejoin his erstwhile co-workers for one concert cameo and one Christmas video. The Monkees have been with us, off and on, in varying incarnations ever since. All four reunited for a new album, a new TV special, and a UK tour in 1996. A 2011 tour, again with Micky, Davy, and Peter, embraced The Monkees' legacy as never before, including deep, deep cuts and fan favorites. Critics began to come around. Maybe, they seemed to say, maybe there was something to these Monkees after all. Maybe it's not too late to believe.

Davy Jones passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly, in February of 2012. The hearthrob, the pretty face with the heart of gold, the teen idol with the biggest heart of any entertainer...his own heart could no longer sustain itself. Davy Jones gone? It couldn't be. It just couldn't.

Before Davy's death, The Monkees had been discussing a reunion tour of all four, spotlighting the Headquarters album. After Davy's memorial service, Micky, Peter, and Michael agreed to carry out that plan in Davy's memory. I saw a show on that tour, and I'm not exaggerating when I tell you it was one of the very best concerts I've ever attended.

In 2016, the surviving Monkees marked their 50th anniversary with a new album, Good Times! A mix of brand-new tracks and reworkings of unfinished tracks from the vaults, Good Times! was greeted with accolades, enthusiasm, and sufficient sales to push it into the upper level of the Billboard charts. The Monkees, with a hit record, in 2016? That's the power of belief, I'd say. Davy Jones is represented on Good Times! by his winning lead vocals on a remixed version of Neil Diamond's "Love To Love," with new backing vocals from Peter and Micky. Good Times! pays fitting tribute to the arc of The Monkees' '60s heyday, reflecting both the pristine pop of the earliest Monkees records and the bolder confidence of Pisces and The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees. There is something simply otherworldly that occurs on the rare occasions when Michael and Micky sing together, as evidenced in particular on the Good Times! track "Me & Magdalena." Many fans were pleased to declare Good Times! on a par with the best of The Monkees; some suggested it might be The Monkees' best album, period.

I'm a believer.

Belief sustains us, even when everyone says we're wrong. Music comforts us, when much of life may seems uncertain and perilous. Love, hope, and friendship encourage us, when our senses and surroundings insist there's little of substance left to grasp and hold fast. We are saved by our friends, our hope, our love, our music; we are saved by our belief.

The music of The Monkees has been my friend for over fifty years. As a six-year-old kid infatuated with these fun-loving characters on my TV screen; as a preteen learning about comedy (and training for eventual Marx Brothers worship) via Monkees reruns on Saturday mornings; as a teen falling hard, well after the fact, for The Monkees' music in the '70s; as a young punk rocker in the '70s and early '80s, eager to defend The Monkees on all fronts; as a record store manager in 1986, mentoring the new, young Monkees fans that MTV had brought through our doors; as a pop journalist, who has written more about The Monkees than I've written about any other subject; and as an unrepentant, unapologetic fan, I know how much The Monkees have always meant to me. Whatever man I am, whatever person I try to be, watching The Monkees, and listening to The Monkees, is an essential part of me. The delight and wonder that The Monkees' sunshine factory has brought into my world--into this world, our own world--is beyond measure. With my fools' gold stacked up all around me, in rows of houses that are all the same, as good times start and end, and we have to do this all over again: we'll make up our story as we go along. I have no more than I did before, but now I've got all that I need.

Micky. Davy. Peter. Michael.

Weren't they good? They made me happy. I'm a believer. I welcome you as a believer, too. And, at long last, we finally welcome The Monkees to The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

That was, uh, a little too long.


And it looks like we made it to the end!