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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.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

SECOND-HAND SOUND: Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd

Trash becomes treasure in appreciative hands. Second-Hand Sound examines used records I picked up over the years, albums that someone else discarded as unwanted or unworthy. My opinion differed from theirs.

Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd.
Colgems, 1967 

What's the best fifty-cent purchase you ever made?

For me, while I might be tempted to consider any one of several DC Comics 100-Page Super Spectaculars purchased at the four-bit cover price at various grocery stores and pharmacies in the early '70s, there's no real question about my all-time greatest bang for the half-buck. It was at Mike's Sound Center, a record store in North Syracuse, during the spring of 1977, my senior year in high school. The dirty 'n' dusty bins at Mike's were stuffed with old LPs, and I went wild, scoopin' up fifty-cent treasures by The Cowsills, Paul Revere & the Raiders, The Kinks (my first Kinks LP!), and an Atco compilation called The Super Groups, with tracks by Cream, Vanilla Fudge, The Bee Gees, Iron Butterfly (you know what song) and--best of all--"How Can I Be Sure" by The Rascals and "Mr. Soul" by Buffalo Springfield; the former tune was an oldies radio Fave Rave that I dedicated in my head to every crush I ever had, and the latter was a recent addition to my Top Of The Pops, via seeing the clip of Neil Young and the lads perform it on TV's Hollywood Palace as part of a video presentation called Rock Of The '60s at Syracuse UniversityBut I digress.

There were others, including a Ronco as-seen-on-TV comp called Do It Now (which I'd seen mentioned in an older book by my favorite author, Harlan Ellison), but I can't remember all of them forty years on. I do remember asking the woman at Mike's about their return policy, and she raised her eyebrows and said, On fifty cent records?! Point taken. I walked outta Mike's with an armful of 50-cent treasures. Of these, the creme de la creme, the prize among prizes, was Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd., the fourth album by that much-reviled made-for-TV rock 'n' roll group, The Monkees.

I could not believe my luck.

Prior to this, my Monkees album collection numbered four or five. I can't remember whether or not I got my record club copy of The Monkees' Greatest Hits by that time, but I definitely had The Monkees and More Of The Monkees (both of which had belonged to my oldest brother Art), and flea market acquisitions Headquarters and The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees. Pisces was not new to me; my friend Linda McLaren had let me borrow her copy (along with two other Monkees albums, Head and The Monkees Present), expanding my already grand appreciation of The Monkees, and fixing a determination to secure my own copies of Pisces and Head (and the other one, too; I guess). Those two albums became the kingpins of my must-have record list, a mountain of wished-for music that included The Yardbirds, Badfinger, KISS, more Kinks, more Beatles, more Dave Clark Five. But, above all of these other essentials, I wanted The Monkees' Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. and Head.  I wouldn't find a copy of the latter until my second year in college. No matter, for the moment. Because in the mean time, the surrender of a mere two quarters had granted me possession of Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd.

Do you remember those days? Those days, long before iTunes and YouTube and on-line streaming and that vast series of tubes we call the internet put us all within a fast click of Robert Klein's comic fantasy of Every Record Ever Recorded? It's a familiar refrain, but it bears repeating. In those days, if you wanted a record--even a once-popular record--after it had gone out of print, you had to hunt for it. Monkees LPs, which had originally rivaled (and even occasionally surpassed) The Beatles in units sold, had become quaint, outmoded relics, embarrassments even, no more relevant to the cool rock market in 1977 than Pat Boone or Lawrence Welk. Forget about that Prefab Four crap, kid; why aren't you listening to Pink Floyd, or maybe some disco, like all of your mainstream peers? What're you, weird or something?

Bollocks. No, I wouldn't hear The Sex Pistols for another two or three months yet, but nonetheless: Bollocks.

So I preached the Gospel according to Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith, and Davy Jones. Few listened. A few did. Pisces was Exhibit A in my argument.

For all of my prevailing affection for the album, I have to concede that both sides of Pisces open a bit weakly. The Nesmith-sung "Salesman," a presumed ode to a door-to-door peddler of illicit herbs, lacks distinction, drawing its only perceived gravitas from Nesmith's personality and the winkingly hip notion that maybe them Monkees is singin' 'bout drugs 'n' stuff. Drugs? In 1967? Har har har de har...well, yeah. At the beginning of Side Two. "Hard To Believe" is the sort of bland, starry-eyed Davy Jones balladry that non-fans dismiss as characteristic of the empty teen pap they believe (falsely) to be The Monkees' sound. In truth, neither of these two side-openers is as horrible as I thought them when I first heard the album in 1977, but nor does either make the case for The Monkees' greatness.

But the rest of the album? Man, most of the rest of the album is perfect.

The ascent of Pisces commences with its second track. "She Hangs Out" is a buoyant pop number, with Jones boppin' amiably to ersatz Beach Boys-style backing vocals, warning a pal that his rapidly-developing little sister is on the verge of embracing a new role as jailbait. How old'dja say your sister was? It would be creepy if it weren't so catchy.

This leads into a veritable victory run through four flawless--flawless--pop tracks. Nesmith takes the lead vocal on the first two, the Chip Douglas-Bill Martin composition "The Door Into Summer" and the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil almost-single "Love Is Only Sleeping." "The Door Into Summer" is a devastatingly matter-of-fact deconstruction of corporate life and upward mobility, its sad song made sweeter by a folk-rock underpinning and the irresistible harmonies of Nesmith and Dolenz. The lyrics are haunting and deadly:

With his travelogue of "Maybe Next Year" places
As a trade-in for a name upon the door
And he pays for it with years
He cannot buy back with his tears
When he finds out there's been no one keeping score

See? Now I wanna become a Socialist.

"Love Is Only Sleeping" somehow manages to be both coy and direct in addressing female sexual dysfunction, and clearing the seeming dead end of failed, hopeless relationships through the powers of patience, persistence, and passion. Its blunt tale of sex as salvation is laid (HA!) between the lines, but nonetheless startlingly frank for a pop tune sung by a bunch of TV and teen mag pinup stars. The Monkees always wanted to be more than their manufactured image, and this track certainly accomplishes that.

It's a perhaps unfortunate juxtaposition to follow this story of sexual liberation with an arguably nasty little ditty alleged to be about a gang bang. Harry Nilsson's "Cuddly Toy" sounds so jaunty, so fun, its lines delivered with such pluckiness and chirp by Davy Jones, that one might never even notice the venom dripping from those lines. The backing on this track is performed mostly by The Monkees themselves, with producer/bassist Chip Douglas. After fighting so hard to earn the right to play as a band on the previous album Headquarters, The Monkees found the studio process too arduous and time-consuming to pursue as a collective, and they wound up working alongside select session players for most of Pisces. "Cuddy Toy" is the only exception, or at least the only exception with Dolenz on drums.

Side One closes with "Words" by Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart. An earlier Boyce & Hart-produced version of the song had been used on the TV show. The remake on Pisces replaces Boyce & Hart's studio musicians with Nesmith and Tork, plus Jones on percussion, Douglas on bass, and (Fast) Eddie Hoh on drums. Given that Dolenz was The Monkees' main singer, it's notable that he doesn't get a lead vocal on Pisces until the end of Side One (and even here, he alternates lead vocal chores with Peter Tork, who generally didn't get a lot of lead mic time on Monkees records). That adds up to a whole lot of whatever, dude; "Words" is an amazing track, the musical performance is hypnotic, Micky's voice is as terrific as always, and he mixes well with Peter in the back-and-forth leads. This awesome track was a mere B-side, friends. They don't make throwaways like they used to.

Over on Side Two, once past the sticky morass that is Jones' "Hard To Believe," the Michael Martin Murphy-Owen Castleman "What Am I Doing Hangin' 'Round?" delivers a jolt of confident country-rock so forceful and authentic that a plausible rumor emerged that it was really The Byrds backing up Nesmith on this one. Well, banjo virtuoso Douglas Dillard is on the track, and Dillard played with Gene Clark as Dillard & Clark after the latter left The Byrds' nest, but there's nary a sign of a Jim McGuinn or a David Crosby; it's Nesmith, Dillard, Douglas, and Hoh, with Dolenz and Jones on backing vocals. Regardless of whether it's The Monkees, The Byrds, or The Banana Splits, the track is a stone cold classic, and it should have been a single.

After Tork mugs his way through the silly interlude "Peter Percival Patterson's Pet Pig Porky," we get to the album's actual single, and what is possibly The Monkees' defining moment. "Pleasant Valley Sunday," written by Gerry Goffin & Carole King, has occasionally been undervalued and shrugged off as too heavy-handed in its criticism of suburban values and lifestyle. I say pfui. It's a well-written pop song, neither too shrill in its dismay over rows of houses that are all the same nor too banal its yearning for a change of scenery. Its lyrics register and resonate, and its hooks and melody soar like a hit single oughtta.

So kudos to Goffin and King for crafting a cool tune. And congratulations to The Monkees for making it immortal.

"Pleasant Valley Sunday" succeeds in large part because of what The Monkees (including producer Chip Douglas) did with the song. That distinctive, unforgettable riff that opens the song? That's not on the songwriters' demo; Nesmith created that, coached by Douglas and inspired by George Harrison's "I Want To Tell You." Micky Dolenz performs the lead vocal with a conviction that never strays, a prowess that never falters. Tork's piano punctuates the delivery, the voices of Nesmith, Tork, and Jones fortify Dolenz with a bedrock foundation. This is a pretty damned good track. The group is augmented here by Douglas and Hoh, plus Bill Chadwick on acoustic guitar, but in our minds, all we can picture are Micky, Davy, Peter, and Michael. The Monkees. Come and watch them sing and play.

Anything could and should be anticlimactic after that, but Pisces continues with "Daily Nightly," a zeitgeist stream of consciousness written by Nesmith, and mesmerizingly sung by Dolenz, whose Moog stylings bubble, threaten, coerce, and propel the track in ways hitherto unheard. Faux festive chatter then introduces Nesmith's rendition of "Don't Call On Me," which he co-wrote with his pal John London. "Don't Call On Me" is very nearly a torch song, but it's performed casually, as if a weary acknowledgement of betrayals and deception in the past and in the likely future. The whole shebang ends with Goffin & King's "Star Collector," a bitter diatribe about groupies and the fleeting nature of stardom and pop idolatry, sung with swagger to spare by Jones. Don't let the door hit ya, luv.

Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. was The Monkees' last # 1 album (though their fab 2016 release Good Times! did hit the top spot on some charts). It wasn't quite the beginning of the end of The Monkees' commercial heyday, but it was edging nearer to it. The "Pleasant Valley Sunday" single peaked at # 3, their lowest-charting A-side up to that point. They would return to # 1 on The Hot 100 with "Daydream Believer" in late '67, but the # 3 hit "Valleri" in 1968 would be their last Top 10 single. The TV show was cancelled. The records sold less. The movie, Head, flopped. A TV special, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee, was a commercial and critical failure. The group shrunk by attrition, and folded.

Um. They came back, though. Look around this blog for a whole bunch of stories about that, and about many other facets of The Monkees' long career.

To me, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. remains The Monkees' best album. I can't pretend to be objective about it. I discovered it at a time in my life when it served to confirm my ideas about The Monkees, and it inspired me to become an even bigger fan than I already was. I love most parts of the two prefab albums that introduced this made-for-TV rock group; I love the authenticity and accomplishment of the hey-hey-we're-a-real-band Headquarters; I love much of the post-Pisces stuff (especially Head, and parts of The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees), though with diminishing enthusiasm for some of the later recordings. I love Good Times!, my favorite album of 2016.

But Pisces is special. The multitudes I contain include the 17-year-old me: forever in high school, forever out of place, but forever certain of the purity and sanctity of pop music, of rock 'n' roll and the feeling of freedom it represents. The Monkees were part of that for me. Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. was a part of that for me. I don't see why that would ever change.

Almost all of the fifty-cent albums I hauled away from Mike's Sound Center forty years ago are long gone from my collection, the victims of rent money purges, space consolidation, or the shiny appeal of replacement copies on compact disc. I still have The Cowsills In Concert. But even my copy of Kinks-Size--my first Kinks record--is but a memory now.

I still have that copy of Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd., though. It is the only one of The Monkees' original albums that I retained on LP; the rest were traded off when I got them on CD, and many of the CDs were shed when I purchased expanded CD versions. But the fifty-cent Pisces remains. Peter Tork autographed it for me at a Peter Tork Project club show in 1983. Micky Dolenz autographed it at a car show in '87. I tried to get Davy Jones to autograph it in the '90s, but he skipped the meet-n-greet that day, and the chance is now lost forever. I'm not holding my breath for an opportunity to get Nesmith's autograph. The autographs are nice, but not the most important thing. The record itself is always what mattered the most. It's a good record. Give it a listen some time. The local rock group down the street is trying hard to learn their song.

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"The Door Into Summer" written by Chip Douglas and Bill Martin, Screen Gems-Columbia Music, Inc. BMI