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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.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

ONCE UPON A ONCE-IN-A-WHILE: My 25 Favorite Monkees Tracks

When I compiled a list of My All-Time 25 Favorite Beatles Tracks a few months back, I figured that I'd eventually follow it with a similar piece about my favorite tracks by The Monkees. Folks who aren't Monkees fans find that notion odd, but no matter. I've been a devotee of Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith since I was six, hooked by the TV show in 1966 but in full-on thrall to the group's musical legacy ever since. The Monkees will always remain one of my all-time favorite recording artists. People who don't get that are, by definition, people who just don't get it.

That said, I confess it was much, much easier to narrow down my Monkees choices than it was to edit The Beatles to a mere 25 songs. While I certainly need more than 25 Monkees songs in my life--I'm of the opinion that a four-disc anthology would not be adequate to tell the Monkees story--it was a relatively simple matter for me to immediately come up with a list of 40 Monkees favorites-among-favorites. It was a little tougher to winnow the selections to a final 25, but I'm a believer! And yeah, "I'm A Believer"--The Monkees' biggest hit--was one of the casualties in going from 40 tracks to 25. "Daydream Believer" didn't even make my Top 40, even though I love that song, too. But there are other Monkees tracks I love more. I mean, I love a gawky, awkward 1970 track called "I Never Thought It Peculiar," which wouldn't be a likely candidate for anyone's Top 50, and it certainly never came near my Top 25. I love it anyway.

And there are lots of Monkees tracks I love less. As much as I adore the majority of Monkees cuts, they do have a higher dross to gold ratio than The Beatles. There are Beatles songs I'm tired of hearing--I'm looking at you, "All You Need Is Love"--and many Beatles songs I don't specifically care about. But for every "Wild Honey Pie" on The Beatles' c.v., The Monkees counter with a "Never Tell A Woman Yes" and a "The Day We Fall In Love" and a "Shorty Blackwell" and a "She's Moving In With Rico" and a "Skipping Stones," each of which is far less palatable than The Beatles' merest throwaway.

But the good stuff? The great stuff? Man, the best of The Monkees can stand with the best of anyone. Here are the 25 Monkees tracks I think stand up the best. Tracks are listed alphabetically, without ranking. Any track officially released by The Monkees is fair game, including vault-raids of previously unissued cuts exhumed as bonus tracks or rarities CD fodder in later years. For no real reason, I stayed exclusively with studio tracks rather than live recordings; if you like, please consider The Monkees' live "Circle Sky" from the movie Head as a supplemental track to this Top 25. And now: here they come, walkin' down the street....

ALL OF YOUR TOYS:  Once upon a once-in-a-while/It's hard to remember to smile/Just like all of your toys. In 1967, "All Of Your Toys" was supposed to be The Monkees' third single, a follow-up to the smash "I'm A Believer," but with The Monkees themselves playin' the instruments on record for the first time (aided by Deputy Monkee John London on bass). A combination of Musical Supervisor Don Kirshner's recalcitrance and a publishing technicality--the song's author Bill Martin refused to surrender publishing to The Monkees' corporate masters--torpedoed that plan, and "All Of Your Toys" was not released at all. The track was thought lost, but it was discovered and finally issued in the wake of resurgent Monkeemania in 1987. It's a lovely precursor to the simple, uncluttered charm of The Monkees' Headquarters album, with a characteristically commanding Dolenz vocal soaring above a chuggin' little pop combo with one foot in folk and country and the other foot planted firmly in the garage.

AS WE GO ALONG: The voice of Micky Dolenz is one of the reasons that The Monkees' music has withstood the test of time with far greater resilience than one would expect from what was originally a prepackaged pop product. This cat can sing, as evidenced by his performance of this fascinating Gerry Goffin-Carole King number from The Monkees' dark and brilliant film Head. When my This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio co-host Dana Bonn and I played hooky from our weekly radio show to see The Monkees live in 2012, Micky's performance of "As We Go Along" took our breath away.

BIRTH OF AN ACCIDENTAL HIPSTER: No one saw this one coming. The surprise announcement that surviving Monkees Dolenz, Tork, and Nesmith--Jones passed away in 2012--would mark the group's 50th anniversary in 2016 with a new Monkees album called Good Times! was unexpected enough, and word that Noel Gallagher of Oasis and Paul Weller of The Jam and Style Council had collaborated on a new composition for this new Monkees record bordered on the flabbergasting. But the result? Lord! "Birth Of An Accidental Hipster" builds a rainbow bridge from the best of The Monkees circa 1968 into this far-future world of the 21st century, a track that sounds simultaneously classic and contemporary. If it had magically appeared on The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees or the Head soundtrack in '68, it would have been the greatest cut on the former and the second-greatest on the latter. Yet it doesn't sound retro at all, at least not to my ears. Nesmith sings this with a force and conviction that almost sounds like he's still that young maverick of fifty years ago, just a bit more seasoned, certainly wiser, but resolutely unbowed. Dolenz chimes in vocally to make it a pop song. Together, they make it a masterpiece. Listeners of the ultracool satellite radio station Little Steven's Underground Garage voted "Birth Of An Accidental Hipster" as The Coolest Song In The World for 2016.

DAILY NIGHTLY: Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. is my favorite Monkees album, a 1967 triumph that merges the Monkees-as-a-band approach of the same year's Headquarters album with the use of studio musicians--a step backward in Peter Tork's view, but a commonplace occurrence in rock, pop, and soul, then and now. There is simply no way that "Daily Nightly" would have made it onto a Monkees album during the pre-Headquarters Kirshner regime, with Nesmith's stream-of-conscious lyrics and Dolenz's a-bleepin' and -blorpin' stylings on Moog synthesizer. Oh, Michael! Kirshner would have implored; That's not what the kids want to hear! Micky's lead vocal delivers as always, taking flight above an augmented Monkees consisting of Nesmith (guitar), Tork (organ), Jones (percussion), producer Chip Douglas (bass), and "Fast" Eddie Hoh (drums), a group that cooks, cleans, and puts the cat out at night.

THE DOOR INTO SUMMER: The blend of Micky and Michael's voices is a rare treat to be savored. Bill Martin's "The Door Into Summer" provides perhaps the best example of this, with Nesmith's earnest lead blanketed by the warmth of Dolenz's harmony, a beautiful combination softening the blow of a devastating study in white-collar futility: With his travelogue of "Maybe next year" places/As a trade-in for a name upon the door/And he pays for it in years he cannot buy back with his tears/When he finds out there's been no one keeping score. Pathos, with an implied sympathy for those who squandered every chance they had along the way.

FOR PETE'S SAKE: A hippie-era peace 'n' love call to...well, not to arms exactly, but to make the world shine, in this generation, in this loving time. Written by Peter Tork and Joey Richards, the title "For Pete's Sake" echoes Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" (written by Peter's friend Stephen Stills) and is almost a companion piece to it. An album track on Headquarters, an LP which spawned no singles (a decision that merits the technical description "stupid"), "For Pete's Sake" became well-known as the closing theme on second-season episodes of The Monkees series. Micky sings (and drums), Peter plays lead guitar, and it shoulda been a hit.

THE GIRL I KNEW SOMEWHERE: Nesmith's "The Girl I Knew Somewhere" was originally planned to share a single with the shelved "All Of Your Toys." As the B-side of "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You," it became the first public document of The Monkees themselves playing on record (with bassist Chip Douglas). Nice introduction, even if too few acknowledged it. Nesmith occasionally expressed disinterest in writing pop songs, claiming weightier songwriting goals, but he was damned good at writing pop songs. While an alternate version of "The Girl I Knew Somewhere" features a Nesmith lead vocal, the familiar Dolenz lead is unbeatable, propelled by Tork's harpsichord, Nesmith's guitar, Jones' tambourine, and Douglas' bass. In the early '90s, I knew a college-age Monkees fan named Jennifer Skaja, and she became a fan in part because songs like "The Girl I Knew Somewhere" sounded a bit like R.E.M. I agree with Jen on that point, and I would further state that a segue of R.E.M.'s "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" into The Monkees' "The Girl I Knew Somewhere" would be a just killer 1-2 punch.

(I'M NOT YOUR) STEPPIN' STONE: Paul Revere & the Raiders cut the first version of Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart's "Steppin' Stone," and there's ample rockin' reason why many consider the Raiders' take to be definitive. The Sex Pistols covered it in the '70s, certifying the song's enduring, surly cred. The Raiders were a rock 'n' roll group masquerading as costume-party Revolutionaries, so of course their "Steppin' Stone" simmers with authority and swagger. Yet I like The Monkees' version best. Although they were still just a prefab entity at the time, The Monkees' machine somehow created a rendition with even more punch than the original, more power, more precision; it can't match the seeming abandon of the Raiders, but it matches and even slightly surpasses their intensity. Puppets with a chip on their shoulders? Both "The Girl I Knew Somewhere" and Headquarters were just around the corner. The Monkees would not remain puppets for much longer.

LAST TRAIN TO CLARKSVILLE: If I've seemed dismissive or critical of Don Kirshner's tenure as The Monkees' musical supervisor...well, that would be because I have been dismissive and critical of Kirshner's actions. But make no mistake: The Monkees would not have happened without Kirshner. He knew what he was doing, he was very good at what he was doing, and the Monkees music-makin' machine he facilitated was efficient and effective. His downfall was in believing that he alone was responsible for The Monkees' success, leading to his refusal to recognize that maybe possibly the members of the group might be able to make some contributions of their own. This turn made him a villain in a story where he'd started out as a hero. The Monkees' first single "Last Train To Clarksville" shows how golden Kirshner's Golden Ears could be: songwriters (and producers) Boyce & Hart act as benevolent Frankensteins, mixing Beatles influences (primarily "Paperback Writer," but with a guitar riff that's a funhouse-mirror reflection of "Day Tripper") with Pop Americana to create The Monkees' sound. For added hip, the song's Viet Nam War reference--And I don't know if I'm ever coming home--is so subtle the guys who wrote it and the guys who sang it may not have even realized it. Kirshner, Boyce, and Hart were certainly adept at assembling studio players, and they're revealed as friggin' geniuses for giving the lead vocal to Micky Dolenz. Amid some turbulence, Boyce & Hart's relationship with The Monkees survived the group's rift with Kirshner; it's a shame Kirshner couldn't figure out a way to make peace as well.

A LITTLE BIT ME, A LITTLE BIT YOU: Kirshner's last stand, but it's a really, really good last stand. Most regard this Neil Diamond ditty as an inferior follow-up to his SuperMegaSmash Monkees hit "I'm A Believer," but I actually like it better. Part of the reason is circumstantial: the original Colgems 45 of "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You" pounds and pops in a way no CD (or LP) reissue has ever managed to recapture. "I'm A Believer" is a better song, and arguably a better record, but I feel a vibrant and pervasive connection to "A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You," a connection its "Believer" big brother can't equal. (For a coincidental commentary on Kirshner's exit from the Monkees project, read the lyrics to this song as an approximation of what I think Kirshner shoulda said to The Monkees at the time. Except maybe not addressing the group as "Girl.")

LOOK OUT (HERE COMES TOMORROW): The quirk of alphabetizing places two Neil Diamond compositions back-to-back. When I was a six- and seven-year-old first-generation Monkees fan in the '60s, "Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)" was probably my favorite Monkees track, and I was amazed to discover years later that it wasn't a hit record, and wasn't even a single. But I knew it from the TV show, and from my brother's copy of More Of The Monkees. Bouncy, bubblegummy, and engaging in a way that only the most radio-ready pop song can be. My favorite Jones vocal, at least among records released in the '60s.

LOVE IS ONLY SLEEPING: I've written elsewhere of my discovery of the Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. and Head albums as a high school senior in the Spring of 1977. I had already heard "Love Is Only Sleeping" in TV reruns, but it really hit me for the first time in '77. Lyrically, this Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil song may be about female sexual dysfunction (more so than Sandie Shaw's deceptively-titled "Girl Don't Come" anyway), but it's so much more than that. It's a tale of hope. It's a tale of frustration and despair conquered by passion and persistence, sweet deliverance earned and embraced. Chip Douglas' bass and Nesmith's guitar slice, as Michael's lead vocal shimmers with cool, calm confidence, all made breathier and more inviting by harmony from Dolenz. Love is only sleeping. Try it! It can work for you, too!

LOVE TO LOVE: Neil Diamond wrote four songs for The Monkees. We've discussed "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You," "Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)," and (in passing) "I'm A Believer," but my pick of the bunch is "Love To Love," recorded right before Kirshner's expulsion in '67 and officially unreleased until the '80s (on Rhino Records' 1982 picture disc Monkee Business, though a lo-fi, bootleg-quality recording of the track appeared on a 1979 Australian compilation called Monkeemania, released by Arista). This is my favorite Davy Jones song, an absolutely winning confection of pure, sweet pop music. The version released on the 1996 vault dive Missing Links Volume Three is sublime, but I've come to prefer the 2016 remix used for the Good Times! album, with its added backing vocals by Peter and Micky.

ME & MAGDALENA: The first two digital singles released in anticipation of Good Times! in 2016 were "She Makes Me Laugh" and "You Bring The Summer," two chirpy, catchy bubblenuggets that did nothing to prepare anyone for the third single, "Me & Magdalena." Written by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie, "Me & Magdalena" offers the welcome return of that much-missed Nesmith and Dolenz vocal blend, all in service of a song that is breathtakingly beautiful while hinting at the devastating sadness of an impending loss. The faster "Version 2" included as a bonus track on the digital edition of Good Times! recalls The Velvet Underground, and it's wonderful, but it can't replace the sheer depth of emotion conveyed in the slower, more somber album version.

OH MY MY: My lovely wife Brenda's favorite Monkees song, a criminally-underrated failed single from 1970 that should have been a massive AM radio smash. Micky's vocal is so soulful, seething with desire as guitars stomp and churn. "Oh My My" does not get its just due as one of The Monkees' greatest singles.

PLEASANT VALLEY SUNDAY: If we had to pick one track to represent The Monkees, my choice would be "Pleasant Valley Sunday, " the second best song that Gerry Goffin and Carole King wrote for the group. "Pleasant Valley Sunday" is the definitive Monkees track, with a mix of contributions from The Monkees themselves and their studio pals--Micky on the lead vocal (with Davy and Michael singin' along), Michael on electric guitar, Peter on piano, Davy on percussion, plus Chip Douglas, "Fast" Eddie Hoh, and Bill Chadwick (the latter on acoustic guitar)--performing a track from one of Don Kirshner's favorite songwriting teams, but all engaged in the track to a degree and in a manner that could not have been possible when Kirshner was in charge. Some have condemned the lyrics as too pat and predictable in their dismissal of suburban values, and there's some merit in that criticism. It doesn't matter. The song is perfect, the performance is pristine. The local rock group down the street is working hard to learn their song...and succeeding in that effort beyond anyone's wildest dream.

PORPOISE SONG (THEME FROM "HEAD"): If "Pleasant Valley Sunday" is The Monkees' defining moment, "Porpoise Song" is The Monkees' greatest moment. Another Goffin-King song, another incredible Dolenz vocal, and a...I dunno, a majesty that just elevates this track into some celestial realm beyond worries or cares. Davy's vocal here is subordinate to Micky's, but its effect kicks the song even higher, and the subsequent blend of those two voices is awe-inspiring, even chilling, in the most sublime and agreeable way. If "Porpoise Song" had been the only thing ever released under The Monkees' name, I think I'd still love The Monkees on that merit alone.

SHE: How in God's name does a track by a made-for-TV combo carry such heart, such weight, such love-lorn ache? It's impossible but true. Credit again to Kirshner's machine, especially to songwriters and producers Boyce & Hart, for assembling the pieces and makin' 'em sneer; credit again to Micky Dolenz, who is by now playing the roles of seasoned frontman, pop idol, working drummer, and world-class rock star with increasing conviction and accomplishment, blurring and ultimately erasing the line between fact and fancy. She needs someone to walk on so her feet don't touch the ground. Dolenz delivers the line with sorrowful panache, then adds But I love her! I need her! I want her! Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, She!  There's a Monkee in pain, I tell ya. The catharsis is transcendent.

SOMETIME IN THE MORNING: This King-Goffin tune may be the prettiest pure pop chronicle in The Monkees' canon. "Sometime In The Morning" is understated and elegant, and embellished by more simply gorgeous Dolenz vocals.

SUNNY GIRLFRIEND [acoustic remix of master vocal]: Nesmith's "Sunny Girlfriend" is one of the many highlights on Headquarters, a rollickin' country-rock romp with a freewheeling ambiance that gives sound and form to the feeling of liberation and possibility The Monkees must have felt as they sought to establish themselves outside of Kirshner's assembly line. The joy is infectious, and even more so in this acoustic remix found on the 3-CD Headquarters Sessions set. She owns and operates her own sunshine factory. If ultimately a put-down of a girl who "doesn't really care," it is neither hapless nor vindictive, and maintains its joy from start to finish.

TERRIFYING: The Monkees' recording of Zach Rogue's "Terrifying" has never appeared on any CD, and its only physical media incarnation to date was on a limited-edition vinyl EP for Record Store Day in 2016. It is presently only available to download as part of the expanded digital version of the Good Times! album. I suspect its relative obscurity helps to elevate it into my Top 25 here, but it's such a great track, and I'll never understand why it wasn't a part of the regular edition of Good Times!, and why it wasn't released as a single. A hit single, mind you, because this would have sounded absolutely terrific on the radio.

VALLERI: Michael Nesmith famously dismissed this as "the worst song I've ever heard in my life." He also described "What Am I Doing Hangin' 'Round?" as "the bottom of the music," so I'm thinking we shouldn't rely on Michael for an assessment of The Monkees' best. Granted, "Valleri" really ain't much of a song; the lyrics are almost laughably simple (even by the loose requirements of pop music), and the music is just a guitar riff gussied up with horns. It all works together like wizardry, alchemy even, distinguished in no small part by some mesmerizing flamenco guitar by Louie Shelton. The original made-for-TV track sounds thin; the official single and LP cut benefits from fatter sound and a more confident and assured Davy Jones vocal.

WHAT AM I DOING HANGIN' 'ROUND?: "Bottom of the music?" Really, Michael? This is a sterling, stirring example of sprightly country-flavored pop music, co-written by Owens Castleman and future country star Michael Martin Murphey. There was a rumor that The Byrds were the studio band on this track, but it's Nesmith on guitar with bassist/producer Chip Douglas, drummer "Fast" Eddie Hoh, and banjo wiz Douglas Dillard (himself an associate of The Byrds), with Micky and Davy backing up Michael's lead vocals. This may be my all-time favorite Nesmith vocal, and it's a compelling, engaging record that shouldn't ever be dismissed by anyone, not even by the guy who sang it.

WORDS: This Boyce & Hart track is just plain cool, its visual image established by the TV show's video of the song with a switched instrumentation line-up of Monkees--Tork on guitar, Nesmith on bass, Jones on drums, Dolenz with tambourine in hand--somberly lip-syncing with brooding intensity. On record, alternating lead vocals by Micky and Peter spit out the venom of a spurned, mistreated victim of passion, discarded by a cruel mistress. Chip Douglas' bass writhes and coils like a deadly serpent, Tork's keyboards heighten the sense of menace, and freakin' wind chimes add a deceptively pretty veneer as the singers' hearts break, irrevocably.

YOU JUST MAY BE THE ONE: The Monkees were a band. They didn't start out as a band, and they didn't remain a band for very long. But they were a band. Forget the nonsense about them not playing, the annoying noise about their manufactured genesis, the rubbish questioning their worth. If The Monkees had remained prefab, they still would have mattered; the manner in which these four guys transcended the narrow cardboard (or cathode-ray) box of their origin is as rock 'n' roll a story as anything else you can name. From Headquarters, "You Just May Be The One" is performed by The Monkees, and (except for backing vocals by Chip Douglas) it is performed by The Monkees only. Written by Michael Nesmith. Lead vocal and guitars by Nesmith. Bass by Peter Tork. Tambourine by Davy Jones. Drums and harmony vocals by Micky Dolenz. Backing vocals by Dolenz, Jones, Tork, and producer Douglas. This is a band called The Monkees. And this band is pretty damned good.

SUPPLEMENTAL LIVE CUT: From the soundtrack (but not the soundtrack LP) of Head, "Circle Sky" just smokes. And it looks like we've made it to the end.

LAST FIVE MONKEES SONGS OUT (i.e., # 26-30): "Listen To The Band," "Early Morning Blues," "Forget That Girl," "Steam Engine," and "You And I" [from The Monkees Presentnot the same-titled song from Justus]. You have no idea how hard I tried to shoehorn "Listen To The Band" into this Top 25. The fact that even the Bubbling Under section omits such Monkees essentials as "Goin' Down," "Tapioca Tundra," "You Told Me," "Mary, Mary," "Star Collector," "Nine Times Blue," "Good Clean Fun," "Randy Scouse Git," "I Don't Think You Know Me," "You Bring The Summer," "Cuddly Toy," "Some Of Shelly's Blues," and a host of other worthies is further testimony on behalf of the sheer wealth of wonder to be found in The Monkees cavalcade o' gems.

SONGS THE MONKEES SHOULDA DONE: Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man," Michael Nesmith's "Different Drum," Gary Frenay's "Make Something Happen," John Hiatt's "Pink Bedroom."

OUR MONKEES CLOSING MANTRA: Let us remain too busy singing to put anybody down.

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Our new compilation CD This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio, Volume 4 is now available from Kool Kat Musik! 29 tracks of irresistible rockin' pop, starring Pop Co-Op, Ray Paul, Circe Link & Christian Nesmith, Vegas With Randolph Featuring Lannie Flowers, The Slapbacks, P. Hux, Irene Peña, Michael Oliver & the Sacred Band Featuring Dave Merritt, The Rubinoos, Stepford Knives, The Grip Weeds, Popdudes, Ronnie Dark, The Flashcubes, Chris von Sneidern, The Bottle Kids, 1.4.5., The Smithereens, Paul Collins' Beat, The Hit Squad, The Rulers, The Legal Matters, Maura & the Bright Lights, Lisa Mychols, and Mr. Encrypto & the Cyphers. You gotta have it, so order it here.

And here are my previous attempts to collect the best of The Monkees:

Reconsidering The Monkees, Part 1: Rows Of Houses That Are All The Same [a 4-CD anthology]

Reconsidering The Monkees, Part 2: Only True In Fairy Tales [a 3-CD anthology]

Reconsidering The Monkees, Part 3: Walking Down The Street [a 2-CD anthology]

Reconsidering The Monkees, Part 4: Hall Of Fame [a single-disc anthology]