Listen To The Band: The Monkees

When I began this series last month, with The Beatles, I mentioned that I had, in my usual fashion, ‘borrowed’ the title. It therefore seemed fair that the second post should feature the band whose song gave this new series its name. They aren’t a band who have had a major influence on my musical tastes, but for a couple of years in their heyday they were everywhere, thanks in part to their TV show. This was broadcast here in the UK at teatime on Saturday, back in the days when we only had three channels, and they duly attracted a massive share of that captive audience, including my sister and me – and I think our parents quite enjoyed it too.

Allow them to introduce themselves:

The Monkees were assembled specifically to be the stars of that new TV sitcom, aimed at the youth market. It ran for a total of 58 episodes across two series from September 1966 to March 1968, after which the band continued making records until 1971. There have since been several reunion tours and a 50th anniversary album, Good Times!, in 2016. The band comprised Davy Jones (who died of a heart attack in 2012), Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork (who died of cancer in 2019). They have released a total of thirteen studio albums – only five of which were in their peak period of fame – and twenty two singles, the first eight of which were concurrent with the TV series. After the series was cancelled they began recording songs that they had written, or had chosen, and Mike Nesmith in particular had a solo career after leaving the band: you may recall his minor hit single Rio (#28 in the UK, 1977). For the TV series, many of the songs were written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who contributed songs to subsequent albums as well. This first song was, of course, the theme tune for the show, and was the opening track on their first album, The Monkees, which went to #1 in both the US and the UK. It wasn’t released as a single: in fact, the only track from that album to be a single was Last Train To Clarksville, which came out a month ahead of the series as a lead for it, reaching #1 in the US and #23 in the UK. We needed to see the show before we bought their records by the truckload! And if any of you are fans of that song…I’m sorry, but it isn’t in this post, as I preferred most of their others to it.

After the smash hit success of the TV series the band were quickly brought back to the studio to record a new album. This became More Of The Monkees, which was released in January 1967 and displaced its predecessor at the top of the US albums chart, where it remained for 18 weeks. It was also a #1 album in the UK. As with their first album, only one single was released from it. You may know it:

The song was written by Neil Diamond, and was a major hit: #1 in both the US (for seven weeks) and the UK (for four weeks), and in many other countries too. In the days before streaming came along, it sold over 10m physical copies – one of only around forty singles to have achieved that. Having the TV series no doubt helped, as the song featured in it for four consecutive weeks, but it probably didn’t need that anyway, as advance orders were over 1m.

Following that runaway success they had another Neil Diamond song as their next single, released in March 1967. This one is my favourite of all of theirs:

That was only ever a single: it had been scheduled to appear on their Headquarters album but was dropped from the final pressing. I’ve no idea why! After the success of I’m A Believer this was a much more modest performer, ‘only’ reaching #2 in the US and #3 in the UK. It still sold well over a million copies though. The video is an extended version of how the song appeared in the TV show, made to match the track length, and it gives you a really good feel for what entertained 13 year olds like me at that time.

The band had four singles in 1967. The biggest of them was this one, released in December of that year:

This was another that I loved, and still do. It was written by John Stewart, shortly before he left The Kingston Trio: it became a #1 hit in the US, also in Canada and Ireland, and reached #5 in the UK. It was on their fifth album, The Birds, The Bees And The Monkees, which had the dubious distinction of being their first album not to reach #1 in the US, where it got to #3. They should worry: it didn’t make the album chart at all here!

Another of their 1967 single releases was this one, that was on the Headquarters album:

The song is a bit of a rarity, as it was the first single actually written by a band member – Mickey Dolenz, who took lead vocal. Wikipedia gives this background:

“According to Dolenz, the song was written about a party that The Beatles threw for the Monkees at the Speakeasy nightclub in London. There are references in the song to the Beatles (“the four kings of EMI“) and to other party attendees such as Cass Elliot of The Mamas & the Papas (“the girl in yellow dress”)[1] and Dolenz’s future wife, Top of the Pops“disc girl” Samantha Juste (“She’s a wonderful lady”), (“the being known as Wonder Girl”).”

The band’s discography doesn’t show this as having been a hit US single, and I’m wondering if it wasn’t actually released there? It may well not have been, as there are several British references in the song which wouldn’t have been clear to a US audience. It reached #2 here though. The title was, as British readers of the right age will know, the term of abuse hurled at his son-in-law by the Alf Garnett character in the TV sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (which would probably be banned for racism these days). The record company didn’t like the name, so the single was released as Alternate Title here. And the actor who played the RSG was Anthony Booth, father of the future Cherie Blair, the wife of a former UK Prime Minister.

The Monkees’ first single of 1968, and the last to be released while the TV show was still running, was this one:

The song was written by the Boyce/Hart pair: it was originally recorded in August 1966 and featured in the TV show’s first series in early 1967. But after contractual negotiations had got in the way, it was re-recorded in December 1967 and released as a single in February 1968. It reached #3 in the US and #12 in the UK, and was the band’s final top ten US single: the power of the TV show and its exposure had been lost! The track also appeared on The Birds, The Bees And The Monkees album, which was released in April 1968.

I mentioned earlier that the remaining three band members, as they were at that time, had reconvened in 2016 for a 50th anniversary celebration, and released the album Good Times! from it. I thought it worth sharing one of its songs, but rather than choose one of the newly written ones I’m going for this:

That isn’t an official video: it was compiled using unrelated scenes from a trip to Paris to accompany the music. The reason I chose it is that it was originally recorded in 1967 but never released, and is therefore the only song on the new album to feature vocals by Davy Jones, four years after his passing. There is an air of nostalgia about the video which in my view fits this scenario well. The album is an eclectic mix of songs from a variety of well known names: this is another Neil Diamond track. It is an innocent little song, and I rather like it. The album reached #14 in the US and #29 here in the UK.

For the final song in this piece I am, at last, bringing you the one which gave the series its name:

This one wouldn’t have been out of place in this week’s Tuesday Tunes post, with the way the crowd gradually assembles and dances all around the band – who are clearly enjoying themselves. The video is monochrome and a bit grainy, but it brings out the joy of the song much better than any of the fan versions I’ve seen for it. As for the song, I love the way it pauses, goes silent, and then comes crashing back in again. I just wish it had been longer! The song is on the album The Monkees Present, which was released in October 1969. Some of it was recorded in 1966, though, which explains the presence of Peter Tork on this track, as he had left the band by the time the album was released. The song is obviously one of Mike Nesmith’s, given that he takes lead vocal. The original concept of the album, later dropped, was to feature songs from all four band members (as they had been when the idea came up). The album wasn’t a success, only reaching #100 in the US and not charting anywhere else. This track was released as a single, getting to #63 in the US. It didn’t make our charts, but the B-side, Someday Man, got to #47 here – we can be a perverse bunch when the mood takes us!

As I said, I’m including The Monkees in this series as I felt I owed them that, for giving me its title. I wouldn’t begin to suggest that they were a band of any artistic merit: they didn’t even play on their early records, they just provided the vocals. But what they gave us was something fresh and new on TV at that time, which was perfect for a teenage audience. Yes, it was manufactured, as were the ‘bubblegum’ groups that followed. The format was ripped off for the TV cartoon The Archies, which gave us the sound of the summer in 1969 with Sugar Sugar. Yes, they borrowed a lot from the style of the Beatles’ movies, especially Help! But above all, they were fun. Isn’t music supposed to be enjoyable? And they have given us some pop classics which still sound good today. Happy listening!