Forget Sgt. Pepper, Monterey Pop and the Summer of Love — ’67 was the year of the Monkees!
Forget Sgt. Pepper, Monterey Pop and the Summer of Love — 1967 was the year of the Monkees.
They had a hit TV show. They had three No. 1 albums, occupying the charts for a total of 24 weeks out of the year. And their live shows were guaranteed sell outs. It was the year the Monkees had the Midas Touch. But it was the also the year that sowed the seeds of discontent.
More of the Monkees, released in January 1967, boasts the best single the group ever released: “I’m a Believer”/”(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.” The former song, by Neil Diamond, is simply pop perfection, a breezy chart topper that became 1967’s biggest selling single. The flip side, originally recorded by Paul Revere & the Raiders, was the first sign that there was more to this prefabricated four than sweet confectionary. It’s the kind of gritty, fuzzed-out, searing put down that would seem more likely to frighten off their presumed audience of 12-year-old teeny-boppers; unsurprisingly, it’s become much beloved of garage and punk bands ever since. Exhibiting his versatility as the Monkees’ strongest singer, the lead vocalist on both tracks was Micky Dolenz.
In fact, More of the Monkees has a decided garage rock element to it throughout; “She,” “Mary, Mary,” and “Your Auntie Grizelda,” Peter Tork’s loopy attack on narrow-mindedness, all have an appealing rawness about them. But the album also has a patchwork quality due to its being thrown together to take advantage of the Monkees craze while they were still hot. The record releases were never meant to be more than a way to promote The Monkees TV show. Hence there was little concern that the contributions by the show’s stars were were primarily vocal; they weren’t supposed to be a real band in the first place.
But now the music had exploded, and was actually outperforming the series. So music publisher Don Kirshner, who oversaw the show’s music, quickly fashioned an album from the wealth of material Dolenz, Tork, Davy Jones, and Michael Nesmith had been recording as part of their punishing work schedule. He made sure to add the kind of fluff that would appeal to the youngsters dreaming of their favorite Monkee (e.g. Jones’ gooey “The Day We Fall in Love”), and slapped on a cover taken from a fashion shoot the group did for JC Penney. The musician half of the quartet (Tork and Nesmith; Jones and Dolenz were the established actors) were not pleased, and demanded more control over the music on the albums that bore their names. A power struggle ensued, and the group emerged triumphant; Kirshner was out, and the Monkees were in.
The band now set out to prove themselves. “We aren’t the only musicians on this album,” the copy on the back cover of Headquarters, released in May, announced, “but the occasional extra bass or horn player played under our direction, so that this is all ours.” Dolenz even gamely got behind the drumkit. The group tapped Chip Douglas, former bassist of the Turtles, to produce, they wrote six of the album’s tracks, came up with some improv pieces, and ended up creating their most cohesive album to date. Nesmith continued his excursions into country rock with “You Told Me,” “Sunny Girlfriend,” and “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” (the latter the B-side of the poppy “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” single, both non-album tracks, and another Top 10 hit for the group). Tork snagged his first co-songwriting credit with “For Pete’s Sake,” its bright spirits leading to its being adopted as the closing credits music of the TV show.
Jones (instrumentally sticking to the tambourine and maracas) was given songs that weren’t too treacly for a change: “Forget That Girl” is a charming kiss-off, “Early Morning Blues and Greens” has a light whiff of psychedelia, and “I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind” is sweet without being cloying. But it’s Dolenz who’s the standout, providing most of the album’s lead vocals. He’s brimming with confidence on “For Pete’s Sake,” and throws himself into full-on blues shouter mode on “No Time” (though a group composition, the band gave the songwriting credit to their engineer, Hank Cicalo, as a thank you). Then there’s the impressionistic “Randy Scouse Git,” Dolenz’s first songwriting credit. It’s a recollection of the Monkees’ promotional trip to England, with teasing references to Dolenz’s future wife (“She’s a wonderful lady, and she’s mine, all mine”) and the Beatles (the “four kings of EMI”), the mellow verses contrasting nicely with the finger-wagging chorus, sung from the perspective of a member of the older generation (“Why don’t you cut your hair?”). Though Dolenz took the song’s title (which translates to “horny Liverpudlian idiot”) from the U.K. sitcom Till Death Do Us Part, the track was given the name “Alternate Title” to avoid offending the Brits.
The album was a solid effort by the group, both creatively and commercially. But it still didn’t satisfy Nesmith, always the prickliest about the musical side of things with the Monkees, who groused that Headquarters “was only marginally okay.” Instead, he conceded that the “original songwriting and song-making strategy of the first albums” was the way to go, and that the group needed to get “back to the basics of making music for the television show and trying to make good pop records.” Perhaps that’s why most of Nesmith’s vocals on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (again produced by Douglas), released in November, are on songs he didn’t write, including two of his best-ever vocals, “Love is Only Sleeping” and “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round?”
It’s also a surprisingly cynical album, from the sardonic opening of “Salesman” to the closing romp of “Star Collector,” a song about groupies that’s frankly astonishing to find on an album being marketed to pre-pubescents (“How can I love her when I just don’t respect her?” Jones blithely observes). Women are treated equally dismissively in Harry Nilsson’s “Cuddly Toy” and the self-explanatory “Don’t Call on Me.” And if those pesky females aren’t deceiving you with their “Words,” they’re busy growing up too fast in “She Hangs Out.” “Daily Nightly” veers towards pretention (without reading the liner notes, you’d never guess it’s Nesmith’s take on the 1966 Sunset Strip riots), saved by Dolenz’s impassioned vocal, and the novelty of its spooky Moog synthesizer noises (one of the first rock songs to use the instrument). And speaking of Dolenz, he gets the star turn on the record with “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s wry critique of suburbia. Dolenz hits just the right note in his delivery, taking care to not sound too judgmental, while Nesmith contributes a catchy opening guitar line; it’s another track that was tailormade for the Top 10.
And there was another chart-topper to come in 1967, “Daydream Believer,” sunshine pop that was an instant classic. But an autumnal chill was coming. “Daydream Believer” and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. were the last No. 1’s the Monkees would ever have. The group told Douglas that each member now wanted to go his own way, working on tracks by themselves without the others. The Monkees’ star that had risen so fast was now in a steady descent. In February 1968, The Monkees show was cancelled; the last new episode would air the following month on March 25. The Monkees’ feature film Head opened in November and flopped (though cult status, waiting in the wings, later salvaged its reputation). Tiger Beat had already given up the ghost, publishing the last issue of Monkee Spectacular in August. By the end of the year, Peter Tork had left the group.
Nesmith, Dolenz, and Jones, and then just Dolenz and Jones, soldiered on, but the first Monkees era came to an end in 1970. They’d eventually return, via reunion albums and concert tours. But nothing would ever compare to the incendiary heights of 1967, when it seemed the Monkees couldn’t put a foot wrong.
Like Frankenstein’s monster, they developed a mind of their own, declared their independence, and served up a tasty batch of treats that tickle the fancy of discerning pop music fans to this day.