A new box set documents the iconic pop group’s declaration of independence
Headquarters was the Monkees’ album of vindication.
“We aren’t the only musicians on this album,” an inscription on the record’s back cover noted earnestly, “but the occasional extra bass or horn player played under our direction, so that this is all ours.” No longer simply trotted out to sing on cue, the Monkees finally had the opportunity to see if they could make it on their own merits.
From the moment The Monkees TV show had been cast, there had been a divide in the group between the Actors (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones), and the Musicians (Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork). While Dolenz and Jones had some music experience (Dolenz had performed in various LA bands and Jones starred on Broadway in Oliver! and had been groomed as a pop idol), Nesmith and Tork had no film experience at all. Thus they bucked the hardest against being told they could play a rock group on TV, but they couldn’t perform as a group on “their” records.
But even the Actors were put off by what they deemed the patchwork quality of their second album, More of the Monkees (which nonetheless remained at the top of the charts for 18 weeks). To that end, the four went into the studio in January 1967, recording demos of Nesmith’s “The Girl That I Knew Somewhere” and “All of Your Toys.” Little did they know that the show’s music supervisor, Don Kirshner, was already recording backing tracks for the Monkees’ upcoming releases; all they’d have to do was show up and lay down a few vocals.
Not this time. Kirshner wouldn’t listen to the band’s new material, and the Monkees refused to provide vocals for the songs Kirshner wanted. Kirshner seemingly won the battle when Jones finally agreed to record some vocals and a single of “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” was rushed out. But the single ended up being withdrawn, Kirshner was dismissed, and the next Monkees single to hit the airwaves was “The Girl I Knew Somewhere.” When he first heard it playing over the radio, “I was ecstatic,” said Nesmith. Now the Monkees were free to make their own kind of music.
Previous Headquarters CD reissues have served up some bonus material. The Rhino Handmade Headquarters Sessions box (2000), offered even more goodies, but the limited edition set quickly sold out, and now commands high prices. This year sees the release of another edition, a four CD box that approaches the period anew, featuring a sparkling new remix, speed-corrected version of the original album and a deep dive into the sessions.
Among the bonus tracks are indications of how Kirshner wanted that third Monkees album to turn out. He’d already swapped Nesmith’s lead vocal on “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” for Dolenz, feeling that Micky had the more “commercial” voice, but as good a singer as Dolenz is, the song is clearly more suited to Nesmith. The backing tracks Kirshner had recorded for “Love to Love,” “You Can’t Tie a Mustang Down,” and “Gotta Give It Time” are similarly pop leaning. Jones recorded vocals for some of these tracks, including the insipid “If I Learned to Play the Violin.” Thankfully, he was spared the indignity of having to record a vocal for a song entitled “I Wanna Be Your Puppy Dog” (one shudders at the prospect).
The Monkees had something a bit more sophisticated in mind. There’s a decided country-rock influence on Headquarters due to Nesmith’s three numbers, “You Told Me” (with a great banjo part by Tork), “You Just May Be the One” and “Sunny Girlfriend.” The twee pop of “I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind” is given a bit of depth by Tork’s tack piano. The underrated Tork is something of a one man band on the album, playing guitar, bass and a variety of keyboards, and contributing the optimistic “For Pete’s Sake,” deemed strong enough to be used as the closing theme song for The Monkees’ second season.
Jones was usually the one playing up to the teeny-boppers, but “Early Morning Blues and Greens” gives him a chance to strike a more mature stance. “Mr. Webster” is a slice of social commentary you could imagine Simon & Garfunkel performing. Dolenz, the band’s most versatile vocalist, sings the number with a light ironic touch, coos his way through “I’ll Spend My Life With You,” then switches into rock screamer mode in “No Time” (written by Dolenz and Nesmith, but credited to the session’s engineer, Hank Cicalo, as a favor). Then there’s his tour de force, “Randy Scouse Git.” The song’s a stream-of-consciousness depiction of his recent trip to London (complete with faux British accent), balanced by an angry chorus ranting about the younger generation — the kind of thing you might hear at a conservative rally these days: “Why don’t you hate who I hate, kill who I kill, to be free?”
AUDIO: Setting Up The Studio For Randy Scouse Git
Two linking pieces, “Band 6” (the band tries to play the theme of the Warner Brothers “Merrie Melody” cartoons) and spoken-word “Zilch” give an indication of the antics the group got up in the studio. Bonus tracks offer more of this fun, with assorted jams and a fractured version of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” They also reveal how much more interesting the album could’ve become. What if “I’ll Spend My Life With You” had been swapped out for one of Dolenz’s own compositions, the trippy “Pillow Time” or his talking-blues “Midnight Train”? What if they’d worked harder to complete Harry Nilsson’s “The Story of Rock and Roll”? Jones and Nesmith each take their turn at Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” Nesmith opting for a high falsetto. A version of Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing On My Mind,” with Tork on banjo, harmonizing with Dolenz, apparently wasn’t a serious contender (it’s marked as an “informal recording”). But what if it had been?
The Monkees’ stand of independence didn’t last. Nesmith, the one who’d pushed hardest for the group to make their own music, deemed Headquarters “only marginally okay.” Their best bet, he thought, was to “just go back to the original songwriting and song-making strategy of the first two albums,” though they’d now have more say in what was actually recorded. But Nesmith sold Headquarters short. The group’s musical skills are certainly up to scratch, Tork and Dolenz write some winners, and Nesmith’s songs are the best of the bunch. And as a bonus, the album made it to #1.
Headquarters was aptly named, for it did take you inside the band member’s heads. They wrote or co-wrote half the tracks on the album (more than half if you include “Band 6” and “Zilch”). As the behind-the-scenes bonus tracks on the new set show, they were clearly enjoying themselves in the studio, and those good spirits permeate the final album.
The Monkees good-naturedly poked fun at themselves for being “manufactured.” But on Headquarters, they charted their own course, and established some much-needed credibility for themselves.
- Looking For Changes: Paul McCartney’s Off The Ground at 30 - February 2, 2023
- Elvis Presley Live and In Person: The Concert Films - January 24, 2023
- Swinging for the Fences: Cheap Trick Live in 1977 - January 6, 2023