Michael A. Ventrella is the co-author of Long Title: Looking for the Good Times; Examining the Monkees Songs, One By One. The Monkees Live Almanac would like to thank Michael for taking the time to talk about his new book, which is now available online and in book stores.
How did you first become interested in The Monkees?
When other kids wanted to be astronauts or firemen, I wanted to be a Monkee. I was around 8 when the show first appeared, and that’s a very influential time for a kid.
The TV show made me interested in music, and I dreamed of being in a band and having wacky adventures. I taught myself to play guitar and piano, and as I grew, I started various bands (playing bass). When in college, I had a band where we rented a house near campus and practiced in the basement, so that was as close to being a Monkee as I will ever be. Sadly, we never had any wacky adventures.
I later got into lots of other music (I’m a huge Beatles fan) but I never stopped loving the Monkees' music.
I was always more into the music than the TV show, though – I’m not one of those fans who has seen every episode a hundred times.
What years have you seen The Monkees in concert? Was there a particular tour that you call your favorite?
I sadly never saw them when I was younger. I saw Peter at a small club in Boston in the '80s. Micky and Davy did a free concert at the World Trade Center in the '90s (on my birthday so that was special!), and then I saw and met Micky at a Beatles convention about ten years ago. The reunion concert with Mike was wonderful because it emphasized the music, and then I saw Micky on his concert tour last year.
How did the book come about?
My co-author Mark Arnold writes about popular culture. I was interested in his work and had interviewed him for my blog a while ago. (The blog is at www.MichaelAVentrella.com.)
Mark had written a book where he went through every single Beatles song (including from various bootlegs) and gave a short personal comment about each song. I said to him, “We should write one about the Monkees!” and he agreed.
Then we paused. There already was a book like that about the Monkees – Andrew Hickey’s Monkee Music. And there was also Andrew Sandoval’s excellent Day-By-Day that had meticulous details about each song. So we decided against it.
Then I thought about it. I have half a dozen books where people go through the Beatles’ catalog and analyze their songs, so surely the Monkees could use another one.
We decided to do a book with a bit of both: We’d go through the songs and give some background information (the writer, which Monkees performed on the song, where it was first found, how well it did on the Billboard charts, interesting cover versions, etc.) as well as our personal comments about each song. A few people have complained that we didn’t give more trivia and details on every single song, but we didn’t want to copy Sandoval’s book or just cut-and-paste from Wikipedia.
By the way, Mark and I have never met – we live on opposite coasts. We did this book over Google Docs, talked about it through emails, and only spoke by phone a few weeks ago when we did a joint blog interview. Huzzah for the internet!
How does your approach differ from your co-writer’s?
Mark is more interested in the details – he likes noting where the song first was found on record and commenting on the Monkees’ history and so on. He wanted every single song listed, including the jams that only appear on the special extended version collections like Headquarters Sessions.
I come at it from a musician/songwriter angle. I insisted that the book be organized by recording dates instead of by album, because I wanted to analyze how the music progressed and changed over time. So my comments are often more about how the song was written and performed – what worked, what didn’t.
We were both determined to give our opinions and not sugar-coat anything. Some Monkees music is amazing and wonderful and deserving of every compliment we can give it, and some just sucks and should never have seen the light of day.
What kinds of things are in the book?
We had a lot of fun putting this together. We started by interviewing some prominent musicians to give their comments about the Monkees, and highlights of those interviews are included in the book. I got to interview Tommy James, Gene Cornish, Dean Friedman, and talked Howard Kaylan into writing the introduction. Mark spoke to Ron Dante, Peter Noone, Butch Patrick, and others.
Mark then wrote a short bio of the group. I wrote an essay about the music in general. Mark then compiled a list of every performance the Monkees had done as well as a list of every TV appearance (other than the original show) and we included those. We both did essays about how we became interested in the Monkees and what they mean to us which helps explain the views we later give about the songs.
I then went through every Billboard chart and made a listing of where every song and album performed on the chart week by week as well as a countdown of how well each had done.
Pop culture historian Jerry Beck (a big Monkees fan who worked on the Criterion DVD release of Head) then wrote the forward.
On our web page (https://monkees.wordpress.com), we asked for comments about the songs, and we picked a few we liked and included them in the book as well.
We then tackled the songs, one by one, giving details and our opinions. We also discuss each of the albums in turn (except the various greatest hits collections).
And the whole thing is illustrated on almost every other page with album covers, concert pictures, and more.
How did you come up with the title?
Originally, we were calling it “Long Title: Good Clean Fun; An Examination of the Monkees’ Songs, One by One” which I really liked because it flowed better. Then we discovered someone had self-published a Monkees book called “Good Clean Fun.”
So we had to come up with a new name. We almost considered “Writing Wrongs” but then we chose “Looking for the Good Times” because it references not only that particular song but also the album Good Times! as well as the songs “Good Times” and “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time)."
And, of course, “Long Title” is from Peter’s Head song “Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again?” I’ve had to explain that to a few non-Monkees people who asked me why we stuck that on there.
In doing your research, did you come to appreciate a particular Monkees song more than what you might have in the past? And, on the other hand, did you realize you liked any particular song a little less after closer examination?
I listened to “When Love Comes Knockin' (At Your Door)” with a bit more of an appreciation of how well written it is. It’s not one of their greatest, but there is a real talent behind it. I analyzed it a bit more than some of the other songs just to show how a songwriter approaches writing a song, and I hope readers can appreciate that.
I think some of the big hits became less impressive to me after listening in more detail for this book. “She” and “Mary, Mary” for instance really aren’t that good (especially compared to other Monkees hits). I think the fact that you always see these two on greatest hits collections probably says more about how often they were played on the show than anything else.
I think I started appreciating Mike’s songwriting ability more as I went through the catalog. I’m not much of a fan of his country stuff but I can’t deny it’s well-written.
A few readers have complained because they don’t like our opinions on one song or another. Well, of course -- Mark and I don’t agree on everything, so there’s no way readers will agree with us all the time! I think seeing us argue over certain songs makes the book a better read than if it had just been one person’s opinion.
Talk a little bit about the details in getting the book published. Was the publisher receptive from the start?
BearManor Media specializes in books about TV shows and old movies and such. They publish a lot of movie star bios and they’ve put out Mark’s books about Disney and Cracked magazine and cartoon studios and so on. He approached them and asked if they’d be willing to do a book about the Monkees but about their music instead of the TV show, and they were very enthusiastic, being Monkees fans. I think this is the first book they’ve done just about music.
They were wonderful, and more than patient with my many demands to make the book perfect. We went through quite a few edits and re-writes and redesigns.
And then there’s that great cover, drawn by Monkees fan and Emmy-Award winning artist Scott Shaw! He had worked with Rhino Records and had designed and drawn their Rhino mascot for years. In fact, he helped design two Monkees album covers for them!
So on his own, he decided to do a huge cover with characters from the TV show and Head and with references to the songs, too. (You can see Don Kirshner on the front cover holding up a contract while chewing bubble gum.) Part of the fun of the book for me is going through the cover and figuring out all the references. (There’s a list of them all in the back of the book if you want to cheat.)
Where can we get the book?
It’s available anywhere. You can order it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or ask your local bookseller to order it for you. However, BearManor Media usually has it at a discount, so you might try there first. It’s available in hard cover, paperback, or as an eBook.
Any plans for a sequel?
Our dream is that the Monkees do a follow-up to the excellent Good Times! album so we can do a new version!