This is the first in a series of guest articles that have been submitted to The Monkees Live Almanac in celebration of the group's 50th Anniversary this year.
"I think all the fellow musicians that were in L.A. at the time, like Love, the Byrds, the Buffalo Springfield, all loved The Monkees and thought they were great. Everybody loved their TV show and loved them as singers. I think it was mostly the people who weren't making it as successful musicians who were more critical of them, and it was the press. They had a lot of friends in the Los Angeles music scene, I remember."
-Chip Douglas, musician, songwriter, and producer
Consider for a moment the greatest era of pop/rock music, the 1960s, and delve further into the distinct periods within this time frame and you will survey a landscape fertile with pure musical genius and originality. The folk movement of the early part of the decade in New York City. The British Invasion. The Motown sound. The San Francisco psychedelic ballroom blitz. The Stax/Memphis soul records. But of all these and others, nothing tops the Los Angeles/Sunset Strip excitement of 1965-67. The Doors, Love, The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds...and among this grouping, a musical entity known as The Monkees, were part of this whole that helped create the greatest envelope of pop beauty.
The Monkees released four albums and various singles in a mere fourteen months. Staggering by today's standards, and a lot even for that period. The number was necessitated by the demand for new music to be showcased in the group's weekly NBC television series. The Monkees (September 1966), More of the Monkees (January 1967), Headquarters (May 1967), and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (November 1967) represent the peak of The Monkees as a band. How these songs measure up against the other major trends and bands of the era will be discussed here, with one caveat. The music must stand on its own merits, without the added boost that the weekly TV show gave the band. Minus the musical romps and the personalities of The Monkees that really made the music so much more appealing, I will attempt to examine how their music sounded in context with the rest of the Los Angeles scene of 1965-67.
Of all the Los Angeles rock ‘n’ roll happenings of this time, perhaps the most pervasive was "garage punk." Gritty and tough, this do-it-yourself sound was best exemplified by snarling vocals and raucous, fuzzed-out guitars. The Count Five, Music Machine, Seeds, and Standells were exemplars of this. Of The Monkees’ first two albums, the debut in particular had a garage feel. This was no accident since the bulk of the songs were written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and recorded by Hart's band, The Candy Store Prophets. There is no doubt that the duo absorbed the garage sounds from the various clubs the Prophets played and the duo would attend. That they were able to synthesize it to fit the needs of a TV show aimed at the sub-teen crowd doesn't detract from their output. "(I’m Not Your) Steppin' Stone" (from More of the Monkees) is arguably one of the greatest punk songs of the era, performed best by The Monkees/Candy Store Prophets. Also note that it is no coincidence that one of the loudest bands of this period, The Sons Of Adam, did their own version of "Tomorrow's Gonna Be Another Day" in 1965, which was later recorded by The Monkees in the summer of 1966.
Furthermore, give Michael Nesmith's "Sweet Young Thing," "Valleri" (version one), and "Your Auntie Grizelda" a close listen and you can't escape one of my favorite flourishes particular to the era, namely the fuzz box guitar. Even the absurd "Grizelda" takes on new life if you plug in and follow the fuzzed out groove. It is almost hypnotic. As a result, when you consider the garage rock output of Los Angeles, you can't pass over The Monkees. Granted they had their own unique slant, but their first two albums in particular were part of and contributed to this wonderfully anarchic sound. If you need any further convincing, listen to the Summer 1967 tour recordings. Almost exclusively drums, bass, and guitar as performed by The Monkees, if you strip away the audience screaming and in-between numbers clowning you get extremely loud, raw renditions of their radio hits and they are as wonderfully vibrant as any group of this time period.
Another sound made notable during this span would be a styling termed as "folk-rock." The most famous group that played this genre of music was The Byrds. By taking multiple Bob Dylan songs and setting them to jangly guitars and lush harmonies, The Byrds hit the big time. Offshoot groups from Los Angeles who might also fall under this umbrella include The Association and The Mamas and The Papas. But The Monkees utilized the folk-rock genre on their albums, too. Consider "I Wanna Be Free" (fast take, also known as the Dylan version of the song); "Last Train To Clarksville" and its guitars ringing throughout; "You Told Me" with Peter Tork's banjo; and "Mr. Webster," featuring Nesmith's steel pedal twangings. An argument could also be made that "Salesman" fits nicely into the folk-rock category. Again, it should be noted that while there are aspects of this idiom on Monkees recordings, they were amended and fitted to their specific needs. The results were unique and fun at the same time.
Even more intriguing about The Monkees and their place in the Los Angeles music scene is that The Monkees contributed to and were part of the cross-pollination that a lot of the groups had with each other at the time. While The Monkees didn't play any club gigs and were more involved with production of their TV show than hanging out with various other groups, inevitably they mixed and mingled with a lot of Los Angeles musicians. Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield and Bryan MacLean of Love were two of the multitude of unsuccessful auditionees for The Monkees television series. Stills and Neil Young would later perform on Monkees records, as would Dewey Martin, drummer for Buffalo Springfield. In a unique setting, Micky Dolenz jammed with Buffalo Springfield on an Indian reservation in Wisconsin in the summer of 1967.
"Jimi [Hendrix] is on the road with us in Chicago, when we cross paths with Buffalo Springfield. Stephen Stills and Jimi Hendrix are sitting on a couple of hotel beds, jamming together. Micky was dallying with a woman over in the corner. He left her and picked up an empty guitar, put it in his lap, and started to wack a rhythm. And then he stopped. Jimi reacted as if he'd been running and somebody belted him on the knees with a lead pipe. "What did you stop for?!" and Micky said, "I didn't know anybody was listening."
Additional evidence of The Monkees' connection to the L.A. scene comes with their utilization of Los Angeles's famed session players, The Wrecking Crew, something many prominent L.A. groups relied upon. Review what Brian Wilson was doing for Pet Sounds and the comparison to The Monkees' first two LPs is unmistakably similar. Even the era's greatest album, Love's Forever Changes, in one furtive session used session musicians that had been playing on Monkees discs. Consider, too, the involvement of Chip Douglas with another local group, The Turtles, Nesmith's partnership with Penny Arkade, and Tork hanging out with Buffalo Springfield, and it's easy to see that The Monkees were mingling with the best of the times. And when you recall that Frank Zappa was a Monkees fan (as shown by his hilarious segment on the penultimate episode of the TV series, and later by his offer to Dolenz to join the Mothers of Invention), or that folk artist Tim Buckley was the last individual seen on an original Monkees episode (introduced by Dolenz and playing "Song to the Siren"), you can't help but conclude that The Monkees' records in certain ways reflected, absorbed, and benefited greatly from their connection to the Los Angeles music scene.
A final commonality between The Monkees and other L.A. groups is something I will call the Growth Factor, and perhaps this is the key element of their long lasting legacy. If their first two albums were largely outside creations, then The Monkees, by winning the right to and actually pulling off the feat of creating their own album (Headquarters), demonstrated exponential growth. They topped this immediately with Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., which put them sound-wise and lyrically in the upper echelons of Los Angeles groups. If you compare The Monkees to Love, whose three albums each grew in leaps and bounds and are arguably the best representatives of the period, or The Doors, who burgeoned from a surf cover band to almost overnight the greatest band from L.A., you can see how much in common (in this aspect) The Monkees had with the area's groups. Again, the push was driven by the TV show's demand for new product, but somehow this hyper growth fit well with the go-go, jet-age era in which The Monkees was conceived. I theorize that had they more time to reflect before recording Headquarters and Pisces, the results wouldn't have been as good. The window for this type of creativity was unfortunately brief, but thanks to the needs of their environment the Monkees project was able to squeeze out as much as it could.
To summarize The Monkees in the mid-1960s Los Angeles era, you can first list what they weren't: not surf, not Tijuana/Latino, not heavy-hitting lyrically. But taken for what they were, namely garage, some country/western, light psychedelic, and a whole lot of fun, you can combine all of this with the rest of the period's sounds and bands and find a cornucopia that makes Los Angeles of 1965-67 the greatest era ever for pop/rock music. Unfortunately by the end of '67 the vibrancy and unity of both the overall L.A. scene and The Monkees was gone. Brian Wilson was unable to recapture the greatness of Pet Sounds. Love and Buffalo Springfield, in their original line-ups, were finished by 1968. The Byrds had already experienced lineup changes prior to the end of 1966. And The Monkees were no longer recording together, barely even in tandem. They were opting to produce individual recordings, and while the records were still of quality, they never reached the heights of their 1966-67 productions.
The Monkees’ music shouldn't be taken too seriously. But it also should not be cast off as secondhand pop tunes when compared to the giants of the era. The Monkees didn't produce anything like "Eight Miles High," "The End," "You Set The Scene," "Good Vibrations," or "Mr. Soul." But no other group can lay claim to "Last Train to Clarksville," "Mary, Mary," "For Pete's Sake," or "Daily Nightly." The Monkees' music was influenced by and influenced the times. It came at just the right moment and contributed to the tapestry that defined a generation.
Thank you to The Monkees - your music is perfect just how it is, and has my admiration and respect alongside my appreciation for other L.A. bands of the mid-1960s.
"Daily Nightly," appearing on The Monkees' fourth LP, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.," was composed by Michael Nesmith and lyrically touched on the November 1966 Sunset Strip riots. The song was one of the first to utilize a Moog synthesizer, played by Micky Dolenz, who had purchased the instrument at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967.