Friday, February 1, 2013

One Week The Beatles. The Next The Monkees. What Gives?

Let me begin by saying that as a younger person I was really into the Monkees. Originally, they were a little before my time. I was born in 1968 and that was right when they were finishing up their run of popularity and success. They had a hit show for two years and had several chart topping albums, actually outselling the Beatles in 1967. My "turn on" came with Saturday morning reruns and catching them on occasion on the local UHF channel of variety known in Louisville as WDRB-41. I liked the songs and loved the zany, slap stick humor. Lots of winks, nods, and nonsense. I'm sure growing up on that humor along with Sunday morning Abbot & Costello, late night Monty Python, as well as The Three Stooges and Laurel & Hardy shaped my personality in many ways. 

Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith

In the mid-1980's the Monkees enjoyed an MTV fueled comeback (they won the final version of Friday Night Video Fights over Bon Jovi) and I got a little interested again and bought the newly issued "Greatest Hits" and enjoyed them again for a short while. They never really entered, in any serious manner, my mind as a musical group that demanded any sort of respect. They had some hits and had a funny TV show. Other than that, I simply didn't consider them "valid". This despite their having won two Emmy's, selling 65 million records, and at one point holding the #1 record simultaneously in the USA and Britain (a rare feat). 

Yes, that is Peter Tork with George Harrison. He played banjo on a Harrison album.

Through the process of "Album Night", to which I've spoken of before, I had the pleasure of rediscovering them and truly learning about the nature of The Monkees. I never realized how much respect they garnered from serious musicians such as Jerry Garcia, John Lennon, Glenn Campbell and others. I didn't realize (but should have) the influence their music had on the people who make music that are close in age to me. Paul Westerberg, Michael Stipe, Bono, and even Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols were Monkees fans. I won't dwell on the topic of why they have always been the butt of rock n' roll jokes, but writing about them without setting things straight would pull the rug of credibility out from under the gushing I am going to do over their film "Head". 

John Lennon and Michael Nesmith hanging out at the Sgt. Pepper sessions.

The Monkees were manufactured in Hollywood. No doubt. They were thrust upon the public and into fame through a television show, not playing bars and paying their dues. I can see where this would cause resentment among those who did and didn't chart as well as the Monkees. The Monkees were NOT Milli Vanilli. They were no lip syncing hit makers. They sang. They wrote songs. Yes, they played instruments. They did less playing on their first couple of albums, but eventually won creative rights to make their own album their way (after ditching Don Kirshner) and produced "Headquarters", in which they played all instruments with the exception of bass on a couple of tracks and the french horn. They were legit after the fact. That is, in my opinion, their best collection of songs and it's featured in the book "1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die". In other words, if you must discount them, do so because of who they really were, not for what they were not. If the Monkees were not a valid rock band because they were "Made On TV", what does that make any American Idol success story? You know, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, The Byrds, and MANY other artists didn't play instruments on every track either. They used session players at times also, just like the Monkees. The prevailing opinion among a lot of music people is that they belong in the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame and I happen to agree with that based on what I've learned about them. 

I watched the film "Head" twice this past week and just got the blu-ray version in the mail today along with other "counter culture" type films like "Easy Rider" and "The Last Picture Show" as a part of the really nice BBS Collection from Criterion. Admittedly, I was under the influence of "frodis" during both viewings and that's sort of the point. It was directed by Monkee co-creator Bob Rafelson and written by Rafelson and Jack Nicholson after a long frodis session with the Monkees and Harry Dean Stanton. The psychedelic tone is prevalent through most of the film. 

The film is one long stream of consciousness that directly connects beginning and end. The movie deconstructs the Monkees image and exposes how they act and react as caricatures. They played heightened, unrealistic versions of themselves for the TV show and were never allowed to show their humanity. They were not supposed to be thinkers who had something to say about the time in which they lived. They were not supposed to show emotions like confusion or anger. They were not supposed to be apathetic about what was happening around them (although if you watch closely, you can see it all over Tork and Nesmith at various times in their TV shows). "Head" changed that and with the help of Nicholson and Rafelson, the Monkees image was torn off and you got a glimpse of them as human beings. It's not quite as obvious in doing that as say Pink Floyd's "The Wall", but it's there. Yes, there are people underneath the "star" exterior. The film works in that way, but it also bears repeated viewings because of the other messages and subtext that is running throughout the film about commercialism, the nature of reality, self-awareness, war, idolization, and political grandstanding. Yes, the Monkees seemed to really "have something to say" as their title song suggests. The movie doesn't knock you over the head with its messages (it gets most heavy in the subject of warfare), but it throws them at you. If it sticks, think about it. If not, move along with the film. One thing leads to another and that "another" usually leads you back to the "one thing". Such is life. If you watch it, the ending is a bit confusing, but know that what I just wrote in the last two sentences sort of help you understand. 

I am certain that you don't have to be high or tripping to enjoy the film, but it's made with a psychedelic mindset and I feel that the most value is probably procured from having your mind a bit more open and askew when taking it in. Context also helps. This is a movie that captures a unique time in American history and is best seen threw the time period. It's not a linear film with a preconceived plot line and it doesn't shoot for character development. You should know the characters going in. There are some really great songs on it too. I'll link up a couple from You Tube at the end of this. If you take a notion to watch it, look for appearances from Rafelson, Nicholson, Annette Funnicello, Dennis Hopper, Sonny Liston, and Frank Zappa among others. 

I guess to close this up, I'll just say that I am sorry that I misunderstood the Monkees and underestimated their influence. Were they a "great" band? No, not in my opinion. Were they are really important band? No, not really. But they were entertaining and fun. Their music fit the era and some of it was actually a little deeper than given credit for. Take in "Pleasant Valley Sunday" (co-written by Carole King), "Randy Scouse Git" (written by Micky Dolenz), "Daddy's Song" (written by the great Harry Nilsson), and "Last Train To Clarksville" (Tommy Boyce/Bobby Hart). Those songs deal with conformity, abandonment, war, and the anti-septic nature of suburbia. The Monkees were a piece of rock history that was ahead of its time. Developing music and video into a non-variety show setting, and doing so without having come together organically. A lot has happened to mimic what they did, especially in the past 25 to 30 years. The influence of the Monkees phenomenon continues to impact music and television today. 

This song is "Randy Scouse Git". It has a biting chorus and has a Mama Cass and Beatles mention in it! Note that Nesmith is not featured individually in the video. He is in full "I don't give a shit mode". Really great song!!!

This is "Circle Sky" from the movie "Head". Yep, they are playing their instruments.....see! 

The "Porpoise Song", which begins and ends the film "Head". Cameron Crowe uses this song in "Vanilla Sky".