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WHEN THEY PUT THE FAB IN PRE-FAB: WIND BACK WEDNESDAY SAYS GOODBYE PETER TORK AND HELLO MONKEES

February 26, 2019

Last week, Peter Tork, officially the “kookiest”, and also the most accomplished musician, in the Monkees, died at the age of 77. His death, along with that of Davy Jones in 2012, reducing the band to two, Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz.


In a kind of bittersweet moment, those two will be in Australia in June, Nesmith’s first gigs here in a very long time as he’d not been part of the Tork/Dolenz tour in 2016. And yes, we’re excited – especially if he sings If I Ever Get To Saginaw Again.

As a welcome, to them, and a farewell, to him, Wind Back Wednesday returns to 2006 when the first two Monkees’ albums were reissued and some more re-evaluation was necessary for those who hadn’t yet recognised the pleasures, value and historical worth of the made-for-TV band that lasted beyond the closing credits.

Long before the much-maligned graduates of Australian Idol, The Monkees were the group whose existence offended the Puritans of the music world, whose career canvassed both stunning success (in their first year they outsold the Beatles in the USA) and vicious abuse and mockery.

 

Created for a television series in 1966, an unashamed attempt to replicate the charm, appeal and pop zest of the Beatles' movies, the Monkees existed for a mere four years. They could be merely a footnote in pop music. Certainly many then thought they would be; some today still think they should be.

 

But a lavish reissue of the first two Monkees albums, Meet The Monkees and More Of The Monkees, offers a more complex story. The fact is you can tie yourself into knots arguing over The Monkees. Here in essence are the pros and cons.

They were an attempt to mimic the Beatles image and the Beatles films, just smaller for TV and with an American sense of humour. But yet those shows were entertaining, silly and in their own way fired the imaginations of potential musicians, much as Hard Day's Night and Help! did.

 

They were a "manufactured band" who deserve no more time than The Partridge Family or The Archies. But they had two genuine musicians in the group, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork, with their roots in folk and country, soon rebelled against impresario Don Kirshner, and eventually took control of their careers.

 

They didn't play on their first albums, merely adding voices to studio professionals. But neither did The Beach Boys, The Mamas And The Papas, almost everyone at Motown, and plenty more famous names in the 1960s. And actually, on their third album the quartet played everything and they toured as a proper working band.

They didn't write any of their hits and few of their early album tracks. But they had songs which have lasted decades, by writers who knew their way around quality. And several of the self-penned songs, such as Nesmith's Mary Mary (sampled by Run DMC two decades later), The Kind Of Girl I Could Love (an early country-rock tune before roots music had taken a hold in rock) and All The King's Horses (here as a bonus track on the first album), hold up pretty damn well.

 

Of course, all these arguments tend to be trumped by one incontrovertible fact: there are a lot of great pop songs on those Monkees albums.

Some of them twee, some of them almost pastiches, but nonetheless many of them the kind of songs which still, 40 years later, feel as good on the tip of the tongue as they do on the ear. And, without really intending to, they managed to tap into and present to a mainstream audience several of the musical movements swirling around Los Angeles, from garage punk to folk rock and country.

 

The lesser of the first two albums, Meet The Monkees was dominated by the songwriting/producing team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. They weren't the first choice of Kirshner, who had wanted some bigger names but found a reluctance by established songwriters to contribute to a TV show, but they got the spirit right which was almost as important as getting the songs right.

Their theme tune was easily, attractively perky, and the heavily sweetened ballad I Wanna Be Free gave diminutive Englishman Davy Jones the first of many teenage girl-stirring moments. Crucially, with Last Train To Clarksville they merged the Beatles' Ticket To Ride and Help and produced the number one single which convinced the money men behind the television series (and some of those initially reluctant songwriters) that the music side of this enterprise could seriously reward effort.

 

More Of The Monkees may have been recorded quickly to capitalise on the initial success, but it nailed it's quality from the start and didn't really drop.

The opening track, Boyce and Hart's She, had garage-like urgent organ and a choppy feel (which they repeated and toughened a few tracks later with the verging on nasty Steppin' Stone) while When Love Comes Knockin' At Your Door (by Neil Sedaka and Carole Bayer) and Look Out Here Comes Tomorrow (by Neil Diamond) were perfect examples of sweater pop.

 

Nesmiths's The Kind Of Girl I Could Love was balanced by the Brill Building perfection of Goffin and King's Sometime In The Morning and then, to finish the package, Neil Diamond's second contribution, I'm A Believer, hovered between sweet and bouncy.

 

Born of contrivance they may have been, but there's plenty of natural satisfaction in The Monkees.

The Monkees featuring Mike Nesmith & Micky Dolenz play QPAC, Brisbane, June 12; Palais Theatre, Melbourne, June 15; Astor Theatre, Perth, June 16; Sydney Opera House, June 18.

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