It's kind of amazing to realize that the Monkees in their original incarnation were around for less than four years, from the debut of their TV show and their first hit single, "Last Train To Clarksville," in the fall of 1966 until remaining members Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones finally threw in the towel in 1970 (the other Monkees, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork, had already left). During that time they managed to crank out nine albums, tour the world a few times, make a creatively adventurous but commercially disastrous movie (Head), and of course film two seasons of a TV show that, every time it gets aired again, creates a new generation of fans.
Which is why the Monkees have never really gone away. Every few years, two or three members of the "Prefab Four" have hit the road, playing the old hits and occasionally even some newer songs; they did an album of new material in the '80s and again in the '90s. And the old songs keep getting reissued in ever more comprehensive packages by Rhino Records, which treats the Monkees' catalog with so much care and respect you'd think they were Charlie Parker or John Coltrane, with every variation of every song worth poring over and studying. Outtakes, alternate mixes, different vocals, backing tracks for songs that never had vocals recorded, commercials... all of it is seeing the light of day in a project that's been ongoing for the last 30 years.
If any further proof is needed that no scrap of Monkees arcana is too arcane for die-hard fans, I submit as evidence the new three-CD-plus-7-inch-single deluxe version of The Monkees Present. Their eighth album (and last one with Mike Nesmith; Peter Tork quit in 1968), it bombed when it came out in 1969, peaking at an inglorious #100 on Billboard's album charts. It's never gained cult status or anything close to it. Apart from "Listen To The Band," a minor hit at the time and a fan favorite since then, nothing from the album has made any lasting impression among any but the most hardcore Monkeephiles. Even the cover, which appears to have been drawn with black Sharpies, is a slipshod affair.
But dammitall, The Monkees Present is a really good album. Not Abbey Road good, mind you, but a lot better than people probably gave it credit for at the time given that the Monkees' hipness factor with The Kids was about on par with Richard Nixon's by 1969. Nesmith's four crackling country-rock tracks alone are worth the price of admission, including "Listen To The Band," possibly his greatest Monkees-era recording. But Dolenz turns in three nifty originals, including the subversive, downright hippie-ish "Mommy And Daddy." Even Davy Jones, who could generally be counted on to produce one unlistenably cornball number per album, acquits himself quite well. The only real dud turns out to be an unreleased track from 1966 which was inexplicably unearthed for the occasion.
The fact that Colgems, under the rubric of giving the Monkees "unlimited creative control" basically said, "We don't care what you do at this point" really does seem to have had some effect. Seven of the album's 12 songs were written and co-written by the Monkees, and they produced just about the whole record themselves. Whatever you think of the Monkees' musical talents (I think they're a lot better than they were given credit for at the time), you've got to give props to the musicians they worked with. Clarence White of the Byrds, Jim Gordon of Derek & The Dominos, legendary drummers Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine and rockabilly guitar great James Burton are among the luminaries you'll hear on The Monkees Present. That's a big part of what makes going through multiple alternate takes and mixes so interesting.
Even the outtakes, and there are a bunch of 'em, are killer. In fact, the Present sessions resulted in some of the best songs the Monkees ever recorded, from Dolenz's kiddie-rocker "Steam Engine" to Jones' Moog-a-licious "If You Have The Time" to Nesmith's gently twanging "The Crippled Lion." And those are the tracks that weren't deemed fit for release back in '69. Even a two-minute commercial jingle they cut for Kool-Aid is catchy as hell. It's clear that the "band" (as Micky Dolenz told me, "I never thought of it as a band, and I still don't. The Monkees was a television show about a band") was really firing on all cylinders at this point, even if neither the audience nor Colgems, their record label, was paying attention.
The Monkees (Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith; Davy Jones died in 2012) happened to be touring the US as the deluxe version of Present was seeing its limited edition release -- 5,000 copies only, get 'em while they're hot! So technically, at least, the Monkees were on the road to promote this behemoth. Which made it completely appropriate to chat with cute-as-a-button singer/"drummer" (he had to learn before they went on tour in 1967) Micky Dolenz about one of the less storied chapters in the Monkees' career. Not that I'd heard the box myself -- it hadn't yet been released when we chatted, and Rhino Records ignored my request for an advance -- but I figured, hell, he must have heard it, right? Actually, no. "I don't tend to listen to the stuff cover to cover anymore. I'll listen to a cut that maybe is something that wasn't on a previous version, or some different version of one of the songs. You know, a deep cut or something."
Well alrighty then! I figured he must at least have some cool recollections about recording the album. "It was an interesting time -- I mean, it was a long time ago, so I don't remember lots of specifics."
Uh-oh. But showbiz pro that he is, he quickly recovered.
"We had made Headquarters, of course [their only album where the four Monkees played all the instruments], but we didn't go back into the studio to do another sort of band album. I hadn't done much writing at all, and it was actually Mike who encouraged me to write and produce my own stuff. What we started doing was writing and producing our own tunes with our own people and side guys. I brought in my sister [Coco Dolenz] frequently during that period and we did songs together, and other friends and musicians that I knew."
The Monkees hardly recorded at all together after 1967; on The Monkees Present, it was rare that two Monkees were together in the studio, let alone all three. You can hear it in the finished product. "You can certainly tell a Mike Nesmith tune during that period, and myself, and David," Dolenz says. "With the Monkees, of course, there was very distinct styles, of not just singing, but also writing, and the type of music. Mike definitely was, and is, into that country, Texas, rock kind of thing. You listen now to some of that country rock stuff and you definitely hear that. Mike was doing that kind of stuff forty years ago.... David had that Broadway ballad kind of sensibility. I tended to do rock and screaming kind of Chuck Berry kind of Little Richard stuff. And so when we started having all that control, we went back and started really touching our creative roots. It became almost like three producers producing three different styles of music, using different types of songs."
I asked him if the dynamic had changed given that Peter Tork, the most accomplished and eclectic musician in the Monkees, had left. "Yeah, I suppose a bit, you know. But again, the way the whole project came about was so different and unique.... I've always thought of it as a show and much more like musical theater. So when Peter left, there were still recording contracts to be honored. It obviously changed the dynamic, like it did when David and Peter and I got back together in the '80s, and now it's a different one again. And it's not like one is better or worse than the other, it's just really different. It's like when you see Crosby, Stills & Nash, and then you see Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and then you see Crosby & Stills, and then Stills & Nash. And it's all good."
Fair enough, since seeing the Monkees in concert with Mike Nesmith and without Davy Jones really did make it feel more like you were watching a band and less like a musical revue. The fact that Nesmith had decided to rejoin Dolenz and Tork at all in the wake of Jones' death was a miracle in itself; the fact that he re-upped for a second tour so soon after the first signals nothing less than snowballs in hell and flying pigs. But it seems, at least for now, like the 47-years-and-counting ride may be coming to an end for the Monkees. "There are no plans right now for anything else," Dolenz says, before quickly adding, "but I've learned never to say never." At age 67, he freely admits that touring isn't what it used to be. "The travel, especially as you get a little bit older, can be kind of wearing," he says. "I don't travel well, just generally. I'm like a fine wine, I should be lying on my side in the dark. I don't do jostled very well at all. But I tell people, they pay me to travel, I sing for free."
Certainly the vaults are just about bare where the Monkees' recorded legacy is concerned. The only album yet to receive the royal reissue treatment is Changes, a hastily recorded and creatively lacking last gasp featuring only Dolenz and Davy Jones, and that probably won't happen. But Dolenz is keeping busy -- last year he released Remember, easily the best solo album he's ever put out, and he's got a live DVD planned for this year, as well as the usual assortment of live performances, appearances in various musicals, and... woodworking?
Dolenz seems much more jazzed about his new furniture company, Dolenz & Daughters Fine Furniture, which he started with his youngest daughter Georgia, than anything Monkees-related. "Not many people know, because I've never really publicized it -- [I've been] kind of a geek and a handyman and a do-it-yourselfer and a craftsman. I was studying to be an architect, you know, when the Monkees audition came along. I was in college studing architecture.... If I couldn't make it as an architect, I was gonna fall back on show business.
"Over the years, I've always had a shop, full-blown, a woodworking and metal shop. I built a gyrocopter in the '60s when I was doing the Monkees -- a real one, a real flying machine -- and hang gliders. I've always had my own shop, putting on additions, doing plumbing, electrical, the whole thing."
Micky Dolenz, craftsman. Who knew? His hope chests, which sell for a mere $495 each, are a little pricey for hope chests, but not too bad when you consider they're handmade, numbered and signed by the craftsman himself. And at 12"x12"x24", they're big enough to hold most, if not all, of the Monkees box sets I've acquired over the years. I'll take two.
Follow Tony Sachs on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RetroManNYC