vrijdag 6 november 2020

The hits of The Monkees

The Monkees. I have only the faintest of memories of having seen something of the tv series or at best a single episode when I was young in primary school. My parents did not see the added value of a tv set, so I was always depending on staying somewhere else. I'm almost certain I still have the comic book that was released, a hard cover at that, somewhere in the late 60s. The hit I remember best from those days was the band's only number 1 hit over here, 'I'm A Believer'. Staying with our former neighbours for several months when my parents were at sea and visiting my mother's family on the other side of the globe down under. In these months I heard all the big hits come by on a daily basis through the much older daughters transistor radios and singles. Laying a sound basis underneath my musical taste for which I'm still grateful.

Of course The Monkees wasn't a real band at first, but a cast of actors of which some had talent as musicians also. Michael Nesmith scored solo hits in the 70s, among them 'Rio' that I got to know when I was visiting Down Under myself for the first time. Speaking of some sort of closure, where The Monkees are concerned. The series was a sitcom Americanising The Beatles movie 'A Hard Days Night' around a fictive popular band of four long-haired young men. It needed music and people like Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and Neil Diamond wrote that music, played it and Micky Dolenz, mostly, sang them.

In The Netherlands The Monkees scored hits from 1966 until 1968. A short period of time only. At least two of those hits can still regularly be heard on national radio. Let's delve in and assess them today.

Not a hit but the song it all started with, the theme song of the TV series has to open this themed post of course. The song we sang in the schoolyard together, with a Dutch lyric, where ever that came from.

The Monkees Theme Song (1966)

The theme song immediately showed the potential of the band. This song on the one hand holds the total innocence underneath all that long hair. On the other it has a tough rock side in the chorus with a guitar that really rocks out. As theme songs come, it has a beautiful melody that catches the ear immediately. A show having a song like this has to attract viewers and that it did. In the LP version the band really goes full out with a loud, a little spacey guitar solo. I have always liked it and later in life I was surprised by the longer version.

Last Train To Clarksville (1966)

The first hit passed me by at the time. The guitar riff at the beginning has returned in pop/rock many times. Let's also write, a variation on 'Day Tripper'. The intricate second guitar is The Beatles and The Byrds all in one, like the whole song is The Beatles influenced. The rhythm of the song is 'Taxman'. What strikes me listening once again, is the firm accent on the hi-hat, which I truly only notice now. Listening with somewhat fresh ears after several years, is the sophistication of the song that stands out as well. There's so much more going on than just that famous opening riff. The singing of course is impeccable. The harmonies are so nice. The oohs and aahs as much the regular ones supporting the lyrics. Who could say that this was not a real band at work? The Monkees were given a lot of attention from the executive level, even, perhaps especially, at the first recordings. Nothing was left to chance, obviously. This concept had to succeed. The result was a justified big hit, as this simply is a stunning song.

I'm A Believer (1966)

With I'm A Believer the band delivers a second iconic intro. The three organ chords and the guitar riff give the song an instantly recognisable beginning. This Neil Diamond written song is a lot cleverer as well. Everything seems to work as it should. The acoustic guitar driving the song, the electric rhythm accents, the hand claps. The singing holds loads of longing for something beyond reach. The hope of the chorus. There's some great singing in the oohs and and aahs. The result is a perfect pop single. One side of The Monkees, as will show below. Thanks to 'Shrek' the song received a whole new leash on life as well. In The Netherlands the band reached its pinnacle with I'm A Believer, a spot it never repeated or even came close to. I'm A Believer is on the playlist in all the two bands I play(ed)  in over the past 20 plus years. It's just so nice to do and to sing the harmonies, in my case.

A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You (1967)

Knowing what I know about music these days, I hear the musical footprint of Neil Diamond immediately in the intro. It has songs like 'Sweet Caroline' or 'Cracklin' Rosie' all over it. Despite the fact that this song started some of the fighting between the band and the management around it, who writes the songs/singles, this one, sung by Davy Jones, was released without any consideration for the band. Don Kishner, who decided which song from his Brill Building songwriters would become the next The Monkees single had already decided and released it in Canada. History tells that he had heard right because it became a global top 10 hit. Personally I think it is one of the less songs of the hits the band scored. Too much Neil Diamond, that says enough of my appreciation of Mr. Diamond's music, I guess. I even thought this before I knew Neil Diamond had written songs for The Monkees. What remains in my ears, is a nice pop single, not a good one.

Pleasant Valley Sunday (1967)

Only one week at number 40. It was not possible to score a smaller hit in those years as the chart was only 40 songs long. Only getting to know the song in 1976 taping a The Monkees radio special at the time. For me, I can't get my head around that the song only reached number 40. Just like I can't understand The Hollies' 'King Midas In Reverse' did not get a big hit like all its other songs of the day. Pleasant Valley Sunday mixes the pop of The Monkees with a light version of psychedelia. It has another great guitar riff flying around and holds great harmonies. A true 60s pop treasure Pleasant Valley Sunday is, but, o.k., a bit messy at the end, but that does not explain the low position. A true gem this song is.

Dutch band The Kik delivered a really nice cover version with a Dutch language lyric on it debut album 'Springlevend' called 'Zevenhuizer Zondag'.

Daydream Believer (1967)

The final big hit was the dreamy Daydream Believer. Again it has that innocence, most likely attracting the girls who liked the band best. That is my explanation for this being a big hit and the previous single wasn't. At the pinnacle of psychedelia, late 1967, The Monkees produced another pure pop tune. Violins, trumpets, the biggest production of the band on single. Written by John Stewart, who ten years later would score a hit with 'Gold', then a member of The Kingston Trio. I have always liked Daydream Believer but notice that it is a little too sugary to my taste in 2020. From a nostalgic point of view the song still really works though. Pop does not get much sweeter than in Daydream Believer.

Valleri (1968)

This was a hit in the spring of 1968. And as far as I know I'm hearing the song for the first time. It's a song like many in the late 60s. Rougher than any previous The Monkees hit, there's a loud rock guitar in there, that slowly rose to feature in the charts in 1968. 'Born To Be Wild', 'Summertime Blues', 'Jumping Jack Flash' and in part Valleri. The Monkees are jumping from one foot to the other though. There's pop and rock, a classical guitar interlude, and a great harmony in Valleri. Perhaps a bit too much of some good things. Yet, the chorus is easy to sing along to. "Valleri" is all one has to remember. When all is said and done, this is nice but not good.

With Valleri The Monkees said goodbye to the charts in The Netherlands, despite a host of singles that were released in 1969 and 1970, after which the band disbanded for the first time.

Listening to the hits, I do not have an album of the band, except for a Greatest Hits of which I hardly, truly like another song as good as I do the singles, I can come to a fair conclusion. The Monkees were fashioned after The Beatles, but weren't conceived at first as a true band. Musically though the band started in a grand fashion. Listening to the theme song and the first two singles, this fake tv sitcom band presented music that was able to compete with the best of them in 1966. Listening to all songs beyond 'I'm A Believer', I can only notice a downward trend. Perhaps because the, somewhat less talented members of The Monkees wanted to have their views to the music, maybe because the team of writers in the Brill Building had already delivered their best efforts. The songs were (real) nice, no longer really good. And that TV series? I have never seen a re-run of it, so will have to do with that faintest of memories and the comic book somewhere in a box in the attic.

The band returned several times through the decades and released new records. Now that Davy Jones and Peter Tork have died, it seems that Michael and Micky still play together to keep their songs alive for audiences. Something my band mates and I do for 'I'm A Believer'.

My top 5

1. I'm A Believer

2. Pleasant Valley Sunday

3. The Monkees Theme Song

4. Daydream Believer

5. Last Train To Clarksville


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