Monday, April 13, 2009

Misunderstood Monkees

Recently, a petition to induct the Monkees into the Rock and Roll "Hall of Fame" has been making the rounds on the internet. Why is such a document necessary? Well, I would hazard to guess that pretentious, self-proclaimed arbiters of taste like Rolling Stone editor-in-chief and Hall co-founder Jann Wenner (who appears to have the Hall of Fame by the short hairs and who, I suspect, still listens to "Born to Run" alone in his living room with the lights off) have made it their life-long mission to keep Mike, Micky, Peter and Davy out.

As far as I can tell, members of the "rock intelligentsia" (snicker) have a mad-on for the Monkees because, oh, I don't know, they didn't wear enough denim. Or, who knows? Maybe it's because the Monkees were actually involved in the creation of some tuneful, catchy, well-loved music back in the 60's. (Gasp! Choke!) In light of all this, my brother and I just had an extended conversation about the Monkees, and together we arrived at a very simple, but profound, conclusion:

The Monkees were freakin' awesome.

"But," I already hear some of you sputtering in feeble protest, "The Monkees aren't COOL! They weren't even a REAL band maaaaan! They didn't play their own instruments or write their own songs, and they didn't sing about "real" things like Bob Dylan! Plus, they were just a watered-down version of the BEATLES!"


In my experience, the people who make these types of pronouncements are either a) self-important musicians or wanna-be musicians who take themselves WAY too seriously, b) rock snobs and "rock journalists" who buy into a dubious dichotomy of what constitutes "real" and "fake" music, or c) people who don't know much about music to begin with and just accept the received "wisdom" about the Monkees.

Well, I hate to break it to these people, but the truth is this: most secure, well-rounded musicians and music-lovers are neither threatened by nor upset at the existence of a band like the Monkees. On the contrary, many of these musicians actually LIKE them quite a bit. For example, it's well known that The Beatles took the Monkees in stride, and even claimed to be fans of the television show. The Beatles, of course, were so amazing that it makes sense that they wouldn't be threatened by the Monkees. However, I also suspect they were wise enough to appreciate the band members' respective talents for what they were and smart enough to appreciate the amazing confluence of quality singing, songwriting, musicianship and production on The Monkees' records.

Let's take look at the most common myths about the Monkees one-by-one.


* Myth #1: The Monkees weren't talented (other than Mike Nesmith).

This one started with the initial backlash against the group, when it was first revealed they didn't play the instruments on their first two albums (and only played fitfully on albums thereafter). However, no one other than the most recalcitrant of individuals still clings to this myth. In fact, the individual Monkees brought a wide array of talents to the table, from acting to singing to songwriting and musicianship. In hindsight, it's clear that the show's producers considered these factors when the "band" was chosen, even if they wanted to wield ultimate control over how those talents would be utilized.

Mike was a talented songwriter and producer, as well as an idiosyncratic vocalist with a dry sense of humor. And yes, he did later sell the concept for a 24 hour video channel to Time Warner, thereby becoming instrumental in the genesis of MTV. Micky was a former child actor and a gifted singer (it runs in his family) with a unique voice that alternated between warm and raucous depending on the needs of the song. He was also an amateur guitar player (he only learned to play drums for the show) who showed occasional spurts of songwriting inspiration. Peter was an accomplished instrumentalist (he played eight instruments) who wrote, among other things, the closing theme for the show. Davy, like Micky, was also an experienced actor who brought a Broadway and music hall flavor to the proceedings.

Oddly, many detractors will concede some of the aforementioned talents to the Monkees while still slagging them for not being as talented as their albums would suggest. In their minds, since the Monkees weren't the genius masterminds who single-handedly brought all those wonderful pop confections to life, they should be regarded as no-talent hacks. Sorry, but it's not an either/or proposition.

* Myth #2: The Monkees weren't a band.

The original marketing of the Monkees, while I can find no instances of outright lying, did seem to blur the lines regarding who played what and just how "real" the band was. People like Micky Dolenz have always maintained that "The Monkees" was, first and foremost, a show ABOUT a band, but there are still some (shades of) gray areas surrounding the way the band was marketed initially. However, what IS clear is this: while the Monkees may not have totally been the band they represented, they WERE undeniably the lead vocalists on everything, and they eventually did become a fully functioning, touring band. People with lesser qualifications are dubbed "bands" every day of the week, and people who do nothing more than sing are often hailed as full-fledged "artists" (and rightfully so).

But these types of arguments are fruitless when wielded against the eternal guardians of the most holy rock canon. The bone of contention for people like Jann Wenner (I'm guessing) is the misrepresentation of the Monkees in the media, and an alleged attempt to dupe the music-buying public. Nevermind that people like me were able to recognize the Monkees weren't all they appeared to be when I was a wee lad of 8 years old. Maybe Jann's a little slower on the uptake.

Still, even if we allow that the Monkees weren't really a "band" in the normal sense of the word, I believe they represented (and represent) something much more important, which I will return to in a moment.

* Myth #3: The Monkees only sang bubble gum pop, or Beatles rip-offs.

Well, I don't really have a problem with (good) bubble gum pop, per se, but even if I did, the Monkees weren't really a bubble gum band. Unlike some bands, the songwriters, musicians and producers working on the Monkees' material were just too damn talented and diverse to be easily dismissed as "bubble gum." Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Carole King, Harry Nilsson, Neil Diamond, Mike Nesmith, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, John Stewart, Jeff Barry - all these writers and many others were arguably at the top of their game when they submitted songs for The Monkees, and the quality of songcraft on display is undeniable.

Any arguments based on the "cynical intentions" of Don Kirshner (or anyone else) is either trumped or deemed irrelevant when one looks at the sheer caliber of talent the Monkees had at their disposal. After all, who cares about the "co-opting" of rock and roll (which was seldom as pure as it seemed, anyway) when the songs are this damn good?

Likewise, the criticism that the Monkees were just a watered-down version of the Beatles holds very little banana puree upon closer inspection. Yes, "Hard Day's Night" was the original inspiration for the TV show. However, if you actually take the time to listen to the Monkees, you would have a tough time (for the most part) finding any direct similarities between the two bands, other than some superficial parallels that lots of 60's bands shared.

Ok, so maybe the riff on "Pleasant Valley Sunday" sounds like a distant cousin to "I Want to Tell You." And yeah, lots of Davy's tunes sound like they were cut from the same music-hall cloth Paul was using at the time. But overall, there is a lot of stylistic diversity in the Monkees music, and very little of it mirrors the Beatles, who were all over the map themselves by 1966. This makes complete sense when you consider the wide range of songwriters the Monkees employed. Not only were their songwriters inspired by The Beatles, but by lots of other 60's bands, such as The Rolling Stones, Love, and the Dave Clark 5. The Monkees' writers also brought unique styles of their own to the table, many of which pre-dated the Beatles.

By way of comparison, think about how much the average Nickelback song sounds like a watered-down version of Pearl Jam, Creed or Fuel. Now think about how much the "average" Monkees song sounds like the "average" Beatles track. When weighed against the blatant mimicking some bands do, the Monkees aren't even in the same universe as their mop-topped forefathers.

Sure, most of the Monkees' songs don't have the "artistic gravitas" or experimentation of the Beatles' best songs. However, keep in mind that the Monkees songs (at least in the beginning) were not meant to be profound statements of artistic intent. They were meant to be aural moments of pure rock/pop bliss. And to that extent, they succeeded. Not only that, but there really is something to be said for the "art" of crafting a perfect pop song.


Okay, now that the most common arguments against the Monkees have been dispatched, let me return to my earlier point about what the Monkees represented to me, and probably to a lot of other people as well.

Beyond the superficial pleasure of just listening to a bunch of good songs, the Monkees were inspirational role models for many aspiring musicians. The way this worked was on two levels: On one level, you could relate to the fictional characters on TV because they were always struggling to make it "big" like the Beatles. Plus, if you knew the story of the real actors, you could identify with the struggle they felt to prove themselves creatively.

On another level, the Monkees (on the TV show) WERE the idealized band they longed to be, who just cranked out one great song after another. Yes, it was designed behind the scenes by expert songwriters, producers and sessionmen. But so what? That almost makes it better. All dreams are illusions or fantasies, so why wouldn't a budding musician watching the show want to hear and aspire to a great one? Who wouldn't want to sing/play/write something on par with Carole King (mainly because it IS Carole King) and then be able to switch gears and toss out 10 equally great, but diverse, follow up songs?

Not to get too philosophical about it, but the Monkees represented the tension between the artist who struggles to be more than he already is, and the idealized fantasy of what he hopes to become. And, from time to time, the Monkees actually DID become a great band, showing glimpses of genius and inspiration, even though the carefully constructed fantasy was (of course) always slightly out of reach. And that's not too far off from any of us, really. We all have an idea of how great we'd like to be, even if we seldom hit those heights.

So, you may ask, why not just induct the recognition-worthy individuals behind the scenes (like Boyce and Hart, for example) on a case-by-case basis, rather than induct "The Monkees" collectively? Simply put, the Monkees - Mike, Micky, Peter and David - were the living embodiment of the inspirational fantasy I described above, as well as the voices on some of the most well-crafted and enduring songs of the 60's. * If nothing else, the naysayers have to admit they were the stars of a beloved show that brought rock music into many children's lives for the first time, and into many people's living rooms week after week for two years.

If that alone doesn't qualify them for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, then I'll be a monkey's uncle.

*For further listening, I recommend the following songs (beyond the obvious hits):
The Girl That I Knew Somewhere
Sometime in the Morning
While I Cry
Shades of Gray
You Just May Be the One
Tapioca Tundra
Porpoise Song
Love Is Only Sleeping
You Told Me
Zor and Zam
Early Morning Blues and Greens
Daily Nightly
I'll Be Back Upon My Feet
The Door into Summer
Sweet Young Thing


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MarianneSp said...

you are right, I know it, you know it, I know it, you know it, the Monkees were awesome, influential, and talented. bitchin' appreciation!


Steve Lanzone said...

The Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame is a sham. They only vote in bands that so-called "expert" critics love...

How about Rush in the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame?