Monday, June 22, 2009

The Monkees - Headquarters (1967)

Yes, those Monkees. Don't be so quick to write them off - they all truly had musical experience under their belt before auditioning for a spot in the Prefabricated Four. Micky Dolenz grew up in a musical household (though, no, he was not a drummer before he became a Monkee.)

Peter Tork was a folkie from Greenwich Village. He and buddy Stephen Stills auditioned together - Stills was rejected due to his receded hairline and, hygiene. Stills went on to be a member of Buffalo Springfield (whose discography I just picked up a few days ago) before forming the supergroup-that-no-one-really-calls-a-supergroup-because-they-weren't-made-up-of-British-blues-players with David Crosby (of The Byrds) and Graham Nash (The Hollies), later adding Stills' former Buffalo Springfield cohort, Neil Young.

Davy Jones had made his bones (rhyme slightly intentional) portraying the Artful Dodger in Oliver!, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show the same night The Beatles introduced America to the 1960's. He had also released some singles as David Jones.

Michael Nesmith, who I will admit is my favorite Monkee, had some minor chart success with some singles released under the pseudonym "Michael Blessing." Thankfully, he dropped the moniker - Nesmith is a pretty damn cool name. (I can't deny the presence of subjectivity - this is a site of my own personal opinions - but I will try my best to avoid the hyperbolic while discussing his songs. See also: George Harrison, Dave Davies, and other assorted "underdogs.")

That said, The Monkees were created as LA's response to The Beatles. Sure, they did A Hard Day's Night and Help! (the latter a heavier influence on The Monkees television program), but LA was/is the vortex of the American entertainment industry: film, music, television. As a commercial product, they sang pop songs, concocted by some of the greatest songwriters in the business. Nesmith was able to squeeze in two of his own, in all fairness.

And no, they did not play their own instruments - though Mike did play guitar on his songs and let Peter sit in with the phalanx of crack sessionmen (and women, in the case of bassist Carol Kaye). This may sound like some sort of cardinal sin - THEY DON'T PLAY THEIR OWN INSTRUMENTS? BLASPHEMY! - but no one seems to care that members of The Wrecking Crew, the nickname given for this collective of top-tier players, are the same players you hear on, say, Pet Sounds...

I'll admit, I'm quick to defend this notion as reason to hate The Monkees. When the story was broken that The Monkees didn't play their own instruments (revealed by the vicious UK tabloids while they were on tour, no less), they became the subject of great scrutiny. It went under the radar that this was common practice in Los Angeles. The Beatles had set a remarkably high benchmark. Hell, if you were a band in the UK, you only used sessionmen as extra talent: witness Nicky Hopkins' keyboard playing with The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and The Beatles. It was different if you were Buffalo Springfield, The Beach Boys, The Byrds - or how about the Motown artists? The Supremes were singers, not players.

"The press went into a full-scale war against us, talking about how 'The Monkees are four guys who have no credits, no credibility whatsoever and have been trying to trick us into believing they are a rock band.' Number one, not only was this not the case, the reverse was true. Number two, for the press to report with genuine alarm that the Monkees were not a real rock band was looney tunes. It was one of the great goofball moments of the media, but it stuck."
--- Mike Nesmith

Glenn Gass pointed out that for younger Beatle fans - with The Monkees TV show debuting just thirteen days after The Beatles' final concert in San Francisco - this would be a safety zone. "Strawberry Fields Forever" too weird? That's fine, there's still The Monkees - sounding just as good as The Beatles did before they grew those scary mustaches and wearing funny clothes. There isn't as much absurdism to Frank Zappa's observation that The Monkees were "the most honest band in LA" as one would think.

To begin, after a power struggle with pop music mogul Don Kirshner - who knew what formula worked and wanted little more than lather, rinse, repeat from his Monkees; they were artists, and they weren't the trained apes Kirshner hoped them to be - the band set out to show the world that they could play their own instruments by doing just that on their third record, Headquarters. (Note: the details for the tiff with Kirshner are fascinating, from the fact that the band didn't even know their second album had been released, having to buy it themselves at a record shop while on the road, to Kirshner's desperate bid to make Davy Jones a solo star.)

Headquarters is just as unique and [nearly as] experimental as a lot of the LA "scene" artists of the time, making major exceptions for Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, The Mothers Of Invention, and (though I hate them to a passion post-1968) The Doors. I'm thinking more along the lines of Love, The Leaves, The Grass Roots, Spirit, etc., bands largely lost to the sands of time (or their hits being relegated to some shitty "SONGS OF THE SIXTIES" compilation.) It's still poppy, but they must have been conscious that these needed to be songs that could fit into the TV show.

It probably didn't hurt that Micky and Mike both visited The Beatles in the studio while working on Pepper. Nesmith is famously seen next to Lennon during the home film of "A Day In The Life." Don't expect sheer sonic ecstasy - they sought to keep this recording fairly organic, just the four of them with the occasional sessionman/men to augment the four. It's just guitar, bass, drums, percussion (tambourine/maraca, etc.), keyboards, and on one song cello and French horn. The Who would take this approach to its limits with Tommy, though it was still a mere glimmer in its composer's eye by this point in early 1967.

The absence of studio pros on virtually all of this record also leaves The Monkees themselves exposed - Peter Tork is not a fantastic singer, but his vocal part is brief; similarly, Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz, both talented vocalists, aren't the best musicians in the world. Dolenz's drumming is simple and at times unsteady. His parts had to be spliced together from multiple takes on some songs to get a solid track.

And then there's Davy Jones, who I truly do like just a little less than I like making fun of. The five-foot-three Englishman best known as the token "cute one," or at least the one shaking a tambourine in one hand and a set of maracas in the other on the TV show. On stage, he could sub for Micky on the drums or do bass while Peter played organ (or vice versa). Unfortunately, his musicianship level is...competent. Just competent. He can shake the tambourine like it's Rubber Soul...but that's about it. Then there's the fact that as the "cute one," he by association sings the "cute songs." The poppermost of the poppermost.

Still, there's some great songs here. Mike knocks it out of the park with each of his three compositions, all of which he sings. Personally, I like his voice a lot. It's got a distinct, warm, "Howdy folks, I'm from Texas" timbre to it. Each of these songs are different from one another, though. He may love country music - there's plenty examples of that to be found - but he loves poetry more, making his songs more than mere pop. His weirdest is yet to come by this album, but given his two songs on their eponymous debut fit his Texan mold like latex, and his one solo spot on More Of The Monkees fell into the same ilk - albeit whipped by the producer into a pop marshmallow, like most of that awful album - these three tunes must have been an eye-opener for all zero of the non-12 year olds who bought the records at the time.

[To his credit, Nesmith did bring us "Mary, Mary" on that second album.]

Overall, how you like the album hinges upon how much or how little you loved the factory-produced pop of their first two albums. That, and whether you judge music by its intent, quality, or content. This isn't The Monkees "as nature intended," to lift a phrase from the back of the Let It Be album. This is The Monkees "as is," which has more pleasant surprises than disappointments.

[Lead Vocal: Mike Nesmith]
The "Taxman" count-in spoof is a little goofy, but the song is a four-to-the-floor country-rock stomp driven by...a banjo? Aren't I supposed to hate country music, unless it's being performed by someone who died young due to their own stupidity, or at the very least hung out with Dylan?* Played by Peter Tork, it works really well. A very strong opening number.

02. I'll Spend My Life With You [10]
[Lead Vocal: Micky Dolenz]
There's an unreleased electric version of this floating around the bonus track circuit. It's interesting to compare the original (from what I call their "factory" era) with this. The original is just as sweet, but it sounds like Micky doing an expert job on another in a series of Tommy Boyce / Bobby Hart compositions. (Boyce and Hart wrote "Last Train To Clarksville," and if memory serves were to function in an almost Lennon/McCartney role as songwriters for the group.) But here, the dulcet nature of the song is enhanced by a more tender approach, with a 12-string acoustic, a rattling tambourine, electric bass, and some great extra touches from Mike on steel guitar.

[Again with praising the country elements? What is wrong with me? This ain't Sweetheart Of The Rodeo!*]

Micky makes it his own song. There's such a personal delivery, between his singing and the sparse but perfect musical arrangement, that makes the lyrics mean a little more than normal. One of the best moments on this album, hands-down.

03. Forget That Girl [7.5]
[Lead Vocal: Davy Jones]
Oh, Davy... In all fairness, this seemingly sugary ditty was penned by Chip Douglas, an ex-Turtle who not only produced this album but played bass when Peter was on keys and Davy was desperately needed to save the world with his maracas. [Incidentally, Davy is also credited with playing "jawbone." What the fuck is a jawbone? Oh, wait...never mind. That's disgusting.] Chip talks in the CD liner notes about how he wrote this song as a way of getting over a nasty break-up. For Davy - and this is where he differentiates from Micky as a singer - there isn't that much emotion here. Taken as second person, where Davy is urging "you" to forget that girl, he's like a friend who you'd rather have just comfort you instead of tell you the brutal truth. Taken as a message to one's self...he could have been better.

04. Band 6 [8]
Yep. They did it. A Monkees instrumental. It's a snippet from a goofing-around session (for some reason I'm reticent to say it was a jam session...) in which they attempted to figure out the Warner Brothers theme song from all those Looney Tunes shorts. It's not long, and it's really not that impressive. But you've got to admire the effort. Plus, it sounds like they're having fun. If only some fictionalized version of this event had been on the show...

[Lead Vocal: Mike]
Personally, I think it's a bit surprising that the first Monkee we would hear twice is Mike. Then again, in keeping with The Beatles parallel, George's songs are presented in a similar fashion on Revolver. This one isn't too far removed from "You Told Me," but as a band performance there's a lot more force behind it, and that bridge is as majestic as a four-to-the-floor country-rock stomp can get. This is one of a few songs from this album I distinctly recall seeing done on the TV show.

06. Shades Of Gray [10]
[Lead Vocal: Davy, Peter Tork]
This Mann/Weil number almost got an 8, simply because of Peter's vocal line. He just doesn't have a strong voice. At least not in a tender setting. But then I realized that, like Mike's compositions, he'd previously been featured singing on just one other song, and as little more than an extension of his on-screen persona: that of the dumb, lovable Ringo type.

[The song is called "Your Auntie Grizelda," and it's not bad...but when he finally brought his own real compositions to the table and sang, they were amazing! Unfortunately, this was also on his last album before quitting in early 1969. Go check out "Your Auntie Grizelda" - it's on YouTube. It has to be. This is The Monkees. They had a TV show, you know.]

That said, for Peter to even take a stab at singing delicately is quite an advance. What already put the song in high regard is how well Davy does as a singer. By his own admission, he's more comfortable singing in a more baritone-oriented range as opposed to the Peter Noone-esque stuff you hear on the singles. It's also a real melancholy number, and not because of a breakup or acne or because you slept in too late and missed The Monkees show on Saturday morning, brought to you by Kellogg's.

"When the world and I were young,
Just yesterday,
Life was just a simple game
A child could play

It was easy then to tell right from wrong,
Easy then to tell weak from strong,
When a man should stand and fight,
Or just go along

But today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light
Today there is no black or white -
Only shades of gray

I remember when the answer
Seemed so clear
We had never lived without or tasted fear

It was easy then to tell truth from lies
Selling out from compromise
Who to love and who to hate
The foolish from the wise..."

That's some worldly wise stuff right there. Their lyrics? No. Do they make it their own? Deftly.

07. I Can't Get Her Off Of My Mind [5]
[Lead Vocal: Davy]
Then there's this one. Davy sounds perfectly at home here in a song that, if one were to dub in a brass section and then scratch the tape to all Hell, could have been a pop standard in 1924. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the brass section, and Davy Jones has resurrected the innocent waifish boy voice once again. So it goes.

08. For Pete's Sake [8.5]
[Lead Vocal: Micky]
Written by Peter Tork, and what a cool riff! Even those little stabs from the organ sound cool. This song would play over the TV show's end credits in its second (and last) season, albeit with that horrible, abrupt chopping-block sound editing that marred so many early James Bond films, television programs, and most gratingly, "Give 'em the song again!" in Blow-Up.** My brother pointed out the lyrics in the bridge sound like a Sunday school lesson. It is a bit preachy, and with a lot of those Eastern-influenced "Love is understanding...What we have to be is free..." peppered throughout it could only have been written in the 1960's. The song is also a little repetitive. But it's a good one, just the same.

[Lead Vocal: Micky]
This is one weird song. That riff on the steel guitar shouldn't be a riff, but it is, creating an unsettling ambience. The song pauses twice, once to introduce the rest of the group, and again with the piano playing at a slow tempo before picking back up. Lyrically, it's a Boyce/Hart collaboration about a bank employee who, on the day of his retirement, makes off with all the money. It's a funny story, set to some creepy music. I can only imagine how different the original song Boyce and Hart had in mind was. Probably nowhere near this.

10. Sunny Girlfriend [11]
[Lead Vocal: Mike]
And yet they one-up themselves further with Mike's final contribution to the disc. It's upbeat, with a good dose - pun fully intended - of psychedelia injected in. The lyrics are [don't laugh] among my favorite lyrics on the nature of love itself, the realistic cynicism of Ray Davies notwithstanding.

"She can make you slow while making your mind move fast."

"Oh, while I'm sleeping
Then she comes creeping
Into my thoughts at night
Gazing down through eyes
As bright as wonder"

"She can send you on your way to everywhere
She's only started after you think that she is there.
She's my sunny girlfriend,
And she just doesn't care."

This sums up falling in love for me optimistically, while at the same time using this awkward double talk to describe how love can penetrate your thoughts and slow you down while speeding you up at the same time - just that euphoric craziness that doesn't come often.*** A perfect song.

11. Zilch [8]
"Mr. Dobolena, Mr. Bob Dobolena"
"China clipper calling on the meter"
"Never mind the furthermore; the plea is self defense"
"It is of my opinion that the people are intending"
These four nonsense phrases, uttered and repeated ad nauseum by The Monkees - the band that brought you "I'm A Believer" - are the entire song. At first, I thought it was stupid. Then I realized if this had been a piece on Lumpy Gravy or The White Album I would have fawned over it as a slice of mad genius. It's goofy - maybe to a slight fault - but goofy as opposed to tailor-made to suit the needs of an imaginary 12 year old girl named Debbie? I'll take goofy any day.

[Lead Vocal: Micky]
Something about this one annoys me...oh, that's right. This song clearly developed out of a jam. And it cannot be stressed enough that beating out The Beatles by a nose for "Worst Jam Band Of All Time" is The Monkees. Basic rock and roll chord progression and structure, really thin guitar sound (mind you, this is with pals Jerry Yester of The Lovin' Spoonful and Keith Allison of Paul Revere & The Raiders, the best garage band this side of Crazy Horse guesting on guitar along with Mike), and lyrics that are pure nonsense. Micky commented that the line "The grass is always greener growin' on the other side" was a marijuana reference. Considering the demographic buying this album, that alone saved it from a 3 rating.

The extra half point came from the quip "Andy you're a dandy, you don't seem to make no sense," about Andy Warhol. These guys weren't idiots. They appreciated art and culture...and I, too, find Mr. Warhol to have been an exploitative, sadistic Svengali who created a mythology about himself in an effort to become the most overrated artist. Ever. His sole contribution to society worth half a damn was giving The Velvet Underground their break. Otherwise, Valerie Solanas should have aimed higher.

[Geez...even I'm a little shocked by that one.]

13. Early Morning Blues And Greens [9.5]
[Lead Vocal: Davy]
Meanwhile, back to The Monkees, Davy turns in a fine performance of a moody backdrop that perfectly evokes a hazy morning - regardless of season - and nothing happens. Nothing at all. Great lyrics. They, too, are about almost nothing. Diane Hildebrand, herself a bit of an enigma, wrote these lyrics. [Curiously, she also brought us "Your Auntie Grizelda."] The only hint of anything is the final line about "sleep[ing] alone again tonight," hinting at some sense of loneliness. Davy does a great job of this, and the instrumentation is damn near perfect, but this is one of those songs that I don't think anyone but the composer could/should comfortably sing. This could have been a great singer-songwriter tune.

[Lead Vocal: Micky]
This is Micky's songwriting debut, and what a first impression! It starts off with a foreboding timpani, which fades quickly, replaced with a jaunty piano-driven verse, in turn replaced with some shouting vocals and the underlying tension of the timpani keeping time. In a word, schizophrenic. In another series of words, Micky should have written more songs.

A Randy Scouse Git is slang for, respectively, "horny," "Liverpool native," and "twerp." When asked to come up with an alternate title for its appearance on a single, Micky chose "Alternate Title." And that's what they went with. Only in the sixties, eh?

Subtotal: 88.9%

Replayability Factor: +3
This album doesn't just play well because of its experimental merits. The songs are terrific - "No Time" and "I Can't Get Her Off Of My Mind" excluded, but even those aren't horrible - and even when they are getting a little weird, the pop sensibilities stay intact.

Consistency Factor: +3
If you were to just pick one Monkees album, it’s essentially between this and the next record, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, Ltd. That one carries the experimental and psychedelic edges hinted at on Headquarters. It couldn't have happened without this one first. It's also worth noting that this album was #1 for a week, displaced by Sgt. Pepper, where the two sat atop the charts for 11 straight weeks, a fitting summary of the American record-buying public: hip kids ready to expand their collective consciousness and teenyboppers.

It's a tie between this one and the next for the best Monkees record. Lord knows they're both short enough to fit onto one disc. Seriously, I've taken shits longer than the time it takes to listen to this album - it's only 30 minutes.

External Factors: +2
I’m willing to look past it being too short – especially in the age of bonus tracks and the Headquarters Sessions box I fully intend to purchase when I actually have some money to my name – and instead appreciate it as The Monkees being a real band, warts and all. Peter’s singing is a bit flat, Davy’s songs are a wee bit too cutesy for my tastes, they couldn't jam their way out of a strawberry patch, and those pseudo avant-garde tracks are on the silly side…but this was released as a straight-up pop album. That's both cool and admirable.

[I’d like to see something like “Zilch” on a pop record today.]

Lastly, this was the only time they'd approach themselves as a real band in the studio so seriously. From here on out, Micky doesn't play drums in the studio - he apparently tired of it. Eventually, as they began to produce their own records, they each functioned on their own, occasionally pairing up, but not without a few other guys to play along. It was a short-lived phase, but they responded to the skeptics with aplomb. That's got to mean something.


* This would be a joke. I likes some country music just fine. What I have a problem with is the veneration of anything Gram Parsons touched...and the fucking Band. I hate The Band. Let the record state that plainly and clearly. I am as entitled to my opinions as you are to your own. I'm also not above agreeing to disagree. Just don't make me sit through "Hickory Wind" or "The Weight."

** What? Haven't seen it? Stop what you're doing right now and go see it! I'm really big on making connections, even if they may seem esoteric to the uninitiated. To me, it's my subtle push for you, the reader, if you don't get the reference, to go, "Hmm...I'll have to check that out some time." If you do get the reference, it's a little reward. But by no means do I intend to condescend to the rest of you. Anyway, I'm not Dennis Miller. I don't want to say something and have you say, "I don't get it," only for me to scoff and move on. I wants you to get it!

*** Now would also be a good time to mention I have a penchant for sappy romanticism. Not in a Barry Manilow sense, but more like I've actually thought long and hard about love in the context of well-written lyrics.

Turns out The Monkees aren't as easy to track down on YouTube. The current holders of their catalog, Rhino Records, is owned by Warner Music Group, the same crooks who almost bankrupted Frank Zappa, derailed Dave Davies' solo career, and turned Badfinger's Pete Ham to suicide.

Warner Music Group won't do an official channel of the songs they are striking off of YouTube. Thankfully, in the instances where a Monkees performance is taken from a bad VHS, it's slightly sped up or potentially a different mix in the show.

Dear Warner Music Group,

Fuck yourselves.

---Alex DiBlasi

Don't agree? Leave a comment!

New? Check out my entry on how I rate my records!


MichaelS said...

Hey, like your blog. Found it by searching reviews for Monkees Headquarters and for the movie Head.

Well done, intelligent analysis, fun, and easy to read.


Alex said...

Thanks, Michael - glad you enjoyed it.

lecycliste said...

I have all the Monkees albums of the 1960s in vinyl, but haven't played them for years. I was just 10 when the show came on the air. I ended up paying more attention to the Who and Chicago when I derailed classical piano training and began to compose and play in rock bands.

Revisiting the Headquarters album many years later, I can see why it was number 2 behind Sgt Pepper all summer-1967-long. You're right, there are some looney-tunes moments here, but songs like You Told Me and You Just May be the One hold up remarkably well as period pieces.

Consider the musicianship of, say, the Clash and the Sex Pistols, then think about the Monkees. No, they aren't virtuosos, but there's some artistry here. Headquarters is still an enjoyable memory after all these years.

lecycliste said...

I have all the Monkees albums of the 1960s in vinyl, but haven't played them for years. I was just 10 when the show came on the air. I ended up paying more attention to the Who and Chicago when I derailed classical piano training and began to compose and play in rock bands.

Revisiting the Headquarters album many years later, I can see why it was number 2 behind Sgt Pepper all summer-1967-long. You're right, there are some looney-tunes moments here, but songs like You Told Me and You Just May be the One hold up remarkably well as period pieces.

Consider the musicianship of, say, the Clash and the Sex Pistols, then think about the Monkees. No, they aren't virtuosos, but there's some artistry here. Headquarters is still an enjoyable memory after all these years.