Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Monkees - Instant Replay (1969)

Remember three years ago back in August when I promised I'd come back with an album review that garnered something below a B?

For all two of you who read my reviews, you can finally stop holding your breath.

I'll lay off the "they weren't a real band, but they also weren't the Backstreet Boys" argument this time around - pretty sure I covered it when I reviewed Headquarters
way back in June - and instead focus on their decline.

The first nail in the coffin, despite Don Kirshner's insistence that it was his dismissal as their music supervisor, was NBC canceling The Monkees television show. The band members had grown tired of the madcap adventures geared towards 13 year old kids (keep in mind that in the 1960's 13 was equivalent to 8 years old in 2009 - I'm working on a conversion chart) and regularly challenged the show's format by the end of the second season. Rather than deal with temperamental musicians/actors, NBC canned the show.

That's one.

The second, as much as it pains me to say this, was their motion picture, Head. I'll just go ahead and say it: I have weird tastes. This manifests itself the most with my taste in movies. Yes, I would worship Charlie Chaplin if he came back from the dead. Yes, I enjoy The Godfather. Yes, I love Star Wars. But there's a lot of other "classic" films that I can't stand. There are a lot of modern movies I can't be bothered to watch. If a movie is surreal, bizarre, odd, uniquely shot/edited, abnormally colorful, or just plain funny, chances are it's one of my favorites. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is all of the above. The Beatles' films - Let It Be notwithstanding, I've never seen it, and so long as Sir Paul is alive, I don't think any of us will be seeing it (legally) anytime soon - all check off various criteria on this list. Hell, even Chaplin had some surrealistic humor in his short films.

That all said, I think Head is a brilliant movie. It was ahead of its time in the same sense as Magical Mystery Tour, much-maligned in its time but worshiped in the art-house/film school circuit, having developed a strong cult of defenders. But that was not at all what all the teenyboppers were expecting. In some television documentary on the band, Davy Jones said they should have made "something like Ghostbusters," a 90-minute version of their television show where The Monkees are the heroes on a much more grand scale than any of the Marxist (of the Groucho variety) plots of the television program.

I was really tempted to include a clip from the film...but I can't. I've got to save that for my review of the album Head. I'll just pretend I did and jump to my conclusion about their film:

He has a point.

That's two.

Then - try not to laugh - after Head flopped, plans were hatched for a television special entitled
33⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee, which really, really sucked. I've seen it. Peter Tork compared it to being a TV version of Head, but that's being charitable.

This was God-awful. Later in the sequence, three survivors of the first wave of rock and roll (who weren't Elvis, who ironically had his big comeback special the month they filmed this garbage), Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino play and partake in an "oldies" medley. The Monkees are treated like rock and roll's first test tube babies, appearing in segments that spoof their personalities on the original show, while in Head they played themselves attempting to escape said image.

In fact, it was such a negative experience that Peter quit.

That's nails three AND four!

So by 1969, the show was done (though even then being rebroadcast as reruns), their venture into film was befuddling to the squares and largely unseen by the acid-eaters who would have loved it, their return to television was a joke (do I need to embed them doing "At The Hop" a second time?), and one of them left after buying out his contract. The band had become a sinking ship, yet the three remaining members - Davy, Micky Dolenz, and Michael Nesmith - were constantly in the studio (separately, mind you, sometimes in different studios on the same day) recording.

In spite of the prolific in-studio work going on by the members individually, Instant Replay is a fragmented pop record. Many of the tracks date back to the early days of The Monkees in 1966, when they were a project rather than a band. Many of them were re-recorded at some point in the time that had passed, but one song indeed is a mixed, mastered track dating from before the show had even aired.

You'd think this hodgepodge compilation of songs ranging from three years to forty-five days old (yes, I looked it up - the album was released 2/15/69, the last vocal overdub was done on 1/4/69 - Andrew Sandoval, your insanely well-researched book is a Godsend!) could barely even be considered an album. Surely "real" artists (the floating quotes are meant to convey sarcasm) didn't do that, right?

Actually, it's not uncommon, for better or for worse. Tattoo You (1981) by The Rolling Stones had songs dating back to 1972 with Mick Taylor on guitar. No new songs were recorded for the album, with only vocal overdubs from Mick Jagger being the sole contributions from the band. On the other hand, there's Neil Young's lopsided 1977 offering, American Stars & Bars. The new stuff was all country music with Nicolette Larson and Linda Ronstadt in tow, and yet among the older material on side B of the album is "Will To Love" (one of my favorites) and "Like A Hurricane," one of my favorite songs from anybody...and yet it sat for two years!

Then there's Zappa, where a guitar solo from 1974 is spliced with a bass track from 1976 and a drum track from 1977. ("The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution," anyone? "Rubber Shirt?" "Friendly Little Finger?") He called it "xenochrony," and it has since become regarded as an art all its own.

That said, Instant Replay is the musical equivalent of taking last night's dinner and reheating it in the microwave. Some bites are going to be piping hot and fresh, like it had just been prepared. Others are going to be slightly cold, making for a grating, unsatisfying clash.

01. Through The Looking Glass [9.5]
A Tommy Boyce/Bobby Hart song first originally recorded in 1966, my personal favorite version, this reworked version - sounding more like a
Magical Mystery Tour outtake than the lo-fi Beach Boys-meets-Help! tone of the original - plods along with a beat you can do high kicks to. That's not a bad thing, at all. In fact, it's a terrific recording. The piano is bright and punchy, the song itself is well-arranged, and Micky's singing is top-notch. Very catchy, should have been a single. (We'll get to the actual single in a bit...)

I recognize the strangeness of my own tastes. The songs I give the highest scores to here wouldn't have gotten played on the radio, sure, but I can also take a step back from my own selfish interests and say this - "Through The Looking Glass" is the only song on this album that I can say qualifies as deserving the title of classic in The Monkees' canon.

02. Don't Listen To Linda [2]
That's right. A two. Not to be driving home a motif of things in pairs or double-sidedness, but there are two sides to the songwriting of Boyce and Hart. It was evident as far back as the band's first album. Yes, they gave us the classic "Last Train To Clarksville," but they also gave us their spin on "Yesterday" with the schmaltzy Davy Jones vehicle "I Wanna Be Free." Their dichotomous style is never more obvious than here. "Through The Looking Glass" showed McCartney-esque pop sensibilities amid some deft orchestration.

"Don't Listen To Linda" has a dumb title, clearly thought of first as the song's hook, with everything else very poorly being written to accommodate it. Whoever Linda is, I know now not to listen to her. For a pop song - actually, let me restate this with emphasis - FOR A POP SONG, these lyrics are awful. A good writer can discipline themselves by forcing five pages of text (prose, poetry) a day. Some days it probably comes easily. Other days it's probably like pulling teeth. This must have been written at a dentist's office.

Then you get someone like me, who does one of these dumb little reviews once every two weeks apparently, resulting in the written equivalent of explosive diarrhea. It goes - and gets - everywhere. I generally write these on days where I've had coffee. I think I have a problem.

The sotto brass arrangement gets drowned in a sea of Hollywood strings in the over-dramatic bridge. Not even Davy's munchkin pop singer voice can compete with the orchestration here. And that's saying something.

Before I move on from my Homeric simile on "Don't Listen To Linda," let me just say that you shouldn't only not listen to Linda, you should not listen to this song. You should package it and sell it as a sugar substitute for diabetics. This isn't pop. This is sucralose.

03. I Won't Be The Same Without Her [11]
This song was recorded, mixed, and had Mike's vocals dubbed all before the first episode of The Monkees aired in September of 1966. And yet it's one of the best songs here. What does that tell you?

That said, I love the harmonies. A perfect blend of sorrow on the verses and a catchy title-chorus. The key change in the bridge is beautiful. Sounds like California in 1966. So what if it's 1969? This calls back to a much more innocent time, back before Nixon got elected, before the political turmoil and social unrest, and before Peter Tork quit The Monkees. Wait, what?

Whatever. This is a great song. In the parallel universe where I determine the songs that will become great hits, "I Won't Be The Same Without Her" briefly dominated the radio in the autumn of 1966. Though in said parallel universe it was released by Mike & The Monkees.

04. Just A Game [6]
Micky Dolenz wrote this song, and actually demoed it back around the time of Headquarters as "There's A Way." It starts off very simple, but gradually builds with more and more instruments entering the mix. In spite of the strings and brass that come in, the song is really slight. Forgettable, even. Running only 1:48, this song either should have been fleshed out (if just a bridge to get the song over two minutes) or left in the can.

05. Me Without You [6.5]
Kinda sounds like this...

It's not a full-on carbon copy of The Beatles. That would be Oasis. But the similarities are pretty uncanny. Again, another Boyce/Hart collaboration, and while this isn't a total wash, I think they thought they were doing their best work when they aped John and Paul.

Actually...recalling all the stuff I've read, they modeled "(Theme From) The Monkees" after "Catch Us If You Can" by The Dave Clark Five, "Let's Dance On" is "La Bamba" with every single Chuck Berry riff mixed in, the fade-out of "Paperback Writer" inspired "Last Train To Clarksville," "I Wanna Be Free" clearly came out of "Yesterday," this song is son of "Your Mother Should Know." Yikes.

One thing we can give Boyce and Hart, no matter how derivative they may or may not have been, is "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone." Since someone who owns the rights to The Monkees - arguably one of the most visual groups of their era - ironically wants them off YouTube, here's some other versions, including the original by Paul Revere & The Raiders:

Wait, what were we talking about? Yeah, "Me Without You" is good musically - and that solo is straight out of Sgt. Pepper. I can hear George Harrison playing that guitar solo. Lyrically it's pretty banal...and it loses at least a point and a half on principle. While one could in theory make their career mimicking The Beatles, history will not be kind to you. Although if they'd tried a little harder, I would have loved to have heard The Monkees' "psychedelic" album. Can you imagine?

I smell a mixtape!!!

06. Don't Wait For Me [7.5]
I don't hate country. I just hate most of it. Then again, I feel the same way about most genres. Yeah, The Kinks, The Sex Pistols, Zappa, Neil, Dylan...all great, but then there's all the bands that literally do nothing for me. Grand Funk Railroad (whose best moment is a Rolling Stones cover) is a fine example of this. I'm not even that big on Springsteen. I don't necessarily hate them, I just don't care. It's the musical equivalent of going on a date with a bad kisser.

Then there's bands like Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Boston, and Chicago, which I equate to being like dates who have eaten garlic, suffer from meth-mouth, chain smoke, have had partial maxillofacial surgery, and are bleeding from the gums. And yet they still want to kiss you. They force their tongue down your throat.

Mike Nesmith did some great things - overlooked, even - with fusing country and rock and roll, eliminating the laughably awful middleman of skiffle from the equation and sidestepping folk so as to avoid any Dylan connection. In 1968, Mike did a marathon of recording sessions with a bunch of Nashville's finest session men, including later Neil Young producer David Briggs on piano, yielding almost an album's worth of material. Though not all of it got released while The Monkees were intact, it has all since been released posthumously on compilations like Missing Links or as CD bonus tracks. Most of it is pretty good. This one's not his best - "Propinquity (I've Just Begun To Care)" earns that title for my money, yet that went unreleased until Missing Links Volume 3? - but it's good.

Even when Nesmith falls short of his mark, it stands fairly tall on this album. I also love how genuine he sounds on these country tunes. When he does "Sunny Girlfriend" or "I Won't Be The Same Without Her," he sounds his age. But on this, he sounds like a golden-throated master, with years of experience, heartbreak, and whiskey drinking in every inflection.

07. You And I [12]
Davy dominates on this album, and not one of them score above a 6.5 except this, which is the greatest song he did with The Monkees. Hence, it is a 12. (For good measure, Davy actually has a writing credit! No fresh from the Brill Building songwriters here! Just Davy and Monkee collaborator Bill Chadwick.) This wins by a long-shot, over anything else he did with the group. Odd he would have his best moment so late in their career...and I swear to you it has nothing to do with the mystery guest on lead guitar.

In fact, I loved this song as a kid before I even knew who the guy was who played guitar. I knew his name, but that was it. We'll get to him in a second.

You know how earlier I talked about "I Won't Be The Same Without Her" takes us back to a much more innocent time? This does just the opposite as a new composition, addressing the band as having potentially outstayed their welcome:
"You and I have seen what time does, haven't we?
We've both had time to grow
We've got more growing to do
Me and you
And the rest of them, too."

Then comes the bridge, which carries the most potent acknowledgment of their own waning stardom:
"In a year or maybe two we'll be gone and someone new
Will take our place" - David Cassidy, anyone?
"There'll be another song, another voice, another pretty face..."

Wow. (See what I mean about how this couldn't have been a hit?)

Then there's the dramatic lead guitar line, provided by Buffalo Springfield's resident guy who dresses in fringe and sideburns, Neil "Mr. Soul" Young, the king of impassioned, dramatic lead guitar lines.

08. While I Cry [10]
Nesmith's last contribution to the album comes a little early, with this deceptively simple, plaintive lament for a wicked ex-lover who the narrator had been warned of. It's a beautiful song in its gentle form here, but a closer listen to the acoustic guitar in the left channel, the syncopated rim clicks in the right channel, the tremoloed electric guitar, the backing vocals on the bridge (with a slight flange applied)...just a little more voltage, this could have been a psychedelic ballad. But since it doesn't need any adornments to be a great song, it's here in its best possible form.

And the melody in the song's bridge is magnificent. Even when he's not getting his rocks off with surrealist poetry and bouncy rock, Nesmith is a Hell of a songwriter.

09. Tear Drop City [3.5]
And the sky lifts up its almighty leg and resumes urination. I always thought this sounded WAY too much like "Last Train To Clarksville" for comfort. Then I read that the song was originally recorded in a lower key.

Somewhere along the way, The Monkees got sick of being their own music supervisors, so the guy they hired suggested that by rehashing their old "sound" (thus explaining all the 1966-era material), they would be guaranteed hits. Thus, this song was sped up 9% to match the key of "Last Train To Clarksville." Listen closely to the tambourine. Unless it's a tambourine designed for a midget - note that I'm refraining from making a joke about Davy Jones been five foot three - I've never heard that instrument sound so tiny! And tinny, while we're at it.

I haven't bothered to slow this song down to its original pitch...I'm curious. The fact that I haven't yet means that it's not really been on my mind. Care to know why? It's not a great song. Then it was manipulated to make it sound MORE like their first big hit!

Okay, okay, seriously, it isn't a good song. Even if "Last Train" had never come out, this song wouldn't be that outstanding.

So, did the new music supervisor's gambit work?

Nope. It got to #56.

10. The Girl I Left Behind Me [5]
This song has a great chorus and an all-too-short 12-string acoustic solo, but the rest of the song is the kind of phony-baloney crap that would have been a huge easy listening hit in the 1970's. Unfortunately, it's from 1966. A re-recorded version from 1967 is a bonus track on the CD reissue of The Birds, The Bees, And The Monkees, and it's much better.

You know who could have done this song, obviously making a change for gender? Tina Turner.

11. A Man Without A Dream [1.5]
Somewhere I read Davy likes this song because it was more in his range as a baritone rather than as a tenor. Um, okay, the guy makes his career singing with the range and timbre of a 14 year old boy...anyway, the lyrics are stupid. ("Sometimes I think I'm a prisoner of fate / Doomed to find out things a little too late") The backing vocalists sound like they are half-awake. And the brass interlude is horribly out of place. At least with "The Girl I Left Behind Me" I can picture it being a feminist anthem for Tina Turner, produced by noted producer/murderer Phil Spector, but with this, I don't think anyone should be allowed to sing it. In fact, I'm pretty sure if you look at the sheet music (or even the master tape) directly without first praying a Latin incantation, this could happen to you:

In Hell, this song and "Don't Listen To Linda" play constantly along with "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey on the radio.

Ready for this? Boyce and Hart, surprisingly, did NOT write this song. Gerry Goffin and Carole King did. The same team that gave us "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow."

Care for any further evidence that man is inherently flawed?

12. Shorty Blackwell [10]
Micky Dolenz gets the benediction this time around, and wow...he and his sister Coco share lead vocal (and harmonize really, really well!) in this epic tale of cats, houses on hills, etc. He said it was his own indulgence to pursue a Sgt. Pepper-style sound. So, if anyone ever asks you what happens when someone has virtually unlimited studio time and access to a world-class recording orchestra, look no further. It's a goofy number, but after everything else that's befallen us for the past 35 minutes, it's welcome relief. Even on a good album, this song would remain memorable.

Subtotal: 68.75% D+

Replayability Factor: 0
Can I listen to this album again and again? No. The low points are too low.

Can I extract the best and make a playlist on iTunes? Oh, yes.

Consistency Factor: 0
It's for the die-hards, plain and simple. Davy Jones fans will probably eat this record up, but keep in mind, these are Davy Jones songs that weren't considered good enough for SIX OTHER ALBUMS before making onto Instant Replay. Just...just think about that one.

External Factors: -1
Yep. I went there. Was it out of the members' control that they had a music supervisor who said, "Hey! I know! Let's make you sound like you did 30 months ago! THAT should sell records!" ? Of course. But it still happened.

TOTAL: 67.75%, rounded to 68% D+