Wednesday 3 November 2021

Hey Hey They're The Monkees!

The Monkees TV show was first shown in England in September 1966. I was twelve at the time so it was ok to like it. I was instantly a fan. I liked the clothes they wore, I liked how Peter Tork held a bass guitar, loved the big tambourine wielded by Davy, the English Monkee who came from Manchester like my family did, and had the added attraction of not being very tall just like me. They were a perfect pop group for a twelve year old - they got involved in all sorts of mad capers and looked good with guitars. And one of them wore a woolly bobble hat just like the kid down the road. That kid’s hat went from being a thing of ridicule to being decidedly cool almost overnight - suddenly I wanted one and got my grandmother to start knitting.

I watched the show every Saturday. I looked forward to it. Debate raged all around, mostly amongst older people - who did they think they were these Monkees? Were they as good as the Beatles? I didn’t care, I just sang along - take the last train to Clarksville and I’ll meet you at the station - I had no idea where Clarksville was but I’d be there if only I could. Hey hey We’re The Monkees, I’m A Believer… 

I guess I should have stayed in bed my pillow wrapped around my head… 

I could relate to that - my life was a living teenage hell - I had a bad time at school and things weren’t much better at home. I wished I could live in the Monkees’ wild western world of pop, and wear clothes with fringes or double rows of buttons.

By the time the series ended in 1968 I was into the Jimi Hendrix Experience and early Pink Floyd. I started listening to John Peel’s radio show, Top Gear, and though I could never rebel completely against the top thirty singles chart, I was beginning to understand that some groups just weren’t cool, and that included the Monkees. The Monkees were a teenybopper group, as in not heavy, or even unlistenable. If the British gutter press was to be believed, they didn’t play on their own records, and word had it that they couldn’t even play their instruments. Definitely not cool.

Fortunately my pursuit of lofty and difficult listening didn’t last long, I learned to differentiate between great pop music and middle-of-the-road schlock and expanded my musical horizons to encompass anything from bubblegum to free jazz. 

I became an art student, first in Bristol and then in Hull where I was enrolled on the fine art (painting and sculpture) diploma or degree course. That was a wild time. There were parties where the only records that were played were by Bo Diddley, the Velvet Underground and the Monkees. We loved the Monkees. We formed a group, Addis & The Flip Tops, named after the Addis Flip Top kitchen rubbish bin that was the drum kit at our first rehearsal. To begin with we were called Johnny Part Time & The Ready-Mades, but that was changed to the Home Mades  because we’d concocted (I won’t say composed) a Monkees pastiche - Hey Hey We’re The Home Mades. That was as close as we ever got to playing a Monkees song, not that it was ever actually played - I don’t think it went further than being a scrawl on the back of a beermat. Which was probably just as well. We played Bo Diddley in the style of the Velvet Underground at art school dances. We would have liked to have been the Monkees complete with harmonies, outfits and madcap capers, but we were dirty, dissolute and unlistenable, and songs like theirs were musically beyond us.

A few years later, sometime in 1979 or 80, I was in the Stiff Records office when a tall, lean and vaguely familiar looking man walked in. He approached the receptionist and said he had an appointment. ‘My name’s Micky Dolenz,’ he said in that slightly high but unassuming voice. So he really existed! I didn’t get up and say hello or anything, that would have been too weird, and fraught with potential embarrassment. I just tried to act cool like it was the most normal thing ever for a childhood hero to suddenly materialise as a slightly older real human being. But I was shocked, shocked and stunned. Very stunned in fact.

A few years further on than that it was 1987, My life was impossibly dark and I had decided that for the good of all concerned I must never play music again because me playing music had brought nothing but misery to myself and anyone who had ever come in contact with it. I was having a nervous breakdown at the time but hadn’t quite realised it yet. 

At some point in the darkness I had a phone conversation with John Tobler who was a journalist at Music Week, the British music industry magazine. He said he’d been thinking about me because he’d just received a review copy of the Monkees comeback album and it had one of my songs on it. It seemed the Monkees had recorded a version of my song Whole Wide World. John gave me a number for the record label in Los Angeles, California, and instructed me to call and speak to Harold Bronsen, the director of Rhino Records. Harold was very pleased to hear from me and confirmed that the Monkees had indeed recorded Whole Wide World - Micky had sung it. Everybody loved the song. Me, I’d almost forgotten the song even existed.

They promised to send me a copy of the album. I was walking on air - making lists in my head: Last Train To Clarksville, I’m A Believer, Whole Wide World… They always had the best songwriters working for them: Goffin & King, Neil Diamond, Boyce & Hart, Me

A week later an LP sized package arrived in the post. I tore it open with great excitement. My excitement was tempered by the front cover. The album was called Pool It! and there was a photo of three - not four - guys in a swimming pool. Everything seemed to be shades of bright blue and bright yellow - eighties garishness at its most er… eighties.

There was a track listing - yes, and there was my track (I’d Go The) Whole Wide World with my name in brackets next to it - track number two on the first side, so that was good. And there was an inner sleeve with a list of musicians credits. Michael Nesmith wasn’t on it and that was a minor disappointment because I was a fan of the First National Band - and wasn’t he the one of the four who could really play? But the producer was Roger Bechirian and I really liked him - he did The Jesus Of Cool and Nick The Knife with Nick Lowe, and Jumpin’ In The Night by the Flamin’ Groovies, and got that big drum sound - so this was very good sign indeed. I noticed that one of the songs was written by the songwriting team Fairweather Page with whom I had briefly come into collision when Stiff Records decided that as I had no talent or ability for writing tunes they were putting that chore in the hands of industry professionals. It hadn’t gone well. So that wobbled me a bit.

I put the record on and it was ok. It was great in fact, hearing the unmistakeable voice of Micky Dolenz singing my words, my tune, with that great big beat behind it. I was almost lifted out of the swampy waters of depression in which I was slowly drowning. 

The album wasn’t particularly well received - it wasn’t one of their best - but I seem to remember they came over and played at Wembley Stadium. I didn’t go, I cracked up instead and spent some time in a psychiatric hospital.

People told me that it was really good for my career that the Monkees had covered one of my songs but I never capitalised on it. By the time I was out of hospital and in what you might call circulation again, any heat that may have been generated had died down. I wouldn’t have known how to capitalise anyway, but I’ve always been immensely proud that the Monkees have recorded one of my songs. 

We saw that the surviving Monkees, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith, were doing a farewell tour. We’d been alerted to it by a Facebook post from their manager, Andrew Sandoval (who Amy knows), refuting some garbage claims that Michael Nesmith was a rock n roll slave, beset with dementia and being used to promote a tour of which he had no understanding or wish to participate in. We were quietly incensed by the idiocy of these claims and decided to see the tour for ourselves, so we got tickets for a show at the Tarrytown Music Hall.

Amy and I have always liked the Tarrytown Music Hall. We first went there to see Ian Hunter. I thought the place was called Terry Town and was quietly charmed by this, but disappointed when we got there to find it was just plain old Tarrytown. Tarrytown, New York. that was where we first met Ian Hunter, and subsequently saw Kris Kristofferson and later Steve Earle. 

Tarrytown Music Hall was my introduction to the crampiness of ageing American audiences - the barked order from behind when the act comes back on for an encore following a standing ovation - Sit Back Down! The dads who bring disinterested ten year old sons to concerts in order to expose them to good music, and to instruct them in the ways of rock: ‘Now, that guy carrying the guitar, he’s a roadie…’

Steve Earle launched into a speech concerning abortion rights. It went on for some considerable time and the atmosphere was…a little less than comfortable. You could hear the buzz and hum of amplifiers. Dissenting groans echoed around the hall, a commanding and flatly measured voice came from the back: 'JUST PLAY THE MUSIC' 

But much to my admiration he carried on...

An old guy in a mint green polo shirt, beige chinos with turn-ups, and large white trainers waddled down the aisle. In my imagination he looks more and more like an aged Homer Simpson. He waggled  a finger at the stage, yelled ‘You’re dead to me!’ and waddled out into the night.

The audience for the Monkees were a lot less uptight. I don’t think there was anyone in there under the age of fifty and everyone was wearing a mask.

The stage set up looked very promising - everything packed in close and businesslike - no giant video screens and no room for choreographed dancing, unicycles, giant balloons…

The lights went down and an announcement cam over the PA: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the Monkees present the Mike and Micky Show’. Musician’s in silhouette clambered into position and two figures appeared in a spotlight to the side of the stage. 

It was them! Micky Dolenz in a long western coat, black hat, white shirt, Michael Nesmith looking almost scruffy by comparison in a brown velvet jacket with t shirt and black jeans, grey hair slicked back - a little frail but obviously pleased to be there.

They kicked off with Good Clean Fun and were soon into Last Train To Clarksville. The band were noticeably cool and very groovy. A relief because there’s so often an element of wrong in these things:

Steve Miller with a rhythm section who sounded like they’d never actually heard him before they got job, and possibly only got the job because for some reason nobody else wanted it.

Ricki Lee Jones with a technical metal guitar player.

Ari Up with a man on the bass who looked like he’d come round to put up a shelf and been co-opted into the band - 'Well. I can turn my hand to most things…’

Tommy James with a random collection of Shondells including a drummer who sounded as though he was building a shed, and a faux hawk sporting guitar player who looked as though he would have preferred to be home in his garage working on a custom car, and punctuated each song with a blistering and entirely inappropriate guitar solo.

The Mike & Micky Show didn’t have one of these. 

Two guitar players, one of whom always seem to be playing a twelve string, an understatedly brilliant bassist, a pedal steel player doubling on acoustic guitar, a keyboard player, drummer, and a magnificent woman who played percussion and sang vocal harmonies along with one of the guitarists and the keyboardist.

I was immediately struck by Micky’s casual tambourine playing. It seemed to me that the tambourine is the key to the man - he is effortlessly rhythmic in everything he does - in his singing, even in the way he moves across the stage there’s grace and rhythm. With a maraca in each hand I felt that he made them sing. When the band was introduced the fabulous percussionist and harmony vocalist turned out to be his sister, Coco Dolenz. 

It must be a family thing.

They performed hit after hit - songs I knew so well, others I’d forgotten but which were so familiar - and just as I thought they surely must have run out of hits they busted out another one. I had forgotten all about the Peter Tork song For Pete’s Sake and maybe never knew it by that title - in this generation, in this loving time we will make this world shine… it was the play-out music on the second series of the Monkees TV show. We were born to love one another and that’s something we all need…it wasn’t a hit single, but somehow it’s always there, in the ether.

At some point during the show Mike Nesmith made the point that the songwriters they were using , who were some of the very best America had to offer, were saying things in songs that were important and quite profound. He talked about how they were invited by their producers to participate, to share their ideas, but when Nesmith bought in songs he’d written they told him they didn’t need them - they’d already got that covered. One of these songs was Different Drum - he gave that one to Linda Ronstadt’s band, the Stone Poneys who had a huge hit with it. Suddenly they wanted his songs.

Micky talked about Nesmith encouraging the others to write songs because that’s where the money is. A timpani was bought on stage and Micky recalled being in London, England, and meeting the royal family.

Nesmith began to list them - ‘Arthur, Janice, Pat…’

‘No,’ said Micky, ‘the other royal family - the Beatles.’

The Beatles threw a party for the Monkees where Micky enjoyed himself a little too much and behaved badly. He went back to his hotel and wrote Randy Scouse Git / Alternate Title. He sang, played the timpani part, Mike did a wacky dance - perfect.

I could go on and on about the show but I feel I’m beginning to sound like a review in a regional newspaper, so I think I’ll stop. You get the idea anyway, and maybe you should go see them yourself if you can.

The Monkees are still often criticised or sidelined for not always playing the instruments on their records. As I understand it they had very little input on their first album and practically none on the second, but on their third album, Headquarters, from 1967, they played on all the tracks and had substantial songwriting credits. From then onwards they had artistic control. The Headquarters liner note begins with a statement: We aren’t the only musicians on this album, but the occasional extra bass or horn player played under our direction, so that this is all ours.

The Beach Boys never had to do this.

The Monkees crime against pop was that of being a manufactured group, and having a TV show. These things stygmatised them. But aren’t all groups manufactured in some way and to some extent? Double standards have prevailed - the Beatles have never had to seek forgiveness for that technicolour turd of a movie Help! - the Beach Boys have never had to justify the use of session men even though their main guy stayed at home and made the records while the band went on tour.

The Monkees quietly married pop to country with an unassuming psychedelic edge. They're a huge part of the fabric of popular music. And yet they haven’t even been inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall Of Fame - arguably a dubious honour, but one which should be theirs. The Beatles are in it in spite of Help! and so are the Beach Boys even though they didn’t play on their own records to a much greater degree than the Monkees. 

While we were having dinner in a restaurant over the road before the show Amy was busy texting with her friend the manager/tour manager about the possibilities of meeting after the show. I was doubtful that this would happen given the circumstances and especially since the backstage at Tarrytown Music Hall is cramped at the best of times. I was utterly thrilled to bits when a text came through with a message from Micky about Whole Wide World: Tell Eric it’s a great, great song

After the show we met Micky Dolenz in the parking lot by the tour buses and had a masked conversation. He couldn’t have been more charming - he asked where we lived and where I came from, and waxed lyrical about Brighton where, he told us, he had directed his first documentary. He told me again how great Whole Wide World was and I thanked him for recording it and told him it means a lot to me that they did. He asked me what I thought of the show: ‘I absolutely loved it, I said, and then found myself saying ‘I was particularly struck by your tambourine playing.’ He looked crestfallen for a moment but he laughed and said he just taps the thing and tries to keep up. I said there was a whole lot more to it than that. I hope he understood the sincerity of the compliment. He fist bumped me three times.

I met Micky Dolenz. The twelve year old me is very impressed. The sixty-seven year old me is also quietly thrilled. I’m so happy that the two remaining Monkees are making such a good showing but I’m sad that it’s their farewell tour - I want to see them again. And again.