Hey, Hey, They Were the Monkees

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The year 1966 was an interesting time in pop music. The Summer of Love hadn't yet made the youth revolution — and its inevitable commercialization and polarization — official, but the good vibes were already there to be enjoyed by anyone who was paying attention. Following the Beatles' cue, musicians were savoring a climate of experimentation within the new paradigm of self-contained performing and songwriting units — a business model that the big labels hadn't yet figured out how to fully control and stifle with accountants. But at the same time the Brill Building–type songwriters for hire, which included some of the finest pop-music talent America ever produced, were still cranking out songs by the yard in a last-gasp bid for teen immortality. The time was ripe for a naïve and yet monstruously successful hybrid, and Bob Rafelson knew it.

Rafelson, a jack-of-all trades hipster at Hollywood's fringes, and his partner Bert Schneider, decided to assemble a made-to-order rock 'n' roll band to star in a TV show. Rafelson claims he'd thought of it before "A Hard Day's Night," but whatever the case, the success of the Beatles movie, with the ur-rock video montage of "Can't Buy Me Love," greased the skids in a big way. Rafelson found himself deluged with applicants for the band, turning away the likes of Steven Stills before settling on the four lads who would succeed beyond anyone's wildest dreams. As the implications of his project began to sink in — namely, that it could be huge — Rafelson and company (i.e., Don Kirshner, later the man behind the Archies, a band that couldn't talk back) realized they had better come up with some real tunes, and turned to the best American songwriting talent money could buy.

What they got from Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond and others was a repertoire that any "real" band would envy, rivaling that of any '60s pop stars. It wasn't heavy, but brother was it tuneful — and fun. What's more, the made-up combo more often than not sang the hell out of their hits; eventually, they demanded more control over their destiny (exit Kirshner) and began to play and write their own songs, some of them quite decent. They woke up, but for a short while the dream continued anyway, and they got to become the real band their critics had savaged them for not being.

It couldn't last, and it didn't. The Monkees' golden age ended, appropriately, with the concept carried to its logical extreme, a Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson film called "Head" that was essentially about the destruction of the group. The Monkeees were not a Woodstock kind of band, and most definitely not a post-Altamont proposition. But for a brief span, they were a bona fide phenomenon, a brilliant, opportunistic creation that somehow also managed to encapsulate the giddy, innocent sincerity of the mid-'60s.

Who better but the archival geniuses at Rhino to give the Monkees their due; indeed, it would take a curmudgeonly soul to find a harsh word for this exhaustive — and later on, truth be told, exhausting — anthology of their work. Music aside, the package is terrific, with an extremely entertaining and informative bio; extensive liner notes chronicling the genesis of each tune, with quotes from the band members and producers (including Chip Douglas, who also produced the Turtles and played bass on the hit "Happy Together); and breakdowns of each session, including the musicians and producers. (Bet you didn't know Neil Young played with them.)

And at least for the first two of the four CDs, it's obvious why the Monkees were as big as they were. These are great songs, pure and simple — two words that describe them perfectly. "(Theme From) The Monkees" works just like the stroll down the street whose rhythm inspired its composition, a nice-guy "We're the Jets"; "Last Train to Clarksville" is a guitar-driven thing of pop splendor; "I'm a Believer" and "A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You" remind us what a distinctive stylist Neil Diamond was before he descended in the bathos-sphere with "I Am, I Cried" and "Longfellow Serenade." And "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone" simply rocks.

And those are just the straight uptempo numbers. If the tune's your thing, you won't find much bigger hooks than "Daydream Believer," and "Pleasant Valley Sunday" has a breezy, lovely Carole King melody; social commentary never felt so un-preachy. They didn't play much on the early stuff, but Mickey Dolenz could really sing, and when they finally did start to play their own instruments, the difference wasn't all that noticeable.

The Monkees also presaged the advent of country rock, notably in Mike Nesmith's compositions and their wonderful cover of Michael Murphy's deceptively simple-sounding "What Am I Doing Hanging 'Round?" There are also ample pleasures to be derived from lesser-known songs; the Monkees came from the era when albums were supposed to be more than just filler to put around singles, and for the most part they delivered.

For a while, anyway. Disc Three marks the end of the '60s hits, and while its often skirts the edges of silliness, it's surprising how consistently listenable it is, especially "Porpoise Song," the failed single from "Head," and Nesmith's contributions. It also features a live cut, "Circle Sky," which lays to rest any doubts about their viability in concert. Nesmith's nasal vocals nothwithstanding, his efforts are about the only redeeming feature of the final disc, a somewhat grimmer prospect that includes late-'60s meanderings, some truly naff Davy Jones treacle, and more of Mickey Dolenz' inane flights of fancy than any sentient being should be forced to endure — along with some ill-advised harder rock material from their various latter-day incarnations.

But it's hard to get mad at these guys. Apparently, they rarely did at each other, and if it was more obvious on TV, that good-naturedness somehow comes through on record as well. The last two tracks find the full foursome back together in 1996 (Nesmith had long refused to participate in reunions), playing their own songs and instruments, and even if it's well past the point of relevance, it has a certain wistful sweetness. Indeed, there's a fundamental decency, wit and charm in evidence throughout this collection that so completely transcends the Monkees' prefab origins, and those of their modern-day counterparts — New Kids on the Block, anyone? — that it's a pleasure to be able to recognize them as their own men. They deserve it.