Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Monkees Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

monkees.jpg

The Monkees (1966, Colgems)

B +

In spite of receiving enormous criticism from the rock press at the time for not playing on their own records at first (not for lack of either the ability or the desire to do so, but, rather, due to having been forbidden by their management and label from doing so, though that would later change after a prolonged and heated battle), the studio albums from this loveable quartet are actually – in spite of their limited creative involvement initially – much better than they’re typically credited as being. One has to wonder if the records would have been received more warmly by the music critics of the day were it not for the four boys already having made their name as television stars on their own madcap and groundbreaking self-titled sitcom. They don’t get to really flex their creative muscles here, no, with the exception of two tunes produced and co-written by Mike Nesmith, nor do they play here (again, with the exception of the two Nesmith productions, each of which sports Peter Tork on guitar), but the songs are largely solid (of course, it helps when you’ve got ace writer-producers like Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart as your primary support) and the album exudes with charm. The Number One hit “Last Train to Clarksville” is here, as is an extended version of the sprightly theme song to their sitcom, but the Monkees were more than just a great singles band, and the disc sports many an appealing album cut, from the Boyce-Hart ballad “I Wanna Be Free” (a great showcase for Davy Jones), Nesmith’s self-penned “Papa Gene’s Blues” and the Mickey Dolenz-sung “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day” and “Take a Giant Step” (the latter penned by Carole King and Gerry Goffin) to “Saturday’s Child,” penned by a young, pre-Bread David Gates. The quality undeniably takes a bit of a dip after “Clarksville” and the second half isn’t nearly quite so consistently strong (hitting a nadir on “Gonna Buy Me a Dog”, though the rocking Nesmith-Goffin-King collaboration “Sweet Young Thing” makes up for it), but at least two-thirds of this album is prime pop.

moreofthe.jpg

More of the Monkees (1967, Colgems)

A –

Its front half isn’t nearly quite so impactful as that of its predecessor, but More of the Monkees ultimately bests that disc by containing less filler overall and having a superior second half. Unlike The Monkees, there are no embarrassing throwaways here like “Gonna Buy Me a Dog,” and while the Tork-sung “Your Auntie Grizelda” appears at first glance of its title to be a wholly disposable novelty, it’d actually become a common part of the band’s live shows and best-of packages alike (even if it doesn’t quite hold up to the same quality of the other tunes here). The Boyce-and-Hart-penned “She” is a solid opening cut, and Nesmith’s surprisingly groovy composition “Mary, Mary” (sung by Dolenz), the Carole Bayer Sager-Neil Sedaka collaboration “When Love Comes Knockin’ at Your Door,” and Neil Diamond’s “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” are all highly appealing album tracks. Only on the supremely sappy “The Day We Fall in Love” does the album seem at risk of collapsing, but it quickly bounces back with the Goffin-King composition “Sometime in the Morning.” But the album’s real raison d’etre is its pair of legendary singles, the oft-covered grungy garage-rock of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” (formerly recorded by Paul Revere and the Raiders) and the irresistibly sunny Diamond-penned “I’m a Believer,” which would become the band’s second Number One hit and rest atop the charts for seven weeks.

headquarters.jpg

Headquarters (1967, Colgems)

A

Had the band opted to incorporate both sides of its latest single (the Neil Diamond-penned “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” and Nesmith’s fabulous “The Girl I Knew Somewhere”), this disc might have a bit more appeal to the more casual Monkee fan since, unlike the prior two albums, there are no hit singles to be found here. But, its absence of radio staples aside, Headquarters (produced by former Turtles member Chip Douglas) is arguably the band’s most cohesive album piece yet and one that finds the band asserting far greater creative control over its product (seven of the fourteen tunes are written or co-written by at least one band member) and handling most of the instrumentation themselves. One might fear going into the disc that the writing might be a bit amateurish, but Nesmith had already proven himself a fine writer with songs like “Mary, Mary” and “Sweet Young Thing” and delivers again here on cuts like “You Told Me” and “You Just May Be the One,” while Dolenz offers up the delicious whimsy of “Randy Scouse Git” and Tork pens an infectious rocker (and should-have-been single) in “For Pete’s Sake,” which would later be utilized as the closing theme of their sitcom. Elsewhere, the band returns to the Boyce-Hart songbook with cuts like “I’ll Spend My Life with You” and utilizes the talents of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil on the overlooked gem “Shades of Grey.” It’s not the most hook-heavy Monkees album, no, and it could have used a single like “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” (or even “The Girl I Knew Somewhere,” which is practically every bit as catchy, even if it didn’t chart nearly so highly) to provide that icing on the cake, but the amount of love and craft that went into this disc is very apparent indeed, and that proves to be enough to make up for it and make this arguably the band’s most personally revealing and charming – and certainly its most adventurous – album yet.    

pisces.jpg

Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, Ltd. (1967, Colgems)

A +

Headquarters, as the band’s grand artistic statement and creative coming-out party, tends to get all the love, but the group arguably never made a more perfectly balanced disc than this, their third full-length release of 1967. (That the band issued three solid albums in one year, each a little bit better than the last, is fairly amazing in retrospect, considering most artists now go several years between full-lengths.) Though the overwhelming bulk of the disc is once again penned by outside writers, the disc holds together as a whole better than either of the band’s first two albums, thanks in part to the utilization of a single producer in the returning Chip Douglas, and the band still asserts its identity as functioning musicians by continuing, as they did on Headquarters, to play much of the instrumentation, namely Nesmith and Tork on guitar and Dolenz on drums (and, on “Daily Nightly,” Moog synthesizer, one of its earliest uses on a mainstream pop record). But it’s the sheer abundance of hooks that ultimately makes this album ever-so-slightly more memorable than its predecessor. The surprisingly edgy Goffin-King composition “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was the biggest hit here, reaching the Top Three, with its B-side, the haunting “Words,” also included here, nearly making the Top Ten as well, but the hooks just keep coming with such infectious album cuts as “Cuddly Toy” (penned by a young Harry Nilsson), Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s “Love Is Only Sleeping,” the intelligent bubblegum of Jeff Barry’s “She Hangs Out,” the country jangle of “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” (penned by Michael Martin Murphey, more than five years prior to his own success as a performer with such songs as “Geronimo’s Cadillac” and “Wildfire”), and the soothing sway of “Hard to Believe,” arguably the most infectious Davy Jones-sung song by the band to never be issued as a single.

birdsbees.jpg

The Birds, The Bees, & the Monkees (1968, Colgems)

B

Peter Tork only shows up only on one track here (not even on vocals, mind you, but, rather, to play piano on the album’s biggest single), but even if you weren’t aware of that, you could likely already figure out from listening to the disc that the band was beginning to splinter (indeed, only two tracks here feature more than one Monkee) since the disc is a hodgepodge of radically different styles lacking Chip Douglas’ steady hand to give it all some unity. Nesmith is delving deeper into country territory, Dolenz into more psychedelic fodder (“P.O. Box 9847”), and Davy Jones adhering to his usual penchant for melodic sentimentality on cuts like “Dream World” or “We Were Made for Each Other.” (The musical diversity wouldn’t be quite so off-putting if the material itself were a bit stronger, but there aren’t nearly quite so many hooks here as there were on Pisces (with only the occasional album cut, like “I’ll Be Back Up on My Feet,” on a comparable level of quality to the singles). But the album does contain more Top 40 hits than any other studio album from the band: the Nesmith-penned “Tapioca Tundra,” the psychedelia-tinged “Valleri” (sporting some memorable flamenco-styled soloing from underrated session guitarist Louie Shelton), and, best of all, the lovely, sunny Number One smash “Daydream Believer,” penned by former Kingston Trio member John Stewart (later to find solo success in the late ‘70s with such hits as “Gold”) and arguably Davy Jones’ finest hour with the group.

headmonkees.jpg

Head (1968, Colgems)

B   

Arguably the band’s most overrated album, this soundtrack to an equally weird-but-adventurous self-spoofing movie (famously penned by a young pre-stardom Jack Nicholson) does admittedly have some very strong (and not nearly as uncommercial as the album’s single, “Porpoise Song,” might have you believe) material. Tork’s hypnotic, Middle Eastern-tinged, heavily percussive “Can You Dig It?” pulsates like few other cuts in the Monkees canon, while his toe-tapping “Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?” boasts an absolutely relentless groove; Nesmith’s raga “Circle Sky” is even more inventive, fusing country, psychedelic rock, and Latin with surprisingly strong results; and the Dolenz-sung “As We Go Along” (penned by Carole King and Toni Stern) is simply stirring. But adventurousness alone does not a great album make, and the difference between this disc and the far more satisfying Headquarters is that the latter disc gives you much more music for your money, this soundtrack only containing six new proper songs from the band, while the rest of the disc is rounded out by score music and bits of dialogue and sound effects, rendering this disc only slightly less of a rip-off than the Beatles’ soundtrack for Yellow Submarine.