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The Monkees: Our Life in 15 Songs

Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork tell the stories behind some of their most enduring tunes

The Monkees - Our Career In 17 Songs

1960s - THE MONKEES -- Pictured: (l-r) Peter Tork as Peter, Davy Jones as Davy, Mike Nesmith as Mike, Micky Dolenz as Micky

NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

On September 16th, the three surviving members of the Monkees will take the stage at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, California, nearly 50 years to the day after their TV show premiered on NBC. That night in 1966 kicked off a wave of intense Monkeemania that lasted a mere two years, but in that time they worked at a feverish rate, scoring huge hits like "I'm a Believer" and "Pleasant Valley Sunday," shooting 58 episodes of their TV show, touring the world and filming the psychedelic movie Head

"Bert Schneider, the producer of the Monkees TV series, said that when they cast us they caught lightning in a bottle," says Peter Tork. "For all the hassles and all the ways its been less than perfect for me, I have to agree."

Davy Jones passed away in 2012, but Tork, Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz reunited that year for a tour that ultimately lead to their triumphant new LP Good Times! Nesmith has been off the road this year as he works on his upcoming book, but will be back onstage at the Pantages show. There's also a ton of new Monkees releases tied to the 50th anniversary festivities, including the career-spanning three-CD set Monkees 50, which lands on August 26th.

We spoke to Dolenz, Tork and Nesmith about 15 key songs from the Monkees catalog.

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“Can You Dig It?” (1968)

Peter Tork: This started as a set of changes I wrote in college and didn't know what to do with. Then one afternoon on the set of the Monkees we were making the TV show and I had my guitar in my dressing room. The basic lyrics came to me and these changes I had stored in the back of my brain spring forth and dictated that kind of vaguely Spanish/North African harmonic sense. I was writing about the great unknown source of all. It was perfect for the Head soundtrack. 

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“Circle Sky” (1968)

Mike Nesmith: "I also wrote this one when we were performing. I wanted to explore the power trio of us. In a strange way, we were actually pretty good. Micky was a real garage-band drummer. I was a real scream-and-shout guitar player and Peter was a very precise player. He could play interesting lines and fills on the bass. The power trio that existed between us was seldom explored. The lyrics are about television and the corporate man.

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“Listen to the Band” (1969)

Mike Nesmith: This has a really interesting pedigree. I write half a chapter in my new book about it because it was such an unusual moment. The Monkees series was over and we'd already done the movie. That kind of put a tag on everything. I wanted to go down to Nashville while I still had some Monkee money and have my songs played by the Nashville cats like David Briggs, Jerry Carrigan and Norbert Putnam. These were the guys that put together this extraordinary music that launched a cultural revolution with Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and the whole R&B thing.

When I went into the studio it was a completely different vibe then the Wrecking Crew guys in L.A. Those guys did commercials, orchestral stuff, TV shows and so forth. In Muscle Shoals, it was all R&B all the time. They were exceptional players. I played the song for them and they were like, "Yeah, that's cool." We laid down the tracks, and when I went back to Los Angeles I added horns to it.

I was thrilled with the result. I ran into Richard Perry, who was a producer of some note at the time and very successful with big acts. I met him on Harry Nilsson's "Without You" record. I said, "Richard, I just did this record and I'm so proud of it. I really want to play it for you." He said, "Oh, that is pretty good." I said, "It's gonna be on the next record. I'll be happy to get you one." He said, "Yeah, okay. I don't think I'd ever buy a Monkees record, just on principal." I just thought, "Wow, that's what this is born into." It was born an orphan. There was no place for it, no traction. 

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“That Was Then, This Is Now” (1986)

Micky Dolenz: In 1986 MTV started showing the old show and we reunited for a tour. It just exploded. It was the biggest selling tour of that year for anybody. Arista had the catalog at the time. Clive Davis got a hold of me through his A&R guy, Roy Lott. They said, "Listen, this is huge. This 20-year reunion is turning into a huge thing. We're gonna reissue a classic CD of the big hits and we thought it would be cool if you recorded some new material."

We were already in rehearsals for the tour. They wanted us to try go get this thing out in like two weeks. I was like, "Wow! That's great. Make me a deal. Call my agent or waterer, but I'd love to do it." Peter agreed, but David did not. He chose not to participate in that particular set of recordings. But two days later, I'm in the studio doing vocals. A week or two later it came out and went Top 20.

Vance Brescia, the writer, has become a good friend. He plays in our shows sometimes when we need another guitar player. Whenever he does, we sing that song together.

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“Run Away From Life” (1996)

Peter Tork: Michael was becoming involved with [his future wife] Victoria [Kennedy] at the time. He played her the soundtrack to Head. She asked who was playing bass and he said, "That's Peter." Then she said, "Who wrote that part?" And he went, "Oh, that was Peter too." Then he had the idea that the theme song to Friends sounded exactly like Headquarters. He just caught a charge and wanted to see it through, so he asked me and Micky to come jam with him. It was the first time we'd played together like that since 1969.

I played bass. Micky was on drums and Michael was on guitar. We sounded just the same. It was really amazing. We had a jam, and as a result we brought in Davy and did Justus. I think the whole album is entirely under-appreciated. Nobody else was in the studio besides us and the engineer. I wrote "Run Away From Life." It's about fantasists. It's sarcastic as all hell, really pretty nasty. But with the album, I think we were operating under some limits we didn't need to. Mostly, I think it was a big mistake for me to not play more guitar. Micky's drumming is just ferocious on that record though. 

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‘Admiral Mike’ (1996)

Mike Nesmith: I wrote "Admiral Mike" after reading an article about an admiral that had killed himself because the press had alleged that he had done something dishonorable, but there was no proof. It was never adjudicated. He wasn't found guilty of any wrongdoing, but the press just excoriated him instead of being careful and neutral in their reporting. It made me angry and I just thought, "I need to write something about journalists needing to have some sense of responsibility to the truth." It's never more salient and relevant than it is right now.

The album it was on, Justus, might have been misguided. We tried to make an album that was built around our time as a band, which came from us performing. But we didn't continue as a band. We didn't see each other for years. We used to have a whole team working for us, the least of which was the team behind the show. There was also the team put together for the tours, and the whole Brill Building setup for the songs. Maybe we don't have a lot of business being the artistic force behind the Monkees. The setup on the next record [2016's Good Times!] was much better.

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“Me and Magdalena” (2016)

Micky Dolenz: This is just a wonderful song by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie from our Good Times! record, which was produced by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne. I really wanted to sing it myself, but we ended up doing a sort of duet with me and Mike. It's that Nesmith/Dolenz harmony which I've always loved doing.

Michael Nesmith: As we speak, I'm driving back from Los Angeles. I just recorded a version of this song in Spanish with Micky. 

Peter Tork: This song is just heart-grabbing. I've never heard Michael be so emotionally available as a singer before. The good reviews to this record were really gratifying, but part of me is amused since the record isn't that much better than the early ones. It's just that the moralistic attitude is gone and that enables people to just enjoy the album. What also comes down to is that the ethos that a pop-rock group needs to write all its own material has faded enormously. There's also the nostalgia that gives us a boost in the fact that it's 50 freakin' years later. That's just amazing. It's astounding to be in the middle of it. I look around and go, "What is this?"

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