The Monkees: Our Life in 15 Songs
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.
“Last Train To Clarksville” (1966)
Micky Dolenz: It's about a guy going off to war. Frankly, it's an anti-war song. It's about a guy going to Clarksville, Tennessee, which is an army base if I'm not mistaken. He's obviously been drafted and he says to his girlfriend, "I don't know if I'm ever coming home." Considering that it was a Monkees song and the first one, I was always surprised that the record company even released it unless it just went right over their head.
I don't recall recording it because there was just so much going on at that time. I was recording two or three songs a night after filming the TV show all day. [Co-writer] Bobby Hart tells me I went in to sing one night. He says that I'd learned the song and routined it. We'd done the keys and all that stuff. There was a bridge part of that song. You know the bit where I go "di da di di da di da?" Well, there were words to that. I said, "Bobby, I just can't sing that." I just couldn't learn it in time. He said okay. "Well, we need to get it done so just go, 'di da di di da di da."
I have a very fond memory of hearing it on the radio for the first time on KHJ, a big station out here at the time. Davy and I were renting a house up in the Hollywood Hills. We were pulling up to this big, beautiful rented house in Beverly Hills when they went, "Here they are, the Monkees' 'Last Train to Clarksville.' We pulled over and just had the biggest grins on our faces.
“Mary, Mary” (1967)
Mike Nesmith: This was an early song. I hadn't been writing long, but I was interested in finding a place that was between country and blues. At the time, I was working for Randy Sparks. He had started a publishing company after his success with the New Christy Minstrels, who were a folk-rock band. He hired me as a writer, and one day in his office I wrote "Mary Mary." Frazier Mohawk took it to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and they recorded it. That was very encouraging.
Randy then sold my catalog to Screens Gems Columbia Music, which was the music catalog for the Monkees television show. They picked it to go on the second record. That was all fine, but they didn't want me to play or sing on it. "They" being Screen Gems, which was run by Don Kirshner. Run-DMC covered it years later. I just loved their take on it. They changed around the lyrics some, but I didn't care. The song isn't exactly deep.
“I’m a Believer” (1967)
Micky Dolenz: Again, I don't specifically remember recording this. Filming took eight to 10 hours a day, and on the weekends we rehearsed for the tour. I would go in after filming and have to lay down these vocals. I remember sometimes doing two or three a night. They just needed so much material for the show. They wanted at least one new song in every episode.
It's probably my signatures Monkees tune though. Nine times out of 10, we close the live show with it. I can't explain why it's proven to be so popular. You can't reduce art like that, especially collaborative stuff. You can't say it was Neil Diamond's lyrics, or no, it was the melody. No wait, it was the background vocals. With anything collaborative, at some point the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.
“You Told Me” (1967)
Mike Nesmith: When I joined the Monkees they kept saying, "You gotta write a pop song." This is one of the two I wrote, along with "The Girl I Knew Somewhere." I was really happy with the way it turned out, and it came out on the only album we ever made by ourselves, which was Headquarters. When I saw "we," I mean the four principal actors. Peter put a great banjo on it and it came to life.
People think it was amazing that four guys hired for a TV show could actually form a band, but I don't see it that way. It's not that amazing when you think of the tenor of the times. You put any four guys in a room in the 1960s and you had a band, all the way from the Grateful Dead to Buffalo Springfield. It isn't that amazing that four people in a group would start singing and playing together, especially since they were hired to perform that as actors.
One of the reasons we couldn't sustain it is because we were caught up in a giant maelstrom of corporate business before we even started. This was a huge undertaking in terms of the amount of money, time and people involved, not least of which was the songwriters.
“Randy Scouse Git” (1967)
Micky Dolenz: Up until this point, we hadn't been allowed to have anything to say with the albums. It wasn't a case of us not wanting to. They just basically said, "Just shut up and cash the check." Mike and Peter, especially Mike, were very frustrated. You can't blame him. He was a singer/songwriter and he was promised they'd use his music. He wrote "Different Drum" and they said to him, "That's not a Monkees song." Michael said. "Wait a minute, I am one of the Monkees." He gave it to Linda Ronstadt, and the rest is history. Another time, Peter went into a recording studio with his bass guitar and they said, "What are are you doing here?" We didn't even see the album covers until they were in stores.
With Headquarters, we wanted to do it all, and we did. I wrote "Randy Scouse Git" when we went to England on tour. The Beatles threw us a party at a very famous nightclub, and the Stones were there and all sorts of other people. The morning after I was sitting in my room with a guitar and I wrote the song stream-of-conscious. The "four kings of EMI" are the Beatles, of course. I was watching an English television show called Till Death Us Do Part, which became All In The Family over here years later. The father figure calls the young song a "randy scouse git." I didn't know what it meant, but in my frame of mind I just thought, "Whoa, that's really cool, man. I'm gonna call my song that."
When I got back to the States I heard the English record company wanted to release it as a single, but they wanted to change the title. Here's a letter Ward Sylvester, one of the producers of the show, received on April 18th, 1967. I want to read you the text:
"Dear Ward, following up my recent cable to you concerning 'Randy Scouse Git.' You are no doubt aware that many English expressions have a totally different meaning in America and vice versa. In this it is a question of the versa being vice. To give you a perfectly straightforward translation of the title, you are referring to someone as being an oversexed, illegitimate son of a prostitute from Liverpool. The word git has been used on television in this country but only in a late-night adult program. The British press look upon the Monkees as being clean cut all-American boys and therefore the title could do them a great deal of harm. If it is not too late, I would strongly recommend that you change the title in the USA also. However, my main concern is for this territory."
Isn't that wonderful? They told me I needed an alternate title so I said, "Okay, that's it." In England the song is known as "Alternate Title."
“Daydream Believer” (1967)
Peter Tork: This comes from what I called the “mixed-mode” period. The first one was the Don Kirshner mode where he oversaw the records and everything was under his control. Then we did Headquarters where it was just us. “Mixed” was us and some pros in the studio. With “Daydream Believer,” I was on the piano and I came up with this opening lick which I thought was just sparklingly original. When you play it today, everyone thinks of “Daydream Believer.”
What really makes the song work, I think, is the chord change on “Jean” in “Cheer up sleepy Jean.” It goes from a IV chord to a V chord to a III. That’s a very unexpected and sweet chord change. It really grabs your attention. Then there’s the line, “What can it mean to a daydream believer and a homecoming queen.” It doesn’t go right in your face, but when you think about it you figure it out. You’re like, “Okay, the guy is in a workaday world and he’s got his head in the clouds. His girlfriend was a homecoming queen, but they’re still scratching.” You don’t get all that until you think about it for a long time.
Davy sings this one, and he was such a talented guy, and a good actor. He was probably the best actor among us. He probably had the best musical mind, too. The best brain and maybe the best heart.
“Tapioca Tundra” (1968)
Mike Nesmith: The Monkees were playing live by this time, and the lyric to this was inspired by that. These were big concerts, like 20,000 people. It was just the three of us playing, me, Micky and Peter. Davy played tambourine or maracas. Every time we played an extraordinary thing happened. The performance turned us into something we weren't offstage, which was the Monkees. Peter calls it the "fifth thing." It was the audience. They were there to bring this thing into reality, to make actual what the television show had portrayed. It was really about them. The lyrics come from a post-concert realization of the reality that had just occurred, the Monkees coming to life as the audience. Maybe that's a little metaphysical.
“Porpoise Song” (1968)
Micky Dolenz: The movie Head was crated by Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Jack Nicholson. It wasn't so much about the deconstruction of the Monkees, but it was using the deconstruction of the Monkees as metaphor for the deconstruction of the Hollywood film industry. I think it was restricted to 17 and over. Many of our fans couldn't even get in. From a commercial perspective, it was totally the wrong movie to make. But we didn't want to make a 90-minute episode of the Monkees TV show. Also, these were the guys that were going to go off and make Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. They had an opportunity to really stretch here. "Porpoise Song" is one of my favorite songs to sing. It's sort of the theme of the movie.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
‘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.
“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?"