“Hey, hey, we are The Monkees,
You know we love to please,
A manufactured image,
With no philosophies”
– Ditty Diego (War Chant), Head
It’s 2016, and it’s no longer a surprising thing – oh so contentious in 1966 – to talk about the Monkees‘ origins as a (gasp) manufactured band, who didn’t play all the instruments on their records (the horror). Did they not lampoon themselves in Head? Have countless groups not been assembled since, burning brightly but briefly, posing no threat to Proper Music? And were the poptimist wars not fought, authenticity’s mangled form held up as a warning to future generations?
But what might be surprising, in their 50th year as a band, is that the Monkees should have made an album like Good Times!
The tracks are a mixture of self-penned and guest-written songs and of new and old sessions and, while this kind of archive-digging hodge-podge can be a daunting proposition, it’s exactly this mixture of past and present, of inside and outside – returning to the formula of their earliest albums – which suits the Monkees so well. There’s a perfect example in the opening title track, a new recording of a song Mickey Dolenz worked on with Harry Nilsson, using a vocal track he had recorded. It’s a boisterous, R&B-infused dancer, complete with rumbling piano and fuzzy guitars. Dolenz and Nilsson take a verse each, duetting on another; despite the years between them, there’s energy enough that they could be in the same room.
In a similarly vivacious vein, there’s the stabbing Gotta Give It Time – the Monkees as primal, Nuggets-style garage band, on a song by Jeff Barry (Da Doo Ron Ron, Be My Baby) and bubblegum royal Joey Levine, and Whatever’s Right, a sub-two minute pop gem crackling with snapping guitar and fairground organ, penned by longtime sidemen Boyce and Hart, originally offered to the band in 1966. Elsewhere, and only slightly less vital, the Neil Diamond-written Love To Love uses an old vocal take by Davy Jones (making this only the second time since 1968 that all four Monkees have appeared on record together and surely the last following Jones’ death in 2012) and the Goffin-King staple I Wasn’t Born To Follow – topped with a worn, warm vocal by Peter Tork – a backing track by The Wrecking Crew.
Although these past partners provide some of the highlights, even better are the handful of songs from more contemporary collaborators. It’s one heck of a roll call, from Fountains Of Wayne‘s Adam Schlesinger, who produces as well as contributing the jaunty power pop of Our Own World (somewhere between Jellyfish‘s Baby’s Coming Back and Andrew Gold‘s deathlessly smooth Never Let Her Slip Away) to Weezer‘s Rivers Cuomo, whose latterly iffy quality control is nowhere to be seen on the nerdish, disarmingly charming She Makes Me Laugh.
XTC‘s Andy Partridge is clearly in his element on You Bring The Summer, in full 60s-pastiching Dukes Of Stratosphear mode with chiming twelve-strings and an outro wedding backwards guitar to Wilsonian harmonies. Also doubtlessly overjoyed are Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher, with the multi-part Birth Of An Accidental Hipster, a nod to the band’s dips into psychedelia which veers from heady to heavy with a goofy banjo-led interlude – Pink Floyd‘s Matilda Mother via The 1910 Fruitgum Company. Best of all, though, is Ben Gibbard’s (Death Cab For Cutie, The Postal Service) aching, tender Me And Magdalena, a duet between Michael Nesmith and Dolenz which touches on loss and ageing (“everything lost will be recovered/when you drift into the arms of the undiscovered”). It’s little short of stunning.
Of the remaining tracks, there’s the slight but worthwhile Little Girl, originally written by Tork for Jones, exactly the kind of heartthrob ballad he traded in but suiting Tork less well, the plaintive but hopeful I Know What I Know – another lovely outing for Nesmith – and the knockabout closer I Was There (And I’m Told I Had A Good Time). From the audience noise and vamping keys to the double-tracked vocals, it’s a Sgt. Pepper pastiche The Rutles would have been proud of, prodding at the ‘if you can remember the 60s…’ cliché.
2016 it may be, but The Monkees have made an album which stands readily among the best of their career and of the year so far. And if this sounds faintly ridiculous, you’d imagine they wouldn’t have it any other way.