August 9, 1992

The Monkees: Listen to the Band. Rhino R 70566, 1992.  4 CD box set

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

The Monkees are an acquired taste, acquired, it seems, mostly by those who grew up with them in the 1960s.  Though they set no new musical directions, they are undeniably important both because of their immense popularity and because of what they symbolize‑‑the dawn of “corporate rock.”

As almost everybody must know by now, this particular rock group was not formed in the usual fashion.  It was literally “cast” by Columbia Pictures Television which was seeking to produce both a youth‑oriented television series about a rock band and spin‑off records by that band.  The carefully controlled image making was so blatant, and successful, that it has fascinated both fans and critics ever since.  Asking whether the Monkees’ recordings deserve to be reissued is probably pointless, since a lot of people want them and they are going to be reissued.  The only question is how well, and Rhino has certainly done it right.  In this four‑CD box set we have 80 tracks by the band, including all 19 of their charted hits, key cuts from their many LPs (remember LPs?), live performances and unissued material.  Most cuts are from their 1966‑1970 glory days, but also included are half a dozen from the short‑lived Monkees revival of 1986‑1987.

Most of this is pure pop pablum, catchy hooks, catchy beats and an ample supply of teen angst.  Even in their “protest” songs (“Another Pleasant Valley Sunday/Here in status symbol land…”) the boys don’t sound as if they really mean it.  But it was also exceptionally slick stuff, turned out by some of the best songwriters in the business, several of whom became stars in their own right later on‑‑Carole King, Neil Diamond, John Stewart and Harry Nilsson among them.  Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart wrote much of the Monkees hit material, but Gerry Goffin/Carole King and band member Michael Nesmith also contributed a lot.  And once you get past the sound‑alike hits, there are some surprises: Nesmith’s “Papa Gene’s Blues” with its hard‑driving country feel and first‑rate guitar work by studio legends James Burton and Glen Campbell, the jazz jam on “Goin’ Down” (stolen bodily from Mose Allison), the early Moog synthesizer on “Daily Nightly,” the psychedelia of “The Door Into Summer” (based on a Robert Heinlein book).

Two aspects of this reissue deserve special mention.  Though there has been some controversy about this in the pages of Goldmine, the transfers sound absolutely superb to my ears.  The tambourines on “Last Train to Clarksville” and the bells on “Words” are so clean and crisp coming out of my Polk speakers as to make your hair stand on end.  The stereo separation is excellent.  Engineer Bill Inglot took his work very seriously indeed.

The 28‑page oversized booklet accompanying the set was nominated for a 1992 ARSC Award for Excellence.  The format is ingenious.  After a brief introduction, each track is listed followed by discographical information (original issues, recording dates and location, producer, engineer, personnel) and then the background of that individual recording.  There are copious quotes from those involved, both the artists and others, giving the tracks a context seldom seen in discographies.  Since the tracks are in more or less chronological order, one can follow the band’s progression as it gradually wrested creative control away from its corporate sponsors and explored‑‑none too successfully‑‑a variety of musical paths.  It is entertaining and highly informative reading, enhanced by having the matching music playing while you read.  Unfortunately the discographical detail is not all that serious students of the band may want.  There was a lot of overdubbing and session‑splicing in these days, and despite the apparent detail it is not always clear who did what when.  For example, on October 25 and 27, 1966, Mickey Dolenz sang lead on sessions in New York, while on October 26th he was recording in Los Angeles.  Perhaps he traveled a lot.  Explicit take and overdubbing information might have helped.

Some recording dates and personnel are missing, including‑‑surprisingly‑‑some for sessions held by Rhino itself only five years ago, when the “revival” band was recording for this label.  How quickly discographical information disappears.  While we’re quibbling, the book is filled with dozens of pictures of the group in various locations, but hardly any of them are captioned.  It is not even clear which band member is which (don’t laugh; not everybody knows that.  For the uninitiated, Michael Nesmith is the tall serious one, often with a wool hat; Davy Jones the little guy; Mickey Dolenz has the widest smile and the biggest mop‑top; and Peter Tork is the bland‑looking “other one”).  Mickey sang lead on many of the hits (“Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday”) although Englishman Davy Jones is heard on top‑ten entries “Daydream Believer,” “A Little Bit Me” and “Valleri.”  And, yes, all of them had musical experience before becoming part of the Monkees.

In all, a fine compilation from a label known for the loving care it takes in its reissues of rock, R&B and (occasionally) country music.  If you want to hear the Monkees, Listen to the Band is the essential set to have.


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