Meditation on the Monkees: Tribute to the Prefab Four at the Beverly

Hey, hey, they’re the Monkees

As a single-digit, striped-shirt kid of the ’60s, I really responded to the camaraderie that the Beatles projected in their films and interviews: that sense of differentiated personalities operating within a coherent ensemble identity. Theirs was an effortless chemistry – theme and variation, a costumed uniformity within which each found personal latitude and a non-binding, fluid sense of role, moment to moment.

Each Beatle had a distinct voice and valence, but there was a plasticity to it as well; a Beatle became what the moment demanded. Each did time as the acerbic and surreal trickster (John’s default mode), and each sat in Ringo’s sad-puppy corner as well. If the media evidence is to be believed (some of it scripted, some of it not), they shared the bandwidth and burden of fame with the organic, intuitive rhythm of a blood brotherhood – at first, at least. It was the inevitability of Piagetian individuation that killed the Beatles, not Yoko.

And the camaraderie was real, too, forged under historic traumas of success. These kids (really, kids) had, in about a year, gone from five sets a night in Hamburg, and a sense of the future as something wide-open, to a pinched and suffocating quarantine of fame known only by a handful in all of history: Elvis, Salman Rushdie. Truly, the fate awaiting them if they left the hotel without cover was pretty much the same. Ringo once said that they pitied their friend Elvis, for he endured the disfigurations of extreme fame alone. They had each other, as well as a little coterie of confidantes and gofers with names like Mal and Viv, now immortalized in approximately 1,347 exhaustively researched books on the subject.

Advertisement

It is because of the Beatles that I and so many others are happiest – only happy – when in bands. And yet it was the Monkees – the Prefab Four, a craven Beatles-inspired market artifice – who provided the archetypal image of band camaraderie: four cute boys living together in a house with a fire pole connecting the bedrooms to the living room. In so many ways, the Monkees were anathema, the opposite of rock ‘n’ roll with its rebel mythologies, its credibility authenticated by genuine danger. They were a band cast and groomed, with a repertoire stocked at first by the ace songwriting team of Boyce and Hart and later augmented by the likes of Neil Diamond and Carole King.

I am not here to tell their story, but rather to argue that in some ways, the Monkees may have achieved rock’s ultimate band authenticity and its most genuinely subversive narrative. Born as perfect strangers in a Petri dish, the Monkees grew into the real thing, from fictive to bona fide, by embracing the identity that Hollywood had invented for them, wresting it from the suits. Their path was the opposite of the Beatles: from the self-serving individuation of casting calls to camaraderie in the Bolshevik sense. Together, they fought the vested interests of studio heads and seized control of the means of production, by rebellion and leverage claiming the right to write their own songs and make their own records and, in short, to be real.

Not many people know this, but the Monkees released a hell of a good new record, Good Times, in 2016. It was produced mostly by the great songwriter Adam Schlesinger of Fountain of Wayne, who, as the writer of the hit theme song of the film That Thing You Do, knows a little something about Pinocchio and simulacra. The Monkees always leaned heavily on external writers, and it was no different this time out; but look at the caliber of writers who lined up and took a number in order to contribute: Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard, Andy Partridge of XTC, the Jam’s Paul Weller, Noel Gallagher.

The Monkees turned “real” on its head. How fitting that they – something of a tribute band themselves, originally – should be the subject of the Beverly’s tribute show on Saturday, November 24. Tribute shows of various kinds have come to dominate the live music scene in recent years. In multi-act tributes like this one, interpretations will range from casually faithful to radically deconstructive. In other tributes, like the ones orchestrated locally by the great bassist and jazz producer Scott Petito, fastidious fidelity is the prevailing value. Even the pickups on the guitars should be historically accurate.

The Monkees tribute will feature performances by a variety of notable locals: Robert Burke Warren, who runs his own wildly successful tribute series (Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen et cetera) out of Colony in Woodstock; New Paltz multi-instrumentalist and producer Rock Birmingham; local drummer and songwriter Michael Truckpile; NeVe Davis, the great singer from the Pleasers, one of the area’s most boutique cover/tribute bands; electronic avant-gardeist Bob Lukomski and a lot of others.

Many of these performers were staples at Market Market’s Tributon series in years past, including the concert organizer, my former bandmate Chris Tanis. Chris really is Guitar George. He knows all the chords, and to work with him is to know his curatorial brilliance and opulence up close. He knows all the good songs by all the right people, and seems to have them all on tap at all times. Though he is an excellent songwriter as well, no one I know is better-suited to thrive in the age of homage.

Chris, I have mixed feelings about tribute shows. I have a vested interest in people of my generation believing that attention-worthy new music can come from their peers, and nostalgia works against that. That said, there is no doubt that tribute shows are exploding – whether multi-artist ones like this, or single-ensemble performances of single albums, like we used to do. It almost seems to be replacing the idea of the cover band.

There is definitely an issue with people over 50 (I turned 50 this year meself) who’ve lost the energy or the impetus to seek out and enjoy new music. I’ve been guilty of that at times, so I totally get it. Nostalgia is often more about reaccessing the way the old thing made you feel in the first place, and thus recapturing one’s youth. I get that, but that’s not why I like going to, participating in or organizing tribute shows.

I do it because I have a genuine appreciation and affection for the artists in question. Perhaps because either those artists are no longer playing live, or perhaps because those artists are no longer even among the living, or perhaps because I just feel as if those artists might not get the attention or recognition that I feel they “deserve” (if that even matters), or perhaps I think in some twisted way that people other than myself ought to take stock of the artist in question and reconsider their own feelings about that artist, or any number of other reasons, I enjoy the living crap out of doing these. And I agree: The cover band seems far less interesting to me than this type of show. I am, personally, as a musician and a fan, far less willing to go see a cover band (unless I know that they can bring it and choose the right material, and give it the treatment I’d like to hear) than I am to go to tribute show like this. I think the key is that folks performing in a tribute show have more invested in the performance, more invested in the artist.

You’ve booked a number of tribute shows in the last few years, though the Beverly is probably your biggest venue to date. It is not hard to understand their appeal to the establishments. The performers themselves comprise a pretty large crowd of consuming patrons and the vibe is always high!

I don’t think it’s hard to book these shows, especially given the rise of the tribute show as a form, as you’ve said. What is hard is finding the right venue for them. A venue for a show like this has to be a flexible, funky one. A venue for a tribute show has to be casual, and it has to serve drinks (or allow BYOB) and hopefully have some food. In other words, it has to be kind of like Market Market was in the heyday of the original Tributon shows. I played a lot of those shows (I think even more than you did), and aside from enjoying the crap out of the social aspect of them, I always enjoyed the atmosphere and the performances, as long as they stayed away from the nostalgic sing-along thing.

Often, since those shows were sign-up affairs, you’d get performers who weren’t really able to get the job done, or who just didn’t bring any passion. Again, this is why I choose the performers. I kind of want to revive the idea of the MKT2 shows, but with a guarantee that all the performances will be worth your time as an audience member and as someone who appreciates a particular artist. Of course, it’s just my very subjective take on what constitutes “bringing it,” but it’s seemed to work out well in the past.

I did a few shows at the Roost Gallery in New Paltz a couple of years back, and that was nice, but required too much work to get set up for a show. We had to bring in everything ourselves (the alcohol, the snacks, all the sound reinforcement et cetera) and it’s not as easy to promote an event that isn’t happening in an established and “formal” performance venue. So, since the Beverly is a well-known and lovely space, with great food and fantastic drinks (and how could it be otherwise with Jen and Trippy running things?), and since Jen and Trippy started the whole Tribute show thing in this area with those Tributon shows, it seemed like a natural. Next up might be Donovan, Cat Stevens (with a focus on the Harold and Maude soundtrack), Paul McCartney solo 1970-1980, and who-the-heck-knows what else.

What do you say to the idea that the Monkees were kind of the opposite of rock ‘n’ roll (Greil Marcus’ description of They Might Be Giants)?

Well, I think that the idea of the Monkees as “pure corporate” is a revisionist construction. Yes, they were created as something purely crass and imitative, only designed to bring something like the Beatles’ magic to a TV series. Smart move, really. And yes, they weren’t (aside from Mike) allowed any control or creative input or even participation aside from vocals in the first two records. In an era when “authenticity, man” involved writing all your own songs (“Covers are lazy and inauthentic, man”) and playing all of them in a self-contained way, and produced as much as possible by the artist (which all comes, ultimately, from the Beatles, who were, you rightly point out, the template for the so-called Prefab Four), the Monkees’ subsequent takeover of control (and for a time, the instrumental duties as well) on their later albums got ignored in favor of the outrage over “They didn’t play on their records, man – they didn’t even write all the songs!”

Advertisement

Personally, I think the Monkees were the ultimate rebels for taking over their own music, and for continuing, for some time, to have big hits doing it on their own. I love Monkees Headquarters, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. and especially the Head soundtrack. Those records represent some of the best of ’60s psychedelic folk/pop/rock, and it’s only because they rebelled against the record company and the people who were only in it for the money. I mean, when you think about Mike Nesmith threatening Don Kirshner by putting his fist through a wall and telling him, “That could have been your face,” all because Kirshner wouldn’t let them take control of their own music – well, that’s Rebellion with a capital R. They made some damned good records when they were in charge. They were hired as actors, and the records were only made to cash in on the show. And then they took over and the fake band became a real band. That’s a fairytale story that embodies everything I value. The difference between their first two records and the next two is astounding, and it’s because Mike, Micky, Peter and Davy took over.

Were they just imitators, or did they innovate?

They did quite a bit that is, musically, very interesting and different. Mike Nesmith’s pop-song savvy is unique. Songs like “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” or “Circle Sky” or “Daily Nightly” are, in fact, somewhat iconic. They influenced other musicians, no question. You probably wouldn’t have had anyone they influenced be willing to admit it, but there are echoes of what they did (especially in the Chip Douglas-produced year of 1967) in lots of what came after by other people. “You Told Me” (written by Mike) brought banjo (played by Peter in his inimitable style) into folk/psych/pop/rock. “Randy Scouse Git” (written by Micky) is structurally unique in rock. We get the verse and the chorus twice each, and then at the same time. I can’t think of another song that did that before they did it. Not in rock ‘n’ roll, that’s for sure.

They were the first big rock band to use a Moog synthesizer on a record. Micky Dolenz had the fourth production-model modular Moog system ever to come off the assembly line. Its use on “Daily Nightly” (written by Mike) and on “Star Collector” (Goffin/King’s cheeky ode to groupies being another first) is nothing short of groundbreaking. There are lots more. Peter always did unusual rhythmic or metrical shifts in his songs. A great example is the shift from 4/4 to 3/4 in “Do I Have to Do This All over Again” from Head, or the unreleased (at the time) “Tear the Top Right off My Head,” which subverts its own rhythm pattern several times from “rock backbeat” to something much more folk-based. There are many production innovations, too. Listen to “Porpoise Song” or “Love Is Only Sleeping” or the mono single mix of “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” and you’ll hear some astounding feats of engineering.

Do the Monkees have lasting appeal, and if so, is it a camp thing or something more?

The songs are great, and they’re well-performed, with an honesty and spirit of experimentation that holds up. And the fact that they weren’t “real” musicians or a “real” band makes it an even-greater accomplishment. Even the records they didn’t play on are full of great pop/rock tunes, played extremely well by the best session musicians of the era: the Wrecking Crew. When you’ve got Hal Blaine and Glen Campbell and Larry Knechtel and Leon Russell and Louis Shelton and all these heavy cats playing on your records, they sound good.

And the Monkees weren’t the only band that didn’t play all their own instruments. Listen to any Beach Boys record made between ’65 and ’68, pretty much, and you’ll hear not only session musicians, but the same session musicians as on the Monkees’ records. Ditto the Mamas and the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, the Association, Sonny & Cher, the first Byrds single [“Mr. Tambourine Man”] and a whole lot of other stuff. Great playing is great playing, no matter who does it. Great songs are great songs, no matter who wrote them. ’Nuff said.

Hey, speaking of the Monkees and the Mamas and the Papas, why is the tallest guy in the band always the one who wears the outlandish hat?

[no answer]