Under Investigation: The Monkees

January 30, 2014

SUMMER’S HERE AND THE TIME IS right—for excess and guilty pleasures! Love ’em or hate ’em, if you were born during the mid ’50s, there was no way you could avoid hearing or seeing the Monkees, and if you arrived later, you undoubtedly discovered them via their television show (on reruns or video), substantial album catalog, and various reunions. The Monkees was the first weekly TV series to feature a rock “group,” and the show’s prominent visibility and sounds of electric guitars—blended with silly comedy sketches featuring four loveable characters—captivated television audiences and captured the attention of throngs of fledgling guitarists.

Though many of their peers, including the Beatles, the Stones, and Hendrix, dismissed the band as the “pre-fab four” and their records as bubblegum drivel, the Monkees provided countless youngsters with a stepping stone (pun definitely intended) to higher musical ground. Ironically, the band and their stable of crack writers, which included Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Gerry Goffin and Carol King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Neil Diamond, shamelessly mimicked the styles of their detractors, and with great success. (Hmm, could this “aping” be the source of the band’s name?)

When we discovered that the “band” members—Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, and Peter Tork—barely played a note on the band’s first two albums, it didn’t even matter. They were good singers, and The Monkees (1966) and More of the Monkees (1967) spawned a half dozen hits that featured a stellar lineup of session players, including Louis Shelton, Al Casey, Wayne Erwin, Gerry McGee, James Burton, Glen Campbell, Mike Deasy, Don Peake, Al Gorgoni, and Sal Ditroia, all laying down some truly memorable and fun-to-play guitar parts. Over the course of their next three albums, Headquarters (1967), Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (1967), and The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees (1968), the Monkees employed Shelton, Burton, Campbell, Casey, and Deasy, as well as Al Hendrickson, Howard Roberts, Dennis Budimir, Keith Allison, and Bill Chadwick, but the band gradually took control of their recordings (with Nesmith and Tork playing most of the guitar parts), and eventually discontinued their television show. They released two more albums, Head (1968) and Instant Replay (1969), before officially disbanding in 1970.

So maybe the Monkees weren’t really a band in the beginning, but they became one. Revisit their first five albums, and you’ll find that the Monkees made a lasting mark on guitarists and the music business, and their songs are a blast to play and sing, which is why they’ve been placed under fun-vestigation!

From the beginning, many Monkees songs have kicked off with a memorable guitar riff. Ex. 1 quotes Louis Shelton’s signature instrumental hook from “Last Train to Clarksville” (from The Monkees). Half soul octaves and half arpeggiated blues turnaround (and not unlike the Beatles’ “Help!”), it’s an ear-grabber that certainly made a significant contribution to the song’s chart-topping success. For total authenticity, play only the notes on the sixth and fourth strings for two passes, and then play the full figure as written for two more. Fuzz-tone guitars were also prevalent on several early Monkees hits, and Ex. 2a paraphrases the first three bars of the opening riff from “Saturday’s Child” (The Monkees) to demonstrate. The quarter-note-triplet- based moves in Ex. 2b are divided between two guitars—Gtr. 1 plays the down-stemmed bottom part, while Gtr. 2 floats sliding sixth intervals on top. (Tip: Try playing Examples 2a and 2b in sequence.)

Mike Nesmith’s deep country roots first surfaced in “Papa Gene’s Blues,” which features no less than five guitarists, with contributions from Burton, Campbell, Casey, Peake, and James Helms. Ex. 3 simulates the song’s A pentatonic-major-based intro, which is built around several G-string bends and ringing open Es, all played fingerstyle.

The Monkees and their writers had a knack for recasting well-worn chord progressions and clichéd single-note lines into catchy hooks and rhythm figures. Ex. 4a, culled from the verses of “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone” (from More of the Monkees), reads like a major-key version of “House of the Rising Sun,” while the chorus figure in Ex. 4b owes as much to Booker T. and the MG’s “Green Onions” as it does to the Who’s “I Can See For Miles.” The rhythm guitar figure from Neil Diamond’s “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” recasts a simple Chuck Berry move (think “Bringing in the Sheaves”) over a I-IV-V-I progression in G. Play Ex. 5 as written, and then transpose the same moves to eighth position to cover C, the IV chord, and again to tenth position for D, the V chord. Similarly, we’ve all heard and/or played the G7/5-C/G-G figure shown in Ex. 6a, but pair it with the single-note hammer-ons in Ex. 6b, and you’ve got the makings of a hit a la Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” (More of the Monkees).

The third Monkees album, Headquarters, was the first to feature substantial performances and production assistance by band members. The result was songs like Peter Tork’s “For Pete’s Sake,” which displayed a wider harmonic palette than most of the band’s previous output, and became the TV show’s closing theme during its second season. Ex. 7a depicts the tune’s funky, hybrid-picked intro and verse figure, which is based on a stock D7 voicing enhanced with an open E, the 9. Tack on Ex. 7b’s raked single-note descending blues lick to complete the four-bar intro. Ex. 7c outlines the chorus progression, which begins with stock I7-IV7-I7-V7 (A7-D7-A7-E7) moves in the first six bars, and then branches out into more progressive E-Fmaj7-G-A11 voicings for the remaining four measures to create a unique ten-bar form. Of course, the album still contained a few excursions into goofiness, particularly the snippet of the band first rehearsing (at three different tempos simultaneously!), and then playing a single refrain of the Loony Tunes theme song at breakneck speed as depicted in Ex. 8. Hilarious and educational!

The Monkees’ fourth album found the band taking even more control over their recordings. Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. delved deeper into psychedelia with songs like “Love Is Only Sleeping” (written by Mann and Weil) and “Star Collector” (by Goffin and King). The former informs the two-string Beatle-esque 7/4 riff shown in Ex. 9, while Ex. 10 is inspired by the Moog-synth doubled figure that kicks off the latter.

The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees—often referred to as the group’s “White Album” due to its eclectic mix of material—marked the fifth and last album the band recorded while their TV show was still running. (The post-show Head album and movie followed, but that’s a story in itself.) TBTB&TM was also the first record that the Monkees produced completely on their own, and included the smash hit “Daydream Believer.” Ex. 11 shows how Nesmith used natural harmonics and a few fretted notes to enhance the song’s intro and verse progressions, a pretty sophisticated and innovative technique for a “bubblegum band”!

The intro to Boyce and Hart’s “Valleri,” a song that was allegedly composed on the way to the recording session, features Louis Shelton ripping it up in fab faux-flamenco style, but the crafty cuts and edits in the TV version (which was recorded a whole step higher in G) left us with the indelible impression that it was actually Mike Nesmith playing his white Gretsch. Real or not, it was inspirational! (Nesmith played a 6075, a signature 6123 Monkees model, and a one-off natural-finish Gretsch 12-string electric throughout the TV series, and used a white Gibson SG Custom in the movie.) Played over whole-note Fm-Eb-Db-C hits, Shelton’s moves sound difficult, but there’s a lot of dazzle camouflage involved. Ex. 12a shows how he gets a lot of mileage out of just six notes derived from an eighth-position F minor scale simply by playing off of its relative modes—F Aeolian in bar 1, Eb Mixolydian in bar 2, and Db Lydian in bar 3—before incorporating a bit of the fifth mode of F harmonic minor (C Phrygian dominant) over the V chord (C) in bar 4. Ole! And you’ve gotta love how the song’s main instrumental riff in Ex. 12b apes the exact rhythm motif and fuzz tone from the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” but the difference lies in how Nesmith outlines key chord tones in the four-bar, now-major F-Eb-Db-C progression. Enjoy it all and prosper, guilt free!

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