The Monkees: Still Rockin' After 50 Years

Although—full disclosure—I adore the Monkees and perform in a band that rocks-out and punks-up the band’s bountiful radio hits of the ’60s, I was still shocked that the boys could pull off a critically acclaimed album on its 50th anniversary that wasn’t just another “greatest hits” compilation.
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Although—full disclosure—I adore theMonkees and perform in a band that rocks-out and punks-up the band’s bountiful radio hits of the ’60s, I was still shocked that the boys could pull off a critically acclaimed album on its 50th anniversary that wasn’t just another “greatest hits” compilation. Good Times [Rhino] is the Monkees highest-charting album since 1968’s The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees, and, in a groovy flashback to what could have been a zany script for The Monkees sitcom (1966-1968), the “American Beatles” grabbed the number one spot on amazon.com’s bestsellers chart—trouncing, for a time, Adele and Prince. Wild!

Produced by Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger—who penned the very Monkees-esque title track for the 1997 film, That Thing You Do!Good Times includes unfinished ’60s tracks from the Monkees vault (including a vocal by the late Davy Jones), new songs by rockin’ fans of the band (Rivers Cuomo, Andy Partridge, Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller), and studio performances by original members Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, and Peter Tork. Nesmith gracefully opted out of the band’s 50th anniversary shows, but the popularity of Good Times and the more than 50 dates on the band’s American tour ensure that Micky and Peter are once again “comin’ to your town.”

It’s crazy to have you guys drop such a great album 50 years after you first stepped on a TV soundstage.

Dolenz: I must say, I’m very proud of it. About a year ago, we started talking about what we could do for our 50th anniversary, and, simultaneously, we found these unfinished and unreleased tracks in the vault that had been started in the ’60s. Fortunately, the tapes were in reasonably good condition. We found the Carole King/Gerry Goffin tune that Peter sings (“Wasn’t Born to Follow”), the Neil Diamond song with Davy’s voice (“Love to Love”), and “Good Times” by Harry Nilsson—which gave me goosebumps, because I could sing a duet with my friend Harry. [Note: Nilsson passed away in 1994.]

I was struck that Harry’s vocal was so intense. Wasn’t this track a demo where he simply sang a guide vocal?

Dolenz: Yeah, except if you knew Harry, he never halfassed anything. He just wasn’t that kind of person. He always sang flat out. So it was my job to keep up with him in terms of the intensity.

How did you decide who sang what on Good Times?

Dolenz: It was apparent which ones I would sing, and which ones Peter and Mike would sing—just like back in the ’60s.

You kept a fair amount of instrumental tracks from the original ’60s sessions. You weren’t tempted to update the performances?

Dolenz: No. We kept everything that was usable from the original sessions, and augmented them. Not all of the tracks were finished, so we had to add parts. Some of the tapes we found were mono demos, and we couldn’t use them, because we couldn’t separate the voices from the instruments. But all of the multitracked songs were ready to be finally completed.

As a Monkees fan from way back, I have to ask: Was it fair that the band was criticized for not playing instruments on its first two albums?

Tork: I was bent out of shape at the time, but I came to see later that it was simply what was required. We were making a TV show, and we did not know how to make records in those days.

Dolenz: But here’s the thing: You had to be able to sing and play to even get past the front door at the auditions. So the show’s producers must have had in mind we would play live and in the studio at some point, otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered to hire singers/musicians/actors.

Micky, you actually played guitar for your Monkees audition, right?

Dolenz: Yes. My audition piece was “Johnny B. Goode.” My father got me into lessons—Segovia stuff—when I was ten years old. I’ve always been mainly an acoustic guitar player. I’d start playing “Malagueña” at highschool parties, and the girls would say, “Do you know any Kingston Trio?” I’m like, “I’ll be right back!” [Laughs.] So I started learning folk music, and then I morphed into rock and roll. But for The Monkees, the producers told me, “You’re going to be the drummer.” I said, “Okay, but I’m a guitar player.” They said, “Yeah, but we have enough guitar players and we need a drummer.” I said, “Great—where do I start?” Fortunately, I had months to take lessons and practice.

I actually missed your drumming on Good Times.

Dolenz: I had the choice, but I also had a lot of vocal work to do on this album, so I decided to focus on being the lead singer.

Peter, starting with Headquarters in 1967, it seems you were one of the first guys to actually make the banjo a significant element of pop-rock songs.

Tork: I wasn’t even thinking about doing that. I just thought, “The banjo would sound good here.” If I’m fond of my own work at all, it’s the opening lick to “You Told Me” from Headquarters. The guitar starts off [mimics guitar], and then the banjo cuts in [mimics banjo], and, suddenly, you’re in a whole new realm. To me, building those kinds of textures is what music is all about, and there are a couple of places where the banjo contributed nicely to the Monkee’s basic rock. It seems I’m a rocker who happens to play banjo, or a banjo player who happens to rock. I don’t know.

Was it pretty seamless when you first started working out your parts for Headquarters, or did the whole studio look at you and go, “Peter, what are you doing with a banjo?”

Tork: It was seamless. Everybody knew I had a banjo, and so they knew it was part of what I brought to the table musically. Nobody was surprised.

What was the model you used back then?

Tork: It was an aluminum Ode long neck with a solid, arched top. I love that banjo—there’s nothing like it today. It picks better than any frailing banjo, and it frails better than any picking banjo I’ve ever heard. You can’t replace it. I had to borrow $125 from my grandma to buy it, and I’ve had it for more than 55 years now.

Is that what we hear on Good Times?

Tork: I didn’t bring my banjo. We rented one, and we lucked out, because it was amazing. I don’t know what brand it was.

What inspired the little motif on the new album’s first single, “She Makes Me Laugh”?

Tork: That was pretty much Adam’s idea. He said, “Just play 3-2-3-2-1-2-3.” Then, I added a few colors. I rolled a little arpeggio here and there. I did some conventional frailing-style banjo for “Wasn’t Born to Follow”—just to put the song in the Colorado Rockies.

What’s your main guitar gear these days?

Dolenz: I have two big dreadnoughts—a Martin and a Taylor—that I used on my solo album, Remember, in 2012.

Tork: I love to talk about this stuff, and I’m not going to get a chance anywhere else! I’m very fond of my guitar, which is an ESP “Strat-less” Strat. That’s what I call it. It has an alder body. I love the sound of alder, and I don’t want my electrics to be made of anything else. There’s a liveliness to the tone. It feels alert, but it’s still a pleasant sound to my ear. Mahogany is too soft, and spruce is too sharp for me. I added a Warmoth neck, because I wanted the fattest neck and the biggest frets. I was sick of fighting flimsy little frets when I was bending strings, and I also wanted tons of sustain. I put in EMG pickups with active tone curves that can produce a lovely “W” sound. The tone quality you get by plucking a string lightly is just what I want to hear—something crisp, clear, and springy, but with some body. There’s also a Floyd Rose whammy bar on it. For strings, any of the usual companies will do, as long as it’s a .0095 set.

Did you bring the ESP on the 50th anniversary tour?

Tork: No. We rent a Fender Stratocaster, and the crew sets it up the way I like. The guitar tone isn’t as important at a Monkees show, and it’s not like I’m playing any precision guitar onstage.

What about amps and effects?

Tork: On the Monkees tour, we use a Fender Deluxe. However, Peavey gave me a 30-watt Classic with tweed covering, and that ESP of mine through that amp works perfectly for me. Then, Carvin gave me a V3, three-channel combo, and that amp has the best sound for pound. But at my age, if I have to do my own schlepping with my band Shoe Suede Blues, weight is a consideration, so I don’t often use it live. The stompbox I like best is the Seymour Duncan Twin Tube Blue, which works brilliantly, but it’s too cumbersome to take on tour. So I bring a Truetone overdrive and a ZVEX Super Hard On. I hit one of those when I’m playing a single-note line and I want to be heard—which is rare enough on the Monkees stage. Mostly what I’m doing is playing rhythm.

So how does a 50-year-old band manage to make a “hit” record in 2016?

Dolenz: We had all those wonderful old songs. We had all these new songwriters falling all over themselves to write songs for us. And those writers wrote those songs expressly for the Monkees. We said we did not want songs that had been stuffed in a drawer for a year. We had such a wealth of material that we were spoiled for choice, and we had Adam producing it all. In a funny way, Good Times came about the way the original Monkees came about—a perfect storm of all the right people working together at the right time.

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