Go ahead and laugh, but the Monkees are one of my favorite bands. Of course, an admission like this calls into question just what, exactly, constitutes a “band.”
Anyone who’s heard of the Monkees is likely to know the broad strokes: four adorable actors were hired to play musicians for a TV show aimed at kids who wanted to watch A Hard Day’s Night every goddamn week. For money and verisimilitude, the producers gathered hitmaking songwriters and music supervisors to create real songs for this fictional band. The diabolically infectious songs got more popular than the show and, through an act of collective cognitive dissonance that has never gotten credit for how truly fucking weird it really was, the real actors decided that they actually were the fictional band they pretended to be. Retroactively deciding that their assignation as mere actors was wildly unjust, these musical Pinocchios pushed their music supervisor into a volcano and started playing (some of) their own instruments and writing (a few of) their own songs. They survive to this day, even recording a shockingly unterrible album in 2016 and touring as a baby boomer nostalgia act that I’ve seen three times.
It’s all true, and frankly it’s a way more interesting arc than most real bands have. But whatever your opinion re: whether or not the Monkees were a “real” band – ugh, who cares? – the songs released under the Monkees name constitute one of the finest available catalogs in 20th century music period. You’ve got pristine pop nuggets by Boyce & Hart, Goffin & King, Harry Nilsson, Neil Fucking Diamond!!! et al. You’ve also got the earliest country rock noodlings by genuine musical pioneer Michael Nesmith, as well as songs by the other Monkees that definitely exist. At a time when songwriting for the sake of pure catchiness was arguably at its peak (fans of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s pop explosion may justifiably object) the Monkees’ discography is a fucking goldmine.
But we all know the high points: “Last Train to Clarksville.” “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” Not one but two songs with the word “believer” in the title, a feat possible only when you’ve got nine thousand goddamn songwriters in your bullpen. All of these are among the best recordings of the rock era. I’m here to turn over those well worn steppin’ stones and bring to light the excellent Monkees tracks you may not have heard.
These are the Top 5 Monkees Deep Cuts.
Rules and Exemptions
Deep cuts means no singles, duhhh. So basically the aforementioned tracks, plus a few unremarkables (“A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” “Tear Drop City,” et al.) are stricken from the list. Beyond that, the category is too narrow to invoke any of my rules, but a few exemptions are worth considering. The Monkees’ discography is far vaster and more varied than people who aren’t my dad are likely to be aware. Since The Monkees, the TV show, had to populate 58 episodes with tunes, the show went far beyond the singles with its signature Monkee romps. Songs like “Words,” “Mary Mary,” and Nesmith’s excellent “Papa Gene’s Blues” – among dozens of others – made countless appearances on the show and are beloved by serious Monkee fans. Alas, those and many more did not make my list.
Nor, I’m afraid, did “Riu Chiu,” the band’s a capella Christmas song, which is gorgeous but also super short and in Spanish, so there’s not much room for analysis there. And while I love “All of Your Toys,” none of the stuff on the exhaustive Missing Links collection – three albums’ worth of outtakes and curiosities – is top quality, although Nesmith fans will enjoy the early versions of songs he would later record with the First National Band. Oh, and none of that ‘80s, ‘90s, or ‘10s reunion baloney. Some decent stuff came out of the last album, to be sure, but everything else after The Birds, The Bees, & the Monkees is, uh, better off forgotten. Word to the wise: If you want your songs to be worth remembering, don’t for crissakes put them on an album called Pool It!
Outside of that, the Monkee canon is our bubblegum-flavored oyster. Nevermind the furthermore, let’s get to it.
“Star Collector” (from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., 1967)
An underdiscussed aspect of the TV show’s genius was that it was able to make Davy Jones into a teen idol simply by portraying him as one. Aside from the forgettable “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” Davy didn’t sing any of the early (pre-“Daydream Believer”) singles, all of which belonged the more versatile voice of Micky Dolenz. But on the show, it was Davy who chased and was chased by girls. It wasn’t until the final track on the 1967 magnum opus Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. that Davy finally got his revenge. Typically called upon only for weak love songs and whiny pap like “I Wanna Be Free,” here the cutest of all possible Monkees gets to fucking wail, landing a Goffin/King-penned screed against all the opportunistic groupies who would later be absolved by terrible filmmaker Cameron Crowe. This was the psychedelic “Gold Digger,” with a locomotive beat powered by organs and synths that scream like police sirens. There’s no nastier Monkees track.
“Saturday’s Child” (from The Monkees, 1966)
As the first proper track on the first Monkees album (after the ubiquitous “[Theme From] The Monkees”), you might expect “Saturday’s Child” to be a mere morsel of disposable pap befitting a record made exclusively to promote a TV show. But dig that murderous riff!! This song rocks harder than any song attributed to a group called “The Monkees” with two e’s deserves to. The way Micky Dolenz’s vocals climb at the end of the verse announces to the world that these may be paid actors engaging in a real life farce, but dammit they’re committed to their roles. The days of the week motif may get pretty tired by verse number three, but for a wholesome tune marketed to kids, the bit about Sunday (“Sunday makes a good wife/But she wants to be a bride, so I’m in love with Saturday’s child”) is some Stones-level fear of commitment.
“Love is Only Sleeping” (from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., 1967)
Just as the Monkees are one of my favorite bands, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. is one of my absolute favorite albums of all time. Top to bottom, it’s the most accomplished Monkees album by a mile, nearly every song containing a memorable hook, riff, or Moog solo. It also contains some of Michael Nesmith’s best vocal work, and while “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” better fits his smarter-than-yer-average-yokel persona, this track is the real treasure to be found on Pisces. With a monster riff and soaring, longing vocals from Papa Nez, “Love is Only Sleeping” is a masterpiece of mood and dynamics. The disorienting beat (7/4 time in a Monkees song???!!) compliments the anxiety of the lyrics, and the whispered bridge is one of the most disarming moments in all Monkeedom. The massive, reverb-laden breakdown shows that the Beatles weren’t the only ones mining for (and finding) studio gold in ’67.
“Randy Scouse Git” (from Headquarters, 1967)
Okay, I’m kind of breaking my own rules here, as “Randy Scouse Git” was released as a single outside the US and has always been pretty popular even among casual Monkee fans (assuming they exist). But seriously, how fucking great is this song? Better question: How did Micky Dolenz, who’s never written a memorable song before or since, pen one of the most lyrically dense and musically adventurous songs of the Monkees’ career and possibly the sixties writ large? From the happy-go-lucky piano verse to the urgent, pounding timpani, screaming organ and impassioned shouting of the chorus, all flooded with euphemism-laden lyrics, this is the Monkees’ “A Day in the Life,” a track whose ambition dwarfs the group that called it into being. It’s also one of the few tracks that all four Monkees play on, making it possibly the best song that’s actually by The Monkees.
“Your Auntie Grizelda” (from More of The Monkees, 1967)
The voice of Peter Tork is not a thing that needs to be heard by human ears except in the most particular of instances. Luckily, Diane Hildebrand and Jack Keller wrote this ridiculous song, possibly the only composition in history that not only fits but demands Tork’s pitchless, adolescent moan. With a sinister lead riff and an uncommonly incisive lyric criticizing bourgeois hypocrisy (???!!), “Your Auntie Grizelda” is a breathless rant that only Tork, of all the Monkees, could possibly have delivered with the proper combination of righteous ire and hysterical incredulity. The fuzz bass is clearly inspired by the Beatles’ “Think for Yourself,” and while it’s possible Tork’s gibberish gymnastics in the vocal solo were inspired by novelty-peddlers like Roger Miller, they’re spun into something approaching genius by the simple Monkee’s forceful indulgence in the unapologetically silly. Sure beats “Peter Percival Patterson’s Pet Pig Porky”!