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Hey, hey, they’re the Monkees – and they’re back! Fifty years after they first entered America’s living rooms via their groundbreaking rock ‘n’ roll sitcom, 30 years after MTV’s Monkees reruns introduced them to a whole new generation, 20 years after the release of their last studio album, and four years after the tragic death of band member Davy Jones, surviving Monkees Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith are releasing their aptly titled comeback album, Good Times! – and it’s one of the most surprisingly delightful releases of the year so far.
Good Times! is a full-circle a celebration of the Monkees’ five-decade career. Much of the disc reverently revisits the band’s past, unarchiving songs originally written and recorded in the ‘60s but never finished or released. The jaunty Harry Nilsson-penned title track, featuring the late Nilsson’s guide vocal from a 1968 recording session with Nesmith, has been turned into a posthumous duet with Dolenz, one of Nilsson’s closest friends. Another outtake, “Love to Love,” written by regular Monkees songsmith Neil Diamond, features sweet and lovely vintage vocals recorded decades ago by the late Jones. And tunes by songwriting legends like Carole King & Gerry Goffin and Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart comprise other Good Times! highlights. How can it be that these wonderful songs stayed locked in a vault until now?
But just as excitingly, the disc includes new compositions by the Monkees’ obvious successors, like Britrock gods Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller, who contribute the cheekily titled “Birth of an Accidental Hipster,” and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, who produced the album and co-wrote the fitting closing track with Dolenz, “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time).” Standout songs include the sentimental lead single “She Makes Me Laugh” by Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo; the sunshiny singalong “You Bring the Summer” by XTC’s Andy Partridge, and the melancholy, lilting “Me & Magdalena” by Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. It’s a powerpop fan’s – and Monkees fan’s – dream come true.
“The A&R and people at Rhino said, ‘You know, there’s this world of indie rock out there,” chuckles Dolenz, who admits that he listens mostly to Frank Sinatra and Spanish classical music in his free time. “And they mentioned Adam Schlesinger… and I knew who he was because I was a big fan of the Tom Hanks movie that he did [music for], That Thing You Do! … And then they started pulling in these people… I told my daughter and she was freakin’ out: ‘Weezer, are you kiddin’ me?’ And lo and behold, they’re just throwing material at us. I mean, it was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can’t wait to write!’ ‘Yeah, we’d love to write a song for the Monkees!’ And you’ve heard the results – I’m very, very proud of this album.”
Dolenz recently sat down with Yahoo Music for a long, fun, fascinating chat covering everything from the Monkees being repeatedly passed over for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; to his friendships with the Beatles and Alice Cooper; to his acting career (did you know he got his start on a 1950s TV show called Circus Boy, and that he almost landed the role of Fonzie on Happy Days?); to learning to play drums for the Monkees and being the first musician to pay a Moog on a mainstream rock song; to the group’s surreal 1968 cult-classic flick, Head. The entire epic conversation is caught on video here, but below are some of the highlights of an interview that truly was a good time.
On the Monkees being misunderstood as a group:
Well, it wasn’t a “group,” if one can get one’s head around the fact that it wasn’t a group. It was a TV show, an imaginary group that lived in this imaginary beach house in Malibu – which begs the question, how did we afford a beach house in Malibu when we never got any work? [laughs]
John Lennon was one of the first people to make that observation – he said, “I like the Monkees; they’re like the Marx Brothers.”… A lot of people, our peers, did get it – Frank Zappa was a huge fan. He got it. Andy Warhol, I remember, got it. That pop-culture thing. Timothy Leary, he wrote a book called Politics of Ecstasy and he wrote half a chapter about the Monkees, “bringing long hair and that zeitgeist into the living room.” Which is probably the legacy, or would be one of the legacies: making it OK to have long hair and bellbottoms in 1966. Because at that time, the only time you saw long-haired kids with bellbottoms, they were being arrested! And the Monkees came along and said, “We’re too busy singing to put anybody down.” And the kids would go, “Hey Mom, see? The Monkees aren’t committing crimes against nature! It’s OK!"
On The Monkees being a more subversive show than many people realized:
It worked on different levels, absolutely. And that was intentional. We’d have gone a lot further with that, but the networks at that time, the network censors [wouldn’t allow it]. There’s one famous story… We were doing an episode called "The Devil and Peter Tork.” Peter sells his soul to the Devil to be able to play the harp. And he tells us and we say in the script, I think was my line: “Peter, you can’t sell your soul to the Devil, ‘cause that means when you die you’ll go to hell!” And script goes to network censors and they said, “You cannot say the word 'hell’ at 7:30 on a Monday night.” And the producers were livid and they said, “It’s Faust! It’s Faust, please!” And I gather they fought and fought and the network said, “Absolutely not.” And so, in that scene, I go something like, “Peter, if you sell the soul to the Devil, you’ll go to the place we can’t say on network television!” [laughs]
On why The Monkees was such a successful series, and why it still resonates 50 years later:
If you go and kind of analyze [the show], one of the very smart things they did was the Monkees on the TV show were never successful. It was the struggle for success that all these kids could identify with. They’re all in their little living rooms and their basements and they want to be rock n’ roll, because that’s essentially what The Monkees was: It was this TV show about this band that wanted to be the Beatles, but weren’t. We never, ever “made it” on the TV show. It was always that struggle for success. That was one thing that was very, very important, and that was intentional.
The other thing was the humor. The humor was not topical, or satirical. It was Marx Brothers kind of humor, I Love Lucy kind of humor, a lot of physical gags, and a lot of the humor played across a very wide spectrum. Whereas a show like Laugh-In, it was a great show, but you had to read the newspaper or watch TV that week; you had to know what was going on in entertainment and sports, because the jokes were very topical and they were very satirical. It doesn’t rerun as well, because you had to have been there.
On the failed New Monkees sitcom of the ‘80s, creating to try to capitalize on the MTV-driven Monkees’ revival:
They asked me to direct the pilot. [Editor’s note: After the Monkees disbanded, Dolenz enjoyed a successful career as a television director.] And we were on the road at the time in '86, selling out 10,000-seaters. And they kind of said, “You guys, you should [have a scene where] you sort of hand over the baton.” And I’m like, “Screw you! I’m selling a 10,000-seater here! I’m not givin’ the baton to nobody!”
On The Monkees’ musical vignettes being the precursor of MTV and music videos:
We are accused of that! I think it’s very dangerous to claim paternity in these cases. We called [the Monkees musical scenes] “romps,” actually: “OK, time to shoot the romp!” And that’s what they were – they were these little, silent, no-dialog chases usually that they could play a song under, and we called it “the romp."… They weren’t marketing tools, they weren’t music videos as we know them… but yeah, it was certainly some of the first self-contained little music romps.
On the band seizing creative control in the 1960s:
It wasn’t taking control of everything; all we wanted to do was have a say in the music. It wasn’t about the TV show at all. It wasn’t about the logo or the branding or anything like that. It was mainly Mike and Peter… especially Mike, he wanted his music to be heard… He goes in [to play a song for the show’s producers] in the very early days and goes, "OK, I got this song that I wrote.” And he sang the song. And they said, “No, it’s not a Monkees tune.” And he said, “Wait a minute, I am one of the Monkees!” And they said, “No, no, we’re going in a different direction on the Monkees’ music.” And you can imagine to a singer-songwriter how incredibly frustrating that might have been. So he gave it to this young girl singer kickin’ around Los Angeles at the time named Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys, that was “A Different Drum.” So yeah, he was very frustrated. And Peter tells the story of going into one of the early recording sessions with his bass guitar and they said, “What are you doing here?” So for guys that are musicians/singers/songwriters, that must’ve driven them out of their frickin’ minds. And so we all did band together, and Davy and I supported them. And yeah, we fought for the right… And we recorded one of the finest Monkees albums, I think; it’s called Headquarters. It’s like Mike has always said, the Monkees actually getting on the road and playing was like Pinocchio becoming a real little boy.
On the band feeling vindicated by all these younger musicians wanting to work with them now on Good Times!:
It is [vindicating], yeah, if you want to use the word “vindicate.” But when you’re that successful, and it’s a continual success over decades, frankly, if you don’t mind my French, you just don’t give a s—.
On how he’d like the Monkees to be remembered:
Well, I don’t have any control over that. I guess it’s in the lyrics of the song: “We’re too busy singing to put anybody down,” and “We’re just trying to be friendly.” I constantly get people come up to me – old fans, the original fans from the ‘60s, from the ‘80s – and there’s a common theme: “I was having a real tough childhood and you guys made me happy.” Or, “We got divorced or this and that and poverty and stuff, and I looked so forward to that Monday night when you took me out of reality.”… So the Monkees in some small way did that… You couldn’t help but feel good and have fun and laugh, and the songs were happy and the themes were happy and nobody’s fighting or hating or killing each other. That is such a common theme that I hear when people come up to me. So yeah, I guess that would be it.