In a recent chat on Facebook Michael Nesmith said that he was happy that the new Monkees live album The Mike and Micky Show had come out because it captured ‘something temporary’. This is true of everything, really: it’s all temporary. All things must pass. However with specific reference to The Monkees it is particularly apposite as despite their enduring and, I’d say (licks finger and sticks it in the wind), still growing popularity, the fragile infrastructure of the group has meant that no configuration has lasted for long. Yes, we have them immortalised via audio and visual media, but in reality the ground has always shifted under their feet, and those of their followers. So to have this record of events is something of a ‘stabilising’ element in the overall chain reaction that is The Monkees.
When I was a kid, live albums for pop and rock acts had a patchy reputation – jazz is another story altogether of course, where the live recording is quintessential. There was no Beatles live album where we could hear them as a performing band (the Hollywood Bowl record is a document of a phenomenon rather than a working group) and my adolescent favourites either spurned the form altogether (Elvis Costello, XTC) or treated them as archival exercises (Talking Heads, The Jam). The high water mark of the form was the 1970’s, when a successful live album could really make an act: Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late To Stop Now (1973) proved a big breakthrough for him while albums like Frampton Comes Alive, issued in January 1976, eventually sold 16 million albums worldwide (6 million in the US alone) and Cheap Trick’s At The Budokan (1979) similarly propelled them into another league.
Sometimes it was a souvenir of an already established act’s latest incarnation: from 1976’s Wings Over America on, Paul McCartney released a lavishly packaged live album of virtually every tour up until 2009. Since around that date, however, the whole market for live recordings has changed as acts try, in the digital era, to claw back their rights and revenue from bootleggers and often present whole concerts in pristine audio clarity for a knockdown price via their websites: case in point, last week I bought what amounts to a three CD set of Bruce Springsteen’s 2013 show at my local arena for 10 dollars (about £8 sterling) from his own website. Whatever the reason for their existence though, the arrival of a live album has never stirred the soul like a set of new songs can.
As with much else The Monkees are a different proposition. In some ways, Monkees concerts didn’t really start to address the full richness of their back catalogue until many years after their initial success. Sure, the reunions and get-backs were brilliant and made everyone happy and a bit of money but if we are talking about the songs then what goes into a Monkees set in 2020 – represented by this new release – is remarkable in that much of it was never played live at all in the original era. In fact some of the most anticipated tunes were not even released until a decade or so after the band’s initial dissolution. As I say, in this, as in many other ways, The Monkees are a most unusual exception to the rule. Which rule? Well, maybe all of them, really.
So, as both souvenir and documentation of something temporary, the arrival of The Mike and Micky Show is a cause for great celebration, round our way.
It is the only contemporary live album the group has ever released; Rhino got the archival ball rolling with Live 1967, issued in 1987 on vinyl, CD and tape. The groundbreaking deep-dive four CD box set Summer 1967 (2001) followed nearly fifteen years later. These recordings were taken from their tour on which, famously or infamously (I am never sure quite which it is), the support act was The Jimi Hendrix Experience – he had been chosen by the band, we should note. Producer Chip Douglas told me in an interview for my book The Monkees, Head and the 60’s that ‘We recorded for a live album but the tapes were hardly useable; they’ve cleaned them up since of course but back then there was no way we could have put them out’. http://jawbonepress.com/the-monkees-head-and-the-60s/
Looking at this album I see 25 tracks; not the full set as far as I know – opener ‘Good Clean Fun’ and some Nesmith solo material was routinely performed but are missing, as is – sobs gently – ‘Porpoise Song’ – but this is still a hefty chunk of goodness for a single compact disc. The vinyl equivalent, which I haven’t actually handled, is a luxurious looking double, another first for a new, non-compilation album by the band. Produced by Andrew Sandoval and mixed by Christian Nesmith, it is a real pleasure to behold and be heard, rich and deep in detail.
It opens very logically with what Micky has, since 1967, been calling ‘the one that started it all off’, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart’s ‘Last Train To Clarksville’. Many years ago I remember hearing Paul Simon say that when he played ‘The Sound Of Silence’ for the thousandth time in concert his heart didn’t necessarily leap up with joy. Perhaps he has changed his view a little since, understanding as he does how the songs that must have seemed professional obligations in the mid-70’s are now woven into the story of the age, and the lives of millions of people. If Micky is tired of singing about this last train, it doesn’t show: he approaches it with great verve and attack – listen for that jazzy ‘Last train! Last train !’ toward the close.
The album’s track listing is divided pretty much down the middle, featuring twelve Nesmith originals and a baker’s dozen by other writers, including Dolenz (‘Alternate Title’), Tork (‘For Pete’s Sake’) and Davy Jones (co-writer of ‘Goin’ Down’). The Nesmith material is drawn from all but one of the albums issued from their 1966 debut up to The Monkees Present in 1969 and, in the unheard until 1990 track ‘St.Matthew’, we have a fine example of the impact of Rhino’s guardianship of the band’s archive. That’s an impressive spread. The remaining songs are a mix of the familiar (Boyce & Hart, Carole King, John Stewart, Neil Diamond) and, in a hard-won luxury not granted to many of their still-working peers, first class contemporary material, taken from 2016’s Good Times! .
Peter Tork, who passed between the time of this album’s recording and its release, is namechecked after a great version of his best loved Monkees tune, ‘For Pete’s Sake’, track one side two of Headquarters and closing theme of the second series of their TV show. In a beautiful touch, the album is dedicated to Tork and Jones.
This emphasis on Nesmith’s catalogue is both a guarantee of class and a truthful representation of how it was, as Micky says in his good natured intro to ‘Papa Gene’s Blues’:
“We used to sit around the campfire, as we used to call it, in between shooting scenes for the show, and invariably we would end up playing Nez tunes because he was the only one writing these songs”
The Headquarters material is fabulous to hear, and prompted me to wonder, how often did Nesmith actually sing and play these songs between 1970 and 2013? Maybe not so often. It must have been strange to go back to them, and he occasionally applies his quirky pronunication of the word ‘the’ as ‘thee’ which I associate with thee, sorry, the albums he recorded for RCA after leaving The Monkees. It’s curious to hear that sound on these songs, on ‘You Told Me’, rather than, say, ‘Roll With The Flow’ from And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’. I don’t mean I don’t like it; I just mean I noticed it.
I am a sucker for these songs, ringing as they are with what I call in my book their chimes of freedom, a kind of invincible lightness of being. Hearing Peter’s lovely banjo line on ‘You Told Me’ rising live courtesy of Probyn Gregory is a joy. Yet the hefty band caught on this album – eleven contributors get a picture credit in the CD booklet – functions more forcefully on the Pisces era tracks than on the garage band, ev’ry stinkin’ little note leanness of Headquarters : the version of Chip Douglas and Bill Martin’s ‘The Door Into Summer’ is so fully realised that it sounds almost as good as the version on Pisces Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd., notably Nesmith’s lead vocal, half a century after he first sang it. This goes right down to the immaculate call and response vocals between Mike and Micky at the song’s close, aided very beautifully by Coco Dolenz and Circe Link. It’s superb.
Which isn’t to say the ensemble doesn’t prevail on some of the earlier tunes – their first freedom song ‘The Girl I Knew Somewhere’ (read my book!) is mighty, while ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’, never a big favourite of mine, also develops something approaching a sharp bite in these circumstances. The clip featuring ‘The Girl I Knew Somewhere’ from the TV show featuring THE FABULOUS Julie Newmar as Miss April Conquest is possibly my favourite bit from the whole series so by golly here it is.
‘Sweet Young Thing’ is a dead ringer for the First National Band and really brings home the fact that Nesmith was yoking pop, r’nb, folk and country dynamics long before it became a thing to do: that is, via his first two songs on The Monkees’ debut LP in 1966. ‘Who invented country rock?’ is possibly one of the more redundant questions you could ask about the changes music went though in the 1960’s but, even if it is, we know the answer. Just in case you missed it, the point is forcefully made here by ‘Sweet Young Thing’ ‘s blend of piledriving rhythm and sinewy fiddle lines. Here’s the ’66 version.
Its twin on that debut album, ‘Papa Gene’s Blues’ ushers in what is probably my favourite part of this programme, the five song acoustic set-within-a-set. This segment of the show provides the image for the album’s back cover.
Papa Gene is joined by a jugband ‘Alternate Title’, a languid, lazy jazz’d ‘Tapioca Tundra’, which is a quiet revelation, giving way gently to an equally rapturous ‘Me & Magdalena’. The transition between the 1968 and 2016 tunes is seamless. Show me another act of this vintage who can connect work at such a distance of time and space. No, don’t bother, you can’t, there isn’t one. It’s incredible, really. I love how Mike and Micky’s voices sound together, and this version of Ben Gibbard’s song really showcases this blend. On the sleeve of the new album, Micky calls their sound ‘The Everly Monkees’ and he’s not far off – it’s demonstrated beautifully here. “Everything lost will be recovered”.
On first hearing this album, my day was made even better by the arrival of perhaps my favourite non-Head Monkees track, ‘Auntie’s Municipal Court’ from 1968’s The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees. When I was a kid I used to think, if I were in a band I’d want it to sound like this song. Later on I was in a band, and we did sound quite like this song, so don’t give up on your dreams, kids etc etc…but back in the late 70’s, pre-internet, pre-CD, pre fanzines, pre-EVERYTHING , I felt like I was the only living boy in the UK who knew and loved this song. I may well have been right. But now here it is, in the set. I can honestly say I never thought I would hear this song, this very deepest of deep cuts, performed live. Its inclusion justifies the whole enterprise, if you ask me. Which you didn’t. But that’s my view. Never mind the furthermore, I had spent four decades digging on this track and never realised that in the delirious head spinning outro Micky is singing ‘Here we go again’, round and round. These songs are such deep wells. Here is the stereo 1968 version which is the one I grew up loving; there is a much rarer mono version – don’t get me started! – but this is my top pick.
Elsewhere on The Mike & Micky Show Micky’s vocal showpiece ‘Goin’ Down’ – the only Monkees song to credit all four of them as writers, based on a riff offa Mose Allison’s ‘Parchman Farm’ – shows he has some of that Satchmo gravy in his voice for real now. Monkee set ever-presents such as ‘Steppin’ Stone’, (complete with staggered finale which allows Micky to work in some of his James Brown stop-start moves as seen in Monkees On Tour) ‘Mary Mary’ (now trailing its HipHop afterlife behind it) and Micky’s favourite ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ all hit the spot very sweetly indeed. The two tracks from Head, ‘Circle Sky’ and ‘As We Go Along’, provide a beautiful exercise in contrast, and the latter gets a particularly rapturous reception from the crowd, to which Micky reacts with delight. These little moments of truth, passing and temporary for the crowd at the show, become revealing and enduring records of connection once committed to tape, and I really like it that they are included here. Here’s ‘As We Go Along’ from Head.
The closing trio of songs seal the deal; Peter Tork’s unmistakable, indefatigable piano motif for ‘Daydream Believer’ starts up but instead of the cheers you might expect a hush falls, as if the audience are wondering what is going to happen in Davy’s absence. Micky would laugh at this perhaps but I swear he comes in just a beat behind where Davy always started the song, as if to acknowledge with that beat of silence that this is his song, and that this version is ‘after’ him, in every sense. As ever the song becomes a mass singalong, a celebration of Davy, everyone’s love for the song, the communality music offers us, a testament of life itself. Cheer up, Sleepy Jean.
‘Listen To The Band’ surprises us by starting out a la the Jack Good TV special, Nesmith on his own, bluesy and slow, the band coming in around 0.35, blasting through like the Nashville cats on the 1969 original. It’s a great and brave choice for this moment in the show and places the emphasis fully on the music – listen to the band! I think at this point I should shine a spotlight on the first Monkees album I ever owned, a 70’s ‘budget’ compilation via EMI which featured ‘Listen To The Band’, tucked away on side one between the hits, educating all of us with young and open ears.
It makes perfect symmetrical sense that an album which opens with ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ closes with ‘I’m A Believer’. Which this one does, to everyone’s joy. It also reminds us that this is a show for everybody, no matter which version of The Monkees they like, whether it’s a lifetime of love or simply a fond remembrance from their youth. There are songs for the Nezheads, the Head freaks, the box set connoisseurs, sure, but plenty also for those who remember their TV show and recall the brief flash of their days as the biggest selling act in the world.
It’s that kind of duality in the minds of their audience that is so special about The Monkees, and relates back to Nesmith’s idea of this being a record of something temporary – just as the gathering of people who constitute the audience at a particular show on a particular night in a particular town is a temporary community.
To paraphrase ‘Tapioca Tundra’, it was part of them, but now it’s part of you. This album speaks to every part of that community: temporary, but also permanent.