By Chris Anderson
The Monkees: Good Times!
It’s safe to assume that, in 1966, no one could‘ve predicted that The Monkees would be a long-term concern. After all, it was just a silly TV show. Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork were hired for their personalities, not their artistry. They were great singers but rarely played on their records or wrote their own songs. Instead, their records included songs by the best writers of the time and featured some of the most celebrated session musicians L.A. had to offer. Regardless of who played on those tracks, they are among the greatest ever recorded. And so the Monkees were a hit, even if they were a sham.
It soon became apparent, however, that they needed to tour. Rather than utilizing a backing band, they learned how to play. And they pulled it off. Frustrated by their lack of involvement, Nesmith fought and succeeded in gaining creative control for the Monkees. His argument was validated by 1967’s Headquarters, one of the finest albums the 60’s had to offer.
Some albums that followed, including Pisces Aquarius Capricorn &Jones Ltd and The Birds The Bees & The Monkees were both groundbreaking and popular, while later albums like Instant Replay and The Monkees Present have more of a niche following. The show ended in 1968, after which they teamed with Jack Nicholson to create the surreal film, Head. Tork quit soon after; Nesmith left in 1969; and the band dissolved after 1970’s Changes.
Cut to 1986. 60’s nostalgia was in full bloom. MTV celebrated the Monkees’ 20th anniversary by re-airing the series while Rhino Records reissued their catalog and assembled the first of many rarities compilations. Dolenz, Jones, & Tork reunited for a successful tour and single, “That Was Then, This Is Now”. Monkeemania was back! Inevitably, there came an album, the unfortunately-titled Pool It! Overproduced and filled with unremarkable songs, it failed spectacularly.
In 1996, they regrouped with Nesmith for a TV special and a new album, Justus. Unlike Pool It!, this album was written, performed, and produced by the four Monkees. Given those circumstances, Justus was solid. Unfortunately, the material was uneven and it came nowhere close to being a commercial success. Soon after, Nesmith left again and the band continued on the reunion circuit.
Following the death of Davy Jones in 2012, Nesmith returned and they embarked on several tours over the next few years. As their 50th anniversary loomed, it became apparent that there needed to be some sort of celebration. There was a tour lined up but, even more fitting, there was a new album in the works. It would become one of the finest to ever bear the Monkees’ name.
Produced by Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), Good Times! features songs contributed by several contemporary songwriters along with tracks originally recorded in the 60’s and completed for this album. While this could’ve been a mess, instead it’s a masterpiece.
Pool It! was a disaster because the idea to update the band’s sound resulted in nothing resembling the Monkees. Justus fell short because it sounded like a bunch of old guys who were out of touch. Where Good Times! succeeds is in the fact that it was curated by artists who adore the Monkees.
Kicking off with the title track, you are instantly transported to 1967. Based on a demo by Harry Nilsson (and featuring his original vocal), this song smokes. Good times, indeed! Andy Partridge’s “You Bring The Summer” and Rivers Cuomo’s “She Makes Me Laugh” are both twee, but in all the right ways. Schlesinger offers up “Our Own World”, which would not be out of place on one of their early albums. “Gotta Give It Time” is an unfinished track from 1967, updated here.
As solid as all this is, it in no way prepares you for Ben Gibbard’s fragile, meditative “Me & Magdalena”, hands down one of the greatest Monkee songs ever. The juxtaposition of Nesmith and Dolenz’s voices on this track is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard and most surely the song of the year.
“Whatever’s Right” is a Boyce/Hart tune that was originally attempted in the 60s but was recorded fresh for this album. “Love To Love”, written by Neil Diamond and sung by Davy Jones, dates from 1967. A staple of rarities compilations, here it’s freshened up with new backing vocals from Dolenz & Tork. This leads into Tork’s “Little Girl”, a mellow, jazzy number that he had originally written for Jones to sing; instead, it’s dedicated to him.
One of the more curious tracks is the Noel Gallagher/ Paul Weller collaboration, “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster”. A multi-sectioned, psychedelic epic sung by Dolenz and Nesmith, this is almost like a modern take on the Head movie. It almost succeeds, its only flaw being that it fades out far too soon.
Tork takes a fantastic pass through the Goffin/King classic, “Wasn’t Born To Follow” and Nesmith offers up the ethereal “I Know What I Know”, a very different song for him, and one of his most beautiful. Closing out the album is Micky’s “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had A Good Time)”, ending the album with a laugh.
There are several bonus tracks, the best of which is Zach Rogue’s “Terrifying”, sung by Dolenz. Andy Partridge offers up “Love’s What I Want”, a fun, upbeat number, while Peter Tork’s “A Better World” is odd. Finally, we have a very different, jangle-pop version of “Me & Magdalena”. A phenomenal take but they made the right choice with the album version.
Released to rave reviews and the highest chart positions since their initial run, this is easily one of the most successful reunion albums of all time. Ideally, they would make another in the same vein, sooner rather than later, as I’m sure there are plenty of writers who would happily supply material. However, if they never make another album, this is a magnificent way to go out.