In October, I dove into the core of a wonderful box set issued this year called The Monkees – The Complete Series — a $200 set only available at the band’s website or at their concerts (where I got my copy)
In the earlier articles I talked about one of the discs which featured the spectacular restoration of The Monkee’s attempted-swan-song-psychedelic-film called Head as well as the rather shocking TV special which few actually saw called 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee.
So here we are at the end of the year and I’m scouring the bulk of the box set which features all the TV shows from the series — 58 episodes! — which ran on network television between late 1966 and early 1968. These shows are arguably one of the birthplaces for the style of short promotional film-making which became commonplace 15 years hence on MTV.
Realistically folks, there is way too much to here for me to review — and for you to read, Dear Readers! — so I have to cherry picked some highlights for you to consider, leading me into a brief look at the included bonus 45 RPM bonus single.
One thing that is interesting about this set is that it allows you to experience just how quickly the show matured, writing-wise as well as from the actor/performers themselves: Davy, Mickey, Mike and Peter. Don’t mis-read this to think that The Monkees TV show was ever Shakespearean, but as the show became popular, the productions became more slick, the scripts more engaging over time and the acting more comfortable and natural (almost to a fault!).
Initially, The Monkees really did appear to be this nervous group of goofball lads in an aspirant band living in a house by the beach. Later on when they became a bonafide real band, with fans and even touring, there are subtle changes you can sense. Its in how they carry themselves that is a bit beyond just the acting for which they were hired.
You really get a sense that these guys were living through a surreal dream… and getting paid for it, growing up overnight in front of millions of people, gaining millions of adoring fans, selling bazillions of albums and singles, playing live concerts and more.
One joy from watching these shows is indeed waiting for fun musical performance, some of which may have even been performed live (or at least with quazi-live vocals sung to a backing track).
All the episodes I’ve watched thus far a whole bunch of dumb fun. In general, they sound real good too! And… while the sound is all Mono, it has been cleaned up so the listening experience is consistent and enjoyable even playing over the JBL 4410A studio monitors which I use in my office area (for two-channel listening) as well as the front channels of my home theater surround sound set up.
Some favorite episode moments in The Monkees – The Complete Series thus far include:
The Monkee Paw, which shows just how far the Pre-Fab Four had traveled in less than a year’s time (vs. The Beatles’ taking several years to become … ahem…. enlightened). The innocence of the “early days” was left behind for hippie psychedelic punning and more adult vistas. So much so, I wonder if the pre-teen audience that catapulted the band to stardom was even watching by 1968 (perhaps that is part of why it went off the air… I am just speculating here). In this episode they frolic with Mendrek the Magician while “Words” from their fourth album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., is featured. And yeah, there is a magical Monkey’s paw central to the story line. I leave that there for you to ponder…
The Monkees In Paris is fun because it breaks away from the traditional show format and shows neat footage of the group frolicking around the streets of Paris, riding mini motor bikes, pedaling around in go-carts and visiting amusement parks. Since there is no real script, several deeper tracks from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. provide an ongoing soundtrack to the episode including Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill’s “Love is Only Sleeping,” Gerry Goffin & Carol King’s “Star Collector” and band originals “Don’t Call On Me” and “Goin’ Down.” The latter is set to mock Hard Days Night-styled scenes of the band being chased around Paris by gaggles of fabulously fashioned mod French girls. Then, out of nowhere suddenly, the band is wandering through a cemetery within a Church for a moment of solemnity. And then… the mad chase resumes! Honestly, seeing this episode puts the tripped out weird of The Monkees’ Head movie in much clearer perspective. These guys (and probably their producers) were all getting “experienced” just like much of the the rest of the world did during that Summer of Love and beyond…
Monkees On Tour is also an essential view, presenting footage from their first ever concert tour, filmed in Arizona (and possibly San Francisco too!). Here you see just how big The Monkees had grown as a musical entity — they were no longer a fake TV creation, they had come to life. The sound from the live footage isn’t great — you are hearing probably what the fans heard; remember there were no great live concert sound systems at that point in time — but its still pretty amazing to see and hear. I love the segment at the end of the episode showing Mike Nesmith at a radio station (probably in Arizona, the day after the concert) concluding an interview or perhaps recording a radio spot where he thanks The Rolling Stones (for “being a great group”), The Mamas and The Papas (for “making it good”), The Lovin’ Spoonful (for “making it happy”) and The Beatles (for “starting it all up for us.”).
]]>If there was ever a question of The Monkees achieving legitimacy as genuine pop artists, this moment underscores how far they had traveled. Think about it: they went from being a pre-fabricated, made-for-TV group designed to ride the coattails of the Baby Boom-fueled pop music explosion to playing actual live concerts before screaming fans not that all that far removed from what The Beatles had experienced. Jimi Hendrix was their opening act for some of their first tour!
And through it all, they kept their cool. They became a vital part of the music scene of the times yet remembered their place in the pop music pecking order of the day, remaining gracious about it all (as they are to this day!). That is probably why they were so well respected and friendly with most of the musicians in the LA music scene — from Frank Zappa to The Buffalo Springfield — and even internationally (remember, that is Monkee Mike Nesmith you see in The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” promotional film created during the Sgt. Pepper sessions in 1967, right alongside Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Donovan, Marianne Faithful and others)
Wild Monkees is a notable episode not only because you get to see the boys dressed up in biker outfits, riding motorcycles ‘n stuff, but because it includes an early mix of “Star Collector” and a live vocal version of “Goin’ Down.”
And… if I’m not mistaken… these are the same songs featured on the bonus seven-inch 45 RPM single included in the set. That single sounds good on dead quiet vinyl, making the most of the somewhat muted audio from the TV soundtrack. Its been cleaned up so its not hissy but its not super bright like a proper studio mix might sound. Still, Mickey’s live vocal is pretty wonderful on this rave up which morphs in to a two-chord romp ala The Isley Brother’s “Shout.”
In addition to the bonus single you get a very useful episode guide with The Monkees – The Complete Series, handy for those moments when you want to bounce around to pick out favorite episodes or songs or just explore episodes you may have overlooked previously.
In that way, this box set is almost a living breathing entity, ready to jump to action whichever way you click on your remote control.
The Monkees – The Complete Series is also wonderful snapshot of American pop cultural history. A fun romp through a stylistic turning point in American television and a time machine-like look-back to a time when society was abandoning its homogenous post-war 1950s innocence — and even the clean-suited exuberance of the early 60s British Invasion — for blue jeans, paisley patterned shirts, bright colors and more expansive musics. Sarcasm and cynicism was creeping into the scripts. Still, The Monkees TV show must have been a fun bit of escapism from the harsh realities of Vietnam and the increasingly violent and escalating civil rights movement.
And for that perspective alone, The Monkees – The Complete Series is a worthwhile investment. That you get all this wonderful music and mad cap madness is a bonus.
Hey Hey, My My. We’re all Monkees, by the by…