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Greg’s Unpopular Opinion #1: “The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees” is a pretty lame album

Posted in Monkees,music by catradhtem on the November 16th, 2018

This is a very odd blog entry for me to make. This was something I was planning to write and post as more or less just a random thought; something that I had been pondering that was otherwise irrelevant to the world around me…as most of my thoughts tend to be. Every time I tried to sit down and write these thoughts down, some major news event surrounding the subject would happen. I didn’t want it to seem like I was merely following a trend. I would prefer my thoughts on here to be regarded more as non-sequiturs.

I’m here to blog about the Monkees. I first became a fan of the group in 1986 when MTV reintroduced them to children with their “Pleasant Valley Sunday” weekend marathon. I talked a little bit about my mania for them early on in Yankoheit 27, and I am happy to say that I have remained a fan to this very day, even having been lucky enough to have met all four of them on a variety of occasions. (A professionally taken photograph of me, my daughter Pru, and Michael Nesmith hangs rather prominently in the hallway as you go up the staircase to our second floor. If you’re heading the other way, Pru’s shirt in the picture tells you which direction you’re heading, as it depicts the title of the Monkee single “Goin’ Down.”)

The history of the Monkees was so unique and crazy that myths, embellishments, and outright lies eventually became part of the narrative of that journey. Davy bragged that his pre-Monkees solo single “Dream Girl” hit #1 in Australia–well, it didn’t (none of their solo recordings reached #1 anywhere). Micky often said that the movie Head was so salacious that it was originally rated R–well, it wasn’t (it was always rated G). Many people have said that one of the catalysts for the Monkees ousting Don Kirshner was his offering them a demo of “Sugar, Sugar” to record–well, he didn’t (he had actually commissioned a demo of a far less iconic song called “Sugar Man”). And some guy who wrote some stupid song called “Acapulco Sun” for the 1970 album Changes said that it was a hit single in Mexico after Colgems gave up on the group in the States–well, it wasn’t (a four-track EP was released down there as opposed to the full Changes album; “Sun” was on side two, wasn’t billed any more prominently than the other three songs, and certainly wasn’t a “hit”).

But I’m not here to go too deep into the entirety of Monkees history. There are already numerous excellent web sites and books all covering that. Should you feel the need to want to learn all there is about the mania that was the Monkees, the books and liner notes by historian Andrew Sandoval is an ideal place to start. Instead, I wanted to focus on one very specific part of the Monkees story, in a retro-timely sort of fashion.

You see, this year marked a few notable golden anniversaries for the group. The fiftieth anniversary of the end of their TV show’s original run. The fiftieth anniversary of the release of their now-beloved cult classic Head. The fiftieth anniversary of their final concert tour as a quartet (at least, until 1997). And this year marked fifty years since the release of their fifth album: The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees.

The Birds

Released just as the second and final TV season was starting up summer reruns, The Birds… squeaked out just as Monkeemania was about to end. The group was still at a point where anything with their name on it was going to sell through the roof, and in a way everyone involved seemed to be aware of that. The four guys were off filming Head, so they did very little to promote the release of the album. Their record label, Colgems, hyped it up a little bit with a preview single, “Valleri,” which itself was cashing in a bit on its notoriety as an already-recognizable song from the show’s first season (the label didn’t even feel the need to print up picture sleeves in the U.S.). And unlike the year before when it had a new album and two singles to push, Screen Gems opted not to dub songs from the album into summer repeats of the show. Apart from one major exception that I’ll go into in a bit, the only television exposure The Birds… received was “Valleri” and “Zor and Zam” sneaking awkwardly onto the final two episodes of the series. Colgems seemed to have been banking on Monkee reliability alone to sell the album.

In terms of the group’s development, the album was a spiritual triumph. The back cover proudly declared that it was “Produced by The Monkees” (with, again, one major exception). Here they were, four guys hired to act on a TV show–assembled by a stunt-like casting call no less–breaking free from their plastic corporate origins and producing what was guaranteed to be a hit rock album all on their own, supposedly with little to no creative input or assistance from others. Sure, nowadays we’re used to reality TV stars launching their own clothing lines, recording artists designing headphones, and movie stars inexplicably adding “producer” to their credits, but in 1968 overnight successes rarely exhibited or pulled off such lofty ambitions. It was unusual enough for a session musician to become an artist in their own right, let alone four guys originally hired–in the coldest context–to merely provide vocals now producing an entire album themselves. But the Monkees had (apparently) done just that.

If only.

The boys had started their own musical destiny about a year before when they broke free from the supervision of Don Kirshner, who was hired by Columbia Pictures to provide the music for the Monkees television series. Utilizing an array of skilled composers and producers, it was under Kirshner’s direction that the Monkees had such hits as “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” and “A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You.” But in crafting those songs, the Monkees themselves were intentionally kept out of the process, only being allowed into the studio to sing (and even then, usually only the lead parts, with studio singers providing backup). Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork quickly grew tired of the charade and simply asked that they be involved in the recording of the music, too. To make a long story short, an agreement was reached to allow “group-performed” songs on the flipsides of singles, that agreement was broken behind the guys’ backs, and they forced Columbia to fire Kirshner. In any other circumstance, such a loss would have been fatal–surely the Monkees’ music would flop without the guidance and expertise of “The Man with the Golden Ear.” But miraculously, in 1967 the boys (ahem) banded together and turned out not one but two spectacular albums: Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. Whereas the first two Monkees albums–late 1966’s The Monkees and early 1967’s More of the Monkees–contained tracks from various producers on both coasts and recorded with numerous session players, these next two releases had the four Monkees playing on every track (and in most cases, with little to no outside musical assistance)…and all under the direction of just one producer, Chip Douglas.

Despite the creative, artistic, and commercial success they had with Douglas, by the end of 1967 the Monkees decided that they wanted to be the ones in the mixing booth, seemingly having complete control over the production of the music. The result of these group-produced efforts became the tracks found on The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees.

If only.

True, from a certain point of view “The Monkees” were in fact producing the new sessions, but Peter, Davy, Mike, and Micky were not all sitting together in the booth making group decisions. Far from it. Apart from the rare instance of a cooperative musical or vocal contribution, the four Monkees were in fact working individually. On any given day at RCA’s affiliated studios, Michael and Peter–and to a lesser extent, Davy–could be found in separate recording booths working on their own material. Micky eventually entrusted a few group confidants to produce tracks under his guidance, but to say that he himself was now a record “producer” was being a bit euphemistic. At this point the guys were merely accumulating solo recordings with little understanding to a goal in sight. They were hardly “producing” an album, and they certainly weren’t producing it together as a single unit.

Much of the creative decisions concerning The Birds… was in fact actuality made by Screen Gems’ new musical supervisor for the group, Lester Sill. Though he wasn’t as militant as Don Kirshner and knew enough to take a backseat during the recording of Headquarters and Pisces, some of his decisions throughout 1968 were less than stellar. After all, this is the man who thought “D.W. Washburn” was going to make a great stand-alone Monkees single after the demise of the TV show–a hokey ragtime number that wasn’t even going to enjoy the benefit of any television exposure.

Sill served as the de facto executive producer of the album, handling many of the production responsibilities that the Monkees themselves did not. About half of the tracks on The Birds… were supervised under his auspices, enlisting the likes of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart to assemble the songs anonymously (so as not to shatter the “Produced by The Monkees” illusion). A better, more accurate credit for the back cover of the album would have been “Produced by The Monkees and Friends.”

That’s not to say that these were all bad decisions, but it definitely paints a less pure picture than what the Monkee PR machine was offering to the public. The boys did not have free reign on this album–in fact, one of them almost got cut out of the process completely, while some of the more totally Monkee-made decisions were questionable at best.

One of Lester Sill’s biggest flaws during this period was his reliance on Davy to sell the group’s records, echoing shades of Don Kirshner preferring the hassle-free Jones when the other Monkees were making their biggest and loudest demands for musical freedom. Working closely with Sill, Davy churned out a parade of middle-of-the-roady songs that varied from tepid to downright unlistenable. This is the era of Davy material that typically gets the “schmaltz” label–dreck like “We Were Made for Each Other” and “It’s Nice to Be with You.” Older songs like “I Wanna Be Free” and “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” proved that Davy was able to turn in excellent performances when given strong enough material to work with–heck, most of his contributions to Pisces show how he was growing as a modern pop performer. But unfortunately, somewhere along the way Davy’s songs started going backward and traded in ’60s pop/rock for sappy melodrama, more “The Day We Fall in Love” and less “Star Collector.” The Birds… eventually became littered with this treacly Davy fodder.

But speaking of Davy, Sill also wanted to ensure that The Birds… was going to be a hit by including “Daydream Believer,” which had enjoyed tremendous success as the group’s latest single–already selling over a million copies. Recorded during the making of Pisces and originally intended for that album before being reshuffled onto a single, Sill decided to save it for the next LP to make sure there was a recognizable track already on it–a decision that seemed like a genius stroke when the song went to #1 and was already heavily used on the TV show during the “romps.” It wasn’t uncommon for any group let alone the Monkees to “save” a hit song for a later album, but it does seem a bit ironic now that easily the album’s most iconic and recognizable song wasn’t even intended for the release–and notably, it was the only song on it not “Produced by The Monkees” but rather by Chip Douglas.

Much of that “selling on recognizability” thinking can be seen elsewhere on the album. Two of the other tracks to make surprise appearances on The Birds… were “Valleri” and “I’ll Be Back Up on My Feet.” Both songs had previously been recorded in mid-1966 for what would eventually become More of the Monkees, and their inclusion seemed so definite that both songs were featured a number of times during the first season of the show. But alas, neither song was used, so although they remained “in the can” they were already recognizable to Monkees fans–especially after reports emerged that some resourceful deejays across the country taped “Valleri” right off their televisions and added it to their stations’ playlists. So clearly Sill knew that adding some familiar tracks to The Birds… would likely push it to fans of the series, but alas in an effort to better create the illusion that the Monkees were in charge of the album both songs were re-recorded to mixed results. “I’ll Be Back…” in particular gets drowned out by odd brass and Latin-sounding embellishments, sounding more like a strange samba number than a possible pop hit. But still, substandard Monkees material that people knew was a better risk than completely unfamiliar Monkees material–again, especially as the show was no longer featuring new recordings.

There’s no concise way to describe The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees. Stylistically it’s kinda all over the map. Pisces at least had a common tone throughout with its mild psychedelia, and Headquarters‘ raw “garage band” sound gave all of its tracks a cohesive feeling. The Birds… isn’t necessarily bland, but it’s not totally entertaining either. It is definitely not an album for the casual Monkees listener, and even a die-hard fan can easily start skipping over tracks to get to the better material. It’s the kind of album you’d find in an old lady’s house because she wanted to make sure she had some of those Monkees guys her grandkids liked to listen to when they came over. That’s pretty much the way to describe The Birds…: Monkees for old people. The Monkees and More of the Monkees were full of youthful, almost juvenile innocence; Headquarters and Pisces showed a group heading into adolescence; and now here they were at a mature stage in their development, with all of their past knowledge and song-crafting know-how at their disposal.

If only.

Of the four Monkees, Micky Dolenz gets through The Birds… relatively unscathed. The onetime lead singer of the group–who commanded the bulk of the tracks on the debut album and even sang the show’s theme song–had been slowly sliding into the backseat ever since Pisces, allowing Davy and Mike to metaphorically duke it out on the number of leads on an album. Here Micky is again present, but he’s certainly not featured on any of the album’s “major” songs. His voice is found on the remake of “I’ll Be Back Up on My Feet” along with two solo numbers, a harmless Boyce/Hart pop number called “P.O. Box 9847” and the toothless anti-war-themed “Zor and Zam,” which at least had the notoriety of being the final Monkees song heard on the TV series.

As for Davy, sigh…again, I don’t want to beat up on the guy, but his material is truly the weakest on the album. You hear the Davy on his dopey, more-personal productions like “Dream World,” “We Were Made for Each Other,” and “The Poster” versus the Davy of the excellent “Daydream Believer” and “Valleri” and you’d almost think they were two different guys.

And then something needs to be said about Michael Nesmith. Look, he’s a great songwriter and innovator in both music and video, but he does get a bit of a swell head about himself at times. The period when The Birds… came out represented Nez at perhaps his most pretentious–at least as a Monkee. This is during his “I’ve written three books of poetry that will never be published under my name”/”I will record an instrumental album of my songs with a big band”/”We’re not even going to be billed in the cast of our own movie” era of needless artsy-fartsiness. This extreme need for self-indulgence definitely made its way into the songs he was producing, which is all the stranger because this is about when he first started writing and recording some of the beautiful songs that he would later resculpt and release on his ’70s solo albums. The first iteration of “Conversations” was recorded during this time, as was the first studio take of the magnificent “Nine Times Blue.” But then there were also songs where his creativity ran a bit too amok, and for some reason a lot of them found a home on The Birds…. The enigmatic, folk-rocky “Auntie’s Municipal Court” is perhaps the most accessible Nesmith song on the album (it should be noted it’s also the only one on the LP that he didn’t write by himself), saved in large part by Micky and Mike doubling a very Monkees-pop lead vocal. Later on the album is the strange but enjoyable “Magnolia Simms,” a 1920s-ish throwback that would become a precursor to the production style Nesmith would later employ when recording “Daddy’s Song” for the Head soundtrack. The song’s signature “record skipping” effect helps make it a light-hearted, easy to take novelty–and definitely more enjoyable to sit through than, say, “D.W. Washburn.”

But then we have “Tapioca Tundra” and “Writing Wrongs,” perhaps two of the most tedious Nesmith songs in the released Monkees catalog.

“Tapioca Tundra” is such an oddity. It’s almost a country/Latin hybrid in style, representing something of a transition for Nez. The song has the speedier pacing of his earlier Monkees recordings, but it’s mixed with the unfocused oddball lyrics of his later, slower songs. In recent years Mike has tried to explain “Tundra” as a metaphor for what the Monkees and the audience shared during the group’s first concert tours, that symbiotic experience of feeding energy to each other. It’s a nice sentiment (if that was truly the intent), but the point is never driven home in the lyrics. It sounds very much like latter day backpedaling to explain away a very boring song.

Even Andrew Sandoval has little to praise about “Tundra,” often charitably framing it as the group’s “strangest” top 40 hit–and yes, it actually made the top 40 as the b-side to “Valleri.” Less charitably, the song has yet to appear on any of the single-disc Monkees greatest hits collections that have been released over the decades (assembled by Sandoval or otherwise), despite it being a legitimate chart hit at #34 and supposedly being more successful than some of the other tracks that routinely populate such compilations. There’s just nothing about it that really resonates to the listener; it’s the musical equivalent of an inside joke.

The dreary, hard-to-understand “Writing Wrongs,” meanwhile, clocks in at a bloated five-minute-plus running time, with passages of the song almost endlessly repeating. It drags side one of the album to a listless close without ever achieving the “epic” vibe a pop song of this length should offer.

(A much tighter, better thought-out version of this same kind of song concept can be found with “Birth of an Accidental Hipster” on Good Times!)

It all just becomes too much weirdness from Nez for one album, and the fact that one of his oddities ended up on a single also says a lot about Lester Sill’s judgement, too.

And then there’s poor, poor Peter Tork. If anyone was the most disillusioned by the termination of the group-recording dynamic it was Peter. The days of the guys playing and singing virtually every note like on Headquarters was gone, and with each Monkee now individually producing their own recordings there was nobody else to truly bounce ideas off. Peter’s own solo productions were distracted, unfocused messes. One song he was working on in particular, “Lady’s Baby,” infamously took nearly a hundred takes over several months and ultimately forced longtime studio engineer Hank Cicalo to leave in disgust. Peter seemingly pinned a lot of hopes on getting a final mix of “Lady’s Baby” ready for inclusion on The Birds…, even offering it as a potential single, but in the end the song was passed over. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tork grew more frustrated with the direction the group was taking; by year’s end, he quit the Monkees. He certainly stopped recording any new tracks after his “Baby” was shelved.

(Perhaps the one redemption was that two of Peter’s other passed-over songs, “Can You Dig It” and “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again,” were used later that year in the movie Head and its accompanying soundtrack.)

Peter appears only once on the entire LP, via his iconic piano introduction on “Daydream Believer” (a song recorded an album ago during the Pisces sessions, yet!). Despite the fact that he was never a prominent vocalist on the group’s recordings, the lack of Peter nevertheless gives The Birds… a very thin, cold vibe not unlike the albums done after he actually left the group. It’s strange to point out that Peter contributes as much to The Birds… as he does on the post-Tork LP Instant Replay, where he had provided something like ninth-chair guitar on Mike’s 1966 outtake “I Won’t Be the Same Without Her.” Ironically, this meant that Peter was as represented on an album “Produced by The Monkees” as he was on one released after he was no longer a Monkee!

Monkee fans love to “what if” the group’s history. What if the series had a third season? What if Head was a hit at the box office? What if Peter or Mike didn’t leave the group? What if, what if, what if? But typically the era fans like to fantasize about revising is the post-show era, from mid-1968-on. The TV series and first five albums are almost looked at as untouchable, like some perfect “how can you mess with this?” golden age of pop multimedia. Even the Kirshner-assembled More of the Monkees album is regarded as sacred despite the actual group despising how it came about and was released. And look, it makes sense for fans to not want to think about how the group’s “best era” could be tinkered with–all four guys were together and (relatively) getting along, the series was still on the air, and their best known hits all came out in this period. Seriously, why mess with near-perfection?

BUT

Many episodes of the show don’t age well at all, with a select few coming off as downright racist to certain groups. More of the Monkees, despite having many true-blue Monkees classics like “She” and “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” also forces the likes of “The Day We Fall in Love” and “Hold On Girl” onto unsuspecting listeners. Colgems did themselves and the group a great disservice by not issuing a single off Headquarters in the States, especially during that all-too-important summer of 1967 when Sgt. Pepper’s quickly dominated the music world. And then something needs to be said about the wisdom of the group and Chip Douglas for including Davy’s horrid “Hard to Believe” on Pisces instead of either “Daydream Believer” or “Goin’ Down.” The guys weren’t infallible, even during this high time that everyone loves.

The Birds… always seems to coast by when it comes to serious criticism, like it’s quietly hiding in the corner because it knows it’s safe sitting between Pisces and Head, two of the Monkees’ crowning creative achievements. It’s rarely given much attention, regarded more as an admirable end of an era. If anything, at worst it sometimes gets a “it was the best they could do” reputation.

But if I may, since it’s my blog, I’d like to do my own “what if” here and reshuffle the tracklist of The Birds… to imagine how that album could have been constructed better. And to be clear, I’m mainly going to be fiddling with the Birds album, so I’m not going to, for example, grab songs from Head or the “D.W. Washburn” single (Instant Replay, however, will not be nearly as safe).

For your reference, here is the originally released tracklist on The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees….

Side one:
1. Dream World
2. Auntie’s Municipal Court
3. We Were Made for Each Other
4. Tapioca Tundra
5. Daydream Believer
6. Writing Wrongs

Side two:
1. I’ll Be Back Up on My Feet
2. The Poster
3. P.O. Box 9847
4. Magnolia Simms
5. Valleri
6. Zor and Zam

Right off the bat, the tiring Davy material has to go. He had better performances in him–“Daydream Believer” and “Valleri” are proof of that–but either he or someone he listened to kept thinking people wanted him to do these ineffective pop ballads. Songs like “The Poster” and the opening “Dream World” just grind the album’s momentum to a halt, even more so than his bossa nova-like “Hard to Believe” did back on Pisces. The stuff that ended up on the album is all the more frustrating when one hears the outtakes Davy was working on around this time. The 1994 Birds CD from Rhino offered the perfect alternative: a somewhat angsty version of Neil Sedaka’s “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” The version that Davy eventually re-recorded for inclusion on 1969’s Instant Replay is all right, but the attempt of the song done in late 1967 features alternate, less gushy lyrics–resulting in not so much an aggressive Davy, but definitely a more defiant one. It would have paired well with the likes of “Valleri” and “Daydream Believer.”

Some of the Mike Nesmith fat needs to be trimmed a little, too. It’s too much Enigmatic Nez for one LP, and it’s not all that great, either. As I said, “Writing Wrongs” sinks like a stone on side one, a rambling end that may not make one want to flip over to the second side. It needs to go, and despite all the excellent outtakes Nesmith was working on at the time, the best candidate for that “mature Monkees pop” sound is his rocking, Dylan-esque “St. Matthew.” An almost angry opening fiddle sting kicks off a fast-paced country/pop number, definitely a worthy successor to such tracks as “Sunny Girlfriend” and “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” from the previous albums. It would actually make an ideal opener to the album, much more than “Dream World” did.

And we need to get Peter back on this album. His absence was simply an insult to him, period. He really had everything riding on “Lady’s Baby,” but at this time he crafted a far better song with “Tear the Top Right Off My Head,” a quirky ’60s rocker that definitely shared a style with his Head standout “Long Title….” Plus, Peter and Micky sang a brief acoustic rendition of the song during the second season of the TV show, during the “Hitting the High Seas” episode. With the second season in reruns at the time of the album’s release, the song’s inclusion would have definitely fed into the “selling on recognizability” vibe that Lester Sill was going for.

And finally, speaking of recognizable songs, the one song The Birds… was sorely lacking was “Goin’ Down,” the b-side to “Daydream Believer” that was featured heavily during the second season of the show but never showed up on any of the studio albums. Granted the song itself wasn’t nearly as big of a hit as the group’s other b-sides, but again, to any current Monkee fans it would have been immediately recognizable as a recent show highlight. That song deserved better than being relegated to compilations as an also-ran…and it definitely would have upped the amount of TV-recognizable songs on The Birds… from three to five.

So here’s my adjusted tracklist to The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees….

Side one:
1. St. Matthew
2. The Girl I Left Behind Me
3. P.O. Box 9847
4. Daydream Believer
5. Tapioca Tundra
6. Goin’ Down

Side two:
1. I’ll Be Back Up on My Feet
2. Tear the Top Right Off My Head
3. Auntie’s Municipal Court
4. Magnolia Simms
5. Valleri
6. Zor and Zam

But this all just daydream believing on my part. It certainly doesn’t change the group’s history, nor does it change the fact that some more totally enjoyable albums followed The Birds… like Head, The Monkees Present, and of course Good Times!

When asked about the more fragmented, isolated, not-singing-or-playing-together production style on the very recent The Monkees Christmas Party, Andrew Sandoval tried to sell it to skeptical fans by saying “think of it as done like The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees“…as if that would be a good thing.

If only.

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