When MTV started re-broadcasting The Monkees in the ’80s, my parents were amused that I latched onto their music so strongly. I never got that The Monkees weren’t a band. All I knew was that I loved their show and I loved their songs.
And why wouldn’t I? They had the best songwriters in the industry writing their hits, and they set the standard for music television that pre-dated MTV by nearly two decades and Glee by nearly four decades. Hell, The Monkees out-sold most of the biggest acts of the ’60s — including The Beatles. Despite pressure to tour as a “real” band, artists from John Lennon to Jerry Garcia to Frank Zappa loved The Monkees for what they were: talented actors who could sing and play their own instruments, shining a humorous light on the travails common to all rock bands.
When I spoke with Micky Dolenz in Los Angeles, it was forty years nearly to the day that “Last Train to Clarksville” hit the Top 40, and just one day after his new album, Remember, was released. While perhaps officially a “nostalgia” album of some of his favorite tunes, Dolenz and producer David Harris have gone to great lengths to re-imagine those songs. Remember includes a countrified “I’m a Believer,” an incredibly cool “Good Morning, Good Morning” with swapped time signatures—even “Sugar, Sugar” sounds fresh as a tongue-in-cheek lounge lizard “standard.” But it’s the title track, written by Harry Nilsson—completed prior to Davy Jones’ untimely passing in February—that makes the record feel more wistful than he perhaps intended it to be—especially as Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Mike Nesmith prepare for a 12-date Monkees tour beginning next month.
But what Dolenz does best and, perhaps, has always done best is move forward in his own way. His passion for the music that moves him seems to be his big motivator, but he talked to me about his time in musical theater, his thoughts on digital vs. vinyl, living in Laurel Canyon, and what his passions are today (hint: they include singing Monkees songs).
I have kind of a funny story. The first rock concert I ever saw was The Monkees when I was a kid – probably 1986 or so at Great Woods outside of Boston.
Oh, really? Gosh!
I grew up watching the show and thought it was the greatest thing. At the same time, my brother and I would do fake radio shows and record them on our tape deck. After the concert, I made him pretend to be you and I interviewed him.
[Laughs] So here we are! That’s great!
I hadn’t even thought about that until I found out I’d get to talk to you today!
[Laughs] Well, thanks so much for your time!
So, I wanted to keep things kind of loose, but since I write for The Vinyl District I’d love to get your thoughts on the format, your record collection – things like that.
You mean there’s something else besides vinyl? [Laughs] I don’t know what to call it now when I talk about my new project; is it my new CD? My new album? My new digital dump? My new download? It’s kind of crazy.
The thing I miss the most is the artwork, you know, when you could have this beautiful piece of art. Now you’re cramming everything… if you’re lucky, you get a CD, and it’s all crammed down into this little thing.
It’s the whole experience, right? You get the album, you get the art, you get the liner notes…
Besides the whole debate between analog and digital, of course.
What are your thoughts about all that?
Well, it depends. Sometimes, all they’re doing is making an analog copy of a digital recording. If that happens then it’s not analog – it’s an analog copy of essentially a digital recording. To be pure analog you have to record it in analog, and there are very few people that I know of that are still doing that. I think I can notice a difference, but then again maybe I’m just old school and prejudiced. But if you record it digitally, it doesn’t matter what your end format is – you’re still just sampling. It’s digital sampling – I don’t care how many times you’re sampling.
But that’s an ongoing debate. There’s just something about the chemical reality in photography, say. The people that still shoot in film will say you can get the resolution digitally by going up to ten megapixels, but you’re not gonna get the chemical reality of film. It’s a physical, chemical thing. Physics. And it’s the same thing with analog. When you’re actually taking the sound wave and translating it into the physical movement of a needle, and that’s cutting a physical groove into a physical substance. And then everything is an analog version; it’s literally the analog copy of the actual, physical airwave – all the way from where it’s recorded, into the diaphragm of the microphone to the diaphragm of your ear. And it all stays consistently analog. Well, as soon as you chop it up into sample bits, digitally, it’s just not continuous – it’s no longer analog.
It’s ones and zeroes.
It’s ones and zeroes, exactly. It can be incredibly sophisticated and an amazing reproduction – it just ain’t the same. Same with photography. You can have amazing resolution and your eye may not be able to distinguish between the pixels, but it is still not the chemical reality. It really depends on how purist you want to get.
So, somebody who is sixteen years right now has ostensibly grown up only listening to MP3s…
Oh, and me too! [Laughs] For the last twenty years!
And same here! But do you think people, in general, have an awareness of what’s missing?
Nah. Unless you’re a purist you probably wouldn’t notice. Let’s face it – back in the day, okay it was vinyl, but you still were hearing it through a really crappy speaker in your car! [Laughs] So, it made no difference because you’d never get that studio quality. In fact, that’s almost more to the point; you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. You can have the most amazing recording equipment in the world, digitally or analog or whatever. But if it’s a crappy song and it’s not arranged well and there are lousy lyrics – it ain’t gonna matter. [Laughs] But if you take a fantastic song and you can record it on your iPhone, you can record it in your toilet, you can record it on a cans and strings! [Laughs] And you’re gonna still have a great song. That’s infinitely more important than the technology behind any of this.
When we heard songs in the ‘60s and ‘70s – all these, say, Monkee tunes like “[Last Train to] Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” – all these Carol King tunes and Neil Diamond tunes, it was on a little, crappy speaker about that big! [Sings, imitating a tinny-sounding radio] “Take the last train to Clarksville, and I’ll meet you at the station…” [Laughs] Or it was on a transistor radio which was like that [shapes hands to the size of a transistor radio] and had less of a quality. But that’s what doesn’t matter. Kids today that are into music are into the song, they’re into the sentiment of the song. They’re into the tone – all of those esoteric things… the lyrics, the theme, what it’s about. That’s infinitely more important than the frequency reproduction, ultimately.
You are so conscious of the songs that you’ve choosen to perform, and you have such a unique voice. Your new album, Remember, is great, but it feels rather sad or melancholy.
Melancholy, maybe. It wasn’t intentional – maybe I’m just a melancholy person. The song choices came really out of the stories about the songs. And then the treatment of many of the songs came from not just myself, but from David Harris and he must get credit where credit is due. He’s the one that came up with that marvelous interpretation of “Sugar, Sugar.” When I told him the story about “Sugar, Sugar,” which you probably know – how it was going to be a Monkees song. And I told him the story and he thought it was hilarious and he said, “Let me see what I can come up with.” And I said, “You gotta be kidding! There’s no way I’m recording ‘Sugar, Sugar’!” And now it’s one of my favorite tracks. But he did the same thing with “The Diary” and a couple of others – “Randy Scouse Git.”
That’s the one I can’t get out of my head!
Oh, yeah! It’s an incredible re-envisioning of that song. And I wrote it and it was a big hit for me in England. So, he must get a lot of credit.
Yeah, I don’t think necessarily “sad” is the right word, but it is darker maybe and a little melancholy. “Johnny B. Goode” is up-tempo, but a totally different take on that. I did that because it was my audition piece for The Monkees. But yeah, it’s Remember… it’s a little melancholy.
What’s interesting to me is how many of the songs on Remember were completely re-imagined and how well they all worked.
You know, we took a long time doing this. There was a long time to reflect. This was not under the auspices of a record company. There was no budget, no time constraints, there were no deadlines. There was just a guy who had a studio at his home and basically badgered me into coming in and recording for quite a while. And I was busy, I was out of town, I didn’t have time, and finally when we started routining some of the songs and he’d come up with some of these unbelievable arrangements and sensibility… I was like, “Wow! This is really different. This is really good.”
And we took a lot of time. There was no rush; I’d be gone out of town for months and I’d get back and we’d work a little bit. The beauty of that is that you have time to reflect, you have time to [attend to] the details, and it isn’t rushed through. You don’t have to make urgent decisions or anything like that. And that’s how almost all of the stuff came out.
Do you feel like your work in theater has influenced your singing style lately? I feel like on this album that I hear more of a musical theater influence than I’ve heard before.
Absolutely! I think that without question. Not intentionally, but I think that by having done a lot of musical theater fairly recently – I only really started doing it in the ‘90s – and then in 2000 a huge break with Aida, the Elton John/Tim Rice musical. And it had a lot to do with my vocal training. That is what, for my mind, is the big difference and it’s affected everything I’ve done since. Even singing “Clarksville.”
So, it’s not that I’m singing those songs theatrically, so to speak. I’m not like, [sings over-the-top and operatically] “Take the laaaaast train to Claaaaarskviiiiille!” [Laughs] But my voice is stronger and I support all the songs and I can hit the notes. That helps a lot. Yeah, maybe I do add maybe a little more theatrics… a little more performance, but that comes from singing them live and it does come from theater. But I even give my vocal coach credit on the album to be able to hit some of the notes, to be able to do some of these harmonies, to be able to support the vocals.
Of all these different things that you do, what do you feel at this point in your life is your passion?
Oh, I have a bunch right now. I guess it’s between musical theater and building furniture. I have a workshop and last night I was in my shop until midnight working on a coffee table with my radial arm saw. [Laughs] I have a lot of passions. I’ve always been a science geek, I’ve always had a workshop, always had metal and wood equipment. I’m serious – last night I was rippin’ through a Douglas fir 4”x6” with a sliding miter. [Laughs]
You’d get along great with the brother that pretended to be you for my fake interview. What else is on your plate?
I’m a huge handyman/builder kind of guy. I love musical theater and I’ve been offered a couple of things – I’m going back to do Hairspray. I did Hairspray in England for a couple of years in London and then the national tour. That was, like, 2010-11 I think. I’m doing it with the Baltimore Philharmonic and the Indianapolis Philharmonic. I’m doing Wilbur again in January. And then I have an offer to go back to do a show in England possibly, and another show is interested here. So that is, yeah, a passion, but I came to it really late in life. I really love doing it – it’s the real deal. But I love recording, I love doing Monkee songs.
That seems more the trend now – everybody’s reinventing themselves at all different stages of life. And not only reinventing, but more exploring things they hadn’t had the time to pursue before.
Well, you know in a funny way The Monkees was like musical theater on television. It was like an old Marx Brothers movie where the sang and they danced and they had a production number and they had a little fun plot running through it. It was actually John Lennon that first made that comparison. The Monkees were ultimately a lot more like the Marx Brothers than [the were like] The Beatles in the final analysis. And then along comes High School Musical and along comes Glee and Smash, which is wonderful because it’s introducing whole new generations to musical theater.
I read a quote about how The Monkees were a band like Glee is a glee club…
That was me, that was my quote. That’s the closest thing that’s come along, I think, in a long time that sort of captures that sensibility – that paradigm. The Monkees was a TV show about this imaginary band…
…that never made it.
That never made it. That was a very important element – the struggle for success. But we could all sing, and act, and play, and dance, and do all of it. And Glee is similar – it’s a show about an imaginary glee club, but they can actually all do it. They can all sing and play and dance – and very well. It is similar in that sense.
At the time, though, you guys really seemed to go out of your way to prove that you were a “real” band, and you went out on tour to prove that you could do it – even though you had the respect of people like Frank Zappa and The Beatles. In retrospect, how important was it to do that?
Well, you’d have to ask each one of us that question. To Mike it was very important, Peter maybe more so. To me, I’d come out of a showbiz family. My parents were in the business and I had a series when I was a kid playing a kid in a circus – Circus Boy. I was an actor playing the part of a kid in the circus. So, when I approached The Monkees, I was an actor/singer/entertainer playing the part of the drummer – that’s how I approached it. And it’s still how I approach it – like you’d get cast into a musical. And as far as, you know, trying to prove myself… again, each one of us will have a different answer to this question. I never felt I did, but then again when you’re that successful, and that popular, and that rich… you don’t really give a shit. [Laughs]
Especially at that age – your early 20s.
At that age, especially! Over the years, I’ve been annoyed when people misunderstand; they don’t get what it was about. There are still people to this day that ask me questions – journalists, even! They’ll ask me questions like, “So, what was it like when the band got the TV show?” And I’m like, Jesus… is Wikipedia that bad? But there is, still, a misconception because at that time nothing like that had ever happened on television. Nothing like that. It really broke the mold. Now, it’s not uncommon at all – Glee, Smash, and other shows that have been on the air since about musical acts and kids in bands and stuff like that. But forty-five years ago, it had never happened and so there was maybe a little confusion and misunderstand and “we don’t get it” and “what’s it all about”… but like I say, when you’re that successful, who cares? [Laughs]
You’re an Anglophile. Don’t you think, too, that maybe part of why guys like The Beatles seemed to get it is because The Monkees were pretty “camp” and Americans don’t really have a concept of what that is?
Very good point. No, they don’t get the camp thing – that’s a very good point. I’ve never heard anybody actually put it in those words. I think you’re right, and I think that’s why the British always got it, the Monkee thing – The Beatles amongst others – and respected it and understood what it was all about. And you’re right – Americans still don’t have that sort of sense of humor. It’s a little bit better these days, but Monty Python never hit the mainstream here. There are those of us that got it and love it, but not the mainstream. But that sort of irony… that sort of puns, you know…
That sort of self-conscious, kind of making fun…
…yeah, self-deprecating stuff. No, you’re right – Americans [aren’t into] that kind of humor.
You were recently interviewed for an documentary about Laurel Canyon. What drove you to seek that out? Did you think you wanted to be there because it was the place to be?
Oh, no – that was before Laurel Canyon was Laurel Canyon. [Laughs] I mean, it was always Laurel Canyon – it had always been this sort of little hotbed of an artistic community from way back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, I guess, where the artisans and musicians and actors would hang out. I just happened to find a house that I liked and could afford, you know, and it happened to be where a lot of other people ended up settling just more by geography than anything else. But it did have a certain buzz to it. When they talk about Laurel Canyon, they’re talking more about that whole enclave that was all the way from Benedict Canyon – that whole little strip of the Hollywood Hills all the way to Beachwood Canyon, even further, where a lot of musicians and that bohemian, hippie culture sort of settled up in those hills.
Did you ever feel like you were on the fence in that world? Did you consider yourself a hippie?
[Laughs] I think I was probably too successful and wealthy – it really depends on what you mean by the word “hippie.” There was certainly what had been the bohemian culture… see, the hippie thing didn’t happen overnight. It was a sort of morphing between the bohemian and the Jack Kerouac and the On The Road and Neal Cassaday and Alan Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie… and then The Byrds and, of course, The Beatles and The Buffalo Springfield. [Note: Stephen Stills auditioned for The Monkees, but ultimately suggested his friend Peter Tork instead.]
It was a gradual transition – it wasn’t overnight. But it was definitely that sort of laid-back, for want of a better word, bohemian culture – counter-culture, if you like. But it was very different in Los Angeles than it was in San Francisco, and certainly than it was back in New York.
And that doesn’t even happen anymore – that geographical, huge difference.
No, not anymore. Especially with social media geography means almost nothing now. But back then it did. You had to actually fly and travel. [Laughs] So, no I was not a kid from the Midwest running around and crashing on people’s floors and looking for handout and being that type of hippie, the Haight/Ashbury kind of thing. But I did wear the clothes and I did have some of the sensibilities. I had a Volkswagen bus. [Laughs] I didn’t have flowers painted all over it, but I had a Volkswagen bus. And I definitely got into the Southern California, laid-back sort of lifestyle.
After all this, what do you feel like is the most important thing you’ve contributed?
To the world? My children, I guess. [Laughs]
How about culturally?
Artistically? I don’t know. You could tell me that better than I. The artist himself is probably the last person to ask. I don’t know – making people laugh, maybe. I like it when people say, you know, I had a tough childhood and The Monkees show or Circus Boy made me laugh or saw me through some tough times. Maybe that. And my children… song of the songs I’ve written… performances… It’s probably a question that’s better for somebody else to answer. What do they think I’ve contributed.
Because from my point of view, I just do what I do and hope for the best. [Laughs]