(Re)Graded on a Curve:
The Monkees, Headquarters

The once-heated discourse over the musical talents of The Monkees has thankfully been largely relegated to history, and in these enlightened times far more productive debates can take place. For instance; which Monkees’ album is the best? Tough question, but one certain contender is 1967’s Headquarters.

For a brief period in my teenage years of musical discovery I passed through a phase of brutally intense ‘60s worship. It was all Beatles and Stones and Hendrix and Dylan and San Francisco and Woodstock, a circumstance unsurprising for a lad of the ‘80s, as that decade saw a significant amount of nostalgia for the times of twenty years before.

But when reruns of The Monkees’ TV program first hit MTV in 1986, I really didn’t know anything about them. While certainly not erased from the history books, they were however reduced to a derisive footnote or a mild curiosity, one that inquisitive young minds might need to stumble over to gain discovery. Once hiding in plain sight, they suddenly acquired a cultural cache that while not über-cool was definitely amiable to the climate of the era.

I scored a badly beaten copy of More of the Monkees for next-to-nothing from the Salvation Army and aside from copious crackles was quite impressed. Asking the bearded owner of my local record shop about them shortly afterward, I was told in no uncertain terms they were a “fake band,” a statement that had a far different effect then was clearly intended. My ‘60s adulation took on a whole new wrinkle; how great was a decade where even the fake bands made awesome records?

It’s nice to see that in the years since The Monkees regained some of their original acceptance as hit-makers smartly marketed through the medium of television they’ve never again fallen victim to the level of neglect that greeted them in the post-Woodstock/pre-MTV period. Sure, occasionally some crabby dude flashing purist moves will emote with smoldering disdain over the band’s lack of credentials, but in simple fact The Monkees were a much more complex and artistically worthwhile phenomenon than many once thought. And combined with the reality that the exalted purity of many holy figures in the rock ‘n’ roll canon was in retrospect the fog of addled perspective (like the seriousness paid to Jimbo Morrison’s bid as a “poet”), it’s not surprising that the band once derided as the “Pre-Fab Four” has attained solid if not universal vindication.

As consistently strong and often great as the group’s first two albums (The Monkees and More of The Monkees) are, their real coming out party was with Headquarters. Having successfully escaped the clutches of odious toad Don Kirshner, they set out to make an album far less dominated by outside songwriters and basically devoid of the studio “finesse” that had previously characterized their work.

It’s no great secret and no great shame that The Monkees didn’t play on the vast majority of their early recordings, a circumstance in no way unique to this band. Producers, advisors, and label owners had been long involved in employing seasoned professionals to enhance their product in service of persuading record buyers. As a group formed through the casting call of a Hollywood studio rather than plucked out of a garage or a nightclub, the abundant level of studio augmentation The Monkees’ first two LPs received was all but inevitable.

What wasn’t inevitable was the band’s rebellion. Their struggle for autonomy has been sometimes characterized as The Monkees attempting to prove to the public and the media that they were indeed legitimate. While I wasn’t there, I still disagree with this somewhat. If they were out to prove anything, it wasn’t necessarily to the public; their music was very popular after all. And the media by and large still regarded nearly all rock music as total junk. I tend to think they just really wanted to play on their own records and have significant input into what actually appeared on the albums (something that definitely didn’t happen with More of The Monkees), and if trying to prove their legitimacy and ability to anyone it was mainly to their peers, i.e. other musicians.

If Headquarters dispensed with additional players almost entirely, the fact that the band was still open to outside songwriting contributions should forecast to any stubborn doubters that The Monkees’ fight for liberation was far from dilettantish folly. Eight of the album’s fourteen tracks are originals via the band, but three came from Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, the duo responsible for what’s probably the most fruitful songwriting collaboration in all Monkeesdom.

But the proof regarding their scrap for creative control lies ultimately and immediately in the pudding of the platter itself. Opening with “You Told Me,” a deceptively modest Revolver rip that stands apart from the pack courtesy of Peter Tork’s very good banjo playing and an impressive understanding of melodic economy, the song is clear evidence of the band’s untapped potential. This segues into the more typically breezy zone of “I’ll Spend My Life With You,” a tune that succeeds largely due to its spare arrangement and Mike Nesmith’s accents on steel guitar.

The next track “Forget That Girl,” written by Headquarters’ producer and Turtles’ member Chip Douglas, is exactly the sort of radio ready and Brit-inflected pop that Davy Jones ate for breakfast. Featuring just the right amount of wispy mope, it goes down as easy as a sugar-coated lozenge, seemingly insubstantial but subtly effective in how it captures a mood of bittersweet resignation. If The Monkees’ had exclusively cut this kind of number their discography would certainly be a little (or a lot) anemic, but happily that wasn’t the case.

Three straight high quality tracks obviously don’t seal the issue in favor of Headquarters being a classic LP, but in fact the record is peppered with great songs, with the rest standing as either near-great or at least good. And most importantly, it holds no duds; even “Band 6” and “Zilch,” both brief bits of studio tomfoolery (the latter notably and terrifically sampled by alt-hip-hopper Del the Funky Homosapien) tend toward the band’s appealing streak of absurdist humor instead of being puffed-up clouds of pseudo profundity.

I’ll surely be revealing my Nesmith partisanship by stating that the record’s high-point is his “You Just May Be the One,” a magnificent slice of folk-rock that should’ve been released as a single. But the Jones sung “Early Morning Blues and Greens” hits upon some tasteful sleepy psychedelia (with excellent organ playing by Tork), and the Mickey Dolenz closer “Randy Scouse Git” smartly splits the difference between the music hall and a platform of then topical social commentary. Plus, “No Time” is a nicely done early-Beatles styled rave-up that can be alternately described as similar to Tommy James biting the swagger of prime Mitch Ryder. Even the lesser numbers like the Herman’s Hermits reminiscent “I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind” and the vaguely Mamas and the Papas-esque “Shades of Grey” are rendered more than palatable by the lingering aroma of four smart guys unchained from the manacles of the overzealous calculation responsible for bringing them together in the first place.

Headquarters is by no means a perfect record, but it is an essential one. It’s much better than the intriguing but unrepresentative Head soundtrack and it’s bolder and more stripped-down than the still firing on all cylinders Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd. (probably their most successfully expressed pure pop pill). That one and the problematic peaks and valleys of The Birds, The Bees & the Monkees can serve as a disappointment for some listeners. I’ve even heard it expressed that the band squandered their hard fought creative freedom by never buckling down and delivering a groundbreaking masterpiece.

But The Monkees weren’t groundbreakers. They were savvy interpreters and popularizers of contemporary pop sensibilities, and what’s more the band seemed to understand this fact, which is a big reason their half-dozen records as a quartet (Tork left after Head) stand the test of time far better than many of the late-‘60’s momentarily hip excesses. Headquarters was given a vital and revelatory 2-disc expansion by Rhino in 2007, but any fresh ears should acquaint themselves with the original release first. It’s an uncluttered look at just how great these guys could be.

(RE)GRADED ON A CURVE:
A- 

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