Graded on a Curve:
The Monkees,
The Best of the Monkees

The kids in my 6th grade class didn’t give a shit about The Beatles; we were Monkees fans through and through. The Beatles, well… The Beatles were for fucking old people, and who gives a shit about old people? We had our own squabbles (Mickey’s No. 1!) and rumor mill (Davy’s dead!) and preferred Dr. Pepper to Sgt. Pepper anyway. My older brother never tired of playing the thing; it was fucking boring! And what did he know anyway? He was, like, 16 and practically dead!

And all these years later I’ll still take the Pre-Fab Four over the Fab Four any day. My heart doesn’t go pitter patter when I hear “Penny Lane,” but it skips a beat every time I hear “Daydream Believer” or “Valleri.” What do I care if The Monkees were the product of big Hollywood and that boring homunculus Don Kirshner? The truth is I kinda like Don Kirshner; his impossibly monotone and utterly banal introductions of bands on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert bordered on Andy Kaufman-school performance art, and provided me with some of my biggest laffs during the seventies.

Sure, the Monkees were created in a test tube in a laboratory by the suspiciously named Raybert Productions, and sure they were hardly allowed to play their own instruments on their own albums (hell, for a long time they couldn’t play ‘em!), but when push comes to shove it’s all about the songs, man, which now that I think of it were outsourced to the likes of Boyce and Hart and Neil Diamond and Goffin and King, but who cares? The kids in my 6th grade class knew something our boring elders/Beatles’ fans didn’t know; namely, that The Monkees were communicating with us DIRECTLY through the televisions in our living rooms, and the televisions in our living rooms were omnipotent!

Hell, The Beatles didn’t even have a theme song, and what kind of second-rate outfit of mop tops can’t even afford their own theme song? “(Theme From) The Monkees” was THEE “My Generation” of my generation, complete with a drum opening every bit as recognizable as the snare drum that opens “Like a Rolling Stone.” And lest you think The Monkees took any of their “we’re just trying to be friendly” rhetoric seriously (that was just a smokescreen to fool the parents!) up comes “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” a song so totally badass the Sex Pistols (to say nothing of Minor Threat) saw fit to cover it! Ya didn’t see the Pistols covering any Beatles songs, now did ya? Hell, Johnny Rotten tossed Glen Matlock out of the band for just liking them!

But–and here’s the bossest thing–The Monkees were veritable Renaissance Monkees and could do it all. Jingle jangle pop? I give you “Last Train to Clarksville.” The best love conversion ditty of all time? Check out “I’m a Believer”! Otherworldy psychedelic garage? Check out “She”! Feelin’ groovy? “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” is guaranfuckingteed to make you feel even groovier! And you can put “Daydream Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” and “Valleri” in the category of Pop Immortals and be done with them, but not before listening to them and falling to your knees in blind worship.

As for 2003’s The Best of The Monkees, it’s absolutely essential because amongst its 25 tracks you’ll find lots of Monkees toons–many of them written by individual Monkees themselves–you may not know, but should. These include Mickey Dolenz’s great “Randy Scouse Git,” which not only references The Beatles but includes the de rigeur for the times line “Why don’t you cut your hair?” The damn thing ends on a noise rock note and is absolutely astounding, as is the bizarre “Your Auntie Grizelda,” which features some great fuzz guitar and the demented vocals of Peter Tork, who kinda sounds like he’s channeling Ringo Starr and is obviously suffering his 19th nervous breakdown. Which is apt, as the song’s theme is based on the Rolling Stones’ song. Then there’s The Monkees’ take on Neil Diamond’s “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” which stands up to the best pop songs being released at the time. And then there’s “Sometime in the Morning”–one of the three songs on the comp written by the songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King–which is every bit as wistful and evocative as anything put on record by Nico.

If The Best of The Monkees has a weakness–and I’m not saying it does–it’s that only one cut from the band’s immortal 1968 soundtrack to Head appears on it, namely the very lysergic (and dreamy!) “Porpoise Song (Theme from Head).” An LP that included vocals by Bela Lugosi and Frank Zappa, and song credits by everybody from Jack Nicholson to Goffin/King to Harry Nilsson, deserved better. As for the songs on the comp, I love ‘em all but the sappy “I Wanna Be Free,” which even my sixth grade self knew was strictly from nowhere and a sentimental shot straight to the crotch by a band that should have known better.

You can say what you want about The Monkees. You can call them manufactured, you can dismiss them as an evil corporate ploy and a cynical attempt to cash in on a gullible youth market, you can throw their albums out the window for all I care. So far as I’m concerned The Monkees were every bit as “real” as Iggy and the Stooges; I have no doubt whatsoever they’d have rolled in peanut butter and broken glass had Don Kirshner ordered them to. The Monkees were my Beatles and they will always be my Beatles. Never has a band not playing their own instruments sounded so good. I could listen to them let other people play their instruments for them forever.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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