Friday, April 1, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: The Monkees' Head (1968)

This is an aborted Hippies vs Punks post. My aspiration was that I would subject myself to a painful work-week immersion in one or all four of the Monkees albums that dominated the Billboard 200 charts during the psychedelic year of the Hippie, 1967.

The albums were the Monkees' first four -- the eponymous The Monkees (1966), which was #1 from November 1966 to February 1967; More of the Monkees (1967), which was #1 from February until June; Headquarters (1967), which was #1 for only the week of June 24; and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (1967), which closed out the year #1 throughout the month of December.

Kids might have been growing their locks long, wearing flowers in their hair, migrating to The Haight to get a taste of free love, but for the great mass musical tastes were in the thrall of jingly garage rock (not) played by four actors hired to star in a half-hour NBC sitcom, The Monkees, which first aired September 1966. The first Monkees album was a promotional tie-in that exceeded expectations and far surpassed the popularity of the television show.

I did a quick audit last night of the annual Billboard 200 lists. I could not find another year that one group or solo artist had four different #1 albums. It appears to be unprecedented

The story is that the first two, besides Micky Dolenz's vocals, were all done with studio musicians from The Wrecking Crew. Members of the Monkees, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork principally, began to complain to management. As a result, the albums beginning with Headquarters began to feature more actual songwriting and instrument-playing by Nesmith, Dolenz, Tork and Davy Jones (tambourine).

This is an aborted post because I couldn't bring myself to purchase any Monkees albums. I had to settle for a Best of the Monkees disk put out by Rhino which I checked out from the public library. But due to a failed CD drive on my laptop I wasn't able to listen to it.

I did watch the super-flop feature film debut of the band, Head (1968), co-produced and co-written by a pre-Easy Rider (1969) Jack Nicholson (who even has a cameo), which was released after the two seasons of The Monkees TV show.  It's not bad. There is some anti-war stuff in there, as well as some toss-off psychedelia; overall though, it is musically unmemorable (see the YouTube above). My favorite sequence is the Davy Jones-Toni Basil dance number. Davy Jones could dance:

The story behind the flop of Head is the story of the Monkees in toto. The Monkees were trying to establish hipster cred by producing a politically conscious psychedelic feature film. The problem was that it was beyond anything the band's pimply, unconscious fan base could comprehend, while the real hipsters, Hippies and heads just scoffed at it, even if Frank Zappa did make an appearance to extol the group's importance to the youth of nation:

The television series, reruns of which were forever on in my childhood, are almost unwatchable. I made it two episodes into season one before I gave up. If you ever question that this culture has evolved, watch a sitcom from the 1960s. The laugh tracks alone are like taking a physical beating.

In any event, by the end of 1968 the Monkees are essentially kaput. And herein lies an important clue to the Hippies and the 1960s. The culture was moving so fast, throwing off great splinters and chunks, that a number-one group -- and a number-one group marketed directly to young, white youth -- could be completely discredited in the span of a single year. Not even Milli Vanilli or Vanilla Ice flamed out so abruptly.

There is a 50-year-anniversary tour underway, as well as a new album, Good Times (2016).


  1. I think it's the Rhino box set. It's annotated as far as who played on each track where known. It's interesting. "As We Go Along" was a Carol King song, it think it was in a weird 5/4 time. Neil Young played on that one and I think that was on "Head". That song was good for the time, but yeah, even at their most popular a lot of us realized the concept of The Monkees was corporate bullshit. By the time I reached my senior year in high school they were long in the rearview mirror. I think it was the hormones that focused me on other things.

  2. When I was in college, mid-'80s, there was a mini-Monkees renaissance. Most beer parties you would hear "I'm a Believer" and "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" on the mix tape. Re-watching the TV show was a big disappointment. As a kid I recall it being much more freewheeling, to the point of Dadaism, not the dead hand of formula situation comedy with a smattering of pop-culture references -- like Roy Lichenstein -- tossed in.