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How the Monkees Got Their 1960s Groove Back

Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork break down the group’s new album ‘Good Times’.

When the Monkees first began thinking about recording a new album to celebrate their 50th anniversary this year, they had a lot more questions than answers. “We were saying, ‘What can we do?'” says Monkees singer/drummer Micky Dolenz. “‘What is feasible? What is realistic in terms of touring and TV to support it? What kind of album would it be? Would there be multiple producers? Multiple writers? Would all three of us even be on it?'”

Their confusion was understandable. Ever since the Monkees called it quits back in 1971 due to rapidly dwindling public interest and the simple fact that half the band had quit, their activities were largely limited to periodic reunions tours with lineups that seemed to shift every time they hit the road. There were two new albums (1987’s Pool It! and 1996’s Justus), but neither of them made a real impression with fans or critics and were instantly forgotten by all but the most devoted fans.

The hope was to finally record a Monkees album that could be compared to their classic 1960s LPs, such as Headquarters, the Head soundtrack and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. The group’s trademark is owned by Rhino records, and label executes Mark Pinkus and John Hughes were quite eager to will this project into reality. “They wanted to build up their own catalog,” Dolenz says. “And not just be a catalog company for other people’s material. Their new regime over there was quite interested in exploring what new things we could do.”

They began reaching out to songwriters known to be Monkese fans – Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and XTC’s Andy Partridge – to see if they’d contribute new songs, and they poured through the vast Monkee vault in search of discarded Sixties tunes they could flow into the album. They also phoned up Fountains of Wayne frontman Adam Schlesinger to ask if he’d produce it. “My eyes lit up when they said his name,” says Monkees guitarist/singer Peter Tork. “He wrote ‘That Thing You Do,’ which is a perfectly balanced piece of music. It manages to not be derivative, yet completely evocative of the time it’s supposed to represent. It’s one of the few neo-Sixties songs I’ve ever heard that actually worked.”

Schlesinger, who was a Monkees fan as a small child and rediscovered them in the mid-Eighties when MTV began airing reruns of their old television show in blocks, didn’t take much convincing. “I said I really wanted to make the record sound like a classic Monkees record,” he says. “I didn’t want to update their sound. I just wanted to do it really well. That doesn’t mean making it overtly retro. It just meant making it sound like what I would want to hear a Monkees record sound like.”

A key part of that sound is the voice of Davy Jones, who passed away from a heart attack in 2012. Luckily, they were able to unearth a previously unreleased 1967 recording of Jones singing Neil Diamond’s “Love to Love” that required little more than some new background vocals before it was ready for release. Also in the vault was the Carole King/Gerry Goffin tune “Wasn’t Born to Follow” (which now has a new vocal from Tork), the Jeff Barry/Joey Levine song “Gotta Give It Time” and Harry Nilsson’s “Good Times!” that he wrote in 1968 specifically for Dolenz.

“It was unfinished, but there was a killer vocal by Harry, who was a very, very dear friend of mine,” says Dolenz. “I just said, ‘Oh my God, I can do a duet with Harry Nilsson?’ Everybody got really fired up about that.”

But the bulk of the album is new compositions. Rivers Cuomo is managed by Jonathan Daniel, who worked with Fountains of Wayne a few years ago, providing Schlesinger with an easy in. The Weezer frontman sent over the sunshiny “She Makes Me Laugh,” and he gladly added in new lyrics about Scrabble and a canoe trip when Dolenz felt the original draft was geared towards a man much younger than his 71 years. Peter Tork contributed the song “Little Girl.” “I wrote it for Davy as a sequel to ‘I Wanna Be Free’ back in the 1960s,” he says. “He loved it. It just slipped out of our memories and we never got around to it.”

The Fountains of Wayne also helped Schlesinger rope Noel Gallagher into the project. The group’s drummer Brian Young was playing with the Jesus and Mary Chain, who share a manager, Alan McGee, with Noel Gallagher. “I shot Brian an email that said, ‘Hey, ask McGee if he can get a Monkees song from Noel,'” says Schlesinger. “I was half-joking, thinking it wouldn’t happen in a million years. But not even 24 hours later, I got an email from Noel Gallagher saying, ‘Funnily enough, I’ve written a song [“Birth of an Accidental Hipster”] with Paul Weller, and we’re not sure what to do with it, but we thought it kind of sounded like a Monkees tune.'”

Throughout the early stages of this whole process a major question hung in the air: Was Michael Nesmith going to play any role in this album? He had avoided all the Eighties reunions, popping up onstage for a couple of songs when the group came to Los Angeles. He spearheaded the 1996 Justus album and TV special, even touring with the group in England. But before it came to America he bailed, and wouldn’t return until after Davy Jones passed away in 2012. He joined them for three short tours through 2014, but last year Dolenz and Tork hit the road without him, leaving his status in the group unclear to even his own bandmates.

Before recording began, Schlesinger went up to Nesmith’s home in Monterey California with John Hughes. “We hung out for the afternoon and had a very nice time,” says Schlesinger. “Once he sort of heard our ideas and some of the songs he got more interested in the project. He even sent us songs and said, ‘I’ll do as little or as much as you want me to do.’ He was extremely accommodating.”

Good Times! was recorded in February and March, largely at Lucy’s Meat Market studio in Los Angeles. “That Thing You Do” vocalist and Candy Butchers frontman Mike Viola plays bass on guitar on many of the tracks, along with Brian Young on drums, Schlesinger himself on piano, guitar, bass and percussion and a few other studio pros. Dolenz, Tork and Nesmith take turns singing lead, though the Ben Gibbard-penned ‘Me and Magdalena’ – perhaps the most beautiful track on the album – features a blend of Nesmith and Dolenz. “They both wanted to sing the song,” says Schlesinger. “We ultimately decided to make it a full duet all the way through.”

The three Monkees were never in the studio at the same time. “I think that Nez was nervous he wouldn’t be able to let go and really sing if Micky and I were in the room,” says Tork. “He actually requested that we not be there. It was worth it. I don’t think he’s ever sounded so vigorous and full of energy.” Nez actually spent only two days in the studio, recording all his parts in two three-hour sessions, but he’s on nearly all of the newly recorded songs either as a lead singer, background singer or guitarist. “There was no reason for us to be all there at the same time,” says Dolenz. “The days of all standing around the mono microphone singing harmonies are long gone.”

Dolenz only plays drums on “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Times),” the final track on the album. He wrote it with Schlesinger. “Micky has been using that line as a running joke for years,” says Schlesinger. “I said, ‘Well that sounds like a fun song. Maybe we can do it as kind of a fun bluesy thing, almost like ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.'”

The entire record, from the first sessions through the final mixing stage, took just two months to complete. It arrived in stores on May 27th, and early reviews have been extremely positive. “[It’s] their best since the Sixties,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield in a three-and-a-half star review. “Monkees freaks have waited far too long for this album. But it was worth the wait.”

The group is overjoyed by the reaction. “We’re all flying high with the buzz,” says Dolenz. “A lot of this is due to Adam. All of the songs have that hooky, jangly rock thing. I think it’s one of the best albums we’ve done in a long time. And you can’t tell what was recorded now and in 1968.” Adds Tork: “It was the most fun I’ve ever had making a record.” 

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Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith and Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees in a reording studio, 1960 Gems/Redferns/Getty

They just kicked off an extensive tour that will keep them steadily on the road through late October. The show is centered around the group’s many hits, though they are going to play “She Makes Me Laugh” and “Little Girl” and hope to add in more new songs as it goes on. Like last year, they are on the road without Nesmith. “If you stop to think about it, there are six pairs in a quartet,” says Tork. “Micky and I have the closest musical sensibilities of any of the pairs. On this tour, I’m singing a lot of songs. We divide the Davy songs in two, though we’re doing ‘Daydream Believer’ in unison. Interacting with Micky onstage is just a joy.” 

It’s about 12 hours before the Monkees kick off their tour in Fort Myers, Florida on May 18th, and Michael Nesmith is 1,200 miles away in the lobby of a luxury Midtown hotel in New York City. The 73-year-old is winding his way through the tourists at the check-in desk as he heads towards the elevator bank and not a single person turns to look at him twice. His hair, once jet black, is now thin and grey. He hasn’t seen his iconic green wool hat since he threw it into the audience at a solo concert decades ago, and his trademark long sideburns are also a thing of the distant past. Only true Monkees fans would be able to pick the guy out of a police lineup, which suits him quite fine. “I’m never recognized in public,” he says in a Texas drawl that doesn’t seem to have been dimmed by 50 years of living in California. “But I do wear a wool hat at home all the time when its cold, just not that one.”

Until he started touring with the Monkees four years ago, most people saw him as the bitter Monkee, the one who wanted the world to forget he ever played on songs like “Daydream Believer” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” Davy Jones helped push this narrative along. “He has always been this aloof, inaccessible person,” Jones said in 1997. “The fourth part of the jigsaw puzzle that never quite fit in.”

Jones said that when the wounds of the aborted reunion tour were still fresh, and Nesmith swears the only reason he didn’t participate in the reunion tours of the 1980s and 1990s was that his busy schedule didn’t leave him with any spare time. His mother famously invented Liquid Paper, leaving him a large fortune in her will that he wisely invested through the years. But he never lost his fondness for the group that made him famous, even if he remains unsure to this day whether they were even a real band.

“I’ll call it a band,” he says between sips of bottled water in a hotel conference room. “But Micky, Peter and I talk about this all of the time because none of us really know. All three of us have our own ideas. This being, ‘What is this thing? What have we got here? What’s required of us? Is this a band? Is this a television show?’ When you go back to the genesis of this thing, it is a television show because it has all those traditional beats. But something else was going on, and it struck a chord way out of proportion to the original swing of the hammer. You hit the gong and suddenly it’s huge.”

I point out that they’ve never seemed like anything but a real band to me, and even though they were assembled by TV producers, they sang the songs, played instruments on the albums and even wrote some of the material themselves. “That’s valid and what you just said is 100-percent true,” Nesmith says. “But back then, something was happening that we didn’t know about. Suddenly there was a demand to see us play live. And you can’t turn around and say to those people, ‘There is no band!’ because those people will say, ‘Sure there is! You’re standing right here. Can’t you play?’ ‘Sure, but we don’t play great. We play like the garage band on television.’ And they go, ‘Perfect, that’s all we want!'”

In attempt to better understand the ongoing phenomenon, Nesmith has attended a handful of fan conventions over the past few years. “The first one was all Monkees fans,” he says. “I didn’t understand what was going on in these things, and I realized ‘Oh, there’s a culture here.’ It’s a culture that I don’t understand, and it’s a culture that is, I think, very important for a lot of the future here. This is the horizon for the whole Earth coming back around in its orbit.” 

He pulls out his phone and shows a picture where he’s standing next to a fan in an amazingly detailed Iron Man costume from a recent Comic-Con appearance. “The costume component, the cosplay, is like the 1790 masquerade balls in Versailles,” he says. “It’s just recycling  something that is long resonant in this deep and global culture. And I started to think, ‘Oh, this is global culture happening here, I need to understand this even more.’ From now on, I’m going to attend one a year.”

What he won’t be attending anytime soon is a Monkees concert, but it’s not because he doesn’t want to perform with his band. He owes Random House a book on November 1st and writing it has basically a full-time job. The working title is Listen to the Band, but he’ll probably change it because that give the false impression it’s a Monkees book. In actuality, it’s a non-fiction book that traces America’s technological development in the northeast corridor from the 1960s through 2012, something that Nesmith observed firsthand. “The cyber-culture is a child of the counterculture,” he says. “All of this is set against my own background of just wanting to be an artist and wanting to play music.”

Once the book is done, he’s not ruling out some sort of Monkees 50th anniversary concert or even a short tour. “Maybe something after the first of November will happen,” he says. “We’re in touch all the time. When the schedules converge and we get a space, I’ll be happy to do a weekend of shows or something. It’s just that right now my only plans are to make it until the end of October.”

I get up to leave, but Nesmith stops me because he wants the fans to know one last thing: “Reassure the people they can expect to see me out there at some point.”