But is it Americana? – The Monkees

Up to now, all attempts to justify an Americana tag, for a band not usually associated with the genre, have seen UK bands in the frame. I’d like to turn my attention to an American “band”. Yes, I think I can make a good case for the Prefab Four, the world’s first, commercially assembled boy band, being an Americana act.

However, I am going to be quite specific and say that this applies to the one album made entirely by the original four-piece band. The Monkees, as pretty much everyone knows, were commercially assembled for a TV series. The producers hired a central cast, consisting of two actors and two musicians, to play the part of a band trying to make it in L.A. in the 60s. The show ran on NBC for two series, from September 1966 to March 1968, 58 episodes in all. Produced by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider with Ward Sylvester (series 2 only), the show was scripted, and the music was originally overseen by Don Kirshner, who had total creative control, commissioning the songs and assembling the musicians to play them. For the first series, and the first two albums released under The Monkees’ name, the only contribution the four central characters provided to the recordings were the vocals.

By the time the third album came around Dolenz, Nesmith, Tork, and Jones had, pretty much, become the band they were portraying and they resented the lack of creative control over their own recorded output. Don Kirshner had already started studio sessions for the third album but made the mistake of releasing a single (‘Little Bit Me, Little Bit You’) against the specific request of the band and, more importantly, without the approval of record executives. Kirshner was dismissed and, in order to mollify the four members of The Monkees, they were handed complete control of their third album release, “Headquarters”.  Now, for the first time, we get the Dolenz, Nesmith, Tork, and Jones take on who The Monkees are as a band, and they emerge with a distinct americana twist. This is americana in the late 60s sense (The Monkees’ “Headquarters” was released in 1967) of the term but I’d say this record sits comfortably alongside recordings from the likes of The Loving Spoonful and The Mamas & The Papas and that precursor to the Laurel Canyon sound that would follow with Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, etc. The album was produced by Chip Douglas, bass player with The Turtles, recruited by Mike Nesmith to work with the band to get their vision across on record. We all know that Mike Nesmith went on to create a number of excellent country-rock/americana albums and he was, very much, the musical director of The Monkees’ new found identity. It’s his songs that stand out as the most obvious americana compositions and there are three solo examples of his writing here – ‘You Told Me’, ‘You Just May Be the One’, and ‘Sunny Girlfriend’. There are also three band compositions and one each from Peter Tork (writing with Joey Richards, ‘For Pete’s Sake’) and Micky Dolenz, who wrote the album’s most successful single track, ‘Randy Scouse Git’ (or ‘Alternate Title’, as it was released in the UK) a hit in many countries outside the U.S (it wasn’t released as a single in America). With the exception of one track, the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil penned ‘Shades of Grey’, the whole album has an early country rock feel to it, not unlike the sound that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were exploring around the same time. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the NGDB would go on to cover Nesmith songs on later albums.

This is also the album where the band plays their own instruments for the first time (despite the fact that Nesmith and Tork were both successful, working musicians with a good track record. Kirchner only wanted session players on the Monkees albums he produced); and it’s quite an impressive array of instruments as well. Nesmith is credited with playing electric and acoustic lead, rhythm, and 12-string guitars; steel guitar, and organ. Peter Tork has acoustic 12-string and electric guitars; piano, organ, celeste, electric piano, bass, and banjo against his name. Micky Dolenz (despite never having played drums before signing up for the TV show) plays drums, zither, electric rhythm guitar, shaker, and timpani. Only Jones doesn’t receive a musician credit but all four of the band share lead and backing vocals. I’m hoping you’ve all noticed that among the instruments played on the album are both banjo and steel guitar. The only session musicians on the album are the producer, Chip Taylor, who contributed bass on some tracks, John London and Jerry Yester, who were also both bass players, and the cello and French horn players on ‘Shades of Gray’.

“Headquarters” became a number 1, double platinum selling album in the U.S. (where it was knocked off the top spot by The Beatles’ “Sgt Peppers” album) and reached the number 2 spot on the UK album charts. It remains their most successful album, suggesting the studio could’ve given them creative control far earlier than they did. Allowing the band to make their own album their own way was meant to calm dissent in the ranks, particularly with Nesmith, who had long been pushing for more creative input. In fact, it had the opposite effect. Although they retained creative control going forward, Nesmith had already started planning his exit from the band and started to hoard his better compositions. There’s no question that Nesmith wanted to move the band in a country rock direction. Following the recording of ‘What Am I Doing Hanging Round’, recorded in 1967 but held back and, eventually, included on the album that followed “Headquarters”, “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd”, Nesmith said “One of the things that I really felt was honest was country-rock. I wanted to move the Monkees more into that because … if we get closer to country music, we’ll get closer to blues, and country blues, and so forth”.

They never again worked as they had on “Headquarters” and, largely, reverted to the production methods used by Kirshner; the majority of the songs were sourced from other writers and they would go back to using session musicians for many of the recordings and a more pop-oriented sound in keeping with the style of the TV show. By 1968 they were already a band in name only and the break-up, which finally came in 1970, was inevitable. In fact, it was Tork who jumped ship first, closely followed by Nesmith, both of them having to buy themselves out of their remaining contracts, despite the TV show having been cancelled. Nesmith, who has been the subject of a few Americana-UK features, went on to form the First (and then the Second) National Band and release a string of excellent country-rock albums, Tork also formed his own band and went back to his preferred folk influenced music. There would, inevitably, be a string of reunions over the years, though few featured all four original band members.

The Monkees’ “Headquarters” remains the only real indication of what the band could’ve been, had they been allowed to develop musically. It may only have been for one album, but I maintain The Monkees were an early americana band. What do you say?


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About Rick Bayles 262 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!

3 Comments

  1. Spot on Rick. The back story of the Monkees doesn’t prepare you for the quality and influence of some of their music. Anyone really listening to them wouldn’t have been surprised by Michael Nesmith’s subsequent pioneering country rock music. At the time they were a true part of the LA music scene rubbing shoulders with other leading artists like Stephen Stills, who actually auditioned to be a Monkee, Crosby et al. Frank Zappa was reputedly a fan, actually appearing in a TV episode and in their film “Head”.

  2. A good solid argument, and I’ve cleaved to this view since 1976 or so when I had a letter published in the NME saying that the Monkees invented country rock with “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round” (having a poor quality tape of “Pisces..” before a poor quality tape of “Headquarters”)

    I’m some ways the story of the Eagles parallels that of the Monkees. Four individuals assembled into a band – initially to back Linda Ronstadt – whose most consistent output was when Glyn Johns had the producer’s role.

    • Thanks Paul. Good to know there’s support out there for the Monkees as a country/rock band.

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