Wrecking The Monkees

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Do you remember your very first record album?  To even say “record album” surely dates me to an era long before the advent of the compact disc.  And by your first, I mean the one you bought with your own hard-earned money.  For me, it was when I was in second grade.  In the early spring of 1967, I saw the country’s hottest album in the store and simply had to have it.  I begged my mother to buy it for me and when she demurred, I reminded her that I had plenty of loot saved up at home and would happily pay for it myself.  She agreed (much to my surprise), and thus allowed me to check off one of life’s necessities – having at least the very beginnings of my very own record collection.  That day also began many months straight of everyone in my family being subjected to More of the Monkees.

For you younger readers, the Monkees were a brief phenomenon of the mid 1960s, wherein some guys with suits and cigars auditioned for four random (but telegenic) young guys as a way to cash in on the teen music scene.  Although they were ostensibly a rock and roll band, the “Prefab Four”  was primarily a TV show about a rock and roll band, positioned to spin off every kind of marketing opportunity imaginable.

In my grade school of 1966-67, the Monkees were everywhere.  They were on lunch boxes, on comic books, in toys and of course on the must-see weekly show.  And the hit singles from their first album were staples of AM top 40 radio, which played frequently through the single dashboard speaker of my mother’s Oldsmobile.

As time went on and my tastes matured, I became embarrassed at my first musical choice – how childish it was, a sort of prequel to Milli Vanilli in that the group’s mostly-modest instrumental talents were almost wholly absent from the songs played on the air.  My musical preferences transitioned to jazz, where top-flight musicianship routinely outranked the more commercially appealing stuff.

But I recently discovered that I was at least a little bit wrong.  True, the Monkees did little of their own music, but what was on the records was not all the collection of random hires from the musician’s union as I had suspected.  Some of those early Monkees tunes were actually the products of some of the best rock & roll musicians of the 1960s, a loose aggregation of players informally known as The Wrecking Crew.

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If you are not familiar with The Wrecking Crew, you owe yourself that treat.  I recently watched a documentary on the group  and discovered that the musicians I soaked up from my first album were really much more than the Monkees.  These were the musicians who provided a substantial majority of the soundtrack to my early life. The documentary is called The Wrecking Crew, and currently available for streaming on Netflix.  If you are at all interested in music, you simply must see it.

The Wrecking Crew was an elite group of “first call” musicians who worked the recording studios in and around Los Angeles, which had become the epicenter of popular music by the mid 1960s.  In contrast to the older generations of studio musicians who were jazz stalwarts, these young turks were of a tweener generation that was schooled in jazz but who became the go-to players as rock & roll took over.

The Wrecking Crew was the backbone of the west coast hit-making colossus of the ’60s, and was seemingly everywhere until well into the 1970s.  They were Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” behind his many groups like the Ronettes and the Crystals.  They backed Sonny & Cher, The Mamas and The Papas, Nancy Sinatra and Simon & Garfunkel.  Or, they could switch gears and accompany the likes of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.

Of course, we always knew that there were nameless, faceless musicians backing popular singers.  What we didn’t know was that when we listened to the records of Jan & Dean, The Association, the Grass Roots, the Fifth Dimension and the first two releases of The Byrds, we were really listening to The Wrecking Crew.  They were also Paul Revere’s Raiders, Kenny Rogers’ First Edition and Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass.  And we certainly didn’t know that they recorded almost all of the Beach Boys albums, including the 1965 masterpiece Pet Sounds.

If you were watching TV instead of listening to the radio, the Wrecking Crew was still front and center, bringing us theme songs from Hawaii Five-O, The Munsters, Get Smart, Bonanza, Batman and more others than I have room for here.

But back to The Monkees.  Or actually, back to the film about the musicians.  As some of the instrumentalists were discussing their work with (or actually “for”) The Monkees, the film offered a brief sampling of my favorite song from More of the Monkees: Mary, Mary, which was the third track on side 1.

Recorded in July of 1966 at Western Recorders studio in Hollywood, Mary, Mary was one of the few tracks on which any of the Monkees actually had some fingerprints, with Mike Nesmith having both written and produced the song.

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The session personnel would be duplicated on thousands of sessions in dozens of studios over many years, but this date featured the guitars of James Burton, Glen Campbell (yes, that Glen Campbell), Al Casey and Mike Deasy (in addition to Peter Tork, the only Monkee who might have been allowed to hold an instrument on this session.)  Actually, while some sources say that Tork played acoustic guitar, the union contract for that date notes that Tork was the only non-member of the union, which makes me doubt that he played at all.  Could he have been there solely for album credit and professional respect?  That is a question for those who have time to dig much further into this bit of trivia than I do.

Also playing were Larry Knechtel and Michael Cohen (piano), Bob West (bass), Jim Gordon & Gary Coleman (percussion) and the incomparable Hal Blaine (drums).  Blaine, it should be noted, may be the most recorded drummer in history, and counts among his credits playing on six consecutive winners of the Grammy Record of the Year Award from 1966 to 1971.  The only things keeping this session from featuring the entire first squad of the Crew were the absence of Tommy Tedesco’s guitar and Carol Kaye’s bass.  But with those exceptions, seven year old me was unknowingly treated to the work of some of the top west coast rockers of 1966.

Just take a listen to the track (which I have linked here for your musical education).  Once you get past the stupid-simple three chord arrangement and the Micky Dolenz’ vocal (which was not completely terrible) and listen to the music going on behind him, it will hit you just how good those guys were.  Although I am far from qualified as a rock critic, even I can tell how the two lead guitars simply sparkle, with enough improvisation to fill in the dull spots, but not so much as to overshadow the vocal.  Down low, the bassists and rhythm drive the thing like mad.  These guys played together all the time, and it showed in this track.  There was nothing ragged or sloppy going on in that studio.  This track is polished and crisp and even playful.  And all before the ability to electronically clean up and edit a recorded performance.

Look, I know that this isn’t great music by any stretch.  But there is certainly something to admire here.  It is sort of like a sirloin steak vs. a hamburger.  You expect to be impressed by a good steak.  However, when someone can take supermarket ground beef, a white bun and a pre-wrapped slice of Kraft “cheese” and turn it all into a truly good hamburger, that is something that not everyone can do.  This session took some really basic ingredients and made a really, really tasty experience for us to listen to, that I think still holds up quite well fifty years on.

The album was released on the Colgems label in early January of 1967, while the group was on tour, with no idea that the project was even in the works.  In fact, Mike Nesmith, stung by the way others had recorded and released music under the group’s name, called it one of the worst albums of all time.  Despite the ill feelings between the band members and musical director Don Kirchner, the album was number 1 in the charts for eighteen weeks and eventually sold over five million copies.  I was surely not the only second grader to buy one.

In listening to some of the other tracks again (for the first time in a  verrrry long time), I can perhaps say that Nesmith was not altogether wrong.  The album is really a mongrel composed of several disparate sessions which were already “in the can” for likely use in the TV show.  Only four of the twelve tracks involve The Wrecking Crew, and three of them are songs that not even musicians of their caliber can save.  There were some New York sessions involving Brill Building alums like Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka and Carole King. The rest were from another group of L.A. sessions which finished out the band’s early role as alter-ego for Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart.  These sessions involved an entirely different group of studio players (whose playing or enthusiasm rates, in my estimation, a notch or three down, with the exception of sole Wrecking Crew member Louie Shelton on guitar).  So let’s just say that if you are looking for noteworthy output of the Wrecking Crew on this album, the sole track of Mary, Mary is about as far as you need to go.

Another curiosity that Mary, Mary was never released as a single in the U.S., because it certainly sounds as though it should have done quite well, a top 20 at least.  It was, however, released as such in Australia in 1968 where it became a top 5 hit.  Did the band’s management conspire to keep Nesmith’s sessions off of the radio and out of the big money?  Given the bad blood brewing between them in 1967, this is not an unlikely scenario.

After this, I am both disappointed and vindicated, all at the same time.  Disappointed because for a moment, I thought that my first album would be a front-to-back display of the stellar musicianship that was The Wrecking Crew.  But no.  Still, my first music purchase is not a complete bust to this aging baby boomer, because there is at least one song on it that I can play too loudly from the stereo in my top-down Miata and still hold my head high (I’m not completely without standards).  And now that I know where more of the Crew’s output is to be found, I can listen afresh and start to appreciate their work in a way that I couldn’t before.  And now, so can you.

 

9 thoughts on “Wrecking The Monkees

  1. I listened to More of the Monkees this morning just to refresh my memory. My brother owned most of the Monkees albums so I’m very familiar with the music. Anyway, I haven’t heard this one in 25 years and listening to it with fresh ears and pushing the dopamine rush of nostalgia aside …. yeah, wow, many of these songs are weak, musically and lyrically.

    But who couldn’t like Your Auntie Grizelda?

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    • It had been longer than that since I listened to it, probably some time in the 80s. It’s funny paying attention to who wrote the songs. Now that I know which ones were written by Neil Diamond, Carole King, Neil Sedaka and Boyce & Hart, I can hear the writers’ voices and styles coming through them. I think Mary, Mary is the only decent song on the album that was not written by one of them, and even then mostly due to the performance.
      My poor mother listened to this soooo many times.

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  2. My mother had this album, so this was in a way was my first album too. With some perspective I think it holds up better than the first album I purchased with my own money (J Geils band Freeze Frame). My favorite track is Nesmith’s The Kind of Girl I Could Love which points toward his later solo work.

    I saw the Wrecking Crew documentary a few months ago, there’s a great clip with Peter Tork where he describes showing up at the studio with his guitar case and gets told to put that away because the music is already in the can, they just need vocals. And knowing what he knows now that’s how he would have done it at the time too.

    I kind of feel like the music industry threw the Monkees under the bus since they weren’t doing anything much different than many artists at the time, let alone how it’s done today. Of course within the next few years the assertiveness of artists along with increased availability of recording equipment meant a greatly reduced role for the studio musician.

    One area where the Wrecking Crew documentary falls short is in period photos and film, there just isn’t that much so they keep showing the same stills over and over.
    The Muscle Shoals documentary (also on Netflix) has much more actual footage of the musicians in action, and that is the next documentary you guys need to watch.

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    • The Kind of Girl I Could Love was another of the Wrecking Crew tracks on the album, and probably a big jump ahead of the other two that don’t do much for me.

      I agree that the Monkees took a lot of flak, but then again, they were the ones who let the cat out of the bag about not playing on their records. They were also probably indirectly responsible for the growth of groups that could actually play, which spelled the end of those hit factories.

      I would like to check out the Muscle Shoals movie.

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      • It’s not that bad, I was born in 67 and my mom was about 30 when she got the album. She also had the Elvis comeback album and Butterfield Blues Band “Keep on Moving”. Neither of these did anything for me, but we used to play “Love March” at 16 rpm on our old RCA record player and dissolve in peals of laughter.

        The 4 hour long Tom Petty documentary is also a great watch, although I did it in chunks over a week.

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      • I’m just a bit older … I was 10 when the Monkees hit the big time, and under the influence of an older sister I was getting intrigued by harder stuff, Stones, Kinks, etc. A few years later I did become a huge Paul Butterfield fan, but can’t imagine “Love March” at 16 rpm. Even at 33 it’s not one of their best.

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  3. I was born in ’69, so missed the Monkees the first time around. However they had a bit of a revival briefly in the mid ’80s when somebody (Nickelodeon maybe?) started rerunning the TV show.

    At that point, long past the initial hype, and the inevitable backlash, I was able to just enjoy their music for what it is, and I think your cheeseburger comparison is very apt. They weren’t exactly creating great art, but it isn’t all dreck either.

    Solid Pop music of the time, and probably about half a dozen songs are still in my playlists.

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  4. Another Monkees tune with very good guitar work is “For Pete’s Sake”, which served as their closing theme on the series. BTW , catch the PBS documentary about the Dave Clark Five ,”Glad All Over” – – two hours of pure enjoyment.

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