IT IS NOW an accepted fact of rock lore that The Monkees’ early 1967 album Headquarters is a masterpiece of ’60s pop. Given the minor critical regard accorded the Monkees throughout the ’70s, ’80s and much of the ’90s, any clawing back of respect is a good thing. However, ‘masterpieces’ can be a problem for any band, tending to imply that all their other albums are, well, a bit diminished in comparison.
Few bands have been immune to this. Was it just around suburban Merseyside in the 1970s that families chucked out all their Beatles vinyl apart from Sgt. Pepper because, you know, that was “the good one”. As a result, of this ‘masterpiece effect’ genuinely startling albums – like the Monkees’ other 1967 belter Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd – can get overlooked while fascinating collections of damaged weirdness like The Monkees Present – are dismissed as outright rubbish.
OK, it’s certainly a mess. Peter Tork had already left, buying out his contract in early 1969. The first post-Tork release, Instant Replay had been a grab-bag of old and new tracks, yet still peppered with magic, particularly Mike Nesmith’s Byrdsian While I Cry and his cover of Goffin & King’s I Won’t Be The Same Without Her (also brilliantly covered by The Twilights).
Present was, in fact, the scrag-end of a project that had begun when Tork was still in the band, a post ‘White Album’ double LP concept that gave over one side to each Monkee. With Tork gone Monkees bosses Colgems picked through Micky, Davy and Mike’s submissions and presented their own version of the threesome’s songwriting identities. Like The Walker Brothers’ Nite Flights, this approach tended to favour the abilities of some members over others.
Mike Nesmith’s tracks, however, are all country pop delights. The joyous sound of a singer preparing to fly the coop and make a bid for artistic freedom, Nesmith’s contributions are best exemplified by the glorious Listen To The Band.
Originally the flip-side to April 1969’s Someday Man single, Listen To The Band was reissued as the A-side after Colgems noticed that DJs were favouring the Nesmith tune over Davy Jones’ admittedly gorgeous Paul Williams cover. Check out this epic nine-minute version of Listen To The Band, from the Monkees’ TV swan-song/death letter 33 ⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee.
From that little Hendrix/Hey Joe guitar-lick onwards, this is Mike Nesmith’s triumphant auto-destructive moment, the Monkees coming together as real musicians whilst simultaneously falling apart as a marketing concept, their pop simplicity pummelled into submission by the need to validate themselves alongside the heavy rock expressionism of Brian Auger and Buddy Miles. Nesmith, at least, appears happy. Jones dances to his own rhythm, like some miniature vaudeville hoofer from a Nathaniel West pipe dream. Peter Tork, in his last appearance as a Colgems Monkee, just looks lost and alone, while Dolenz fares little better, diminished by Mr. Buddy Miles huge presence.
But let’s not write off Dolenz completely. His contributions to Present – Bye Bye Baby Bye Bye, Little Girl and Mommy And Daddy – are remarkable. Like some disturbing cross between the grim solicitations of Harry Nilsson, the Child Catcher and the darker fantasies of the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, Dolenz’s cuts are sinister, whispered nursery rhymes, where The Monkees squeaky clean TV image gets pulled through the dirt, and images of childhood innocence and American history are pushed into nightmare: “Ask your mommy if she really gets off on all her pills/Ask your Daddy… Would it matter if the bullet went through my head?/If it was my blood spilling on the kitchen floor/Scream it to your mommy and daddy/They're living in a lie.”
Included as part of a conceptual side-long suite, Dolenz’s tracks might have made a kind of wild ‘theatrical’ sense. Floating free alongside Jones and Nesmith’s pop and country, they genuinely creep you out.
After this, the fab three Monkees had a few more things to do contractually, before Nesmith too flew the coop (“A Nerf’s e-Nerf!”). And then there were two. 1970’s Changes is an album I’ve now come round to – it’s an OK little soft-pop gem (and the space between Jones and Dolenz on that cover kinda break your heart) - but Present? Present is far too weird and strange to be dismissed as merely OK. It’s one of the great damaged wonders of late ’60s pop. Seek it out.