Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Shock the Monkee to Life

I never anticipated doing a post about The Monkees on this blog. But the breadth of attention about today’s passing of the group’s Brit heart-throb, Davy Jones, has been surprising in the reactions it has elicited from a wide variety of sources – both professional and personal.

For me, it holds meaning mainly in that The Monkees were part of my very first introduction to pop music. Given the times (the early 1970s), they were a gestational checkpoint on a hard-to-avoid course. I inherited the group’s first two LP's from my older sister, and I remember digging a handful of their tunes – spinning them on my first record player, a blue-grey RCA flip top. (I’d now be tempted to quip: “Remember those?” except for the fact that my 17-year-old daughter just bought a record player, so they’re not quite time-capsule relics yet!)

Among the tunes that I remember “monkey-ing around” with – and which still hold up to varying degrees today depending on your perspective in the moment – were the band’s pop-rock classics “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer” and “The Porpoise Song.” Then, of course, there was also the ludicrously elementary appeal of “Gonna Buy Me a Dog” and “Your Auntie Grizelda.”

OK, so, yes, it was hot-shit session musicians cranking out those tunes that the master songwriting duo Boyce & Hart delivered in bunches, but The Monkees were, in fact, musicians themselves – well, three out of the four were (ironically Jones, the most accomplished among the group in acting, was the least musical, contributing adequate backing vocals and tambourine, but excelling in the teen idol department). And, despite the group’s growing frustrations, the boys played along with the fame game – for a while.

The foundation of the whole premise – and where Jones, in particular, excelled – was The Monkees’ campy TV show, which was in syndication by the time I was viewing it, but it was still recent enough to merit frequent showing. Hence, I saw it quite often for a while there. (There were only a half dozen or so channels to choose from in the early ’70s!)

In recent years, there have been many interesting dissections of The Monkees’ phenomenon: the concept of a manufactured pop band, their revolt against the powers that created them and their musical talents. Among these, two stand out to me in terms of balancing the nostalgic fervor with the underlying issues:

• The excellent Sound Opinions podcast out of Chicago did an episode on these aspects in April 2011.

• Throwing Muses’ songstress and solo artist Kristen Hersh, who I’ve long admired, today posted a link to a lengthy and thoughtful blog post she did three years ago about the band. Though not about today’s news, her post (read it here) puts The Monkees’ real legacy in a perspective that is unknown or lost among many music fans.

And, in the end, didn’t everyone kind of want to say: “Screw you!” to Don Kirshner? The Monkees did it!

R.I.P., Davy

• Not to be outdone, if you’re interested in more on The Monkees’ influence upon others, checkout this KEXP-FM collection of Monkees’ tunes videos from wide array of artists.

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