Thanksgiving is coming up this Thursday, and like most of you, I’m thinking about what I’m thankful for this year. And, in a world that’s getting scarier and more infuriating by the day, one of the things I’m most thankful for is all the fun stuff that offers a bit of escape. Which is why this week I’m talking about the Monkees, That Thing You Do!, Adam Schlesinger, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
The concept behind the Monkees was one of those ideas that was so simple it was genius: Capitalize on Beatlemania and the 1960s youth movement by making a TV series about a struggling band. The actor/musicians would record songs that would be played on the show, so the show would promote the group’s albums, and vice versa.
And it worked. Producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider put together a funny, irreverent, and innovative program that regularly broke the fourth wall, winning the Emmy for Best Comedy Series in 1967. For their four struggling musicians, they shrewdly cast Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith, and Peter Tork, two actors and two musicians, who each brought a distinctive personality to the project. Director James Frawley trained the four in improvisational comedy, so that they’d be loose and spontaneous on camera. For the music, Rafelson and Schneider hired Don Kirshner, “The Man With The Golden Ear,” who made use of the Brill Building stable of songwriters such as Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart, Gerry Coffin & Carole King, and Neil Diamond. And for reasons of both quality and efficiency, on their early records the Monkees were limited to just providing vocals over the musical tracks others played on.
But again, it worked. As popular as the TV show was, the music became even bigger. And with weekly TV exposure for each new single they released, the Monkees were HUGE. At the height of their fame, they outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined.
(2020 EDIT: Since I originally wrote this column in 2016, I’ve discovered that this is actually yet another urban myth about the Monkees. Mike Nesmith admitted on Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast in 2018 that he simply made that “fact” up around 1966 because he wanted to see how far a fake news item could travel before it was debunked. Since it’s still being believed 50+ years later, I think we can safely say that the answer is “Pretty damn far.”)
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Before long, the Monkees started getting a lot of flack in the press for their manufactured origins. They weren’t real musicians, people said. They were just four random guys plucked from obscurity to be on a TV show. Other people like Don Kirshner were behind those Monkees records. The Monkees weren’t musicians who wrote and performed all their own material, like the Beatles or Bob Dylan.
Now, here’s what impresses me about the Monkees: It would have been the easiest thing in the world for them to just shut up and keep doing what they were told, but instead they decided to stand up for themselves. They wanted more control over their musical identities. They wanted a say in what songs were chosen to be Monkees recordings, and they wanted to play their own instruments. They wanted to be legit. And they were ready to battle the studio to prove that they could be.
And, with the backing of Rafelson and Schneider, they won. The egotistical and controlling Don Kirshner was removed as the Monkees music producer, and Dolenz, Jones, Tork, and Nesmith were allowed to prove their worth on the album Headquarters, one of the best of their 60s records.
When their television show was cancelled after the second season, the Monkees floundered for a bit. They made a movie, Head, that tried to skewer their bubblegum image, but it was a massive flop. A TV special, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee, was no more successful. Tork quit the group in 1969, followed by Nesmith the next year. Dolenz and Jones released one album as a duo before finally calling it quits in 1970. The Monkees phenomenon was over.
That should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t.
1986 was the Monkees’ 20th anniversary, and what started as a small celebration led to a massive Monkees revival. MTV and Nickelodeon started rerunning the show, and it became a hit with a whole new generation. Dolenz, Jones, and Tork reunited for a tour that grew in popularity as it went along. The ever-busy Nesmith even joined them for a few shows.
Since then, the Monkees have re-formed and toured in various configurations. Mike Nesmith came back for the group’s 30th anniversary in 1996 to record an album called Justus, written and performed by the four Monkees only. Nesmith also wrote and directed a 1997 TV special, Hey, Hey, It’s The Monkees, with the clever conceit that the Monkees TV show never stopped making new episodes after it went off the air in 1968.
The reunited foursome toured the U.K., but the reunion dissolved into acrimony when Nesmith failed to show up for rehearsals for the U.S. leg of the tour. The remaining three stuck together, until Tork was fired by Dolenz and Jones during the 35th anniversary reunion tour in 2001.
Dolenz, Jones, and Tork resolved their differences in time for a 45th anniversary tour in 2011, which sadly proved to be Jones’ last.
After Davy Jones’ unexpected death in 2012, the surviving three Monkees came together once again. Amazingly, Michael Nesmith agreed to go on tour with Micky and Peter. Not just a few token dates, either. A full-blown, multi-city tour. Nesmith apparently had so much fun that he agreed to a couple more tours beyond that. For most Monkees fans, this was their first opportunity to see Mike play with the band since the 1960s. And the concerts were great — Terrific music, fun banter among the band, even some touching tributes to Davy Jones, with his trademark song “Daydream Believer” transformed into an audience singalong.
And for the Monkees’ 50th anniversary this year, we got Good Times!, the first new Monkees album in 20 years. You could be forgiven for not expecting much. After all, the three surviving members are all in their 70s now. They’re basically a nostalgia group with their biggest hits several decades behind them. What more could they possibly be expected to do to add to their legacy?
But once again the Monkees have exceeded expectations. This album is one of the best collections of pop music I’ve heard in years, and certainly the Monkees’ best record since the 60s. I’ve been listening to it non-stop since the summer.
The first single from Good Times! is “She Makes Me Laugh”, written by Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo. The clever video uses art from the Dell Monkees comic book by one of my old Kubert School instructors, José Delbo.
Here’s the second single, “You Bring The Summer”, written by Andy Partridge of XTC:
One of my favorites from the new album is “Love to Love,” a Davy Jones number written by Neil Diamond that went unreleased in the aftermath of the Don Kirshner ouster. I’m sure that if this came out in 1967, it would have been a massive hit:
Here’s a fan-edited video for “Birth of an Accidental Hipster,” written by Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller:
There’s no question that it’s a strong album all around. But you know what I find the coolest about the Monkees? They’ve endured for so long that none of the criticisms of them matter any more. They were just a shallow rip-off/parody of the Beatles? Hell, in the wake of Beatlemania, who wasn’t? They were a manufactured group? Yeah, and so were the Backstreet Boys, the Spice Girls, *NSYNC, and Destiny’s Child. They didn’t play on their own albums? Practically everyone uses session musicians these days. They didn’t write all of their own songs? So what? They’re great songs.
And now with Good Times!, the Monkees have finally come full circle, putting their vocals on pop tracks written by some of the world’s best songwriters. And it’s gotten them a new hit album, 50 years after their first. They’re legit. They’ve got nothing left to prove.
Good Times! was produced by Adam Schlesinger, who you may remember from the band Fountains of Wayne and the song “Stacy’s Mom.” I feel a bit of identification with Schlesinger and Fountains of Wayne. Schlesinger is from Montclair, NJ, where I frequently perform stand-up, and FoW took their name from an outdoor furniture store in Wayne, NJ that I passed by every day during my commute home from 1998-2005.
Schlesinger’s breakthrough came in 1996, when he wrote the title track for the Tom Hanks movie That Thing You Do!:
The song was supposed to sound like something that could have been a hit during the summer of 1964, and it succeeds brilliantly. You hear “That Thing You Do!” in one form or another about a half dozen times during the movie, and yet somehow, you never get sick of it. That’s a pretty impressive feat of songwriting.
Researching this column, I discovered that Schlesinger has written or co-written songs for several projects I’ve enjoyed over the years, like the soundtrack to the Josie and the Pussycats movie, the Comedy Central special A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift Of All!, and even Neil Patrick Harris’s opening number from the 2011 Tonys, “It’s Not Just For Gays Anymore.”
These days, Schlesinger is writing songs for one of my favorite television shows, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on the CW. If you haven’t seen it, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a one-hour musical comedy series starring the Golden Globe-winning Rachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch, a lawyer who moves across the country in hopes of reuniting with her childhood boyfriend Josh. Bloom has described the show as Ally McBeal meets Flight of the Conchords. I say it’s basically The Monkees with emotionally damaged people. Here’s the theme song from Season 1, available on Netflix:
Josh’s best friend Greg also develops feelings for Rebecca, which he expresses in the Emmy-nominated song “Settle For Me,” co-written by Schlesinger, Bloom, and Jack Dolgen:
Here’s “I’m A Good Person,” one of my favorite numbers from the first season. I’m embedding the Explicit version because it’s even funnier than the one that aired on TV. So warning, naughty words ahead:
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s songs cover a broad spectrum of musical genres, and they typically nail each one. Here’s the explicit version of “JAP Battle”, a rap battle between Rebecca and her childhood nemesis, another Jewish American Princess who’s grown up to be her opposing counsel:
The show works because Bloom and her co-creators understand the secret of doing a great musical: It’s not enough for the songs to be good. The songs also have to work with the story, and they have to express what the characters are feeling. And Crazy Ex-Girlfriend never tacks on a song that doesn’t relate to their characters and their situations.
Here’s “I Could If I Wanted To”, another Greg number sung by the great Santino Fontana. It’s just over two minutes long, but it teaches you more about his character than most other shows manage in an hour. It’s also a song that I identify with WAY more than I should:
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has catchy songs, appealing leads, touching moments, and it’s funny as hell, too. What more do you want? It’s currently airing at 9pm Eastern Friday nights on the CW. Check it out if you like good stuff.
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Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and see you next week!