The 1966 debut release of The Monkees is an oddity, not so much because of the quality of its contents, but in its overall creation and “purpose” as an album. It all depends on how you look at it. Is it a “band” effort? Not in the strictest sense of the word, as the assembled “band” simply consists of studio musicians and outside songwriters (predominantly Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart), with three of the four “Monkees “providing lead vocals for each song. Peter Tork only shows up doing backing vocals on 2 tracks… Tommy Boyce himself is far more prevalent on this album than poor Pete, and Pete was easily the most accomplished musician in the band! (Michael often lamented that Peter should have been the group’s “guitarist”, as he was a far better player)
Nope, no matter how you slice it, The Monkees isn’t a “band” effort. So was it just product to capitalize and perpetuate on the popularity of the smash NBC sitcom of the same name? Ostensibly, it sure as hell was. The show’s producers brought the legendary Don Kirshner in to make sure the album would have enough catchy hits to leverage all the TV buzz and make bazillions. To Kirshner’s credit, he could have made a record equivalent of throwaway merchandise. An audio lunchbox, coloring book, teen mag, action figure… whatever. But Kirshner took more of a quality approach, and grabbed a bunch of staff songwriters from his stable of talent. Talent that included Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, Carole King, Neil Diamond, and many others. Sure they had to grind out dozens of pop songs on a very quick, demanding schedule, but they maintained a consistent level of quality where they could have recorded a bunch of disposable junk, slapped a Monkee label on it, and called it a day.
So yeah, maybe the debut Monkees album isn’t a band effort, and maybe it is just little more than product. But it’s also a great slice of 60s pop, with quality songs, fine arrangements, memorable hooks and great playing all around. Sure there are some “fluff” — (Theme From) The Monkees is silly (but let’s face it, iconic silliness) and the loose, spontaneous fun of Gonna Buy Me A Dog is throwaway (but admittedly fun as hell), but the rest of the (relatively short) album is a really great listen. The pleasing vocal arrangements on This Just Doesn’t Seem To Be My Day are beautifully contrasted against the Eastern-tinged guitar riffs linking the choruses. Killer songs like the slightly sinister-sounding Saturday’s Child and the Motownish rocker “Let’s Dance On” are so good they make you forget the clunkiness of the altogether mawkish I’ll Be True To You. The thump of Sweet Young Thing is highlighted by Michael’s Texan affectations and a heavier, almost proto-metalish beat.
And of course we have the evergreen hits Last Train To Clarksville and Papa Gene’s Blues. Oldies radio has killed Clarksville but it remains a fine song, and Papa Gene’s is the true standout of the album, a wonderful piece of country-tinged harmonies and simple, heartfelt lyrics.
Overall I think this is a pretty wonderful little album. Not a classic, no, but superb 60s pop that easily stands up to repeated listens. At half an hour in length, it’s probably over far too quickly for modern audiences. For that alone, I can’t recommend the Rhino’s two-disc deluxe edition enough for fans. Not only do you get the album in both stereo and mono, there’s a wealth of alternate takes, bonus tracks, radio spots, even a Kellogg’s commercial and the TV version of the theme song. It is unfortunately out of print, but if you can grab an affordable copy in the used market, go ahead and grab it with both hands.