Album Review: “Headquarters” — The Monkees (1967)

blgHeadquartersAfter two albums that were designed and marketed as tie-in product for the television show, The Monkees really had something to prove. To their audience, to rock critics, to themselves maybe, but they were hungry to contribute more of their own talents to their albums. That’s not to say Monkees and More of the Monkees were subpar albums. Indeed, they were actually quite impressive slices of mid-60s pop, no matter who wrote the songs or provided the backing tracks.

Well, they got their wish. Musical producer and pop svengali Don Kirschner was kicked to the curb, and producer Chip Douglas worked with the band (while still employing studio musicians and outside songwriters) to create Headquarters, the band’s May 1967 album and widely considered to be one of the best albums — if not THE best album — in their catalog.

Each member brought their talents to the fore on Headquarters. Michael Nesmith really came into prominence, writing and singing lead on three of his own songs. Peter Tork wrote a Monkees favorite tune and brought his multi-instrument mastery into the studio, playing keyboards, guitar, bass, and banjo on multiple tracks. Mickey Dolenz played some guitar and while his drumming skills weren’t quite there yet — he learned drums on the fly as part of the band — his skin-pounding skills in development are still featured on the album. He also sang on five tracks on wrote the album’s classic closer. Davy stuck with vocals and his usual percussion (tambourine, maracas, and the like), but brought his A-Game regardless. While there are some studio musicians utilized during the production, and half of the 14 tracks were written by others, this was the band’s first attempt at a real BAND production.

And what a production it is! Headquarters ended up as a really strong album, hitting #1 on the charts before getting bumped the next week by some Sgt. Pepper’s album. It stayed at #2 for weeks, and ended up selling over 11 million copies worldwide. The result was a commercial and artistic triumph for The Monkees.

Mike tweaks The Beatles’s Revolver opener with the opening track “You Told Me”. Like “Taxman”, it begins with a count-in (a rather comical one, of course) and features a similar bassline, but this song is wholly it’s own beast. Peter’s driving banjo cadences root the song, which, along with Nez’s Texas vocal stylings, compliments the rocking drive of the song with a country flavor. The sweet pop melodies on the chorus strengthen the song considerably.

The country influences continues with Boyce and Hart’s “I’ll Spend My Life With You”, a sweet shuffler of a tune wonderfully delivered by Micky, highlighted by some slick slide-guitar work and sharp harmonies. “Forget That Girl”, sung by Davy, is an agreeable song but not a favorite. It has a soft, lounge vibe that picks up a little in the bridge, but overall it’s a pleasant diversion at best. Davy definitely gives it all, vocally.

“Band 6” is a throwaway, an instrumental studio outtake that was allegedly influenced by the Bugs Bunny/Road Runner theme song. Not much to it, really, and 40 seconds later it’s gone. Thankfully the superb “You Just May Be The One” clears the air, a top-notch pop track from Nez that is a near-perfect song. It hits that sweet uptempo spot of 60s chime and vocal harmonies. It’s a short one at a length of two minutes, but it’s some of the best two minutes of pop you’ll ever enjoy.

“Shades of Gray” continues the album’s winning streak. A soft, mournful ode to lost innocence and the obfuscation of carefree objectivity, the track — written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil — features both Davy and Peter sharing lead vocals by trading off on verses. The instrumental midsection might be my favorite part of the song, as I always have had a soft spot for baroque pop of the strings and French Horn variety. The dance hall shuffle of “I Can’t Get Her Off Of My Mind” finishes out Side 1 of the album. It plays to Davy’s strength as an all-purpose showman, showcasing his adroitness with this type of rather older-fashioned material. The “Western Saloon” styled keyboards have a nifty appeal, and while the song isn’t a favorite I like it well enough.

Peter wrote the Side 2 opener, and Nez named it when Pete couldn’t come up with a title. Most people know “For Pete’s Sake” as the song playing over the television show closing credits. Sung by Micky, it’s a fine pop song of the mid-60s variety. I love the walking bassline on this track, as well as the “We gotta be free” outro. Good tune. The Simon & Garfunkel-derivation of “Mr. Webster”, on the other hand, leaves me ice cold. The tale of an overworked, under-appreciated bank worker who retires and steals all the bank’s money is not particularly compelling. The vocals drenched in excessive reverb are a bit too cliched for my tastes, and the melody is pretty flat.

Nez returns with his patented brand of country-flavored pop with “Sunny Girlfriend”, and while it’s a fine tune it’s probably my least favorite of the three songs he wrote and sang on Headquarters… which to me is the very opposite of ‘damning with faint praise’, as all three of his compositions are superb. This one is a fine uptempo rocker, that washes away any lingering meh that “Mr. Webster” left behind.

“Zilch” is a rhythmic spoken-word exercise from the entire band, and it’s kind of cute and clever while also being entirely unessential. I actually became familiar with the “Mr. Dobalina, Mr. Bob Dobalina” refrain more from the 1991 hip-hop track “Mistadobalina” by Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, without even realizing it came from “Zilch” until decades later. Funny how that works. But never mind all that, because the whole band brings out their best Chuck Berry with “No Time”, 12-bar-blues rocker with utterly nonsensical lyrics referencing who knows what, and a chorus that invites as much back-and-forth sing-along as humanly possible. Micky is having a blast with this song, and you can utterly feel it throughout the entire track.

The band takes it down a notch with the silky yet funky “Early Morning Blues And Greens”, a beautiful rendition of a song written by Diane Hildebrand and Jack Keller and originally meant for Peter to sing (Davy ended up taking on the lead vocals). It’s a rich, mellow midtempo number, contemplative yet with some real soul behind it. Dig those groovy psychedelic keyboards that close out the number!

The album ends with one of Micky’s compositions, the rousing “Randy Scouse Git”. A kettle drum opening leads into more saloon-styled piano, and Micky’s vocals bust in to take the song off in a ribald tale of mid-60s Kensington Street debauchery (with a not so subtle reference to an evening hanging out with The Beatles themselves). The tune is catchy as hell, with some spirited scatting during the midsection and a powerful chorus laced with self-righteous fervor and most righteous rock urgency. A fine ending to a great album.

The Monkees really raised their game with Headquarters. While not the type of “band effort” that would convince their most ardent critics — and there were still plenty — that they were a legitimate musical entity, it still showed that Messrs. Dolenz, Jones, Nesmith, and Tork could not only bring just their vocals, but also their own songs, lyrics, arrangements, musical performances, verve, energy, and personality to the mix. Headquarters is a fine album, and well worth your listening pleasure.

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