It took me awhile to really warm up to The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees, which was not only the band’s fifth studio album but their last commercially successful one. Their previous two records, Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., showed that they weren’t just pretty pusses plastered onto prepackaged product for pining pre-teens. They could not only sing, but they could write, perform, and produce their own songs — successfully so. But by the time sessions for TBTB&TM came about, there really wasn’t much in terms of pure band efforts being produced. Each member basically went off and recorded their own sessions separately — and one member barely appeared on the album at all except for one track (more on that when we get to it). The two most popular and memorable songs on the album weren’t even produced during these sessions… sort of (more on that when we get to them, promise).
The result is a disjointed and strangely bipolar album, one with some considerable highlights that are definitely worthy of any Monkees fan, but one that also remains their weakest to date. You’ll love half of it, and not care for the rest of it.
Dream World is an odd opener. Certainly it’s uptempo enough and Davy’s certainly sounds game for it, but it’s a bit of a flat, monotone bore. With all of the layered orchestrations — thick strings, responsive horns, and a harpsichord riff that centers the song — it remains strangely unengaging and shrug-inducing. Certainly not one Davy’s more memorable efforts. Auntie’s Muncipal Court sounds and feels like pure Mike Nesmith, from the jangly guitar intro to the gee-whizzical lyrics and country-fried pop vibe (Nesmith co-wrote the song with Keith Allison), but Micky handles vocal duties on this number. I think it would have been better suited with Mike’s vocals, with the country elements more earnestly ramped up (the psychedelic outro is bolted on as an uncomfortably-fitting afterthought).
We Were Made For Each Other is pure Davy Jones cheese, and not in a good way. Listen, I have a predilection for fromage the likes of which would make various members of Pablo Cruise blush, but this is just a flimsy, overproduced, embarrassingly written schmaltz fest. “We were made for each other / As the stars were made for the sky / We were made for each other / No other love have I…” Yeesh. Even the most simperingly insipid of lyrics can work if the tune has an echo of memorable musicality, but that’s not the case here. This is a Davy low point.
Tapioca Tundra is kind of a quizzical thing. Mike took an old poem he wrote, put it to music, layered on some haunting bullhorn/gramophone-ish lyrics, topped it off with more jangly guitars, and the end result doesn’t really work, except as a mere atonal curiosity. Sadly, that makes this mediocre track by far the most memorable track on the album… at least, up until now. Because coming up next is the juggernaut Monkees single Daydream Believer, which in my mind stands as one of the greatest and most enjoyable pop songs ever recorded. Everyone’s heard it nearly half a zillion times this morning alone, forget over the course of a lifetime, but for my money it never gets old. The lyrics are sweet, simple, and the song doesn’t just wear its heart on its sleeve; its entire circulatory system is moonlighting as a performance-fleece hoodie. Nonetheless, Daydream Believer utterly disarms you with its catchiness and harmonies like warm maple syrup over… well, over anything, really. Go to any Monkees show and listen to an entire sold-out audience sing this in unison in memory of Davy Jones. Not a dry seat in the house, lemme tell you.
Daydream Believer also features the ONLY appearance by Peter Tork on the album. He’s playing that catchy piano riff throughout the tune. This song was also the band’s last #1 hit, topping the charts for four weeks in December 1967 (it hit #5 in the UK as well). It was originally recorded for the previous album, then released as a separate single, and finally as an album track here.
Writing Wrongs is like Tapioca Tundra, but even stranger. We have the hollow hallway vocals from Mike again, which leads into a jazzy, semi-experimental midsection before returning to the dirge-like movement that opens the song. It’s a more interesting experiment than Tapioca Tundra, but it doesn’t make for that much more of an interesting song. It’s certainly a conscious swerve away from “safer” or, perhaps, more predictable Monkees material, but the song feels like mere psychedlic doodling from Mike (he’s the only band member on the track, with two studio musicians on bass and drums).
Side 2 opens with I’ll Be Back Up on My Feet, which if nothing else feels like someone, ANYONE, is trying to remember that The Monkees can do all the artful experimentation they want, but sometimes you just need to sell cars too. It’s a poppy number that was originally supposed to appear all the way back on More of The Monkees, and finally makes an appearance here. It’s not a particularly memorable song, but it is an acceptable and enjoyable one. OK at best, filler at worst.
Davy co-wrote The Poster, and maybe that’s the reason why it’s his strongest non-Daydream Believer song on the album. While the track remains squarely in his “Artful Dodger”-cutesy-showman wheelhouse, it definitely plays to Jones’s strengths as a performer. His vocals are stronger and more confident; you can really feel him believing this tune. I love the way the verses build into a memorable chorus; it’s a catchy arrangement. Also more engaging is Micky’s turn on Boyce and Hart’s P.O. Box 9847, which sounds more traditionally Monkees-esque that perhaps all of the non-singles and album tracks. While it retains some of the psychedelia elements of the times — string arrangements, tack piano, trippy vocals — well, to paraphrase Totie Fields outing of Gene Simmons as a Hebrew on the Mike Douglas show in 1974, “you just can’t hide the hook”. No matter how you dress it up, you can’t disguise pure Monkees pop. And why would you want to?
A false country/western start brings us into the vaudeville crooning of Magnolia Simms. Mike is making no bones about his aspirations here: his vocals are processed with an old-timey microphone feel, with prefabricated vinyl pops and scratches all over the recording. Is it novelty? No question. Does it work? I think so. I have a weak spot for this kind of material (e.g. Paul McCartney’s “You Gave Me The Answer” from Venus and Mars, which is such a great Fred Astaire homage that I refuse to refer to it — or anything I like, really — as a “guilty pleasure”.) The phony skipping and needle jump at the end of the track is unnecessary. The song has already given a full measure of kitsch while still remaining strong on its own; that little bit of studio fudging steers it directly into Dr. Demento territory, which it doesn’t need. Oh well.
Valleri is classic Monkees, pure and simple. A colorful, energetic symbiosis of Boyce & Hart’s pop craftsmanship with slightly off-kilter production values of the era (the punchy brass section, flamenco-influenced electric guitar, etc.) this is one of the band’s best known singles. Perhaps somewhat tellingly, this is the second released recording of the song; the first was used a year earlier in an episode of the TV show. I’ve always loved Valleri, especially Louie Shelton’s guitar work and that hell of a chorus. The single went up to #3 on the Billboard 100 in February 1968, and why not? It’s simply a great pop single. Finally, it’s real easy to laugh at the simple “Suppose They Gave A War and Nobody Came” cliches that run rampant all over Zor and Zam, but it’s a strong closer to the album. Micky totally nails it with an assured vocal performance, while the rolling snare drums, punchy brass and strings, and overall arrangement makes this a quick but potent polemic reflective of the times.
The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees is a strangely structured album. It opens up poorly, with Daydream Believer being a stellar highlight on an otherwise mediocre-to-poor Side 1. Side 2, however, is where the album really shines. Even without the popular Valleri as a highlight, there’s a host of quality album tracks in The Poster, P.O. Box 9847, and Zor and Zam. Even the novelty-ish Magnolia Simms is a fun listen. Only the serviceable I’ll Be Back Up on My Feet does not stand out on Side 2. Still, it’s a shame that half of the album isn’t worth bothering with… The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees definitely has its strengths and charms, but even with its experimentation and studio exploration, it remains the band’s weakest album thus far.