By 1968, The Monkees had passed their zenith as a commercial entity. Their April album release The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees earned considerable success (although less successful than their previous five albums), selling over a million copies and featured their hits “Valleri” and “Daydream Believer”. From that point on? Things weren’t quite so rosy. NBC canceled their weekly TV show earlier that spring, ending a brief but spirited two-season run. The band spent much of that time filming their brilliantly exciting (if hilariously dated) movie Head, which was a huge commercial disaster upon release in November.
In December they filmed their one-hour television special 33⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee, which — if you’ve seen it, and I have — is about as kitschy a piece of awfulness as could possibly be imagined, even by 1969 network television standards. That is to say, it’s really, really bad, but watchably bad, scattered with occasional outbursts of amazingness in a sea of wretched wtf’isms. The network delayed the show and aired it opposite the 1969 Academy Awards. It flopped miserably, and that was enough for Peter Tork. He left the band soon after filming the special, and didn’t participate in their first 1969 LP, Instant Replay, an uneven but still very worthwhile album for Monkees fans to discover.
I suppose you could say the same for their second 1969 release, The Monkees Present. For all intents and purposes, it’s a fine companion piece to Instant Replay. It features the same three Monkees (although Michael Nesmith left the band after this record), and each member mostly worked entirely on their own with very limited collaboration with the others. And like the previous record, The Monkees Present contained a few songs that had been previously recorded during their 1966 sessions for earlier albums, now dusted off and delivered for their 1969 audiences to enjoy.
The record was not a success. They released two singles: “Listen To The Band” and “Good Clean Fun”. While neither made the Top 40, the former grew to become a Monkees stalwart, making rounds on all the Greatest Hits albums and maintaining its status as a concert favorite. Otherwise the album disappointed, barely skimming the charts at #100 and, in essence, driving the penultimate nail into The Monkees pre-syndicated coffin.
As a record on its own, though, it is still an interesting find. You can split the album in to four distinct factions: Michael’s country rock/Nashville proclivities, Davy’s MOR balladeering, Micky’s experimental forays into jazzy bits, rhythmic foot-stompers, even childlike psychedelia, and finally the aforementioned Songs From Monkees Past.
We’ll start with Micky’s contributions, and he kicks off the record with “Little Girl”, a breezy, uptempo jazz number with some of the tastiest guitar playing ever expressed on any Monkees track, thanks to the fantastic fretwork of Louie Shelton (who contributed those unforgettable flamenco-styled licks to “Valleri”). It’s an enjoyable track that is in and out before it can truly register; at two minutes in length it disappears into ephemera just as quickly as it arrives.
“Bye Bye Baby Bye Bye” almost feels like a Michael tune, as the central motif is very Country/Western-sounding (especially with its banjo and harmonica backbone), but it plays to Micky’s strengths as a showman/entertainer as he sells it with energy and verve. It’s a fine vocal performance, with some trippy, layered background vocals from both Micky and Davy that made the track sound fresh and contemporary in 1969. Shelton is on guitar again, and he acquits himself really well (his presence would be felt on almost every album track).
“Mommy and Daddy” is Micky performing a protest piece with a rhythmic American Indian-styled theme. The song doesn’t really work at all. It comes across as simplistic and dated by today’s standards, but as a piece of music it’s a bit too smug and condescending to be of real interest; Micky’s child-like vocal affectation is particularly grating, and musically it doesn’t really go anywhere of interest. While Micky continues in a bit of that vocal vein with “Pillow Time”, a bluesy shuffler of a lullaby, this song is much more agreeable than “Mommy and Daddy”. Featuring more impressive guitarwork from Shelton, it’s an interesting and enjoyable album closer.
Michael seems to be prepping for his transition from The Monkees to his next group, The First National Band, setting the majority of his work square in Nashville, with a brief dusting of Hollywood on top. The hoe-down feel of “Good Clean Fun” is a hoot, an uptempo country rocker with incredible swing and energy, replete with banjo, fiddle, and steel guitar, all of this rooted by a strong vocal performance from Nesmith. This is a great song, perhaps the best track on the album.
“Never Tell A Woman Yes” is Mike doing his best old-time vaudeville, and it’s another winning number that is only brought down a peg by its length; it goes on just a bit too long. Still, Nesmith thoroughly sells it. Full of charm and character and with a zippy ending that features him scatting away, you can’t help but like this number.
I also dig the soulful, bluesy country verve of “Oklahoma Backroom Dancer”, which features the same pedigree as the Monkees classic “What Am I Doin’ Hangin’ Round”: written by Michael Martin Murphey and sung by Nesmith. With that much talent and proven success, it’s no real surprise that the song is as good as it is. And it’s damn good.
That makes for a fine lead-in to discussing Michael’s final album track, “Listen To The Band”. A Monkees classic, this midtempo slice of Nashville country mixed with Hollywood pop is a winning combination, although I’d be remiss not to observe that the horn section does sound a bit too late 60s/early 70s, and the applause at the song’s outro feels cheesy and self-congratulatory, but that’s nitpicking isn’t it? Ah I suppose so.
Davy contributes two new songs to The Monkees Present, and is also featured on the two songs from previous sessions. The older songs are a bit of a mess; I can see why they were cast aside for a while. Erstwhile Monkees songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart composed “Looking For The Good Times” during the More Of The Monkees sessions. I read a review elsewhere online that likened the song to something The Association might have recorded, and that’s not far off-base an observation. Except that it’s even less interesting than The Association, and that’s saying a lot. There’s a lazy, generic feel to the track, with nothing memorable about it save for some interesting harmonies between Davy and Micky.
The second previously recorded song is “Ladies Aid Society”, also written by Boyce and Hart and sung by Davy. Yeesh. The number ostensibly deals with the travails of the titular organization, a do-gooder society of senior citizen women aimed to eradicate anything fun or interesting or perverse or what-have-you. It’s… embarrassing, especially given the falsetto chorus and oom-pah-pah brass section. I read on Wikipedia that this band attempted to emulate The Kinks’s bucolic spirit, which often celebrates and sometimes denigrates the prevailing social attitudes of pastoral villages. An interesting observation, but a highly unlikely one. The Kinks didn’t really explore much of that territory until their 1968 landmark album The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, and that record dropped two years after this song was recorded (and flopped as well, only to be celebrated as the album classic it is years later).
Davy’s newer songs are much stronger than his older tunes; better written, better produced, a noticeable uptick in overall quality. That said, the songs root themselves firmly in MOR territory. “If I Knew” is a lush ballad, bittersweet and longing with a strong acoustic backbone and a hint of melancholia woven throughout each verse. Davy co-wrote the song with Bill Chadwick (who also provided background vocals) and, save for the melodramatic sigh at song’s end, the song works in a Paul Williams sort of vein. That’s a compliment, by the way.
Also of interest is “The French Song”, an intriguing but clearly dated descent into bossa nova lounge-lizard territory. I’m a sucker for flute, vibes, chimes, and organs, so even while the song is all sorts of schmaltz — and oh boy, is it! — “The French Song” is beautifully produced with lush instrumentation, evocative of vinyl booths in dimly-lit hotel bars, cigarette smoke and Old Fashioneds and ZERO questions asked. Take that for everything it’s worth.
The Monkees Present is a fractured album but a worthwhile record. Michael Nesmith comes off strongest here. He’d continue his country rock mindset with The First National Band and become one of the forefathers of the Southern California/Country Rock scene, plastered all over AM (and eventually FM) radio for the next decade. By the way if you haven’t, go check out Magnetic South, their first record. It’s a beauty. Davy’s two new tracks are pretty strong for what they are; I think he could have fit right in as a 70s singer-songwriter in the Paul Anka/Neil Sedaka/Paul Simon/James Taylor vein. His two older, Boyce & Hart composed tracks are instantly forgettable. Micky’s contributions are probably the oddest of the bunch, but he only really stumbles with “Mommy and Daddy”. It is evidently clear, however, that the concept of The Monkees was barely even living on borrowed time by 1969. There is a host of quality material here, entirely comprised of three men working independently under a single brand and, given the album’s lack of commercial acceptance, the public wasn’t even remotely interested. It’s a shame, because The Monkees Present displays impressive work by Messrs. Dolenz, Jones, and Nesmith.