Album Review: “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.” — The Monkees (1967)

blgPACLAs strong as an album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. really is, it still represents something of a step backward for the band. While their previous album Headquarters (released earlier that very same year) represented an assertive statement of individuality and liberation of The Monkees as a self-sustaining band, PACJ has the band relying more on outside songwriters and studio musicians than expected. Stalwarts such as Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, Tommy Boyce, and Bobby Hart all returned to contribute songs to the project, as well as a promising young up-and-comer by the name of Harry Nilsson.

Meanwhile, all four Monkees provided lead vocals on the album (Michael dominated with five songs, Davy had four, Micky with three, and Peter with a single spoken-word track and prominent background vocals on another) as well as performing instrumental duties; Mike on guitars, Peter on guitar, various keyboards, and bass, Micky on drums, Moog synth, and guitars, and Davy on percussion. Assisting on the studio sessions were Eddie Hoh, Kim Capli, Chip Douglas, Bill Martin, Douglas Dillard, and Paul Beaver. So it wasn’t entirely an outside musician affair, but perhaps moreso than it was on their previous breakthrough album.

But regardless of who played/wrote what, it’s the quality of the album as a whole which matters most, and on that level Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. delivers. It is arguably The Monkees’s best album (for me it’s a back-and-forth between this one and Headquarters, but in all honesty you can’t go wrong with either). It’s also the perfect mix of the band’s spunky pop phase with more sophisticated songwriting and studio finagling. Everything from bubblegum to country to psychedelia to lounge to groovy keyboard go-go-bootin’ and beyond is represented here.

Mike kicks off the album in with a bit of country rock in Salesman, a caustic examination into the life of the traveling/struggling BS-artist. With slick lyrics by Nesmith’s buddy Craig Vincent Smith, the song is an infectious one, rooted with a wonderful walking bassline and a stinging doorbell exclamation on acoustic guitar that highlights every bar. But the cynicism of this song is obliterated by the pure bubblegum pop fun of She Hangs Out, in which Davy is trying to ensure that the object of his affection isn’t quite jailbait anymore, based on her prowess on the dance floor. Or something. This is the type of song Marcia Brady played on 45 during a sleepover or something, maybe in the pre-Brady era. Of course it was never released as a 45, as far as I know, so that’s a strange reference. Work with me here. Anyway, the song’s all sorts of good, dated fun, with a spirited vocal performance by Davy who’s giving this silly bit of fluff every ounce of energy and sincerity he can muster, and it works.

There might be only one catastrophic flaw with this album, and that is because its single best song comes in at track number three. The Door Into Summer is probably my favorite Michael Nesmith-sung tune, and quite possibly my favorite Monkees tune, period. Although the title is taken from a Robert Heinlein novel, the lyrics and delivery are more evocative of Ray Bradbury. Everything in the song works beautifully, from the tasteful guitar-work under the verses to the “distant caravan” keyboards, Micky’s pitch-perfect background vocals and the wistful lament of the subject matter, all anchored by Mike’s steady, commanding vocals. This is just a great tune all around.

An Ennio Morricone-like guitar riff in 6/4 time opens up the stylish Love Is Only Sleeping, another tune sung by Mike and written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Originally planned as a single release and not as an album track (it was replaced as a single, perhaps rather wisely, by Daydream Believer), this is another superior cut, combining psychedelia and rock with elements of Latin music to effective results.

There’s a bit of vaudeville piano that makes the Harry Nilsson-penned Cuddly Toy seem so effervescently upbeat and cheerful. Davy’s exuberant vocal performance only underscores this feeling, and there’s no denying it’s a wonderful song, piano-driven with sweet background vocals and an uptempo beat. The subject matter of the lyrics are certainly open to interpretation, but there’s no getting around that, despite its cheerful presentation, there’s a strong, dark, perhaps even disturbing undercurrent to the song. I find the song’s undeniable strength in this juxtaposition of light and dark, of cheerfulness with exploitation, celebrating self-gratification with abusive degradation. Powerful stuff indeed.

Words was written by Monkees songwriting vets Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, originally for their 1966 More Of The Monkees LP but re-recorded for PACL. This ended up being another hit for the band, hitting #11 on the charts. It’s a dark, angry minor-key song aimed at a deceitful lover, with wonderful back-and-forth vocals on the verses by Micky and Peter. Peter’s bass work is superb here, giving the song much of its spine, but it’s those vocals that give the track its haunting beauty.

There’s a breezy lounge feel to Hard To Believe, another Davy song co-written by him and Kim Capli, Eddie Brick, and Charlie Rockett. It’s a perfectly agreeable, enjoyable piece of melody, with a fine vocal performance from Davy. The song does feel a bit dated with a late 60s/early 70s Tony Orlando-esque vibe, but it’s still a good number. Mike then knocks another one out of the park with What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round, one of his best-known Monkees songs and, if you get the chance to see them live, easily a concert highlight. The song’s uptempo, down-home earnest country twang (and its sing-along chorus) is the living definition of infectious.

Peter’s lone lead vocal performance is in the throwaway spoken-word performance of Peter Percival Patterson’s Pet Pig Porky, a preposterous preponderance of popped P’s that provide a plethora of ponderous piffle… OK yeah I’m done with that. It’s a cute, very brief bit of nonsense comedy that leads directly into the smash single Pleasant Valley Sunday, which is one of the band’s biggest hits and most recognizable songs. The single hit #3 and preceded the album by four months in the summer of 1967. I love all the band’s contributions to this Gerry Coffin and Carole King-penned song: Micky’s strong, assured vocal delivery, Davy’s dripping Britpop background vocals, Michael’s harmony vocals and unforgettable guitar riffs that intro the song and weave in and out of the verses, and Peter’s strong, driving keyboards. All of it comes together to create an unforgettable ’60s pop song.

The album finishes up with three distinctly different types of songs. Daily Nightly is admittedly little more than a piece of Moog wankery, sung by Micky with lyrics provided by Mike. I like the song enough but it’s not an essential track by any means. If anything, it feels more dated than Hard To Believe, almost like a novelty track. And speaking novelty, Don’t Call On Me is unabashedly camp, a full-on lounge number recorded at the “Elegant Pump Room of the Magnificent Palmer House, high over Chicago…”, complete with background audience murmurs and clinking cocktail glasses. The song itself is OK, assuredly delivered by Mike, but its also the least memorable of his five tracks on this album. It’s probably the closest thing to filler on an otherwise remarkable LP. The album finishes with Davy’s rollicking Star Collector, another Goffin/King song, this time about a nubile young groupie who gamely enjoys copulating with celebrities. Like Don’t Call On Me, the song is enjoyable but not entirely up there in quality with the rest of the album. I kind of enjoy the bass, organ, echoing vocals, and Moog outro jam though; gives the song (and the album) a bit of a fun psychedelic send-off.

So even if it ends with a slight stumble, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. still represents The Monkees at their best. There are so many great songs on this album that it makes a great intro for curious onlookers. While you still have the big recognizable hits in Words and Pleasant Valley Sunday, there are enough album cuts of great quality to make the entire package a winning value proposition. There’s a bit of schmaltz on Side 2 that takes the whole affair down just a peg, but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the album as a whole.

As always, if you are a fan try to keep an eye out for the Rhino Deluxe CD. It has both the mono and stereo versions, along with Goin’ Down (the B-side to Daydream Believer), Riu Chiu (a Spanish-language Christmas song recorded for the TV show), and alternate mixes of She Hangs Out, Love Is Only Sleeping, What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round, Star Collector, Salesman, Cuddly Toy, Daily Nightly, and The Door Into Summer.

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