Album Review: “Instant Replay” — The Monkees (1969)

monkeesinstantreplayDelving into an album like Instant Replay is a really strange exercise for Monkees faithful, and I’m specifically using the phrase “Monkees faithful”, because heck knows, nobody else would be ostensibly interested in this record.

That’s not a criticism, either. Just an exercise in outright pragmatism. The album has no big hits on it, no cuts that somehow wormed their way into popular consciousness, no long-lost favorites from oldies radio of yesteryear… heck, by the time that album was released, their television show had been off the air and canceled for over six months, and one of their core members (Peter Tork) had left the band. Tork wasn’t featured on the album cover, and his only presence on the album at all was some guitar work he had recorded years ago on a single track.

No hits. No TV show. No Peter. The commercial failure of Head — both the film and the album — had essentially driven the final nails into the coffin of the Monkees fad/phenomenon. Why even bother with Instant Replay, the February 1969 release from The Monkees trio of Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Michael Nesmith since, from a nearly five-decade-old future perspective, this album appears to be a paradigm of irrelevancy?

Well for starters, judging something without experiencing it for yourself is just ridiculously gauche. Compound that judgmental caveat with the notion that Instant Replay is an aptly named record, since much of the album consists of material that was either previously recorded during the height of Monkee-mania or re-recorded for this record, alongside new material written by both the members of the band and their usual gang of uber-talented songwriters (Boyce, Hart, Goffin, and King, among others). The record features old material mixed with new, giving the collected work a sense of having feet in both worlds.

It also makes Instant Replay feel somewhat disjointed, but the album mostly succeeds as  a collection of pop, country/western, balladry, and experimentation, with only a few missteps or outright stumbles. It definitely feels like The Monkees but, even featuring old material, it still marks a new phase for a band still trying to define themselves and find their artistic footing, after the superstar spotlights had significantly dimmed. To borrow a few Beatles analogies: if Head were The Monkees’s Magical Mystery Tour, Instant Replay was the group retrenching of Let It Be mixed with the splintered solo efforts of The White Album. A clunky metaphor, but I think a reasonable one.

So let’s talk music then…

Rather than go through each track in sequence, let’s analyze them in functional groups, because I think using phrases like “functional groups” adds an air of erudition to such a low-brow blog as this one. We’ll begin with the songs that were recorded during previous album sessions that were included on this release. Rather coincidentally, they are the first four songs on the album, so my whole approach seems suspect now. Stay with me. Things kick off in grand style with “Through The Looking Glass”, a rollicking midtempo shuffler that was originally recorded for The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees. Written by Red Baldwin, Tommy Boyce, and Bobby Hart, and sung with great verve by Micky, the song is a vintage slice of mid-career/pre-Head Monkees at their entertaining best.

Boyce and Hart also penned the following track “Don’t Listen To Linda”, which had been originally recorded during More of the Monkees sessions, but then re-recorded for The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees.  Sung by Davy, this song is mawkish and treacle, placing the diminutive singer in his total 1966 Safe Mode. There’s an audience for this type of earnest, syrupy sentimentality, but it’s certainly not me. The band had long since outgrown this utterly unthreatening material.

On the other hand, “I Won’t Be The Same Without Her” knocks it completely out of the park. Written by the indomitable songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King and sung by Mike (with Micky on harmony), this tune was initially recorded for the debut album The Monkees back in 1966, and its an amazing piece of pop craftsmanship. I could listen to Mike and Micky harmonize any day of the week, and here they are showcased at their best. I especially enjoy the drive of the rolling drums, the chimey guitars, the sweet spot of 60s jangly pop. This song also features the only appearance of Peter Tork, since he contributed some of the guitar work back when it was originally recorded.

“Just A Game” was written for inclusion on Headquarters but work on the track didn’t begin until Birds sessions and wasn’t finished until after the album had completed. Written and sung by Micky, it’s an ephemeral track that neither offends nor impresses. It’s an odd piece, I suppose the first real piece of album filler. Then we have “Tear Drop City”, sung by Micky and written by Boyce & Hart. This hastens back to More Of The Monkees, recorded in 1966 and is entirely reminiscent of their smash hit “Last Train To Clarksville”. I wouldn’t call it a rip-off, but it’s definitely a derivative track. Not a bad one, though. You’ll easily find yourself toe-tapping and singing along.

Now that we’ve gone through the dusted off and resurrected album tracks, let’s take a look at what each of the individual Monkees brought to the table as new material. Davy Jones went into pure musical theater mode with the swinging “Me Without You”, a Boyce & Hart-penned number that many have compared to The Beatles “Your Mother Should Know”. Again, not a direct lift, but it certainly apes that song’s vibe more than a little bit.

Davy scores much better with the winning “You And I”, which he also produced and co-wrote with Bill Chadwick. He sounds at his most confident, singing instead of crooning, expressive and earnest instead of cloying and doe-eyed, and rocking instead of cloying. This is one of the album’s best songs, along with his magnificent ode to Motown in “A Man Without A Dream” (another Goffin/King tune). The Detroit swing of this one is about as infectious as infectious gets. While this track was originally intended for Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., it was recorded specifically for this record, and is another album standout.

Davy’s final album track is “The Girl I Left Behind Me”, which was penned by the team of Carole Bayer Sager and Neil Sedaka, which should speak volumes about the MOR vibe presented therein. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, or this song, as it’s a more polished, assured, and enjoyable track than the saccharine dreck of “Don’t Listen To Linda”.

Mike Nesmith contributed two new tracks to the record, writing and singing lead on both “Don’t Wait For Me” and “While I Cry”. Both songs wear their country/western genre cred proudly on their vests, and why not? That was often where Mike’s talents shined within the band. This time around, the results are mixed; that is to say, one song (“While I Cry”) succeeds whereas the other (“Don’t Wait For Me”) is just execrable. Whereas “While I Cry” isn’t a stellar song, it succeeds mostly through its simple honesty and pleasurable delivery, whereas “Don’t Wait For Me” is clunky and stilted, with some of the weakest lyricism Mike had contributed thus far.

Micky’s sole new contribution to the album is the utterly odd “Shorty Blackwell”, which acts not only as the album closer, but at 5:46, represents the longest Monkees song in their catalog (thus far, anyhow). Micky wrote this one and sang it with his sister Coco, and while it is easily a strange bird, it makes for kind of a nifty piece of psychedelia that ends the album on a mostly high note. I don’t know what to make of this thing, but I do enjoy hearing it. Odd, but catchy.

Odd but catchy is a good way to describe Instant Replay. It’s a patchwork piece of old tracks, re-recorded songs, and new work, perhaps even more of a Frankenstein creation than their Head soundtrack LP. Nonetheless, it has several Monkees hallmark elements, like Davy’s musical numbers, Micky’s dalliances with absurdism, and Mike’s Texas country mannerisms. But like the aforementioned White Album, the new material seems to be the various members working mostly on their own. Instant Replay reached #32 on the Billboard 200, while its singles (“Tear Drop City” and “Someday Man”, a superb Paul Williams-penned tune that was recorded during the album sessions but not included on the final release) failed to make any significant headway. The Monkees were in decline, but with Instant Replay they still managed to put out a quality (if sometimes uneven) release that is worth seeking out, not just by Monkees Faithful but for those looking for an interesting (if mostly hidden) slice of 60s pop music.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Matthew Millheiser