Sometimes you can tell things are really off, just by looking at the album cover. And Changes, the ninth album from The Monkees, is clearly no exception to that particular manifesto. Where is everyone, and why is everyone decked out like Variety Show extras?
And did I say The Monkees? I meant What Was Left Of The Monkees. The band lost Peter Tork after 1968’s superb Head soundtrack album, where Tork wrote two strong tracks and sang on one of them. Michael Nesmith stuck around for both 1969 releases, Instant Replay
and The Monkees Present, two commercially disappointing (but still worthwhile) records that prompted him to break his contract and skedaddle over to his next project, Michael Nesmith & The First National Band (who would go on to record the impressive Magnetic South record).
This left Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones to soldier on as The Monkees, a duo that wasn’t really much of a duo. By the time they began the Changes sessions, they were mostly working apart from each other (appearing together on only one album track). The vast majority of the songs were written by producer Jeff Barry, assisted by Bobby Bloom and singer/songwriter Andy Kim (who would end up topping the charts with his 1974 cheeseball anthem “Rock Me Gently”), and the result is a monolithic early 70s tone that permeates much of the first half of the album. You can call Changes a “Going Through The Motions / Contractual Obligation” record, and you wouldn’t be far off the mark. Apparently, both Dolenz and Jones would have agreed with you.
The album was a commercial stinker, and it was obvious to all involved that The Monkees, as a recording act, was finished. They wouldn’t release another studio LP until 1987’s Pool It, and while Monkee-mania would have huge spikes in popularity over the next few decades through UHF and MTV re-runs, and the band would eventually receive a measure of begrudging respect from both the hoity and the toity of pop culture “intelligentsia” (yeah I know, I had to keep a straight face while typing that too), The Monkees were, for the time being, pretty much finished with Changes.
The album itself is odd. Half of the record is basically Micky and Davy recording a bunch of 1970-ish MOR schlock, whereas the other half involves both of them playing to their strengths as singers and entertainers. It’s a pretty weird listening experience, but not without a few interesting bits to discover within.
The album opener “Oh My My” has a kind slinky sensuality to it, enhanced by its suggestive bongo and percussion work and an appealing acoustic guitar rhythmic backbone. Micky’s vocal work here is very appealing, and the sum of it produces a reasonably strong opener for the record. All of this, sadly, is tossed out the window with the execrable “Ticket on a Ferry Ride”. What could have been a third-rate Three Dog Night tune turns into a Z-level Monkees tune. Maybe early 70s MOR isn’t as adored as 60s AM pop, but this track seems infinitely more dated than any of their Monkees-heyday trifles. Micky delivers a good vocal performance but it isn’t enough to save the tune, which becomes so insufferably repetitive in its coda that you might want to jump out the window.
As if an answer to our anguish, Davy gets both fun and funky with “You’re So Good To Me”, a pleasantly enjoyable slice of electric keyboard-driven grooviness. While the Johnny Bravo-ish opening verse almost seems giggle-worthy, it redeems itself with some much-needed pulse and fire after all the “Ferry Ride” backwash, and it works pretty well on its own. Nothing spectacular, but definitely acceptable, which is more than I can say for “It’s Got To Be Love”. This song has no edge, no soul, no oomph whatsoever. The best way I can describe “It’s Got To Be Love” is as a Tony Orlando song that Tony Orlando disowned entirely. The lyrics border on the southern edge of Banality, where they are constantly involved in land skirmish with the High Duke of Maudlin. It’s such a tired, lifeless, generic mess of pleasantly inoffensive melodies mixed with painfully trite lyrics, “It’s Got To Be Love” probably should have been used as the background music for an early 70s RC Cola commercial.
Any hope for a brief respite from the schlock is obliterated by “Acapulco Sun”. This level of dreck can be best exemplified as follows: you’re at a third-rate resort, somewhere in The Islands of The Bahamas, in 1974. And not at any of the big name islands like Nassau, but not one of those funky, off-the-path boutique locations in the Abacos either. Freeport, maybe. Anyway, because of coastal flooding the road to the only airstrip on the island (calling it an “airport” would be beyond merciful) is non-functional. You’re stuck in a morose, spilt-beer and stale cigarette-reeking lounge next to the hotel lobby. No one has bothered to empty the foil ash-trays. The dreadfully bored-looking house band is going through their usual weekday afternoon repertoire of such island “standards” as “Cuando”, “Yellow Bird”, “Island in the Sun”, and, this — the peeling yellow wallpaper equivalent of resort lounge dreck music, “Acapulco Sun”. It’s not as unlistenable as “Ticket On A Ferry Ride”, but it’s just eye-rollingly twerpy.
This disappointing album side ends with “99 Pounds”, and Good Gravy, it’s time to ROCK OUT with Davy! This song hearkens back to the Headquarters sessions, which is why it seems so out-of-place with the thematically tranquilized feel of the rest of the album. It’s not much of a song, and the production on the track is strangely thin, tinny, and flat. But at least it’s got some kick and verve and energy to it. As it stands “99 Pounds” is an OK rocker; not much of a song overall but the first remotely “Monkees”-esque sounding song on the album
Side Two opens with the Jeff Barry-penned “Tell Me Love”, which comes across as a ballad written for Davy Jones, but ended up being sung by Micky Dolenz instead. It’s a disjointed track; the verses are a slow build that pick right up into anthemic choruses, then back down again. It’s half a decent song, as the choruses are a lot more musically interesting than the repetitive, meandering structure of the verses. In the end, the whole is entirely less than the sum of its parts, and the song remains disappointing. On the other hand, “Do You Feel It To” feels like pure Davy Jones – melodic, upbeat, charming, a bit treacle, but pretty enjoyable. There’s an assured confidence to this track that seems to be missing from much of this album. This is Davy completely in his element as a singer and performer, and it works well here.
THANKFULLY what happens at this point in the album is best described as The Much Needed-Return of The Monkees’s Micky Dolenz, because starting now we’re getting the Micky we recognize from better songs from the past. “I Love You Better” is one of the stronger Micky songs on the album, an uptempo number with a nifty call and response structure to the verses and a groove-driven backbone that nimbly propels the track upward and onward. I think this is Micky’s most Monkees-esque track thus far. Not so much because it feels 60s retro or bubblegum-like, but because it has that sense of freewheeling energy and adolescent romanticized fun.
“All Alone In The Dark” retains Micky’s sense of vaudeville showmanship, a jaunty song-and-dance number complete with a kazoo-driven solo section that would go right along with some energized soft-shoe work. Or something. This is the type of enjoyably fun track that could easily have been played during one of the TV show’s romps. A little bit reminiscent of the “Cuddly Toy” style songcraft, maybe sorely lacking that nimble contrast of Harry Nilsson’s dark lyricism against the music’s melodic playfulness, but “All Alone In The Dark” works perfectly fine on its own merits. Micky then completes his hat trick with the utterly Micky-esque “Midnight Train”, a track originally recorded for The Monkees Present recording sessions. He wrote the song and is joined by many of his regular cohorts, including sister Coco on backing vocals and the great Louie Shelton on guitar. It’s a upbeat, uptempo, utterly fun blast of corn pone goodness, folksy and southern fried and a generous helping of everything Monkees fans enjoy in Micky’s music.
The album ends in a rather peculiar fashion (no pun intended), featuring a Davy track that was originally recorded during More Of The Monkees sessions, placed on the shelf, then dusted off and completed three years later. Written by stalwart Monkees songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, “I Never Thought It Peculiar” is a bouncy slice of bubblegum pop that feels entirely out-of-place on Changes. The pop culture universes of 1966 and 1970 were barely tangential to each other, and this retro number sticks out like a sore schnoz. And all of that would be easier to accept if the song were any good, but it’s entirely average and mostly forgettable. It doesn’t impress but it hardly offends, and at 2 and a half minutes, it’s gone and forgotten pretty quickly.
So Changes… there’s nothing great here, but there are a couple of decent tunes to be found. As a studio album, it’s definitely the last but easily the least of the band’s 1966-1970 output. For Monkees fans, it’s worth checking out for songs like “Oh My My”, “You’re So Good To Me”, “Do You Feel It To”, “I Love You Better”, “All Alone In The Dark”, and “Midnight Train”, and you can pretty much trash the rest of it. The album lacks a killer standout track, a stellar number, something that would compel fans to say “Yeah Changes isn’t much, but hokey jeepers, you gotta listen to “insert-song-name-here”!!!” Changes marked the end of the first era of The Monkees with a bit of whimper, but even in its death rattle there is still some interesting and fun material here, which makes you remember what exactly made Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones so endearing as singers, songwriters, personalities, and Monkees.