The Monkees first album, while one of their better albums, has always seemed a bit uneven to me. Thanks to their connection to Don Kirshner they had access to some of the finest songwriters in the business. They may not have liked Mike Nesmith pushing to get his songs on the album but the ones they put on this album proved that he could hold his own with the more seasoned professionals.
(Theme From) The Monkees
First let’s talk about the opening song (Theme From) The Monkees. Boyce and Hart contributed a great up-tempo opening song for a sit-com and that alone deserves to place it on the first album. The session musicians are not perfect on the song and Micky Dolenz, the only Monkee on the song, shows for the first time his excellent pop vocals. Those vocals would eventually have many think of him as one of the best vocalist in rock and roll history. Still this should be the last time the song would be on an album. It was never released as a single in the USA that would reach the top 100 of the charts. Yet every time they release a Greatest Hits album this is always the first track on the album.
Next is an early David Gates song called Saturday’s Child. The session musicians seemed to have gotten it all wrong here. They don’t sound professional at all. They sound like a garage band. But maybe that is what they were going for with this song. After all on their show they were supposed to be a garage band trying for the big time. Still the background vocals sound like the singers are singing from a hole in the ground. The instrumentals don’t sound as full as they could have been. A good song but it could have been better produced.
I Wanna Be Free
Another song by Boyce and Hart is I Wanna Be Free. I don’t think a bad version of this song could be produced. A more upbeat version was produced with vocals by Davy and Micky and that version made it into the pilot episode of the series. The album version is slowed down more and makes the song a ballad. Davy does his usual excellent vocals on this and I am sure this song is what proved to them to hand over the love songs to him. It was produced as an acoustic song. The instruments are at a minimum but there are a few strings and Davy is backed by some beautiful guitar playing.
Tomorrow's Gonna Be Another Day
Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day is one of the songs that, while preformed by professional session musicians, sounds like a very good garage band. It’s songs like this that show Boyce and Hart knew what they were doing. The songs may not be considered hit material but they kept the feel of the TV show in mind. After all they were supposed to be a very good but struggling rock band. It has quite a bit of bluegrass twang in it and that makes me wonder if Nesmith had any influence in this one. I have read that he was so busy producing his own music in another studio that Boyce and Hart rarely saw him. But I can imagine him sticking his head in and making a couple of suggestions.
Papa Gene's Blues
Papa Gene’s Blues is a Nesmith composition that kind of was a harbinger of things to come with the relationship with Mr. Nesmith. As a matter of fact the album cover itself shows the tension as well. On the cover Nesmith seems to be saying something. Rumor has it that he was getting impatient with the photographer and said he had till the count of three to take the picture. Just as he said the number 3 the photographer took the picture and they used that for the cover. It actually makes the cover better then to see all four of them just smiling as you have the sense that something is going on. Next this song was misprinted on the cover of the album as Papa Jean’s Blues. The album was recalled and the cover was changed to Papa Gene’s Blues. The song itself was a good pop/country tune. Nez really wanted the cast to become a band and was usually successful at getting the others to join him in the audio studios. I’m sure Peter was the easiest to convince as he too wanted the cast to become a band. However, I think if Peter were in charge they would have headed in a pop/folk direction instead of the pop/country direction Nesmith took them in. Peter plays third chair guitar on this song but is hard to hear on the recording. Micky is also rumored to be singing some background vocals.
Take A Giant Step
If any song on the album, other than Last Train to Clarksville, could be a hit song it was, in my opinion, Take A Giant Step. The record label must have thought it had possibilities as well as it was the B side to Clarksville. Back then record companies tried to have hit songs on both sides. If DJ’s decided to play both sides then they had a double sided hit on their hands. After awhile this practice stopped and they started putting songs they knew wouldn’t be a hit on the B side so more attention would be given to the song on the A side. But the one thing that held this song back from being a hit is that the production wasn’t as polished as the sound for Last Train to Clarksville.
Last Train to Clarksville
Next on the album was the big hit song Last Train to Clarksville. What can I say about this song that hasn’t been said before? Not much actually. It was one of the best produced songs on the album and a wise choice for them to release as the first single for a new group. I say a new group as the single was released before the television series so few new this was part of a soundtrack to a new TV series with vocals by members of the cast. By now most fans know that Boyce and Hart wrote it as a war protest song. A solider is calling his girlfriend to take the last train to Clarksville before he ships out to war. There is no mention of the military or war in the song so it could very well be sold as a pop tune to the little children who would think it was about puppy love. The song is a little bit of an odd mix. They lyrics are kind of a downer on their own. When he says “I don’t know if I’m ever coming home” he is talking about his possible death. But the tempo is upbeat and fast and breezy enough that you don’t think about that at the time. Of all the songs on this album this was the one most influenced by the Beatles. Bobby Hart turned on the radio and heard the end of the Beatles new song Paperback Writer. He thought they were singing “take the last train.” That misunderstanding was the inspiration for the song. The team also knew of the potential musical/comedy series that would become the Monkees and they were looking for songs for the show. At that time the Beatles were famous for saying the phrase “yeah, yeah, yeah” in most of their hits. So, in answer to that, they included the phrase, “Oh no, no, no” in this song. As you can see, it worked. Many think this was a huge hit worldwide. It was in America as it went straight to number one. It did well in other countries but didn’t top the charts worldwide. That would have to wait a few more weeks for another song when the show was playing in those countries.
This Just Doesn't Seem To Be My Day
This Just Doesn’t Seem To Be My Day is a fast breezy song for Davy that was perfect for almost any of their episodes were things went from bad to worse. Of course that fit almost all of their episodes. It was used for more than one musical montage in the first season. Davy was the perfect choice for this song as it tells of a love gone wrong and Davy was on screen the heartthrob that fell in love at the drop of a hat. The instruments used were typical to use on a pop tune and kept the music flowing with its upbeat tempo but there was a sound that was out of the ordinary for a tune dedicated to younger children. There was an instrument that had recently been used by the Beatles, the Sitar. The Sitar wasn’t on this song but an instrument, I believe it was the Harpsichord, that sounds a little like a Sitar. You hear it more plainly when the singing stops. It gives an added dimension to the song and the story it tells.
Let's Dance On
Let’s Dance On is in the mode of the typical dance tunes of the day. It even mentions some of the dances that many teens were doing at local high school dances. The lyrics go “You’re doing the Pony. Now you’re doing the Jerk. Come on baby. Let me see how you work.” The Monkees may have been televisions answer to the Beatles but to me this song sounds like an early Beach Boys tune. In some way it is kind of an answer song to their tune Dance, Dance, Dance. It was the B side of the single Warmth of the Sun in 1964 and included on their 1965 album titled Today.
I'll Be True To You
I’ll Be True To You is the typical love song that Davy would quickly become known for as he handle those songs well and was being guided in the direction of becoming known as the cute Monkee in the same way that girls were referring to Paul as the cute Beatle. The song is well produced and typical of the love songs that many TV personalities were recording back then. It would be easy to hear someone like Paul Peterson or any other teen idol sing this song. What young girl wouldn’t love to have Davy proclaim how he would be true to them even when the other girls go by. The song was originally release by the Hollies under the title Yes I Will.
Sweet Young Thing
Sweet Young Thing, like Papa Gene’s Blues, is another song where Nesmith shows his innovation. Papa Nez could see Country Rock coming down the pike and produced a first class country rocker here. Rumors about this song did cause a stir but very briefly. The lines “I know that something very strange has happened to my brain. I’m either feeling very good or else I am insane,” was seen to be a reference to drugs and the title was a reference to a man attracted to an underage girl. If those rumors were true there is no way this song would have been on the album. Ever the one to strive for a unified group sound Nez has Peter playing one of the guitars and he also sings background with Micky.
I'm Gonna Buy Me A Dog
The song that got on the album in a format other then intended was I’m Gonna Buy Me a Dog. After long days spent filming their show, Boyce and Hart were happy to see any of the Monkees show up for their recording sessions. Micky and Davy were both present for this session but kind of slap happy at the end of the day. They started making jokes to see who could make the other laugh during the session. The jokes actually helped make the song memorable and brought the spirit of the television show to the record. It is the gentle humor of things like Micky asking Davy to not ruin his song and Davy replies that it was already ruined. Davy needles Micky in how he can’t train dogs he can only train elephants. This is gentle teasing to Micky’s days as a child star on the NBC series Circus Boy. At the end Davy says "They're Coming to Take Us Away, Ha Ha” referring to the then current hit novelty song by Napoleon XIV.
All in all this was an enjoyable first album. No matter if it was from a new garage band or from the cast of a TV show. While the producers of the series only saw it as a way to promote the show it is clear that Don Kirshner saw their albums as a way to make hit records.When I started this review I said the album was uneven. I still stand by that statement as some songs sound professional and some just sound like a very good garage band. However, in the course of this review my appreciation for this album has grown as it was an inventive way to keep rock and roll available to the pre-teens that the Beatles had now outgrown.