Detractors may have stamped the Monkees as the “Prefab Four” when their eponymous TV show debuted in 1966 to a core audience of squealing teenage girls. Yet, half a century after they first swung onto small screens, the act proves they were more than just monkeying around.
To celebrate the group’s 50th anniversary, the surviving members — Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith — have climbed back into that power pop tree for the Monkees’ first album in nearly 20 years. Critics are calling “Good Times!” a seamless sequel to the group’s time-honored catalog. It takes the key ingredients that made the Monkees special and throws it all into a blender for a jangly, sweet simian smoothie.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Dolenz said in a phone interview. “I’m so pleased with how it came out. There are so many wonderful people involved and fantastic writers, just like in the old days. But we’ve always had great songwriters.”
In ’66, some of the best pop tunesmiths of the day — think Boyce and Hart, Neil Diamond, Goffin and King — were tapped to churn out hits for the NBC TV series. Producers cast a quartet of fresh faces — Dolenz, Tork, Nesmith and the late Davy Jones — to portray a struggling rock band, amid a comedic backdrop a la the Beatles’ flick “A Hard Day’s Night.”
Upon the show’s debut, the Monkees almost instantaneously became a cultural phenomenon, with hit singles, best-selling albums, Emmy wins and a feature film. And, with the help of syndicated reruns, oldies radio and a bunch of timeless tunes, the Monkees continue to be in pop culture’s DNA.
In fact, an array of contemporary artists influenced by Monkees music, including Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, Noel Gallagher of Oasis and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, contributed compositions to “Good Times!” With Schlesinger acting as producer, these songs, along with some from classic Monkees contributors, were cherry-picked to best represent the group’s trademark sound. It’s unmistakable Monkees.
“Adam Schlesinger did an incredible job,” Dolenz said. “The harmonies, the instrumentation and the tonality of it were all absolutely intentional.”
To further fuse authenticity, Schlesinger had access to old Monkees masters. The title track utilizes a 1968 demo recorded by the late singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson. When Dolenz heard the cut, he jumped at the chance to create a virtual duet with an old pal.
“It was intended for me to sing that song, and it has Harry’s demo vocal on it,” Dolenz said. “Of course, knowing Harry — and we became very good friends — he never did anything halfway. So the vocal was extraordinary. And I said, ‘My God, I can do a duet with my dearly departed friend, Harry Nilsson.’ It fired me up, and it fired the record company up.”
Technology also brought Davy Jones, who passed away in 2012, back to the studio. Dolenz and Tork provide new backing vocals to “Love to Love,” a Neil Diamond-penned song Jones originally recorded lead vocals for in 1967.
Luring Nesmith back to the fold, however, provided its own challenges. As late as February, the stocking hat-wearing Monkee had yet to commit to the project.
“Mike is no fool,” Dolenz said. “We went to him very early on, and told him about the idea. And Mike chooses his moments when he wants to be involved in Monkee business. He’s writing a book, so that’s why he’s not on tour with us. But he said, ‘Let me hear the material.’”
It was then Dolenz became confident they could snag that missing link.
“I knew once he heard it, Mike would want to be a part of it,” Dolenz said. “And that’s what happened.”
Although Nesmith has opted to sit out the 50th anniversary tour, Dolenz and Tork will carry the torch for nearly 50 shows this summer and into the fall.
Audiences can expect a multimedia experience and an arsenal of Monkees hits, an informal deal Dolenz said he made with fans years ago.
After witnessing the Everly Brothers’ hit-laden reunion in 1983, Dolenz told himself that, if he was ever asked to sing Monkees material again, he’d oblige with the popular picks. And, three years later, he did just that, performing “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” and others just as fans remembered them.
“I kept my promise, and I still do till this day,” Dolenz said.