Here they come, walkin’ down the street ... but to further paraphrase the theme to the 1960s television series The Monkees, the looks they are getting from everyone they meet are probably funnier than ever.
Perhaps that’s because Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, the two members of the veteran pop group performing Friday night under the Monkees banner at the Louisville Palace, are on the road at ages 71 and 74, respectively. Even more unfathomably, the first new Monkees studio album in 20 years, a record boasting contributions from all four founding members, is gaining uniformly positive reviews.
The Monkees began as little more than a boardroom-generated project in 1965, the height of Beatlemania, as a vehicle for a teen-friendly TV series. The show aired from 1966 to only 1968 (with the group dissolving, for the first time, in 1971). But during their relatively short career together, Dolenz, Tork, singer Davy Jones (who died in 2012) and guitarist Michael Nesmith enjoyed record sales that, at times, approximated and even outsold both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. In total, the Monkees have sold more than 17 million records.
The formula — initially, at least — was simple: Take four pals living together as bunkmates in G-rated conditions, create assorted goofy story lines that owed greatly to the Beatles’ Help! movie and, of course, have them sing pop tunes that sent every teenage girl screaming after them through the streets.
But the pop smarts behind the group were considerable. Dolenz proved a highly capable vocalist, while tunes were enlisted from the heralded songwriting teams of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart (Last Train to Clarksville) and Carole King and Gerry Goffin (Pleasant Valley Sunday) along with a young Neil Diamond (I’m a Believer). Television-minded teen pop troupes would come and go in the ensuing decades, but none had the songwriting foundation of the Monkees.
Fans ate up the music, but critics, not surprisingly, never keyed into the thrill of the Monkees’ late-’60s popularity. In a review of the group’s 1968 post-TV-series film Head, New York Times critics Renata Adler and Vincent Canby, in a jointly written review, claimed that the Monkees “are among the least-talented contemporary music groups and know it.”
The band proved a touring sensation, making headlines in 1967 for a brief series of summer dates with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, then in the midst of its American debut, as opening act. Contrary to legend, the Monkees’ Kentucky debut, a December 1966 concert at Louisville’s Freedom Hall, preceded the Hendrix connection.
Successive decades ignited reunion tours, usually without Nesmith, including one that brought to Dolenz, Tork and Jones to Lexington in May 2001 for the first concert staged at the then-named Applebee’s Park (now Whitaker Bank Ballpark). That brings us to the current state of the Monkees and a surprisingly strong new album titled Good Times.
This time, Dolenz, Tork and Nesmith use material from newer pop generations, including Our Own World (by Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, who also produced the album), You Bring the Summer (by XTC’s Andy Partridge), She Makes Me Laugh (by Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo) and Me & Magdalena (by Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard). Topping them all is Birth of an Accidental Hipster, a mash-up of Brit-pop and psychedelia penned by Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller, with vocals shared by Nesmith and Dolenz.
Jones even makes a cameo via a vintage 1966 vocal track of the Diamond composition Love to Love, a psychedelic pop nugget that sounds as if it was lifted intact from The Monkees series. In similar fashion, pop chieftain Harry Nilsson (who died in 1994) penned Good Times’ title tune, which includes a guide vocal track he recorded in 1968.
The New York Times (specifically Jon Parales) was kinder in its estimation of the band’s work this go-round: “Good Times recapitulates the Monkees’ arc from performers to singer-songwriters, keeping an un-computerized 1960s sound. … Fifty years later, the Monkees are still endearing.”
Nesmith is again sitting out the current Monkees tour and won’t be joining Dolenz and Tork on Friday night in Louisville. He did appear, via Skype, at a New York concert last week to sing Papa Gene’s Blues, one of his compositions from the Monkees’ self-titled 1966 debut album.
Fans, however, should expect a wealth of ’60s hits (A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You), comparative obscurities (Your Auntie Grizelda), cover tunes (the Jackie Wilson hit Higher and Higher, performed by Tork) and Good Times material (Schlesinger’s I Was There and I’m Told I Had a Good Time) at the Palace performance.
“If you stop to think about it, there are six pairs in a quartet,” Tork told Rolling Stone last month in describing vocal assignments for the current tour. “Micky and I have the closest musical sensibilities of any of the pairs. On this tour, I’m singing a lot of songs. We divide the Davy songs in two, though we’re doing Daydream Believer (the Monkees hit most closely associated with Jones) in unison. Interacting with Micky onstage is just a joy.”