Sunday, October 02, 2016

Looking Back and Living in the Now: Good Times and 50 Years of the Monkees

I found a copy of Spy magazine from the mid-1990s when I cleared out some storage boxes the other day. Spy was a nothing’s sacred snarkfest for the hip cognoscenti of the time. I don’t know why I kept this particular issue – probably some tenuous connection with someone who worked there, or who was related to somewhere who worked there.  I flipped through it, chuckling at some of the irreverent skewering of public figures and fads. That is, until I got to a page containing a calendar of “The Worst Events in History.” The calendar included events like the Hindenberg explosion, the Titanic, and "on December 30th, Davy Jones was born in Manchester, England".  

I tossed the magazine. (Yes, I know. It's all a hoot til they make fun of someone you like.)

 Davy Jones was to snarky music people of the ‘60s –‘00s what Justin Beiber is to today’s snarky crowd. A convenient teenie-bopper idol and scapegoat for all that was (perceived to be) uncool, Davy and the rest of the Monkees were relegated to the remnants table of musical history for a long time after the TV show ended.   

They were “the pre-fab Four, they don’t play their instruments, they don’t have any talent, blah-blah”. Reality proves the nay-sayers wrong on all counts. Davy Jones and Mike Nesmith had solo recording contracts before they were Monkees. Micky Dolenz played in a band and recorded a few singles, and Peter Tork was a folk singer in Greenwich Village. Of course, other musicians (Frank Zappa, Jerry Garcia, etc.) defended them. They hung out with the Beatles. Tork introduced Buffalo Springfield at Monterey Pop and dated Janis Joplin.

Oh, and let’s not forget “Headquarters” the Monkees’ third album. Fed up with not being allowed to contribute more than a few self-penned songs or play their instruments on their first two studio albums, they rebelled. In a defining moment that would do a punk rocker proud, Mike Nesmith punched a plasterboard wall in a Beverly Hills Hotel room during a meeting with musical director Don Kirshner. He told Donnie (allegedly) “That coulda been your face, motherfucker.”

Kirshner went on to the Archies, and Headquarters went on to top the Billboard charts upon its release in May 1967 – until the Beatles Sergeant Pepper usurped it the following week. 

Still, some people persisted in trashing them.  And this continued throughout the 1970s, where any mention of the Monkees as an entity was greeted with a snicker, except by loyalists and young kids who watched Saturday morning reruns of the show.

This changed after the 1986 reunion. And even the reunion was short-lived in the mainstream. By the end of the 1980s, interest had waned for all but the loyal fans. Micky, Davy and Peter continued to tour as the Monkees for the next few decades. Mike joined them to record the Justus album (and tape a TV special) in 1996,  but both projects failed to capture the public's interest.  

P.S.- I still think “Regional Girl” would been a hit in ’96 if the Monkees had used a cloaked advertising campaign ala the Alarm  and used a young band in the video.

Fast forward to 2016. The Monkees and Rhino release the album Good Times. Produced by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, with new songs written by Rivers Cuomo, Andy Partridge,  Ben Gibbard  and Noel Gallagher/Paul Weller. All cool young –ok-middle aged guys - with a bunch of indie cred. Micky sings with his old Hollywood Vampire buddy Harry Nilsson, through the miracle of digital technology on the title track.  There’s a reworked versions of Davy singing “Love to Love”,  Peter singing “Little Girl”, a song he originally wrote for Davy, and  the album-closing “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time),” based on one of Micky’s stock interview responses.

Ben Gibbard joins Micky to sing Me & Magdelena in Seattle

The release of Good Times coaxed out older Monkees fans who had remained undercover for years. It debuted at #14 upon its release in May the band’s highest charting album since 1968, and was #1 on Billboard’s vinyl release chart.

Legions of fans have now joined social media regulars to post about their love for the Monkees. The fandom-oriented site Tumblr is full of teens and twentysomethings who like the Monkees.  The Tumblr fandom was at its peak for a year or two after Davy died, and leveled out to a calmer pace for this year’s 50th anniversary. Now, Facebook and Pinterest host the brunt of Monkees’ photos and discussions.

To accompany the album and Monkees renaissance, a slew of books about the band have been released in the past few years The most recent, The Monkees, Head and the ‘60s by Peter Mills, examines the movie that closed out the bands’ first era and all the events of the 1960s that influenced its making and the TV series.

A Little Bit Me,A Little Bit You: the Monkees from a Fan's Perspective by Fred Velez is a memoir by a lifelong fan of the group.Interview with the author here. 

Why The Monkees Matter: Teenagers, Television and American Pop Culture by Roseanne Welch gives an academic look at the TV show and the Monkees phenomenon.

Monkee Magic: a Book about a TV Show about a Band by Melanie Mitchell is a fun look into the specifics of each episode, with no wardrobe choice or co-star left unexamined.

Michael Nesmith’s Last Show as a Monkee – September 16, 2016, L.A.'s Pantages Theater

A few weeks before the Monkees, I mean Twokees, show at L.A.’s Pantages Theater, the band announced it would be Micheal Nesmith’s last live performance as a Monkee. Tickets for the show, which were already scare, disappeared.

I attended the show, and it was truly sold out. I spied not one empty seat. People flew in from England, Japan, New York and all points in the U.S., and the crowd was in a boisterous mood.   

Micky, Mike and Peter took the stage and, after a preparatory huddle, the band blasted into” Last Train to Clarksville”. There weren’t any obvious references made about the show being Mike’s last.

Despite their ages (Peter’s 74), you get the feeling they’ll keep going, together or separately, til they’re 100, or maybe 105 in Micky’s case. (He just keeps going and going like the Energizer Bunny.) It’s hard to believe any concert by any boomer artist is actually the last one. How many last tours have we seen from the Who, Kiss and Black Sabbath? With 20 years of farewell concerts under our belts, how can we believe anyone’s proclamation that this will be the last concert? It’s not over until someone’s dead and buried, and even then, their holograms make an appearance. 

Clips from the episodes played on the screen in the background; it was hard not to take your eyes off the stage for a sec and look. (I saw Peter sneak a peek a few times.)  

It was a flawless, fast-paced show from Micky, Mike, Peter and their backing band. Coco Dolenz (Micky’s sister) & Circe Link were sublime on backing vocals. Mike’s son Christian Nesmith on guitar, drummer Rich Dart, bassist John Billings , keyboardist Dave Alexander and lead guitarist Wayne Avers provided a rich and textured, but totally rock sound to the festivities. This wasn’t a “Vegas backing band” type experience.

Highlights - A softer, reworked version of Sometime in the Morning leading into Mike and Micky’s voices blending perfectly on the haunting Me and Magdalena.

Micky, Mike and Peter and the crowd at the Pantages singing the chorus to Daydream Believer as the Rainbow Room video of the song - with a recording of Davy singing - played.

Mike singing a heartfelt version of Tapioca Tundra and talking about what inspired the song (the band’s first live show in Hawaii).

The energetic versions of "Listen to the Band", "Circle Sky", "Mary, Mary" and "Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?" verged on hard rock. The back-up band really cooked on these songs, and the guys belted out the vocals with gusto. How is it that the guys are in their early 70s and their voices are stronger than ever - even Peter!

In the lyric booklet for Good Times, Gibbard wrote “I spent countless hours in front of the TV in the ‘80s, watching Monkees reruns and wishing I could climb through the screen and be with them.” There’s not much difference between what a young, non-musician girl in the ‘60s or a young, musically inclined guy in the ‘80s felt when watching the show or listening to the music. When I was a kid watching the original broadcasts in the 1960s,  I hated it when the show ended. I wanted to go live with the band and share their adventures with all week.

The Monkees deserve to be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. While the value of the hall itself is debatable, we all know they should be enshrined with their peers. Maybe their trajectory was different, but they left an indelible imprint on pop culture, more so than many bands that were "real" from the start.

The guys have forged a musical and emotional connection with countless fans through the past 50 years. The bond is pretty intense and rivaled only by the affection and reverence felt by Beatles fans.

It looks like the Monkees got the last laugh on those snarky journalists and know-it-alls.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Book Review: Shout It Out Loud: The Story of Kiss’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon by James Campion

Shout It Out Loud: The Story of Kiss’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon
James Campion
Backbeat Books, 400 pages

Released on March 15, 1976, Destroyer catapulted Kiss from underground sensation to constant media presence. The recording of Destroyer was as colorful and chaotic as the album itself, and every nuance is covered in James Campion’s book Shout It Out Loud: The Story of Kiss’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon.

Before Destroyer, Kiss attracted mostly male fans with songs about sex, sex, whores and more sex. (OK, so not that different from what they’d do later on.) With the single “Beth”, the band catapulted into mainstream consciousness and have remained there for over 40 years.  When Kiss Alive was released in 1975, it became an unexpected hit, and the recording of the next studio album took on new importance. 

The book covers the band or “The Act’s” (Campion’s term) pre-history and their first three albums for legendary Casablanca Records. Despite their outrageous appearance and a music press that lapped it up, mainstream success eluded them.  You’d think with all the facepaint, leather and platform boots they’d storm through mid-70s America immediately, but the road wasn’t that easy.

Bob Ezrin, the young Canadian producer who helmed Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare, signed on to produce the band’s fourth studio album. Ezrin greeted the band naked except for a bowtie (allegedly), but the recording sessions that followed weren’t always quite as light-hearted. Ezrin schooled the band in music theory and challenged them to expand their creative horizons. A stern taskmaster, he even refused to procure Gene’s hookers for him.

Ezrin ran the sessions like a musical boot camp, taking the demos and working with the band to improve them. Case in point - “Beth” started out as a demo from Criss’ old band, Lips. Originally a song called “Beck” about a nagging wife, Ezrin and the band reworked it into the ballad that saturated the airwaves in 1976.

The song, originally paired as the B side of “Detroit Rock City”, took off when DJ Rosalie Trombly of Windsor-based, Detroit-aimed CKLW started playing it, preferring it to “Detroit Rock City”. Listeners loved it so much Casablanca made it the “A” side, and the ballad became “The Act’s” best-selling single ever, reaching #7 on the Billboard charts.

The Destroyer sessions succeeded in turning the four distinct personas – previously relayed by just costumes and make-up, and breathed fire (excuse the expression) and life into them. The album - and “Beth” were the starting point of the “How Can We Miss Them If They Won’t Go Away?” Kiss empire. The songs weren’t just rowdy party anthems. Under Ezrin’s direction, they took on mythic proportions. 

“Do You Love Me?” established Paul as the Starchild, the group’s romantic lead. Ezrin and the band reworked the Stanley-penned “God of Thunder”, into Gene’s theme song, giving his onstage demon persona the perfect soundtrack. “Flaming Youth” and “Great Expectations” were positioned as youth anthems.

Drawing from Stanley’s memory of a news story about a fan who died in a car crash somewhere in the South, Ezrin sandwiched “Detroit Rock City”, a raucous tribute to the Motor City, with an audio melodrama, complete with news radio snippet and car crash sound effects.  


Campion devotes quite a bit of detective work attempting to unearth the real story behind the tragedy that spawned “Detroit Rock City”, and the entire epilogue is devoted to this subject. The book consists of new interviews and tales from Ezrin, Jay Messina, Corky Stasik, Kim Fowley, Bob Gruen, Ken Kelly, (the artist who designed the iconic comic superhero cover),and lots of archival interviews.

Shout It Out Loud: The Story of Kiss’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon may be way too involved for the casual fan. If you’re looking for some quick gossip, or if the nuts and bolts of songwriting and the analog recording process bores you, this book’s not for you. There are the usual tales of Ace and Peter’s drinking and drugging, sex in the studio and such, but Shout It Out Loud concentrates on the writing and recording and subsequent promotion of Destroyer in minute detail. 

Devoted Kissaholics, however, will appreciate the look into every nook and cranny of the recording sessions, promotion and tour that accompanied Destroyer.        

Friday, February 05, 2016

Music Review: Fuzzy Vox: No Landing Plan

No Landing Plan
Fuzzy Vox
Fuzzy Vox Facebook Page

The second album from French power pop trio, Fuzzy Vox, No Landing Plan, is an upbeat collection of songs combining the best attributes of melodic power pop and hard-edged garage rock. The band travels out of their comfort zone into social commentary and psych-pop on a few of the tracks, without sacrificing the infectious beat. 

Fuzzy Vox formed in 2011 in Joinville Le Pont, France, on the outskirts of Paris. The band released a few EPs before releasing 2014’s On Heat, their debut album.   

Singer Hugo Fabri has the vocal chops to veer from melodic powerpop to raunchy garage rock with no detectable accent. And he supplies the album’s brisk, no-frills guitar work and keyboards. Drummer Nico Maia and bassist Gregoire Dessons form a sturdy musical backbeat, keeping the album’s groove consistent.

For No Landing Plan, the band ventured to California to record, enlisting producers Ryan Castle, who’s worked with Snow Patrol, Black Sabbath, Billy Idol, ZZ Top, etc., and Andy Brohard (Wolfmother, Tegan and Sara, the Hives). The songs were mastered by Howie Weinberg, who has worked with Nirvana, the Ramones, Herbie Hancock, and other legendary artists. The ace recording team renders the band’s well-crafted songs into crisp, infectious tracks for maximum danceability.

“Explosion of Love” kicks off the album with an infectious beat designed to make you move. The frenetic rhythm of “Distracted” is great for pogoing or frugging, a ‘60s garage rock revival that channels the Sonics. “Told You Before” with its out-of-kilter energy and gritty vocals, has that unapologetic brashness of mid-60s Kinks’ and Who. “Raw Evil” starts out a bit like Elvis Costello, then segues into heavier garage rock. “Bo Diddley” pays tribute to one of the architects of rock ‘n’ roll with its frenetic beat. (The band’s featured a window-rattling version of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” on their Technicolor EP.)

 “Don’t Leave Me Behind” is bouncy, skinny-tie power pop to the nth power, and “I Got a Girl” draws from Plimsouls influences with a wilder pace.

 The band proves they’re not afraid to tackle serious subjects in “They Shot Charlie”, about the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. The tone picks up again with the bouncy “Easy Street”. The album’s last track "A Reason to Love" is lush, psych-pop with a guitar theme out of a TV western.  A spoken word interlude near the end fades out with some distorted guitar, making it the album's most ambitious track. 

Pure, high energy songs, tight playing and production, and a groovy ‘60s era comic book album cover make Fuzzy Vox’s No Landing Plan a  30 minute joyride for fans of fun, unpretentious rock ‘n’ roll.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Music Review:Sci-Fi Romance: Dust Among the Stars

Dust Among the Stars
Sci-Fi Romance
Broken Image Entertainment

The new album by L.A. based alt-folk band Sci-fi Romance, Dust Among the Stars, creates a somber landscape that pulls you in without depressing you. The songs make you think more than brood, and ultimately, show a glimmer of hope. Another strong effort, it’s just as thought-provoking as Kotrla and company’s previous releases, including …and surrender my  body to the flame and The Ghost of John Henry.  

Singer-songwriter Vance Kotrla finds inspiration in found film, horror movies and quirky pop culture. There’s a sense of this, of the atmospheric and the unusual, on Dust Among the Stars, even when the songs themselves don’t deal with those subjects.

Most of the songs on Dust deal with love, the uncertainty of life – normal fodder for pop and rock songs, but the presentation gives it a depth not found in many rock releases.
   “If I Fell”, combines pop love song sentiment underscored with somber thumping rhythm. This gives it a haunting charm that’s neither mainstream nor pure Goth. “Everything Burns” reflects on the lost love and the passage of time, with Jody Stark’s plaintive cello emphasizing the message.

“Pale Blue Dot”, inspired by a photo of Earth taken by Voyager I, puts man’s place in the universe in perspective.(“All we are/ all we’ve ever been/ a pale blue dot on the head of a pin”) The track is dedicated to astronomer Carl Sagan.

“Shakespeare’s Lovers” features guest vocalist Kristen Vogel , an opera singer whose performed with St. Petersburg Opera and the Asheville Lyric Opera, among others. Her soulful but tender soprano brings this tale of star-cross lovers to life. She also adds vocals to the romantic “Let’s Run”, her warm, reassuring voice meshes with Kotrla’s baritone. The closing ballad “When You Wake”, consisting of only guitar and vocal, has the quiet comfort of a lullaby. 

Dust Among the Stars is the most accessible of the Sci-Fi Romance CDs, but that doesn’t mean Vance Kotrla has lost his edge. On the contrary, Sci-Fi Romance is just tapping the surface of their capabilities.

You can watch the video for “If I Fell” on YouTube

Friday, January 15, 2016

Music Reviews: Micky Dolenz:The MGM Singles Collection and The First Bobby Hart Solo Album

Micky Dolenz--The MGM Singles Collection
The First Bobby Hart Solo Album
7A Records

This September marks the 50th anniversary of the Monkees TV show, and the introduction of Davy, Micky, Mike and Peter into music and pop culture history. The TV show’s two year run is the most beloved creation featuring the guys, but the following 48 years the guys stayed active, recording and touring either solo or together in various formations. The causal fan on the street may only remember the various reunion tours, Mike’s solo career, and have a vague recollection of “Pool It” or  Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart  You’d really need to be a hardcore fan to remember the other projects Davy, Peter and Micky participated in between the end of the 60s’ Monkees and their reunion in the ‘80s.  

England’s 7A Records, the brainchild of broadcaster Iain Lee  and music executive Glenn Gretlund, both long-time Monkees fans. The label’s name comes from the spoken intro at the beginning of “Daydream Believer”, when Davy asks, “What number is this, Chip?”, and receives the curt response “7A!”The label is dedicated to releasing long-lost Monkees related gems, including music by affiliated artists. 7A recently released The First Bobby Hart Solo Album by songwriter Bobby Hart of Boyce and Hart fame.   

The label’s first release, Micky Dolenz--The MGM Singles Collection arrived on July 15th , 2015, and is available as a vinyl LP and digital download. Most songs on this collection have been floating around Youtube and been shared as MP3s on various message boards for years. Thanks to 7A, they’ve finally gotten a proper release.

After being on a highly rated TV show, with a whirlwind of  hit songs and tours, Dolenz had to start over from square one (as did Peter and Davy), given how ex-teenie bopper idols were typecast  in the 70s (or anytime, really.) Writing and recording at his home studio and at other locations throughout L.A., he began recasting his music career.  

Admittedly, the songs on the MGM Singles Collection aren’t the cream of the crop, but Micky still had the vocal chops of his Monkees days. Any extracurricular activities with the Hollywood Vampires didn’t diminish it. Speaking of the notorious party animals, Dolenz’s Hollywood Vampire partner-in-crime, Harry Nilsson, wrote “Daybreak” a vibrant calypso number, and the album has four different versions of the song. 

There's the traditional, bouncy pop of "Easy on You", and the plaintive commentary on human nature in "It's Amazing to Me", songs that are easy on the ears, but not particularly memorable. The quirky “Unattended in the Dungeon” has some dicey lyrics, but, after all, it was the ‘70s, the decade of “Angie, Baby” and “Run, Joey, Run”

Dolenz and producer Michael Lloyd formed a duo they dubbed Starship in 1972, and worked together on their version of “Johnny B. Goode”, (the song Dolenz performed during his audition with the Monkees) and several other tunes. 

In the audio interview included with the download, Dolenz tells Lee says he recorded the songs just for fun, without any expectations of having a hit single. Mike Curb and MGM promoted the songs just the same, but despite the PR efforts, the records sank without a trace.

The accompanying booklet reveals some interesting tidbits abut the sessions. Among, them - the late, great Cozy Powell played drums on some of the recordings (which ones aren’t indicated), and Dolenz recorded “Family of Man” (later a hit for Three Dog Night) and “Since I Fell for You” and other American standards.

7A Records promises more Monkees-oriented releases, including (fingers crossed) a DVD release of Keep Off My Grass, a marijuana themed comedy from 1975 starring Dolenz. You can find more info on their website. (See links at the end of the review.)
Micky Dolenz- The MGM Singles Collection is an interesting addendum to Monkees history, sure to be enjoyed loyal Monkees fans and collectors of lesser-known musical side trips.

The First Bobby Hart Solo Album
7A Records 

You’ll do a double take when you hear “Funky Karma” the first song on the re-release of The First Bobby Hart Solo Album. When you think of Bobby Hart you think of “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight” and other Boyce and Hart hits, or “Last Train to Clarksville” and other Monkees hits, so it’s a surprise to hear the R and B tinged songs on this album, originally released in 1980. Boyce and Hart wrote hundreds of pop songs, but left to his own devices, Hart’s material is urban R & B, with an equal mix of funky grooves and tender ballads. The album opener “Funky Karma” would be right at home on any R & B playlist. “I’m On Fire” is a sexy dance floor track, and “I Can’t Fight It” draws from the the soul hits of the Moments and Delfonics with disco on the side. “You’re Breaking My Heart/Street Angel”, about a carousing lover, is underscored with a slinky rhythm. “First Impressions” deals with the hopefulness of new love.

“Hurt So Bad,” penned by Hart, Randazzo and Weinstein, was a big hit for Little Anthony and the Imperials in 1965, and has been covered by Linda Ronstadt and many other artists. The composer’s take is pure slow jam as evidenced in this clip from a TV show in Hong Kong. 

The re-release has three previously unissued tracks –“Runnin”, “I’m Just Takin’ the Long Way Home”, and the upbeat disco of “You Can’t See Thunder”. All of the tracks were written or co-written by Hart, with collaborators Bobby Weinstein, Teddy Randazzo and Barry Richards. 
The 24 page booklet included with the CD contains many photos from Hart’s personal collection, lyrics, album credits, and an interview Iain Lee conducted with Hart.

Produced by Hart, with Richards as associate producer, the album was recorded in Hollywood in 1980. It initially received a limited release in a few countries, including Germany, Scandinavia and Italy. This 7A release marks the first time the album been officially available in the U.S. and UK.