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Carl Cafarelli and Gary Pig Gold wonder out loud: The Monkees: Bubblegum Or Not?
Vilified since their very inception (circa 1965 within the television division of Columbia Pictures), yet forever being rediscovered and embraced by new generations of pop fans and/or cable addicts the world over, the Great Debate persists: Were The Monkees nothing but a crude, calculatingly crass hoax foisted upon those least-musically-discriminating within the eight-to-fourteen-year age bracket? Or were The Monkees actually a pretty cool buncha guys whose origins may have been suspect, but whose contributions to popular culture are formidable and wide-ranging indeed not to mention no less worthy than, say, Wham!’s or William Shatner’s?
Quite simply—quite pimply—put then, Are The Monkees really, honestly, "bubblegum," or are they not? Well, for starters, Carl explains:
Carl Cafarelli: I don’t regard The Monkees as a bubblegum group, but I can see how the group’s artificial origin lends itself to a dissenting opinion. On paper, these guys would seem to be the perfect prototype for a bubble-band. First and foremost, they were a prefabricated, fictional rock 'n' roll group, a manufactured commodity concocted to sell as many records and boxes of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes as is humanly possible. But it's a point of some debate as to whether The Monkees can truly be considered a bubblegum band by definition alone. Let's review the evidence then. The Monkees—Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork—were four young men selected, from "cattle call"-style open auditions, to play a rock 'n' roll group in a weekly TV series. Each had some musical background, though that background was really almost coincidental to their selection as Monkees.
Gary Pig Gold: Agreed, insomuch as Micky was "taught" to be The Monkees’ drummist, and Davy never could quite get the hang of his tambourine, now could he? But then again, Paul McCartney became the Beatle basser only because no one else in the group wanted the job. But I digress, don’t I?
CC: Speaking of which, faster than you or I could say A Hard Day’s Night, pop music veteran Don "The Man With The Golden Ears" Kirshner was enlisted to oversee all things musical concerning this, yes, most pre-fab of projects. In no time flat, his well-greased, tried and tested machinery clicked into action, and Monkee music began pouring forth from Kirshner’s formidable stable of songsmiths (Carole King & Gerry Goffin, Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil). These songs-to-go were then quickly recorded by top Los Angeles session musicians, with The Monkees themselves strictly relegated to a vocals-only role.
GPG: But that was actually more of a scheduling decision than a musical one, seeing that the first Monkee recording sessions took place as production on the television series was going into high gear. Still, from day one Mike Nesmith attended as many studio dates as time allowed, performing not only guitar duty but actually contributing some fine original songs to boot (and possibly even inventing that dreaded "country-rock" genre in the process).
CC: It’s just that some of us remain unconvinced The Monkees were ever really, truly a bubblegum act through and through, their prefabricated status notwithstanding. In actual fact, most of The Monkees' recordings don't sound like bubblegum records!
GPG: Neither do, to what’s left of my ears, most Lemon Pipers songs either, but go on.
CC: "Last Train To Clarksville"? A clone of The Beatles' "Paperback Writer," sure, but also an effervescent rockin' pop ditty on its own merit.
GPG: Actually, I would’ve thought "Ticket To Ride"
CC: "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone"? Prime garage-rock, proto-punk that even The Sex Pistols couldn't make any surlier.
GPG: Have you heard Paul Revere & the Raiders’ (pre-Monkee, b.t.w.) version? Yowza!
CC: Absolutely! But look, these songs just don’t fit that same bubblegum mold soon to be indelibly cast by Messrs. Kasenetz and Katz. Instead, each hit sounds like a stirring example of AM-friendly pop-rock, with The Monkees' artificial origin the sole, negligible difference between them and contemporary efforts from the Raiders, Turtles, Dave Clark Five, Hollies, and most every other Caucasian act whose name began with the word "The."
GPG: Well, herein we truly begin splitting musical wads of Bubblicious grape as it were. I boldly stand steadfast to my claim that most every single number recorded and released by The Monkees during 1966 and 1967—yes, even Woolhat Mike’s early attempts at alt-C&W—more than comfortably fit into that hallowed realm occupied at the time by Tommy James, Tommy Roe, and even the most stickiest of "Super K" Kreations. I mean, geez, with an Anthony Newley-on-helium voice (and persona) the likes of Davy Jones’, even a Monkee reading of "White Rabbit" could’ve more than held its own against "Chewy Chewy" or, dare I say it, "Yummy Yummy Yummy."
CC: Oh, I disagree. Not necessarily about Davy—he was the teen idol of the bunch, after all, and the closest to a bubblegum figure among the individual Monks. But he wasn’t even Tthe Monkees’ main vocalist; Micky Dolenz was. And Dolenz’s voice had an inherent earthiness, almost a soulfulness, that simply was not "bubblegum."
GPG: Hmmm, you sayin’ Joey Levine ain’t got no earthiness or no soul? And what about Archie Andrews (I mean, Ron Dante)?!! Them’s fightin’ words, boy!
CC: Yeah, and The Banana Splits were a street gang. Furthermore, most Monkee material—regardless of who was singing—didn’t display any of the expected hallmarks of true bubbledom. It may be a mistake to try to draw specific parameters for what is or isn’t "bubblegum," but I’d say a bubblegum tune oughtta be characterized by some (ideally, a contrived) sense of childish innocence, some willful stupidity and/or a moronically catchy rhythm, a la the pulsin’ beat of The Ohio Express, or even The Ramones’ "I Wanna Be Sedated".
GPG: "D-U-M-B, Everyone’s accusing me," as I think the saying goes.
CC: Indeed. Yet on those first two Monkees LPs, only "Laugh," "Gonna Buy Me A Dog," and maybe "Your Auntie Grizelda" veer into Fleer territory, as it were and "Gonna Buy Me A Dog" was really more of a piss-take anyway.
GPG: You mean your copy of Monkee album number one doesn’t contain "I’ll Be True To You" (much more chewy chewy than The Hollies’ version ever was!), or even "Let’s Dance On" (which, I dare point out, was immediately re-written as, among several others, "Down at Lulu’s")?
CC: Both were still just regular ol’ pop tunes, and not all that gummy; "Let's Dance On" could probably trace its genealogy to The Isley Brothers' "Shout" and The Contours' "Do You Love Me?" Whatever the case may be, after those two albums with Kirshner, The Monkees expanded beyond the role of mere prefab sitcom rockers. Demands for live concert appearances, coupled with Nesmith's and Tork's own determination that they be allowed to start contributing more musically, led to The Monkees becoming an actual band as it were.
GPG: Once again, authentic bubblegum tactics, Carl: don’t throw together your performance unit until after you’ve chalked up a hit or two! You know, we could actually be talking Grass Roots or even Cuff Links here, I trust you realize.
CC: The Grass Roots weren’t bubblegum either. But now I’m digressing! It's also worth noting a specific song which is said (perhaps apocryphally) to have helped mark that infamous transition from puppet Monkees to hey-hey-we're-a-rock-band Monkees. In 1967, Kirshner presented his boys (and former Turtle Chip Douglas, whom the band had just appointed as their producer) with a brand new Jeff Barry /Andy Kim tune he wanted them to record. Legend has it that The Monkees rebelled, rejected the song, and started a chain of events that would ultimately lead to Kirshner's permanent expulsion from the project, followed by the recording of the landmark Headquarters album.
GPG: Oh boy, here it comes…
CC: The song in question? A little something called "Sugar, Sugar." As Chip later told Monkee biographer Eric Lefcowitz, "I'm glad I was in there at the time. I probably saved The Monkees from having to do some real bubblegum." [Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth editors’ note: Jeff Barry disputes this story, but Don Kirshner has gone on record validating it. Our money’s on Jeff.]
GPG: Chip Douglas, I duly toss a stale stick of Aspergum your way! C’mon, so what did your Monkeemen turn down "Sugar, Sugar" for? None other than "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You," a little piece of Brill-manufactured fluff from the very pen of Neil Diamond—and sung, as if I needed to drive my point any further home, by Davy "I’ve Got a Luverly Buncha Coconuts" Jones himself. I rest my case, Carl!
CC: Well... no. "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You" was originally prepared under Kirshner’s auspices, and actually released (improperly) on Kirshner’s authority with "She Hangs Out" as its B-side. This single was released only in Canada, immediately withdrawn, and Kirshner’s actions in this regard were the specific grounds for his dismissal.
GPG: Those wacky Canadians… at least they know their bubblegum when they hear it.
CC: "A Little Bit Me" was issued as the next Monkees single, but with the Nesmith-written, Monkees-played (and infinitely superior) "The Girl I Knew Somewhere" replacing "She Hangs Out" on the flip.
GPG: Trés-groovy harpsichord solo by supposedly dumb-Monkee Pete on "…Girl I Knew…" notwithstanding, from that first fateful post-Kirshner 45 ever onwards, the Monkees’ halcyon daze as guaranteed Tiger Beat-approved hit-makers were definitely more than numbered. I implore: had Monkee Mike not forever scared away the Man With The Golden Ears (purportedly by threatening to punch his facial lights out), and then manhandled his make-believe bandmates down that ill-fated path towards, quote unquote artistic credibility, perhaps we would have all been spared such well-meaning but undeniably heavy-handed stabs at post-Pepper relevance as "Zor And Zam" and (the J.F.K. assassination version especially of) "Mommy And Daddy," not to mention Jack Nicholson’s screenplay for Head. (A kinda crappy script, I know, but at least it wasn’t Magical Mystery Tour or Renaldo and Clara.)
CC: Whoa! We’re headed down the wrong road here, Butch. The question isn’t whether The Monkees made better records with or without Kirshner’s supervision; it’s merely a question of whether those earlier records could be described as "bubblegum." I like bubblegum! I like The Archies, and I like "Sugar, Sugar" (though I confess to liking Wilson Pickett’s incredible version even more).
CC: My contention that the Monkees weren’t a bubblegum group is not a value judgment, but merely a rejection of that label being applied to our beloved Prefab Four. The Beatles, at least initially, had something of a manufactured image, formed by press hype and by A Hard Day’s Night; they even had a weekly TV cartoon series, for cryin’ out loud! But the Beatles were not a bubblegum group.
GPG: But y’know, I’ve always wondered how musical history could have been forever re-written had only Kasenetz n’ Katz, rather than Phil Spector, been called in to salvage those Get Back/ Let It Be sessions...
CC: One can only wonder...! By the way, Paul Revere & the Raiders wore funny costumes, didn’t seem to take themselves very seriously at all, and had daily TV exposure on Where The Action Is! But they rocked like nobody’s business, and the Raiders were not a bubblegum group.
GPG: Hey! I’ll have you know I consider "Mr. Sun, Mr. Moon" to be right on up there with "Bang-Shang-A-Lang" and "Hooray For Hazel."
CC: At one point The Who was supposedly being groomed to star in a British TV series...
GPG: Now that would have been awesome! I always did enjoy Keith Moon’s James Cagney impersonation more than Micky Dolenz’s.
CC: Even so, that would not have made The Who a bubblegum group. So much, then, for the notion that a musical act’s hype and calculated marketing would necessarily classify them as "bubblegum."
GPG: Carl, you like blinding me with science, don’t you?
CC: Actually, I can't stand Thomas Dolby.
GPG: Ahh but was he "bubblegum" ?
CC: Ick! How about the act of making records? Both The Animals and The Yardbirds relied heavily on outside songwriters, yet neither was a bubblegum group. At Motown, acts like the Four Tops, the Temptations and the Supremes utilized a veritable Hit City assembly line to create The Sound Of Young America, yet none of these acts was a bubblegum group.
GPG: I have but two almighty words to insert here: "Jackson 5ive."
CC: I'll grant you that one! Also, both The Byrds and The Who used session musicians on their earliest efforts, and Brian Wilson used session musicians to craft the best of The Beach Boys’ canon, yet none of these was a bubblegum group. (Carrying the illustration a bit too far, The Monkees were more of a "real" band on Headquarters than The Beach Boys ever were on Pet Sounds, but anyone who wishes to dis Pet Sounds on that basis is pretty much applying for a fist-fight as far as I’m concerned.)
GPG: And as far as I am too—and I’m no rock critic to be toyed lightly with either: I was once a bouncer at a salad bar, I’ll have you all know.
CC: Teen idolatry? Most of the true bubblegum acts of the sixties were anonymous, while Davy and the other Monkees joined the likes of the Beatles, the Stones, the Raiders and (I might concede this one) Herman’s Hermits in the sacred pages of 16 and Tiger Beat.
GPG: Most of the true bubblegum acts of the sixties were only anonymous, methinks, because Buddah Records just didn’t take Gloria Stavers out to, um, lunch often enough...
CC: I don’t even really regard Herman’s Hermits as a bubblegum group per se, but those others most certainly weren’t. And neither were The Monkees. And, to respond to your own tangent, The Monkees had more than their share of musical triumphs after Kirshner’s exit, even if their days at the Tops of the Pops were indeed numbered. Their third and fourth albums, Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd., expanded the Monkee sound without any discernible dip in quality. Tracks like "You Just May Be The One," "Pleasant Valley Sunday," "Words," "For Pete’s Sake," "The Door Into Summer" and "What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?" would be stellar numbers regardless of their origin.
GPG: And let’s not forget the immortal "Zilch," which really truly was the first recorded instance of (bubble-) "rap"—and three years before the Last Poets too! Though let’s also point out, from those very same elpees you speak of, "I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind," "Cuddly Toy," "Star Collector" (again, years before the Stones et al. ever thought to immortalize the Plaster Casters, etc. etc., in song and dance!). And Tork’s crowning achievement "Peter Percival Patterson’s Pet Pig Porky": all of which would have sounded more than comfortably at home on any Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus album.
CC: Granted, the quality to dreck ratio may have dipped following PAC&J, but there remained (scattered) moments of brilliance right up to the end. The last Monkees album, 1970’s Changes, even landed the Monkees deep inside the bubblegum periphery…
CC:…as sole remaining members Dolenz and Jones worked alongside gummy stalwarts Jeff Barry, Andy Kim and Bobby Bloom to create a decidedly lightweight–but not wholly unappealing—album. Micky and Davy followed that with one honest-to-Neil-Bogart bubblegum single, "Do It In The Name Of Love," released under their own names in 1971.
GPG: Yes, God bless my man Davy! At least he forever stayed stuck firmly to his bubbleyum roots, what with all his Kirshner-worthy, pop-by-committee solo albums and Brady Bunch guest spots. Meanwhile, his by now fellow ex-Monkee Mike was reduced to hawking portentous-indeed "books with soundtracks" from the back of Rolling Stone magazine. Anyone out there got a spare copy of the Davy Hello! Live-in-Japan album they’d like to swap for my original box-set edition of Michael Nesmith’s The Prison? I didn’t think so.
CC: I think I’ll just reject both extremes... Or maybe we can trade the whole mess in for a solid, rockin’ pop Micky Dolenz-Peter Tork album?
GPG: Only if the Man With The Golden Ears produces.
CC: Agreed. Him or Joey Ramone.