Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Monkees: The Revenge and Resurrection of Tin Pan Alley

There was a time when it was seen as cool, and definitely hip, to disparage The Monkees. Perceived by some as the Justin Biebers of their time, they were even called "The Pre-Fab Four," cheap imitations of The Beatles and defined as teeny-bopper fodder. Yet despite the crass commercial packaging and their faux A Hard Day's Night-style TV show, The Monkees (who early on had seasoned session men playing their instruments) were more than just a marketing executive's idea of a wet dream. They were used essentially as a volley shot, a cannon blast that reached back to the American Revolution and aimed towards a series of British Invasion bands, led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Were they simply a fad? Maybe they were conceived that way. But The Monkees turned out to be the revenge and resurrection of Tin Pan Alley.

Tin Pan Alley

Tin Pan Alley was the name given to a publishing company located on West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. From 1880 to 1953, this block became something of an epicenter for both songwriting and music publishing in America; and it provided the foundation for what became the standards in American song penned by composers like Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser and Yip Harburg. Composers and lyricists were hired on a permanent basis to provide an industry for popular music. For until the emergence of Tin Pan Alley, European operettas had been the predominant norm and influence on American songs.

When Elvis Presley essentially broke the pop colour barrier in 1956 with "Hound Dog," a cover of Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton's stinging R&B hit (written by the white songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), Tin Pan Alley found new life in the rock & roll of the early Sixties. It also found a new address in the Brill Building, located at 1619 Broadway in Manhattan, where a whole new generation of popular songwriters, most of whom were were young Jewish kids from Brooklyn, found their artistic salvation. They included Carole King and Gerry Goffin ("Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"); Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield ("Breaking Up is Hard to Do"); Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwhich ("Be My Baby"); Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil ("You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling"); and Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus ("This Magic Moment").

Leiber & Stoller & Elvis

As a pop music phenomenon, the Brill Building was the brain-child of Don Kirshner, an ambitious 21-year-old music publisher and native New Yorker who spent his summers as a bellboy in the Catskills listening to acts like Frankie Laine ("Moonlight Gambler"), who inspired him to try his hand at songwriting. In 1958, Kirshner met Al Nevins, a very successful composer with a pop group called The Three Suns. Kirshner convinced Nevins that by publishing songs, they could market to the booming teenage market and make a fortune. Aldon Music was born and they set up shop in the Brill Building with an ambition to make more than a financial killing. "No larger gap could be imagined than that between the sophisticated cocktail music of Tin Pan Alley and the rude street music of rock & roll," wrote critic Greg Shaw in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (1976). "Yet it was this very gap that Nevins and Kirshner set out to bridge."

Don Kirshner
For a brief but exciting period in American popular music, Aldon Music provided such a bridge. What helped lay the groundwork for the success of the Brill Building was that the music publishers – as they had earlier in the century – held significant power. By contracting work to songwriters, then shopping them to a number of record companies, they could pair off songs with performers in the stables of various labels. The record companies, having quick access to Top Forty radio, could make a bundle off releasing 45rpm singles. From 1958 through 1963, they had astonishing and lucrative success, until The Beatles and The Rolling Stones arrived on shore to spoil the party. "The British Invasion introduced us to the concept of the self-contained singing band," wrote Frank Zappa in his entertaining and sharp memoir The Real Frank Zappa Book (1989). "The success of British groups forced a change in the way new American groups were put together. They now had to be self-contained because every bar band that hired live music wanted its own little U.S. version of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones." As The Beatles had transformed American pop songwriting by instilling the idea that songwriters could perform their own material, the young songwriters of the Brill Building in New York were finding fewer and fewer outlets for their material. In order to survive (as well as to follow The Beatles' lead), some, like Neil Diamond and Carole King, began recording and singing their own compositions.

But when The Beatles disappeared for a short while after their last tumultuous world tour in 1966, Don Kirshner saw his chance for a comeback and went back to the drawing board. With the help of two burgeoning Hollywood producers, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, they came up with the concept of creating The Monkees, a replica of the Fab Four for a new generation still pining for the lads from Liverpool. In doing so, they not only satisfied the bottomless nostalgia in the TV audience, they also had a band to perform material produced by the Brill Building songwriters. Many notable Los Angeles musicians were auditioned for parts in The Monkees, including the eccentric Van Dyke Parks, who would ultimately collaborate with Brian Wilson on The Beach Boys' doomed Smile project; Steven Stills was rejected because his teeth and hair were not considered TV friendly so he went on to create the Buffalo Springfield with Neil Young; Bobby "Boris" Pickett, who did the novelty song "Monster Mash," was considered; and so was Danny Hutton, who went on to fame with Three Dog Night. In the end, the producers went with British actor Davy Jones, American musicians Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork, plus American TV actor Mickey Dolenz.

(left to right) Mike Nesmith, Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz & Peter Tork

While The Monkees would appear to be performing as a pop band on the show, it was session musicians who were providing the music. The series would kick off on September 12, 1966 with an episode called "Royal Flush," where Dolenz tries to save a Princess from her evil uncle. But The Monkees had only one single, "Last Train to Clarksville" (which composers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart based on the fade-out harmony of The Beatles' "Paperback Writer"), on the radio at the time. Their other songs ranged from the Three-Blind-Mice melody of "The Monkees Theme," to the cloying ballad "I Want to be Free." Their attempt at straight-ahead rock was the rather tepid Freddie Cannon imitation "Let's Dance On." Since Schneider and Rafalson knew that the band needed to fill at least six or seven minutes of the show with music because the scripts were (to put it charitably) pretty thin, they made a phone call to Kirshner, who was now the head of the Columbia/Screen Gems' music division. Kirshner put his stable – Gerry Goffin and Carole King ("Take a Giant Step"), Neil Diamond ("Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)"), Neil Sedaka ("When Love Comes Knocking at Your Door"), Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill ("Love is Only Sleeping") – back into the spotlight. Within the week, Kirshner sent a dozen pre-recorded music tracks for the group to dub their voices onto, plus a number of new songs. There was now enough material to fill out the season, plus some extras to fit a debut album. The fall of 1966 saw "Last Train to Clarksville" reaching #1, along with the TV show.

The band's relationship with Kirshner over the next few years, though, was hardly reciprocal with generosity. In particular, Mike Nesmith, the gifted Texas musician and songwriter, was pissed and feeling more like a trained chimpanzee. He wanted the group to actually be a group and play their own instruments. In time, leading their own revolution, The Monkees would squeeze Kirshner out for $35 million in compensation thanks to Nesmith's rants (and threats). By their third album, Headquarters (1967), they finally became more of an autonomous group. But without a Kirshner to hate, The Monkees began to fragment over the years. Before the end of the decade, their show was taken off the air. They rallied to make one counter-culture cult film, the inchoate Head (1968), which had an improbable cast that included boxer Sonny Liston, Victor Mature, Annette Funicello and composer Frank Zappa. Though it was easy to see The Monkees as an inauthentic rip-off of The Beatles, merely hired hands playing trivial pop, the group did show some substance beneath its plastic cover. In fact, Frank Zappa, who had already been snidely satirizing the values of American plastic culture, thought The Monkees sounded better than the love-and-beads bands that were sprouting up in the wake of The Beatles' retirement from touring. He would even make an appearance on their television show where he and Mike Nesmith switched identities to do a mock interview.

Besides the little joke of having them open for The Jimi Hendrix Experience during the latter's 1967 American tour, The Monkees would go on to inspire a number of surprising acts in the years to come. Rappers Run-D.M.C. would record Nesmith's "Mary, Mary" in 1988; Smash Mouth took on the Neil Diamond-penned "I'm a Believer" in 2001; and Cassandra Wilson would give new life to "Last Train to Clarksville" in 1995. Besides being a huge influence on Paul Westerberg of The Replacements (who performed the John Stewart composition "Daydream Believer" and Nesmith's "You May Just Be the One"), R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe once stated that they would not accept induction into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame until The Monkees were inducted.

Mike Nesmith (as Zappa) & Frank Zappa (as Nesmith)

The ascension of The Monkees made it clear that, in the wake of  the absence of The Beatles, pop fans were continuing to hunger for a spark of magic, a sense that what they believed back in 1964 wasn't a false promise. Maybe The Monkees were something of a false promise; but they were also possibly one of the first clone bands that ultimately made some good pop records. And for a short period of time, American songwriters brought back to life their dream factory of pop standards. 

(*Note: After the death of Davy Jones last February, the surviving members of The Monkees (who were planning a reunion tour at the time) decided to continue anyway. According to Mike Nesmith, on his Facebook page, Kevin Spacey (?!) offered to take Jones' place. (Perhaps Spacey's channelling of Bobby Darin, who was Don Kirshner's first act, inspired him to take on Jones.) Luckily, Nesmith, having a firm grasp on reality, kindly declined the offer. For a taste of what concert goers have in store, proving that all reunion tours aren't merely cash-ins, here is a sample from one of their recent shows.)

 – Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is finishing production on a radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney to be broadcast on December 30th. 

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