2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Monkees -- and about the 47th anniversary of the year the world was supposed to have forgotten about them. But for half a century, the Prefab Four have endured, through after-school reruns of their short-lived TV series, countless greatest hits compilations, reunion tours (most featuring two or three of the original quartet), box sets meticulously documenting every note this non-band ever laid down in the studio, and even a couple of generally unsuccessful albums of new music.
2016 also appears to be the end of the Monkees as a going concern. Many fans thought the end had come in 2012, when Davy Jones, the British heartthrob who sang some of their biggest hits and bashed a tambourine with singular style, died suddenly of a heart attack, just months after finishing the Monkees' lucrative and acrimonious 45th anniversary tour. But whether it was due to his passing or simply the stars aligning, Mike Nesmith -- the lone Monkee who'd resisted the vast majority of the reunions, and the only one who'd really enjoyed any success as a solo artist -- came back to the fold for two staggeringly good tours. Davy was a great performer, but Nesmith was the superior musician and songwriter, and those two tours, which featured obscure B-sides and album tracks along with the hits, showed what a great band the Monkees were.
Nesmith was also on board for the most surprising gift of all to diehard Monkees fans, a new album -- their first in 20 years and only their third since they originally disbanded in 1970. The Monkees are remembered by most as a singles band, and with good reason. Their early LPs are sprinkled with goofy novelty tunes or treacly ballads. And their last few were so haphazardly thrown together by their record label that a favorite pastime of Monkees fans is to create "alternate reality" versions, utilizing vastly superior outtakes that were inexplicably left in the vaults for decades.
But Good Times! isn't just a new Monkees album, it's the best Monkees album since the ambitious, psychedelicized soundtrack to their 1968 film Head lost them the teenyboppers that constituted a big chunk of their audience. Good Times! features the unearthing of a few chestnuts they'd never gotten around to finishing back in the '60s; some terrific new songs written by longtime fans like Weezer's Rivers Cuomo, Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard, and XTC's Andy Partridge; and a sympathetic producer in Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger. The result is an album that sounds like the Monkees without sounding like an attempt to turn back the clock to 1966. The three surviving Monkees, now in their 70s, still sound surprisingly good. Micky Dolenz's voice is closer to his '60s peak than anyone would have a right to expect a half-century later, while Peter Tork, the Johnny One-Note of the band back in their heyday, actually turns in the best vocals of his career.
The album's peaks, the Gibbard-composed "Me And Magdalena" and "Birth Of An Accidental Hipster," written by British rock icons Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher, stand with the greatest songs the Monkees have ever recorded. How many other bands can make that claim fifty years and twelve albums on? It's enough to make a fan hope for a sequel. Instead, Good Times! will be the Monkees' swan song; Nesmith announced his retirement from the band following one last show this week near his home base in California. Sure, Dolenz and Tork will continue touring as the Monkees. Given the success of Good Times! (it's their highest-charting album since 1968), there may even be more records. But it's the equivalent of Paul and Ringo getting together and calling themselves The Beatles -- well, sort of, but not really (although heaven knows I'll see the shows and buy the records).
It's hard to fathom today, but the Monkees got a lot of shit when they first formed for not being a "real" band but four actor/musicians who were cast to play parts in a TV show. Perhaps the fact that their records outsold those of the Beatles in 1967, the year of Sgt. Pepper, prompted the backlash. But one listen to their music, old or new, shows that whether they were an actual band or not, they were dazzlingly good at whatever it was they were doing, with a genuine chemistry that any band, real or otherwise, could only wish for.
The Monkees will be remembered for their TV show and a handful of songs -- "Last Train To Clarksville," "Daydream Believer," "Pleasant Valley Sunday," maybe a few others. But dig a little below the surface and you'll find a lot of mind-bending and ear-opening moments. Davy Jones rocking out with Neil Young on guitar. A Michael Nesmith-sung country-pop masterpiece worthy of Glen Campbell which wasn't released for more than 20 years, presumably due to its controversial lyrics. A psychedelic pop classic written by Carole King that bombed when it was first released, but for my money, it's their finest moment on vinyl. Album tracks that could have been hit singles. Outtakes that could have been hit singles. And so on.
It's a hell of a legacy. And it's a legacy worth celebrating, and enjoying, even if the Monkeemobile has made its last ride.