Monday, July 27, 2009

231. The Monkees: Then & Now...The Best of the Monkees (1986)

I've told this story before, but it bears repeating, especially because now it can be seen completely in context.

In the summer of 1986 I was 9 years old, and my mom shipped me off to Kentucky to spend two weeks with my grandparents. I was terribly homesick, and my mom tried to assuage this by sending letters and postcards. My step-dad also got into the act, sending me a tape for my Walkman along with a note that read, "I saw this and got it for you because I know they're one of your favorite groups." The tape was Then & Now...The Best of the Monkees.

That was the summer that The Monkees experienced a 20th anniversary career revival, courtesy of reruns on MTV and Nick at Nite. In fact, that revival was the reason for the existence of Then & Now.... The album was a cash-in. It also contained the first new Monkees songs since Changes in 1970: That Was Then, This Is Now, Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere, and Kicks.

In a continuation of their twisty band-member history, Davy Jones chose not to participate in the recording of the new songs. According to Mickey's autobiography I'm A Believer, he and Davy had a falling out not long after the release of Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart and hadn't spoken in the 9 years since. There was no official kiss-and-make-up between the two, but both recognized that a potentially lucrative reunion tour was worth an attempt to co-exist. Peter Tork had been lured back as well, and though he was lukewarm about the idea of recording, Mickey convinced him to participate. Michael Nesmith was reportedly amenable to a reunion but too busy to commit to it.

So the three new Monkees songs are really just Mickey with Peter on background vocals. Davy refused to help promote or perform the new songs, and even went so far as to block the release of a second single after the success of That Was Then, This Is Now (the song reached a respectable #20 on the Billboard chart).

In addition to cassette and LP, Then & Now... was also released on CD with 11 (!) additional songs. The original tracklist (the one that I burned into my brain that Kentucky summer) was as follows:
1. (Theme From) The Monkees
2. Last Train to Clarksville
3. Take a Giant Step
4. I'm A Believer
5. (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone
6. A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You
7. Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere
8. That Was Then, This Is Now
9. The Girl I Knew Somewhere
10. Pleasant Valley Sunday
11. What Am I Doin' Hangin' Round
12. Daydream Believer
13. Valleri
14. Kicks

Of the 11 songs the CD adds, 8 are solid choices (For Pete's Sake, Words, Listen to the Band,
She, Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow), Randy Scouse Git, You Just May Be the One, and Porpoise Song (Theme from Head)). I would have made picked three different songs to replace Sometime in the Morning, Goin' Down, and D.W. Washburn, but that's quibbling. The only clear snub is the absence of the lovely Shades of Gray.

Since I've already written about most of the songs already, there are only five that need discussion. The three new ones, of course, and two songs that had never before made an appearance on a Monkees album. Let's start with the old ones first.

The Girl I Knew Somewhere is a Mike Nesmith composition that was released as a single in 1967 (between the releases of More of the Monkees and Headquarters). Mike writes in a pleasantly melodic bubblegum style (there's not a trace of country, save the natural twang in his vocal). That song's B side, A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You, is even better. The third (and final) song Neil Diamond wrote for the Monkees cribs its handclaps and tambourine from Cherry, Cherry, but manages to charm despite being derivative. Davy's vocal is especially noteworthy, as is the prominent organ. Both of these songs are treasures and the decision to include them on Then & Now... was a smart one.

It's hard for me to look at the new songs subjectively. Yes, I recognize that the modern production sets them far apart from their predecessors, but you have to remember my perspective. I heard them for the first time alongside the original hits, so to me they were as much a part of the Monkees tapestry as anything else. In short, my estimation of the three newer songs may be a little higher than that of a person who had been a Monkees fan back in the '60s.

That Was Then, This Is Now is a faithful cover of a song by a New Wave garage band from New York called The Mosquitos. The band only released one 5-song EP and never made it big, but they can settle for joining the ranks of the many fine songwriters who provided material for the Monkees. The song itself is a tough guy's apology for his past misdeeds and a promise of undying love. Peter does well on background vocals.

Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere was, fittingly, co-written by Bobby Hart. The keyboards are prominent, but not cheesy, and the lyrics are bittersweet and full of nostalgia for a past relationship. In further evidence of how pop music twisted my romantic views, I used to imagine myself as the song's narrator, in the aftermath of some romance I wished to rekindle. I was 9 years old.

Finally there's Kicks, a remake of the 1966 Paul Revere and the Raiders hit. The arrangement and production are beefed-up '80s style (though the original wasn't exactly wimpy), and Mickey's vocal is as strong as usual. The cautionary lyrics probably spoke to Mickey, who had recovered from drug addiction in the '60s and '70s (though apparently succumbed to them once more once fame called his name again). It's the weakest of the three new cuts, but not by much.

By nearly every criteria (song selection, sequencing, worthwhile new songs), Then & Now... is a very very good greatest hits package. The only real drawback to the album is the fact that the artistic and commercial success of the three new songs led directly to the recording of Pool It!, the band's rock bottom. Stay tuned for more...

Grade: A+
Fave Song: all of them

4 comments:

Allen L. said...

In 1987 I bought my 1st 5 CDs. Sgt. Pepper, Snap!, greatest hits of the 1900s classical, murmur & this one. This monkees collection was the soundtrack for my move to Los Angeles. It's perfect. Time to dig it out.

Christena said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Christena said...

Great posting and lovely points ...........


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Anonymous said...

"The Girl That I Knew Somewhere" blows "A Little Bit Me..." out of the water. Mike's backing vocals toward the end are worth the price of admission alone. Also,it was the song that gave Don Kirshner his walking papers and a milestone in the history of The Monkees.

Thanks for the reviews of all the albums. Very cool and interesting to read.