By Ken Sharp
In commemoration, The Monkees have pulled off the impossible with “Good Times!,” the group’s first new studio album in 20 years, by delivering a timeless record that stands up proudly against their most revered recordings (i.e., “Headquarters” and “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.”). Marrying disparate strands of pop, folk, country, bubble gum and psychedelia, the album, produced by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne fame, is a well-considered welcome throwback to their classic ‘60s sound with strong contributions from surviving members Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, along with the late Davy Jones, who is represented with “Love to Love,” a track resurrected from the ‘60s. Stellar new songwriting contributions written specifically for the “Pre-Fab Four” from XTC’s Andy Partridge (“You Bring The Summer”), Rivers Cuomo from Weezer (“She Makes Me Laugh”), Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie (“Me & Magdalena”) and a stunning psych-rock number penned by Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher (“Birth of an Accidental Hipster”) rounded out by ‘60s-era archival tracks penned by Harry Nilsson (“Good Times,” which features a duet with the late, great Nilsson and Micky Dolenz), Gerry Goffin and Carole King (“I Wasn’t Born To Follow”) and Boyce and Hart (“Whatever’s Right”) complete this splendid return to form.
We recently spoke with Peter Tork, who runs through the making of the new record. Good Times indeed!
GM: Let me first say, any new Monkees album that features Peter Tork on banjo is a good one.
PETER TORK: Thank you very much for that remark, but as it happens the banjo that I do play is more for color than being featured. There just didn’t seem to be any place on the record to feature a banjo. I play a little plunky-plunky kind of thing, and I thought it did the job, but it’s not really featured.
GM: What is the track you keep returning to on “Good Times!”?
TORK: Well, it’s kind of interesting. Back when we were making the CD, I heard the track of “Me & Magdalena” and Michael’s (Nesmith) voice alone — and I was very moved by it. I was swept away. Adam (Schlesinger) chose to produce it as a duet with Micky (Dolenz) singing a second part above Mike, and I’m a little disappointed because I think Mike’s vocal was just amazingly tender and a breakthrough for him, revelatory. I think that the effect is slightly diminished by the duet effect, but that’s the artistic high point from my point of view. The song that keeps coming to mind is “She Makes Me Laugh” written by Rivers Cuomo; it’s an ear worm. (laughs) I’m not sure I think it’s that great exactly but Micky wrote the line “directing traffic in the mall,” which is a great line. There was a line that didn’t seem to work and he and Adam were chattering and chattering and Micky said, “directing traffic in the mall.” It’s perfect for what that song is trying to do. Did you know that Rivers Cuomo graduated from the same high school as I did? The same little town in Mansfield, Connecticut, near the university. I graduated in the first class when the school was founded and Rivers Cuomo (graduated), living under a different name, something much more prosaic.
GM: “Good Times!” is the first new Monkees album in 20 years since “Justus.” What was the mindset behind “Good Times!” as a collective whole?
TORK: Get some guys that were doing pretty well for themselves and who admired The Monkees and get them to write songs for The Monkees. That was pretty much it. With The Monkees, it was timing that a lot of kids came up and they were the younger brothers and sisters of the kids who loved The Beatles, and they wanted something of their own and along came The Monkees — and they had something of their own, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. They were like, You can keep your damn Beatles, I’ve got The Monkees! A lot of kids grew up that way and some of them became musicians.
GM: One of them was Andy Partridge, who made his name in a group called XTC. He was a huge fan of the group in the ’60s and seems overjoyed to have penned a song, “You Bring The Summer,” which is included on “Good Times!”
TORK: That’s great. It’s a treat to have these guys come along and say, “Listen, can we help you make a record?” And we’re like, “You bet, come along, gentlemen!” (laughs) As it turns out, no ladies, but we have a Carole King song on the record.
GM: Speaking of Carole King, you sing lead on “I Wasn’t Born To Follow,” a Carole King/Gerry Goffin song recorded previously by The Byrds. This was a pre-existing track cut in 1968. Whose idea was it to do this one?
TORK: Yes, in large measure. I started to sing it and felt, uh oh, this is a little out of my range. Can we bring the whole track down a whole tone? I think I can do it better that way. But they said, “Just give it a try.” So I just gave it a try and the next thing I knew I was singing the whole thing over and over again without much strain. I mean a little here and there, of course. It was higher than I thought I could keep singing but somehow it just came through. I’m kind of surprised as I listen to that and it sounds better than I do (laughs), if you know what I mean.
GM: Micky has been quoted recently as saying it’s the band’s best album since “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.” How do you assess it against other Monkees studio albums?
TORK: Well, we ‘ve already talked about all the connecting influences and the connecting strains that tie this together with our previous work, but I wouldn’t go so far (to say) it was the best album since that or the better than this other thing. I do have to say that it really stands as genuine record in The Monkees history. It’s not a joke and it’s not a novelty. It’s calculated in some ways but then all records are to some extent. You’ve got to be able to say, “Well, I like this better than that.” But finally it’s the next record by The Monkees. The fact that dozens of years have gone by in between doesn’t seem to change anything. It’s more ‘60s than what we did in the ‘80s and ‘90s. We made three albums in the ‘80s and ‘90s. We did “Pool It!” and we did “Justus” and we did three new songs for “Then & Now,” an Arista greatest hits record. I enjoyed all of them. I still think that “Justus” is a sterling album. I think some of Micky’s work in particular is really stellar. But “Justus” was not frothy bubble gum music. That’s what The Monkees were about on our first two-plus albums. There’s a certain amount of levity in this album. There’s a certain amount of “let’s keep it light and don’t make it too big of a deal” kind of thinking, although “Me & Magdalena” is weighty and very strong and so is “I Wasn’t Born To Follow.” Both of those are pretty strong. Incidentally, wait until you hear “A Better World,” which was written by my brother Nick Thorkelson and I produced it. That’s not on the CD but it’s gonna be available in one of the exclusive editions for a couple of retailers. (Note: The FYE exclusive compact disc contains 14 tracks, including “A Better World,” while the Barnes & Noble exclusive vinyl includes a bonus 7-inch of “Love’s What I Want” b/w “A Better World.”) Andrew Sandoval put a string quartet on it for the color. I think it’s a very good song and it’s easy to listen to. It’s not turgid or thick but it’s very significant. I think it talks to a very important world point. I’m just pleased as hell to even have had a chance for it to go on a limited edition thing. I would have liked for it to have been on the original album, but it didn’t come to pass that way.
GM: Tell us about your songwriting contribution to the record, “Little Girl.”
TORK: I wrote that song a while ago. Actually, I had thought of it as the sequel to “I Wanna Be Free” for Davy. I had that song in mind for Davy to be singing it and in fact Davy liked it a lot. He thought it was a great song and we just never got around to putting that song down in the studio. I don’t know why; just one thing got in the way of another. I’m a little lackadaisical about a lot of stuff but I’m glad we got it together at the end finally. For that song, I was in the band playing guitar with Adam on bass and his friends on guitar and drums. That was one of the ways where it was fully participatory along the lines of your previous question. But I actually had hopes of Davy singing it and of course, sadly, that’s not going to happen.
GM: Davy is represented on the album with “Love To Love,” which is an older studio recording circa the mid-‘60s. The recording really captures the spirit of Davy.
TORK: It was great to have young Davy, early Davy on the record doing that song in his inimitable Broadway/Cabaret style, and we got a chance to join him to the best of our ability and throw in a little bit. It’s great to have a work by Davy on this CD. There’s a saving grace to that. Wait, maybe not a saving grace as there’s nothing to be saved from but it’s a great addition. It adds wonderfully to the record. I’m pleased as heck about it.
GM: Are there any tracks where you worked in the studio at the same time as Micky and Mike or was it a case of mainly working on your own adding overdubs?
TORK: Micky and I were in the studio together a lot. Micky would have ideas and I’d be listening and throwing in my two bits worth. I’d have to say it was a mixed mode in the terms that you’re putting it.
GM: Out of the Monkees studio album catalog, you’ve always been partial to “Headquarters,” the first album to showcase The Monkees as sole creative forces. What are your most indelible memories of working on that album?
TORK: “Band 6.” “Band 6,” as you may remember, was the Warner Brothers cartoon theme. Michael was learning pedal steel and played a little bit on it and we did this thing where Mike and I went, “da, da dum…” and Micky’s going (makes crazy sounds) on the drums and it was absurd. Then Chip Douglas, who was our producer, said, “I think you got it, Micky” and we burst into all together at the same speed and at the same time and ripped through it to our amazed surprise and joy. The fact that we were able to find a way to make that part of the record, that to me was the point of “Headquarters.” It was us wild guys, us crazy kids, doing the best we knew how with what we had. I listen to that album now and it’s tinny and a little bit like a teenage garage band, and we weren’t teenagers any longer at that point, but it had that teenage garage band vibe. It wasn’t as slick as the first two albums. I think things like “Band 6” and “Zilch” and the fact that we were making the arrangements of these songs ourselves as we went on through it. I particularly remember working out the piano introduction to “Shades of Gray” and doing some arrangement ideas on “Mr. Webster.” I remember all that stuff and that was the great joy of it for me. Making the record and just being part of the overall creative process from the ground up; that’s what I live for.
GM: Share the back story behind perhaps your best known Monkees song, “For Pete’s Sake.” You co-wrote that song with Joey Richards. Who was he?
TORK: Joey was a Village kid back in my Greenwich Village days. He was just hurting for a place to stay, so I had him at my house hanging out. He was a good cook, so that was a bonus. I found this chord on the guitar. It’s like if you take a C7 grip, just the inner four strings and take it up a whole two frets, the top string becomes the ninth of the chord. This guy taught me a grip on the chords that if you play it wrong you’ve created an add 4 to the seven chord. I know this sounds very technical. I came to a halt at the third line and Joey threw in a line. The lyrics to “For Pete’s Sake” are kind of teenage in its grasp of the issues — shall we say, the depth of its grasp of the issues — but it’s certainly a fun song. And we do that song today. It’ll be a part of The Monkees set list for the new tour. Unlike the record where Micky sings it, I’ll be singing it in concert but not in the same key. (laughs)
GM: The lyrics carry a timeless message that still prevails.
TORK: Well, we can hope for it. Check the lyrics to “A Better World’ for a rather more sophisticated and, for my money, a more direct and useful approach to the issues at hand — although it was wonderful to have the song selected as being the closing theme to the TV show from the second season through all of its reruns.
GM: I think a lot more people who aren’t big Monkees fans know that song, but as the title is not a part of the lyrics, might have a harder time identifying it.
TORK: Yeah, that’s right. Mike named the song. We didn’t have a name for the song, so he named it. Mike’s proclivity was to write songs that had titles which didn’t have anything to do with the content of the song; that’s something Dylan did a lot.
GM: Lastly, take us back to The Monkees first live public performance. What are your recollections of that show? Wasn’t that in Hawaii?
TORK: No. In fact, the first time we ever played together was in the making of the pilot. We had just met and we were doing one of the scenes where the Monkees were supposed to be playing at a dance and during the shooting of that scene there was a lull in the production. The producer and director were consulting over in the corner, and the four of us were sitting on stage with nothing to do so we turned to the tech guys and went, “Are these amps real? Do they work? Can we turn them on or are they just dummies?” They said, “No, they’re working amps; you can turn them on.” So we turned them on and started playing “Johnny B. Goode” and “I Got A Woman” and began to yell the popular 12-bar blues chord rock songs of the day and all the extras got up and danced. We’d never played before together in our lives, not a note! But we turned on the amps and we played and the extras were dancing. I had taught Micky how to play drums the night before. “Count four, 1, 2, 3, 4. On 1, hit the sock and the kick drum, on 2 hit the sock, on 3 hit the sock and the snare and on 4 hit the sock. 1, 2, 3, 4…”(imitates a drummer playing a rudimentary beat). So the next thing that happened was a “Last Train to Clarksville” promotion. It was actually the first train out of some town near San Diego. Several hundred kids won the right to ride the “Last Train to Clarksville.” We’d gotten some town near San Diego to rename itself Clarksville for the occasion. The kids got on this box car and we played a four or five-song set for these kids and the train went all the way up to L.A. Then we dropped them off and the train went back down to San Diego and another bunch of kids got on and we played the same set for the kids going all the way to L.A. I think we did four legs of that and we played for those kids. (laughing) We were in a box car on a train moving. That was absurd. So after all that, we went to Hawaii and then we did our first hour-long show. We had seen The Beatles at Dodger Stadium before The Monkees broke. Nobody knew who we were so we could go watch the show and in those days the common show was five acts and each one of them did 20 minutes, including the stars. The Beatles came out after five different acts and they did 20 minutes and we were so disappointed. We said, “Let’s not do that!” So we created a hour-long (show) and we had a group who played covers of the pop hits of the day and a girl singer and I think she had one hit song of her own — I can’t remember who it was — and then we came out and did an hour. We started off with just the four of us and then we broke down and had solo turns with the backup band — the opening act band came out and backed us up for solo turns — and then they left and we finished the hour, just the four of us. We did an hour that way. It was nerve-wracking because we’d never played an hour in front of people before. We had a few ideas and we tried them and they didn’t work very well. But it was an out-of-town tryout. We were in Hawaii and word was not gonna get back if we were really, really terrible. (laughs)