2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the first time Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork first hit TV screens and record sleeves as The Monkees, and indeed, it’s shaping up to be an auspicious year. In advance of the restored Blu-ray premiere of The Monkees’ television show, new album Good Times! and a tour featuring Dolenz and Tork, Rhino has released The Monkees 50: Classic Album Collection, a 10-disc box set collecting the original version of every one of the band’s Colgems albums between The Monkees (1966) and Changes (1970) as well as a disc of bonus tracks. This set, available through independent record stores and Barnes and Noble and FYE locations as part of Rhino’s Start Your Ear Off Right campaign, traces the foursome’s unlikely arc that led to some of the most enduring pop music of all time.
Though The Monkees didn’t organically come together as a band, they certainly ended up as one – a triumphant rock-and-roll story. Publishing guru Don Kirshner surrounded the group with the very best from the beginning. Writer-producers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart came into their own with the songs they supplied for The Monkees, including “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I Wanna Be Free,” and “(Theme From) The Monkees,” and the debut album also featured tunes by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and future Bread leader David Gates. While The Monkees featured Jones, Dolenz, Tork and Nesmith primarily as vocalists, it boasted songs written and produced by Nesmith, plus instrumental contributions from Tork. The cream of the crop from the L.A. Wrecking Crew brought their considerable skills to the album, too, including Glen Campbell, James Burton, Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel, Jim Gordon, Al Casey and Mike Deasy. Upon its release, The Monkees spent 78 weeks on the Billboard chart – thirteen of those at No. 1. It was an auspicious beginning to The Monkees’ career, and still makes a fun and an exciting listen as it opens this box set.
All of The Monkees’ enduring career highlights are here. In addition to Boyce and Hart and Goffin and King – who would provide many songs for The Monkees including the biting rock satire of “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and the hauntingly trippy “Porpoise Song” for 1968’s Head – Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and Harry Nilsson all supplied timeless pop tunes for The Monkees. And with the group’s third album, Headquarters, The Monkees perpetrated what TV Guide called “The Great Revolt of ’67” by wresting control of their artistic destiny from Don Kirshner. Producer Chip Douglas came on board for Headquarters. Half of the album was self-written, and moreover, the band played on every track. With each album, The Monkees’ own musical voices were becoming more and more distinctive: Nesmith’s country-rock leanings, Jones’ yearning, dreamy pop/Broadway fusion, Dolenz’s gutsy rock sound, and Tork’s earthy, folk-inspired style.
Following the gleefully subversive soundtrack to Head, the sixth album in this set, The Monkees slimmed down to a trio, sans Peter Tork, for Instant Replay. In the year of Altamont, the band’s feel-good melodies might have seemed passé to some. But there was still steam in the Monkees’ engine, as evidenced by latter-day tracks like Neil Sedaka and Carole Bayer (later Sager)’s “The Girl I Left Behind Me” and Goffin and King’s Bones Howe-produced “A Man Without a Dream” (both from Instant Replay) or Nesmith’s “Listen to the Band” from The Monkees Present, the final album from the Jones/Dolenz/Nesmith line-up. Jones and Dolenz soldiered on for one more LP, 1970’s Changes, with Jeff Barry’s pristine production echoing the so-called “bubblegum” productions of the period.
Garage rock, country, psychedelia, folk-rock, and razzmatazz showbiz all were ingredients in The Monkees’ potent pop stew. Happily, their diverse catalogue has been one of the most genuinely well-served of any band in the CD era. Demos, backing tracks, outtakes, alternates, abortive versions, television and live performances have all been chronicled on compact disc. Rhino has already issued single-CD expanded editions of each of these nine albums as well as 2-CD versions of the first four albums and 3-CD box sets of every album except for More of the Monkees, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. and Changes. (The Headquarters Sessions box predates the other sets in this series, and could possibly be reconfigured in the future.) The Classic Album Collection features the original LP sequences, with no bonus tracks appended to any of the albums. Happily, each album is presented in its most recent remastering, with Changes said to be freshly-remastered for this box.
The bonus disc here rounds up twelve key singles and one outtake. Neil Diamond’s “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” was a worthy successor to “I’m a Believer,” and became another smash for The Monkees (No. 1 Cashbox, No. 2 Billboard). The Jeff-Barry produced hit single is here along with the mono version of its B-side, Nesmith’s “The Girl I Knew Somewhere,” and the single version of Barry’s own “She Hangs Out,” co-written with Ellie Greenwich, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. More of Barry’s work with The Monkees can be found on this disc including both sides of Bell 986, the Dolenz/Jones performances of “Do It in the Name of Love” and “Lady Jane.” Leiber and Stoller are also represented by “D.W. Washburn.” Paul Williams and Roger Nichols’ “Someday Man” was relegated to the B-side of “Listen to the Band,” but the Bones Howe-helmed, Jones-sung track remains one of The Monkees’ finest recordings. The lone outtake here is the 1967 recording of “All of Your Toys,” first released on 1987’s Missing Links. two concluding tracks on this disc bring The Monkees’ story into the eighties with two Arista singles: the Dolenz/Tork track “That Was Then, This is Now” (1986) and Michael Lloyd’s remixed and modernized single of “Daydream Believer” from the same year.
Like most of Rhino’s album collection boxes, The Monkees’ set is housed in a clamshell case. Each album is packaged in a mini-LP replica sleeve (no spines on the sleeves) with original Colgems logos. The disc artwork features Rhino’s spin on Colgems-style labels, as well. All that’s lacking in this timely celebration of Monkeemania is a booklet; the only credits contained are on the album artwork and the CD label (where you can find songwriter credits). The sleeve for the bonus disc does indicate original discographical information.
Rhino had one other Monkees surprise in the Start Your Ear Off Right campaign. Kellogg’s had been an original sponsor of The Monkees, but by 1970, the cereal manufacturer had moved on and competitor Post was eager to get in on the action. The limited edition The Cereal Box Singles replicates a quartet of 1970 singles that were first released on, yes, Post cereal boxes! Though these laminated-cardboard singles of “Last Train to Clarksville” and the rare TV mixes of “Words,” “I Never Thought It Peculiar” and “Valleri” might well make an audiophile cringe, the package as created by Rhino is a fun, nostalgic and goofy music-to-eat-breakfast-by treat.
For quick one-stop-shopping on the Monkees catalogue (a vast one thanks to the amount of material released on CD), The Classic Album Collection provides an affordable, back-to-basics introduction to a group that is still rocking 50 years on. Listen to the band!
Both The Monkees 50: Classic Album Collection and The Cereal Box Singles are available at participating U.S. record stores!
The Cereal Box Singles is available at Amazon U.K. and from third-party sellers at Amazon U.S.!