And now, I feel, dear readers, that we have reached the crux of this year, the point where the let's-just-have-fun part of the 60s gives way to something more serious. That it comes from a 'manufactured' group that The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame still don't deem as legitimate is ironical to say the least, because nobody ever rebelled and wanted to be a band as much as they did.
By this time The Monkees (the band) and The Monkees (the show) were a big deal; recruited in '65 for a show about four young guys in a band who lived together and got into wacky trouble each week, their very theme song was a big HELLO to middle America, where guys with long hair and funny clothes were definitely suspect. The Monkees was a huge hit and yet the songs so integral to the show weren't theirs, for the most part. (The proto hip-hop "Mary, Mary" was by Nesmith, however.) Seeing as how two of them were musicians already (and the actors, not at all bad musicians who, ironically again, did almost all the singing) this was a situation bound to explode, with Dolenz, Jones, Nesmith and Tork demanding the right to write and perform their own songs. Artistic control - to stop being so many Pinocchios and be real musicians - was theirs, but the whole process was exhausting, as you can imagine.
This song is about that struggle, even if Dolenz is singing about meeting his future wife and The Beatles ("kings of EMI") on a short trip to London. The kettle drums and off-kilter piano set up the two sides, and the unpredictable hurriedness of the song explodes like a thunderstorm at the chorus: "Why don't you be like me?!/Why don't you stop and see?!/Why don't you hate who I hate, kill who I kill to be free!" Silence: then the kettle drums erupt again, with the piano nervously trembling, as if it's about to be smashed. This is no ordinary song. It is, in effect, the first real protest record on this blog, against a world that wants conformity and has no interest or sympathy with - and this is only a slight jump - the rebellious counterculture itself, who look at the world and see that its very straightness and conformity leads to social and political ugliness, if not corruption. Dolenz even gives The Man plc a voice: "Why don't you cut your hair?/Why don't you live up there?/Why don't you do what I do,/See what I feel when I care?*"
The struggle, as they say, continues. What do The Monkees have to do in order to get respected? They didn't play at Monterey for fear of getting booed; they took their artistic freedom as far as they could while still being tv stars; they begat, unintentionally, bubblegum pop; they toured happily with Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles liked them, in part because they took the pressure off them having to be The Beatles, in effect. Yes, The Monkees were anxious and uncertain - a fake 'band' turning into a real one is bound to cause that - and with this song all of that jittery instability comes to life. (There's even an argument for The Monkees being a model of sorts for all boybands to come, particularly a certain one I'll get to in the 70s.)
With this song, The Monkees break through that fourth wall - leap from being two-dimensional group into a living, breathing real one; there is no Don Kirshner telling them what to sing, no producer telling them they have to let the session pros do the job. They managed to do more music that is just as good as this, and while the tv show got predictably routine, they did manage a small coup: one Tim Buckley appeared on the show in '68, introducing him to who knows how many impressionable teenagers. So perhaps they did win in the end, even if their own creators killed them off the same year in the movie Head. Thus the singer-songwriter movement gets a push from a band that had to fight to be truly heard. There is something sweet about that, and it makes the sour Hall of Fame look even more as if it had just bit into a lemon.
Next up: something the Light Programme loved - it's the complete opposite of this, as the two sides of the radio stand. For now...
*"Randy Scouse Git" means, translated from the English, "a horny jerk from Liverpool" (or words to that effect) that he picked up from a tv show Dolenz saw while in the UK. (I think it starred Tony Booth - am I wrong here?) The record company, knowing this was not a polite name for a song, told him they needed an alternate title; thus the song charted as "Alternate Title."