At the Arlington Theatre last Wednesday night, Peter Tork was seen in the fascinating documentary The Wrecking Crew talking about the session musicians who laid down the backing tracks on many of The Monkees’ songs. It’s a historical curiosity that The Monkees received a lot of criticism for this practice, considering how common it was among other well-known acts.
In response to such criticism, The Monkees played virtually all of the instruments on their third album, Headquarters. A successful “safe-edelic” stab at artistic authenticity, this album was featured prominently on the program when the surviving Monkees Micky Dolenz, Tork and Michael Nesmith performed, also at the Arlington, on Friday night. And, yes, they did play their own instruments (Nesmith played a beautiful 12-string electric guitar throughout the evening) accompanied by a fairly large band that included Dolenz’s sister Coco and Nesmith’s son Christian.
This show was part of a tour that is notable for being the first after Davy Jones passed away, and also the first Monkees shows Nesmith has participated in since 1997.
After an instrumental intro by the backing band featuring bits of The Monkees’ best known songs, the show kicked off with “Last Train to Clarksville,” the band’s first hit single. As for much of the rest of the concert, the screen behind the stage showed the corresponding clips from the Monkees’ TV show.
Next, Nesmith got his first of many turns in the spotlight by singing his song “Papa Gene’s Blues,” the only Monkee-penned tune on the band’s first album. (Incidentally, the original studio recording of this song included contributions by The Wrecking Crew.) This was followed by Tork singing the zany “Your Auntie Grizelda” while dancing/prancing amusingly around the stage.
The next big hit on the program was the timeless “I’m a Believer,” penned by a pre-fame Neil Diamond and originally produced by now-local hit-maker Jeff Barry. Dolenz amusingly introduced the song by informing the young attendees that he sang the song before Shrek did.
This was followed by “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” a potent garage rocker that made it into the repertoire of various punk rock bands, including the Sex Pistols.
After a video of Davy Jones singing “I Wanna Be Free,” a string of Nesmith-penned songs followed (“You Told Me,” “Sunny Girlfriend,” “You Just May Be the One,” “Mary, Mary,” “The Girl I Knew Somewhere”), the first three from the aforementioned album Headquarters.
Another Headquarters song was “Randy Scouse Git,” written by Dolenz after a party thrown by “the British Royal Family” (The Beatles), at which Dolenz joked he was told he had a good time. “Randy Scouse Git” was a hit in Britain, but because of the title (which Dolenz said translates to “horny Liverpudlian putz”) it went by the name “Alternate Title.” For this song, Dolenz wore a hippie poncho like he had for the video for the song decades before.
One of the show’s highlights was “Daily Nightly,” which in its original studio recording featured one of the first uses of a Moog synthesizer on a rock recording. This was introduced with a joke that Nesmith was supposed to get a Moog for Dolenz to use for the song’s performance, but failed to. So instead, Nesmith sang the Moog parts, to hilarious effect.
Another highlight, for me at least, was the nearly complete performance of the songs off their surreal 1968 film, Head, including the trippy “Porpoise Song” and Nesmith’s garage rock gem “Circle Sky.” “Daddy’s Song” was represented by the film’s video of Jones dancing; I feel lucky to have seen Jones dance along with this video when the band (sans Nesmith) visited the Chumash Casino Resort as part of their 45th anniversary tour in 2011.
But the biggest highlight of the evening was the late Jones’ signature song, “Daydream Believer.” Dolenz introduced it by saying that “we don’t own this song anymore,” so instead of the band singing it, he chose two ladies from the audience to come up onstage to do it. This one certainly brought tears to many an eye in the audience.
The show closed with their hit “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” a fab (or is it pre-fab?) way to end the evening. The concert was a fitting reminder of the tremendous body of work the Monkees gave to us, written and recorded with, and sometimes without, a little help from their friends.
Last Train to Clarksville
Papa Gene’s Blues
Your Auntie Grizelda
Sweet Young Thing
I’m a Believer
(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone
I Wanna Be Free (video)
You Told Me
You Just May Be the One
The Girl I Knew Somewhere
For Pete’s Sake
Early Morning Blues and Greens
Randy Scouse Git
Daddy’s Song (video)
Can You Dig It?
Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?
What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?
Listen to the Band
Pleasant Valley Sunday
— Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.