Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Barrel Full of Monkees and Friends

American Response: Part 7
For regular readers of The '60s Beat, this is not the first time I've mentioned the fascinating story (see here) of how The Monkees began as a made-for-TV band, created as the American answer to The Beatles, pairing great music with zany antics like A Hard Day's Night. Assembled in 1966 by television producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider (who later used "Monkees" money to produce films like Easy Rider), the quartet consisted of two actors (Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz) and two musicians (Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork) who eventually became a respected band in their own right, even outselling The Beatles. With the Emmy Award-winning TV series as the springboard for their music, their initial success was fueled by releasing hit songs by top songwriters, hand-picked by music supervisor Don Kirshner, "the man with the golden ear." When The Monkees began performing live and touring as a real band, they realized they wanted to write, record, and perform their own music, thus firing Kirshner (after some intense disagreements), and against all historical odds, the band continued to produce hit records. With diverse musical styles including pop rock, country rock, folk rock, bubblegum, psychedelic rock, soul/R&B, Broadway, even English music hall, The Monkees have sold over 50 million records worldwide (and counting) and are in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most #1 albums in a single year (that's four #1 albums in 1967)! Here's their debut single and first #1 hit from September 1966, "Last Train to Clarksville," written by songwriting duo Boyce & Hart:

Speaking of those top-notch songwriters, Boyce & Hart were a prolific singer-songwriter team that were the initial driving force behind The Monkees' sound. Meeting in 1959, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart formed a successful musical partnership that would go on to write more than 300 songs including TV show themes, film scores, and commercial jingles, and sold over 42 million records. In 1965, the duo wrote, produced, and performed the soundtrack for the pilot episode of The Monkees, even providing lead vocals (which were replaced when the show was cast), and were responsible for many of The Monkees' hits including "Last Train to Clarksville," "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone," "Valleri," Words," "I Wanna Be Free," and of course the "(Theme from) The Monkees." Simultaneously, Boyce & Hart had a successful career as recording artists with five charting singles, including "I Wonder What She's Doing Tonight," which reached #8 on the Billboard charts in 1968. Introduced by Herb Alpert, here's the classic song that earned the duo a gold disc (gotta love the velvet suits!):

Another one of those notable singer-songwriters was pop music performer Neil Diamond, the third most successful Adult Contemporary artist of all time (behind only Barbara Streisand and Elton John), selling over 115 million records worldwide. From Brooklyn, New York (and apparently a classmate of my husband's uncle!), Diamond spend his early career in the 1960s as a songwriter, gaining fame when The Monkees scored a #1 hit with his song "I'm a Believer" (the Popular Song of the Year in 1966). Also released in 1966 was "Solitary Man," his debut single as a recording artist, and although it was only a minor hit, it did peak at #21 on the charts after its re-release in 1970 (even becoming a hit for other artists as well across five decades). Diamond went on to score hits in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, and was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (yes, I voted for him!). This video is a bit on the jiggly side but there's no mistaking the distinct voice of a young Neil Diamond, singing one great tune!

American singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson also gained more attention in the music business when The Monkees recorded and featured his music in their TV show and film ("Cuddly Toy" and "Daddy's Song"). An impressive vocalist with a natural talent for writing wonderful melodies, Nilsson became The Beatles' favorite American artist upon hearing his 1967 album Pandemonium Shadow Show. Ironically, the song Nilsson is most known for is one he did not write. Written by Fred Neil, "Everybody's Talkin'" helped Nilsson achieve global success in 1969, as it was also used as the theme for the film Midnight Cowboy, and it earned him his first Grammy Award. Propelling him into stardom, Nilsson would go on to have his biggest commercial success in the early 1970s, winning another Grammy. I'll definitely have to share some of his fantastic, original songs on another post, but here's his performance of his biggest hit; a song everyone could relate to during the turbulent times of the late '60s.

Although The Monkees were influential as the first band in history to fight and win creative control over their music, Don Kirshner does go down in history as kind of getting a bum rap. After all, he was a business man and knew how to find a hit-worthy song. In the late 1960s, Kirshner's next endeavor involved producing another fictitious band, The Archies, however, this time they were animated (and couldn't talk back!). With all the male vocals provided by studio musician Ron Dante, the animated garage band scored a #1 hit with "Sugar, Sugar" in the summer of 1969, selling six million records and was ranked Billboard's number one song of the year (the only time a fictional band has ever claimed that spot). Written by Andy Kim and Jeff Barry, a rumor still circulates that this song was first offered to The Monkees, which Kirshner claimed Mike Nesmith put his fist through a wall refusing to take it (the wall-punching part is true but the song is still in question). Regardless, Kirshner knew this would be a big hit, and in fact, "Sugar Sugar" is one of the biggest bubblegum hits of all time, in both the U.S. and the UK. Notice Ron Dante's is "playing" all the instruments in this video:

1 comment:

  1. loved this; what a cool blog; thanks for helping keep the magic of the music alive and thanks for the great mention of Tommy and Bobby and a special thanks for posting this great quality video of Boyce & Hart