JANE: First of all, Happy Thanksgiving to one and all. Of course, for you, Alan, it isn’t Thanksgiving, so I’ll let you provide our opening gambit…
ALAN: Now, please don’t shout at me, but at this point I really feel that I have to mention The Monkees…
JANE: Do! I like their stuff. Have since I was a kid watching the show in reruns. In fact, one of the CDs in my car right now is a Monkees compilation.
ALAN: Oh, I’m so pleased to hear you say that. There’s a tendency to sneer at The Monkees because they were a “manufactured” group, supposedly America’s answer to the Beatles. But actually I felt that they quickly transcended their origins and made a lot of interesting and clever music. Both Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith are very talented musicians, and both of them have a strong folk music background.
JANE: Yes… Despite the marketing of them as “new discoveries,” both Nesmith and Tork had recorded prior to joining The Monkees. Tork, the most downplayed member of The Monkees, was a seasoned performer. Davy Jones came out of acting – including Oliver! – a show that demands singing talent. Dolenz had mostly acted, but he had performed music on the side.
Would you like to hear a cool story about the song “Mary, Mary”?
ALAN: Yes please. I would.
JANE: “Mary, Mary” had been a hit for The Paul Buttersfield Blues Band and, when it was released by The Monkees, including having it credited to them, there was much furor. How could that horrible pop group make such a claim!
Thing is, “Mary, Mary” had actually been written by Mike Nesmith (although Mickey Dolenz sings it on The Monkees’ album), a thing that somehow, mysteriously, The Paul Buttersfield Blues Band had failed to mention on their album.
ALAN: I never knew that. OK – my turn. Would you like to hear a cool story about the song “Randy Scouse Git”?
ALAN: The song was written by The Monkees drummer Micky Dolenz after a visit to England where he saw a TV programme called Till Death Us Do Part. It was a comedy about a working class British man called Alf Garnett who held strongly conservative and racist views. Garnett spent much of the programme screaming virulent abuse at all and sundry. A very, very mild and watered down version of the programme appeared on American TV under the title All In The Family. A constantly recurring phrase in the show was Garnett’s description of his son-in-law as a “randy scouse git.” The phrase tickled Dolenz’ fancy and so he used it as the title of the song.
JANE: Uh, what is a “randy scouse git”?
ALAN: “Randy” means sexually excited. A “scouse” (or scouser) is a person from Liverpool (the Beatles were all scousers). And a “git” is an annoying and stupid person. So the phrase as a whole would probably translate into American as a “horny jerk from Liverpool.”
Obviously it’s not a polite thing to say, and certain strait-laced recording company executives objected to it and asked Dolenz for an alternate title. So he called the song “Alternate Title,” which is a joke that never ceases to amuse me. Micky Dolenz was actually the lead singer on the song. Davy Jones, the usual singer, stayed in the background for this one. The lyrics are very clever (and often funny) and the music is pleasingly complex with some elegantly handled time changes. I think it’s probably my favourite Monkees track.
JANE: I also like it and, funny thing, the horrible phrase “Randy Scouse Git” never appears in the song. I’m sure most Americans – if they thought about it at all – assumed it was the name of the narrator of the song.
I’ll argue with you about Davy Jones being the “usual” singer. Certainly, he did most of the ballads and sappy love songs (“I Wanna Be Free,” “Daydeam Believer,” “Valerie”) but Micky Dolenz does the lead on some of their most well-known pieces, including their theme song, “Last Train to Clarksville,” and “Steppin’ Stone.” Oh… and “Words” – possibly one of the nastiest break-up songs ever.
Dolenz also proves that he can sing “scat” in the brilliant and really insane song “Going Down,” which is the narrative of a man who, while inebriated, jumps in the river to drown himself when his girl tells “him to forget it” and then regrets his choice.
I can keep up with Dolenz’s singing for the first part, but then I fall behind. It’s a running game with me to see how far I can go. Jim is very tolerant.
Mike Nesmith sings lead less often, but does a good job on “Listen to the Band.” Peter Tork does an interesting turn with Mickey Dolenz on “Words.”
Uh… You triggered a waterfall. Sorry. Your turn.
ALAN: I’ll just go and dry myself off with a Bob Dylan song. Dylan, of course, was the most famous of the folk-influenced “rock” singers. There was an incident at the Newport Festival in 1965 when he was booed because he played a set with an electric guitar rather than the acoustic guitar that he’d always played previously. A section of the audience obviously felt that he was denying his heritage.
JANE: Yet the folk sensibility that Dylan brought to rock gave permission for American groups to sing about something more serious than 1) I love my baby 2) My baby doesn’t love me 3) variation on the same.
Without Dylan, Jefferson Airplane would never have convinced their studio to let them do pieces like “Volunteers,” “We Can Be Together,” or any of their other politically charged pieces. But the times, they were a’changin’…
ALAN: Indeed they were. In England The Strawbs were making similar political statements. They had a hit record with “Part Of The Union,” a very clever song which the trade union movement unofficially adopted as an anthem for the working man. However, the lyrics can also be read sarcastically, and if you do that, it turns into a strong anti-trade union song. Now that’s having your cake and eating it too!
JANE: I love lyrics like that.
ALAN: Riding on Dylan’s coat-tails, we had Donovan. His first big song was the very Dylan-esque “Catch The Wind” and on the strength of it many critics began referring to him as the British Bob Dylan. There’s no doubt that Donovan was a talented singer/songwriter, but he couldn’t really hold a candle to Dylan and maybe the comparison did him more harm than good in the long run. He seems to have fallen silent these days. I always liked him a lot, and I still listen to his album A Gift From A Flower To A Garden with enormous pleasure.
JANE: I’ve heard some Donovan and quite liked some of his songs. He did one called “Fly Jefferson Airplane,” written to express his reaction to the San Francisco folk/rock scene. Later, Jefferson Airplane would incorporate Donovan’s song into their own performances.
Tangenting off for a moment… You’re right that being compared to someone else like that is never good for artists of any sort. If the artist tries to be the writer they’re compared to, they’re forever in the shadow. If they don’t, there will always be those who are disappointed.
Now, in part because of my splurge on The Monkees, I’m going to need to stop before mentioning my favorite rocker who started in folk. Let me save that for next time…