Charting the Outer Limits of The Monkees

In July of 1967, The Monkees dropped what would quickly become their fourth top-five single in just under a year. At first blush, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is a lot like its predecessors: a hummable gem powered by finger-snapping swing and tumbling folk jangle over which fly pleading harmonies anchored by Micky Dolenz’s nervy soulfulness. There’s a nifty percussive breakdown at the 1:30 mark that recalls Ringo Starr’s super-charged bongos in “A Hard Day’s Night;” even better, though, is the bottomless cavern of reverb and echo that, like a black hole, swallows the song whole in the closing 30 seconds–a small but significant step towards the then exploding psychedelic movement.

“Pleasant Valley Sunday” is exactly why Screen Gems picked up The Monkees concept from producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider: to churn out the kind of feel-good pop that both The Beatles, having graduated from lovable mop tops to acid-dropping sound explorers, and The Beach Boys, retreating into insular eccentricity after Smile failed to materialize, had abandoned by the time of the Summer of Love. Davy, Peter, Michael, and Micky, the film production company were banking, would appeal to those suburban youth who still craved innocent AM pop and not the anti-establishment weirdness of the hippies.

Dig into the verses, however, and one discovers the song–penned by Gerry Goffin and Carole King in reaction to the leisurely boredom of identical row houses, perfect lawns, and patio cookouts–actually satirizes the very suburbia that embraced the act. It’s brilliantly subversive, and The Monkees make for an exceptional delivery system, turning out a nuanced performance that manages to encode youth alienation into a song that on its surface is as plastic and superficial as its subject.

At the time, and for several decades afterwards, The Monkees were derided as corporate-manufactured fluff (i.e. the “Pre-Fab Four”). It’s a view that has softened in recent years. Yet there’s still a long list of music critics and rock tastemakers (including, apparently, Jann Wenner, cofounder of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that has yet to induct them) who fail to fully acknowledge the band’s slyly radical genius–of which “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is just a small taste. From 1966 through to 2016’s Good Times!, an impeccable album featuring one of the 21st century’s most heart-aching slices of indie folk in the Ben Gibbard-penned “Me & Magdalena” (and yes, The Monkees make modern indie folk), they haven’t just released a wealth of finely crafted pop; they’ve also pushed the form into brand new sonic territory and conceptual complexity.

Considering the era from which they emerged, it only makes sense that The Monkees’ experimental streak expresses itself most stridently in their psychedelic recordings. Their single greatest song, the symphonic “Porpoise Song (Theme from “Head”), from their 1968 flick lampooning their own celebrity and consumer society in mid-’60s America, is every bit as glorious and dramatic as “Good Vibrations” and “A Day in a Life.” Not far behind is “Randy Scouse Git,” littered with references to partying with The Beatles and a dancehall-style melody sped up and smashed into pieces with ball-peen hammer, and “Auntie’s Municipal Court,” which folds the chiming drone and bassy thump of the Fabs’ “Rain” into California-bred roots-pop. But seriously, we could could go on and on, citing nuggets like “Daily Nightly,” one of the first rock songs featuring the sci-fi zaps and twirls of the Moog synthesizer (Dolenz owned one), or the drug reference-littered “Salesman,” written by Craig Smith who later record deeply strange psych-folk under the name Satya Sai Maitreya Kali, or “Circle Sky,” a fuzz-punk raver pivoting on a wiry riff presaging The Fall, or “Zilch,” ear-tweaking avant-gardeness that’s crosses Mothers of Invention-type studio shenanigans with composer Steve Reich’s tape loop experiments. You see?

There also exist subtler yet no less bold examples veering off in the other direction, into earthy twang and proto-singer-songwriter intimacy. The Monkees–whose battles with music supervisor Don Kirshner for creative control are now the stuff of rock legend–actually had a far harder time slipping this material onto their ’60s albums. Where the psych-pop fare could be pretty strange, at least it made commercial sense when placed alongside trippy joviality like “Incense and Peppermints” and “Sunshine Superman.”

Cuts such as 1967’s “You Told Me,” in contrast, make a more thorough break with the silly lightheadedness of The Monkees television program, recasting them as pioneers of the kind of countrified confessionals that wouldn’t pierce mainstream pop until the early ’70s. As the cerebral and astute Michael Nesmith has explained time and time again, the concept of The Monkees, as a mass media creation, simply didn’t have the room for his love of American vernacular music. This meant a great deal of the outfit’s most mature material, including the Bob Dylan-flavored “Nine Times Blue” (a dreamily poetic ballad Nesmith’s First National Band also recorded), wouldn’t see the light of day until Rhino’s stellar Missing Link series of outtakes, demos, and rarities that popped up in the late ’80s.

When you add up these myriad facets of The Monkees’ catalog–all the psychedelia, the fuzzy garage punk, the rustic country-rock, the synthesizer-laced Baroque pop—a case can be made that not unlike The Byrds or even The Grateful Dead they managed to unite humanity’s oftentimes opposing desires for a sense of roots and cosmic transcendence into a rock-and-roll vision that’s profoundly expansive. And they did this while struggling to achieve creative autonomy and a sense of human dignity in a cold, corporate world. No shabby feat, people.