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The Monkees' Peter Tork reflects on 50 years, looks ahead with new album

It's a big week for area Monkees fans.

On Thursday, the beloved 1960s pop rockers bring their multimedia show to the Warner Theatre in Washington; on Friday comes "Good Times!," their first album in 20 years — and, as Rolling Stone opined this week, their best since the '60s.

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The tour, the album and the release of their 1960s situation comedy on Blu-ray this year all celebrate the golden anniversary of the fictional group that wanted to be the Beatles that became a real group that outsold the Beatles.

It was 50 years ago this summer that the Monkees made their primetime debut on NBC with "Last Train to Clarksville." From 1966 to 1968, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork churned out five straight platinum albums and scored hits with "I'm a Believer," "Pleasant Valley Sunday," "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone," "I Wanna Be Free," "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You," "Daydream Believer," "Valleri" and many others.

Dismissed by purists because they did not play the instruments on their first two albums, they fought for and won control of the music — and promptly delivered the albums "Headquarters," "Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd." and "The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees."

"Good Times!" arrives like a time capsule from that age. The album updates '60s recordings by original Monkees writers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Harry Nilsson and Neil Diamond. There's also new material by fans such as Weezer's Rivers Cuomo and Noel Gallagher of Oasis. Jones, who died in 2012, is represented with an unreleased song from 1967.

We spoke this week with Tork, who described the moment he knew the Monkees could play, which Beatle was most human and the song he wished had made "Good Times!" The following interview has been edited and condensed.

I loaded all the Monkees albums into a playlist on my computer. You can put the earphones on and hit shuffle and listen for hours. There aren't many bands that you can do that with. When you were making this music, did you know how good it was? Did you understand it would be so durable?

I have to say no to both. I knew these songs were OK. I never went, "Oh God, that's a terrible song, where do they find this stuff?" But I did not have much of a sense that the songs would be regarded as major classics. And there's always a bit of luck around anything like this. And the fact that it was part of a TV show that had a major significance of its own, it became the soundtrack of a whole generation's TV world.

It's striking how much music you made in so brief a period of time, while you were also producing a television show and touring. How did you fit that all in?

We were very lucky at one level. The first two albums ["The Monkees" and "More of the Monkees"] were pretty much made by studio musicians, with one or another of us singing lead. So they were cranking this stuff out while they were cranking out a TV show.

You know, at the time, I was a little upset about it, because I wanted to be part of the record-making process myself. But as I look back on it, they were making a TV show, and we were at work on a soundstage from 7:30 in the morning until 7 at night without letup. We weren't going to make any records. We didn't really exactly know how, even. Michael, better than I. But none of us was terribly good at it yet.

When you really get down, the four of us — Micky, Mike, Davy and me — really were, in some ways, almost more figureheads than anything else, for the longest time. Nowadays, if you go to see a Monkees show, you expect to see us doing that music. But honestly enough, the Monkees as a project, as a phenomenon, didn't have a ton to do with us. We contributed a fair amount. But primarily, we were the actors on the TV show.

Sure, but to me, part of what's fascinating about that narrative is that eventually you did take over. You put out an entire album essentially running it yourself, and from there onward, four guys who faced questions about how much musical talent they had turned out to rise to the occasion and produce some tremendous work.

Thank you. I'm actually inclined to agree. Sometimes the question of the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame comes up, and I've been thinking lately that I don't know whether the Monkees belong in the Hall of Fame. I mean, I would vote for us if I had a vote. But what I can say is if there was a hall of fame for television casts who became pop groups in their own right, we would be the only candidate. There's a great deal to feel good about.

The new album fits right in on that playlist. Did you accomplish what you wanted with this project?

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I did not, personally. I had a song in mind that I wanted to see go on the album, and it was not allowed on, and I'm bitterly disappointed about it. But, you know, it's a fine album otherwise. I think this would have been a great song on the album, but that was just my personal opinion, and it wasn't my album. It was [the record label] Rhino's album, really. And it's a very good album, and I'm very glad to have been part of it. I would just be thrilled to death of this actually made a splash.

It had been 20 years since you guys made a new album. You say it's Rhino's album. What was the idea behind making a new record?

Well, it was the anniversary. When [Rhino] saw the 50th anniversary coming up, they knew that there were several of these indie guys that were interested in being part of the Monkees, that had been influenced by the Monkees. And they were able to reach Adam Schlesinger, who of course wrote the theme music for "That Thing You Do," that wonderful song that so perfectly captures both the '60s and brings the '60s into the modern era. So he was the right man for the job, straddling the two eras very readily.

On the new record, the mix that you have of Boyce and Hart and Goffin/King and Harry Nilsson and Neil Diamond, and then the songs that you contributed, and the modern guys — to me what's neat about listening to that is you can really hear the line from the Brill Building to today. What was it like going back to some of those original sources that you worked with in the '60s? And how familiar were you with the Jam, XTC, Oasis, Weezer, Fountains of Wayne and Death Cab for Cutie?

I am not very familiar with any of those guys specifically. But when I'm driving and I scroll through the radio band, I stop and listen to that stuff when it comes up. Those guys are doing exactly the right thing as far as I'm concerned, which is a kind of a variation on the best of the '60s, which is where people are singing the songs that they mean to sing. They're not singing songs for the money. They don't want to write a song. They want to say this thing, and they use song, if you know what I'm saying.

And the older material, the songwriters, going back and singing another Carole King song, for example. How was that for you?

You know, it's funny. The Carole King song is like the Bob Dylan catalog. The imagery — it's sparkly and poetic and surreal — that was quite a trip. It was basically Carole's track, and we added banjo and then I sang over that.

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And the song I wrote ["Little Girl"], which we recorded fresh there, is actually a song that has been in my mind for a few years, that I wrote originally as a follow-up to Davy Jones singing "I Wanna Be Free." I was going to have him sing it. And we just never got around to it. And the Harry Nilsson song, that's Harry's production there. And that sounds very fresh to me.

So it's like these songs are cast across the spectrum in terms of how they feel. The Carole King song feels like it come from the older era. But Davy singing "Love to Love," if you didn't know Davy wasn't among us, that could have been a much more recent song than it actually was. On the other hand, it's also a bit of a '60s song. Here it is, Davy sings, "if it takes love to love, then how can I possibly love you, when you don't got no love for me, you so-and-so?"

So it's not like a clump of '60s-sounding songs and then a clump of 2010 — I don't even know what they're calling this decade yet. It's not like it's two lumps at either end, with nothing in between. It's a continuum.

Making an album, the three of you, without Davy Jones — what was that like? Were there moments where you'd say, "Oh, this would be a part for him" Or "he'd know what to do here?"

You mean Davy? No. Actually, it worked in several different modes. I spent as much time in the studio as I could. Michael wanted to be alone in the studio with the producers. I don't know if he was concerned that he couldn't give as open a performance with us there, or whether he was scared that we would make life tough on him. But whatever the reason, he wanted to be there with his own crew. I think he brought a couple of his kids in there.

And I'm kind of regretful, because I would love to have been there at the inception. I think that Michael's singing is extraordinary on this album. There's something very affecting about his work on this. His own new song ["I Know What I Know"], I think it might be as good a thing as he's ever written, and he does a really good job on "Me & Magdalena," which is such a tender song.

At the outset, you guys drew comparisons to the Beatles. And then they had nice things to say about you, and soon you were hanging out with them [Tork also played on George Harrison's soundtrack for the 1968 film "Wonderwall"]. What was that like? You guys were fans.

Yes, I absolutely was a fan. From that point of view, it was just fabulous. I had met George previously, before the Monkees broke, when I was signed. He was visiting [The Mamas and The Papas singer] Cass [Elliot], and I was dating her sister at the time, so I got a chance to say hi.

So I was able to get to know them well enough to get some sense of who they were as people. And that was the true enjoyment. I've seen Ringo [Starr] on a couple of occasions since then. And he's always been very human, very straight-ahead.

It hasn't been a thrill to hang out with him. You don't want that. He doesn't want that. I don't want it when somebody meets me. That's a barrier to human relations, not a boost. And with Ringo, it's past that, and it's a connection. He's always been the most human of those four, I think. The least of an agenda.

A Baltimore Sun review of the Monkees in Baltimore in 1967 focuses more on the crowd and on the phenomenon than on the band or the music. What do you remember of that tour?

For us, an hour-long Monkees set was a radical departure. We saw the Beatles at Dodger Stadium in L.A., and they were doing it the way acts used to do it. You had six acts, they each did 20 minutes. Five of them were backed up by the same band. And then the Beatles would come out, and they did only 20 minutes. And it was so disappointing. I thought, "My God, why would I want to come to a concert and listen to the Beatles do 20 minutes?" These guys should be playing two-and-a-half-hour sets! They've got material for six!

The other thing was it was kind of funny being a cover band for our own music, in essence. We just did the best we could by these songs. But then there were these other aspects. The crowds. The noise. The travel. It's like we lived in a tunnel, except for when we were onstage. You know, you climb into the limo, climb into the back of the hotel. Hotel halls. Back into the limo. Into the plane. Into the limo. Backstage — boom! The show! Boom! Back into the limo.

The song that didn't make the new record: Might we see it somewhere else?

Yeah, you might. There are going to be several exclusive editions. And I think the song is going to be on at least one of those.

The song is called "Better World," and my brother Nick wrote it. And the first thing the song says is there's more than enough. There's enough to feed all the hungry people. The difference is entirely political. And not naming any partisan group, but it's political. And the short-sightedness of that is the actual cause of 97 percent of the world's difficulties. And I'm absolutely convinced that if the message got through, was just made available, that things could be made to change a little bit here and there.

You guys took a fair amount of criticism at the beginning for the way you were put together, and the question of who played on the records. Now, you're beloved. The show is seen as having been innovative. The music inspired a great many artists, from garage rock to power pop to indie rock, right up to the artists who have contributed the material for "Good Times!" Is that transformation of the group's reputation something that you ever think about? Was there a moment when you realized that it had happened?

Yeah. I will tell you that in '97, the Monkees toured the U.K. and we had a pretty good time playing. I enjoyed that very much myself, I must tell you, but the British critics had their knives out for us. They were writing things like 6,000 screaming idiots really can't know anything because this band was so terrible that they must have been delusional.

And the next tour we did, I think it was 2001, the critics were very calm with us. The critics who had their knives out for us in the '60s were still in charge in '97. But they all died off before 2001.

So you outlived them!

Yeah, that's just all there is to it. You just outlive your critics, and then you're fine. It's longevity. It's like, how did you get to your 50th anniversary? I didn't die. And still wanted to go on singing.

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