Is Monkee-Mania Still Alive?

Yesterday, I coincidentally listened to a new live album by The Monkees. And, nope, this isn’t some old material somebody had dug out from an archive. It was actually recorded in March 2019 from the so-called Mike & Micky Show and is the first live album released by Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz, who toured as The Monkees in 2018/2019. No matter how you feel about what initially was a fictitious band created for an American television show in the mid-’60s, listening to the 24 tracks isn’t only fun but also vividly illustrates how many great songs The Monkees have had. Plus, let’s not forget that Nesmith and Peter Tork had instrumental skills from the beginning and Davy Jones was a capable vocalist, while Dolenz eventually learned how to play the drums.

The collection spans the entire 50-plus year catalog of The Monkees. Frankly, I had not realized how active the band had remained in more recent years. Their latest studio album Christmas Party appeared in October 2018. And while it has a Christmas theme, it’s not just pop versions of holiday tunes. It also came out only less than two years after Good Times!, their previous studio release from May 2016. By the way, both of these albums were co-produced by Fountains of Wayne co-founder and key song contributor Adam Schlesinger, who passed away last Tuesday from complications caused by COVID-19. It’s kind of crazy how much the coronavirus already has impacted the music industry in less than two months!

Michael Nesmith & Micky Dolenz
Michael Nesmith (left) & Micky Dolenz

Even after The Monkees had become a “real” band, they largely continued to rely on outside writers like the songwriting duos of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and Jerry Goffin and Carole King. But they also penned some of their songs themselves, especially Michael Nesmith. The album features various tunes he wrote, such as The Girl I Knew Somewhere, Listen to the Band and Papa Gene’s Blues. Two of them, St. Matthew and Auntie’s Municipal Court, the band didn’t perform during their heyday. ‘Nuff talk, let’s get to some music!

The album kicks off with Last Train to Clarksville, the band’s debut single released in August 1966. It’s one of the tunes written by Boyce and Hart. And it’s certainly no coincidence that it sounds very Beatle-esque. Frankly, this is an awesome song that is comparable to some of the mid-’60s tunes by The Beatles, and I say this as a fierce Fab Four fan! Here’s the official video.

Nesmith wasn’t the only member who contributed to the band’s own songs. For Pete’s Sake was co-written by Peter Tork and Joey Richards. The tune appeared on The Monkees’ third studio album Headquarters from May 1967.

A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You, a tune written by Neil Diamond, was the band’s third single released in March 1967. It didn’t quite match the chart success of their previous smash hit I’m a Believer, but still climbed to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, hit no. 1 in Canada, and reached the top 10 in many other countries. It’s a fun tune that reminds me a bit of That’s What I Like About You by The Romantics.

Next up, one of the above noted Nesmith tunes: Papa Gene’s Blues. As Nesmith points out, it’s an acoustic version. Originally, that song appeared on The Monkees’ eponymous debut album from October 1966. Apart from the track, it’s kind of entertaining to listen to the announcement, with Nesmith and Dolenz trading jokes.

Let’s do two more. I’ve always loved these tunes and simply couldn’t skip them. Daydream Believer, written by John Stewart, is a track from the band’s fifth studio album The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees released in April 1968. It’s the perfect sing-along, and not surprisingly, Mike & Micky asked the audience to join them – feel free to follow their lead!

And, of course, no concert by The Monkees would be complete without I’m a Believer. Their second single from November 1966 and biggest hit topping the charts in the U.S., Canada, Australia and numerous European countries is another Neil Diamond composition. It also was included on the band’s sophomore album More of the Monkees, which came out in January 1967.

At the time Nesmith and Dolenz were planning their 2018/2019 tour, Tork was still alive but declined to join. Sadly, he since passed away in February 2019. Jones had died seven years earlier in February 2012. Initially, Nesmith and Dolenz had planned to take their show out on the road again in the U.S. and Canada starting later this month. But given COVID-19, most dates have been pushed back until July and September. The current schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Monkees website; YouTube

Shocking Blue, Shockingly Underappreciated

The Dutch rock band was much more than a one-hit wonder

The other day, fellow blogger Hanspostcard highlighted Mighty Joe, one of only two tunes by Shocking Blue, which made the top 50 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. The second one was Venus, a chart-topper in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Norway and France, and a top 10 hit in various other European countries. Like I had done, many folks probably think of the Dutch rock band from The Hague as a one-hit wonder, but as I discovered over the past few days, there is much more to Shocking Blue. And I’m somewhat puzzled, or should I saw shocked, this great band with a kick-ass lead vocalist wasn’t more successful beyond The Netherlands.

According to Wikipedia, Shocking Blue were founded in 1967 by Robbie van Leeuwen, a guitarist and sitarist, who was the band’s main songwriter and sang backing vocals. The other members of the initial line-up included Fred de Wild (lead vocals), Klaasje van der Wal (bass) and Cor van der Beek (drums). Following their eponymous debut album from November 1967, de Wild left to join the Dutch army, and van Leeuwen was introduced to Mariska Veres, a compelling vocalist who was singing with a club band at the time. The line-up for the single Venus and the band’s next three studio albums was in place.

After Shocking Blue’s fourth studio release, confusingly titled Third Album, and a tour in Japan that yielded a live record, van der Wahl departed in late 1971 and was replaced by Henk Smitskamp. At that time, Shocking Blue were a five-piece featuring Leo van de Ketterij as a second guitarist, who had joined in 1970. The band lasted for three more years until 1974, when founder van Leeuven quit and later that year was followed by Veres. Altogether, Shocking Blue’s catalog includes eight studio albums, the final being Good Times released in October 1974.

Shocking Blue 2
Shocking Blue’s best-known line-up (from left): Founder Robbie van Leeuwen (guitar, sitar, backing vocals), Klaasje van der Wal (bass), Mariska Veres (lead vocals) and Cor van der Beek (drums)

There’s some great music on these albums. Frankly, if you’re into late ’60s/early ’70s garage and psychedelic rock and only know Shocking Blue because of Venus and perhaps Never Marry a Railroad Man, you should check them out. Not only do some of their tunes remind me of Jefferson Airplane, but I would argue they are just as good! Let’s get to some music, and I’m deliberately skipping Venus, Mighty Joe and Never Marry a Railroad Man.

Here’s Shocking Blue’s first single Love Is in the Air, which also was the opener of their eponymous debut album. The tune was co-written by van Leeuwen and somebody who is just listed as Dimitri. While to me much of the band’s appeal stems from Mariska Veres, I think original lead vocalist Fred de Wild did a great job on lead vocals here. I also dig what sounds like seagulls you can hear in the background. It’s just a cool tune. Check it out!

At Home was Shocking Blue’s sophomore album and the first that featured Veres. It came out in September 1969, a few months following the release of the single Venus. Interestingly, that song wasn’t included in the initial version of the record, though it was added to later pressings. Ever heard a Dutch band play country honky tonk? Listen to this one called Boll Weevil, another tune written by van Leeuven. While I have no idea what the title means, I know one thing: That 2:40-minute tune rocks!

Ready for more? Let’s go to the band’s third album Scorpio’s Dance and Daemon Lover, yet another song penned by van Leeuven. The 6-minute psychedelic atmospheric beauty features great guitar and bass work and, of course, Veres’ killer voice. That woman just draws you in! Why didn’t this tune become better known? Well, to start with, it wasn’t released as a single. Plus, at 6 minutes, it definitely wasn’t radio-friendly. Nevertheless, it’s a strong track.

So how about something from that fourth studio album mysteriously titled Third Album? According to Wikipedia, this may reflect the fact that it was the third record with Veres. Whatever the reason, there’s more good stuff on this record, which marked the first with additional guitarist Leo van de Ketterij. Here’s I Saw Your Face. And, yes, the garage rocker was also written by van Leeuven.

I hope by now I got your full attention. Let’s highlight two additional songs. First up: The haunting Navajo Tears from Inkpot, the fifth studio album by Shocking Blue, which came out in March 1972. An excerpt from the lyrics: Man came to ruin in the land of the Tomahawk/Where wants the Buffalo graze do high way to call this place./Man shot them down to have some more fun./And only a few had a chance to run. Maybe the words were a little too much, especially for American audiences. Apparently, the following clip captured an appearance of the band on French television in 1973.

This brings me to the final tune, the title track of Shocking Blue’s last studio album Good Times, the only record without the band’s founder Robbie van Leeuwen. Since this isn’t an original tune, I was going to pick another song, but after listening to it, I just couldn’t resist. Good Times was co-written by George Young and Harry Vanda for The Easybeats, which first recorded and put out the tune as a single in 1968. Shocking Blue also released Good Times as a single, but it did not chart. Again, it’s puzzling to me. Perhaps it was the “wrong” song at the wrong time. In any case, the tune sounds pretty sweet to my ears.

Following their break-up in 1974, Shocking Blue had three short-lived reunions in 1979, 1980 and 1984. Mariska Veres launched a solo career after the band’s breakup. In 1993, she started the jazz group The Shocking Jazz Quintet, which performed jazz versions of Shocking Blue and other ’60s and ’70s tunes. From 1993 until her death from gallbladder cancer in December 2006 at the age of 59, Veres also performed in another Shocking Blue reincarnation.

Following his departure from Shocking Blue, founder Robbie van Leeuwen went on to form two other bands, Galaxy-Lin, and Mistral. He also released a few singles and produced two singles for Veres in 1977 and 1994. Van Leeuwen has withdrawn from the music business and remains the only surviving member of the band’s best-known four-piece line-up. Drummer Cor van der Beek passed away in April 1998 at the age of 49, while bassist Klaasje van der Wal died in February 2018. He was 69 years old.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube