Monkee On His Back

For the past three years Jim Johnson has been addicted to a tribute album. Now comes the rush.

Every year in springtime music-bizzers -- songwriters, producers, agents, players, critics, programmers, sycophants -- gather in the muggy city of Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest, an industry gathering during which they booze and schmooze and take a stab at shaping the future of rock and roll. As the Nineties broke, just after sunrise, Jim Johnson was at the wheel of a van pushing across the emptiness of Texas on his way to the conference. That's when it dawned on him. The world was quiet, and Johnson was lost in his thoughts, pondering tribute records in particular, music in general, and one of his fave bands, the Monkees. The dust kicked and the sun awoke, sky brightening, and Johnson looked forward, at that moment deciding a Monkees tribute album was an idea worthy of further consideration.

When he broached the subject at the conference, reactions ranged from interested to amused. Back home in Atlanta, Johnson, perhaps best known for his work with Miami expatriates the Chant, launched the project, but soon hit a roadblock. "The problem was monetary," Johnson says now. "I had a house and car to pay for." One band, Opium Hello, had submitted its version of a Monkees tune, "Sweet Young Thing," recorded with the band's own money and initiative. Others began contributing, and soon Johnson had a smattering of examples of the sort of things he hoped would constitute the finished record.

A year passed, money was short, but Johnson wasn't yet ready to abandon his idea. He returned to South by Southwest, this time with tape in hand, hoping that someone would like what had been done so far and back the completion. "I gave out about 50 tapes," he recalls. "And I got no response at all."

In Atlanta the Chant was working with the DB Records label, where Steve Pilon had been employed for about five years. Johnson's undertaking was almost complete, but all the money was gone again, and it seemed that the tribute would die.

Exactly one year ago, Pilon formed his own label, Long Play, which released an album by Big Fish Ensemble in April. It met with some success, more than expected, Pilon says. (Ironically, Big Fish Ensemble had already recorded their Monkees cover, "Last Train to Clarksville," before Long Play released their album.) Pilon was prepared to follow with another Long Play release, and he chose Johnson's Monkees project. "Steve had always been behind it," Johnson says, "and he wanted to put it out. With their machinery, the Big Fish release going well, and their contacts, it was easy for me to say, `Okay.'" At the beginning of November, nearly three years after Johnson first thought of it, Long Play issued Here No Evil: A Tribute to the Monkees. The initial run, 5000 pressings on cassette and CD, has already sold out; more will be manufactured soon.

The prefab four are in memory trapped in that not-so-pleasant valley between the mountain of artistic legitimacy and the steep cliff of disposable hyprockracy. To ponderers, the Monkees were judged to be either appealing entertainers who cleverly and sincerely gave the masses just what they wanted, or well-trained posers manipulating the suckers. Mickey, Davy, Mike, and Peter would eventually find their legacy nestled somewhere betwixt the Beatles and Milli Vanilli.

The four members didn't come together in the dark incubator of clubland, nor did they form in a black-lit bedroom over tokes and group readings of some dogmatic doctrine. In fact, they were recruited, like actors, which they were, like the group Beatlemania, which they weren't. Their work carried no weighty subtext, their mission was not noble. They were cardboard-cutout shills for greedy show-biz orchestrators. And so, as human beings, as artists, they were caught in a trap.

Then again, the Monkees were perhaps the greatest garage band ever, and there's nothing more noble in rock than a garage band. "Everybody knows the tracks were laid and they just came in and sang," Johnson says. "But it is also the truth that they did play later on. I have a live record of them from '88, it's them playing, and, you know, um, it's fairly awful."

Technical proficiency is not relevant to garage-band music. Nor is songwriting. Take away the goofy (then) but cool (now) television series, take away the early "live" shows, take away the fan clubs and posters and matching outfits, toss out your prejudices, and you're left with a band that made, on record at least and with plenty of help, some fine and wonderful music. That's why the Monkees endure nearly three decades after their hey-heyday. And of that '88 gig, Johnson adds, "The guitars were out of tune. The cymbal goes right into Mickey's vocal mike, there's a din throughout, and it's really good on top of that. A good listen, really fun." Like any great garage band.

Covering the songs originally recorded by the Monkees is nothing new. One reason is that most of the tunes were written by stellar craftsmen such as Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, John Stewart. A half dozen of the 21 selections on Here No Evil were either written or co-written by Michael Nesmith, and Mickey Dolenz's "Randy Scouse Git" gets its due courtesy of Live Bait. Whatever you make of the Monkees, you can't knock the material they recorded. Before launching into a bizarre spoken-word reading of "The Day We Fall in Love" at the beginning of Here No Evil, the late performance artist Deacon Lunchbox puts it in perfect perspective: "In the mid-1960s I was a young teenage boy. I was aware of the fact that the Monkees rock band was 90 percent hype. But I liked 'em anyway."

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