The only thing that’s really surprising when you connect the Monkees to their banal offspring, O-Town (see also “Making the Band”) is that it took 35 years for ABC/Disney to perfect the marketing synergy that NBC (which aired the original Monkees episode) began. After all, the Monkees presaged the whole prefab-four phenomenon when, in 1966, Micky, Peter, Mike and, of course, dreamy Davy burst onto the airwaves, introducing the world to their unique brand of clean-scrubbed rebellion.
And therein lies the rub: At least the Monkees were positioned in the marketplace as purveyors of rebellion. It’s a vast cultural distance between the unabashed self-actualizing bachelor of “I Wanna Be Free” to the neutered, bleached-blond misogyny of “I Want It That Way.” (Not that either the Monkees or the Backstreet Boys are necessarily to blame or credit for their own material).
But the issue at hand is the Monkees’ Music Box, the latest in a series of reissues undertaken by the reissue kings and queens at Rhino. Perhaps it’s that I was introduced to the Monkees only through reruns 20 years after they spent their original cultural capital, but I had no appreciation for the full extent of their body of recorded work. And I’m pretty sure I could’ve survived had I not found out. However, over the course of the four discs, one gets the sense that these are actually four guys who — prefab or not, teen idols or not, talented or not — actually really, really enjoy the lot they drew in life when they walked into the casting office of Hollywood producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. Rafelson and Schneider were, of course, cashing in on the countercultural craze.
The liner notes carefully track the dual nature of the Monkees — the tension between their never-ending struggle to be deemed “legitimate” and the songwriting, production and managerial mechanisms that allowed them to become iconic heartthrobs. It’s a familiar story by now thanks to “Behind the Music” and a pop-culture press that provides the entertainment gawker delay with which we’re all so familiar.
The four discs document the Monkees’ flirtations with pretty much every pop music genre that came into vogue from 1964-86. Often, within the 99 songs, they captured mainstream America’s Kodak moment. Other times, the music plays like the reactionary mainstream pop that it was. For anyone but collectors and folks over, say, 50 who might have caught them in passing, about 90 of these songs will be completely unfamiliar and therefore not imbued with any of the irresistible telegenic cheekiness of the boys in the band. But it’s a testament to the cultural archivists at Rhino that they’ve brought it all into context and presented as complete and compact a picture of these pop phenoms as has yet seen the light of day.
E-mail Chris Handyside at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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