This review was intended for Strange Skins Digital issue #6, but I’m publishing it here as a tribute to Peter Tork, who passed away today. Peter was an important part of The Monkees, sometimes overlooked but always essential. He might not have been front and centre all the time, but he was the heart and soul of the group and the true star of the television series. You don’t have to sing that song over again any more, Pete. Rest in Peace.
The passing of Davy Jones in 2012 was a tragedy for fans of The Monkees, but it did encourage the three remaining band members – Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith – to settle their long-standing differences and record their first studio album since 1996’s Justus. The result, Good Times, was a totally unexpected smash hit, topping the Billboard vinyl chart in the US for the first time since Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd in 1967.
The winning formula of Good Times was to draft in younger musicians who are fans of The Monkees to write and produce. The Monkees Christmas Party rep-eats that formula, bringing back Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger as album producer and featuring original songs written by the likes of Andy Patridge (XTC), Rivers Cuomo (Weezer) and Alex Chilton (The Box Tops). These are mixed with a selection of Christmas standards and iconic festive anthems to create a rich, slightly boozy, Christmas Pud.
The opening track, Unwrap You at Christmas, is in what I guess you would call the 21st century Monkees style; a mixture of 60s guitar pop and jingly-jangly indy rock, which defined the sound of Good Times. It’s followed by What Would Santa Do?, which is in a similar vein. Micky Dolenz has the strongest rock voice of the remaining three Monkees and so lends his vocals to most of the up-tempo numbers, backed with distinctive harmonies from Tork and Nesmith.
In the original line-up, the lion’s share of the lead vocals were split pretty much 50/50 between Dolenz and Davy Jones and you might think that with Jones no longer with us, the onus falls completely on Dolenz… but you would be mistaken. There are two tracks on The Monkees Christmas Party featuring lead vocals from Davy. It’s not uncommon these days for bands who have lost a founder member to create a track or two featuring the resourced vocals of their late bandmate. Technology has moved on a lot since Jeff Lynne captured John Lennon’s vocals to help The Beatles create Free as a Bird and Real Love, and the track Love to Love on Good Times sounded almost as if they had Davy Jones back in the studio. The Davy tracks on this album, Mele Kalikimaka and Silver Bells are both traditional Christmas fare, presumably nabbed from a solo Christmas album by Jones, but they never fail to raise a smile.
Speaking of the Monkees ‘rivals’, the Beatles, one of the two anthemic biggies on here is a cover version of Paul McCartney’s Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time. It’s a stripped back rendition but it works surprisingly well and is mercifully shorn of the slightly dated synths that mark out the Wings version. As a massive Roy Wood fan, it’s hard for me to offer an impartial opinion on the Monkees’ version of I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday. I don’t think the slow opening kicking into a jaunty main section really works, but it’s a pleasant enough cover version, better than most but lacking the snowball-in-the-face wall of sound awesomeness of the Wizzard original.
Mike Nesmith doesn’t get to write any numbers for this album, but he does lend his lead vocals to The Christmas Song and Snowfall. It’s a family affair on the two Mike numbers because The Christmas Song is produced by his first son Christian Nesmith (who also plays guitar) and Snowfall is produced by his second son Jonathan Nesmith (who also plays… everything). This seems to suggest that rather than all decamping into a studio together, the Monkees have reverted to the style of later albums of their original run, such as The Monkees Present, where the band basically all recorded their own songs separately. This is not a criticism by the way, as this method often yielded great results.
Peter Tork’s lead vocals are heard on only one track; a version of the traditional Christmas song Angels We Have Heard on High. Peter was often over-looked on the original Monkees albums and sadly the same seems to be the case here, but this track is an important part of the album. The simple musical arrangement and Tork’s fragile vocal lend a sweet and melancholy air to the latter part of the album. It features some of Tork’s characteristic banjo picking too.
No band’s Christmas album is ever going to be heralded as the highlight of their canon and is no exception. However, if the aim is to capture the fun and joy and humour of the season, then The Monkees Christmas Party certainly succeeds in that ambition. Here’s to more from the Monkees!