There aren’t a lot of rock bands who get to celebrate a 50th anniversary. Over their 50 years, though, the Monkees have proven themselves far more interesting than the packaged-product joke-band they were first pegged to be. They’re a group of artists who met under uncool circumstances and formed a musical connection that’s endured as well as any, and better than most.
“I think people really root for the Monkees,” Adam Schlesinger explains as he’s driving through New York a few weeks before the release of Good Times, the first new album from the Monkees since its 30th anniversary album release back in 1996. Schlesinger was a logical choice to produce a new Monkees album–not only is his own work with Fountains of Wayne a similar, hook-laden, catchy breed of upbeat guitar pop–but he’s also got plenty of experience with both musical comedy on television and “fake” 60s pop bands.
Even before the first Fountains of Wayne album was released, Schlesinger was crafting Monkees-style pop for fictional bands when he wrote “That Thing You Do!” for the Wonders, the subject of Tom Hanks’ directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, back in 1996 (for which he was nominated for an Oscar). In the years that followed, in addition to five albums with Fountains of Wayne–including the Grammy-nominated single “Stacy’s Mom”–Schlesinger has taken on a number of collaborations. He won a pair of Emmys for his work writing songs for Neil Patrick Harris to perform during the Tony Awards telecasts in 2012 and 2013 and scored his first Grammy win for cowriting and coproducing Stephen Colbert’s 2009 Christmas album. (He was also nominated for his first Tony award in 2008 for his work on the stage version of Cry-Baby.) And, most recently, he took on the role of music supervisor for the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical comedy that, while a far cry from the Monkees in subject matter and tone, is nonetheless the sort of project that exists, in part, because Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith proved that it was a viable genre on television.
The Monkees legacy is gigantic, in other words, even if the band was treated as a joke for stretches of their early run. And entering into producing the record, Schlesinger says that he knew he had to honor that legacy.
“The Monkees, just as a concept, are very enduring,” Schlesinger says. “They represent something, and it’s a timeless concept.” Schlesinger is one of the songwriters on the project, along with a pantheon of all-stars in the Monkees-influenced guitar pop world–Weezer front man Rivers Cuomo, Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Oasis’s Noel Gallagher, the Jam’s Paul Weller, XTC’s Andy Partridge–as well as some vintage Monkees songwriters like Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, and Carol King. “I was of course very flattered and honored to be a part of that group of writers, and to check my name up to the bottom of that list.”
Schlesinger worked as both producer and songwriter on the record, along with that laundry list of names. When he got the call asking him if he was a fan of the Monkees, he says, he understood why they were calling a guy with his background. “It made sense in my mind, for sure. And when they told me the concept, that really excited me,” Schlesinger says. “I’ve been going through all this great stuff that they have in their vaults, and talking about which ones everybody was excited about, and whittling it down little by little.”
The process of assembling the album was, according to Schlesinger, “just a discussion” about the songs with everybody involved. “Everybody sort of talks about what their favorites are, and then whittling it down. Obviously if you get some people that are really well known, that’s a plus, because they bring their whole fan base with them,” he says. But a big part of the joy for Schlesinger was getting to work with his idols–and not just the ones who were on TV in the 60s.
“We got a song from Andy Partridge of XTC, and I mean, he’s one of my heroes,” Schlesinger says. “It was incredible to just get to work on one of his songs–but I was also a little bit nervous, you know, because I wanted to make him happy. Actually, the first mix I sent him, he had a bunch of notes, and I was like, oh, man, I think I made Andy Partridge upset. But then Mickey [Dolenz] sang it a second time, and he was very happy with it, and I was, too.”
There aren’t a lot of singers like Mickey Dolenz, and one thing that Schlesinger learned as part of the process of working on the record was just how unique he is as a talent. Andy Partridge may have had a lot of notes, but Dolenz, at 71, is the sort of vital creative collaborator who can nail it in any number of takes.
“Mickey was a real workhorse, and I think he did more hours in the studio than all the other guys, in total, because he sang most of the songs,” Schlesinger says–and the pair also cowrote a song together, in addition to the one that Schlesinger maintains a solo writing credit on. “He was a real trooper, and his voice is incredible–in most cases, when you’re working with older singers, you’re having to transpose things lower, and in Mickey’s case, we’re actually having to transpose things higher, because he’s got this incredible range.”
Schlesinger’s given a lot of thought to the Monkees as artists, and he’s made his determination about where they fit in the pantheon of stars. That’s something that working with them as collaborators has only solidified, too. “I was a gigantic Beatles fan, and the Beatles were the only band I listened to for a long time as a kid. At some point, I discovered the Monkees, and in my mind, especially when I was young, there really wasn’t any difference to me. They were just two bands,” he says. “There’s always been this sort of ongoing debate about the Monkees, and whether they’re a real band or not. At this point, it’s been proven that they’re a real band. They’ve sold millions of records, they’ve written lots of songs. They’ve produced their own stuff. They play instruments. Just because their origin was a little unusual–they’ve outlasted most bands. They were all incredibly easy and fun to work with. Everybody has the attitude of ‘let us know what we can do to help–here are some ideas, take them or leave them.’ They’re very collaborative.”
Collaboration has always been a part of Schlesinger’s process–see his resume above–but one thing that he learned from his gig at Crazy Ex-Girlfriend applied directly to the creative process working on Good Times! with the Monkees, too.
“The main thing that I learn from working on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that it’s possible to get a lot of stuff done in a very short time, if you absolutely have to,” he says. “I’ve found that creative work takes the exact amount of time that you’re given to do it. If you have a year, it takes a year. If you have a day, it takes a day. It was a little bit like that with the Monkees, because by the time we got underway with it, it was like, okay, they’re starting the tour in May, so we need the record by then, and we hadn’t even started yet.”
Still, that process is kind of fitting, given the band he was working with. The Monkees are a real band–nobody (outside of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which has an informal ban on the band) disputes that anymore. But their 50th anniversary album being scheduled as a product seems appropriate anyway. “There was this really tight deadline suddenly, and then the record company released the album title and the artwork before we even got into the studio,” Schlesinger says, “But it was good, because then it was like, okay, I guess we’re making that record that they just told everybody about.”
None of that interfered with the end result, though, which is proof that the Monkees just work as a band. “We left the studio every day with good feelings and good vibes, and there wasn’t ever a sense of doubt like, ‘Is this going to work?’ It just had this magical feeling to it,” Schlesinger says. “I still feel that way now. I’ve been done with the record for a while now, and I still listen to it all the time, just for fun.”