Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Time Passages

Here’s a question I present for discussion among my fellow comfort TV fans: Does watching an inordinate amount of television from 30 or 40 years ago alter your perception of how time passes?

I don’t know about you, but for me the 1980s don’t seem that long ago, even though I graduated high school in that decade and I’m 51 now. Is it the same with everyone, or has constant exposure to television from the 1970s and ‘80s kept that era fresher in my mind, and made it seem less far away?

One recent night’s TV viewing included a Charlie’s Angels two-parter, followed by a Harry O episode and two Bob Newhart Shows. The transition from the hours spent in those bygone fictional worlds to the here and now hardly felt distant at all. 

It’s a different experience with shows from the 1950s and early ‘60s, especially those broadcast in black and white. Here, there are numerous and obvious indicators that these are stories from another age. Just observing the way students dress to go to school is enough to realize how life has changed. 

I feel at home among the shows from the 1970s, perhaps because I shared cultural touchpoints with the characters that were growing up in that decade. And watching the shows in 2015 doesn’t feel any different from watching them in 1995 or 1985 or when they were first broadcast. My TV is bigger and I don’t have to worry about fixing the vertical hold, but otherwise it’s the same happy experience.

Maybe that is why I find myself occasionally jolted, almost painfully, into the actuality of passing time.

Earlier this year I saw a photo of the Eight is Enough cast, when they gathered at a memorial service for Dick Van Patten. I hesitate to say they looked older because that sounds like a criticism when it is merely an observation. Laurie Walters and Dianne Kay and Grant Goodeve and Joan Prather have been out of the public eye since the series ended 34 years ago, and time has not stood still for them any more than it has for the rest of us. Of course they looked different. 

But if Eight it Enough is still a part of your regular TV viewing, as it has been for mine, that chasm of years can seem like it’s passed in the blink of an eye. There also isn’t much in the series’ stories or settings that loudly indicates how much time has elapsed. Sure, Tommy has a Fleetwood Mac poster in his room, but the band is still performing.

“What about the fashions and the hairstyles?” I hear some of the most stylish among you enquire. I don’t know - have they really changed that much? On Eight is Enough I see a lot of jeans and t-shirts and Nike athletic shoes, and sweaters and dresses that wouldn’t make anyone do a double-take if you saw someone wearing them now. There are exceptions, but I find most of them more flattering than their present-day counterparts. 

The Bradfords didn’t have computers or cell phones. But phones are phones, really, or at least they should be. I have a cell but I don’t care for it much, and I have never felt the need to carry a portable camera/GPS tracker/videogame/etc. wherever I go. A corded landline does not look to me like a primitive device. 


Of course, someone in their teens or 20s will have a very different perspective. Eight is Enough to them looks how I Love Lucy does to me. But I have driven the Burbank streets where you’ll often glimpse the Bradfords on location, and to me only a few store names and the gas prices have changed.

If my temporal perspective seems altered, I can only imagine what it must be like for the actors, constantly contending with an image of their younger selves still airing on TV every day. They have lived the days and weeks and years between so they are not stuck in that earlier time. But how must it feel to get that look of disappointment from a fan at an autograph show, because they are no longer the cool teenager or the stunning young woman they were back in prime time?

The gap widens a little more with each passing day. But I have a feeling that ten years from now, when I enjoy another trip through the Eight is Enough seasons or any of the shows from that period, it will still seem like a visit to a place that is not so far away, and a time that was here just yesterday.  

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Bowling for Bradys

How do you separate the hardcore Brady Bunch fans from the casual observers? They are the ones that, like me, actually purchased a DVD called The Bradys Go Bowling.

The DVD features two episodes of Celebrity Bowling, a series produced at KTTV in Los Angeles from 1971 to 1978. The concept was as straightforward as it sounds – two pairs of celebrities bowl one game against each other, each playing to win prizes for a randomly chosen member of the studio audience.

In the first show, Barry Williams and Maureen McCormick take on their younger TV siblings, Christopher Knight and Eve Plumb. 

The second show features Mike Lookinland and Susan Olsen against two of the Waltons kids, Eric Scott (Ben) and Mary McDonough (Erin). The host is actor Jed Allan, best known for multiple stints on daytime dramas, and here wearing suits from the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding Collection.

The competition was best-ball format, meaning both members of one team would roll a first ball. A strike ends the frame; anything else, the bowler with the worst result would then try to pick up the spare left by their teammate. 

Prizes were typical for a low budget syndicated game show – Samsonite luggage, an Amana Radarange and Rice-a-Roni (the San Francisco treat!). The higher the teams score, the better the reward. For something really good, like a trip to Mexico, the celebrity bowlers had to bowl 210 or more. If the athletic prowess displayed on The Bradys Go Bowling is any indication, that didn’t happen very often.

I bought the DVD because I am a devoted Brady Bunch fan, and I thought it would be intriguing to see the cast in something else they did at the time the show was still in production. The Brady-Walton match aired September 8, 1973, six days before “Adios, Johnny Bravo,” the memorable first episode of the series’ final season. 

The Brady vs. Brady showdown aired on December 22 of that year, the same week as another spectacular Jan flameout in “Miss Popularity.”

But something was missing. In fact a lot of things were missing, starting with any sense of good-natured competition between the participants. There are no pep talks, no “Come on, Eve!” no, “Good one, Barry!” No ‘70s equivalent of a high-five after a strike, or any affectionate heckling after a gutter ball. They came, they bowled, they left.

One would expect players to be mic’d so their comments could be picked up for viewers. This wasn’t done either, but from what can be seen of their limited interaction between frames, we didn’t miss much. 

The entire undertaking is surprisingly subdued, to the point where I wondered if any of the Bradys really wanted to be there.

For fans this should have been a delightful chance to see the real people behind the familiar characters, and find out how they got along with each other. That cheerful combination of competition and camaraderie is what made the Battle of the Network Stars specials so much fun. Well, that and the lycra swimsuits on Heather Thomas and Lynda Carter. 

But it’s not here. And without that good-natured rivalry, the only potential for entertainment was in getting caught up in the actual matches. Unfortunately, the level of bowling prowess is about what you’d see at a third-grade birthday party.

If you remember the Brady Bunch episode where Bobby was upset over never winning a trophy, now you know why he didn’t get one for bowling. And Peter bowls about as well as he fixed bikes for Mr. Martinelli. Greg is the only participant who could throw a hook, but in a best-ball format Barry Williams and Maureen McCormick could not even break 100.

My one qualifier for purchasing a series or special on DVD is re-watchability. Great shows deserve repeat viewings. But I knew as soon as I removed The Bradys Go Bowling from the DVD player that I wouldn’t need to watch it again. Even with a total running time of just 45 minutes, it would be a chore.

Instead, I’ll pull out my Season 1 set and take another look at “54-40 and Fight.” This was the episode about the trading stamp company that was going out of business, and how the boys and the girls combined their stamp books but couldn’t decide whether to buy a sewing machine or a rowboat. Instead, they have a winner-take-all showdown, boys against the girls, building a house of cards. Now, that was a Brady vs. Brady competition with some gravitas. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Museum of Comfort TV Salutes: Jeannie’s Bottle

Imagine a place where all of the instantly recognizable objects associated with classic television are on display. It doesn’t exist, so we’ll create it here, and pay tribute to many of our favorite Comfort TV things.

Every museum has its must-see exhibits. When you visit the Louvre, you don’t skip the Mona Lisa. If you are at Chicago’s Art Institute, you pay homage as Ferris Bueller did to Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. And when you visit the Comfort TV Museum, you always stop to admire Jeannie’s bottle. 

It’s one of television’s most instantly recognizable props, surpassed perhaps only by vehicles like the Batmobile. It did not exist anywhere in the real world before I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970) but has been an iconic objet d’art now for 50 years.

And, like many TV stars, it had some cosmetic work done between seasons.

As any Jeannie fan knows, the original bottle was smoked glass with leafy gold filigree. It appeared only during the show’s first season, which was broadcast in black and white. It wasn’t until 2006, when a colorized version of season one was released on DVD, that viewers finally got a non-monochromatic glimpse at that first bottle. 

The series’ switch to color coincided (not coincidentally) with the introduction of the classic metallic purple version. It’s a beautiful piece with a pearlescent sheen and highlights in turquoise, orange, brass and pink. If you’d like get as close a look as the series provides, check out the season 3 episode “Genie, Genie, Who’s Got the Genie?” (Part II). 

There was also a third bottle belonging to Jeannie’s sultry sister, featuring a green variation on the familiar purple design.

While the finished versions of these bottles were created by talented artists at Screen Gems, back then the actual bottle used for these makeovers was as close as the local liquor store. It was a 1965 Beam’s Choice bourbon whiskey decanter from Jim Beam, 11 inches tall, just over 14 inches with the stopper in place. 

Whose idea was it to use this particular bottle on the show? According to Steve Cox’s book Dreaming of Jeannie, no one is really sure. Director Gene Nelson may have the best claim, but its discovery has also been attributed to series creator Sidney Sheldon and a still-anonymous employee in the studio’s art department.

Less than ten bottles were made during the show’s five-year run. One of them is still owned by Barbara Eden. Others pop up at memorabilia auctions every so often, but there is almost no way to guarantee their authenticity. That hasn’t stopped them from selling for more than $15,000.

If that is out of your price range, you can pick up a ceramic reproduction for less than $200. If you are a classic TV lover you really should have one. I bought mine several years ago, and it is now the centerpiece of a small collection of Jeannie memorabilia. An eBay search for “Jeannie bottle” will bring plenty of buying options. 

As you might expect, when people spot it they always pull the cork, hoping to see a plume of pink smoke. I’ve always been tempted to rig the bottle to produce one, but the shocked response might result in dropping and breakage.

Next, they peer inside, looking for the round couch and oversized pillows in Jeannie’s harem-esque abode. I’ve always thought that interior set was one of the show’s most visually appealing touches. I did not know until I read Steve’s book that Larry Hagman had the fiberglass dome set shipped to his Santa Monica home. He kept it in his backyard and used it for meditation and listening to music. 

Given how prominent the bottle remains as a symbol of the show and of 1960s TV in general, it’s surprising how few episodes actually revolve around it. 

Major Healey gives the bottle to a visiting Cosmonaut in “Russian Roulette” (season 1), and Dr. Bellows’ bratty nephew steals the bottle in season 5’s “Jeannie and the Curious Kid.” But the series’ most bottle-centric episode was season 3’s “One of Our Bottles is Missing.” When Tony refuses to sell the bottle to Amanda Bellows, she takes it anyway so she can have a replica made. Tony breaks into the Bellows home that night to retrieve it, while claiming to be sleepwalking. Not much of a plot, but then that was pretty standard with this show.

Creative shortcomings aside, I Dream of Jeannie is a charter member of the comfort TV canon, and Jeannie’s bottle denotes the gateway to ultimate wish fulfillment. Replicas are available in the museum gift shop. Jeannie sold separately. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Magical Magnetism of Yvonne Craig

About 15 years ago I went to a Hollywood Collector Show, which was not held in Hollywood but at the Beverly Garland Hotel in Burbank. Yvonne Craig was there and she was the celebrity I was most excited to meet. 

I believe our conversation went something like this:

Me: Ummm…Hi

Her: Hi! Are you having a good time at the show?

Me. Ummm…Hi

Her: Would you like me to sign a photo for you?

Me: Ummm…Hi

And so on. But I did get a signed photo that was proudly displayed for years on my office wall.

As every fan of good TV knows by now, Yvonne Craig passed away last week. We have a no-obits rule around here, but when Mitchell Hadley, one of the TV bloggers I most respect, describes her passing as news that “no classic television blog worth its weight could ignore,” I listen. So let’s call this a tribute as we did with the James Best piece.

Actually, a piece on Ms. Craig was roughed out several months ago. She was going to be one in a series of blogs on Comfort TV stars that were blessed with an exceptional magnetism that always drew your eye and captivated your attention. With these actors it wasn’t about the role they played, it was the charisma and personality they brought to it that made it special.

It’s a quality that is hard to define but you know it when you see it. James Garner and David Janssen had it. So do Kate Jackson and Diana Rigg. Craig, like Jackson and Rigg, could have coasted through a performance on her remarkable looks, especially when the script didn’t call for much more than a pretty face. But she never did. 

She appeared in memorable guest spots on more than 50 different shows, from westerns (Bronco, Wagon Train, The Big Valley) to sitcoms (McHale’s Navy, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father). I can’t cover them all but here are some of the many highlights.

Yvonne Craig appeared in five episodes of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (actually six including the pilot but that was just a walk-on). Dwayne Hickman as Dobie played a dumb guy but in a smart way; he was very nimble with dialogue and needed a strong female presence to play off of, which he always had in regulars Tuesday Weld and Sheila Kuehl.

Playing five different one-episode crushes, Craig always made a formidable match for the love-struck Dobie. In “The Flying Millicans” she was Aphrodite, the toga-clad daughter of a fitness-obsessed family; in “Dobie’s Navy Blues” she was Myrna Lomax whom Dobie loved enough to almost join the Navy to please her father. Even in “Flow Gently, Sweet Money,” working with a character clearly derivative of Tuesday Weld’s money-hungry Thalia Menninger, she delivered delightfully cynical dialogue with aplomb. 

In the Star Trek episode “Whom Gods Destroy” she was Marta, the green-tinted Orion slave girl. People remember her seductive dance but not the dialogue around it, and that’s where Craig really created a haunting, (and haunted) schizoid casualty that joins Khan and Harry Mudd among the series’ most memorable guest characters. 

In The Wild, Wild West Craig played an assassin named Ecstasy (“The Night of the Grand Emir”), who was so alluring that after her intended victim survives he asks her out to dinner. As in Star Trek this was a role that made delightful use of her professional dance training.

Craig also played a rich girl turned beatnik in the appropriately named Mr. Lucky episode “Little Miss Wow,” the feisty daughter of a missing sailor in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and a meter maid on My Three Sons.

But it was her one-season appearance as Batgirl opposite Adam West and Burt Ward that still overshadows a lot of other fine work, a plight experienced by any actor fortunate enough to create an iconic character. 

The show really didn’t do right by her much of the time. In the third and final season of Batman the writing had slipped, most of the stories were no longer two-parters with cliffhangers, and poor Batgirl was usually captured far too quickly by chumps like Lord Fogg and Louis the Lilac.

And yet, every episode in which she appeared was a joy. Craig’s Batgirl was a carefree superhero, the antithesis of the dark and brooding caped crusaders of more recent films. She smiled and high-kicked through every fight, and radiated confidence each time she bounced into a room, head tilted back, hands on hips, ready for action.

I bought the Batman series blu-rays about three months ago and have been getting reacquainted with the show ever since. The third-season is coming up soon and I expect the experience of watching it will be bittersweet. But I will still be happy to see Batgirl again. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Despair is No Match for Champagne Music

I had a revelation while watching a 40 year-old episode of The Lawrence Welk Show. Which, to be clear, is not something I do very often. 

I grew up with the series, but like many in my generation it was against my will. How many of you also recall Sunday visits to the grandparents’ apartment, where conversation and card playing ceased the moment Welk raised his baton? To them The Lawrence Welk Show was one of the only good reasons to turn on the television. To me it was sappy music performed by sappy people who apparently wouldn’t stop smiling even if someone took a shot at them.

My appreciation for the music has grown since then, but that wasn’t the reason I recently spent a few moments watching Guy and Ralna, courtesy of PBS (which has been airing Welk reruns for years). I did it because there is a lot going on in the world right now, and much of it is not to my liking. Sometimes life in the 2010s is pretty lousy. And there was Lawrence Welk offering a respite, a temporary escape into simpler times. 

 That’s when I had my revelation – 40 years ago, my grandparents were doing the exact same thing.

From my current perspective the 1970s seem like a kinder, gentler time. But many seniors back then were convinced the world was going to hell. The popular music of the day was like a foreign language to them, and the nightly news brought stories of Vietnam War protests and Watergate and gas shortages and American hostages held in Iran, while a feckless government had no answer for what Ted Koppel called “terrorism in the Middle East.”

It was all a bit too much, so they watched Lawrence Welk. Here were tunes they recognized, performed in a style that harkened back to the entertainment of the 1940s – big bands, happy polkas, couples dancing together to songs with understandable lyrics. Everybody seemed so nice.

Say what you will about Welk’s refusal to change with the times, but he knew his audience. From local TV to the ABC network to first-run syndication, he stayed on television from 1951 to 1982.

And he didn’t completely ignore modern music – he just arranged it so it sounded like something Doris Day would have released when FDR was still in the Oval Office. The show’s infamously wholesome take on “One Toke Over the Line” has been watched nearly a million times on YouTube. 

That’s many more views than the clips of “Calcutta,” the instrumental that Welk took to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961. Take that, Chubby Checker.

If I feel nostalgic when I watch now, it’s as much for my grandmother’s traditional Russian cooking as for the show itself. But if you can get past the sight of all those ladies with the big round faces and pageant hair, and the guys wearing ties wide enough to land airplanes on, there was clearly a lot of talent in the cast.

The Lennon Sisters were the show’s biggest discovery, but there was also the wonderful Irish tenor Joe Feeney, peppy dancers Bobby and Cissy, the exquisite soprano voice of “Champagne Lady” Norma Zimmer, and the accordion wizardry of Myron Floren. Yes, I said accordion wizardry – it may be the most un-hip instrument ever, but Floren was its master and respect must be paid.

As proudly old-fashioned as it was, in its own way The Lawrence Welk Show could also be progressive. This was the first variety show to regularly feature an African-American in dancer Arthur Duncan. Welk was praised for that back in the day – today he’d probably be called a racist because the only black guy on the show is a tap dancer. With some people you just can’t win.

There was also a gorgeous Mexican singer billed as Anacani who performed songs in Spanish. I still remember her lovely version of "Eres tú," the song that should have won Eurovision in 1973. Another singer performed in a wheelchair. For its time, the show was inclusive.

Though I have recently achieved AARP eligibility, I’m not sure my fondness for The Lawrence Welk Show will continue to escalate.  But with the way the world is headed, I’m also not ruling out any return visits. If things don’t get better, I’ll meet you in front of the bandstand. Until then, Adios, Au Revoir, Auf Wiedersehen....Good Night.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Two-Part Episodes Revisited

In the Comfort TV era a “special two-part episode” was promoted as a big deal. Sometimes it actually turned out that way. Sometimes it didn’t.

As we explored back in March, there are good reasons to double the running time devoted to a story, such as character introductions and marriages, big-name guest stars and Emmy-bait scripts. But there were also times when the attempt to create something memorable only resulted in something twice as long.

Let’s take another look at some more two-parters from the Comfort TV era – 5 that worked, 5 that did not.

Good: Charlie’s Angels: “Angels in Paradise”
My first blog on this topic exposed “Terror on Skis” as a shameless cash grab padded into two episodes to justify a road trip to Vail, Colorado. But Charlie’s Angels could also deliver a first-rate two-part show. “Angels in Paradise,” the Hawaii-set adventure that introduced audiences to Cheryl Ladd, would be on any fan’s short list of the series’ very best moments. There’s a great jailbreak sequence, a charismatic adversary played by France Nuyen, and bikinis everywhere. 

Bad: The Dick Van Dyke Show: “I Do Not Choose to Run”/’The Making of a Councilman”
This season 5 story was sunk by its premise – Rob Petrie is recruited to run for a vacant city council position. It didn’t work because viewers of the previous four seasons knew Rob as an intelligent, eloquent, civic-minded gentleman who would probably make a great public servant. That didn’t serve the comedy, so he was presented as a dithering, uncertain candidate. Not buying it. 

Good: One Day at a Time: “J.C. and Julie”
The Norman Lear shows usually had a reliable sense of when to go two-part and when to keep it simple. One Day at a Time offered more than a dozen multi-part stories over its nine seasons. I’ve singled out “J.C. and Julie” because it pulls off a tricky concept – Julie joins a Christian youth group and annoys her family – in a way that is consistently funny without offending believers or non-believers.

Bad: Wonder Woman: “Mind-Stealers from Outer Space”
Yes, it delivers on the kitschy sci-fi promise of its B-movie title. There is an alien invasion story that leaves the fate of mankind in the hands of Dack Rambo, and flying saucer special effects that wouldn’t make the cut on Jason of Star Command. 
Wait – was this one in the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ category?
Like a lot of old cheese it can be fun if you meet it halfway, but any show that releases a two-part episode where the special guest star is Vincent Van Patten is just asking for trouble.

Good: That Girl: Mission Improbable
Unifit Sleepwear hires Ann Marie to go undercover as a seamstress at Sleeptight Fashions to find out who is stealing the company’s designs. She takes the job, despite the danger of discovery and the fact that she can’t sew. “Mission Improbable” justifies its two-part status as a clever genre departure from typical That Girl stories, and in the presence of such familiar comfort TV faces as Sandy Kenyon, Lou Jacobi and Avery Schreiber.

Bad: The Waltons: The Outrage
Some shows don’t know when to go away. By its ninth and final season, The Waltons had lost several beloved cast members but soldiered on, with World War II-era stories and a fake John-Boy (Robert Wightman) with the personality of an eggplant. The story in this season premiere two-parter focused on one of the family’s neighbors, a sure sign that writers had run out of ideas for the remaining Waltons.

Good: Bewitched: “My Friend Ben”/ “Samantha for the Defense”
A standard Bewitched set-up – Aunt Clara tries to summon an electrician but zaps up Benjamin Franklin instead – is elevated into the series’ best two-part outing on the strength of its shrewd scripts and guest star Fredd Wayne. Wayne takes a gimmick and gives it real depth – he captures Franklin’s wit and principles as well as the scientific curiosity and wonder that you’d expect to see in a man suddenly transported 200 years into the future. 

Bad: Diff’rent Strokes: The Hitchhikers
It’s customary for a sitcom to get serious every so often, especially in those “very special episodes” that inspire two-parters, but I doubt family audiences were all that pleased when Arnold and Kimberly are kidnapped by a mentally ill child molester.

Good: Battlestar: Galactica: “The Living Legend”
Remember, this is Comfort TV, so we’re celebrating the original series with Pa Cartwright and not the critically acclaimed but relentlessly grim remake. In “The Living Legend” the Galactica encounters the Pegasus, a long-lost starship with a legendary leader in Commander Cain (Lloyd Bridges). The philosophic sparring between Lloyd Bridges as Caine and Lorne Greene’s Adama provides a substantive counterpoint to the show’s signature action scenes. 

Bad: Starsky & Hutch: “Murder at Sea”
Aaron Spelling shows were never above cross-promotion, so here we have our two streetwise cops sailing on a thinly disguised variation of the Love Boat, in the undercover roles of entertainment directors Hack and Zack. It’s doubtful this adventure’s tired antics inspired anyone to spend more time on the Pacific Princess. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

The 20 Best Monkees Songs – and the 5 Worst

I love the music of The Monkees. Always have. 

I was too young for the series’ 1966-1968 prime time run, but when that ended The Monkees was moved to syndication on Saturday mornings, an unusual but effective programming strategy. That’s when I discovered them, right alongside Josie and the Pussycats and Kaptain Kool and the Kongs.

The songs were my favorite part of the show, and back then that was the only place where you could hear them. This was the early 1970s, when the original Monkees albums were out of print, and radio (even oldies stations) never played them because they were not a “real band.” Only dopes like Jann Wenner still hold that opinion.

Since my generation of Saturday morning Monkee fans couldn’t buy the records, and iTunes was still about 30 years away, we improvised by holding the microphones from our portable cassette tape players up to our TV speakers, and making our own Monkees tapes.

Given the generally poor state of my short-term and long-term memory, it’s surprising that I still remember being in the record department at Sears in 1972 and seeing something I had never seen before – an actual Monkees album. 

Sometime after that I picked up this import gem from Australia with 40 songs, plus amazing liner notes that told the full story of the band. 

It took MTV to finally reignite Monkee-mania with an episode marathon that aired on February 23, 1986. Its reception prompted a reunion tour (yes, I did get to see them live, and it was awesome even with out Mike Nesmith) and the re-release of all the band’s original albums, as well as the new top 20 hit “That was Then, This is Now.”

Today the reputation of The Monkees has been mostly restored, though they remain a glaring omission from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

These are my 20 favorite Monkees songs, in no particular order – along with 5 I’d rather forget.

I’m a Believer
This is not only one of the band’s most popular and successful songs (seven weeks at #1!), I think it belongs in the select company of the most perfect pop records ever made, alongside The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and “California Girls” by The Beach Boys. 

Last Train to Clarksville
It was about a soldier leaving for Vietnam, as most fans know by now. It’s fascinating to me that the first single from this manufactured band of TV goofballs not only tackled such a serious subject, but was also climbing the charts before the series even debuted. Personally I think “Clarksville” is slightly (just slightly!) overrated, but it was their first #1 hit and deserves to be here.

Mary, Mary
Given the master plan behind The Monkees machine it’s doubtful that Mike Nesmith’s songwriting played any role in his casting, but it became an essential element in the band’s evolution. That’s Glen Campbell playing the distinctive lead guitar riff on “Mary, Mary,” a song also covered by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Run DMC. 

Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)
I think this is their best pure bubblegum track. Those familiar with Monkees history know that original music producer Don Kirshner exerted dictatorial control over the band’s first two albums. Had Davy, Micky, Peter and Mike been the bystanders to their own careers that some critics alleged, all Monkees songs might have sounded like “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow).” Thankfully, sweets like this form only one part of their diverse catalog.  

Shades of Gray
The Monkees’ third album, Headquarters, was the first that gave the quartet control over their musical output. It produced no singles in the U.S., but this plaintive ballad would have been a worthy choice.

Daydream Believer
Another obvious pick, another #1 hit, and featuring Davy’s best vocal on a Monkees track (though if you prefer “She Hangs Out” I won’t argue the point). How many other bands could boast three lead singers as distinctive and as good as Davy, Micky and Mike?  

Randy Scouse Git
This is a Micky Dolenz composition that was a huge hit in England and throughout Europe, but it tanked in America. According to Dolenz, it was written the morning after a London party for The Monkees hosted by another popular quartet called The Beatles. 

Papa Gene’s Blues
“I have no more than I did before…but now I’ve got all that I need…for I love you and I know you love me.” Mike brought a country-folk flavor to the group both as a singer and songwriter. This is one of his first Monkees contributions, and one of his best. 

I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone
From “More of the Monkees,” this is the only Monkees song covered by the Sex Pistols – assuming there’s not a bootleg somewhere of Johnny Rotten singing “Valleri.” Micky’s delivery is not quite as aggressive, but there’s a lot more snarl in this track than anything else on the album.

Early Morning Blues and Greens
This “Headquarters” track is an acquired taste, as it lacks the irresistible hooks found in the band’s best-known songs. I find it reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and it’s become a song I like more every time I hear it.

A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You
Neil Diamond, who wrote “I’m a Believer,” also penned this memorable single, which just missed becoming their third consecutive #1 hit. It stalled at #2 for two weeks, behind The Turtles’ “Happy Together.”

The Girl I Knew Somewhere
History tells us this is the first fully self-contained Monkees song. Mike wrote it, and the group played the instruments and performed all the vocals. Peter Tork plays a mean harpsichord on this top-40 classic. 

The Door Into Summer
The “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd.” album (1967) came closest to earning The Monkees some critical praise during their first go-round. Tracks like this one are a reason why.

What Am I Doing Hanging Round?
Mike showing his Texas roots again, on a track that has all the twangy qualities of one of his own compositions. However, this one was actually written by Michael Martin Murphy, later of “Wildfire” fame. As much as fans wanted then and now for the band to be taken seriously, it’s admirable how they rarely took themselves seriously, as evidenced by Micky hamming it up in the video for this song. 

I know “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was a hit, and I do like it, but if I’m being honest I prefer the song on the flip side of the single, which was written by The Monkees’ most prolific go-to songwriters, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. It’s also a nice reminder that Peter could sing too, when he wasn’t goofing around on novelty tracks like “Your Auntie Grizelda.”

Sometime in the Morning
The brilliant songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King contributed several songs to the Monkees’ music catalog – this tender ballad is my favorite, perhaps because they sang it to Rose Marie in the episode “Monkee Mother.” 

Ríu Chíu
Ríu Chíu is a Spanish Christmas carol that dates back to the 1500s. The Monkees a cappella version (performed on “The Christmas Show”) is mesmerizing in its beauty.

Aunties Municipal Court
By now you may have sensed that I am partial to Mike Nesmith compositions. Here's another one, but there’s not much Nashville to be found in the psychedelic arrangement and evocative beat poetry lyrics of “Aunties Municipal Court.” If you’re into great bass riffs, this has one worthy of McCartney. 

For Pete’s Sake
This is The Monkees’ “summer of love” song, not surprisingly co-written by the Monkee that most embraced the counterculture and peace and love movements of the era, Peter Tork. It was played over the closing credits of every episode in the series’ second and final season.

Nine Times Blue
There are versions of this Mike Nesmith song with Mike singing lead and Davy singing lead. I prefer the first one, though it’s interesting to compare the interpretations. 

My Five Worst:

Gonna Buy Me a Dog
Three minutes of Micky and Davy ad libbing and telling bad jokes. Fun if you’re in the right mood, but it’s hard to believe this earned a spot on their debut album while better songs like “All the King’s Men” didn’t make the cut.

Mommy and Daddy
It’s a toss-up between this song and “Zor and Zam” for the title of Micky’s most awkward stab at social commentary.

Can You Dig It
The movie Head had some memorable music moments, particularly “Circle Sky” and “The Porpoise Song,” but this was not one of them.

P.O. Box 9847
Proof that even Boyce and Hart could have an off day.

99 Pounds
The last original Monkees album was “Changes,” released in 1970. By then only Micky and Davy remained, but even with half a group the album isn’t all bad – sample “Ticket on a Ferry Ride” and “I Love You Better” if you’re curious. But on “99 Pounds,” Davy Jones tries to be Little Richard, and falls short. But then, Little Richard couldn’t do justice to “Forget That Girl” either.