Micky Dolenz and Kelly Clarkson have more in common than one might think. The distance between a Monkee from the Summer of Love and our first “American Idol” may seem vast, but both engineered splits from powerful music moguls on their third and pivotal albums.
Miss Clarkson recently liberated herself from Clive Davis, chairman of the BMG Label Group. She insisted on creative control over the new album, “My December,” casting aside suggestions that she tap into Mr. Davis’ reservoir of bankable pop songwriters.
The Monkees recorded their third album, “Headquarters,” without the “golden ear,” rock impresario Don Kirshner, who supervised the group’s transition from a silly sitcom act into recording superstars.
So far, Miss Clarkson has canceled an upcoming tour and faces the prospect of diminished album sales without Mr. Davis’ pop machinery behind her.
The public gets a reminder of what happened when the Monkees declared independence with Rhino’s Tuesday rerelease of “Headquarters” and “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd.” The two discs, the Monkees’ third and fourth albums, respectively, found the band forging its own musical identity where one never existed but still scoring big on the pop charts. Each comes with superlative liner notes and plenty of extra cuts on the two-disc packages.
The Monkees, for those without Nickelodeon or an oldies station on their radio, were four Beatles-esque boys who sang songs and committed squeaky-clean high jinks on NBC from 1966 to ‘68. The band — two actors, two musicians — went on to sell more records than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined during its brief heyday. Yet the guys didn’t play their own instruments on their first two discs.
Mr. Dolenz, the group’s drummer and lead vocalist, approached the project like any other television show. “It was about this imaginary group in this imaginary beach house with imaginary adventures,” says Mr. Dolenz, who performed “Johnny B Goode” during his Monkees audition. “I was playing the part of a rock ‘n’ roll drummer. I didn’t have a problem with that initially. Underline ‘initially.’ ”
The record label started out selling a television show but ended up pushing a real, live band, Mr. Dolenz says. That, plus some growing resentments, changed Mr. Dolenz’s mind. Monkees’ mates Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork were told they could have input into the songs the band would sing, but Mr. Dolenz says those promises weren’t kept.
One day, Mr. Tork entered the Monkees studio, guitar in hand, to cut some music. “What are you doing here?” Mr. Dolenz says was the response his band mate received. Mr. Dolenz decided at that point it was time for the Monkees to get as real as advertised. The drummer, who as a child had starred in the television show “Circus Boy,” doesn’t sound bitter about the process.
“We were slightly mislead by the producers. I don’t know if it was intentional,” he says. “It just got out of hand. [The Monkees] were so much bigger than anybody else could have possibly imagined. For the first time, television and radio ganged up on the consumer in a concerted effort.”
Still, the television band had access to great songwriters, including Neil Diamond and Carole King, so staying the course was an option. “Clearly, we were not content to do that,” he says. With the confidence that comes from youth, and Mr. Nesmith imploring Mr. Dolenz to tap his own songwriting skills, the band made its first album from scratch.
“I was ready” Mr. Dolenz says. The sessions began awkwardly, but the foursome soon found their footing.
“Headquarters” yielded a slew of strong songs but no big single. Check out the pensive “Shades of Gray” or “Randy Scouse Git,” which Mr. Dolenz wrote after a visit to England, for a sample of the band’s new sound. “The Beatles threw us a party,” Mr. Dolenz recalls of the song’s inspiration. “I went back to my hotel room, and I sat down with my guitar and started writing, like a diary.”
On “Headquarters” the band worked more or less as one, but on its follow-up, “Pisces,” the group’s divergent personalities emerged. “We had four lead singers with four very distinct musical visions,” Mr. Dolenz says, from Mr. Nesmith’s electro-country to Mr. Jones’ weakness for big ballads.
Those “four different groups” as Mr. Dolenz calls them, created more buoyant material. Mr. Nesmith showcases his range on a pair of gems — “The Door Into Summer” and “What Am I Doin’ Hanging ‘Round.” And if there’s a better pure pop song than “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” we’d like to hear it.
Miss Clarkson may take some solace from the Monkees’ belated, hard-won artistic credibility, even if the band’s fame disappeared nearly as quickly as it came once the television show was canceled.
If the Monkees came of age in 2007, Mr. Dolenz says he thinks the band members wouldn’t even try to gain independence. “I don’t know if the participants would even care” that the group didn’t write their own material, he says. “It was much more of a purist time back then. ”