It’s one of the most familiar snippets of recording-studio banter in pop music:
“What number is this, Chip?” asks Davy Jones, the beloved, mop-topped Monkee. Anyone who was alive in the 1960s will instantly recognize this as the intro to “Daydream Believer,” the Pre-Fab Four’s final No. 1 hit.
Producer Chip Douglas and Davy’s bandmates, equally piqued,
snap back, “SEVEN-A!”
Jones quips, "Okay. I mean, don't get excited, man. It's just 'cause I'm short, I know."
This exchange, a relic from a looser era when recording artists left studio noise in their singles, captures the essence of the playful and self-deprecating Jones, who died Wednesday of a heart attack at age 66.
The banter also reveals how seriously the Monkees took their craft. These manufactured pop stars were not content to merely act like a rock band on television. They labored in the recording studio, layering top-notch harmonies over tight instrumental tracks laid down by crack session musicians. No one in that studio intended “Daydream Believer” to be AM radio filler.
“Everybody was giving it their all,” Peter Tork said in an interview via telephone Wednesday night.
I also spoke to Bobby Hart, half of the Boyce-Hart songwriting team, which produced “Last Train to Clarksville” and several other Monkees compositions. Their band, the Candy Store Prophets, played the instruments on the first Monkees album and made them sound closer to a real band — which they more or less became, in time.
Jones “was one of the preeminent voices of ’60s pop music," Hart said. "He was also just a great guy."
Hart said Jones would sometimes pick up the meal tab for Hart’s band at the studio because he knew they weren’t getting paid at quite the same rate.
Unfortunately, many rock fans have dismissed Jones as the most saccharine Monkee. Jones did bring Vaudeville tendencies to a group that was earnestly trying to prove its rock chops. Some of his drippier numbers sound hopelessly dated today, in stark contrast to most of the Monkees oeuvre.
"He had this classic, teen-throb beauty," said Eric Lefcowitz, a Monkee biographer, and that distracted fans from his musical talents.
But beyond that appeal was some true vocal talent. Here are five of Jones’s performances that stand up with the best of the Monkees catalog — which is to say, the best of ’60s pop music.
1. “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow).” The is classic Neil Diamond, a buoyant pop confection and a nifty companion piece to “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” another Diamond composition that gave the Monkees a big hit. Here, Jones plays the role of coy boy toy to the hilt, anguishing over a cruel choice between two girls: Mary, with “lips like strawberry pie,” and Sandra, with “long hair and pig tails.” Pop stars have such a hard life.
2. “She Hangs Out.” This tune, from songwriter Jeff Barry, was a standout track on “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.,” arguably the Monkees’ best studio album. The Monkees were marketed as a clean-scrubbed and decidedly nonthreatening outfit. But here, Jones tempts his female fans with a wilder side. “How old d'you say your sister was?” he leers, sounding almost sinister. “You know you'd better keep an eye on her!” This song, Tork told me, displays Jones’s formidable, forgotten talent as a rhythm and blues singer.
3. “Forget That Girl.” Penned by Monkees producer Douglas, this track from the “Headquarters” album proves surprisingly intricate in rhythm and chord progression. By this time, the Monkees were playing most of the instruments themselves. Many Monkees songs sound a bit like the work of their fellow travelers — this song has shades of the Zombies. (For a taste of the Yardbirds, check out “Saturday’s Child,” written by future Bread founder David Gates.)
4. “Cuddly Toy.” This song, written by Harry Nilsson and also on the “Pisces” album, sounds like a nursery rhyme put to music — until you listen beyond the la-la-las. Jones scolds a lover for her naivete, hinting at lost innocence and false prudishness and revealing, again, a darker Davy: “You’re not the only cuddly toy that was ever enjoyed by any boy. . . You’re not the only cherry delight that was left out in the night and gave up without a fight.”
5. “Star Collector.” A Goffin/King number from the “Pisces” set and an early meditation on the rock groupie. Jones sings, “She only aims to please young celebrities.” Mick Jagger would tell the same story a few years later in “Star Star,” in blunter terms.