Peter Tork's 10 Best Monkees Songs: Critic's Picks
In 2016, The Monkees’ Peter Tork recalled when his fictional 1960s band ate from the Tree of Knowledge -- and realized their real-life potential. During a lull in filming their goofball NBC sitcom The Monkees, they idly flicked the switches on the amplifiers they were pretending to play through -- and were astonished to find they weren’t props at all.
“We turned them on and began to play, never having played together before,” he explained to the site I Like Your Old Stuff. “Everybody got up and danced, so it’s not like they ran cowering from the room holding their ears!”
Tork, singer Davy Jones, guitarist Michael Nesmith and drummer Micky Dolenz could more than hold a tune in real life; the Monkees transcended their TV roots to become rock ‘n roll greats. And their multi-instrumentalist Tork, who sadly passed away Thursday (Feb. 21) of cancer at 77, was crucial to their story.
If the Monkees were focus-grouped as America’s answer to Beatlemania, then Tork -- the oldest of the group, with musical ability more than girl appeal -- was their Ringo. Dolenz and Jones were chosen by producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider their for comedic ability: the former starred in the kiddie TV show Circus Boy, the latter played the Artful Dodger in the Broadway musical Oliver!.
But where his bandmates got by on personality, Nesmith and Tork were downright veterans; Tork was already a Greenwich Village folkie who was proficient on multiple instruments. When future Crosby, Stills and Nash singer-songwriter Stephen Stills flunked his audition for the TV band, the producers requested someone with a similarly “open, Nordic look” -- and Stills name-dropped Tork.
From the fanged garage rock of “Your Aunt Grizelda” to the jazzy, droning “I Believe You,” he made his own memorable mark on their catalog. It’s hard to imagine “Daydream Believer” without Tork’s iconic piano intro -- or “You Told Me” without his Greenwich-bred banjo line. And after Tork left the band in 1968, he may have had the most interesting Monkee afterlife, tracking banjo for George Harrison’s zonked Wonderwall Music, forming a blues band called Shoe Suede Blues and diving into Zen meditation.
As the quiet counterpart to his magnetic bandmates, Tork may slip under the radar as the most nondescript Monkee. But his abilities as a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist can’t be denied. In honor of the late Monkee’s life and legacy, here are his 10 greatest Monkees cuts.
“Your Auntie Grizelda” (More of the Monkees, 1967)
Tork’s first Monkees lead vocal is the spiritual father of the Kinks’ “Wicked Annabella,” another rude, fuzzed-out rocker about avoiding a disagreeable woman. But where “Annabella” evokes a sinister crone, the Diane Hildebrand/Jack Keller co-write “Your Auntie Grizelda” evokes a more relatable archetype: a bitter, judgemental relative. With his yelping, off-key alarm over Auntie acting “so righteous making fudge” and “judging others over tea,” Tork’s hilariously pitchy performance will put the fear of Grizelda in your heart.
“Shades of Gray” (from Headquarters, 1967)
This Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil-written tune was the first Monkees track where they played their own instruments -- and Tork took its co-lead vocal. Lyrically, it suggests that the adult world can’t be reduced to a cut-and-dry, binary reality; in their performance, Jones’ fragile tenor sounds lost in the clouds, the dry-voiced Tork earthbound. It’s an early peek into the Monkees’ brilliance.
“Come On In” (from Missing Links Volume Two, 1968/1990)
An unfairly shelved outtake from 1968’s The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees that wouldn’t be released until 1990, the Jo Mapes-written “Come On In” captures a particularly aching, fragile vocal from Tork. Like his pal Stephen Stills on “Hot Dusty Roads,” in which a 20-year-old makes the mannish offer of “lovin’ and a place to take off your shoes,” Tork strains beyond his years in these lyrics about adult loneliness.
“Tear the Top Right Off My Head” (from Missing Links Volume Three, 1968/1996)
This jocund Tork original also hit the cutting-room floor until the 1990s -- shame, since it’s one of his sunniest duets with Dolenz. Tork would improve as a wordsmith -- his lyrics about “going blind” and “freaking out in the afternoon” less suggest a crush than a 911 emergency -- but his lovestruck performance on “Tear the Top Right Off My Head” makes it a nifty deep cut.
“Can You Dig It” (from Head, 1968)
The Monkees never reached the innovative heights of The Beatles, but Head is nonetheless their Yellow Submarine -- a film soundtrack that works as an informal art-rock effort in its own right. If “Can You Dig It” evokes the 1960s’ most tired slogan on the surface, the music therein is full of surprises: Tork digs deep into a wild, clattery raga that benefits from his guitar prowess.
“Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?” (from Head, 1968)
Head is full of darker, more philosophical themes than one would usually expect from The Monkees, from a hard rocker set to Vietnam War footage to a Harry Nilsson cover about being abandoned by one’s father. And if one wants to push the Yellow Submarine comparisons, then “Long Title” could be Tork’s “It’s All Too Much” -- a noisy, overwhelmed jam about love’s existential crises.
“MGB-GT (Live)” (from "Heart and Soul" 7”, 1987)
Featuring an awkward cover sleeve of inner-tubed Monkees and an instantly dated yacht-rock sound, Pool It! was the group's first album in 17 years -- and a critical disaster. While the album remains best avoided, Tork’s “MGB-GT,” an ode to the titular British sports car unloaded on the “Heart and Soul” single, is a lovely, revved-up country gem. “Folks, this little car of mine/ Was like a kitten purring throatily,” he describes to his grease-monkey audience, like his old GT is the stuff of legend.
“I Believe You” (from Justus, 1996)
The Monkees rang in their 30th anniversary with Justus, their final album to feature Jones, Nesmith, Dolenz and Tork. While it doesn’t hold a candle to 2016’s rejuvenated Good Times!, the set is worth the price of admission for the remake of Nesmith’s classic “Circle Sky” and Tork’s moody original “I Believe You.” It’s his David Crosby moment: jazzbo chords, a weird, loping rhythm, ethereal choral vocals wafting in from the rafters.
“Little Girl” (from Good Times!, 2016)
If the Monkees' output in the decades following their '60s stardom mostly resulted in diminishing returns, 2016’s Good Times! proved they had one left in them. Crucially, the Monkees returned to their original formula, tackling contributions from modern-day pop-rock greats -- Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger -- and making them their own. Despite all that borrowed starpower, Tork himself steals the show: first with Goffin and King’s classic “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” and then with his mellow, wizened original “Little Girl.” In this revitalized Monkees outfit, Tork clearly still had gas in the tank.
“Angels We Have Heard on High” (from Christmas Party, 2018)
In a victory lap from the success of Good Times!, the Monkees checked one more box for their career in 2018: a Christmas album. This time around, they tackled a variety of yuletide classics, some reverent (Robert Wells’ “The Christmas Song”) and some cheeky (Big Star’s “Jesus Christ”). Tork’s version of “Angels We Have Heard on High” is his last vocal for the Monkees -- over his trusty, plucking banjo, he steps away from the raucous Christmas party to poignantly invoke heaven.
That’s how we’ll remember Tork: while not as flashy, silly or outsized as his bandmates, it’s impossible to envision the Monkees without him.