In a way it’s amazing that it took this long for the Monkees to make a Christmas album. Back during their mid-’60s heyday, everyone from Beach Boys, the Supremes and Elvis Presley, to James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Johnny Cash issued Yuletide offerings. Even the almighty Beatles produced annual Christmas discs for their fan club. And yet, the Monkees were too busy monkeying around — in this case defined as “taping a television show, recording an impeccable slew of hits, and hitting the road for live performances” — to ever put together a full-scale holiday release.
“We just never got around to it,” Micky Dolenz tells PEOPLE. “We talked about it a few times, but the whole original Monkees thing only lasted a couple years and it just never happened.” The closest they ever came occurred during a 1967 Christmas episode of their television program, when the quartet performed an a cappella version of “Ríu Chíu” — a 16th century Spanish villancico chant. Gorgeous? Absolutely. But “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” it ain’t.
However, this fall the Monkees filled this Santa-shaped gap in their formidable discography with Christmas Party, an exuberant (and occasionally eccentric) collection of classic carols and new additions to the pop Christmas canon, penned by bonafide rock legends like REM guitarist Peter Buck, Andy Partridge of XTC, and Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo. For production help, they tapped Adam Schlesinger, the pop tunesmith behind Fountains of Wayne and the ’60s smash that never was, “That Thing You Do.”
It was Schlesinger who oversaw the Monkees’ most recent album, 2016’s Good Times — a late-career highlight that gave them their first Top 20 disc in nearly half a century. Faced with its unexpected success, they initially struggled with what to do next. “Basically, we felt, ‘How do you follow something like that up so quickly?’ It’s like coming up with Batman 2 a month later,” Dolenz explains. “You might get lucky and it’s okay. Usually it’s like, ‘Ehhhh…’ It’s just too quick. And then John Hughes, the A&R guy at Rhino, said, ‘How about a Christmas album? Because you’ve never done that.’”
Splitting the difference between traditional and new, Schlesinger put the word out for fresh material from many of the same famous fans who contributed to Good Times. Cuomo offered up “What Would Santa Do,” Buck and Scott McCaughey penned the title track, and Partridge contributed the lead single, the joyous “Unwrap You at Christmas.”
For that authentic ’60s “Wrecking Crew” sound, they recorded tracks at Lucy’s Meat Market, an L.A. studio specializing in what Dolenz describes as “old school” equipment. “They had the old tube amps, an old analogue board, the old Fender keyboard and the Vox amps and Rickenbacker guitars. That’s why Adam chose that studio — rather than trying to duplicate those sounds digitally, he said, ‘This is the real deal.’ So, to me, it sounds like it was recorded in 1966.”
Among the most unusual tracks on the album is “House of Broken Gingerbread,” a track that pairs Schlesinger’s melodic sensibilities with the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. “I asked Adam how he got Michael Chabon and he said, ‘I was a fan and I just reached out: “Well, I’m doing a Christmas album. I’ve got this idea for a melody,”‘” Dolenz says of the unlikely combo. “He was like, ‘Yes!’”
The album closes with a surprisingly raucous cover of “Merry Christmas, Baby,” delivered with a bluesy growl courtesy of Dolenz. “It wasn’t embarrassing?” he asks with a self-deprecating laugh. “Those my roots. My musical roots, pre-Monkees, were Otis Redding and Johnny Mathis and Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, Little Richards, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis. Pre-Monkees, if you hear some of the stuff I did, it’s very, very hard rocky bluesy, [like] Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs or Eric Burdon. My audition piece for the Monkees was ‘Johnny B Goode’ by Chuck Berry. That’s where I was going, sonically and vocally, if it hadn’t been for the Monkees. I actually did have a song that I recorded before the Monkees, my first recording. I’m like 19. [It was] called ‘Don’t Do It.’ It was like punk screaming.”
The late Davy Jones, who died of heart failure in 2012, is heard on a pair of songs originally intended for his own 1976 Christmas LP — “Silver Bells” and the Hawaiian-themed “Mele Kalikimaka.” Michael Nesmith tackled stunning country-tinged versions of “The Christmas Song” and “Snowfall” (“I remember my mom singing that in the ‘50s at Christmas,” says Dolenz), both with production assistance by his sons, Christian and Jonathan. Peter Tork, meanwhile performed a delicate, banjo-driven rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
Dolenz shouldered the majority of the vocal duties on Christmas Party, singing lead on all of the aforementioned original tracks, in addition to covers of Paul McCartney’s perennial “Wonderful Christmastime,” Wizzard’s glam-rock holiday anthem “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday,” and “Jesus Christ” by Alex Chilton’s hugely influential ’70s group, Big Star. “There were some health issues between some different people, Nez and Peter,” he says. “We couldn’t get in the studio 24/7, like I would have wanted.”
Tork, who had previously toured with Dolenz in 2016, has laid relatively low in 2018, focusing his attention on managing undisclosed medical concerns and his latest musical project, Shoe Suede Blues.
Nesmith has also been recovering. In June, he was forced to postpone dates of his double act tour with Dolenz, The Mike and Micky Show just hours before taking the stage at the Keswick Theater in Philadelphia.
“He was feeling really bad and we were putting it down to, ‘Oh, it’s the road, it’s touring.’ We were playing Tahoe and Denver at altitude,” Dolenz explains. “He couldn’t breathe. He was putting it down to all kinds of other things, and he went to the hospital that day of the sound check because he just couldn’t walk anymore. And they said, ‘You have a bad [heart] valve and that’s why you can’t breathe, there’s fluid in your lungs.’ He said, ‘Can I do the show tonight?’ And, supposedly, they said, ‘You can but it might be your last.’”
The duo will play a handful of rescheduled Mike and Micky Show dates this spring before continuing on a brief tour of Australia in June. But until then, Dolenz has had a great deal of Monkee business to keep him busy. In addition to his regular charity work — including a recent benefit for the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Shelter in Newtown, Connecticut — the 73-year-old appeared alongside Nesmith at the Egyptian Theater in November to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Head, the Monkees oft-misunderstood feature film.
Written by a young Jack Nicholson and Monkees series co-creator/producer Bob Rafelson in what can safely be dubbed a haze of mind-bending substances, the aggressively non-linear film confused audiences upon its release in 1968. Teeny-bopper fans expecting a continuation of the made-for-TV-band’s sitcom hijinks were inundated with a string of largely unrelated surreal Monty Python-esque sketches, including a journey through actor Victor Mature’s hair, a swami who imparts the secret to the universe, and Dolenz leaping off the Gerald Desmond Bridge to swim with porpoises.
Though largely blamed for torpedoing the Monkees’ mass market career, the film has gone on to become a cult favorite. Viewed today, its quick cuts and non-sequiturs read as surprisingly modern and often very funny. Even after repeat viewings, it can still pique the curiosity of viewers desperate to figure out what the hell is going on.
“Do you have any idea what it’s about? Because I don’t!” Dolenz jokes at the mention of the film. “I’ve talked to Jack and Bob and everybody. My take on it is that these were the young bucks in Hollywood. There were these guys — Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Martin Scorsese — trying to break through that Hollywood major studio wall. [Back then] it was impossible if you weren’t part of the major Hollywood studio system. You could make a movie, but you probably wouldn’t ever get it released or have anybody see it, except for very few exceptions. These guys were fighting the system. And to me, that movie was about deconstruction. Not only deconstruction of the Monkees, but deconstruction of the entire Hollywood film and television industry.”
Despite their best efforts, Head failed to deconstruct the Monkees entirely. Fifty years later they’re still making music, and fans are still eager to hear it. “I did the math for Good Times,” Dolenz muses. “The equivalent would be in 1967, when the Monkees hit it big, an act from 1917 — the end of World War I — having a Top 20 hit. Enrique Caruso! Scott Joplin! Isn’t that crazy?”