Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Monkees: the music theory episodes

Thank god I did not imagine this after all.

I distinctly remembered seeing an episode of The Monkees in which one of the Pre-fab Four gets a lesson in music theory from a black musician.

The reason I'm thinking of this is because I got into a discussion about the term "downbeat" with my music theory teacher and told him about this episode. Here is a link to the episode, but only the relevant bit. The black musician is Charlie Smalls. He wrote the musical THE WIZ.

At the end of the episode ("Some Like It Lukewarm") Davy Jones and Charlie Smalls are sitting at the piano:

Tell me, why don't I have soul?
You do have soul, but I have to explain it to you rhythmically… Your soul would emanate on the accented beats one and three, where my soul emanates on the accented beats two and four. And to give you a good example of that, the Beatles play hard and funky on the one and three, really, Ringo plays the hardest one and three I've ever heard in my life. Now if you clap four I'll show you. 
(Davy and Charlie then clap and count to four multiple times while Charlie makes a sound like the opening measures of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. That album was less than a year old when this episode was shot, in March 1968.) 

...Yeah right... 
That's the whole thing. It swings. As long as it swings, it's soul... 
...One and three is white soul...  
Right, exactly...Motown soul, which would be - clap again...  
They clap again and this time the accent is on the two and the four... Then Charlie demonstrates "Brazilian soul" with a shaker and then the piano and then they sing a song together. Then they decide everybody has soul but it's just a different kind of soul.

Very little of the Monkees TV show sticks in my memory (not that I've made an especially careful study of it, but anyway...) but this discussion explaining that white music has a 1-3 beat accent and black music has a 2-4 beat accent certainly did. I'm just glad I found it on Youtube to prove I didn't imagine it.

But the strangeness does not end there. Because on the very next episode, Frank Zappa shows up as a guest and appears to be mocking Charlie Smalls' music theory.

I was amazed my music teacher hadn't heard about this episode because he adores Frank Zappa and his band has covered the work of Zappa.

(Fun fact - one of the people I hung out with in high school, Blake Lewin, used to do transcription work for Frank Zappa.)

In the beginning of the episode ("The Monkees Blow Their Minds") Zappa and Mike Nesmith engage in zany yet ironic high-jinks, and towards the end of the clip...

(as "Frank Zappa")
...I wanted to know where the soul of your music was. Is it on the one and the seven, or is it on the one and the five. 

(as "Mike Nesmith")
The soul of your music is on the one and the seven, sometimes on the three and the five. The soul of our music, the Monkees' music lies somewhere in between the one and a half, the two and a half, the three and three-quarters and the giant C Major chord on the piano...
Then in a "match cut" as Zappa says, they are seated together at a piano, and Zappa makes a wry remark about the Monkees being "really tricky." And in a little bit Mike and Frank beat a car while a clip of Zappa's "We Are The Other People" plays.

It's cute, but mocking the Monkees is shooting fish in a barrel. But then it's always been my understanding that Frank Zappa was a self-impressed douchebag.

Here he is whining about his mistreatment at the hands of the Plastic Ono Band. Zappa, of course, is the ultra-cool hero of this narrative.