The Monkees

Everybody in the press and in the hippie movement had got us into their target window as being illegitimate and not worthy of consideration as a musical force [or] certainly any kind of cultural force. We were under siege; wherever we went there was such resentment for us. We were constantly mocked and humiliated by the press. We were really gettin’ beat up pretty good.  – Mike Nesmith

I’ve been reminded several times about the Monkees by a blogger (can’t recall which one) who blogged about them and more recently by fellow blogger Christian to whom I revealed the Vital Data that “I’m a Believer” was the first record I ever bought. Add to that the fact that for some reason that song has been rattling around in my head for the past week and I suppose it’s time.

So why in almost seven years of blogging have I never blogged about the American Fab Four? Not sure. Maybe because so many people (to some extent myself included) see them as a fake TV band. Because if I’m honest, they were a fake TV band. At first.

But not entirely. Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork were accomplished musicians and Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz were really good singers. They had all the ingredients but they made the conscious decision to stick it all in a teenybop blender which doesn’t help credibility. (Steven Stills auditioned for this show. Imagine if your first knowledge of him was running around goofily on this show, riding tricycles and whatnot. As opposed to Woodstock which is way cooler.)

A little history from Wikipedia: “The Monkees were an American pop rock band formed in Los Angeles in 1966, comprising Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork and Davy Jones. They were conceived in 1965 as a fictional band for the sitcom The Monkees by the television producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. Music credited to the Monkees appeared in the sitcom, which aired from 1966 to 1968, and was released on LP.”

Apparently the original idea was to use a real band, the Lovin’ Spoonful but they had already been signed to a label. So they had to go out and cast this “boy band.” They ran this ad in the trades:

Madness!! Auditions. Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17–21. Want spirited Ben Frank’s-types. Have courage to work. Must come down for interview.*

Davy Jones was a British actor who had not only played the Artful Dodger in theater but was also, fatefully, on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9, 1964 when the Beatles made their Stateside debut.

Peter Tork had been an accomplished working musician in Greenwich Village where he was involved in the folk scene and Mike “wool hat” Nesmith was an LA-based singer/songwriter who had already had a minor single or two. Micky Dolenz was an actor who had starred in a TV show called Circus Boy and also played and sang in bands. (He was not a drummer but ater had to learn.)

In a lot of ways, these guys had the musical goods and had they somehow otherwise met, played some cover tunes and some of their own stuff, they might well have had some measure of success. But they might never have had the stratospheric push that prime time network TV provided them.

The Monkees debuted in September of 1966 but that was only after the release of their first single, “Last Train To Clarksville,” a song written by frequent contributors Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Both show and song were smash hits and the boys were off and running. Billboard remarked that “all the excitement generated by the promotion campaign for the new group…is justified by this debut disk loaded with exciting teen dance beat (!) sounds.”

Micky is on vocals on this one. Nesmith and Tork both felt that Dolenz had the more distinctive voice. The only Monkee contribution here are the vocals by Dolenz, Tork and Jones. They play no instruments on it and Nesmith is not on it at all.  Again, as kids we didn’t care but the Beatles (and most other groups) played all their own instruments and wrote their own songs.**

Fun fact – the producers chose what role each Monkee would play on the show and so Davy was the designated front man, Peter the bassist, Dolenz the drummer and Nesmith the guitarist. But if they had played to their actual strengths, Jones would have been the drummer, Dolenz the front man, Tork the guitarist and Nesmith the bassist.

Say what you will about Micky’s voice, there was nothing wrong with Davy’s. Here’s the boys lip synching to “Daydream Believer:”

Much tension was generated by the fact that the producers saw them as comic actors who could pretend to be a band but the guys (eventually) saw themselves as a band who also had a comedy show. All of the tension between the band (especially Nesmith) and Screen Gems’ Don Kirshner came to a head when, at a meeting, Nesmith punched a hole in the wall and said, “That could have been your face.”

Kirshner never thought they were as talented as the Beatles (who is?) and couldn’t understand their rebellion. He pulled some fast ones on them and was eventually shoved out by the band. Given that their TV show was hot, their shows were selling out*** and they were huge, they had a lot more clout. Kirshner went on to produce the cartoon Archies, a “band” he could manipulate to his heart’s content.

I gotta mention a song here which was on the flip side of “Daydram Believer.” The band somehow found a copy of Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm“, started screwing around with it and came up with a song called “Goin’ Down.” It’s jazzy and funky and loose and yes that’s them playing along with a bunch of studio musicians. (Lyrics by Diane Hildeband):

There has a been a myth out there that the Monkees actually outsold the Beatles and Stones combined in 1967. This came out of a Nesmith interview but there’s nothing to corroborate it. However they did set a record in 1967 that no other act has equaled: They became the first and only act to have four No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 in a calendar year.

Nesmith was a fairly prolific writer and it’s well known that the Stone Ponys (with the great Linda Rondstadt) had a hit with his “Different Drum.” And that he pretty much invented country rock and got very little credit for it. One of my favorite Nesmith tunes is called “Tapioca Tundra.” I don’t quite know what it’s about but it choogles right along. Same drummer (Eddie Hoh) who was so great on “Goin’Down.”

The Monkees TV show was canceled in 1968 which was pretty much the beginning of the end. The Monkees still had hits but well, you know how fickle the pop world is. The band decided they wanted to make a movie and rather than do some cutesy Hard Day’s Night thing, they made an oddball Sixties thing called Head. (Co-produced by a then unknown Jack Nicholson).

This movie flopped miserably appealing neither to their teenybop audience nor to the older crowed who thought they sucked anyway. If you’re curious about this cult “masterpiece,’ here’s a trailer for ya.

Tork left the band soon after, followed by Nesmith a year later, and the Monkees officially broke up in 1970. Weirdly, they never really went away. Nesmith had arguably the most successful solo career, none of them ever again attaining the same heights. They came back together in various combinations in later years and their tours were still successful. (If you’re curious, I never saw them. I may well have had desire when I was younger but I had pretty much lost interest in that sort of nostalgia shit.)

And in 2016, out of nowhere came a new (!) Monkees album called Good Times! co-produced by Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger (who died of COVID a couple of years ago). Contemporary artists such as Andy Partridge, Rivers Cuomo, Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller contribute. The Monkees are cool after all.

There is some level of controversy about whether or not the Monkees should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even myself as a fan, am not sure. On the one hand, they sold a shit ton of records, their songs were catchy as hell and they eventually did become a band.

On the other hand, were they a band? The Monkees themselves seemed torn about whether they really cared or whether even they thought they belonged. My own thought is this – in the grand scheme of things it’s probably really not that important. And if they don’t get in – and Micky is the only surviving one – they did in fact make a deal with the devil and allowed themselves to be a modern Marx Brothers/Three Stooges. They had to know they’d have zero credibility. So you can’t have it both ways boys. My guess is if it hasn’t happened by now, it ain’t never gonna happen.

Last I heard, BTW, Micky was going on some sort of Monkees tour starting on a cruise. Hey Micky, give it up man. You’re pushing 80 and you’re working since you’re 10. Let it go. Fucking party is over.

Despite, that, as far as the band itself and its musical legacy, the only thing I can say after all these years is the following;

*There were 437 applicants. Today there would be 437,000.

**Apart from Peter Tork on a couple of cuts, the Monkees played no instruments on their first two albums. It wasn’t till 1967’s Headquarters that they both played and sang.

***Yes it’s true that the guys saw Hendrix play at Monterey, loved him and invited him onto their tour. For his part, Hendrix thought they were a joke. He joined their tour as an opener anyway but quit the tour after seven dates of hearing “We Want Davy.” So it goes.

8 thoughts on “The Monkees

      1. I think they meet enough criteria for me:
        – sort of a household name. Most people my age would know them via the TV series reruns.
        – a bunch of recognisable tunes like Daydream Believer and I’m A Believer that have held up well.
        – Enough acclaim as an album band.

        I think they’re miles over Stevie Nicks’ solo career.


        1. I asked my wife about this as we both lived through the era (and were both fans.) I think our problem is that while they had talent, they were a manufactured band who neither played instruments nor wrote songs for their first two albums. This in the midst of the greatest revolution in pop music in our lives with self-contained bands. As my wife said, “Who’s next, the Partridge Family?” Regardless, neither your or my opinion matters much. There is no way Jann Wenner will let them in, and my guess is it will never happen. As to the artists of that era, my guess is if they’re not in by now, they’re never getting in. That ship has largely sailed.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Great stuff. I picked up the Vinyl box set for Christmas. It takes me back to my childhood when I watched the re-runs on TBS after school (or whatever time a day it came on). The first vinyl I ever got was a Monkees Greatest Hits…still have it today.


    1. I gave all my Monkees records away when I started listening to bands like Zep and deemed Monkees uncool. I cared for a while but really don’t anymore because eventually, I’ll get rid of most of my vinyl. I no longer have any emotional attachment to these records, and I don’t want to lug them around next time we move.

      Liked by 1 person

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