Monkees Madness!

Monkees on the air. Photo courtesy of Rhino.

Monkees on the air. Photo courtesy of Rhino.

By Gillian G. Gaar

MADNESS! That was the first word in the ad that ran in The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety from September 8-10, 1965, seeking “Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in a new TV series.” Just over one year later, on September 12, 1966, the first episode of that series, “The Monkees,” was broadcast on NBC. It was the first television series based around the exploits of a rock band, and also broke ground visually, employing a quick cutting, gag-oriented style that’s common today, but was then considered progressive and unique for TV.

Now “The Monkees” series is getting a 21st century revamp. The show’s being released on Blu-ray for the very first time, in a box set that also includes the 1969 TV special “33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee” and the 1968 feature film “Head,” among other bonus features. The limited-edition set is available through the group’s website, www.monkees.com.

Monkees complete TV series box set.

“Monkees: The Complete Series” box set.

There’s also the new album, “Good Times!,” accompanied by a 50th anniversary tour featuring two of the band’s surviving members, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork (Michael Nesmith has said he may drop in for a few shows; Davy Jones died in 2012). Clearly, Monkeemania is alive and well in 2016.

The “Monkees” story began in 1962, when Bob Rafelson, an upcoming writer, director and producer, got the idea for a TV series about a music group, inspired by his own experiences playing with bands in Mexico in the 1950s. He pitched it to Universal Pictures’ TV division, but there was no interest at the time. But Rafelson held on to the idea.

Two years later, Rafelson was working at Screen Gems (the television subsidiary of Columbia Pictures), where he met Bert Schneider, the company’s treasurer. The two men were ambitious and anxious to break into movies, but frustrated by how things were done in Hollywood. “We just knew there was a way to do something groovier than the way it was being done,” Rafelson said in Andrew Sandoval’s “The Monkees: The Day-By-Day Story of the ’60s TV Pop Sensation.” “We decided to make a company that would do things our way.” By 1965, the two had left their jobs at Screen Gems and formed their own company, Raybert Productions.

Both Rafelson and Schneider wanted to make films, but knew it was easier to make a TV pilot than a movie; it was a way of getting a foot in the door. They returned to Rafelson’s idea of a show about a band, something more feasible now after the Beatles’ success with their 1964 debut film, “A Hard Day’s Night.” “The Beatles made it all happen, that’s the reality,” Schneider told Eric Lefcowitz in “Monkee Business: The Revolutionary Made-For-TV Band.” “Richard Lester (who directed “A Hard Day’s Night”) is where the credit begins for The Monkees and for Bob and me.”

There was immediate interest in the project from Screen Gems. The pilot initially referred to the band as the Monkeys, later changed to “Monkees” in style of other band misspellings like The Beatles and The Byrds. An idea to feature the Lovin’ Spoonful as the band was soon dropped; The Monkees would be assembled from scratch.

One reason for Screen Gems’ interest is that they saw the show as a perfect vehicle for a young British actor they’d signed, David “Davy” Jones. Jones, originally from Manchester, England, had appeared as the Artful Dodger in the stage musical “Oliver!” both in London and on Broadway, and was also recording for Colpix, a record label jointly run by Columbia Picture and Screen Gems.

The “Madness” ad, offering roles “for 4 insane boys, age 17-21,” was meant to find the rest of the group. Michael Nesmith, a singer-songwriter from Texas who’d recorded for Colpix under the name Michael Blessing, answered the ad and made it through the first round. Others arrived through different means. Micky Dolenz, born and raised in Los Angeles, had been a child actor, starring in the TV show “Circus Boy” (billed as Mickey Braddock); given his experience, his agent got him a private audition. And singer-songwriter Stephen Stills auditioned, not because he wanted the gig, but because he hoped to sell some of his songs. The producers had no interest in Stills’ work, but he nonetheless tipped them off to someone he thought might work for the show, musician Peter Tork. The down-on-his-luck Tork was then working as a dishwasher when he was asked to audition.

Screen tests were shot of the likeliest contenders, then whittled down to eight finalists. Test screenings were held in November before invited audiences. Jones received the highest ratings, with the rest of the group would be rounded out with Dolenz, Nesmith and Tork. Shooting for the pilot began on November 11, and it was test-screened in December. But it fared poorly with audiences, who didn’t seem to know what to make of the show.

The program was re-edited, featuring material from Jones’ and Nesmith’s screen tests at the beginning. It was a device to introduce the characters, making the audiences predisposed to like them. It worked; by mid-January 1966, NBC agreed to pick up the show. (The pilot would air as the series’ 10th episode, “Here Come The Monkees,” with the screen tests moved to the end).

This article ran in The Monkees "special issue," July 2016.

This article ran in The Monkees “Special Issue,” July 2016.

The group began working with director Jim Frawley on developing their improvisational skills prior to filming (Frawley would direct most of the show’s episodes). They also worked at making music together. Both Nesmith and Tork could play guitar; Tork took up the bass in the new band, as Nesmith refused to play it. Dolenz had served as lead singer for a number of bands in the L.A. area, and despite having no experience on the instrument, volunteered to be drummer. Jones was shown miming guitar in the pilot, but he quickly switched to something easier to master: maracas.

The Raybert team considered letting the group make their own music for the show, but ultimately decided the band needed to have a more professional sound, and there simply wasn’t time to get the group into shape. Nesmith and Tork, who as the working musicians of the four had hoped to have a role in creating music for The Monkees, were keenly disappointed, sewing seeds of discontent for the future.

The songwriting team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart had written and recorded the songs for the pilot (with The Monkees’ voices dubbed in when the show was picked up). Now Rafelson and Schneider tapped Don Kirshner, a music supervisor at Screen Gems, to come aboard. He agreed to oversee music for “The Monkees,” also setting up a new label, Colgems, to release the band’s records, and securing a distribution deal with RCA.

“The Monkees” began filming on May 31, and continued throughout the summer, along with recording sessions. On August 16, the band’s first single, “Last Train to Clarksville,” was released. The single quickly racked up sales of nearly half a million and would become the band’s first No. 1, before a single scene of “The Monkees” had even reached the airwaves the band was a hit.

On September 12, the first “Monkees” episode, “Royal Flush,” aired at 7:30 p.m. The plot revolved around the band’s attempts to save Princess Bettina, Duchess of Harmonica (Katherine Walsh) from the machinations of her uncle, who wishes to usurp her throne. The show included three songs, including “Last Train to Clarksville” (the song was in four of the first five episodes, helping to spur sales). Sometimes the group would be seen in performance during the shows, but other times the music played over the wacky antics of the four, running around in funny costumes, the footage sped up to heighten the humor. Because there was no miming, it was easy to drop in different songs for these “romps” when the episodes were rerun.

The reviews for the show were mixed. “If one looked for much rhyme or reason in the ensuing shenanigans, he found virtually none. But therein lay most of the charm,” Hal Humphrey wrote in the Los Angeles Times. There was also controversy. Newsweek reported that some NBC affiliates refused to air the show because of a predisposition against “long hairs.” Yet ironically, the Monkees were shown to have conventional, even traditional, values. “Royal Flush” was typical of the damsel-in-distress narrative common to the show. And in “Monkees vs. Machine,” the group works to help keep an older employee at a toy factory from losing his job. The show presented a sympathetic look at the so-called counter-culture. “The only time you saw long-haired kids on television was when they were being arrested,” Dolenz later told British newspaper The Guardian. “And then we come along and all we want to do is have fun and dance and sing and help little old ladies across the road.”

“‘The Monkees’ changed the rules of what you could show on television, with a group of young people having adventures without a parental/authority figure saying ‘That’s enough,’” says Peter Mills, author of the upcoming book “The Monkees, ‘Head’ and the 60s.” “It brought a possible new model for living for young people right into the American home.”

Though the show wasn’t a ratings smash, the records performed otherwise. “People inside the organization professed to be puzzled as to why the record sales figures were higher than the Nielsen ratings, but that’s easy to explain,” says Mills. “A dozen kids could watch the show at the same time on a single TV — but they’d all want their own copy of ‘I’m A Believer.’” The band’s first six U.S. singles and first five U.S. albums all hit the Top 5. But another controversy erupted when it was learned The Monkees didn’t play instruments on their records.

From the beginning, it was made clear The Monkees came together via auditions; they never claimed to be a band before the series. But the back cover copy on the group’s first album implied that the group played on the record, when in fact Tork was the only one who played an instrument — and only on two tracks.

Nesmith confirmed that the group didn’t play on their records in an interview with the Saturday Evening Post that ran in January 1967; “Tell the world that we’re synthetic because, damn it, we are.” But it didn’t have to be a revelation. In Dolenz’s autobiography, “I’m a Believer: My Life of Monkees, Music, and Madness,” he stated that if the session musicians had simply been listed on the album cover, it wouldn’t have much difference to the fans.

To help deflect criticism, the group was soon giving live concerts — beginning with a December 3, 1966, date in Honolulu — that showed they could indeed play their instruments (while also relying on a backup band). They also began playing more on their records. And ultimately, none of the complaints dimmed the band’s immediate popularity.

The height of Monkeemania came in 1967, the band’s golden year. The TV show was renewed, and the series won two Emmy Awards in June, Schneider and Rafelson winning the Outstanding Comedy Series award, and director Jim Frawley winning the Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy award for the “Royal Flush” episode. The albums “Headquarters” and “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd.,” both topped the charts, and the chart-topping single “Daydream Believer” became one of the group’s best-loved songs. It was a hectic period; the group juggled a busy schedule of TV filming, recording sessions and live appearances.

While the band’s music attracted the most attention, the influence of the series shouldn’t be overlooked. “The visual signature of the show was freedom,” says Mills. “Freedom in the adventures the foursome had, but also the freedom to depart from TV convention and to send-up or satirize those conventions. The Monkees dress up and enter into a world of adventure; just by thinking of them, items and outfits which cause or solve problems magically appear and disappear, difficulties are overcome by wit, guile, charm or just by them being there, and even the bad-guy characters can change, showing redemption is possible. This is all appropriate to a show targeted at young kids.”

But if 1967 had been the year when nothing could go wrong, 1968 was The Monkees’ fall from grace. When NBC’s fall schedule was announced on February 20, 1968, “The Monkees” was conspicuous by its absence. The group was disappointed. Though becoming weary of the grind, they’d hoped the show could be taken in a new direction; the “laugh track” was being phased out, and the second season saw fun cameos from people like comedian Pat Paulsen and Frank Zappa. Instead, the last new episode of the series, “Mijacogeo (The Frodis Caper),” directed by Dolenz, aired on March 25 (the show’s title had an in-joke; “frodis” was Dolenz’s secret name for marijuana).

Record sales began declining, too. “The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees,” released in April, reached No. 3 and would be the band’s last Top 20 album. The single “Valleri” likewise peaked at No. 3, and was the band’s last Top 10 single. Subsequent releases would sell even less. “The minute the television show went off the air, The Monkees’ records meant nothing,” Nesmith later observed.

But the four hoped to keep the band a going concern with their feature film, “Head.” Work on the film began in late 1967, the four spending a weekend in Ojai, California, with Rafelson, Schneider and a new friend of the two producers, actor Jack Nicholson. A tape recorder was running as ideas were batted around; Nicholson and Rafelson then took the tapes, sifted through the discussions, and created a script.

Filming began on February 19, 1968, following a hold out by Nesmith, Dolenz and Jones, who believed they deserved credit as screenwriters. There was no linear narrative. “Head” was a grab bag of unrelated sketches, with The Monkees generally facing some sort of peril: torn apart by their fans at a concert, tackled by Green Bay Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke or KO’d by boxer Sonny Liston. Cameos by unexpected celebrities like Annette Funicello added to the air of surrealism. Highlights among the six new songs were the opening number, “Porpoise Song” and the Broadway-style take on Harry Nilsson’s bittersweet “Daddy’s Song.”

More symbolically, The Monkees are seen repeatedly being trapped in a black box. Even at the end, when they leap off the Gerald Desmond Bridge in Long Beach, plunging into the water below, it’s revealed that they’ve simply landed in yet another box; a tank, carted away under the watchful eye of Victor Mature, who’s been an omnipresent, dispassionate observer throughout the film.

“Our film is going to astound the world,” Nesmith optimistically told the U.K. music paper New Musical Express while “Head” was still being filmed in April. “Stunned” might have been a more apt description. “Head” opened on November 6, and the reviews were scathing. The New York Times called it “dreadfully written,” while Daily Variety wrote it off as “ridiculous nonsense.” A bizarre advertising campaign that made no mention of the group meant there was no proper outreach to their fans, while older viewers felt duped; Rafelson recalled seeing people leave the theater once they realized “Head” was a Monkees movie. The final judgment was economic. The film’s budget was $790,000; the film’s proceeds on first release were $16,111.

Though “The Monkees” series was cancelled, the group was still contracted to make three TV specials, the first of which, “33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee,” went into production just over three weeks after “Head” premiered. There were some high points, such as a ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll medley, and the sight of Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard playing pianos stacked on top of each other. But overall the special hit the same themes as “Head,” critiquing the band’s manufactured image, but in a more heavy-handed fashion, as when they’re seen singing “I’m a Wind-Up Man.”

The special aired on April 14, 1969, playing opposite the Academy Awards telecast. The ratings were poor, and plans for two subsequent specials were scrapped. By the time the special aired, Tork had left the group; Nesmith followed by the year’s end. And after releasing one final album in 1970, “Changes,” Dolenz and Jones threw in the towel as well.

The Monkees were over. Or were they? The show went into syndication, meaning it was nearly always being screened somewhere. In 1986, MTV ran a “Monkees” marathon, which jump-started the band’s career. The series is heralded as a pioneering sitcom, and “Head” is now considered a cult classic.

“One of the great joys and mysteries of ‘The Monkees’ is how or why it can be that a show or product designed to last no longer than it retained its flavor has lasted for half a century and is arguably as popular today as it has ever been,” says Mills. “And not just with its now aging original audience but each and every time it has been re-run or resyndicated. It’s kids who rediscover the show: it’s funny, unlike anything else and the songs fit the mood of the show perfectly — fun, energetic, positive. They weren’t the ‘new Beatles’; they were the one-and-only Monkees.”

Against all odds, “The Monkees,” saga wound up with a happy ending after all. 

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