There's a great scene from the sitcom "Married ... With Children" that illustrates the prejudice against The Monkees perfectly.
Bud and Kelly Bundy have won a performance by the speed-metal band Anthrax in a radio contest. Square-peg neighbor Marcy Rhoades digs a tunnel to check on the kids (they are trapped in a snow storm while Al and Peg are vacationing in Sweatbucket, Fla., with Edd “Kookie” Byrnes) and eyes a group of “killers.” In learning that they are musicians, Marcy bursts with nerdy glee, “I don’t want you to think I’m un-hip. I chased The Monkees like everyone else.”
Since debuting in 1966, The Monkees, a rock group made-to-order for TV, have been fighting the “un-hip” stigma.
Forty-five years later, it looks as if The Monkees now are winning that fight. My Facebook page lit up like a Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center when I posted that I would be interviewing the four members of the group. The posts generated more responses and “likes” than anything I’ve submitted to date. A recent plea in Goldmine to induct The Monkees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was embraced with a unanimous YES!
Coming off of the enormously successful 45th-anniversary tour to sell-out crowds and great reviews, The Monkees (sans Mike Nesmith, who no longer participates) proved, once and for all, that they are a real band.
“We’ve become our own cover band,” says Davy Jones, aka Marcia Brady’s favorite Monkee. “Forty-six sold-out concerts across the country. The audience loves it. Everybody enjoys what we’re doing.”
“We keep getting better at it,” adds Peter Tork. “The quality of our shows gets better all the time since we started reuniting in 1986.”
At the time The Monkees first burst on the scene, rock and roll music had made great strides in the maturation department. When The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” was released in 1965, it changed the perception that pop-rock albums were comprised of a few hit singles and some filler. The Beatles had outgrown the mop-top image that had, in fact, been manufactured for the band by its manager Brian Epstein. In 1966, The Fab Four were offering songs like “Taxman,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “She Said She Said” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The Monkees arrived to fill the void of innocence left as The Beatles matured.
As pretentious rock critics began to populate the landscape, they considered The Monkees, aka The Pre-Fab Four, a throwback and branded them as “manufactured,” which was considered a dirty word as musical tastebuds were expanding. The Monkees didn’t play on their own records, the critics said. Shocking! They didn’t write their own hits like The Beatles. Blasphemy!
But it didn’t seem to bother critics that a masterpiece like The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” was filled with session musicians (none of The Beach Boys played on those tracks). If the critics are to be believed, then by definition, we shouldn’t like The Temptations, The Supremes, Connie Francis, Lesley Gore or any other musical act that doesn’t play instruments or write its own material.
It was common for musical acts to call upon session musicians to be their bands on records or to enrich the sound of the music beyond the core group’s scope. Practically everybody did it. The top-notch L.A. session players commonly known as The Wrecking Crew played on tracks for everyone from the Byrds and The Mamas and The Papas to The Association and The Tijuana Brass.
Ironically, it was The Monkees — actors portraying a pretend rock band on TV — who took the blame for not playing on their records.
“We got most of the heat and we were the least responsible,” Micky Dolenz says. “We had no choice. If they’d given us the choice, we’d be in there playing, but they didn’t give us the choice.”
Alas, The Monkees sold their collective soul to the corporate suit-and-tie set, which included the late Don Kirshner, head of music for Screen Gems, who had purchased the show from up-and-coming filmmakers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson. In regard to musical content, Kirshner was king; it was his way or the highway. (Nesmith had been allowed one track per LP side, however, just like George Harrison). The hits would be “manufactured” for The Monkees by Kirshner’s stable of writers at the Brill Building. Columbia-Screen Gems Music held the lucrative publishing rights.
The TV series was created specifically to sell the records. Members of The Monkees were hired for their personalities as actors — not for any kind of musicianship.
Micky Dolenz, a child actor who had appeared in the 1956 NBC series “Circus Boy,” would be the wacky drummer.
“At my audition for The Monkees, I played guitar, actually,” he said. “My audition piece was ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ And when they cast me, they said, ‘You’re the drummer,’ and I told them ‘I play rhythm guitar,’ and they said that they had enough guitar players. I said, ‘Fine. When do I start?’ And they said ‘You start tomorrow,’” he recalls.
Davy Jones would be the heartthrob hottie. Previously, Jones had been a jockey.
“After I finished The Monkees, I wish I’d gone to Hollywood Park and said, ‘Hello, what do I ride next?” Jones said.
Jones wasn’t a show-business newcomer. He’d spent time on the stage. One of his performances as The Artful Dodger from “Oliver” was on the same legendary Ed Sullivan broadcast that launched The Beatles in America on Feb. 9, 1964.
Michael Nesmith would be the “serious” one. A folk singer and songwriter, Nesmith’s recording career began in 1963, and he cut discs under the name of Michael Blessing for Colpix Records in 1965, as did Davy Jones, who was billed as David Jones. Coincidentally, Colpix had morphed into Colgems in 1966 when The Monkees debuted.
And Peter Tork, who was a folk musician, would play the simpleton, or as he defines it, “unsophisticated.” It was a character he’d previously played in Greenwich Village as a protective guise, as a way of handling the situation when a joke went flat.
“I’d put on this face that showed confusion from things not working out the way you were told they were going to,” Tork said.
The critics balked. It’s just one giant infomercial — or so they would have said, had the term existed at that time. Critics crucified “The Monkees” just the same as a poor man’s version of The Beatles’ classic film debut “A Hard Day’s Night.”
When I view “The Monkees: TV show, I see little of The Marx Brothers’ wit that was at the heart of “A Hard Day’s Night,” along with the feel of The Three Stooges in the sped-up film sequences, cartoon sound effects and physical comedy, including an abundance of pratfalls and characters bumping into each other.
“In The Three Stooges films, they were constantly battering and abusing each other,” Dolenz said. “That was one of the principles we discussed and agreed that we would never do. We always loved each other and helped each other. We might do that to somebody else. But, between the four of us, there was never any of that mutual inflicted abuse.”
Like The Stooges, The Monkees were basically live-action cartoons, complete with superimposed messages placed on the screen, á lá Tex Avery.
Naysayers despised that the project reeked of crass corporate commercialism, as the TV show was put out by Screen Gems, the television subsidiary of Columbia Pictures. The records were released by Colgems, a joint venture between the Columbia/Screen Gems entity and distributed by RCA. The songs were farmed out by Kirshner’s Tin Pan Alley factory in the Brill Building. Hell, the show was sponsored by Kellogg’s, for crying out loud. The official slogan for The Monkees brand could have been the old saying that “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
And there were. Millions of them. Instantly, Monkeemania swept the nation and soon the world. The show became a hit and it did exactly what it was created to do: sell records — millions and millions of records. The Monkees’ first six singles landed straight in the Top 10. The first two releases were instant No. 1 smashes. “Last Train to Clarksville” was penned by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who became The Monkees’ songwriting equivalent of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The Monkees’ take on Neil Diamond’s “I’m A Believer” remained at the top spot for seven weeks — the first single to do so since The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
The Monkees issued five albums from 1966 to 1968. The first four went to No. 1, and the fifth, “The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees,” peaked at No. 3. The band’s self-titled debut sat at the top spot for 13 weeks, while the follow up, “More Of The Monkees,” remained at No. 1 for 18 weeks, trumping The Beatles’ personal best of 15 weeks with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
The old saying that you can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but never all of the people all of the time is a particularly relevant one for Monkee Michael Nesmith. He tired of being forced to pull a green wool cap over the public’s eyes and came to blows with Don Kirshner over The Monkees’ musical direction.
“I enjoyed the live performances, because that took a lot more effort,” Nesmith said. “I enjoyed writing, but the songs I was writing were not welcome, so there wasn’t much place for them there.”
The truth is that Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork were accomplished musicians and songwriters, and some of the best Monkees songs were penned by Nesmith (“Papa Gene’s Blues,” “You Just May Be The One,” “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” and “Mary Mary,” the last of which was re-tooled by rap pioneers Run-DMC). He also wrote “Different Drum,” which became a major hit for the Stone Poneys featuring Linda Ronstadt in 1967.
In the entire Monkees catalog, perhaps the greatest recorded achievement is Peter Tork’s composition, co-written by the late Joe Richards, titled “For Pete’s Sake.” It closed the episodes of The Monkees’ second and final TV season.
“The fact that there’s this 11th chord in it makes it very adventurous for pop music at the time,” Tork explains. “It just fell out of my fingers. You come across these things if you’re always playing guitar.”
In order to satisfy the requirement of being the drummer on stage when The Monkees began to tour, Micky started taking lessons from John Carlos, a famous Los Angeles drummer, after he filmed the show’s pilot.
“The studio paid for the lessons, so there was the intent that I would be playing for real,” Dolenz said. “I could read music. I was a musician. My first instrument of choice was Spanish guitar. I morphed into folk music and then into rock and roll.”
It was “Headquarters,” the band’s third album, that emancipated The Monkees. The LP’s back cover prominently displays the band’s message: “We aren’t the only musicians on this album, but the occasional extra bass or horn player played under our direction, so that this is all ours.”
“I was hoping for this ‘band’ to be a band,’ Tork said. “With The Monkees getting to play their own music with ‘Headquarters,’ there it was for me.”
Shortly after the “Headquarters” sessions began, Lester Sill, head of Colgems, who previously co-ran Philles Records with Phil Spector, let Don Kirshner go.
“Don had been hired to do the music for the show,” said producer Chip Douglas, who also was a member of The Turtles.“Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson were on the boys’ side and wanted to make them happy.”
Douglas understood where both sides were coming from.
“You can’t blame Don or Mike, as artists were becoming more independent,” he said. “Michael, in particular, wanted to record more of his tunes. Of all of them, Mike was the most frustrated with Kirshner and had several conflicts with him.”
But Douglas also understood the situation from Kirshner’s point of view.
“Don felt that when you’re hired to do the music and everything goes to No. 1, I think you did your job,” Douglas said.
Because The Monkees took so much criticism because they didn’t play on their initial records, Douglas expected to read blaring headlines when all of that changed with “Headquarters.”
“I thought there would be all this news that The Monkees were suddenly their own band. That never happened,” Douglas says with a hint of sadness.
But after “Headquarters,” things were never the same for The Monkees.
“At the time we did ‘Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones,’ they were more interested in doing their own projects,” Douglas said. The album was recorded much like The Beatles’ “White Album,” with each Monkee contributing his part at different times.
When The Monkees’ TV series came to an end in 1968, so did the group’s dominance on radio and the music charts. The group experienced its last major hit with Boyce and Hart’s “Valleri” in the spring of that year. As quickly as The Monkees had burst on the scene and outsold The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, the hysteria was over.
The television show was both a blessing and a curse for The Monkees. While the program was instrumental in jump-starting the members’ careers, it typecast them as little more than a wacky “band” made for young kids.
But for a band perceived as being square, the members had a lot of hip friends, including The Beatles, Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix, who toured with The Monkees in 1967.
“It was Micky who swung that,” Tork said. “We both saw Jimi at Monterey Pop. I actually overlooked, him because he followed The Who and they broke up their instruments. Jimi came onstage and burned his guitar, and I said ‘I just saw that act.’ ”
Hendrix lasted just eight shows before he pulled out of the tour.
“Jimi was too powerful for fans of The Monkees. The kids who were perfectly lined up for The Monkees were playing in the creek, and suddenly you get hit with an ocean wave,” Tork explained.
“The Jimi Hendrix thing was us masturbating,” Dolenz added with a loud laugh. “It was us getting off on this incredible musician.”
The Monkees made an unsuccessful attempt to shed their TV image with their only feature film offering, “Head.” The movie posters for the film, which was written and produced by Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson), touted: “A movie for a turned-on audience,” while other posters added that “Head” was “not suitable for children.” The movie failed to turn on the public and quickly faded from the landscape.
“Monkees fans couldn’t get in to see it, and, of course, it was nothing like a Monkees TV episode,” says Micky, offering further insight on the project. “The intelligencia, who thought The Monkees were just a bunch of crap, they wouldn’t even watch the movie because they felt it was too far beneath them.”
“Head” earned a cult following after MTV began re-airing the TV series in 1986, which created a surprise comeback not seen since The Beach Boys had a hit with the “Endless Summer” compilation in 1974.
Like the television show, “Head” had its moments and featured a cranium-scratching list of cameos ranging from former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello and boxer Sonny Liston to B-movie actor Victor Mature (on whose head The Monkees appear as dandruff) and Frank Zappa, with a “talking” bull uttering 1940s comedian Lew Lehr’s catchphrase of “Monkeys is the craziest peoples.”
“I’m very proud of that film,” Dolenz said. “It was a deconstruction of not just The Monkees, but of old Hollywood. It was laying down the gauntlet of the independent filmmakers, of whom Bob Rafelson is one of them. Dennis Hopper was one and he’s in the movie. Peter Fonda was one, and he’s in the movie.”
Up until “Head,” and then “Easy Rider,” which Rafelson and Bert Schneider also made, “there was no independent film industry in Hollywood,” Dolenz said. “There are these huge filmmakers of today, such as Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, that revere that film.”
Tork has seen “Head” four or five dozen times, but he still doesn’t know what it’s about.
“Well, I think I know what it’s about,” Tork said. “It’s perfectly static. It ends as it starts. There’s no story. It’s experimental. I don’t think I approve.”
Tork left The Monkees’ fold in 1969. Michael Nesmith vacated the following year.
Looking back on The Monkees’ episodes with adult eyes, I catch pieces of dialogue and imagery that went completely over my head as a kid, just like those great Looney Tunes cartoons from the 1940s and 1950s. At the start of the second to last show of the series, called “Monkees Blow Their Minds,” Nesmith and Zappa have a great exchange, poking fun at each other’s perceived images.
In the final episode, “Mijacogeo-The Frodis Caper,” co-written and directed by Micky Dolenz, the opening scene begins with The Beatles’ “Good Morning Good Morning.”
“The Beatles gave me the right to use one of their songs on a television show. They had never allowed their music to be used in anything,” Dolenz recalled. “The series ends with no Monkees at all, just Micky on the soundtrack introducing folk singer Tim Buckley. Had the program continued in this direction, the possibilities could have been fascinating. Peter Tork envisioned the group going on to do a variety series in the vein of Carol Burnett’s, only with acts like The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Mamas and The Papas joining them for skits and songs. But, it was not to be.
As for the reclusive Nesmith, I caught up with him at his ranch — the video ranch, y’all. He oversees videoranch.com, his latest endeavor.
At videoranch.com, you can get everything Nez, from his solo works (including obscure tracks of him playing with other bands that you can only get on his site) to films like “Repo Man” “Tapeheads” and “Elephant Parts” (which won the first Grammy Award for Video of the Year), as well as “Television Parts,” the short-lived NBC series that ignited the careers of Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Whoopi Goldberg and Jay Leno.
“The Monkees, of course, were a second or third step along my development,” Nesmith said. “It came out of the theatre and live music and folk singing and troubadour stuff. Jumping into the giant media pool was unusual. I wasn’t asked to do anything much except to show up and do the work.”
Nesmith’s next steps landed him on the ground floor of the country-rock movement and the music video industry, but he doesn’t label himself a pioneer.
“The First National Band was innovative, and we were all searching new territory,” he explained, recalling that there was no genre called country rock at the time. “People kept asking me, are you a country act? You have a pedal steel player in your band; what does this mean?”
Some people assumed Nesmith wished he would’ve been a country singer instead of being on television.
“I don’t think people really understood how deeply I was mining the vein of country blues,” Nesmith said. “It was coming from someone who had become a pop figure off of The Monkees. People would laugh at us. They didn’t appreciate the idea of country and rock and roll music coming together. It was a heroic effort, and I enjoyed it.”
Nesmith credited The Eagles with taking the country-rock formula and hitting it out of the park.
“They got a lot closer to finding where that country sensibility moved into the mainstream more than I did,” he said.
Clearly, Nesmith is not one to live in the past. “I’m going to go back out and perform again. I’m looking forward to that. I don’t quite know how to do it yet. But I think I’m going to do a one-man show,” Nesmith said. “The only thing of real interest to me is what’s happening now. I love discovery, and I love seeing things slowly coming to light.”
Tork is having a blast playing in Shoe Suede Blues, a blues-rock and pop band that features straight blues, material by Albert King, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells and boogie woogie — the music that his mother played on her old 78s.
“I can’t not dance to that stuff when I hear it,” Tork says with the excitement of a boy who’s received a new toy.
Dolenz went on to write, produce and direct in television and onstage. He was asked by Frank Zappa to join the Mothers of Invention after The Monkees, but he couldn’t get out of his recording contract. Dolenz purchased the rights to “Bugsy Malone,” which ran on London’s West End that featured a then-12-year-old Catherine Zeta-Jones.
These days, Dolenz’ heart belongs to Broadway. After training with vocal coach Eric Vetro, he won the part of Zozer, the villain in the Elton John-Tim Rice musical hit “Aida.” Musically, Dolenz has come full circle with his latest album. “King For A Day” features his favorite songs written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin songs, who also wrote “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “Sometime in the Morning” for The Monkees, the latter of which gets a contemporary treatment on the disc.
As for every girl’s dream, Jones lives each day to the fullest. He’s a singer, a dancer and Broadway performer. Davy was up at 6 a.m. the day we talked and rode horses all day. And, he runs much deeper than the character he portrayed in The Monkees.
“I will not let anything interfere with my personal responsibilities ever again in my life,” he said.
Jones also spoke fondly of his daughters, his fans and his fellow bandmates.
“Without Micky and Peter, this show would not have been possible. I adore and have tremendous respect for them,” Jones said.
He also expressed performers’ need to stay grounded. “What you do on the stage has absolutely nothing to do with what you do when you get off. Where’s the reality in your life?” Jones said.
Most recently, Jones set sail the high seas for the “Where The Action Is” cruise with Paul Revere and the Raiders from Jan. 21-28, 2012.
Jeff Marcus is author of the two-book series “American Record Sleeves Volumes 1 and 2.” Visit his web site at www.recordsleevebooks.com