(Note from Tim R.: I really didn’t write the vast majority of this article. Davy Jones is appearing locally next week, and, as a timely favor, a dear friend (Jen J.) who HAPPENS to be a huge fan of The Monkees and their songs stepped in. More from me next week, but until then…. a voyage back to both the ’60’s AND the ’80’s, and a musical trip that lasts forever.)
Back in the ’80’s, MTV really stood for “music television”; unlike today, it aired music videos almost exclusively. As was pro forma for an adolescent of the time, I was a big fan. In 1986, MTV began airing episodes of a TV show from the late ’60’s called The Monkees. Though it wasn’t exactly a music video, my 14-year-old self fell in love, with both the show and the band… and I realized that, (like the title of one of their biggest songs), “I’m a Believer”.
In the show, The Monkees were four guys in their early 20’s, living together in a house on the beach, as they struggled to make it as a rock-n-roll band. Each of them had a specific role in the band, and also in the group dynamic.
The Monkees (who used the actors’ real names as their “characters’) consisted of:
Micky Dolenz, the zany one, always ready with a joke, a nonsensical comment, or a bad impersonation (which always sounded like James Cagney). He was the crazy, upbeat energy of the group. Micky played drums and sang lead and backup vocals.
Peter Tork, the innocent, kind-hearted, but somewhat dim-witted one. Slow to get the jokes and frequently getting into trouble from which he needed rescuing, his beatific smiles warmed the heart. Peter played bass guitar and sang backup vocals, but was rarely the lead singer.
Mike Nesmith, the smart one, was the straight man. Standing taller than the other band members, he usually sported a green wool stocking cap, and did his best to take care of his friends. Mike played guitar and sang backup and lead vocals, usually on more bluesy, country-rock type numbers.
Davy Jones, a Brit amongst the Yanks, was the cute one, always attracting the girls. Thanks to special effects on the show, there’s a visible white “twinkle” in his eye when he falls in love, which happened quite often. Davy played maracas and tambourine in addition to singing lead and backup vocals.
The show revolved around the antics of the guys, but while their motives are somewhat normal, their adventures are not. Usually in an attempt to impress a girl, get a gig, or make some more money, the quartet landed itself in mayhem and mischief with princesses and policemen, mobsters and monsters.
For example, in the episode The Monkees Get Out More Dirt, all four become smitten with April, the owner of April’s Laundromat (played by Batman‘s Julie Newmar), and attempt to cultivate one of her interests to win her heart. Davy takes up painting; Micky dances ballet; Peter plays chamber music, while Mike develops an interest in motorcycles. They end up dividing their beach house into four sections, as they pout, and then discover that all their combined attentions have driven poor April to a nervous breakdown! In the end, April falls for a man named Freddy Fox III because, as she states, she’s “never met a singer before”.
In The Monkees Paw, Micky receives a shriveled monkey’s hand from a magician named Mendreck and accidentally curses himself into silence. In a desperate attempt to keep a gig at which Micky is expected to sing, the band tries to convince the club’s manager that Micky is, in fact, singing with his feet. When the club manager has none of it, the boys attempt to solve Micky’s problem by trying everything from chicken soup to speaking lessons to psychiatric help. In the end, they must seek out Mendreck to get Micky’s voice back, along with their gig and their paycheck.
Although at times the plots were completely nonsensical, at other times, they held onto sense by the thinnest of threads. But between the wacky story lines and the insane attempts to keep themselves housed, fed, and dating, the shows were never boring – and having a song or two in each episode just made it that much more fun.
It’s hard to describe why I (and thousands of other MTV-generation kids) fell in love with The Monkees (both the band and the show) in the ’80’s. The show was silly, innocent, optimistic, and made me smile. The music was peppy and fun, and the tunes (such as “Daydream Believer” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday”) stuck in my head. It was happy, wholesome, carefree stuff, very different from the diet of big-hair, big-ego, hard rock and metal MTV fed us the rest of the time. Watching The Monkees made me remember being a kid, and watching Hogan’s Heroes or The Addams Family after school at Grandma’s house. Maybe it was the novelty of the values of a different generation that made the show so appealing, but it seemed the show had a spirit that could cheer me up, and make me smile and sing.
Though I found it in the ’80’s, The Monkees originally aired between 1966 and 1968. It was the brainchild of two producers, Robert Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who wanted to create a comedy about four friends struggling to be a successful band. Influenced by The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, they wanted a young, zany show that broke the fourth wall and any number of other ’60’s filmmaking rules. They picked two actors (Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz) and two musicians (Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork) to become The Monkees. After hiring the four, Rafelson and Schneider created the characters, using the actors’ real names and basing their personalities roughly on those of the actors themselves (with the exception of Peter Tork, who is actually highly intelligent and a superb instrumentalist.)
The original concept for The Monkees was not JUST a television show, but a program marketing (and marketed by) the recording and sales of hit pop songs, such as their first single, “Last Train to Clarksville”. This music was to be written and recorded by a stable of corporate songwriters and musicians, and not involve “the actors” in ANY creative manner. Though two of the Monkees were actually musicians and the other two had at least dabbled in recording, the quartet was expected to contribute nothing but vocals, leaving the musical creativity and control in the hands of the production company. The boys weren’t even expected to tour until they decided, on their own, to learn their characters’ respective instruments.
It was a model that worked, because The Monkees (both the show and the band) became a huge success.
Success, however, doesn’t always lead to acceptance. The press, and some people in the music community, called The Monkees the “pre-fab four,” in contrast to the popular nickname for The Beatles, because The Monkees was both a TV show and a group manufactured by the entertainment industry to be a money-making marketing vehicle. The band lacked, according to their detractors, the inherent values and ideals that music in the ’60’s was all about: peace, love, individualism, enlightenment, anti-establishment, freedom, anti-war, etc. In fact, they were the opposite of many of those ideals, being a product of “the Man”.
But the four young “actors”, as products of their era, did in fact hold to those ’60’s ideals and were frustrated by their inability to express them through their work. With at least some musical experience of their own, they fought for, and won, a measure of creative control over the music and, by extension, the show and future projects. Bobby Hart and Tommy Boyce (two of the “musician stable” handling the creative side) worked with the young men to “bring them up to speed.” Mike became a proficient songwriter, and Peter (who had significant musical experience, remember), along with Boyce, Hart, and others, actually taught Micky how to play the drums! (Micky had originally been a guitarist….) Oh, and they all wanted to sing lead at one point….
“I’ve determined personally that there were actually two groups. There was the one imaginary group on the show that lived in this imaginary beach house and had these imaginary adventures and was never successful on the television show but struggled to be successful. Then there’s another group that was created when we went out on the road and we sang and we played and we recorded, and we became this supergroup, a real supergroup….
–Micky Dolenz, from a live interview
Their television show was still a hit, but not quite as strong in its second season as it was in its first. Although the music kept going reasonably well, continuing disagreements between the group and the production company over the direction of the show and some of the “actors” music (and some conflict amongst the band members themselves) brought the show’s ride to at least a temporary end. The Monkees TV show lasted 2 seasons, but the recording and the touring of the group itself lasted into the early ’70’s, though not usually with all four members.
In 1985, there was talk of doing a 20-year reunion tour. Probably in an attempt to generate publicity for the tour, MTV began airing the original ’60’s episodes of The Monkees TV show. The show fit well on MTV; according to some sources, MTV can trace its own heritage back to The Monkees. First, the band is often called “the first music video group:” each TV episode features two or more songs which play during video of a staged performance, or (like a concept video) during an action or fantasy sequence related to the story line of the episode, essentially creating a music video.
Second, MTV’s original programming format was created by Robert W. Pittman, who later became President and Chief Executive Officer of MTV Networks. Pittman’s boss, John Lack, had shepherded a TV series called PopClips, created by former Monkee-turned solo artist Michael Nesmith. In fact, Nesmith sold the idea of PopClips to Warner Brothers, who then turned it into MTV.
It’s unclear whether The Monkees aired on MTV as a direct result of this connection, but as the band found a new audience through the reruns on MTV, the tour gained momentum, playing at more and larger venues. Parents and their adolescent children found something they could share, bond over, and both enjoy. “I’m a Believer” became not just a song, but a connection. The MTV exposure generated a renewed “Monkeemania”, and the “20-year” reunion tour lasted a lot longer than just that year.
“It’s incredible. It’s like 50/50 now — the mothers and the daughters, fighting for the autographs!”
–Micky Dolenz, from a different interview
I saw the band on that tour. The couple sitting next to me didn’t bother to lower their voices when they commented to each other that I was “too young to remember The Monkees.” I didn’t care. For those few hours I was happy and carefree, enjoying the music and the (natural) high that comes from experiencing innocent joy….
MICKY DOLENZ started as a child actor on Circus Boy, which aired between 1956 and 1958. After The Monkees, Micky worked in many different performing arts, doing stage and film acting, voice-over work for animation, directing, producing, music recording and touring, and even painting and illustration.
PETER TORK was a Greenwich Village folk musician before The Monkees, and was proficient at many different instruments, including the harp (which he actually played in one episode). Thereafter, he continued with his music, forming several different bands throughout the years, including his current band Shoe Suede Blues. He is currently battling a rare form of cancer, adenoid cystic carcinoma, which affects the lower part of his tongue, but he’s not letting that stop him from touring with his band.
The mother of MICHAEL NESMITH, an underpaid secretary at the time, created the product we know as Liquid Paper, which generated enough money for the family to live quite comfortably. This gave Mike the freedom to work on projects that may not have been financially lucrative, but advanced both the music and visual media industries. His comedy/music video project Elephant Parts won the first Grammy ever given for Music Video which, along with his PopClips and Television Parts projects, really created the music video revolution. His work can be viewed or purchased on his company’s website.
Despite his dream of becoming a jockey, DAVY JONES was a performance artist from a very young age. He continues in that vein to this day, singing solo or with bands, and acting in stage and film productions. A native of Manchester, Davy’s career spans both England and America – and the rest of the globe when he’s touring.
The popularity of The Monkees (both the show and the band) has lasted, with dips and swells, right up into the 2000’s; albums were remastered and republished with new material (Then and Now; The Best of the Monkees), two completely new albums were recorded (Pool It and Justus), DVDs of the series were sold, and even now, members of the band continue to tour the world performing Monkee material. (If anyone happens to be in the vicinity of the Iowa State Fair on August 12, “the cute one” Davy Jones will be appearing live, and on one of the free stages no less…. so you have no excuse not to go!) From whatever generation, being able to get a dose of that spirit and joy is what makes both young and old want to join in with The Monkees and still sing “I’m a Believer”.
58 aired episodes, plus a TV special (33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee) and a theatrical movie (Head).
First aired episode: September 12, 1966
Last aired episode: March 25, 1968
Actually aired at Friday 8/7 Central? Nope. Monday nights at 7:30/6:30 Central (and somewhere, almost constantly, ever since….)
Comments and suggestions welcomed, as usual.
(P.S. A great big THANK YOU to Jen for guest writing this article, being the big Monkee fan that’s she’s been all the time I’ve known her. If it wasn’t for her, I’d never have seen Micky and Davy performing together up in Minneapolis, and it was a fantastic entertainment experience, even if we got lost on the way there…. But I will say one thing. “I’m a Believer” too. Tim R.)