History of the series
The television show first aired on September 12, 1966 on the American NBC television network and ran for two seasons; its final primetime episode ran on September 9, 1968. Modelled on The Beatles' film A Hard Day's Night, The Monkees featured the antics and music of a fictional pop-rock group which, due to the necessities of the program and the massive success of the records, became a real pop-rock group.
The four young men who became The Monkees were David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork. They were cast after ads were placed in trade publications calling for actors to play “4 insane boys” on a new television series. 437 hopeful actors and musicians auditioned for the parts; a then relatively unknown Stephen Stills was shortlisted for a role, but was eventually knocked out because of his bad teeth, with Peter Tork finally winning the role Stills had hoped to get. Rumors have circulated that Charles Manson also auditioned, but these rumors have been criticised as false.
Nesmith and Tork were both already professional musicians, but Dolenz and Jones were better known as actors, and all four were trained in both improvisational comedy and performing musically as a group before the pilot episode was filmed, so that they could look and act like a cohesive band even though only their voices were being used on the initial recordings.
As a television show, The Monkees used techniques rarely seen on television — characters breaking the fourth wall and talking to the camera and sometimes even to people off-camera in the studio, fantasy sequences, jump cuts, and at least once a week a musical romp which might have nothing to do with the story line. In fact, many of the episodes included what now look very much like video clips: short, self-contained films featuring one of the songs from a Monkees album.
The Monkees was put together by a number of people who went on to great later success. The show was produced by Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, who later produced the film Easy Rider; Rafelson went on to direct such films as Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens. The 1965 pilot episode was co-written by Paul Mazursky and the late Larry Tucker, who later co-wrote the movie Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which Mazursky directed; he went on to direct such films as Harry and Tonto and Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
After the television show was cancelled, Rafelson directed the four Monkees in a film, Head, executive-produced by Schneider and co-written and co-produced by Rafelson with a then relatively unknown actor named Jack Nicholson. The film, which featured cameo appearances by movie star Victor Mature and musician Frank Zappa, was not a commercial success. This was in part because it comprehensively demolished the group's carefully-groomed public image, as evidenced by the following stanzas from Rafelson and Nicholson's "Ditty-Diego" (recited at the start of the film), which ruthlessly parodies Boyce and Hart's "Monkees Theme":
Hey hey we are the Monkees
You know we love to please
A manufactured image
With no philosophies.
We hope you love our story
Although there isn't one
That is to say there's many
That way there is more fun
You told us you like action
And games of many kinds
You like to dance you, like to sing
So let's all lose our minds
We know it doesn't matter
'Cause what you came to see
You know we'd love to give you
And give it one, two, three
But it may come three, two, one, two
Or jump from nine to five
And when you see the end in sight
The beginning may arrive
For those who look for meanings
In form as they do fact,
We might just tell you one thing
But we'd only take it back
Not back like in a box back
Not back like in a race
Not back so we can keep it
But back in time and space!
You say we're manufactued
To that we all agree
So make your choice and we'll rejoice
In never being free
Hey hey we are The Monkees!
We've said it all before!
The money's in, we're made of tin
We're here to give you more!"
But over the intervening years Head has developed a cult following for its innovative style and anarchic humour, and the soundtrack album (long out of print but now available in an expanded CD version) is counted among their best recordings.
From TV to stage
Critics of the Monkees complained that they were a made-for-TV knockoff of The Beatles (although John Lennon was allegedly a fan of the show), and that the Monkees were a group chosen by a casting director.
The four stars were soon complaining because the producers would not allow them to play their own instruments on their records. Their frustrations were increased by the fact that they were all accomplished musicians in their own right. They eventually forced the series' musical coordinator Don Kirshner to let them perform their own vocals (against his strong objections) and make some instrumental contributions. Led by Nesmith, the band rebelled against the producers, and beginning with their third album, Headquarters, the four Monkees did play most of the parts on the rest of their record albums.
Kirshner was reported to have been incensed by the group's rebellion and swore never to repeat his mistake. This experience led directly to his later ventures The Archies and Josie & The Pussycats, which were animated series — the "stars" existed only on an animation cel, and obviously could not demand creative control over the records issued under their name.
The massive success of the series and its spin-off records had created intense pressure to mount a touring version of the group by early 1967. It was originally proposed to create another cast of real musicians to tour with Monkees material, but the stars insisted on getting in on the act and against the initial wishes of the producers, Dolenz, Jones, Nesmith and Tork went out on the road. The results were far better than anyone had a right to expect, and wherever they went they were greeted by scenes of fan hysteria not seen since The Beatles. This gave the four stars increased confidence in their battle for creative control over the music used in the series
When the group toured Britian in 1967 there was a major controversy over the supposed revelation that the group did not play on their own records, and the news made the front pages of several UK and international music papers, with the group derisively dubbed "The Pre-Fab Four". Nevertheless, they were warnly welcomed by many top British stars including The Beatles, who knew them to be skilled musicians and sympathised with their wish to have more control over their music.
Many now feel that the controversy unfairly targetted The Monkees and conveniently ignored the fact that almost all the leading British and American groups — up to and including The Beatles — habitually used sessions players on their recordings, and that this practice had always (until then) passed without comment.
Supporters of the group also point out that producers and Kirshner had the good taste to use some of the best songwriters of the period, including Neil Diamond, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Harry Nilsson and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, as well as using top-ranking Los Angeles session musicians on the records. The Monkees also deserve credit for helping bring America's attention to the Jimi Hendrix Experience, who they took on for as an opening act during their debut 1967 concert tour, even though Hendrix quit after only a few shows. Reports circulated at the time that he had been removed from the tour after complaints from the conservative women's group Daughters Of The American Revolution. This was later proved false and it has since been revealed that the story was concocted for publicity purposes by the Australian journalist and music writer Lillian Roxon, who had been accompanying the tour with her friend, the Australian singer Lynne Randell, who was one of the supporting acts and who was romantically involved with Jones at the time.
The Monkees had several international hits — which are still heard on oldies stations — including I'm a Believer, (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone, Daydream Believer, Last Train to Clarksville — and even a number of social criticism songs, the best known of which is probably Pleasant Valley Sunday.
They produced five albums with the original lineup, which was supplemented by a series of successful tours. But tensions within the group were increasing, and Tork quit shortly after the band's Far East tour in late 1968. Three more albums would follow while Tork, and then Nesmith, left the group, leaving only Dolenz and Jones to record as The Monkees. Eventually, Jones too departed, leaving Dolenz as the sole remaining recording Monkee, and so marked the end of the first phase of The Monkees' recording career.
In 1986, a Monkees TV show marathon on the video music channel MTV re-launched the Monkees, sparking worldwide interest by both original fans and their children, who flocked to see the Monkees in sold-out shows. A new album quickly followed and met with moderate success. This would eventually lead to reunion tours in which all four Monkees were able to play their own instruments (something they had not entirely done during the original television series). In the 1990s, the Monkees continued to record new musical material, eventually recording an album which all four members (and nothing but) played all the instruments on one record...this became the album Justus (1996). But once the revival craze died down, so did Michael Nesmith's interest in the group, so he left the band that had made him famous. In fact, Davy Jones has gone on record to say another reunion of The Monkees as a complete unit "will never happen again". The remaining three Monkees (Tork, Dolenz, and Jones) do continue to tour worldwide.
Impact of the Monkees
In point of fact, The Monkees, selected specifically to appeal to the youth market, with manufactured personae and carefully produced singles, can be seen to be the original precursor to the modern proliferation of studio- and corporation-created bands. A case could be made that the Monkees were perhaps the first boy band.
The Monkees found unlikely fans among musicians of the punk rock period of the mid-1970s. Many of these punk performers had grown up on TV re-runs of the series, and in keeping with the prevailing anti-industry, anti-Establishment trend of their music, they adopted The Monkees as symbols of rebellion against the mainstream music industry, citing the group's insistence on breaking out of their manufactured TV image and proving that they could write and perform as a real band. The Sex Pistols went as far as recording a version of The Monkees' (Not Your) Stepping Stone and there are some close parallels between the careers of the two bands.
Millions of people still listen to their music, and it seems likely that Monkees singles will remain a staple on pop-rock and oldies stations for decades to come. In fact, their legacy has been further strengthened by Rhino Entertainment's acquisition of the Monkees franchise from Columbia Pictures in the late 1980s, with remastered editions of both the original television series and their music library now surfacing in stores.
- Hey! Hey! We're the Monkees!
- People say we monkey around!
- But we're too busy singin'
- To put anybody down!
- The Monkees (1966)
- More of The Monkees (1967)
- Headquarters (1967)
- Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, Ltd. (1967)
- The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees (1968)
- Head (Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1968)
- Instant Replay (1969)
- The Monkees Present (1969)
- Changes (1970)
- Then And Now (1986)
- Pool It! (1986)
- Live 1967 (1987)
- 20th Anniversary
- Greatest Hits
- Justus (1996)
- Monkees/Mickey Dolenz Official web site
- IMDb entry on The Monkees
- The Monkees home page (another official Monkees web site)
- IMDb entry for Head
- The Monkees Film & TV Vault