The World’s Most Radical Pop Group? The Monkees At 50

The Monkees were one of the biggest bands of the late 60s, sometimes hailed as the American Beatles, yet they have always been condemned for their lack of ‘authenticity’. They were formed for a tv show that was hugely successful. They didn’t play their own instruments.But crucially, they hadn’t worked their way to success, rather been given it by the industry.

This battle raged in our house when I was growing up – my older brother played guitar so was of course a Beatles fan. But as he was a BOY he knew nothing about real music. The Monkees were my band. Even at that early age, I recognised they were special. Every song was different, because as I later learnt, they had New York’s finest songwriters churning out material for them – Goffin & King, Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, Boyce & Hart who also became their producers. Mickey Dolenz recalled being taken to the Brill building and being shown a load of cubicles where these fabled songwriters were working and spoke of his awe at being in their presence, but also humbled at their working conditions.

The lack of authenticity that keeps coming up is not what it seemed. Yes, there was a cattle call to cast the show, but Davey Jones was already chosen – he was under contract. Mickey Dolenz was the child of actor/singers, had starred in Circus Boy for which he sang the theme song. He had learned classical guitar and played at parties, but realised pop guitar was more a babe magnet so swapped styles. Peter Tork had been part of the Greenwich Village folk scene, had hung out with Mamma Cass and Roger McGuin before he was ordered by the authorities to leave town.WHAT DID HE DO? HIs friend Stephen Stills had gone for the cattle call, failed it, due to his crooked teeth, but was asked if he knew anyone who looked a bit like him but with 1/10 of his talent. So he suggested Tork. Mike Nesmith was compering at the now legendary Troubadour club in LA and already had a contract as a singer/songwriter. So though they were a made up band, they were all capable of playing their songs. Mickey was relegated to the drums without being a drummer, so Tork taught him. They had all been messing about in bands for years, so had all picked up the basics. When they at last got to play, they were in effect a 3 piece plus singer – Davey just sang and played tambourine & percussion. Tork played keyboards with his right hand, bass with his left, but he could also play a mean banjo.   

The tv show was started by Bob Raphaelson and Paul Schneider as a means of getting into the movies. It was, if you like, intended to be their calling card. They never planned for it to become more than a short term project, and when the four young men attended their interviews, it was just another job interview. even when the pilot was made, they still expected it to probably be turned down. The band-to-be went though lots of testing, and characters were written for them – Mike Nesmith the leader, Mickey Dolenz the show off, Davey Jones the romantic, and for a time they struggled with Peter Tork- genius or fool? They opted for the latter. When you see them in interview, they very much played to their types.

Before the first programme aired, The Monkees had their first number 1, with Last Train to Clarkesville, a Boyce/Hart song that has long been rumoured to be anti war. One commentator described Mickey as having one of the finest pop voices ever. I’d never thought of it, but it’s true:

When I mentioned to some people that the Monkees were the most radical group of all time, I was laughed at, but the USA in the late 60s was a time of generational conflict. When soldiers returned from Korea many of them had serious drug problems, some became bikers with all the fear they inspired. The USA was still a very conservative, god fearing place. They weren’t just annoyed by young people with long hair, they saw them as a genuine threat to American civilisation, and were prepared to respond with force. Stephen Stills had grown up in Central and South America, had seen people gunned down by governments. When he returned to California, he was shocked to see the same thing happening in his home country. Unarmed students were shot for protesting against the Vietnam War.

In order for a show about crazy young people to succeed in this atmosphere, the theme song was deliberately written to calm parental fears, hence the bizarre line ’we’re just trying to be friendly’. Parents were already worried by the hysterical girls screaming at Beatles concerts. The Monkees theme song was to quieten their fears.

This mindset seems to have been behind the plots of the show, presenting them all as wierd but harmless, a group of musicians living at Malibu trying to get into the business. They filmed all day, then at night they recorded the vocals to music that session musicians – the Wrecking Crew- had already laid down. At the very least, they deserve kudos for having the stamina to keep it up for so long. At first the producers got them all in the room together but they messed about so much they had to record one at a time. One time they looked into the recording booth and the band were all curled up on the floor pretending to be asleep. Goffin and King were brought out to LA to meet them, but left in the middle of the night, in tears.

‘Last Train to Clarkesville’, with its catchy guitar riff, was released in June 1967, the show aired the following September. Nesmith spoke of seeing tv as the new music delivery system, probably why he signed up for the show, so from the outset the future MTV instigator had a sound business sense. Paul Mazursky had written the pilot, so from the outset the series made use of the best of the New York music scene and the young, cutting edge tv industry growing up alongside Hollywood. The show was deliberately squeaky clean to calm parental fears that the band were not committing crimes against nature. Yet what passed for a plot was a bunch of unsupervised young men behaving as they chose. They rebelled against authority by mocking it, but they also mocked themselves. People connected with the imaginary band because they were trying to get jobs, trying to succeed, but never quite making it.

As soon as ‘Last Train’ was released, they were being asked to do concerts, but that had never been part of the plan, and there was no time in their busy filming schedules, yet Nesmith thought he  had been employed to play and he and Tork were increasingly frustrated. They even played ‘Johnny B Good’ without any rehearsal to show the producers what they could do. But given the tight filming schedules, using session musicians meant that the shows and the music were turned out at high speed.

They spoke of the screaming girls at the concerts. Dolenz couldn’t hear his own drum kit, so kept time slapping his thigh, getting a bruise by the end of the show. I love the Canadian response – at a concert they had women with trays of wet towels and when girls got out of control with screaming, they flung a towel on their face. Tork spoke of his bemusement at a Beatles concert when he tried to tell the girls they were hearing the greatest band on earth, why weren’t they listening?

When the band became successful, corporate warfare broke out between the music people in New York, and the tv people in LA with the band largely sidelined. The band never understood why New York continued to be involved when there was such a vibrant music scene in LA. They hung out with Roger McGuin, John Sebastian, Mammas and Papas, Dave Crosby, Graham Nash etc. The band spoke of their bemusement at criticism that they didn’t play their instruments, when no such complaints were made of The Beach Boys or the Mammas and the Papas. The band acknowledged that producer Don Kirschner had ‘golden ears’, but he was never in LA so knew nothing of the local scene and of what was possible there.

In Feb 1967 Kirschner was fired, and the band finally allowed to their own music, starting with Mike’s ‘The Girl thatI knew Somewhere’. He had earlier tried to get a song included in the Monkees, ‘Different Drum’ but was told it was not a Monkees song. He was right. It became a huge hit for Linda Rondstadt. And yet ‘Stepping Stone’, that howl of rage against a girlfriend, was accepted. The remit was incredibly broad unless it came from the performers themselves.

The band spoke of their fame like kids let loose in fairyland. They had dinner with John Lennon who turned up late – he had a recording of a new band, and played it for them. It blew them all away. It was Hendrix. Mickey talks of being at a party at McCartney’s home in Maida Vale. Driving back to his hotel as the sun rose, he saw bowler-hatted men emerging from the underground, like ants. It freaked him out so much he ordered his car to stop – he had to touch some earth, so got out and covered his hands in mud. He found a muddy sweater wrapped round a leaking pipe and would not take it off for days, much to the horror of his wife.

He watched ‘Till Death Us Do Part’ while he was noodling on his guitar, heard the phrase ‘Randy Scouse Git’, so used it as a song title. He received a letter from the UK record company explaining what the term meant, so the song was released in the UK as ‘Alternative Title’. Is this the best song  about the generation gap? It is only the second tune I know which mentions naugahide.

They were staying near Kensington Palace, then home to Princess Margaret who sent a note asking for them to calm down the fans changing ‘Davey! Davey” late at night.

By the end of their 3rd series – a total of 64 half hour episodes, the story lines were exhausted and so was everyone involved. The next logical step was to make a movie- after all, that was the aim of the series in the first place. Bob Raphaelson took the band and Jack Nicholson to a resort where they brainstormed the most bizarre ideas – setting the whole film inside Victor Mature’s hair was one. The result was Head, a disaster at the box office, but now a real cult film. It was too hip for teens, too teen for the hip. It is gloriously bizarre, and worth it just for the Frank Zappa cameo.

So, how radical was/were The Monkees?

It is claimed that the producers, Bob Raphaelson and Paul Schneider created the independent movie industry. That’s a pretty tall claim and ignores the rest of the world, but they were important.

Clive James claimed the show loosened up tv, made it possible for more teen content, more experimentation.

They made teens acceptable, opened up the market for the stranger realms of music to emerge.

The Telegraph calls them The Spice Girls’ grandfathers. Hmmm

To see them being interviewed they still fit the characters of the tv series, or rather, the characters were drawn for them and they have grown with them. Mike and Mickey are the main speakers, Tork the clown, and until his death, Davey was the cute one.  They seem incredibly at ease and enjoy each others’ company, quite an achievement after 50 years, although they all left the band at various times.

The tv series was revived and broadcast on Nesmith’s MTV which triggered a reunion tour, and it seems they have never been away for very long. The original audience is now the grandparents of their current fans. This is utterly incredible, and shows the strength of the original script, songs and acting. 

Dolenz’s daughter spoke of her amazement that girls her age scream for her father.

But the ultimate test of their worth must come from their peers. Fifty years on The Monkees have released a new album, acclaimed to be their best ever. With the lives they have led, it is an incredible achievement. The songs include work by some of the finest songwriters of the modern age, such as Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller who are famously outspoken against bad music, and not in need of the money, Andy Partridge and Ben Giffard.

The Monkees were not formed in the usual way, but the members were proper musicians and their songs were written and played by the best that America could produce. They paid their dues but not in the usual way. If you look at the careers of the band and those who worked with them, the success rate is also high, so all these people would probably have been successful without the Monkees. It  would have taken different routes, and probably more time. Their songs were radical – Pleasant Valley Sunday criticised the apathy of suburbia. The songwriter Carole King’s  version of it is perfectly good, but The Monkees version dissolves into madness of psychedelia, the result of too long in suburbia.

There were country songs like Nesmith’s The Door into Summer:

If you know the songwriters, you can often hear their style, especially Neal Diamond’s funky handclapping.

And flying in the face of their bland image, (I’m not your) Stepping Stone is full of the rage of a broken relationship:

Love them or hate them, they are an incredible phenomena.They helped usher in experimentation and collaboration across different media. It is hard to imagine the world of multimedia without them. 

And finally, of course I have to throw in a bit of history. Using humour to present dangerous people as safe happened during the campaign to abolish the slave trade. The play ‘the Padlock’ was praised by Clarkson as one of their most important tools. It came out when the French were revolting and there were widespread fears of slaves rising up.  The play featured the first character in blackface, Mungo, shown as a dim witted comedy character. By showing this black man as safe – albeit because stupid – helped calm fears of Africans among the white population. A terrible idea now, but it worked then. 

The America of the late 60s was fighting a war abroad, but also with its teens. The Monkees were important in breaking down the barriers, in showing teens for what they were – funny, strange, confused. As the Monkee’s song claimed: “We’re the young generation, and we’ve got something to say.’ Fifty years on, these old men still have things to say, as do the generations that have followed in their wake. This is from ‘Good Times’. May the three survivors continue. 

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