Pop Culture

The Monkees (Not Your) Steppin’ Stone

The Monkees was conceived in 1965 by television producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneide as a situation comedy series about a pop/rock band. Their original line-up consisted of actor/musicians Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork and British actor/singer Davy Jones. Their music was initially supervised by record producer, Don Kirshner, and backed by the songwriting duo of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. But their appeal and massive success was something no one saw coming.

The four actor/musicians were initially allowed only limited roles in the recording studio for the first few months of their career as “the Monkees,” however they quickly proved their mettle in both performing and songwriting. They fought for and won the right to collectively supervise all musical output under the band’s name, acting as actors, musicians, singers, songwriters, and producers. Ironically, the success of the show led to the musicians/actors becoming one of the most successful bands of the 1960s.

Although the television show only ran two years (it was cancelled in 1968), the Monkees continued to record music until their initial breakup in 1971. However, renewed interest in the television show came about in 1986, which led to a series of reunion tours and new records. The group has reunited and toured several times since then with different line-ups, and with varying degrees of success.

The magic of the show was truly in the singing and performing of the music. It’s interesting to note that while Jones was an accomplished drummer, it was Dolenz, who was unfamiliar with the drums, who was chosen to portray the drummer, as producers felt Jones was simply too small and would be lost behind a drum kit. Dolenz learned just enough to “fake it” for the first few shows, while taking lessons to learn to play properly.

Unlike most television shows at that time, The Monkees episodes were written with many setups, requiring frequent breaks to prepare the set and cameras for short bursts of filming. Some of the “bursts” are considered proto-type music videos, as they were produced to sell the records. The boys spent their days taping shows, and their nights at the recording studio, recording tracks for the albums, leaving very little time for rehearsing. This included weekends, which were spent filming special sequences. After working on the set all day, the Monkees (usually Dolenz and/or Jones) would be called into the recording studio to cut vocal tracks. As the band was essential to this aspect of the recording process, there were few limits on how long they could spend in the recording studio, and the result was an extensive catalogue of unreleased recordings.

Additionally, the boys were kept in the dark a lot of the time, which led to massive frustration. The climax of the rivalry between Kirshner and the band was an intense argument among Nesmith, Kirshner and Colgems’ lawyer Herb Moelis. Finally, Kirshner’s dismissal came in early February 1967, when he violated an agreement between Colgems and the Monkees not to release material directly created by the group together with unrelated Kirshner-produced material.

This change finally allowed the band more control over the material they performed, however, there was already a huge media backlash against the band that had to be addressed. After recording Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., Nesmith was quoted as saying “Everybody in the press and in the hippie movement had got us into their target window as being illegitimate and not worthy of consideration as a musical force, or certainly any kind of cultural force. We were under siege; wherever we went there was such resentment for us. We were constantly mocked and humiliated by the press. We were really gettin’ beat up pretty good. We all knew what was going on inside. Kirshner had been purged. We’d gone to try to make Headquarters and found out that it was only marginally okay and that our better move was to just go back to the original songwriting and song-making strategy of the first albums except with a clear indication of how the music came to be… The rabid element and the hatred that was engendered is almost impossible to describe. It lingers to this day among people my own age.” Tork disagreed, stating “I don’t think the Pisces album was as groovy to listen to as Headquarters. Technically it was much better, but I think it also suffers for that reason.”

By early 1969, tensions within the group were increasing. Peter Tork, citing exhaustion, quit by buying out the last four years of his Monkees contract at $150,000 per year, equal to about $1,050,000 per year today. The band continued as a trio, in order to fulfill their contractual obligations until 1970, when Mike Nesmith also quit. This left Dolenz and Jones to complete the final album of mostly bubblegum music, which they hated. Jones said that “he felt they had been tricked into recording an Andy Kim album under the Monkees name.”

The band recorded a total of 9 albums from 1966 through 1971, however, the backlash that accused the boys of not playing their own music never abated, despite proof with them performing at live shows.

The Monkees experienced a critical and commercial renaissance two decades later when both MTV & Nickelodeon reignited “Monkeemania” by reshowing the original series, thus introducing new generations to the music. MTV had a weekend marathon of the shows, while Nickelodeon began showing them on a daily basis. As a result, the albums started selling again, and the band semi-reunited, with Nesmith having to sit out most of the performances due to other obligations.

Over the years, the band has reunited in various forms several times, with mixed results mainly due to the inner strife and discord within the band. Then tragedy struck, first in February 2012 when Davy Jones suddenly died from a heart attack. The 3 remaining members again reunited, performing as a tribute to the fallen Jones. A couple more tours would follow, until February 2019, when the band also lost Peter Tork to cancer.

In re-watching episodes of the TV show today, the silly campy slapstick comedy, while amusing, feels a little outdated, and falls a bit short. It was far funnier to me as a 7- & 8-year-old than it is for me as an adult. However, I fully admit to being totally enthralled by Davy’s adorable face at that time. That being said, I will also readily admit watching the show today gives me the same feeling of euphoria I felt as a child. The band still has the same chemistry that endeared them to me over 50 years ago. Most of all, the magic of the music is still there.

Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of Operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at [email protected].