Many journalists tried to twin one Monkee with one Beatle and all were agreed that Davy was Paul, but was it Mike or Micky who was John? Although Peter was the quiet one like George, he also was the butt of their humour like Ringo.
On paper, The Monkees could have been a disaster but two things saved it. Firstly, the four performers were all very likeable and they were encouraged to act naturally. The plots were predictable but the Monkees bounced off each other with their natural wit. Secondly, the publisher Don Kirshner was in charge of the music and there were professional songwriters in his Screen Gems company with time on their hands now that beat groups were writing their own songs. There were to be two new songs in each episode and they would be written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, and a promising young songwriter, Neil Diamond and David Gates. The production duties were largely undertaken by another songwriting duo, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. That they were only looking for songs within Screen Gems didn’t matter in this instance as quality was assured.
The Monkees had been pitched as a TV series but it made sense for the group to release their own records. There was no time in the tight schedule for them to play on their own records and so the first album, The Monkees was made with their vocals over backing tapes from top flight session men.
Davy Jones commented, “We always sang on our records but we didn’t play on the first ones. We didn’t want to. That would have meant six weeks in the studio and instead we had Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel, Glen Campbell and David Gates playing for us. I didn’t think it mattered as lots of groups didn’t play on their records. You can’t tell me that the other Beatles are playing with Paul McCartney on Yesterday.” Fair enough, the Byrds didn’t play on Mr Tambourine Man and the Beach Boys didn’t pick up their instruments for Pet Sounds.
The unforgettable riff on Last Train To Clarksville was played by Louie Shelton on his Fender Telecaster. He said, “Once during a session at Sunset Sound with Richard Perry, George Harrison came to visit. I was introduced as the guy who played guitar on Last Train To Clarksville. He complimented me on it and I told him I had borrowed his guitar approach.” The riff is in the same bag as Ticket To Ride and Paperback Writer, and the Beatles’ link is underscored with the Monkees chanting “no, no, no” instead of “yeah, yeah, yeah”.
As well as the Beatles, the Monkees owed something to the Dave Clark Five. The Tottenham group had starred in their own film, Catch Us If You Can, and it is easy to sing their title song to the theme from The Monkees.
By October 1966, the Monkees had a hit TV series, a hit single and a hit album. The merchandising was big business and as with the Beatles, their lunch boxes, thermos flasks, wristwatches, magazines and posters are collectors’ items today.
The back cover of The Monkees LP stated that Jones, Nesmith and Tork played guitar and Dolenz played drums – the presumption being that they were doing just that on the record. Despite such deception being commonplace, the press honed in on the Monkees and accused them of duping the public. Mike Nesmith said that they were playing a fictional group in a TV series and “no one expects Raymond Burr to practise law.” Sounds plausible but the Monkees was being marketed as a real group.
Davy Jones said, “Micky and I were actors and we knew what the deal was. It didn’t bother us that we weren’t playing on our records and it didn’t really bother many of our fans. But a lot of people thought that we didn’t play on our records because we weren’t capable of it, and that was nonsense. Peter Tork could play 11 instruments and you didn’t need to be a great musician to play the songs we were singing. Last Train To Clarksville was only four notes and I’m A Believer was five.”
Because the second album was already in the making More Of The Monkees, was more of the Monkees with session musicians, but it did include their biggest single, the jubilant I’m A Believer. Peter Tork take is that “the producers tried to walk a very careful line. They had Geppetto complexes and we had Pinocchio complexes. We wanted to become real life boys.” A lot of money was riding on the Monkees, and so the producers were annoyed when Tork came out against the war in Vietnam because anti-American sentiments could deplete the viewing figures.
At a meeting with their management, Mike Nesmith smashed his fist through a dividing wall and threatened to give them the same treatment. He issued an ultimatum, “Either we play on our records or we don’t sing at all.” A new producer, Chip Douglas, was brought in to help, but soon they would be writing many of the songs and also producing them.
In 1967 the Monkees in various combinations came to the UK: Davy usually socialised with his family but Micky, Mike and Peter were often with the Beatles. There is no sign at all that the Beatles mocked them for being copyists or thought of them as infra dig. Indeed, Peter Tork borrowed Paul McCartney’s five-string banjo and played it on George Harrison’s soundtrack for the psychedelic film, Wonderwall. There was a late night jam session at the Speakeasy with Peter on banjo, George on ukulele and Keith Moon banging the table. For about five minutes, Brian Epstein did think of making a rival series featuring the Who.
In August 1967 the Monkees’ British fan club secretary Keith Mallett stated, “I don’t dig their music myself. They can’t compete with the Beatles.” By then they were chalk and cheese. The Brill Building writers had captured the easy going rock sound of the British invasion but the Beatles had moved on. The Beatles were appealing to older fans and the Monkees attracted those who wanted the Beatles as they were.
Neither Peter nor Davy thought that this was deliberate but Davy did say, “What I think was great was that we lowered the age at which kids bought records. No kids ever bought Sinatra’s records but 14 year olds bought the Beatles. We lowered the age to 12. Then came other groups like the Osmonds who went for an even younger market. I think that’s great.”
In February 1967, Micky and Paul McCartney met at a London club and Paul took him home for a preview of their new single, Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever. Around 2am, they went to Brian Epstein’s flat to watch film of Cream and the Spencer Davis Group. Asked about his meeting with Paul, Micky said that he loved Strawberry Fields Forever. “It’s progressive and it is the kind of music I want to do.” In other words, our music is about to change.
A couple of days later Mike and his wife, Phyllis, attended a Beatles session at Abbey Road for ‘A Day In The Life’ and watched a 40 piece orchestra playing as they had never played before. The Nesmiths stayed with the Lennons and Mike was so impressed by John’s Mellotron that he decided to buy one for himself.
Michael told the NME, “The really significant people are Frank Zappa, a 60 year old sculptor called Vito Paulekas, Timothy Leary and the Beatles. The reason I like John Lennon so much is that he’s a compassionate person. I knew he has a reputation for being caustic but it is only a cover for the depth of his feeling.”
Peter Tork had the latest drugs from LA. “I did throw a pill of STP down John’s throat, but I wouldn’t do that again. I am not doing drugs at all now but I would never recommend that one. It was too aggressive. You felt like a tough person on it.”