At press conferences, the Monkees were as funny and irreverent as the Beatles. When asked “Do you plan to put your music into the psychedelic bag?” they responded with “Yes, we’re going to give the tape machine LSD.”
While in the UK, Micky Dolenz picked up on the phrase, “randy scouse git” which was Alf Garnett’s assessment of his son-in-law in Til Death Us Do Part. It prompted Micky to write an unusual song, quite unlike any other and almost a protest song, which came to be known as Alternate Title. “I was at this party with the Beatles. Mama Cass was there and a bit of it is about her,” he said, “It’s also about my wife-to-be Samantha and about the Beatles and about sitting in a hotel room. It was a little diary piece if you like.”
Peter Tork; “I’ve always liked that bit about ‘The four kings of EMI sitting stately on the floor’, which is about the Beatles and sounds like a line from ‘American Pie’, although it was written five years before that.”
The next album, Headquarters, featured the Monkees as musicians. Peter Tork says, “We were in the studio morning, noon and night and we made what sounds like a pretty good garage band album to me with a sense of humour, alertness and some musicality. It wasn’t a bad one.” One song, Micky Dolenz’s No Time was their take on the Beatles’ I’m Down. The LP topped the US album charts, only to be knocked off by Sgt Pepper, which is no disgrace.
The Monkees had a singles hit with Goffin and King’s comment on living in the suburbs, Pleasant Valley Sunday. Peter Tork: “That is my favourite Monkees’ hit and I really think that the Monkees’ songbook is one of the great songbooks. I don’t have to apologise for it a bit. Of course it can’t be compared to Lennon and McCartney’s as theirs is the best songbook ever.”
Like the fast forward sequences in their TV series, the Monkees lived the same way. Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd (1967) was as experimental as anything else from that year. The Moog came into its own on Daily Nightly and Star Collector, a song about groupies. “We made a quantum leap,” said Tork, “and it wasn’t like the Beatles as we had gone from Last Train To Clarksville to Daily Nightly within a year. There was no way the kids could have possibly kept up.”
Their fifth album, made in March 1968, The Birds, The Bees And The Monkees, resembles The White Album with its eclectic material including the surreal Tapioca Tundra and a 1930s pastiche, Magnolia Simms. The album did include one classic pop single, Daydream Believer. For once, Davy Jones’ vulnerability suited the song, but Davy wasn’t happy with his performance. “I’m a baritone and I sounded terrible on Daydream Believer. It was in the wrong key for my voice, but a lot of our songs were sung by the wrong person. All the lovey-dovey stuff like When Love Comes Knocking went to Micky and he was too mechanical for them. I also thought that Mike should have sung more.”
From 1966 to 1968, the Monkees recorded 58 half-hour television shows. The later ones were influenced by Magical Mystery Tour and some far-out characters appeared as guests including Frank Zappa and Tim Buckley. In the episode, Monkees Blow Their Minds, Mike Nesmith and Frank Zappa dressed as each other for a truly wacky interview. In the 70s Ringo Starr was to play Zappa in his outlandish 200 Motels while John Lennon jammed with him on stage and argued over songwriting credits.
Once The Monkees was under way, the producers had built them a box at the back of the set where they could chill out. There was a light in each corner of the box and when it was green, the director wanted Davy, red Mike and so. Jack Nicholson, a friend of the producers, saw this and suggested it could be the concept for a full-length movie, Head. The film would be about how the various Monkees tried to escape from the black box. And er, that’s it, but then this was LA in hippie times. Although they didn’t say it out loud, the title was meant to complement Andy Warhol’s Blow-Job. Instead the film was shown in LA on a double-bill with Yellow Submarine.
Davy Jones: “Head was a strange movie because we felt it was the end, the final thing. It was a very arty-farty movie with all sorts of washed-up people in it, but it had magical moments, such as when I got a chance to dance like Fred Astaire. Columbia had to accept the film but it got pulled real quick because it had nothing to do with the Monkees. We never even got paid for it.”
The film opened with Micky apparently committing suicide by jumping off a pier and as he drowns, we hear the Monkees with their strangest record, The Porpoise Song, psychedelia as its best. And that is one of the more lucid moments. Catch the moment too where Peter Tork walks into a washroom whistling Strawberry Fields Forever. Jack Nitzsche arranged the music for the opening sequence, which is like a continuation of his work with Neil Young. Peter comments, “People sometimes write that we were sabotaging our own career with Head but I didn’t see it that way. We were all young guys and I think our attention spans were limited.”
It wasn’t quite the end. The Monkees made a TV special for the British producer, Jack Good 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. With a similar premise to Head, the Monkees wanted to escape but here they had to submit to Good’s consuming passion, rock’n’roll, and the film contained a sequence in which Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard are seen together. Meanwhile, Don Kirshner found a way to stop musicians rebelling against him – he formed a cartoon group, the Archies.
Too much Monkee business became too little as the group fizzled out, touring without Tork and then without Nesmith. Mike Nesmith pursued a stop-start career in country-rock and along the way pioneered the promotional pop video, which led to the foundation of MTV. After years of substance abuse, Peter Tork cleaned himself out and formed his own blues band, reinterpreting some of the hits in new settings.
When Ringo made a clothes commercial for Japanese TV, Davy and Nilsson helped him with backing vocals. As a result, Nilsson offered Davy the leading role in his stage musical, The Point. True showbiz troupers, Davy and Micky often starred in stage musicals and also performed together. Micky became a successful TV producer, notably with Metal Mickey. Although all four Monkees remained friendly, a reunion tour did not take place until 1997. It was exceptionally successful. Davy Jones died in 2012 and as Micky and Peter have been working together of late, the Monkees aren’t over yet.
So what is the Monkees’ legacy and why aren’t they in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
There are several hit records which have endured, one classic B-side ‘I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone, and some underrated tracks like Listen To The Band and Circle Sky. From time to time, there have been revivals of their songs including I’m A Believer (Robert Wyatt), Daydream Believer (Tight Fit) and The Porpoise Song (Lighting Seeds). Peter Tork offered a reasonable assessment when he said, “Of course I wouldn’t stack our albums up against the Beatles or the Stones on a one-to-one basis, but maybe we were third or fourth in terms of quality at that time. I don’t think we made anything quite as good as California Dreamin’ or Monday Monday but there are three hours of new songs and Mr and Mrs America and Mr and Mrs Great Britain know a lot of them.” Davy added, “If only we could have been as quarter as good as the Beatles.”
The Monkees are regarded as the first manufactured band and such bands are now commonplace. They pioneered the cross-promotion of TV and records and there have been many series about musicians since then including the Partridge Family, S Club 7 and the Osbournes. In 1987 there was even The New Monkees, not involving any old ones and quietly dropped after six episodes.
The Monkees TV show was about being in a band and having madcap adventures. Roll it on a couple of years and what do you get – The Basement Tapes.
Although their records are loved, the Monkees don’t get the recognition they deserve because they are regarded as lightweight. They have no street cred and to a certain extent, you either have it or you don’t: you fall into the Elvis camp or the Pat Boone camp, which is where the Monkees, rather unfairly, reside.
But in one respect, they are not like the Beatles. They turned down Shea Stadium. Said Davy Jones. “We didn’t want our fans paying good money to see tiny dots on a faraway stage.” There’s integrity for you.