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The Monkees

+ {Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart} + {Davy Jones & Micky Dolenz}

Formed in Los Angeles, California, as a made-for-TV boy-band, The MONKEES became an iconic pop-rock who weathered the storm (aka “the press”) and everything thrown at them – even the girls! Given that they were actually founded as a weekly dose of BEATLES-esque slapstick with added songs and ye olde Three Stooges-like stage sets, The MONKEES, of all the 60s bands (which, with the huge success of the series, is what they became), cultivated the most obvious relationship with moving pictures, primarily on the small screen, but ultimately on the large; the artificiality of their position generating an ambiguous relationship with the mainstream and progressively more hostile reaction to it. The narrative-busting musical segments in their series were often credited as blueprints for the music video, a format member MICHAEL NESMITH would further pioneer in the late 70s with his “PopClips” series.
The brainchild of Hollywood TV producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, the pair had wanted to make a sit-com based around The BEATLES’ films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! and, in September 1965, the pair ran a wanted ad for four guys aged between 17 and 21. Out of over four hundred applicants (and that included STEPHEN STILLS), they picked the lucky candidates: singer/guitarist Davy Jones (an Englishman from Manchester plucked from Coronation Street and the Broadway production of Oliver, as the Artful Dodger), drummer/singer Micky Dolenz (from TV series Circus Boy), guitarist/singer Michael Nesmith (an actual songwriter!) and bassist/singer Peter Tork; Don Kirshner’s Colgems label (an affiliate of Screen Gems/Columbia) signed up the project. Following difficulties on the songwriting front, Bob and Bert brought in pensmiths Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who also became the group’s producers. Other conveyor-belt scribes were brought in, namely NEIL DIAMOND, Goffin & King, NEIL SEDAKA, plus Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil.
On September 12, 1966, to coincide with their debut hit, `Last Train To Clarksville’ hitting the charts, The Monkees show for NBC premiered on TV. Although not an overnight success, it duly became a teen and cult favourite. A month later, the No.1 single and the show went worldwide, showcasing their BEACH BOYS-style harmonies and freewheeling frolics. Unconvinced initially, the said platter finally reached the UK Top 30 early the following year just as the eponymous THE MONKEES (1966) {*7} parent set chartered a similar US chart-scaling route, by which time `I’m A Believer’ (penned by NEIL DIAMOND) also followed suit. Hot to trot, MORE OF THE MONKEES (1967) {*6} celebrated a glorious January for the group.
Not everyone’s cup of char (or even PG Tips), the reviews for both LPs were testing; but the range of songwriters were incidental to screaming teenagers singing along to `(Theme From) The Monkees’, `I Wanna Be Free’, `Sweet Young Thing’, `Take A Giant Step’ and, of course, `Last Train…’ – all from the debut – and from their sophomore: `I’m A Believer’, its US Top 20 B-side `(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone’, DIAMOND’s other clean cut `Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)’, `Your Auntie Grizelda’ and Nesmith’s sole contribution `Mary, Mary’.
An overnight pop phenomenon one could say, their boyish good looks and “zany” antics on the small screen were every part endearing in their quest for bubblegum psychedelia supremacy. An exclusive double-A-side, twinning DIAMOND’s `A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’ (with finally Davy on vox) and Nesmith’s `The Girl I Knew Somewhere’, peaked at #2 (UK No.3) and #39 respectively. But the group’s increasing frustration with impresario Kirschner led to heated arguments between the factions.
Released that May, the Kirschner-less HEADQUARTERS (1967) {*7} again split the critics, but not the youth of the day, who gave The MONKEES their third consecutive #1 LP (No.2 in the UK). As the band grew in confidence, their marketing team afforded each bigger pieces of the lucrative songwriting pie: Nesmith on three (`You Told Me’, `Sunny Girlfriend’ and the effervescent `You Just May Be The One’), Tork on one (`For Pete’s Sake’), the group on two vignettes (`Band 6’ and `Zilch’) and an Alf Garnett/“Till Death Us Do Part”-inspired Dolenz on the UK-only No.2 smash, `Randy Scouse Git’ (aka “Alternative Title”).
Singled out for a double-A disc, the Goffin-King `Pleasant Valley Sunday’ (b/w Boyce-Hart’s `Words’) was the summer signature tune hit and, more importantly, a song from their November 1967 #1 set, PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN & JONES LTD. {*7}. The stamping ground for budding songwriters, NILSSON was called up for `Cuddly Toy’, while OWEN CASTLEMAN and MICHAEL MARTIN MURPHEY authored seminal country-rock ballad `What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?’.
Bolstered by a return to the #1 spot in November for `Daydream Believer’ (scribed by folky JOHN STEWART), and the double-A hit `Valleri’ (a la Boyce-Hart) and Nesmith’s `Tapioca Tundra’, early 1968’s THE BIRDS, THE BEES & THE MONKEES {*6} spoiled the run of chart-topping albums by peaking at #3, while in Britain it failed unceremoniously. As Nesmith increasingly dominated the songwriting (from `Auntie’s Municipal Court’ to `Magnolia Simms’), outsiders/insiders Boyce & Hart, plus others, limited their contributions. An exclusive Leiber & Stoller song, `D.W. Washburn’ (very LOVIN’ SPOONFUL) was yet another transatlantic Top 20 hit – but the times were fast a-changing.
As their TV show came to a close (one featuring FRANK ZAPPA, another a cameo for TIM BUCKLEY), axed towards the end of ‘68, The MONKEES moved into the movies, making the box-office disaster that was HEAD (1968) {*6}.
There weren’t many soundtracks co-ordinated by Jack Nicholson (you can actually hear his wily drawl on the CD bonus version of `Ditty Diego-War Chant’), the freewheeling spirit of the Nicholson/Rafelson partnership was stamped all over this. While that partnership would go on to concoct the brilliant Five Easy Pieces (from 1970), their oft-quoted aim for the OST was to subvert The MONKEES’ teen dream image. The movie might indeed have scuppered both their image and career, but, from a purely musical perspective, they’d already proved – with the previous year’s “Headquarters” – that they weren’t just pretty, marketable faces.
The soundtrack nevertheless relied for the most part on session heavyweights as well as the likes of RY COODER, JACK NITZSCHE and Russ Titelman, a triumvirate more famous – at least cinematically – for their work on Nic Roeg’s Performance flick. The normally indomitable Goffin & King axis supplied the lead track – and lead single – `Porpoise Song (Theme From Head)’, a meandering, self-conscious stab at “Magical Mystery Tour”-esque psychedelia, which promised a lot but wound up sounding half-finished. They fared better with the rootsy, if slight, `As We Go Along’, featuring NEIL YOUNG, no less.
With its quasi-Eastern motifs and shadowy bongos, Tork’s own `Can You Dig It’ was a more engaging psychedelic confection, while Nesmith’s sole contribution, `Circle Sky’, was a caterwauling rocker prefiguring his underrated 70s material. If, on this evidence, it’s surprising that PETER TORK’s subsequent solo career never got off the starting blocks; Nesmith’s position as a recording artist outwith The MONKEES seemed guaranteed. HARRY NILSSON also made an appearance, supplying the brassy and very BEATLES-y `Daddy’s Song’.
Not totally Tork-less (his guitar parts were featured on Sedaka & Sager’s `I Won’t Be The Same Without Her’), 1969’s quick-fire INSTANT REPLAY {*6} signalled a slight return to normality – and songs from mid-‘66. Overseen by music supervisor, Brendan Cahill, lonesome hit `Tear Drop City’ (from Boyce & Hart), was one from the vaults, and there were several from sessions in Nashville; Jones’ `You And I’ showcased guitarist NEIL YOUNG and Dolenz’s `Just A Game’ was an out-take “Headquarters” tune.
THE MONKEES PRESENT… (1969) {*5} only just squeezed into the Top 100, but Micky, David and Michael weren’t quite up for quitting yet. Both minor hits, Nesmith’s Nashville-line `Listen To The Band’ and `Good Clean Fun’ were surrounded by Dolenz ditties or Boyce-Hart bubblegum-boppers, while the aforementioned MURPHEY songsmith proved his worth by way of `Oklahoma Backroom Dancer’.
Thought by many to be a talent wasted as prop-up part-singer-songwriter for the trailing trio, MICHAEL NESMITH bought out his costly contract from the owners and duly precipitated a relatively high profile solo career (a country-rock pioneer he was behind PopClips, aka MTV).
Summer 1970 unveiled another new-look MONKEES, CHANGES {*4} featuring only Jones and Dolenz. “Sugar Sugar”/ARCHIES geezer Jeff Barry (with either Bobby Bloom or Andy Kim) pulled the proverbial strings. With only `Oh My My’ denting the Hot 100, it was a poor show all-round; DOLENZ and JONES subsequently choosing to be billed under their own dual monikers for spring 1971’s `Do It In The Name Of Love’ flop 45. DAVY JONES would soon deliver his own eponymous solo LP in ‘71, 6 years after his pre-MONKEES “David Jones” LP – a rare artefact indeed.
A post-MONKEES Dolenz appeared in B-movies, Night Of The Strangler (1973) and Linda Lovelace For President (1975), while in 1976, The Monkees reunion in all but name, surfaced with the pop cheese of DOLENZ, JONES, BOYCE & HART {*4}. Together with Jones, who’d also made a living in the UK, the pair starred in NILSSON’s stage version of THE POINT (1978) {*4}. It was in Britain Dolenz established himself as a successful director and producer, working for the BBC, London Weekend Television (co-masterminding award-winning children’s show, Metal Mickey) and Channel 4.
Beginning with a mid-80s revival, all four MONKEES sporadically re-formed – albeit with Nesmith only briefly in the frame – for both live and studio work. With attendant video `Heart and Soul’, Tork, Dolenz and Jones decided to POOL IT! (1987) {*3} once more (a la corny cover shot of the trio in a pool!); worth avoiding is their version of WRECKLESS ERIC’s `(I’d Go The) Whole Wide World’.
Upon his return to the USA, Dolenz appeared alongside the likes of Nicolas Cage and Peter Fonda in crime thriller, Deadfall (1993) and, with Jones (who’d long-since appeared in the original 70s series) in warped nostalgia piece, The Brady Bunch Movie (1995).
Older but none the wiser (just richer), JUSTUS (1996) {*5}, was an album of newly recorded material and the first for some time to feature all four members. Littered with nostalgia and nondescript pop, country and theatrical rock, it was miles better than their previous reunion, but that said nothing in terms of progress for the 50-somethings. A one-hour ABC-endorsed re-formation spoof, Hey, Hey, It’s The Monkees (1997), preceded a made-for-TV post-millennium bio-pic, Daydream Believers: The Monkees Story (not featuring any of the MONKEES themselves).
NESMITH was first to drop out, Tork was next, disillusioned or just fired from the process by the remaining Dolenz and Jones, who kept The MONKEES rolling over for next several years or so; sadly, Davy Jones died of a heart attack on February 29, 2012.
The remaining alumni of Dolenz, Nesmith and Tork made one last-breath stab at… GOOD TIMES! (2016) {*7}. Generally given the thumbs up for its Frankenstein-monster-miasma of something old, something new and a pop-potpourri of everything else, the transatlantic Top 30 set was a joyous, jangling juxtapose of nostalgia. Resurrecting a song (and an accompanying voice) of NILSSON for the opening title track, the aping trio – mainly Dolenz on vox – turned the clock back to the bubblegum-pop 60s-via-the-90s for `You Bring The Summer’ (penned by XTC’s Andy Partridge), `She Makes Me Laugh’ (by WEEZER’s Rivers Cuomo) and `Our Own World’ (by fan and producer Adam Schlesinger of FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE). Meanwhile, Tork was let loose vocally on his own track `Little Girl’ and a cover of GOFFIN & KING’s `Wasn’t Born To Follow’, while Nesmith was given free rein on `I Know What I Know’ and with Dolenz on BEN GIBBARD’s `Me & Magdalena’. On an historical note, the late and great Davy Jones touched on hearts via vocals on NEIL DIAMOND’s `Love To Love’, but probably out there in post-Britpop ether was NOEL GALLAGHER and PAUL WELLER’s `Birth Of An Accidental Hipster’. The MONKEES could now take a bow.
Indeed, one of their iconic brethren, Peter Tork, passed away on February 21, 2019, having been diagnosed with cancer a decade earlier.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS/BG // rev-up MCS Jun2015-Feb2019

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