The Monkees Biography
The Monkees were a four-person band who appeared in an American television series of the same name, which ran on NBC from 1966 to 1968. The Monkees were formed in 1965 in Los Angeles, California and disbanded in 1970. Several reunions of the original lineup have taken place. The first reunion lasted from 1986-1989, and a second regrouping took place between 1996-1997. The Monkees last worked together for a brief period in 2001.
History of the series
The television show first aired on September 12, 1966 on the American NBC television network and lasted for two seasons; its final primetime episode ran on September 9, 1968. Modeled on the Beatles' film A Hard Day's Night, The Monkees featured the antics and music of a fictional pop-rock group which, due to the necessities of the program and the massive success of the records, became a real pop-rock group.
The four young men who became The Monkees were British-born David ('Davy') Jones (percussion/vocals), George Michael ('Micky') Dolenz (drums/vocals), Michael Nesmith (guitar/vocals), and Peter Tork (bass/keyboards/vocals). They were cast after ads were placed in trade publications calling for actors to play '4 insane boys' on a new television series. 437 hopeful actors and musicians auditioned for the parts; a then relatively unknown Stephen Stills was shortlisted for a role, but was eventually knocked out because of his bad teeth, with Peter Tork finally winning the role Stills had hoped to get. Rumors have circulated that Charles Manson also auditioned, but these rumors have been shown to be false.
Nesmith and Tork were both already professional musicians, but Dolenz and Jones were better known as actors. All four were trained in both improvisational comedy and performing musically as a group before the pilot episode was filmed, so that they could look and act like a cohesive band even though it was only their voices being used on the initial recordings.
As a television show, The Monkees used techniques rarely seen on television—characters breaking the fourth wall and talking to the camera and sometimes even to people off-camera in the studio, fantasy sequences, jump cuts, and at least once a week a musical romp which might have nothing to do with the story line. In fact, many of the episodes included what now look very much like video clips: short, self-contained films featuring one of the songs from a Monkees album.
The Monkees were put together by a number of people who went on to later success. The show was produced by Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, who later produced the film Easy Rider ; Rafelson went on to direct such films as Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens. The 1965 pilot episode was co-written by Paul Mazursky and the late Larry Tucker, who later co-wrote the movie Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which Mazursky directed; he went on to direct such films as Harry and Tonto and Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
The Monkees won two Emmy Awards in 1967: Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy (James Frawley).
After the television show was cancelled, Rafelson directed the four Monkees in a feature film, Head, executive-produced by Schneider and co-written and co-produced by Rafelson with a then, relatively unknown actor named Jack Nicholson. The film, created and edited in a stream of consciousness style, featured cameo appearances by movie star Victor Mature and musician Frank Zappa. It was not a commercial success. This was in part because it comprehensively demolished the group's carefully-groomed public image, as evidenced by the following stanzas from Rafelson and Nicholson's 'Ditty-Diego' (recited at the start of the film by the Monkees), which ruthlessly parodies Boyce and Hart's 'Monkees Theme':
But over the intervening years Head has developed a cult following for its innovative style and anarchic humor, and the soundtrack album (long out of print but now available in an expanded CD version) is counted among their best recordings. Members of the Monkees, Nesmith in particular, cite Head as one of the crowning achievements of the band.
From TV to stage
The massive success of the series and its spin-off records had created intense pressure to mount a touring version of the group by late 1966. Against the initial wishes of the producers, Dolenz, Jones, Nesmith and Tork went out on the road. The results were far better than anyone had a right to expect, and wherever they went they were greeted by scenes of fan hysteria not seen since The Beatles. This gave the four stars increased confidence in their battle for creative control over the music used in the series.
The Monkees had complained that the producers would not allow them to play their own instruments on their records. Their frustrations were increased by the fact that they were all accomplished musicians in their own right. This campaign eventually forced the series' musical coordinator Don Kirshner to let them have more participation in the recording process (against his strong objections), which included Nesmith producing his own songs and band members making some instrumental contributions. Led by Nesmith, the band eventually rebelled against Kirshner, who was later fired, and beginning with their third album, Headquarters, the four Monkees did play most of the parts on the rest of their record albums.
Kirshner was reported to have been incensed by the group's rebellion and swore never to repeat his mistake. This experience led directly to his later ventures The Archies and Josie and the Pussycats, which were animated series — the 'stars' existed only on an animation cel and obviously could not demand creative control over the records issued under their name.
When the group toured Britain in 1967 there was a major controversy over the supposed revelation that the group did not play on their own records, and the news made the front pages of several UK and international music papers, with the group derisively dubbed 'The Pre-Fab Four'. Nevertheless, they were warmly welcomed by many top British stars including The Beatles, who knew them to be skilled musicians and sympathised with their wish to have more control over their music.
Many now feel that the controversy unfairly targeted the Monkees and conveniently ignored the fact that almost all the leading British and American groups — up to and including The Beatles — habitually used sessions players on their recordings, and that this practice had always (until then) passed without comment.
Supporters of the group also point out that producers and Kirshner had the good taste to use some of the best songwriters of the period, including Neil Diamond, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Harry Nilsson and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, as well as using top-ranking Los Angeles session musicians on the records. The Monkees also deserve credit for helping bring America's attention to the Jimi Hendrix Experience, who they took on for as an opening act during their 1967 concert tour, even though Hendrix quit after only a few shows. Reports circulated at the time that he had been removed from the tour after complaints from the conservative women's group Daughters Of The American Revolution. This was later proved false and it has since been revealed that the story was concocted for publicity purposes by the Australian journalist and music writer Lillian Roxon, who had been accompanying the tour with her friend, the Australian singer Lynne Randell, who was one of the supporting acts and who was romantically involved with Jones at the time.
The Monkees had several international hits — which are still heard on oldies stations — including 'I'm a Believer', '(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone', 'Daydream Believer', 'Last Train to Clarksville' — and even a number of social criticism songs, the best known of which is probably 'Pleasant Valley Sunday'.
Six albums were produced with the original lineup (four of which went to Number 1 on the Billboard chart), which was supplemented by a series of successful world concert tours. But tensions within the group were increasing, and Tork quit shortly after the band's Far East tour in late 1968, but not before completing work on their 1969 NBC television special, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. Three more albums would follow while Tork, and then Nesmith, left the group, leaving only Dolenz and Jones to record as the Monkees. Eventually, Jones too departed, leaving Dolenz as the sole remaining recording Monkee, and so marked the end of the first phase of the Monkees' recording career.
In 1986, a Monkees TV show marathon on the video music channel MTV re-launched the Monkees, sparking worldwide interest by both original fans and their children, who flocked to see the Monkees in sold-out shows. Nesmith was forced to sit out most of these reunion projects because of prior commitments to his bustling Pacific Arts video production company. Spurred on by massive MTV promotion, the reunited trio quickly became one of the hottest acts of 1986, with their original albums selling in the millions and a new greatest hits collection reaching platinum status. To show his support, Nesmith appeared onstage with Dolenz, Jones and Tork twice, both times in Los Angeles, in 1986 and 1989. He also appeared with the band in a 1986 Christmas medley music video for MTV and took part in a dedication ceremony at the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where the Monkees received a star in 1989.
The sudden revival of the Monkees in 1986 helped move the first Monkees single since 1970, 'That Was Then, This Is Now', into the American Top 20. A new album by the touring trio, Pool It!, quickly followed and met with moderate success. From 1986 to 1989, the Monkees would conduct major concert tours in the United States, Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and Europe.
In the 1990s, the Monkees continued to create new musical material, eventually recording an album which all four members performed and produced; this became Justus in 1996. The trio of Dolenz, Jones and Tork reunited again for a successful 30th anniversary tour of American amphitheaters in 1996, while Nesmith joined them onstage in Los Angeles to promote the new songs from Justus. For the first time since the initial reunion in 1986, Nesmith returned to the concert stage full-time for a tour of the United Kingdom in 1997, and two sold-out concerts at Wembley Arena in London highlighted the success of the band in the 1990s. The full quartet also appeared in an ABC television special (written and directed by Nesmith) in 1997, spoofing the original series that had made them famous. However, once the revival craze died down, so did Michael Nesmith's interest in the group, and the Monkees disbanded once again. In fact, Davy Jones has gone on record to say another reunion of The Monkees as a complete unit 'will never happen again.' The remaining three Monkees (Dolenz, Jones and Tork) tour sporadically, most recently in 2001.
Impact of the Monkees
The Monkees, selected specifically to appeal to the youth market with their manufactured personae and carefully produced singles, can be seen as the original precursor to the modern proliferation of studio and corporation-created bands, or the modern boy band. However, The Monkees differ from typical modern boy bands in several respects. The Monkees did not perform the tightly harmonized ballads or synchronized dance routines boy bands are noted for today.
Also, the Monkees were shown playing musical instruments on the show, or actually played instruments during live shows, unlike boy bands. Furthermore, the Monkees frequently contributed their own songwriting efforts on their albums. Most notably, the critical appeal of the Monkees has only increased since their original inception, while it remains unproven that modern day boy bands will experience the longevity that the Monkees have enjoyed.
The Monkees found unlikely fans among musicians of the punk rock period of the mid-1970s. Many of these punk performers had grown up on TV reruns of the series, and in keeping with the prevailing anti-industry, anti-Establishment trend of their music, they adopted the Monkees as symbols of rebellion against the mainstream music industry, citing the group's insistence on breaking out of their manufactured TV image and proving that they could write and perform as a real band. The Sex Pistols went as far as recording a version of the Monkees' (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone and there are some close parallels between the careers of the two bands. Modern day bands continue to cover their work, with the alternative rock group Smashmouth most recently having a hit with I'm a Believer in 2001.
Millions of people still listen to their music and it seems likely that Monkees singles will remain a staple on pop-rock and oldies stations for decades to come. In fact, their legacy has been further strengthened by Rhino Entertainment's acquisition of the Monkees franchise from Columbia Pictures in the early 1990s, with remastered editions of both the original television series and their music library having now surfaced in stores on DVD and compact disc collections.
This biography is published under the GNU Licence
Items to buy by The Monkees