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the Monkees, the Music, the Madness
This is Their Story
Observable “fact” is, at best, only subjective. That is because it is true that one person’s observations, when set beside another person’s observations, are simply observations. In 1966 a television show called “The Monkees” became a hybrid of the observed, and the fact. Unlike the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” (a movie based on a day in the life of a pop/rock band), the Monkees was a “pop/rock band” based on a television show. Created to ride the wave of social, artistic and entertainment revolution taking place in Great Britain and the United States, the Monkees placed top-quality original popular music into a fictional television environment; and in so doing, fed it to millions of teens who were hungry for the continuation of the cultural upheaval begun by the Beatles.
By 1966 pop/rock music had moved past the first few years of the Beatles’ sensation. The Beatles had evolved quickly from songs like Please Please Me, Love Me Do, From Me To You and She Loves You into Sergeant Pepper and Strawberry Fields. Though not teens themselves, from 1962 to 1966 they had released a number of records that appealed to the teen audience of the day with simple three-chord love songs. The long hair had given them the rebellious persona and added fuel to the firestorm blazing around them. The Beatles’ progression into their psychedelic recording years and social commentary had left a gap between the young adults who had progressed with them, and the younger teens that were looking for more of those simple love songs. There were plenty of those songs available to them in the mainstream; however those weren’t being presented in the loveable stage band package that the Beatles had offered earlier in the decade.
The Monkees was the perfect vehicle to continue delivering the simple love songs in the “package” that younger teens so desperately wanted. They had an advantage over the Beatles in that they played to a weekly television audience. The songs were provided by successful pop song writers who were in their most creative years. The television show brought the Monkees to the parents of teens in a non-threatening way; and that fact was probably most responsible for the Monkees’ recordings outselling the Beatles’. When the Beatles and other groups were concentrating on studio sessions and innovative original styles, the creators and producers of the Monkees were putting a quality musical product on living room television screens across America every week.
Davy Jones (David Jones)
- Played roles in British television and radio plays
- Played the role of Michael in a six-week tour of Peter Pan
- Landed the role of the Artful Dodger in Broadway’s production of Oliver after receiving coaching on his cockney accent from a Peter Pan co-star
- Received a Tony Award Nomination for his performance in Oliver
- Performed in 1964 with the Broadway cast of Oliver on the Ed Sullivan Show telecast which also featured the Beatles’ debut in the United States
Michael Nesmith (Robert Michael Nesmith)
- Trained as an aircraft mechanic in the United States Air Force from 1960-1962
- Was hosting a talent show at the folk rock club “The Troubadour” when the Monkees producers first saw him
- Wrote performed and recorded songs prior to the Monkees (After the casting of the TV show, Screen Gems bought the songs in order to use them in the show)
- Wrote the song “Different Drum” performed most notably by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys
Micky Dolenz (George Michael Dolenz)
- Starred for three years in a 1950s television series called Circus Boy, as an orphan boy named Corky who grew up in a traveling circus around the beginning of the 20th century
- Played guitar and sang in bands called The Spartans, and The Missing Links
- Attended Valley Junior College, and Los Angeles Trade Tech. while acting in guest appearances on television shows
Peter Tork (Peter Thorkelson)
- Received a ukulele as a gift as a young teen, the first of many instruments he would play
- Flunked out of Carleton College in Minnesota twice while gaining experience in folk ensembles and as a DJ on campus
- Moved to New York’s Greenwich Village, and played in a variety of clubs
- Played at Carnegie Hall during the 1964 New York City Folk Festival
- Appeared on Canadian television’s folk program known as Let’s Sing Out
the Monkees in the Beginning
In 1963 The Columbia Pictures subsidiary “Screen Gems” acquired Aldon Music, a prolific production company founded by Don Kirshner and Al Nevins. Aldon Music had seen great success with a prolific group of contract song writers including Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon and others. The much older Nevins succumbed to health problems in 1965; however Don Kirshner had followed Aldon music to Screen Gems, becoming Executive Vice President of publishing and recording.
When Columbia and Screen Gems began looking for a show with commercial appeal, and involving pop music, they had the film-making style of the movie “A Hard Day’s Night in mind. With that goal they set out to find the musical group for the show. Knowing that using a pre-existing group would mean dealing with pre-existing contracts, schedules, etc., the creators set out in 1965 to create the perfect band of four for the show.
David Jones was already under a management contract with Colpix Records, which was a Columbia-Screen Gems recording company, so his spot was quickly locked in to fulfill the expected demand for young British representation on the television show. Wanting to attract a wider audience, it was determined that a country-western personality would be needed, as well as a clown and a shy, awkward type. The producers bet that if they had four very different characters, they would reach a much broader audience. Once the writers had these characters, they started work on the show; and the producers started looking for actors to fill the open three positions. Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork were chosen from those who auditioned, and the pieces were in place.
Putting Them Together
With the cast assembled and the pilot written, filming of The Monkees began in November 1965 in Los Angeles and San Diego. Once filming was complete, the pilot was shown to test audiences, and unexpectedly for the producers, the show tested poorly. The focus group couldn’t keep track of the characters, or remember who they were. They saw the “madness” and found the Monkees to be “disrespectful brats”. This disappointing beginning had to be turned around, and so the producers analyzed the test results carefully. What they found was that the audience hadn’t been given a chance to see the charming side of each of the characters. Determined to present the “loveable side” of the Monkees, before releasing the mad cap Marx Brothers side, producer/director Bob Rafelson re-edited the pilot to begin with the screen test interviews with each of the stars. That decision turned the lowest tested pilot in history into “gold”. The focus audience was able to meet the Monkees one at a time, and that made all the difference. The show re-tested with astronomical results, and the NBC network bought it. Interviews with the characters would be inserted into the show regularly as episodes were edited.
In the months of preparation before the television show was first aired (September 1966), music was an obvious concern. A new record label called Colgems was set up to handle the expected high demand, with RCA Records doing the manufacturing and distribution. Don Kirshner took over as the show’s “Music Supervisor”, and began an extensive search for a producer who could provide the desired sound for the music. Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who had been writing songs for the show, were given the job of producing them as well. Boyce and Hart recorded for the pilot, and the Monkees would later replace the vocals with their own. Songs for the show’s first season continued to be recorded, and vocals added in subsequent dubbing sessions. Boyce and Hart, Goffin and King, David Gates, Neil Diamond, Michael Nesmith and others provided the tunes, veteran studio musicians recorded the music and Monkees sang. By August of that year press releases, personal appearances and promotions for the show were in full swing. Colgems released the first Monkees recordings to the public on August 16. The Last Train to Clarksville/Take a Giant Step 45 was delivered to record stores as the songs began to receive radio play. Within three weeks 400,000 records had been sold, and the television show had not yet aired.
For the Latest News on the Monkees:
Billboard's Top Ten Monkees Songs
- I'm a Believer
- Daydream Believer
- Last Train to Clarksville
- A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You
- Pleasant Valley Sunday
- That Was Then, This Is Now
- D.W. Washburn
- (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone
On Other Lists:
The Early Months
On Sunday August 28th the Monkees were among the 45,000 concert-goers to see the Beatles play 11 songs in roughly 30 minutes at Dodger Stadium. Though John, Paul, George and Ringo had to be carried out of the stadium wrapped in blankets, and through the streets of Los Angeles in an ambulance, the Monkees Last Train to Clarksville had been rapidly climbing to the top of the pop music charts. And still they were next to anonymous in the crowd.
Though the “pre-fab four”, as the group was called by some, had practiced playing together as a band during the summer of 1966, little time was afforded them to develop their skills, or to record them on the Monkees records. This formula of adding vocals to pre-recorded tunes would serve the group well early in the television show’s run. Filming, photography and advertising sessions, as well as a promotional tour prior to the show’s debut, left them barely enough time to add their voices to the songs that were being recorded as they worked on the show. The four had a break from filming in November 1966 to prepare for a concert tour which would begin in December in Hawaii. They developed a ground-breaking stage show which included video screens, costume changes and instrument sharing. As they arrived at each tour stop, the group would “take over” the local pop radio station, spinning and introducing records (and themselves).
The highly successful debut tour rocketed the now “experienced concert band” into “Monkee-mania”.
The First Episode
Trouble had been brewing from the beginning for the group. From the first singles which had been filmed in the show and released in August 1966, Dolenz, Jones, Nesmith and Tork hadn’t played in more than a few of the instrumental portions of the recordings. Nesmith and Tork, though active in the recordings of the song that were written and produced by Nesmith, were extremely resentful of the arrangement as it progressed. Dolenz and Jones, though less insistent on recording as a band, stood with them as a band of four, and tensions in the Monkees’ camp grew.
Music supervisor Don Kirshner continued to publish the records and albums as the songs were provided and recorded; and though wildly popular, the Monkees as a television show, and now as a band, was quickly headed toward a conclusion. Screen Gems dismissed Don Kirshner following the release of a Monkees single written by Neil Diamond. Kirshner had promised Diamond a “follow-up” to a previously recorded Diamond hit. The contract with the Monkees however was for one of their original songs to be on the release. Whether this was the only reason, or whether it was because Kirshner earned more money than the president of the company, the Monkees were suddenly free of a tremendous source of tension in the camp.
The Show Winds Down
After two albums had been released by January 1967 with songs previously recorded for the television series, the next album “Headquarters” was assembled in months of studio time with songs played and recorded, though not all written, by the Monkees. It too rose to #1 on the album charts in May 1967, going double-platinum within two months of release.
Concert tours of Europe and North America, and filming of the television show’s second season followed, leaving the group little time for creativity. Again they turned to employing studio musicians and professional song writers when recording their fourth album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, LTD for a November 1967 release. Though the album, and the songs and the show’s second season were successful, the group began to grow apart.
Tolerance and togetherness were things of the past for the Monkees by the spring of 1968. Production of the television show ended after only two successful seasons, but continued to play in syndication. The Monkees recorded a fifth album in that spring of 1968; however the tour of Australia and Japan that summer would be the last for the original collaboration of the “Pre-Fab Four”. Though an effort at a feature film (released as “Head”) proved unsuccessful, the band’s musical works, whether strictly vocal contributions or not, were hugely successful. The quality of the songs themselves is proven in the fact that classic radio continues to include them.
The Monkees Go On
The Monkees as a band, in varying forms and fractions, performed and toured off-and-on into and beyond 2010, supported by a large catalogue of many of the most popular songs of the decade of the 1960s.
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© 2013 Mr. Smith