At last, the much-anticipated Monkees American tour has started, supported by the release of their new album “Good Times.”
Pop culture is all abuzz with the reunion of the surviving three members, who (sort of) played their way into our collective consciousness 50 years ago.
Their new album, which is getting respectable reviews, includes 13 tracks, some written by a new generation of artists in the pop music field, including Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer. Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork each wrote one song for the album, and some songs written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, songwriters for the 1966-68 show, also are included.
The Monkees, as most boomers will recall, is the band that wasn’t a band that later became a band. “The Monkees” was a half-hour television comedy first envisioned by producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, who in 1966 placed the following advertisement in Variety:
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“Madness: Auditions for Folk and Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in a new TV series. Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21. Want spirited Ben Frank’s types (Ben Frank’s was a Los Angeles hangout for young musicians in the 1960s). Have courage to work.”
Though the ad didn’t express a desire for any real musical talent, it later came as a surprise to all but Micky Dolenz that the actors who portrayed the Monkees were not expected to play any instruments.
Some of the cast, such as Tork and Nesmith, had worked as musicians and songwriters before 1966. Davy Jones had played the Artful Dodger in a very successful run on Broadway. Dolenz, however, had been a child actor, starring in the now obscure TV program “Circus Boy” with Noah Beery Jr., who would later play Jim Garner’s dad in “The Rockford Files.”
Dolenz’s musical background was so limited, in fact, that he had to take drum lessons just to be able to mime playing drums on “The Monkees.”
The tracks for the band’s first album already had been written by the time the four were hired to portray the Monkees on the TV show. Nesmith had helped write two of the tracks, the only ones on which a Monkee – Tork – was allowed to play an instrument. The only other contributions from the fabricated band were the vocals of Dolenz, Nesmith and Jones.
But the album was a huge hit, and so were the next three, all reaching No. 1 on Billboard. In 1967 their album “Headquarters,” the first on which the group played instruments, was listed at No. 2 by Billboard – “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the Beatles was first.
But it came as a shock to the producers of the television show that the Monkees believed they were talented enough to replace the session musicians that had been used in the first two albums, and soon there was dissension on the set, with music producer Don Kirshner eventually fired from the show.
In part, this might explain the demise of the Monkees, but really they were never meant to last very long. The show, which appealed mostly to children – I was a big fan at 8 years of age, when the program debuted – featured one frothy new Monkee song in every episode, which almost guaranteed uneven quality, and the actors portraying the Monkees took their roles as musicians far more seriously than the producers ever intended.
The history of the Monkees after 1968 is complicated, with some reunions and some successes, but it only was after the death of Jones that boomers really began to develop some nostalgia for the show, and for the band that had entertained them in their teeny-bopper years.
Jones, who had trained as a jockey before turning to acting in London, raised thoroughbreds and became involved in amateur racing after the show ended. At the time of his fatal heart attack in 2012, Jones had just finished exercising one of his horses at his ranch in Florida.
Dolenz, who co-wrote the final episode of “The Monkees,” returned to acting, mostly doing voice-overs for children’s programs, and formed the mildly successful band Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart in the mid-1970s.
Tork, who had been part of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village before “The Monkees” – his friend Stephen Stills recommended him to producers Schneider and Rafelson after being turned down for a role on the show – went back to being a struggling musician in 1968, and by the 1970s was broke and living in David Crosby’s basement.
Eventually he became a public school teacher in Santa Monica. Though the show never made any of the actors rich, in 1979 Nesmith, the only child of a single mother, inherited a fortune from his mom, who invented the typing correction fluid Liquid Paper. In 1981, Nesmith created an hourlong music video called “Elephant Parts,” which won the first Grammy for Video of the Year and spawned MTV.
But it is the people who first imagined and later developed the Monkees who led the most interesting post-Monkees lives. My next column will be about them – the real talent behind the fabrication.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.