This is the second in a two-part series about the Monkees, whose 50-year anniversary album was released in May.
When a fabricated band manages to out-sell both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, it stands to reason that there must be talent somewhere behind the scenes, though that talent might have more to do with business savvy than musical ability. For the Monkees, their creator Bert Schneider’s genius was in riding the line between wholesome pre-teen desire and the burgeoning counter-culture of the mid-1960s.
Schneider, the son of one-time Columbia Pictures President Abraham Schneider, was 32 years old when he dreamed up a band that could both make albums and star in a television show inspired by the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” The members of the band would not have to actually do what one might reasonably expect of a musical group –that is, play music. Schneider could employ session musicians like Louie Shelton, lead guitarist on albums for Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown. And he had Don Kirshner, a successful music producer with young talent under contract at his Aldon Music studio, including Carole King, who co-wrote “Take a Giant Step” and other tunes for the Monkees’ debut album.
Instead of musicians, Schneider needed actors who could portray musicians, and possibly sing. They needed to convey the counterculture without actually being the counterculture. They had to be the kind of boys who could take a girl to prom and bring her home sober and intact, sort of Pat Boone meets Brian Wilson types, but standing firmly on the Boone side of the line.
Later, though, Bert Schneider, along with his business partner Bob Rafelson, would fully embrace the 1960s culture he had merely flirted with in the Monkees. His shift might have begun when he and Rafelson teamed with Jack Nicholson to write and produce the film “Head,” which starred the Monkees in a notorious departure from their clean-cut television image. The film, which was accompanied by an album of the same name, was partly responsible for the Monkees’decline. It was spurned by teeny-boppers, who couldn’t relate to the psychedelic mood of the movie – it’s rumored that Nicholson wrote some scenes while under the influence of LSD – and older teens, who had never been fans of the Monkees.
From their inception it was clear that the Monkees would have a short life in the fickle world of popular music, and by 1968 pre-teen girls had moved on to the Archies, a band composed entirely of animated characters. It was as though Kirshner, who conceived the Archies, had taken the Monkees to the next logical step.
Schneider and Rafelson went on to become two of the most influential film producers of the 1970s.
Schneider had made enough money by the end of “The Monkees” in 1968 to risk more artistically ambitious projects such as “Easy Rider,” which in 1969 was ground-breaking for both its content and cheap budget ($380,000). “Easy Rider” was followed by “Five Easy Pieces” in 1970.
Schneider also became friends with Black Panther leader Huey Newton and anti-war activist Abbie Hoffman, supporting them at a time when the old Hollywood elite, to which his father had belonged, condemned Newton and Hoffman as violent radicals. In 1975, Schneider created further controversy when his anti-Vietnam War documentary “Hearts and Minds” won an Oscar and Schneider, instead of giving an acceptance speech, read a telegram in which a Viet Cong leader praised American anti-war protesters. Schneider died in 2011, leaving a catalog of classic films and a political legacy that remains important even today.
But Schneider, Rafelson, Kirshner, and session musicians were not the only people responsible for the astonishing success of the Monkees. Stu Phillips, who wrote the score for “The Monkees,” also produced Nina Simone’s 1960 blues album, “Nina in Newport.” Jack Ahern was a set decorator for many situation comedies , including “The Monkees,” but he also was set decorator for the chilling 1967 film “In Cold Blood.” Paul Mazursky, who along with Larry Tucker wrote the pilot for “The Monkees,” also wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated films “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” “Harry and Tonto” and “An Unmarried Woman.” Tucker wrote for Mort Sahl when he worked at the Hungry i in San Francisco. Writer Gerald Gardner had a fondness for offbeat humor and slapstick comedy that drove not only 22 episodes of “The Monkees” but also episodes of “Get Smart” and “That Was the Week That Was.” Del Caruso, who penned several episodes of “The Monkees,” also wrote TV specials for Jack Benny and Robin Williams, and he was a regular writer for the Smothers Brothers.
Possibly the most prolific writers for the Monkees was the songwriting duo Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who wrote and produced most of the band’s four albums. It isn’t surprising, given the effervescent sound for which the Monkees are famous, that Boyce and Hart wrote Coca-Cola jingles. But they also wrote for Fats Domino and Chubby Checker.
And so, the talent of the boys in front of the camera was not really the talent that mattered. As is so often the case in Hollywood, the stars owed their success to the people the audience never saw.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.