In February 1968 NBC cancelled The Monkees. The series, well into its second season, had never done particularly well in the ratings, even though the band themselves had seen incredible musical success. Well aware of The Monkees' continued popularity, NBC then struck a deal with the group to do three television specials to air in 1969. In the end, only one such special would air, the legendary (or perhaps "notorious" would be a better word) 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee.
33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee was the first Monkees television project produced without creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. In fact, beyond The Monkees themselves, only executive producer Ward Sylvester remained on the special from the show's production staff. The special's creator and producer was Jack Good, the man who produced the British pop show Oh, Boy! and the American pop show Shindig. It was directed by Art Fisher, who would go onto direct The Andy Williams Show and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. Together they concocted a bizarre script in which a mad wizard (played by Brian Auger of The Trinity) seeks to brainwash The Monkees into becoming the greatest rock band of all time, who will in turn brainwash the world. The special featured Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll (who would go onto sing the theme song to Absolutely Fabulous) and their group The Trinity promiently and included appearances by some of rock music's greats--Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and so on.
From the beginning 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee appears to have been doomed. A musicians' strike at NBC occurred just as the special was going into production. As a result they had to abandon complex sets built for the special and move the production to MGM studios. There many aspects of the special had to be improvised. This would perhaps would not have been so bad if the script for 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee had been better. The Monkees themselves were none too happy with Jack Good and Art Fisher's work. They considered the script to be both "sloppy" and "fairy tale like." Davy Jones himself complained that it focused too much on the special's guest stars and not enough on The Monkees themselves.
Indeed, this is one of the greatest weaknesses of 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. Individually, Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll receive more dialouge and possibly even more screen time than the group themselves. In fact, the special seems to me more like it starred The Trinity with special guests The Monkees. In my humble opinion, the concept behind 33 1/3 Revolutons Per Monkee is sound. Like their movie Head, it seeks to desconstruct The Monkees phenomenon, while at the same time making a commentary on the manipulation of both artists and audience by the media. Unfortunately, I feel that The Monkees were right. The script for 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee was sloppy. I must admit that beyond the basic concept for the special, I had trouble understanding what was taking place at any given time. Why does Darwin (also played by Brian Auger) appear and why does he take The Monkees though various stages of evolution? Why is there a guy in a gorilla suit sitting in a forklift and wearing head phones? I sometimes get the feeling that Good and Fisher were at times being strange for the sake of being strange.
Because of the, well, sloppiness of the script, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee is very uneven in quality. As might be expected, the musical performances are good for the most part. A highlight is a medley (typical of those Good had used in both Oh, Boy! and Shindig) of Fifties rock 'n' roll featuring The Monkees and various legendary performers, as well as the climax featuring Michael Nesmith's "Listen to the Band." Peter Tork gives a solid performance of Michael Murphy's "I Prithee (Do Not Ask for Love)," which The Monkees had previously recorded in 1966 with Micky on lead vocals (although that version wouldn't be released until the Nineties), while Nesmith's "Naked Persimmon" is simply a great song. If 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee had been filled back to back with such performances, it might well have overcome the weakness of its script. Sadly, this was not the case. The Monkees' performances of "Wind Up Man" and Neil Sedaka's "I Go Ape" both leave me cold. Even worse is a long, psychedelic, interpretative dance sequence that I can only describe as, well, boring.
It seems that The Monkees were not the only ones who had misgivings about 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. NBC executives thought that the special was much too strange and much too subversive. They elected to to place it against the Academy Awards on April 14, 1969. I can only assume that they did so in hopes that no one would see it. Indeed, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee would not see the light of day in the United States again until Rhino released it on VHS in 1997. Sadly, after seeing the special, NBC decided to do no more Monkees specials.
33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee can then be seen as a turning point in The Monkees' career. It marked the end of any chance The Monkees had for regular appearances on television, their TV show having been cancelled and NBC vetoing any more specials. Peter Tork having announced he was leaving the band shortly before the special aired, this would also be the last time during The Monkees' initial run that the four original members would perform together. "Listen to the Band" would be the last song they would perform as a quartet for 16 years.
Unless one is an extremely huge fan of The Monkees (as I am), I cannot recommend 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. Fortunately, it is available on The Monkees Season Two DVD set, so that one can see the special for himself or herself while at the same time getting something that is actually worth the money (namely, the second season of The Monkees). While I love many of the musical performances on the special, I can't say I really like the special itself.