Monday, 12 September 2016
The 50th Anniversary of The Monkees
The Monkees was the creation of Bob Rafelson, the cousin of legendary playwright and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, who would go onto direct such films as Five Easy Pieces (1970), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), and Mountains of the Moon (1990). As a young man in 1953 Bob Rafelson played with three other young, rambunctious folk musicians throughout Mexico. It later occurred to Mr. Rafelson that this would make for a good TV show. He even pitched the idea to the television studio Revue in 1962, who turned it down.
It was two years later in May 1964 that Bob Rafelson formed Raybert Productions with Bert Schneider, the son of Abe Schneider, president of Columbia Pictures and its television division Screen Gems. It was the success of The Beatles' movie A Hard Day's Night (1964) that inspired the two men to revive Bob Rafelson's idea for a show about a wild and woolly band. Initially Messrs. Rafelson and Schneider thought of developing the show around an existing rock group. To this end, they turned to The Lovin' Spoonful. Unfortunately, it became obvious during auditions that this would not work out. Among other things, the fact that The Lovin' Spoonful was already signed to Elektra Records and already had signed a publishing deal for their songs would have precluded Screen Gems and Columbia's record label Colgems from marketing The Lovin' Spoonful's music.
Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider then decided to more or less create their own band for the show. Actor and singer Davy Jones was not only already signed to Screen Gems, but also to Columbia's Colpix Records label. In fact, Colpix released Davy's first single ("What Are We Going to Do?") in August 1965 and the album David Jones not long afterwards. It was probably no surprise, then, when the July 14 1965 issue of The Hollywood Reporter reported that Davy Jones was returning from England to the United States "..."to prepare for a TV pilot for Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson."
The Monkees auditions were hardly typical of auditions for a TV show. Applicants might arrive to find Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider sitting on the floor and playing with blocks. In other cases, Messrs. Rafelson and Schneider might even throw things at applicants as they arrived. The two men then observed how the applicants reacted and from that determined whether they had the "insanity" necessary for the series. In the end the three lucky young men finally selected for roles in the series all came from musical backgrounds and one had extensive acting experience prior to The Monkees. The son of character actor George Dolenz, Micky Dolenz had starred in the 1956 TV series Circus Boy under the name "Micky Braddock." Afterwards he made guest appearances on shows ranging from Playhouse 90 to Mr Novak. Though he had been a child actor, Micky had some musical experience prior to joining The Monkees. He knew how to play guitar and had been playing with a group called, ironically, The Missing Links, when he heard about the auditions for The Monkees.
Of the four Monkees, the one who had the most experience in the music industry was Michael Nesmith. Mike was the son of Bette Nesmith, the woman who invented Liquid Paper. Eventually she would leave him the tidy sum of $25 million. Already an established musician, Mike had released two albums under the name "Mike Blessing." In fact, Mike Nesmith's pre-Monkee solo career would provide Linda Ronstadt and her group The Stone Ponies with their first hit. In 1968, while Mike was still a Monkee, The Stone Ponies recorded a remake of Nesmith's "A Different Drum" which achieved top ten status.
The last Monkee hired, Peter Tork, also had an extensive musical background. Peter came from a family who of highly trained musicans. He could play several different instruments, including the guitar, bass, banjo, and ukulele. In the early Sixties he had been a member of a folk group called The Phoenix Singers. He had been recommended by Stephen Stills, who did not have good enough hair or teeth for the show. Given the fact that both Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork were both already experienced musicians prior to The Monkees, while Micky Dolenz had some music experience, it is safe to say the idea that The Monkees did not know how to play their instruments is totally and utterly false.
Since two of The Monkees (Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork) had no acting experience whatsoever, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider hired actor James Frawley to both teach acting and direct the pilot. The Monkees were then put through an intensive, six week course in improvisation. At the same time they rehearsed extensively playing their instruments.
As to James Frawley, who would go onto direct many episodes of The Monkees, he was an actor who had guest starred on such shows as Gunsmoke, The Outer Limits, and The Bill Dana Show. The pilot, "Here Come The Monkees", would mark his directorial debut. The songwriting team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart were brought in to write the theme song for The Monkees, as well as other songs for the pilot. There was no time to get The Monkees into the recording studio prior to the shooting the pilot. so that it was Boyce and Hart's voices that are heard on the songs in the very original version of "Here Come The Monkees".
Unfortunately, the completed pilot scored badly with test audiences. The pilot was then re-edited so that the screen tests for Davy Jones and Mike Nesmith were added to the episode. Two days later it scored well enough for NBC to pick The Monkees up for the '66-'67 season. Unfortunately the poor initial scores for The Monkees pilot would not be the last of the fledgeling show's problems. In late June 1966, NBC held a gathering at Chasen's Restaurant in Hollywood to sell its new fall season to its affiliates. Both NBC and Screen Gems expected The Monkees to make an appearance before the affiliates. Producer Bert Schneider opposed this for the simple reason that most television affiliates tended to be conservative in outlook and would not appreciate a TV series about a long haired rock group. As it turned out, Mr. Schneider's fears were well justified.
Among the preparations for the show Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider also hired Dean Jeffries to design the series' largest and possibly most popular prop. The Monkeemobile was a low slung hot rod designed for the boys to drive in the series. In keeping with the series' quirkiness, it was never explained how four down and out rock performers could afford what was obviously a very expensive car.
From the very beginning it was understood that music would play a major role on the series. Songs were specifically composed for the show and worked into episodes in a number of ways. The Monkees might perform a song in a club or at a dance. The songs might be used in a chase scene (in which The Monkees went every which way--up, down, forwards, backwards, and upside down). The Monkees were nearly always running from someone. More often than not, the songs might be used in musical vignettes, called "romps", that might have very little to do with the episodes themselves. Romps on The Monkees were essentially the equivalent of the promotional films The Beatles and other British bands were making at the time or the music videos of the Seventies and Eighties.
Because The Monkees was also a means of promoting records made by the rock group The Monkees, the songs featured in particular episodes were sometimes changed in order to promote whatever album or single was out at the moment. For instance, when the debut episode, "Royal Flush," aired on September 12 1966, it featured "This Just Doesn't Seem to Be My Day" and "Take a Giant Step (both songs from The Monkees' first album)." When NBC reran "Royal Flush" on May 8 1967, the episode's soundtrack was redubbed with the songs "You Told Me" and "The Girl I Knew Somewhere." This practice was resurrected when The Monkees was rerun on CBS Saturday mornings, with songs from The Monkees' latest albums sometimes replacing earlier songs on the soundtracks of a few episodes. As a result the soundtracks of episodes that later appeared in syndication and on video did not always represent the episodes as they first appeared on the series' original run on NBC.
Don Kirshner, then head of Columbia Pictures' music division. Don Kirshner would prove to a bit of double edged sword with regards to The Monkees. On the one hand, he had access to some of the most successful songwriters in the industry, including Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield. He also had a number of connections within the industry with music producers and musicians themselves. On the other hand, he demanded nearly total control of The Monkees' music. He would not allow The Monkees to play on their own recordings, and allow them very little choice in the songs they would perform. In fact, he kept their own compositions on their albums to a bare minimum. He also came into conflict with Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, the two men who initially shaped The Monkees' sound.
The Monkees actually made their debut as recording artists before the TV show premiered. Their first single, "Last Train to Clarksville"/"Take a Giant Step" was released on August 16 1966, about three weeks before The Monkees debuted. It reached no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on November 5 1966. Their self-titled debut album was released on October 10 1966. It became the first of four consecutive albums by The Monkees to reach no. 1 on the Billboard albums chart.
The Monkees would have another hit single later in the year with "I'm a Believer", written by an upcoming songwriter named Neil Diamond. While The Monkees were proving successful as recording artists, however, the situation with Don Kirshner would come to a head in early 1967 while the show was still in its first season. The Monkees were very unhappy with being unable to play on their own records and having no choice in the songs they recorded, particularly professional musicians Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork. The final straw occurred when Don Kirshner assembled and released a second album, More of The Monkees, with neither their consent nor their knowledge. Mike Nesmith called his own press conference. While only Time and Look attended the conference, it would ultimately make headlines across the country. At the conference Mike Nesmith complained, "We're being passed off as something we're not. We all play instruments but we haven't on any of our records. Furthermore, our company doesn't want us to and won't let us."
Mike's press conference was followed by a showdown in late January at Don Kirshner's suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where they were to accept their gold records and royalty cheques. After the press had left, Kirshner presented The Monkees with acetates of four songs to which they would only have to add their voices. Mike Nesmith, who had already had enough, informed Kirshner that he was tired of having his name attached to work that others had done and threatened to quit The Monkees. When Colgems attorney Herb Moelis told Michael Nesmith that he had better read his contract, a very angry Mike rammed his fist into the hotel's room wall and then said, "That could have been your face....!" He then stormed out of the room.
Faced with the prospect of losing Mike Nesmith, Bert Schneider chose to give The Monkees more control over their music. The Monkees would finally be allowed to play their own instruments on their records. While Don Kirshner would still choose the A-side of their singles, the B-side of their singles would have to be a song of The Monkees' choice that they had recorded themselves. Unfortunately Don Kirshner chose to violate this agreement. Kirshner released a single with "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You" as the A-side and "She Hangs Out" as the B-side without The Monkees' permission. When The Monkees, Raybert Productions, and, worse yet, Columbia Pictures found out what Don Kirshner had done, they not only withdrew the single from circulation, but they fired Kirshner. At last The Monkees would have total control over their music.
While The Monkees did not become a ratings smash, it did become a veritable phenomenon with the nation's youth. NBC received 500,000 letters a week addressed to The Monkees. Monkees merchandise may have only been surpassed by Batman and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. goods in sheer number. Games based on the series included The Monkees Game (Transogram, 1967) and The Monkees card game (Ed-U-Cards, 1967). Personal accoutrements included Monkees Shades (sunglasses) and a Monkees charm bracelet featuring images of the Pre-Fab Four. There was also a novelty book (The Monkees Go Mod) and a model of the Monkeemobile issued by Airfix in 1967. When CBS reran the series in the early Seventies, Monkees merchandise could once more be found on store shelves.
The second season of The Monkees saw some changes to the show. Perhaps the most noticeable change to the show was a change in the closing theme of the series. While the show still opened with "(Theme From) The Monkees", the closing theme was "For Pete's Sake", from The Monkees' third album (and the first on which they played their own instruments) Headquarters. The show became even more frantic in its approach to comedy, and episodes became even more subversive in their outlook, with carefully veiled drug references and references to the counterculture. The influence of psychedelia was felt not only in the music, but in the show itself as episodes grew ever more surrealistic as the season progressed. The Monkees began wearing fashions more befitting the Summer of Love, and Micky Dolenz had longer, wilder hair. The last episode of The Monkees' first season, "The Monkees on Tour", eschewed a laugh track. Starting with the second season episode "Hitting the High Seas" on November 27 1967, most episodes of The Monkees did not have a laugh track. And while The Monkees had more control over their music, they also became more involved with the TV series. Peter Tork directed "The Monkees Mind Their Manor" under his given name of Peter H. Thorkelson. Micky Dolenz both wrote and directed the episode "Mijacogeo (aka "The Frodis Affair")."
While The Monkees had been cancelled, the band would not lack for projects after the show's end. The band and NBC came to an agreement to make three variety specials for the 1968-1969 season. There would also be The Monkees' one and only feature film. The movie Head (1968) emerged from a brainstorming session between The Monkees, Bob Rafelson, and Jack Nicholson on a weekend spent at an Ojai, California resort. Jack Nicholson then distilled their ideas into a screenplay. Unfortunately there would be some hard feelings between The Monkees and Bob Rafelson when The Monkees realised they would not be given a screenwriting credit for the film. Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Mike Nesmith staged a walkout in protest. The walkout ended after one day when they were promised a greater percentage of the profits.
Unfortunately Head would not initially be a success. A preview screening in Los Angeles in August 1968 proved disastrous enough that the film was edited down from its original 118 minutes to 86 minutes. The film's promotional campaign perhaps made matters worse. Advertisements made no reference to The Monkees (who were largely considered personae non gratae by the counterculture). Instead the ads simply featured a balding man's face with the title Head. Head premiered in New York City on November 6 1968 and went into wide release on November 20 1968. Ultimately it only made about $16,000 at the box office, far short of its admittedly meagre $790,000 budget. Fortunately, over the years it has become a cult classic. It made its television debut on The CBS Late Movie on December 30 1974 and was latter shown on many other television outlets.
The Monkees' first and only special for NBC would prove no more successful than Head. 33⅓ Revolutions per Monkee had a convoluted plot in which musical guest stars Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger seemed to take a greater role than The Monkees themselves. Matters were made worse upon its debut on April 14 1969 when an engineer at NBC aired the special out of sequence. Aired opposite the top rated Gunsmoke and Here's Lucy on CBS in the Eastern and Central time zones and against the Academy Awards telecast on ABC on the West Coast, 33⅓ Revolutions per Monkee did very poorly in the Nielsen ratings. Ultimately NBC decided to cancel the two remaining Monkees specials they had planned for the season. 33⅓ Revolutions per Monkee would mark the final time in the Sixties that Peter Tork would appear with the other Monkees. He left the group not long afterwards, citing exhaustion.
Following the demise of the TV series, The Monkees continued to make occasional appearances on television. On February 5 1969 they appeared on The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour, miming to "Tear Drop City". On February 10 1969, Davy Jones was a guest performer on Laugh In. On March 22 1969 the group appeared on Happening (formerly titled Happening '68), a show airing on ABC on Saturday afternoons devoted to rock music. On July 16 1969 The Monkees were guests on The Johnny Cash Show, where they performed "Nine Times Blue," as well as the novelty song "Everybody Loves a Nut" with the Man in Black himself. On October 6 1969 The Monkees appeared on Laugh In as guest performers (dressed as the Spirit of '76). The Monkees also made several commercials during the period. They appeared in a commercial for Kellogg's Frosted Flakes in September of 1969 and in various Kool Aid commercials that same year.
Of course, as history shows, this was hardly the end of The Monkees. In September 1969 CBS added reruns of The Monkees to their Saturday morning line up. As a result, The Monkees was introduced to yet another generation. Just as had been done before, the songs from the soundtracks of a few episodes were replaced to showcase music from The Monkees' latest releases. For instance, when "Mijacogeo" aired on NBC on March 25 1968, it featured the song "Zor and Zam" from The Birds, The Bees, and The Monkees. When it was reran on CBS on November 8 1969, however, the soundtrack had been redubbed to use the song "I Never Thought It Peculiar" from the album Changes. The Monkees remained on CBS Saturday mornings until 1972, whereupon it moved to ABC Saturday mornings for one more season. Oddly enough, it would be two years before The Monkees would be released to syndication in 1975, where it introduced the Pre-Fab Four to yet another generation.
The success of The Monkees on CBS and later ABC on Saturday morning led to the formation of the band Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart. The group consisted of Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Tommy Boyce, and Bobby Hart. From July 1975, to early 1977 they toured the United States, Japan, and Thailand playing a mixture of old Monkees songs and some new material. They released a self-titled album in 1976. In 1977 they appeared in a syndicated television special, The Great Golden Hits of the Monkees Show.
There was even an attempt to launch a new Monkees series. The New Monkees debuted in September 1987 as a syndicated sitcom. It featured Larry Saltis, Dino Kovas, Jared Chandler, and Marty Ross as The New Monkees. The series was set in a huge Gothic mansion, serviced by Manfred the Butler (Gordon Oas-Heim). Every room of the mansion featured video screens that showed a pair of bodiless lips named Helen (Lynne Godfrey), who offered caustic remarks on the proceedings. A diner was attached to the mansion, where Rita the Waitress (Bess Motha) worked. Many episodes took place entirely in the mansion. The New Monkees failed miserably, lasting only thirteen episodes. Apparently the public only wanted to see Mike, Micky, Davy, and Peter.
On June 28, 2000, VH-1 aired a TV movie about both the show and the group entitled Daydream Believers: The Monkees Story. Like many such films, Daydream Believers sometimes played fast and loose with the facts. For example, in the movie The Monkees was portrayed as being created by one man--the fictional character called Van Foreman--rather than resulting from a collaboration between Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. The film received decidedly mixed reviews from most Monkees fans.
Following the phenomenal success of repeats of The Monkees on MTV in the Eighties, The Monkees began recording again. They released their first album of entirely new material since Changes, Pool It!, in 1987. In 1996 they released another new album, Justus. The Monkees (at least Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork) even toured from time to time. In the wake of their renewed popularity in 1986, they once more toured and made more money than they had in the Sixties. They reunited for tours again in the Nineties and the Naughts. They toured once more in 2010 and 2011.
Sadly, time would take its toll on those who took part in the multimedia phenomenon that was The Monkees. Tommy Boyce, who with Bobby Hart wrote many of The Monkees' hits, committed suicide on November 23 1994. On December 12 2011 television producer Bert Schneider died at age 78. On February 29 2012 Davy Jones died of a massive heart attack. He was only 66. As a testament to The Monkees' continuing popularity, there was an outpouring of grief on social media following his death. According to NME, the plays of Monkees songs increased 3000% following Davy's death.
When it debuted The Monkees was truly a revolutionary show. Prior to The Monkees it was rare for TV shows to centre on young people. Dobie Gillis (to which The Monkees owes a good deal) centred on teenagers, but there were Dobie's parents and teachers in the regular cast. The Monkees featured no one over thirty in the regular cast (although The Monkees' landlord, Henry Babbit played by Henry Corden, would make rare appearances). What is more, The Monkees was as sympathetic a portrayal of the counterculture as would be seen on American television in 1966. While the Vietnam War was never acknowledged in episodes of the show and drugs were only referenced in carefully veiled jokes (perhaps not so veiled in the episode "Mijacogeo"...), The Monkees were ultimately four long haired young men doing their own thing with no older person there to tell them what to do. In the second season representatives of the counterculture appeared on the show in the form of Frank Zappa and folk singer Tim Buckley. Beyond the TV series The Monkees would do their fair share of protest songs. Their very first hit, "Last Train to Clarksville", is about a young man who was drafted. "Pleasant Valley Sunday" was a protest against American suburbia. "Daily Nightly" addressed the Sunset Strip riots. "Zor and Zam" was an anti-war song.
Beyond centring on young people, The Monkees was revolutionary in other ways. For one thing, it was exceedingly fast paced. The average sitcom at the time generally had only about 15 scenes per episode. The Monkees had many more, with around 60 scenes per episode. What is more, it was not unusual for any given Monkee to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. At times it was even clear that The Monkees knew they were on a TV series. In "The Spy Who Came in from the Cool" Davy accidentally summons a genie from a lamp, similar to Jeannie on I Dream of Jeannie, to which he remarks, "Huh, imagine that.. Wrong show." The Monkees also relied on a number of surreal effects for humour. It was not unusual for captions to appear on the screen. In the "Spy Who Came in From the Cool", Communist spies Madam Olinsky (Arlene Martel) and Boris (Jacques Aubuchon) try disguising themselves as teenagers, prompting the caption "They've got to be kidding." The Monkees frequently featured fantasy sequences as well, such as a Batman parody featuring Frogman (Peter Tork) and Roobin the Tadpole (Davy Jones) in the episode "Captain Crocodile". The show also made use of a number of effects, including fast motion, slow motion, sight gags (such as the twinkle in Davy's eyes when he fell in love), solarisation, and yet others that had never been used on a TV sitcom before.
Of course, the biggest impact of The Monkees may have been on what would later become known as music videos. While many artists had made promotional films prior to The Monkees (including The Big Bopper, Ricky Nelson, and The Beatles), The Monkees marked the widest exposure the art form ever had at the time. While many of the romps on The Monkees were little more than performance clips, others were full blown vignettes resembling the rock videos of the Seventies and Eighties. An example of this was the romp for "Last Train to Clarksville" from the episode "The Monkees at the Movies", which played out as a parody of Victorian melodramas and Westerns, complete with Micky Dolenz as a caped, moustachioed villain.
While music critics and the music press have often derided The Monkees over the years, it must be pointed out that many members of the music establishment have actually liked The Monkees over the years. John Lennon counted The Monkees as one of his favourite TV shows and even considered the four young men to be modern day Marx Brothers. In 1967 Paul McCartney said, "I'm sure that The Monkees are going to live up to a lot of things many people didn't expect." The Monkees would find many fans in the punk movement, including The Sex Pistols, The Dickies, and Minor Threat. Certainly The Monkees' songs have proven to have lasting power, and not simply those chosen by Don Kirshner. Songs written by band members themselves, including Mike Nemsith's "Sweet Young Thing" and Micky Dolenz's "Randy Scouse Git" are still played to this day. While The Monkees have been derided and mocked over the years, there can be no denying their success.
After fifty years there appears to be no end in sight for The Monkees. Currently the series is aired on Antenna TV, FamilyNet, and IFC. The series is available on both DVD and Blu-Ray. As of yet The Monkees is not available on streaming (aside from episodes illegally uploaded to YouTube...), but one has to suspect it will be one day. On the fiftieth anniversary of the debut of The Monkees, both the show and the group are as popular as ever. One has to suspect that fifty years from now people will still be watching The Monkees and listening The Monkees' music.