Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Monkees Turn 40

Tonight it will have been forty years ago since The Monkees debuted. The Monkees could be described as a sitcom about a struggling rock group (Mike Nesmith, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones) who had all sorts of wild adventures. Unfortunately, that description hardly does the show justice. It was a show as had never been seen on television before, a blend of The Beatles movies (A Hard Day's Night and Help!), the Marx Brothers, and French New Wave cinema, among other things. Each episode generally saw The Monkees in a stock plot from old movies, where they might face gangsters, spies, monsters, or even pirates. That having been said, nearly every episode was filled with sight gags, non sequiturs, one liners, comic inserts, and various surreal film techniques (solarisation, slow motion, fast motion, distorted focus, so on and so forth).

Music was naturally central to the show, with the songs being worked into the episodes in what was known as romps. The Monkees romps took a variety of forms. Sometimes a romp could simply be a perfomance clip performed outside the context of the episode. Other times The Monkees might perform a song in a club or a dance. Often the romps formed an intergral part of an episode, often playing while The Monkees were either running from or fighting bad guys. Yet other romps were more or less what would later be known as music videos pertinent to the theme of the episode (for instance, an episode in which Davy falls in love--which sometimes seemed like every other episode--might feature a romp with clips of Davy spending time with his current ladylove). Not only did The Monkees perform songs on their TV show, but they also had a recording career and also did extensive touring.

It is a bitter irony that while The Monkees gained the respect of the television community (in its first season it won Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy, and were nominated for more), but saw little success in their initial run on NBC. In fact, the series had an uphill battle from the beginning. The Monkees met with a certain amount of controversy upon their debut, and some NBC affiliates in more conservative parts of the country simply refused to air a show about a "long haired" rock band. And while the show debuted to some very good notices, it was hardly a winner in the ratings. It its first season it averaged only a 31.4 share in the Nielsen ratings. In its second season it did even worse. It averaged only a 27.2 share. While The Monkees was immensely popular with the younger set, it did not attract a majority of the audience in its first run on NBC.

The Monkees' musical career was nearly the opposite of the show's early history on television. While The Monkees were extremly successful on the recording charts, they were regularly attacked by music critics as being a manufactured group. In the Sixties The Monkees would ultimately have 12 top forty singles--seven of them top ten and three of them hit number one on the Billboard charts. Their albums sold well, too. The Monkees' first four albums all hit #1 on the Billboard album chart. Their fifth peaked at #3 on the chart.

But while the record buying public apparently loved The Monkees, the critics loathed them as being four men hired to play a rock group on a sitcom. This situation was made all the more worse because of one man--Don Kirschner, the show's music supervisor. Kirshner decided from the beginning that The Monkees would not be allowed to play on their own records, regardless of the fact that both Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork had extensive music experience. Rumours that The Monkees did not play on their own songs sprang almost immediately, and eventually the situation would result in a confrontation between The Monkees and Kirschner. The ultimate results of this were that The Monkees would be allowed to play on their songs and produce their own music, and Don Kirschner got fired. Many critics have over the years thrown up the fact that The Monkees did not play on their early albums as an indictment of them, even though this was often standard policy in the early Sixties and such bands as The Beach Boys and The Byrds did not play the instruments on many of their early songs either. Some have gone so far as to refer to The Monkees as "bubblegum," even though the vast majority of their songs sound nothing like bubblegum. Indeed, in creating the sound of The Monkees, songwriters Boyce and Hart drew upon the guitar driven bands of the British invasion (such as The Kinks), blending it with a more American sound. A listen to The Monkees' early albums show that they were more on par with the British Invasion bands the bubblegum groups of the late Sixties and early Seventies.

With regards to the lasting popularity of The Monkees (both the show and the band), it would seem that the telvision community was right and the rock community was wrong. Even though The Monkees was never a winner in the Nielsens, it did become a phenomenon. In the Sixties, Monkees merchandise was outpaced only by merchandise for the shows Batman and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. There were books, games, sunglasses, charm bracelets, a model of the Monkeemobile, and, of course, a lunchbox (prerequisite for any show in the Sixties), among a myriad other items.

Indeed, while The Monkees would leave NBC in 1968 due to low ratings, it would continue to be a favourite rerun in the United States and elsewhere. In fact, every so many years it seems that there is a revival in which yet another generation of Monkees fans are created. The first of these occurred in 1969, when reruns of The Monkees joined the CBS Saturday afternoon lineup. In all, reruns of the show would run on Saturday afternoons(first on CBS and then on ABC) for four years. Another generation of Monkees fans would be created when the show entered syndication in 1975. Still more Monkees fans would emerge when MTV reran the series in 1986. It seems that whenever The Monkees is aired, more people rediscover the show and its music.

I sometimes think that the legacy of The Monkees is often underestimated. With regards to television, it was one of the first shows to feature four young men who were not supervised by some older adult. The Monkees then broke with such sitcoms as Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show. It also stretched the bounds of what was allowed in a sitcom format. Nevermind the musical segments, The Monkees moved faster than even Laugh In would after it, with sight gags, one liners, and so on coming so quickly that it was hard to catch them all. The show utilised such techniques as distorted focus, solarisation, comic inserts, fast motion, and slow motion that had never been used on any TV show before, let alone a sitcom.

Of course, the show's greatest legacy may be to the field of music video. The romps featured on The Monkees were essentially early music videos. In fact, many of them can be enjoyed even when taken out of the context of an episode. An excellent example of this is a romp featuring "The Last Train to Clarksville" from "The Monkees at the Movies." It is a takeoff on 1920 serials, complete with Davy as the hero, Mickey as the moustachioed villain, and Peter as the victim he ties to the railroad tracks. Not only did The Monkees possibly have a lasting influence on later rock videos, but one Monkee in particular is partly responsible for MTV. Mike Nesmith was an early pioneer of rock video, including the video album Elephant Parts. In 1980 he produced a rock video show called Popclips for Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon's parent company, Warner Cable, offered to buy the rights to the show to create their own video channel. When Nemsith turned them down, Warner cable created MTv.

As to why The Monkees has continued to be popular for the past forty years, beyond the music and the show's unusual direction, I think the answer to that may have been provided by Mike Nesmith in commentaries to episodes on The Monkees Season One boxed set. On one of the commentaries Mike Nesmith puts forth the idea that The Monkees probably appeals most to ten year old boys. After all, the plots of The Monkees episodes are largely the sorts of adventures boys enjoy--plots involving gangsters, spies, cowboys, and even pirates. If Mike Nesmith is right and The Monkees is best suited to ten year old boys, this could explain the show's lasting appeal. The Monkees appeals to the ten year old in all of its fans. I must admit that watching The Monkees to a large degree takes me back to the days when I was a child watching the show for the first time.

Regardless, I doubt that popularity of The Monkees will fade any time soon. Currently both seasons of the show are available on DVD sets from Rhino. And the series is currently running on the i network. Their albums are still widely available and their songs are still played on the radio. Forget that forty years have passed and The Monkees are no longer the young men they once were, it seems the TV show The Monkees could well be immortal.

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