Monday, September 12, 2011

The Monkees Turn 45

Today is a very significant day for me.  It was 45 years ago today, at 7:30 Eastern/6:30 Central that The Monkees debuted.  Ever since childhood The Monkees has been my favourite sitcom and my favourite American show. What is more, The Monkees remain one of my favourite bands, right up there with The Beatles and The Who. No matter how depressed I am, I can always put a Monkees episode on my DVD player or a Monkees song on my CD player and I will feel better.

For those few of you who have never heard of The Monkees, the show centred on a down and out rock group (Mike Nesmith, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones) who would have adventures that ranged from thwarting crooked dance studios to fighting gangsters to saving the world from an alien invasion. It was like no other sitcom before or since, blending elements of The Marx Brothers' movies, The Beatles movies (A Hard Day's Night and Help!), Warner Brothers cartoons, and even French cinema. While the average Monkees episode might contain a stock Hollywood plot in which the boys fought spies, gangsters, pirates, and even The Devil himself, the series itself was actually quite unique at the time. The show moved at a rapid fire pace 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 naturally played a central role in the show, and each episode featured one to three songs. The songs were worked into Monkees episodes in what were called "romps." Most often the romps were an integral part of an episode, with a song playing as The Monkees ran from or fought the bad guys. Other romps might simply consist of The Monkees playing at a dance or club within the context of the episode. Often romps would resemble the promotional films of the time or the music videos of today, pertinent to the theme of the episode (for example, 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 sweetheart). Other romps might take the form of a performance clip performed outside the context of the episode.

For myself, I cannot remember a time when The Monkees was not a part of my life. In fact, both the show and the band have been a part of my life so long that not only can I not remember when I first saw The Monkees, but I cannot remember if I heard their music or saw the show first. Either is possible. My much older sister owned The Monkees' first two albums, which would be played to death by my brother and I on our stereo. As to the show itself, while The Monkees aired from 1966 to 1968 on NBC, it would receive a new life in reruns on Saturday morning on CBS and later ABC from 1969 to 1973. Afterwards it would enter syndication and air on cable channels from MTV to TV Land.  From when I was a very young lad, I had plenty of time to watch The Monkees.

As to why I loved the show as a child, I think that in part could be summed up by Michael Nesmith's commentary on one of the episodes on the DVD sets released by Rhino years ago. Mike put forth the idea that The Monkees probably appealed most to ten year old boys. After all, most episodes of the show were of the sort that ten year old boys tend to enjoy, episodes that featured gangsters, spies, mad scientists, cowboys, and even pirates. It was the plots of these episodes, then, that probably attracted me as a lad. After all, on what other sitcom could one see four madcap boys fighting gangsters one week and alien invaders the next? And to a large degree it is this aspect of The Monkees that still appeals to me. I can sit down and watch The Monkees and suddenly I am ten years old again.

Of course, if The Monkees appealed only to ten year old boys (and the 10 year old boy inside of all men), then I don't think I'd be writing about it 45 years after its debut. In addition to 10 year old boys, I think the show has probably always appealed to young, college age men. Indeed, I remember back in the Eighties when MTV picked up the series, my friends and I identified with The Monkees. After all, here we were, young, non-conformist twentysomethings, not unlike The Monkees on the show. Granted, we never battled spies or gangsters, but we shared the same sort of camaraderie The Monkees had amongst themselves and tended to view the world as one big playground much as The Monkees did. In this respect The Monkees operated on much the same level as the British show The Young Ones, another show about young, twentysomething men.

Even then, as I am no longer a 10 year old boy or a college age young man, one would think The Monkees would lose its appeal for me. The plain fact is that it has not. Much of this is the simple fact that then, as now, The Monkees  was downright subversive. The show broke television rules at the time, not only in centring on four men in their early twenties with no adult over thirty in sight, but in its very structure. Although the show has often been accused of plagiarising A Hard Day's Night and Help!, in truth it went a good deal further than either movie in terms of surrealism. Not even Laugh In, which would debut in the latter half of The Monkees' last season, moved at the pace which The Monkees did. Jokes, one liners, and sight gags came so swiftly on the show that it is sometimes hard to keep up with them. Indeed, that the occasional drug reference slipped by, it is clear that NBC Broadcast Standards did not keep up with the show's rapid fire delivery. The show also utilised techniques that had so far only been used in the French and British New Waves and few other places: solarisation, distorted focus,  comic inserts, fast motion, slow motion, and other techniques that had never been used on television, let alone in a sitcom.

Perhaps the most subversive aspect of The Monkees, however, may have been in the fact that it centred on four college aged youths with no adult to supervise them. It was not a simple case of The Monkees wearing long hair (a fact that caused some consternation among NBC affiliates at the time), but the fact that the show featured four young men who, in the course of having fun, turned the tables on much older villains. The Monkees fought a crooked dance studio, a crooked gym, gangsters, spies, and mad scientists, most of who were older than they were. While The Monkees episodes themselves contained no overt political statements, there was a subtext in those episodes that young people could change the world. After all, if four young long haired men could defeat a scientist trying to control the world with a giant plant, what could young people in real life be capable of? Of course, in the interviews that sometimes followed episodes The Monkees themselves could get political. In these interviews The Monkees commented on The Vietnam War and the Sunset Strip Riot of 1966 (which would later inspire Mike Nesmith's song "Nightly Daily").  The idea of four young men defying authority to be themselves is one that goes beyond ten year old boys and college age men. It is an idea that appeals to anyone of any age who has ever wanted to simply express themselves.

Of course, The Monkees was a show about a band, so that music always played a role on the show. Exposed at an early age to power pop bands such as The Beatles, The Who, and Paul Revere and The Raiders, it was a given that I would love The Monkees' music as well. After all, music producers and songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart intentionally patterned The Monkees' sound after British bands such as The Who and The Kinks, but with an American twist. Having loved power pop since birth, I would naturally love the songs of The Monkees. If I love Cheap Trick, The Knack, and The Posies, then, I do not simply owe a debt to The Beatles and The Who, but to The Monkees and Boyce and Hart as well.

In the end, it would seem that The Monkees was and is the perfect show for me. It is a show that was truly funny, with a slightly subversive message that all one has to do to change the world is to be oneself. It had some great scripts, great direction, and a look that was wholly its own. The Monkees was and is a show that appealed to ten year olds and the ten year olds still within us all. The show still airs in reruns on television and DVD  collections of its two seasons are still available. I know I am not unique in my love for The Monkees. I know there are many others and suspect that there always will be.


MlleCarley said...

Fantastic post!! I have had, at one time in my life, a crush on every one of those lads. Davy was the first, obviously, and Peter was sweet... but Mickey and Mike... photo finish. I used to count the minutes until the show came on Saturday mid-mornings--sandwiched between the Twilight Zone, I Love Lucy and Gilligan's Island. It was complete zanity (<--if that's not a word, then it ought to be) and great songs written by some of popular music's very best.

Is any song as evocative of mid-60s America than "Pleasant Valley Sunday"?

They get a bad wrap, but unfairly so. They were superb at their job, and their job was to entertain, and that they did!

And anyway, they were produced by Raybert Production which went on to produce some of the most influential films in modern cinema-- Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces. The fact that The Monkees tv show was their first big invenstment speaks quite a lot, I think!!

Cheers for this post-- LOVED every blessed word of it!


p.s.: they are just as appealing to 10 year old girls, as 10 year old boys. We like to laugh... a lot. ;)

Little Gothic Horrors said...

I loved 'The Monkees', too. I first saw them on Australian television in the mid to late '70s. I also loved Boyce and Hart, especially when they appeared on episodes of 'I Dream of Jeannie' and 'Bewitched'.