A pair of TV producers created them, then broke them, but they could never cage the Monkees.
Inspired by the Beatles’ film “A Hard Day’s Night,” the Monkees’ NBC sitcom debuted 30 years ago on Sept. 12, 1966. They were the ultimate prefabricated image (long before the Archies and the Partridge Family), each member chosen for his personality, comedic ability and passable musical talent.
The music, at least in the NBC brass’ eyes, seemed to be secondary. Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork sang on the slickly produced songs that accompanied each episode and subsequent albums, but they didn’t play their own instruments. Session players did it for them. And the songs were penned by high-powered writers, among them Neil Diamond, Carole King, John Stewart and Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart.
Music supervisor Don Kirshner got what he wanted: The Monkees scored four straight No. 1 albums, three No. 1 singles, an Emmy Award for best comedy series and endless merchandising.
His dream faded when the Monkees developed minds of their own, wanting to take their show on the road and prove to audiences that they weren’t trained primates. For good measure, they even brought along Jimi Hendrix to open a few shows for them in 1968 (He got booed most of the time, but what did they know?). By August that year, “The Monkees” was off the air.
It’s funny how little things have changed in 30 years: The Monkees were dismissed then and are dismissed now, even with the release last week of “Justus” (Rhino), the first album written, performed and produced by all four members.
Skeptics aside, Jones says they’re together again for two simple reasons: They truly like each other, and they finally have the time simultaneously to devote themselves to a variety of Monkees projects (such as a Disney Channel retrospective airing this month, a CD-ROM, a book, a movie next year and a tour).
“The Monkees is a very safe place for the four of us,” Jones said recently. “We know each other so well … better the devil you know than the one you don’t.
“We feel very comfortable with each other. We have no bones about struggling through a guitar part or drum part. We help each other, and that’s what friendship is all about. That’s what we have, a long, ongoing, till-death-do-us-part friendship.
“No matter what the media says, Mike Nesmith didn’t want to tour for all those years, not because he hated the Monkees – he doesn’t hate the Monkees – he just didn’t have the time. I had the time, Micky had the time, Peter occasionally had the time. Mike Nesmith’s career started with the Monkees. We all got our start with the Monkees. It’s not all wake up, live and breathe Monkee songs, but it’s a major part of our lives.”
It’s so major that the Monkees open “Justus” with a raucous remake of “Circle Sky,” an unconventional Monkees track off “Head,” the soundtrack to their bizarre 1968 movie of the same name (co-produced by Jack Nicholson). The refrain of “Looks like we’ve made it once again” sounds like a Monkees mantra.
“Every time we ever get together, which is not obviously public knowledge for the most part,” Jones said, “the first thing we play is ‘Circle Sky,’ the four of us with guitars. It gives us a laugh, because it’s like being back together 30 years ago.
“Throughout the album, there’s a lot of personal lyrics, statements, whether it be ‘Never Enough’ or ‘It’s My Life.’ This doesn’t have to be a best-seller. It’s just the joy in doing it. That’s the way we feel about it. Hopefully, people will have fun with the album when they listen to it. We’re not trying to say, ‘Look at what we can do,’ because we could always do it. It was just a case of having the opportunities to do it.”
Those opportunities opened up once Nesmith closed down his production company.
“After 30 years of knowing each other,” Jones said, “we’ve all gone through the marriages and the divorces and the ups and downs of life. We all picked the kids up from school, changed diapers and all that. Now we have more in common than we had before. We’ve all soiled our hands with life, you know.
“Familiarity doesn’t always have to breed contempt. Now, humility breeds contempt, so we’re not going to humble ourselves anymore and just wait outside the studio until the tracks are put down, because we can do it ourselves. It only took us a couple of weeks to do it. It might not be the best drumming in the world or the best lead guitar, but it is us. Just us. It’s our life and we’re taking over now. That’s what we’re basically saying with this album.”
In their hey-heydays, the Monkees recorded some exceptional pop songs and clearly influenced a generation of future rockers, among them R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. He has said the Monkees meant more to him than the Beatles.
Why then have the Monkees not been considered for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Call it “rockism,” the practice of rock discrimination.
“The Monkees were not known for musicianship,” Jones said. “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is supposedly zeroing in on musicians. However, there have been singers who have gone into the Hall of Fame because of their record sales or acceptance.
“I think the Monkees influenced not only R.E.M. He (Stipe) says he wouldn’t let them be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the future till the Monkees do. It would like to be in the Hall of Fame one day, yes, but that obviously is a thing that has to be decided by whomever.
“I don’t think we would be unworthy of it.”
BWF (before we forget): The Monkees album discography – “The Monkees” (Colgems, 1966); “More of the Monkees” (1967); “Headquarters” (1967); “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.” (1967); “The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees” (1968); “Head” soundtrack (1968); “Instant Replay” (1969); “The Monkees Greatest Hits” (1969); “The Monkees Present” (1969); “The Monkees Greatest Hits” (Arista, 1976); “Then & Now … The Best of the Monkees” (1986); “Pool It!” (Rhino, 1987); “Listen to the Band” box set (1991); “Justus” (1996). … Romp with the Monkees on the Web @ www.rhino.com.
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