Here's an early perspective piece on The Monkees that was written by future Rhino Records head Harold Bronson while he was a rock journalist in the early 1970s.
"Instant Replay: Does Anyone Dare Remember The Monkees?"
Harold Bronson, Coast, September 1, 1971
Here we come,
Walkin' down the street.
We get the funniest looks
From everyone we meet.
Yes, the Monkees really did come. They came. They saw. And they conquered. They swooped down on the masses like a white tornado, and before the dust had cleared, the quartet collected 24 gold records and made millions for their promoters. Monkeemania may have never equalled Beatlemania, but somebody got awfully rich all the same.
The whole idea started when producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson (who went on to bigger and better things, including EASY RIDER) sought to bring into the American living room a Beatles/HARD DAY'S NIGHTish situation comedy. For the stars of this weekly TV show – about the adventures of a naive rock-and-roll group – Schneider and Rafelson were looking for a certain primitiveness (as opposed to polish). And with this in mind, they placed an ad for "open casting" in the Hollywood trade papers.
It is said that everyone from Rodney Bingenheimer (the honorary "Mayor of Sunset Strip") to Stephen Stills tried out to be a Monkee. Culled from the lot were Davy Jones, an ex-jockey and erstwhile Broadway stage actor (he played in OLIVER); Micky Dolenz, star of TV's CIRCUS BOY many years ago; Michael Nesmith, an up-to-that-time unsuccessful country-rooted folk-rock singer, and Peter Tork (nee Thorkelson), a Greenwich Village folkie who was rescued from a $50-a-week job washing dishes.
It was only natural that conflicts would quickly develop within the group: Jones and Dolenz, the Monkees with acting experience, were led to believe that the project was a TV series about a rock-and-roll group, while Tork and Nesmith apparently were made to believe that a rock group would exist apart from the program. Whereas Jones and Dolenz accepted the series and the musical package that they were presented with, the other two demanded some artistic control.
An initial major blow befell Nesmith when he showed up for the first Monkee recording session. "I showed up with my little guitar," recalls the Texan. "But they wouldn't let us play. They were afraid of giving us too much power – or afraid we weren't good enough – so I showed up, and there were Gerry Coffin, Carole King, Hal Blame and other studio musicians who did the tracks. That's Glen Campbell you're hearing on 'Mary Mary’.
"On the track I wrote, 'Papa Gene's Blues’, I insisted upon having Peter play on it. So they let him play acoustic guitar, but you really couldn't hear it on the record. Like that and 'Mary Mary’, I was able to produce the songs I wrote. But most of the songs I did write, they didn't want, so on the last few albums I didn't contribute much in the way of material. I took them 'Different Drum' and they said all it needed was a hook. They asked me to change it and told me it was a stiff. I couldn't change it, and took it to Linda Ronstadt, who recorded it two weeks later, and it became Number One."
When word leaked out that the group didn't play on their first two albums, they were given a lashing by the press. Yet millions of Motown-type groups are able to get by posing only as vocal groups. The Monkees were more than adequate in this respect, providing four lead vocalists: Nesmith owned a middle-ranged Texas drawl; Jones possessed a nasal Manchester accent loaded with charm; Dolenz was alternately sincere and urgent, and Peter Tork was not without folk influences. The foursome were also making some headway in composing their own songs. Okay, the group decided to make an album where they played all of the instruments themselves. This was HEADQUARTERS, quite an admirable production.
Here and there doses of Monkee innovation began to appear in their musical productions as they exerted more control. Nesmith played the pedal steel guitar and infused a country feel to some of the tunes he produced, quite a foresight in 1967 when one takes into account the country-rock boom which came along two years later. Their next album featured Micky playing a Moog; he had only the third one in the country.
Despite these creative strides, the Monkee image prevailed. Nesmith explains: "The Monkees were never light-weight. We were four together people and we knew what we wanted to do. We were capable of doing a great deal, but we were slowed up by this great corporate organization. It was unfortunate. We tried to fight from the inside. As time goes on people are gonna turn around after this stigma of the phony press releases and the animosity between the public and the people who ran it dies down, and say, 'Those cats really had some talent.' You picked up on the dobro – well no one heard the dobro back then because everyone was worried because Davy threw water in a writer's face. You heard the Moog synthesizer. Well, no one heard it because SGT. PEPPER had come out. If you go back and listen to some of the other things, you'll hear arrangements, instruments, and techniques that are just now coming into play that were completely overshadowed by the Monkee image."
So it turned out that the Monkees were indeed talented, but Dolenz doubts whether the group could have succeeded if they were just four guys off the street. "You can't make a rock star out of anybody, no matter what anybody tells you. If we had been four kids off the streets, nothing would have happened. It would have had a two-week run and would have gone off the air. They were careful – they went through four or five hundred of the cream of the music and acting crop, from Steve Stills to everybody in the industry. And they chose what they felt to be the four most dynamic entertainers in all of the areas. They chose two actors and two musicians – Peter is a graduate of a music conservatory and plays eight instruments. So they just didn't pick us off the streets. I don't think they made us rock stars; they just created a situation where we could expose our talents, and we did."
The actual series was mostly silly but sometimes clever, and owed a lot to the Marx Brothers' insane type of humor, more out of influence rather than imitation. "The four characters were actually an extension of our real selves," observes Micky. "Davy was the cute singer who got all of the chicks. Mike was the Will Rogers country-and-western dry humorist. I was the nutty, crazy comic who did the imitations. Peter's character was not himself, though. He played the Huntz Hall, the dummo, and this drove him crazy because he didn't like it at all.
"When we did the show, we were just stoned all of the time. I don't remember much except working 12 hours a day. It was incredibly hard work and a lot of fun. The show started falling apart because it was the same thing all the time – Davy fell in love with some chick whose uncle was a crook. And that's why we quit. We submitted a different format, but NBC didn't want to take the chance."
Nesmith also experienced a lack of coherence with what was going on, but he also felt the power of a corporate giant: "I don't consider myself an actor – never have been comfortable in playing a role. I was never involved enough in the television series to know what was going on. As far as writing, it wasn't really stimulating. I exercised more self-discipline and control just to stay out there and do the job for which I was contracted.
"It's like I got drafted. I'd gotten out of the Air Force – the most horrible experience of my life. And I thought, 'Boy, I'll never sign a contract like that again!' Ended up signing one. Except the punishments were much more severe. I think I would rather have spent time in the brig. They have clauses in there to keep you out of work the rest of your life. You simply can't work, for anybody."
The success of the series and the records took everyone by surprise, and THE MONKEES was soon aired in 32 countries. Due to the ensuing demand, the Monkees took to the road on concert tours where they commanded up to $50,000 a night, but each of the four only averaged $2,000 a performance.
"The show opened with a group that used to back us up on a couple of numbers later," began Micky. "They would play their set, and then someone like Jimi Hendrix would come on next – he did his first U.S. tour with us, incidentally. Then we would come busting out of four big mock Vox speakers. We did 20 minutes of our hits, just us four playing the instruments. Then we did solo numbers: Peter did a banjo thing. Mike a country-and-western tune. Davy a Broadway song, and then I would do a James Brown-type of freak-out like 'I Got a Woman’. The band backed up Davy's and my number. After that we would finish with a few more hits.
"It wouldn't have really mattered what we played, though. You couldn't hear a thing. We could have turned off all of the amps for all it mattered. And it was too bad, too, because we worked hard, for weeks and weeks, especially after receiving criticism for not playing our own instruments."
"The hysteria was essentially the same as a Beatles' concert," observed Nesmith. "Everybody screamed and flash bulbs flashed; little pink waving arms – that's what it was. The age and the motivation were different, however. Those girls wanted to fuck the Beatles, and so did about half the guys. It was a giant super trip – probably more pronounced with the Stones, because they were not so polite about the whole thing. The Beatles were very polite and 'don't you love us.' With us, it was never that. It was Captain Kangaroo Time, Howdy' Doody, 'Gee isn't this fun kids?' and all that."
The television series, chosen by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences as the Outstanding Comedy Series of 1966-7, ended in 1968, according to the wishes of the group. But the Monkees had one more chance, a movie called HEAD.
"About three or four months before we started shooting," Micky explained, "Jack Nicholson, Bob Rafelson and the four of us went to a little resort outside of L.A. in Ojai. We stayed there for three days and just rapped about what we wanted in a movie. Two months later they came up with the script. Many of the ideas were ours, but we never got any credit for it, and maybe rightly so, because we didn't write any of the dialogue.
"Just after that we had a big political management thing and we just struck – all of us but Peter. That caused some problems. We came back and finished it and I thought it was a fantastic movie. The publicity was a mistake – nobody knew it was the Monkees' movie. The film was so weird that people who did see it had trouble relating to it.
"It'll probably be re-released...At the box office it was a bomb, but critically it was incredibly well received. It was just ahead of its time. That movie will gain its due recognition in ten years' time. It was completely episodic, no super plot line."
The movie was political, something the series had managed to avoid, but the Monkees had always wanted to tell the public how they felt about things. As the titles flashed, the ‘Ditty Diego-War Chant’ revealed the group's true feelings: "Hey!, Hey!, we are the Monkees/You know we love to please/A manufactured image/With no philosophies... You say we're manufactured/To that we all agree."
The group wasn't trying to hide the fact that they were manufactured; in fact, they really didn't even care about selling records, because that which was presented most of the time really wasn't them.
The series was off the air, the movie bombed and sales dropped drastically. So management didn't mind much when Peter Tork left. When asked about this, Nesmith replied, "He just collapsed. A lot of people asked us, 'How did you get through the whole thing without going stark raving mad?' Well, the point is we didn't. He was a lot less stable than any of us – I was probably the most. Peter just finally went crazy and wanted to quit. He was a very tired person.
"Peter wanted to be in a rock-and-roll group," said Dolenz, "to sing, play, eat, and live together. When we did HEADQUARTERS, Tork was in his heaven. When he found out that that wouldn't happen again, he couldn't take it."
When Nesmith was asked to join what eventually became the First National Band, he left the Monkees. "It completely wiped me out financially; I still had four years left on my contract with the Monkees – at $160,000 a year."
One has to admit that Monkee albums are rather enjoyable. The group was the recipient of great material and was aided by knowledgeable producers, unlimited studio time, and the best facilities and backup instrumentalists available.
But there were other benefits to come out of the Monkee machine. Michael Nesmith: "In terms of positive effects of the Monkees, I could go on and on. I could explain the little-known fact that we brought Jimi Hendrix to the country. We found him in a little club and said, 'Come play second fiddle with us.'
"He said, 'Okay, fine.' Our producer called the producer of the Monterey Pop Festival and said that we had a kid he ought to see, a black American we found in England. He played with us through New York, at which point he walked off the stage – the people booed him off; the little kids didn't like him. He went to the Festival and the rest is history.
"The EASY RIDER film was made with Monkee money. That $350,000 came directly from the Monkees – from Monkee producer Bert Schneider. That's how the film was financed. I can't tell you how many people's equipment I have bought just to send them on the road. Three Dog Night is a notable example of buying equipment for someone. There were a great deal of positive effects that came out of it. I think the press was a little blind, and the public a little blinded, by the negative vibes.
"It was clear to me that the two producers (Rafelson and Schneider) – and you have to understand that I say this with no animosity whatsoever – were in business for one reason only, and that was to make money. They did it well; they were creative; they were the best people I had ever seen do it. In terms of that alone, they were sheer brilliance.
"On a religious, philosophical, and socio-economic basis, I happen to disagree with that particular judgment. The motive for sending me into the studio was wrong and it seems to me that that's why the creative achievements were overshadowed. That's why I think it was overlooked, and I think it's well that it was."
"The most important thing was not the product itself," points out Micky. "It was a deeper, more subtle effect on the kids. Timothy Leary wrote a whole chapter on us in his book POLICIES OF ECSTASY. He mentions that THE MONKEES was the first nationwide television show that had no father figure – had no uncle or older person who we went to for help with problems. It was a total fantasy – there was no mention of school. And THE MONKEES actually brought long hair into the living room. Up until then, anyone with long hair was thought to be a doper or hippie hoodlum. Even though the Beatles wore long hair, their comments about acid and politics still gave it somewhat of a negative connotation. THE MONKEES brought it into the living room and the kids said, 'See the Monkees, they just wanna laugh and have fun and play...' It then became difficult for the parents to deny them; 'Well alright, if the Monkees do it, it's okay.'
"Besides that, we were a great showcase for other groups and people. We had people like Tim Buckley and Frank Zappa on the show. On the special we did, we had Buddy Miles, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Brian Auger and the Trinity, who were almost into it more than we were."
Although record sales are at a minimum, the TV series is still shown on Saturday afternoons, and the foursome receive something like 1,000 fan letters a week (down from the 5,000 a day at the height of their success, but still substantial for a re-run series). The last Monkees single, ‘Oh My My’ was released last year and featured only Micky and Davy. Although there are still some 60 tracks in the can, Dolenz doubts whether there will be any more Monkee music.
Micky is now acting in plays. Occasionally, he records in his home studio with none other than Peter Tork. Mike is of course succeeding moderately with the First National Band, and Davy is reportedly trying to get a night club act together and recording a solo album.
The Monkees were a lot of things to a lot of different people, whether it was Davy Jones sentimentally whispering into some girl's ear, "I'll be true to you, yes I will," or Micky Dolenz doing his James Cagney impersonation. But perhaps Micky found the answer to what the Monkees really were: "After we went through our creative control hassles and got our own control and started releasing our own songs, I really felt bad because people were saying that we were doing 'teenie-bopper music.' They let us do our own stuff, though, and it really wasn't as commercial as their stuff. Anyway, I wrote a song called 'Ask your Mommy and Daddy What Happened to the Indian' – a super-protest song, right?
"I was in a concert at Peoria and a little girl with tears in her eyes walked up to me and asked why we didn't record any of the good old songs you can dance to. I realized what had happened and what the Monkees were. They were what a first grade teacher is to a child learning math. Today, a 13- or 14-year-old doesn't understand 6/8 time, or a 45-minute guitar solo, or even jazz. You can't teach someone to multiply until you can teach him to add. That's why the Monkees were so successful – because we filled a gap. The Beatles and all the other groups were trying to appeal to a sophisticated audience. Nobody was playing to the kids... We gave the kids something to listen to."