This is the third in a series of guest articles that have been submitted to The Monkees Live Almanac in celebration of the group's 50th Anniversary.
In the spring of 1967, The Monkees, ostensibly a make-believe band vilified as the antithesis of rock 'n' roll, turned around and committed one of the most rock 'n' roll acts in history—an astonishing act of mutiny against the manufacturing machine that gave them life. The monster had turned on its creator and stumbled out of the lab.
"Once The Monkees took control of their recording career it got steadily worse," said Lester Sill, Don Kirshner's replacement as music supervisor, on the Headquarters radio show in 1988. "Mike [Nesmith] was the catalyst in destroying the group." On the surface, yes; sales figures do support this. Nothing after More of the Monkees (Nesmith's candidate for Worst Album Ever) met its dizzying total of 5 million records sold. Nor did any single match the astonishing success of "I'm a Believer." "That ain't no hit," Nesmith is alleged to have said prior to its recording.
But can this be attributed directly to the group taking charge of their own destiny? It can be argued that the phenomenon had already peaked by the time Nesmith's fist met drywall, and a steady decline was inevitable no matter who was behind the wheel of the Monkeemobile.
With a few exceptions, pop stardom generally has a short half-life; chart and radio success even shorter. The notion of "One Hit Wonder" is a snarky and unfair condemnation, as most artists who even manage to have one hit usually fade after the follow-up doesn't catch on. The Monkees achieved astonishing success in a very short time because all the stars were aligned. They were the right guys at the right time; they had TV exposure, the best writers, the best producers, and the Man with the (usually) Golden Ear.
But putting money on the the group hitting anywhere near those More of the Monkees/"I'm a Believer" sales figures again, under continued supervision by Kirshner or on their own, wouldn't be tempting to even the most adventurous gambler.
"We can play 'Happy Birthday' with a beat and it would sell a million records," Nesmith claims to have told Kirshner during the palace revolt. And in January 1967 this was absolutely true. Kirshner's chosen follow-up to the "I'm a Believer"/"Steppin' Stone" knockout punch was "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You"/"She Hangs Out." While the former is a decent song it is nowhere near the quality of its predecessor. Even Kirshner himself described the song as "ordinary." However, he had promised Diamond the follow-up to "I'm a Believer" without hearing it first, a case of loyalty clouding judgment. Despite its relative flatness, the single shot to number two well after Kirshner was escorted out of his office in the company of security guards, somewhat proving Nesmith's "Happy Birthday with a beat" declaration. In stark contrast, Nesmith's own "The Girl I Knew Somewhere," which replaced "She Hangs Out" on the B-side, proved that the group was capable of producing an excellent pop record on their own. It was more catchy, organic, and energetic than Diamond's offering. Though the playing was nowhere near as accomplished as that of the Wrecking Crew, the overall feel is one of the sheer joy of a group of boys creating something that is truly their own. One would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks that first rendering of "She Hangs Out" was a superior cut. Kirshner's last gasp of control came in a series of tracks cut only with Davy Jones in New York, and these are largely the epitome of what Mike (as Frank Zappa) would dismiss as "banal and insipid" in the legendary TV show bit.
As if to ram the point home, The Monkees' later rearrangement of "She Hangs Out" also blew away Jeff Barry's original flat production. Barry may have had a chuckle at Nesmith's prediction regarding "I'm a Believer," but he himself was the one who produced those lifeless last Kirshner sessions, the worst tracks on More of The Monkees, and nearly all of the barely noteworthy Changes album in 1970. He infamously (and rather ridiculously) likened The Monkees' taking control as "a guy playing Superman thinking he could fly." But his own later Monkee productions never soared anywhere near the heights of "I'm a Believer."
If there were any true mistakes in the history of The Monkees' recording legacy, they lie in who was in the producer's seat. Kirshner took the initial production duties away from Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart after one album, robbing the "fake group" of their original sound. This was ironically echoed later by The Monkees parting ways with Chip Douglas, which destroyed the somewhat cohesive sound of the now "real" group. That said, by 1969, with the TV show gone and their utter rejection by both their early fans and the "serious" rock enthusiasts they were trying to court, no decision good or bad was going to matter. The excellent likes of "Porpoise Song," "Listen to the Band," "As We Go Along," and "Someday Man" had little chance on the charts or the airwaves when you checked the 45 and saw the name of the band. And returning to the original sound and formula wasn’t likely to provide a miraculous resurgence of any kind ("Tear Drop City").
Nesmith's primary interest was having a group he could lead and control with the country-rock sound that he loved. And if rumors that he was actually verbally promised this by Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson after they saw him perform are true, his frustration was justified. Peter Tork was less concerned about autonomy and more about he and his bandmates actually being the musicians in the chairs. Jones and Micky Dolenz, the two that were happy with the status quo, joined in solidarity and rose to the occasion. The differing agendas of Nesmith and Tork really blended only twice, on Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. — ironically, the two albums that most fans and critics would point to as their best work. The album sales combined didn't reach the heights of More of the Monkees at the time. But 50 years later, they're the primary reason we're here talking about a group that was supposed to only be characters on a TV show. It's doubtful that Nesmith, Tork, or Dolenz had any notion at the time of preserving a long-term legacy, but as they prepare to come together on record once more with Good Times!, I'd like to think they know it now.