Like any other entertainment entity, The Monkees have had a career full of highs and lows. Settle in for a look back at some of the group's more noteworthy missteps.
The Arista Debacle
In early 1986, Arista Records, who owned the Monkees catalog at the time, started planning a greatest hits package that would mark the group’s 20th Anniversary. When Micky, Davy, and Peter hit the road in late May and surprised everyone by becoming that summer’s hottest concert ticket, Arista pared down their original 2-LP package to a single album that would include a couple of brand new Monkees recordings.
The three new songs that ultimately appeared on Then and Now...The Best of The Monkees, however, included participation from just Micky and Peter. A little backstory: Davy was signed to Bell Records in the early 1970s, and the label was later reorganized as Arista Records, led by music mogul Clive Davis. For years, Davy vocalized his disdain for the Bell experience, claiming his talents were misused and that he was never given the opportunity to grow as an artist while under their auspices. When business at Bell began to wane, Davy got lost in the shuffle and departed for MGM Records.
Once the Arista deal came around in 1986 for the reunited Monkees, Davy balked and refused to sign. Things became complicated when one of the new tracks, “That Was Then, This Is Now,” became a Top 20 hit in the summer of ’86. Davy would leave the stage when the song was performed live, and the music video, filmed in concert, led to questions of “Where’s Davy?” Later in 1986, Arista wanted to release a follow-up single from the batch of fresh tracks, “Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere” (apparently re-recorded in a more up-tempo version), but Davy blocked the move. Micky wrote in his 1993 autobiography that the proposal of another Arista single led to a boiling of tensions right before The Monkees played live on the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards. Davy would quit before there would be another Arista release, Micky said. Because of the disagreements, Arista issued a remix of “Daydream Believer” instead, which stalled at #79 on the charts that fall.
Most likely due to the wrangles between The Monkees and Arista, Arista passed on signing the group to a record deal in 1987. Rhino Records, ever faithful to The Monkees, got the nod. But Rhino wasn’t a major label with the proper resources to produce and hype an album of all new material by any group, and the resulting Monkees effort, Pool It!, left fans, and more importantly, the general public, underwhelmed. What would a 1987 Monkees album on Arista have looked like, with their stable of songwriters, producers, and promotional reach?
Lack of a US Tour in 1968
The July 1968 issue of Monkee Spectacular promised a Monkees concert tour in the summer of 1968, but it never happened. With the television series completing its original run of episodes on NBC in April, and a lack of a hit single after the early ’68 release of “Valleri,” the group was suddenly and largely out of the public eye. It’s easy to surmise that The Monkees could have still drawn significant crowds a year after their peak in popularity. The group’s 1967 concerts across the United States and multiple shows at Wembley in London shattered attendance and gate records. Fans in Salt Lake City later clamored to attend the filming of the “Circle Sky” live sequence for Head in May 1968. In fact, demand was so great that the group was forced to hold a free concert that night for those turned away earlier that day.
A 1968 US summer tour could have showcased the group’s considerable talents on stage while grabbing headlines in big cities. Those headlines might have also included teasers about the upcoming Monkees movie, and hindsight shows that Head certainly needed more traditional promotional techniques beyond John Brockman's face slyly smiling at you on TV. It’s also possible that a tour at this particular point could have extended the shelf life of The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees and not make the group seem like relics by the time Head hit movie screens in November.
The usually reliable execs at Colgems failed The Monkees with their peculiar selection for the follow up single to “Valleri,” which had hit #3 on the charts and was certified gold in sales. “D.W. Washburn” was a downer of a song that confused the fans and alienated disc jockeys. A Billboard trade ad asked “Which side of The Monkees’ new single will get to #1 first?” The answer was neither. Limping to #19 on the charts (while its flipside, “It’s Nice to Be With You,” stopped at #51), "D.W. Washburn" failed to keep The Monkees afloat at radio during a critical juncture: their TV show had been canceled, their feature film was unfinished, and the teen magazines were looking for new heroes.
The lack of a hit single in the summer of 1968 and the long layoff between albums (The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees coming in April '68 and the Head soundtrack in December) slowed the group's momentum in dramatic fashion. Years later, Colgems president Lester Sill pulled no punches and said he clearly made an error in judgment by giving the green light to “D.W. Washburn.” He was right.
Falling Out with MTV
In early 1987, The Monkees were scheduled to perform on a Super Bowl special that was being aired on MTV (an appearance, according to Micky's 1993 autobiography, that manager David Fishof promised without the group's permission). The burgeoning channel, which at the time yielded great influence in the music industry, could make or break artists based on the amount of airplay their music videos received. In 1986, MTV had revived The Monkees television series, airing it day and night while also hosting Micky, Davy, and Peter for marathon viewings. With all of this newfound exposure, The Monkees’ 20th Anniversary concert tour went from a six week jaunt in small to mid-sized venues to a six month blockbuster journey in arenas and stadiums. The group’s new single, “That Was Then, This Is Now,” also received heavy airplay on MTV. The Monkees had truly made a comeback for the ages.
When the trio failed to appear for the Super Bowl event (apparently because Davy didn’t want to make the trip), MTV took it as a snub. The fallout was devastating. The clever video for “Heart and Soul,” their brand new single for the summer of 1987, was banned by MTV executives, despite a TV Guide report that showed leaked MTV request logs with “Heart and Soul” garnering plenty of public support. MTV claimed that The Monkees were no longer in demand and that they didn't fit the designs of the network going forward. Either way, the accompanying album, Pool It!, barely cracked the Top 80, and the comeback of 1986 was dealt a knockout blow by this seemingly egregious misstep.
Losing Chip Douglas
Chip Douglas has long been revered by Monkees fans for producing some of their best recorded output. Classic Monkees singles like "The Girl I Knew Somewhere," "Pleasant Valley Sunday," and "Daydream Believer" have stood the test of time. The albums Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. are often considered their most consistent long players. But after a banner year with The Monkees in 1967, Douglas was pushed aside as each Monkee had effectively decided to produce their own separate recording sessions. The group ethos birthed from the clash with Don Kirshner had quickly been replaced by a new individual approach that gave the four Monkees, all with disparate musical backgrounds, the opportunity to express themselves musically under the confines of the "Monkees" name.
Despite the absence of Douglas and the lack of unity in the studio, undoubtedly some of The Monkees' best music did in fact emerge in the post-Douglas years. The Head soundtrack, singles like "Listen to the Band" and "Someday Man," Michael's '68 Nashville sessions, and key album cuts like "You and I," "A Man Without a Dream," "Little Girl," and Chip's own "Steam Engine" stand as some of the group's most underrated work. That being said, many fans look back and wish that The Monkees had continued the collective approach in the studio, which was the overriding theme for much of 1967. In interviews years later, Douglas recounted his desire to sustain the Headquarters mode of recording, and if that wasn't always feasible, working as hard as he could to have as many Monkees in the studio at once, playing and singing on each other's tracks. Simply put, he provided a central force for the group at the peak of their fame.
Chip continued to appear on Monkees records all the way through 1969, usually playing bass guitar, while even producing intermittent recording sessions. Take a listen to his killer late 1967 backing track for "We Were Made For Each Other" from 2010's deluxe version of The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees and compare it to the released version of the song that appeared on the 1968 LP in a radically different (and somewhat more maudlin) arrangement. Chip's backing track is quite satisfying, making it easy to ask, "What if?"
Whichever viewpoint you take, much can be speculated about the loss of Douglas as the producer for The Monkees. We'll never know what a third Monkees album produced by Chip Douglas would have sounded like in 1968. Would Peter have been better represented on The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees with Douglas at the helm? Could The Monkees have soldiered on as a quartet beyond 1968? Remember it was Peter who had become so unhappy once the group approach to recording had been abandoned. Would he have actually departed in late '68 if the group's studio practices were different?
No Third Season
As the second season came to an end, and with the group tired of the format of the show, talks abounded about what direction a third season of The Monkees would take. "We started talking about what we would do on the next season–a live show? A variety show? A series of sketches?," said Micky years later. "One idea that came up was an awful lot like Laugh-In. We were, to be quite honest, getting tired of the same format. We wanted to do something a little more unusual, a little more out there." It wasn't meant to be, however, and the original run of the television series left the airwaves in 1968.
Ironically, The Monkees' TV show, the whole reason behind their conception, was never as big of a hit as the records were with the public. Monkees historian Andrew Sandoval happened to broach the topic of a third season at the 2014 Monkees convention. It is accurate to say that the group cast aside another season on TV because of creative differences, but according to Sandoval, the real reason the show ceased production is because Kellogg's, who sponsored the 7:30pm time slot on NBC on Monday's, contended that The Monkees didn't sell enough product for their company. So, in effect, The Monkees not committing to a third season might not be as much of a miscue in their career as it was a reality based on economics.
That being said, the loss of the television show in 1968 also meant that the main driver of their records and music was now gone. From a commercial standpoint, it sent The Monkees on a downward trajectory from which they never recovered.
Music producer and engineer Roger Bechirian (Squeeze, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello), when chosen to produce The Monkees' reunion album in 1987, had visions of reviving that classic Monkees sound he enjoyed growing up. "The record label and I had an idea to sort of recreate the shaky garage band sound that they kind of had from the '60s," Bechirian said in an interview years after Pool It! was recorded. "The band, especially Davy Jones, wanted a very polished, middle of the road record. It was a constant tugging of the two. I was getting flack from the label because it wasn't what they wanted to hear and I was getting flack from the band because they wanted to go another way."
Bechirian, a figure in the late '70s/early '80s British new wave scene who had been involved in the recording of songs like "Cruel To Be Kind" by Lowe, “(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” by Costello, and "Tempted" by Squeeze, originally thought that the first new Monkees album since 1970 would be a more purist affair and less of a slick '80s production. Bechirian has talked about his initial expectations for the album. "Micky Dolenz was great. He was living in England at the time. He actually called me out of the blue. 'Hi, this is Micky Dolenz. Can I come over?' What in the heck? I grew up with these guys and their TV show. I was like, 'Heck, you can come over now!' He and Davy Jones showed up one day and had coffee in my home. They'd heard the Squeeze album, East Side Story. Micky loved it and wanted to make a record like that." But much to Bechirian's chagrin, things went in another direction. "I thought I could see it, but we made an album that was really middle of the road. Davy Jones brought in all these schmaltzy ballads." The atmosphere between Jones and Bechirian only got worse. "The sessions ended with us having a big row in the studio one late afternoon," Bechirian said. "Davy was calling me every name under the sun. I really lost it. I told him to get out of my studio."
Ultimately complicated by the breakdown of relations between The Monkees and MTV in early 1987 as discussed earlier in this piece, Pool It! didn't connect with the general public like so many had hoped. Monkees fans at the time were divided in their reactions to the new LP and its overall production. Some applauded the group for going in a new, current direction while others wondered what had happened to the classic Monkees sounds of yesteryear. "There were two songs on the album that could've been big hits," according to Bechirian. "'Heart and Soul' was one. The other was a version of a Wreckless Eric song ... '(I'd Go The) Whole Wide World.'"
Many fans who discovered The Monkees through MTV in the mid-1980s (like myself) have a soft spot for Pool It! and the "Heart and Soul" single, just as many first generation fans have for albums like Headquarters. I count myself as one of those fans with a soft spot. But in hindsight, I wish a different style of album had been produced. In my estimation, Peter's two songs on Pool It!, his self-composed "Gettin' In" and "Since You Went Away" (written by longtime Peter pal Michael Levine), were clear highlights. The former is an interesting tune musically and lyrically, and the latter harkens back to that quirky Monkees spirit found in such songs like "Your Auntie Grizelda" and "Never Tell a Woman Yes." Roger Bechirian concurred about Peter's contributions. "You know who was good? Peter Tork was an amazing multi-instrumentalist. I had no idea! He had a bunch of songs that would've made a great album. But of course they wouldn't have it - Jones wouldn't have it. Peter was great. I was really, really taken with him. He was full of life and had loads of ideas."
Listen to Michael Levine, author of "Since You Went Away" from Pool It!, discuss the song and his friendship with Peter on the Headquarters radio program from May 1989:
The Justus era falls apart in 1997
After a bustle of activity with The Monkees between 1996 and 1997 that included a new album (Justus), a Los Angeles club show, an original prime time television special, and an arena tour of the United Kingdom, Michael Nesmith backed out of the much anticipated US portion of the Justus tour, scheduled for the summer of 1997. Mike had originally committed to about 15 to 20 concerts across the United States, with a plan to play large arenas to accommodate demand due to the limited amount of dates. However, shortly after returning from the group's March tour of the UK it was announced that Nesmith would not be playing live in America and instead would devote his time to writing a script for a proposed second Monkees feature film. "The movie is at the top of my list," Mike explained to Monkee Business Fanzine at the time. "If one of us doesn't stay here and do it, it won't get done, like Justus. I enjoy playing live, but time is time." Monkees fans in the United States, who had waited for a full-scale tour by all four Monkees since the band's reformation in 1986, were left dispirited and disappointed.
Speculation abounded regarding Mike's departure, ranging from internal tensions to the fact that The Monkees had received less than favorable reviews during their tour of the United Kingdom. "The UK shows were fun enough, Nesmith told Record Collector magazine in August 1997. "It's always fun to play at an arena level. And Monkees fans being what they are, they had a good time. So there wasn't anything unpleasant about that side of it. But on a global level, it's understood that the UK press is the worst in the world. So I knew I was walking into the absolutely worst possible place I could go. Even so, I had forgotten how mean-spirited the press could be. I knew that it was substandard and unintelligent and tied to what advertisers want, but I didn't realize it was mean-spirited. And that was devastating, to see that operating as the voice of the public. It put me right off. I walked right into that and thought, 'My God, this is a terrible thing to be involved in.'"
In interviews conducted after the UK tour, Davy Jones didn't hide his disdain for Mike's sudden absence, claiming the rest of the band had been left with no explanation. He often gave the impression that he was disgruntled with Nesmith, though Jones later said a lot of his quotes about Nez were taken out of context. "When The Monkees toured England in 1989, we got massive rave reviews for the three of us," Davy told Monkee Business Fanzine. "When we did it this time, the press just slammed us, because of his attitude, Mike Nesmith's attitude, when we did TV shows. 'Hey Hey We're The Grumpies,' one headline read." Years later in 2013, Nez spoke philosophically about the band's dissolution in the early months of 1997. "It was just a divergence of paths more than anything else," he told Rolling Stone. "Micky, Peter, and Davy just had their sails blowing in different ways than me."
In Memoriam: Michael Nesmith
Dolenz sings Nesmith - The EP