This article, written by Ian Watson, was first published in Melody Maker in June 1997. Michael discusses a wide range of topics, including the 1997 UK Monkees tour, the television show, MTV, Don Kirshner, Head, his affection for (and the inspiration behind) "Listen to the Band," 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee, and his script for the second Monkees motion picture, which was never realized.
What's the right way to address someone who's as famous as John Lennon or Mick Jagger? Do you picture a tall, thoughtful yet endearingly goofy guy with a bobble hat and plump for "Mike?" Or should you set aside everything you learned during childhood about the serious one from The Monkees and call the man who inherited the Tipp-Ex millions and inadvertently invented MTV when he sold the rights of the pop video to Warner Brothers, "Michael?" It's a toughie, alright.
The question, in the end, boils down to the conundrum that lay at the heart of The Monkees: whether you ascribe more importance to fact or fiction. The Monkees, remember, were never a real group. Mike Nesmith, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, and Micky Dolenz were starring in a show about an out of work rock'n'roll band, but the fictional creation was so engaging that a month after the show was initially aired in September 1966, The Monkees had their first, bona fide, US number one with "Last Train To Clarksville." Paradox, ahoy!
After that, things spiralled wildly out of control as the line between reality and fantasy became even more blurred. By Christmas 1966, the foursome had started playing live and penning original songs, but the big news with the press in 1967 was their admission that they didn't actually play on any of their early records. Unsure whether fact or fiction was in the right in this case, the media plumped for outrage, making the fans question their love for a made-up band. To which The Monkees replied in 1968 with the psychedelic film, Head.
"I think Head was successful, artistically, and it was rated very high by our peers and the film industry. Still is," says Michael, on the phone from his Texas home. "The only mistake is to ascribe it to a drug culture. The film was tackling the blurred line between fact and fiction. The fictional band, The Monkees, which never existed, it was just a construct of a TV show, was coming to life and the machine couldn't handle it and kept trying to put it back in the box."
"The powers that were, specifically [music publisher] Don Kirshner, didn't know what to think when I said we might as well play since we can. He said, 'You can't play pop music. Nobody's going to listen to your songs,' and we said, 'No. The times they have-a-changed.' So the movie brought that forward and in doing that, we alienated a lot of people. There's a scene where we go to a commissary and it clears out and it's obvious everyone hates us because we didn't play the game."
Despite the presence of Jack Nicholson as co-writer, the film was a critical and commercial flop, but it has much to recommend it. The trademark zany Monkees humor is intercut with sardonic touches and harsh satirical undertones and one particular moment of nastiness - Davy telling someone he wants to forget them just the way they are - points to the darker Monkees of "Alternate Title [Randy Scouse Git]."
"I think you're off in the wrong direction there," counters Nesmith. "Remember, the man was abusing David and the line that preceded it was, 'Well, if it isn't God's gift to the twelve year olds.' That's a full-on insult and I can assure you it was the sort of insult that was levelled continually, so David wasn't being mean or dark, he was just taking care of himself. We encountered that much more aggressively in Britain than anywhere else. The old establishment was going, 'Why don't you cut your hair', and 'Alternate Title' was a rail against that."
Did you encounter a lot of tabloid hostility in the Sixties?
"Oh yeah. The hostility from the tabloids has been continual and unmitigated since the beginning. Somebody got it into their head that The Monkees weren't a real band and somehow this was wrong. I always stare at them dumbfounded. Like, 'That's right! You now have the point of departure that everyone who enjoys The Monkees understands.' It was not a real band, it was us playing and having a good time as not a real band. What it is is real television."
Do you think the original TV series captured the spirit of the time?
"It certainly did of television. I was talking to a journalist and he came to the series in its re-runs and he said what made it work for him was the child-like logic. It gave voice to his ten-year-old sensibilities, which was how old he was when he first saw it, and there was an understanding of life and the way things worked that had more to do with his pre-pubescent sensibilities than the sixties. It was independent of the times and I think that's one of the reasons it's hung on for thirty years and why people keep coming back to it. Because every ten year old that stumbles into it, feels like they've stumbled into pure gold."
Not long after the release of Head, The Monkees made a TV special called 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee, which took some of the ideas of blurred reality and working within a machine and diluted them to the point of impotence.
"33 1/3 was just a dreadful piece," groans Michael. "It was not good television, we were very ill-used and the Monkees phenomenon wasn't understood. That's why when I wrote this year's TV special, I was thinking, 'What's the best way into this?' And it dawned on me, the way to have the best time is to take the position that The Monkees never went off the air. It's 30 years later, here are these guys, in their fifties, living in a beach house and what is it exactly they do? And so it was a very funny point of departure and I made the point that The Monkees are just television rather than a product of corporate America."
Nesmith's also working on a full length feature and has freely admitted that he only joined the recent reunion tour to promote the film. So what's it about?
"It involves the tabloid press and, again, it has a lot to do with the sensibilities that were in Head, which is the difference between fact and fiction. We have a tabloid magazine in the US called The Weekly World News and it's by some of the brightest, funniest guys writing in journalism and there's not one word of truth in it. They make it all up, entirely, top to bottom. It's the magazine that says aliens are in congress and we've hooked up creatively with these guys and come up with a notion for encountering that dynamic in the film."
Mention of the media prompts Michael to start talking about the emergence of the Internet - he has his own website at Videoranch.com - and the changing face of information technology. He's clearly plugged into trends and developments, so does he think that The Monkees helped pave the way for the boy (and girl) bands of the Nineties by legitimizing the concept of the manufactured group?
"You're asking me for cause-effect here and I can't really give it to you," he muses. "It certainly dawned on somebody that it's perfectly legitimate to assemble a rock'n'roll group. And that the notion that it had to be organic or somehow come out of lightning striking pond scum was ridiculous."
Are you aware of The Spice Girls?
"Yeah. Years ago, when I invented MTV, I kept my hand in and watched it and they really fit that MTV model. I like looking at them...from that standpoint. It seems to me they're doing it exactly right. I'm not a big fan of theirs because it's not the sort of music I'm interested in. But I do like the way they've positioned themselves as characters. Do I see any parallels with The Monkees? Not really, because the Monkees records were artifacts of the TV show, whereas The Spice Girls are a recording and video phenomenon. It'll be interesting to see how their film goes. They'll have as much trouble with that as we had making Head."
Michael's made his reasons for touring very clear, but he must have still been touched by the elated response of the fans on their March tour. Seeing a packed Wembley Arena freak out to "Listen To The Band" was certainly a thrill for me.
"I had mixed feelings about it. I enjoyed seeing the fans. We came because of a mandate from the fans and that was satisfying. But I prefer to play songs I've written in a different environment, so playing all those other songs was not as fulfilling to me as it can be when I stand there with a guitar and sing my songs. But I looked forward every night to 'Listen To The Band.' One, I wrote it, so I'm able to convey something through the song, and two, it's fun playing with Micky and Peter and the ensemble with us that gave it all that horsepower."
Is "Listen To The Band" the Monkees song you're most proud of?
"That's a good way to say it. We were off the air and it was right at the end of everything when I delivered that record and everyone said, 'No, that is not a Monkees song. This won't work.' But, much to my satisfaction, it's proved to be one of our most enduring songs. I think I was able to get everything I wanted to say about The Monkees into it. And I love the way the music recurs, the way it rolls around on itself again so it can be played over and over and over."
What did you want to express with the song?
"Well, it says, 'Plays a song and no-one listens.' That's the phrase that really says it and it's able to crystallize, still, everything I was feeling at that time. It's 'He plays a song and no-one listens, I need help, I'm falling again.' It's the feeling of falling backwards into this thing of nobody getting it. But it's also, 'Play the drums a little bit louder, tell me I can live without her,' so the only thing that's going to give me comfort here is what I'm doing. It takes the spirit of the idea and really conveys it and that's what makes me the most proud. I'd love to hear someone cover that song. I don't know who could."
Whoever it was, they'd need - like Evan Dando had when he covered "Different Drum," which Michael says he's yet to hear - an understanding that reality and fantasy can often become blurred and that the interesting territory is right in the center of the two. Talking of which, during the epic version of "Listen To The Band" that closes 33 1/3, there's a moment where it strips back to percussion and weird noises and it is techno. Blimey...looks like Michael invented that as well!
"Ha ha ha! I suppose you're right. What do I think of techno? I like it. One of the things I'm working on right now is Latin-Country. The thing that's kept me from just completely falling into the country and western bag is you can't really dance to it. You can line dance, but to jump and around have a good time, you need something that's kicking you along. And nothing does that, for me, like some of the early Latin rhythms. So from that standpoint, I like the techno music and I like the hip hop music and I especially like the beat of rap music. It's just unfortunate that it tends not to be representative of too much."
Well, who'd have guessed it? Looks like you can take the boy away from the bobble hat but you can never take the bobble hat away from the boy.
THE NESMITH FILES
Four weird facts about the serious Monkee
* Michael's mother invented Tipp-Ex and he sold the rights for a cool $28 million in 1989
* Nesmith was nominated for a Grammy award for his last solo album
* Michael accidentally invented the pop video when he recorded a short film for his song, "Rio." He later sold the patent for PopClips to Warners for a pot of cash and - viola! - MTV was born.
* Nesmith has released over thirteen solo albums, slightly more than The Monkees achieved. His most famous solo song, "Different Drum," was covered by The Lemonheads in what many consider to be their finest moment.