‘I don’t want to do this any more, man,’ says Micky. He looks past the camera as two arrows whistle into the belly of his cavalry costume. ‘These fake arrows, and this junk, and the fake trees… Bob, I’m through. It all stinks, man.’
He turns and walks briskly off through the scrub towards the distant hills. It’s about all that Mike can do to catch up with him before he busts straight through the canvas backdrop and out onto the lot.
After they’ve broken up the long panning shot of Davy playing the violin on the brownstone steps, the three of them walk through the back of the brownstone and directly onto location, through the side of a freight wagon.
A man-mountain in a black cloak runs down to confront them about merchandising opportunities. ‘Imagine the tie-ins. Blonde wigs for kids. Saws. The whole phallic thing is happening! I mean why don’t we use classic things? Millions!’
The boys move on.
Signalling between a whole system of lookouts. Someone sets off a train whistle. A Red Indian sat on a bench next to a nun puffs a smoke signal. A guy on a bridge fires a pistol in the air. Another guy on a roof flashes out Morse code with a mirror.
Back on the lot, the final link in the chain drops a flowerpot to wake up a dozing extra down below. The extra jumps up. ‘They’re coming,’ he shouts, ‘They’re coming!’
He runs just in front of the boys as they saunter down between the studios, bursts into the diner where all the other extras are eating. ‘They’re coming, they’re coming!’ Everybody pours out. The flow traps Micky, Mike and Davy in the door.
Finally they get in. Mike hangs up his Davy Crockett hat, sighs. Camera pan to reveal Peter, dressed in his Arab robes from a few scenes ago, clutching an ice cream cone, staring into space. All four of The Monkees are here now. They settle in.
Cut to close up of the waitress, a drag-queen in red gingham. She looks at them pertly, a fake staring down four other fakes. ‘Well,’ she says, finally, ‘If it isn’t God’s gift to the eight year-olds.’
The waitress was right. The Monkees had teen fans too – in their millions – but everyone knew they were really a kids group, a little kids group. That’s how their inventors planned it when they put out the audition ad for ‘4 insane boys, age 17–21’ to make a new comedy show about a struggling folk-rock band. They had to be wacky, handsome, sweet and good, and at least one of them had to be short enough for little girls to love. Cue ex-jockey, David Jones (5’3”), actor Micky Dolenz, and musicians Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork: The Monkees.
The plan was an all-out assault on the kid market: a comedy show to sell pop singles, that would sell pop albums, that would sell the show that sold the Kellogg’s cereals. Which isn’t to mention the thousand and one merchandising sidelines: posters, toys, comics, scrapbooks… anything you could put a Monkees tag on and sell to fans. Producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson would look after the show, and Don Kirshner – the Man with the Golden Ear – would get the songwriters and the musicians in, record the boys’ vocals over the top, and put out the singles and the albums.
The strategy worked. The Monkees’ first season aired in September 1966, a month after the debut single, ‘Last Train to Clarksville’, and a month before the eponymous first album. All three exploded. Within a few months Davy, Mike, Peter and Micky went from being out of work actors to the biggest band in the world. In 1967, they outsold the Rolling Stones and the Beatles combined.
To put that in context, the Beatles had just released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And they were outsold by guys, who, as just about everybody knew, didn’t play on their own records, didn’t write their own songs, couldn’t even play their own instruments.
None of that mattered to the legions of fans. I have a few copies of Monkees Monthly from 1967: the letters pages are a lesson in moon-eyed devotion. Eight year-old Carol writes ‘I started giving them all marks out of ten for good looks, and speaking voices and the clothes they wore. But I only got half-way. Davy was getting ten out of ten for them all.’ Other girls write in with poems. Many write in to boast about their memorabilia collections: Frances has 545 pics of the boys, Janet has 2,014, Jean has 2,384. For the few lucky enough to see the band in the flesh, real words aren’t enough: ‘fantabulous, marvelastic, super, groovy, smashing, terrifous, fantastic, scrumpilicious, WOWEE…’ writes another Janet after their first English concert. ‘THE MONKEES. ! ! xx ! ! xx!’ says Pauline, more succinctly.
The Monkees’ plan was a perfect formula for sales, and for adoring fandom, but it wasn’t going to get them respected. And when word got out they weren’t even really a band, the critics went into overdrive. ‘A DISGRACE TO THE POP WORLD,’ wrote Jack Bentley in the Sunday Mirror: ‘a bunch of kids trading on other people’s talent and cashing in on millions.’
Of course, Bentley got it wrong. The Monkees weren’t evil geniuses, making money off of other people. They were the puppets, a set of handsome faces and good voices picked out to front a hit-making machine for RCA and Columbia Screen Gems, two companies almost psychopathically focused on reaping the benefits of Beatlemania. The Pre-Fab Four. The first truly manufactured band.
Music journalism is full of ‘proto-xs’. Proto-x is music geek shorthand for ‘important’: music ahead of its time, on its way somewhere. ‘Ahead’ is key because the vital paradox of the proto tag is that it denotes both importance and obscurity. This is a version of Hans Robert Jauss’s ‘horizon of expectations’: really great stuff is meant to exceed what audiences expect, so it often goes unnoticed in its own time. But when the horizon of expectation broadens enough, its importance is revealed, people sit up and take note, while the lucky few get to say ‘I knew it all along.’
This is catnip to music critics. The perfect example in the history of music criticism is The Velvet Underground. No one could handle their music at the time – so we’re told – it didn’t sound like anyone else, it didn’t sell, but it did influence just about every important group that came after them. As every lazy article on them will tell you, the Velvets’ first album only sold 30,000 copies, but everyone who bought a copy started a band.
Not selling is pretty much key to being a proto-band. It’s all part of the odi profanum vulgus et arceo (‘I hate really popular music and I shun it’) that underwrites most serious music geekery. It signals realness and authenticity. The Monkees, pre-fabricated for maximum impact, were the opposite of real or authentic, they didn’t exceed anyone’s horizon of expectations, and they sold, and sold and sold. One of the reasons the Velvets didn’t is probably that no one could hear them over the screaming Monkee Maniacs. When The Velvet Underground & Nico came out in March 1967, More of the Monkees had already been No. 1 for eight weeks. It stayed there for another 10 weeks. The album it replaced at No. 1 was The Monkees, which had been there for 13 consecutive weeks. They had two more No. 1 albums before the year was out.
All in all, The Monkees sold something in the region of 23 million singles and albums in the time the Velvets sold their 30,000. But they’re still a proto-band: the proto-boyband. Sure, record label bosses, producers, song-writing factories had all manufactured hits before, they’d even manufactured a few stars, here and there, but no-one had ever manufactured a worldwide phenomenon before. The Pre-Fab Four were living proof that a few TV producers and label executives could sit down at a board table, work out what the kids wanted, and watch the money roll in.
They’re where the rot set in.
Time to take a step back though. The poor Monkees. ‘Honestly, it’s enough to make you want to blow your top!’ wrote Jackie Richmond in Monkees Monthly No. 1. ‘Here we are with the Monkees, the most marvellous new group in ages and ages, making rings round all the others with their super television series and their million-selling discs. And what happens? The crabby, sour-faced, square old knockers move in and try and put the boys down.’
Manufactured bands attract ire and snobbery now, and they’re no longer any sort of novelty. When The Monkees came along, the bile was fresh. The attacks started pretty much on day one, and they didn’t stop till they fell off the charts. But the fans defended the faith. From the get go, the pages of Monkees Monthly are a fascinating combination of breathless adoration and persecution complex. Jackie takes up cudgels in MM No. 1, and she barely puts them down thereafter. What she wants most of all is for the knockers to get their facts right, to do her boys that much justice at least. No musical background? Wrong! No talent? Wrong! And, if they owe everything they’ve got to TV, then ‘Why isn’t Ena Sharples top of the pops?’
Jackie makes some good points. The truest is that the Monkees were hired to play the part, not to play the songs: ‘four unique personalities who were selected for their ability as ACTORS’, she writes in MM No. 1, ‘all darned good actors’ too. As for having no musical background? ‘Rubbish. But in any case,’ she writes, ‘They were basically actors, taking part in a television series.’
Jackie was also right to say The Monkees weren’t exactly free of musical experience. Davy Jones got his first break performing in Oliver! and even recorded a US album in 1965 – a mess of syrupy covers, dominated by Jones singing like a cross between George Formby and the Artful Dodger. Michael Nesmith, meanwhile, had been trying to make it as a songwriter since the early ’60s, and was more or less getting there. Peter Tork didn’t seem about to leap into stardom either, but he too had a sort of career going, cap in one hand and guitar in the other, as part of the folk scene in Greenwich Village.
The odd one out was former child actor Micky Dolenz, who had more experience riding elephants than he did playing music. Two years as the title character of a show called Circus Boy meant that even a decade on, with a couple of singles under his belt, he’d still logged more hours in the elephant house than the recording studio.
It didn’t matter to Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider that that Dolenz couldn’t play anything, that Nesmith and Tork could, or that Jones had perfected the mockney pop-song thirty years ahead of ‘Parklife’. When the four Monkees were cast, they were randomly assigned their instruments. Dolenz got drums, though Jones was already pretty handy with the sticks. Professional guitarist Tork got bass, and Nesmith took lead guitar. Jones, meanwhile, got the only instrument whose size wouldn’t make him look like a misplaced child: the tambourine.
Instrument assignments didn’t matter because The Monkees were only there to sing. On the set of the show, the mics were off, the guitars unplugged, and the boys mimed away for the cameras with great big smiles and varying degrees of engagement. In the studio, they had nothing to do but lay down their vocals. The whole musical side of the project was ruled by the iron fist of Don Kirshner, who had no intention of letting the so-called band have any kind of say in it. He selected the songs, got the instrumentals down with his session musicians, then he got the boys in and taped them over the top. The Monkees weren’t even allowed in the studio together, because, yes, they monkeyed around too much.
The Monkees’ place in the recording gestalt that bore their name was so minor that no one even bothered to tell them they had a second album coming out: the band just stumbled across it in a Cleveland record store.
There was more than a little sleight of hand here. The record company didn’t much advertise the band’s lack of involvement in their own recordings. The Monkees’ sleeve features headshots of the boys with pseudo recording credits below: ‘Plays drums and sings’ under Dolenz, ‘Plays guitar and sings’ under the other three. More of the Monkees exchanges the credits for sleeve-notes from Kirshner, praising the boys’ ‘versatility and talents’ as (deliberately non-specific) ‘artists’.
If it was a secret, though, it was an open secret. The show doesn’t exactly go all out to maintain the illusion that The Monkees were actually playing their instruments. In a good few instances they’re even filmed ‘playing’ on deliberately ridiculous instruments that have nothing to do with the song on the soundtrack. And as it went on, it got increasingly self-reflexive. Across the two seasons, the jokes about manufactured fun, musical incompetence, or the sinister machinations of the cultural-industrial complex just keep stacking up. And it all culminates in Head, their one and only feature film, with its dynamited fourth-wall, and drag queen waitress: the weirdest and most savage meta-commentary on their own nature that a manufactured band could ever concoct. It even featured a rewrite of their own theme tune: ‘Hey hey we are The Monkees / You know we love to please. / A manufactured image / With no philosophies!’
The thing was, at the height of Monkeemania, the fans didn’t care one bit. ‘Let me ask you,’ Mike said to one in a radio interview in ’67, ‘If you found out that none of us could carry a note… that none of us could carry a tune in a bucket, would you hate us?’ The instant answer is ‘No!’
The legend that Monkees fans like to tell starts here, the one that’s meant to put paid to all that rot-set-in and fake-band stuff. It involves the fake band, jolted into self-confidence by their sell-out gigs, claiming creative control, putting themselves in the studio, and becoming a real band. And, of course, recording their best albums, too.
It’s a great rock and roll story: Nesmith led the rebellion by putting his fist through a wall during a band meeting with Kirshner. He’s supposed to have said ‘That could have been your face,’ and he may or may not have added a ‘motherfucker’ for effect. Kirshner told him to read his contract, but Rafelson and Schneider backed the band, and the Man with the Golden Ear got sacked. The third album, Headquarters, was all the boys’ own effort – and proudly proclaims as much too, in a liner note signed by each of them.
Ask a die-hard Monkees fan, and the odds are they’ll cite this as proof that the Monkees were a real, great band, that they got better, weirder and more unique from there, all the way up to the supreme oddness of Head and its soundtrack. Kirshner, Rafelson and Schneider might have made them, but like a quartet of Pinocchios they became the real thing, out in the world with free will and a life of their own. That Head flopped, and their albums dropped off the charts counts against the public, not the gallant Monkees themselves.
The problem with this is that Headquarters is a pretty boring album. It picks up halfway through, and has at least one truly and engagingly weird moment, on the spoken-word track ‘Zilch’ (call it proto-rap, if you like). But all in all, it’s not an album for the ages. And the albums after it are largely just the boys trying to emulate Kirshner’s methods, with diminishing returns. They brought back the song-writers, the session-men, the studio honing of the perfect sound – but they just weren’t as good at it as their former tyrant. Though Headquarters and their next album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. both topped the charts, the drop off in quality is striking. The Birds, the Bees and The Monkees is rotten. By Head, they only had enough fuel in their tanks for six songs – two Nesmith originals, one Tork original, and three written for them by pros like Carol King and Harry Nilsson.
I’m a Monkees fan, and I don’t buy into the myth of their creative freedom, their proof of substance. Nor do I believe that Micky, Davy, Mike and Peter are where the rot set in. The weirdest thing about The Monkees for me is how great those first two albums are.
I’m biased, I should say. However wide my music taste ranges, I can’t get away from a certain kind of ’60s sound: the three-minute garage rock song. People often talk about the democratisation of recording that came with the punk era, but the ’60s, particularly in America, is where it started. Off the back of first wave of international touring bands like The Ventures, The Beach Boys, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, kids started rehearsing in garages, ponying up for hour-long studio slots, hoping for local radio play, and maybe, just maybe, the big time. It was a fertile time for music, the first moment when pop went truly international, when the necessary kit was available at the corner music shop, when high-school covers bands, honed at dance after dance, could book a local studio for a recording session and put out a single.
There is a whole mini-industry dedicated to producing compilations of the good stuff, a few hundred middle-aged men rifling through singles-bins the world over, picking out their favourites. Even if, overall, the hit-rate was low, so many singles were made that good ones just keep turning up. They’re called ‘nuggets’, after the mother of all compilations, 1972’s Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era. I love them.
People will go a long way to track down this kind of stuff. I have one compilation of ’60s garage rock from Indonesia. I have another one called Cambodian Groove Club. Along with the original Nuggets, I have a compilation dedicated solely to tracks recorded in one small Seattle studio, and another one for a single label from Chicago; another one that collects all the recordings made by Iggy Pop’s high-school band. I have bought albums of Japanese surf instrumentals, Indonesian girl-groups, and a whole bunch of worn out 7” singles by bands like The Tornados, B. Bumble and the Stingers, and The Piltdown Men. I nearly lost it when I found a copy of ‘Hang on Sloopy’ by The McCoys in a local market. I live in hope of finding a 45 of ‘I ain’t no Miracle Worker’ by The Brogues. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to own a copy of anything by The Dovers, so I try not to think about it. And I’m not a serious collector. As in, I keep my expenditure of time and money on this stuff non-debilitating.
What these songs have in common is their easiness, though. The perfect nugget often rides the edge of the crazed, or the all-out psych attack of the angry teen in an uptight world, but it’s basically always just a three-minute dance track. It’s pop. Big, fuzzed out bass, guitars that jangle, drums that stomp, passionate, cliché-ridden lyrics. I defy anyone with a heart not to like it.
Which is where The Monkees come in. The Monkees and More of the Monkees are a one-two knockout combo of perfect pop nuggets – about as triumphant a vindication of production-line music as you could ever hear. The Davy-showcasing ballads aside, just about every song on them could slot into any connoisseur’s collection perfect ’60s songs.
I can’t say why, because it doesn’t make much sense. Left to their own devices, Kirshner’s go-to songwriting team for The Monkees – Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart – made boring records. There’s a reason they were hired to write for a kids show. The Monkees’ other main song-writers were Carole King (the woman who put the soft into soft rock), and Neil Diamond (the man who took out the rock). But combine them with Kirshner’s ear, his crack session men and producers, and The Monkees’ vocals, and something magical happens. The Monkees gestalt makes a sound that is harder rocking, weirder, more fun than any of its constituent parts could ever muster alone.
By all the rules of the creative game, by the standard patterns of thinking about creative greatness, it shouldn’t. The auteur model still rules our assumptions, leavened only now and then by a gesture to some sort of interpersonal magic that transforms the individuals in a band into a single auteur. People talk about the creative genius behind a particular group, or the alchemy that happens when this or that set of people get in a room. Something magical happens when you put these four guys in the studio together, music hacks write. Even now, in the maximal era of pop manufacture, the assumptions remain ingrained. For journalists, the credit for big hits goes to their big-name producers: Timbaland, Mark Ronson, Hudson Mohawke. For just about everyone else, it defaults to the entities named Madonna, Kylie, Justin Timberlake, or whatever. And still, you can feel the relief in the air when someone like Amy Winehouse, Adele, or Ed Sheeran comes along. At last, someone who writes and sings their own songs: proper music!
The Monkees and More of The Monkees give the lie to this. It’s hard to deny that Neil Diamond’s ‘I’m a Believer’ is one of the greatest pop songs of all time. Except intrinsically, it isn’t: Diamond’s own version is coma-inducingly dull. The gestalt’s version is amazing, a perfectly calibrated and controlled song-machine of interlocking organ, guitar, handclaps, close harmonies, winding up to a just-frenzied-enough coda. Every ‘yeah yeah’ and sigh has space to breathe, the call-and-response organ and guitar interchange that opens it all only comes back in its constituent parts, held apart and desperate to come back together, the organ solo in the middle barely stretches out beyond a fill: it’s a simple, repetitive little song, and yet the way it’s constructed is all designed to leave you wanting more. And you can’t give the credit to a superstar producer, to group alchemy, or to The Monkees themselves. It just is.
The same can be said for just about every other track on those albums. For music recorded in a way that was simultaneously autocratic and hive-minded, it is amazingly idiosyncratic. Listen just a little bit closely and the albums reveal themselves as strange and funny, as well as instantly digestible. If ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ is a rip off of The Beatles’ ‘Paperback Writer’, it’s one that sticks around my head a lot longer than the original. If ‘Take a Giant Step (outside your mind)’ is a shameless cash-in on counterculture psychedelic philosophy, it’s one that summons up its allure pretty effectively: fading out around the echoes of phased drums, jangling guitars, and the high drone of an oboe. Even Davy’s music-hall-style showcase ‘This just doesn’t seem to be my day’ kicks off with a big, distorted build up of fuzzed bass and drums, with high Eastern-inflected guitar laid on top; breaks off for a little lite-classical interlude; then returns to the distortion. It’s strange music, and great.
I try and bear this in mind now, when I slip back into auteur thinking, or when I dismiss manufactured pop just because it’s manufactured. There is no way for me to think through how these two albums got so good, how they remain both unique and generic, individual and not. I can’t assign credit for how they came to be. I just have to repeat what Pauline said in back Monkees Monthly No. 7: ‘THE MONKEES. ! ! xx ! ! xx!’