I'll admit it - I'm a Monkees fan. As a kid, I grew up watching syndicated reruns of the show in the mid-70's. It was silly, irreverent, had fun music, broke the fourth wall, and was an enjoyable guilty pleasure, just like other favorites of my youth - Batman and Gilligan's Island. Silliness for silliness' sake.
The music was a huge part of the show, although I didn't think of it as anything but part of the show at the time. I had a little tape recorder, and recorded the songs off the tiny, tinny little TV speaker, making my own Monkees mix tapes, long before there were mix tapes.
I lived in Seattle, and the only station running the show was KVOS 12 out of Bellingham. There was no cable TV at the time, so reception was spotty at best. I actually wrote to KVOS about it, and the station manager wrote back and told me that the Monkees had made records, and that would be the best bet for getting good recordings of their music. This was a revelation to me! I had no idea they'd made records. Up until this point, I'd never even bought a record. I just listened to the handful my parents had, or most of the time - radio.
So thus began my first experiences with vinyl hunting. Perusing used record stores for dusty classics. Buying record guides to find out what records they'd actually made, and then trying to locate good (yet affordable) copies of them. I did pretty well, although some of their later releases (after the show was canceled) were hard to find, and a couple of them I never found original pressings for. But still, a lot of the fun was in the hunt. I miss used record stores. Even that odd smell they all had. The most fun was had in discovering new songs that had never been included on the show. As they say, if I've never heard it, it's new to me.
I still didn't know much about the group itself though. Nothing about its history - was it really a band? Was it just a TV show? How did it all happen? Nothing. That is until about 1979, when I picked up an Australian compilation of hits, which had the whole story spelled out in the liner notes. And what a fascinating story it was...
Two musicians (Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith) and two actor/musicians (Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz) were hired through a now-famous casting call to play four down-and-out musicians on a television show - an American attempt to cash-in on The Beatles. The music was produced for them, and they provided lead vocals. The songs from the show were released on an album - The Monkees - which was meant to be a soundtrack for the show. And that was the intent - for The Monkees to be a TV show. Period. If they made some extra money from the soundtrack, then hey - bonus points.
But something odd happened. The music was a huge hit. Music from a TV show - not from a traditionally formed "organic" band. But it wasn't received as a soundtrack, it was thought of as a group album because of one oddity unique to The Monkees phenomenon: the characters they portrayed on the show used the actors' real names. You didn't have Bob Denver's Island. Or AdamWestMan. Or Captain William Shatner on Star Trek. But on The Monkees, even though they were playing TV characters in a fictitious band, their real names were used. And on the album, they were listed by what instruments their characters played on the show. Hence, the beginning of blurring the line between reality and TV.
When the world found out that the "band" wasn't playing all of their own music, a backlash ensued. Kind of ironic... someone getting up in arms about something on TV being "faked". Despite this, the music and show both continued to be huge smashes. But the four Monkees, being in their early 20's, completely full of themselves and at the center of the pop world's attention, wanted more. They wanted control, and within months, The Monkees had wrested musical control away from Don Kirshner (who had produced the first two albums) and united as a "real band". This was in no small part due to the fact that in order to promote the show and records (and make the production company even more money) they had to go out on tour, and perform live in front of screaming throngs of fans. No small feat for anyone, much less a group of guys just thrown together to act in a TV show. But they were competent musicians in their own right, and were able to pull it off. That experience, fueled by Nesmith's and Tork's musical aspirations, led to the revolt.
Once they'd gained musical control, they put out their third album - Headquarters - playing almost every instrument themselves. Their unity was short lived however, as the four individuals' interests began to diverge. Their fourth album - Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones - was a mix of them playing alongside studio musicians. And while perhaps not as "pure" of a group effort, it's arguably their best work. In 1967, The Monkees outsold The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined. Such is the power of youth-targeted manufactured pop music (did you think this was a recent trend?).
However, after that, things began to fall apart. In 1968, the group had tired of the formulaic TV show (as well as each other), and wanted a format change (something along the lines of Laugh-In). It's pretty clear watching the second season that a lot of the time they just seem bored by the whole thing (although there are exceptions - such as the excellent "Fairy Tale" episode). The network instead decided to just cancel the show. A movie they made that year (Head - co-written by Jack Nicholson, and directed by Bob Rafelson - later of Easy Rider), bombed mercilessly at the box office. It cynically deconstructed (or destroyed) the Monkees phenomenon, and was too "adult" for young fans of the show, and too closely associated with the show to be accepted by critics as anything else. For what it's worth, Head is, if nothing else, an innovative film. Using an almost stream-of-conciousness approach it weaves non-sequitur disparate stories together into a singular psychedelic whole. The editing is very avant garde for its time, as is the camera work. There's a satirical edge to the movie, skewering not just The Monkees, but the movie industry, music, politics, and the war in Viet Nam. There are also some of the best songs in their entire catalog featured in the movie, including a
At the end of 1968, after recording a disastrous TV special - 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee - Peter Tork left the group. After two more albums, Nesmith followed suit in early 1970, with the two last members releasing one final album and then calling it quits.
But that wasn't the end of it.
In the 70's, the show picked up popularity in reruns. Several Greatest Hits compilations were released, and Jones and Dolenz toured and recorded briefly with Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart - two of the most prolific songwriters for the group. Meanwhile, Nesmith had started a successful solo career in country-based rock and went on to win the first Grammy ever awarded for Video Of The Year. Along the way, he invented what would become MTV (we'll forgive him for that) and at some point inherited his mother's fortune for having invented Liquid Paper. Nice work if you can get it.
In the mid-80's Nickelodeon and MTV began re-running the TV series to huge response. Rhino Records re-released all of their albums, and this resulted in a renaissance of sorts, with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a 20th Anniversary reunion tour, and several new recordings, including a brand-new album. This was pretty-much all without Nesmith's participation, except for one on-stage reunion during a concert in Los Angeles.
After a couple of years, all of that fizzled out again. But then in the mid-90's, something else happened: the internet. Starting with Usenet (alt.music.monkees), AOL, IRC and other pre-World Wide Web relics, Monkee-fans, who each thought they were probably the only ones left, began discovering each other. Nesmith and Dolenz would even post to Usenet once in awhile, and as the 30th anniversary approached, there was yet another groundswell of interest. Rhino reissued the albums again (this time on CD), the entire series on VHS, and all four of the group got together to record another new album, tour the UK, and produce a prime time TV special. However, despite enthusiastic responses from the fans, the concerts were panned by critics, the album didn't sell well, and almost nobody watched the TV special (which frankly, was just as well). Nesmith tired of touring and bowed out of the US leg of the tour, and again, within a couple of years, the whole thing fizzled out.
Over the years, they have all toured as solo acts, with two or three of the Monkees getting together for some shows (most recently for an abbreviated 45th (!!) anniversary tour). They've all recorded solo efforts to varying degrees (most notably Nesmith - who has produced some excellent post-Monkees recordings). Rhino continues to release and re-release and re-re-release albums, including a seeming bottomless supply of bonus tracks (including three entire albums of nothing but unreleased material). After all, they had access to the best songwriters and studio musicians of the day, and took full advantage of it. The series has been released on DVD twice, most recently in a more affordable package, which I recently purchased and coincidentally just finished watching a few weeks ago. A while back, the Biography channel ran biographies of The Monkees and Davy Jones. There was TV movie based on the group, and even an ill-fated attempt to re-create the phenomenon at one point. The machine just kept rolling.
All of this for a TV show that was canceled after two seasons.
For me, my own interest in The Monkees has waned over the years. I hadn't watched the TV show in almost 15 years (between the VHS release and the second DVD release). I skipped over some of the endless re-issues of their recordings. After all, how many slightly different takes or mixes of a given song do you really want on your iPod anyway? I've never bought into the merchandise collecting aspect of it (and there is plenty of merchandise out there), and I'll go months, sometimes years at a stretch without putting on one of their albums. I'm not what you'd call a hardcore fan - believe me, I've met some of them.
But the whole phenomenon still fascinates me to this day. How it started, how it collapsed. How it's been reborn repeatedly, and how these four guys from wildly different backgrounds, who were thrown together seemingly at random, managed to make such a huge dent in pop culture. While in hindsight the TV show was hit or miss, they made some really solid, often excellent pop music that gets played on radio, used in advertisements and is featured in movies to this day. For my money, Pleasant Valley Sunday is still the best pop record ever made.
There was still a refreshing sense of nostalgia that kicked in when I watched the show or listened to the music. And the fanboy in me still hoped against hope that maybe all four of them might get together again for one more concert, or one more record.
Now though, the music is oddly tinged with a little sadness. Melancholy has replaced nostalgia. Ironically, in the next few days, people will be buying their albums again on iTunes. Their Biography specials will be re-run and updated with a sad bit of text at the end. MTV or VH1 or some cable channel will re-run their episodes. There will be one more rebirth of their popularity, even if only for a few days.
The reality of it though, is that this particular pop culture phenomenon has, at long last, come to an end.
Ditty Diego (from Head)
Hey, hey, we are The Monkees,
You know we love to please,
A manufactured image
With no philosophies.
We hope you'll like our story,
Although, there isn't one,
That is to say, there's many,
That way, there is more fun.
You've told us you like action,
And games of many kinds,
You like to dance, we like to sing,
So, let's all lose our minds.
We know it doesn't matter,
'Cause what you came to see,
Is what we'd love to give you,
And give it 1-2-3.
But, it may come 3-2-1-2,
Or jump from 9 to 5,
And when you see the end in sight,
The beginning may arrive.
For those who look for meanings,
In form, as they do fact,
We might tell you one thing,
But we'd only take it back.
Not back like in a box back,
Not back like in a race,
Not back so we can keep it,
But back in time and space.
You say we're manufactured,
To that we all agree,
So make your choice and we'll rejoice
In never being free.
Hey, hey, we are the Monkees,
We've said it all before,
The money's in, we're made of tin,
We're here to give you more,
The money's in, we're made of tin,
We're here to give you more!