Beginning in May 2011, the Monkees once again hit the road for the latest in a long series of reunion tours. Three of the original quartet, Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, and Peter Tork, have toured off and on under the band’s name since the 1980’s, often with considerable success. The fourth original member of the troupe, Michael Nesmith, participated in a concert or two over the years, and was also with the group for most of the 1997 tour dates. Nesmith is not included in the 2011 tour, although he is represented in the collage of film and movie clips used as the backdrop for the show, and also in the songs that the trio perform.
What is new this go round is that the Monkees are finally beginning to get a little respect from, of all sources, Rolling Stone magazine. This is a far cry from days gone by when the mere mention of the Monkees was enough to trigger snorts of derision among the so-called “serious” music set. While this perception of the Monkees and their musical abilities crumbled a bit during the Eighties tours, rank and file music fans still think of the group as being a product rather than a real band, usually without knowing the complete history behind the group and its battle to gain control of the music.
How It All Started
The origins of the Monkees are fairly well known. Davy Jones was already an established performer, having worked in theater in the United Kingdom and also on Broadway. At the time the Monkees project was being pitched, he was under contract to Columbia Studios and had also released an album on Colpix Records that had garnered a measure of attention. Legend has it that he was the only Monkee who did not have to audition for the project. The other three responded to an ad in Variety and from several hundred candidates were selected to fill specific roles in the project.
No one debates the fact that the Monkees’ television show was an attempt to cash in on the success of the Beatles’ movies and music. After the success of “Hard Day’s Night” and other Beatle vehicles, other bands like Herman’s Hermits and the Dave Clark Five were quickly rushed into movie projects. That somebody would come up with the idea of creating a TV series along the same lines and maybe sell a few records in the deal was inevitable.
Many purists point to this origin for the group and cite the launch of this television and record project as a sign that the group never had a musical soul. What is conveniently overlooked is that musicians auditioning for a project rather than just coming together happenstance has long been common in the music business. Without Albert Grossman doing some mixing and matching, the world would never have known Peter Paul and Mary. Cass Elliott would never have made it into what people remember today as the Mamas and the Papas. Even with the Beatles, it was Brian Epstein who made a decision to bring Ringo Starr into the lineup to replace a recently ousted Pete Best. With that in mind, the coming together of the Monkees is not really all that out of the box.
What Started the Ruckus?
From the beginning, there was tension in the recording studio. Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork were both capable musicians, having paid a few dues on the folk music circuit. Even at that early point, Nesmith was already a prolific songwriter and had released several records, none of them particularly successful. Tork was accomplished on a number of instruments and was well known in the Greenwich Village music scene. For their part, Micky Dolenz had a little experience with a garage band, and Davy Jones had done musical theater and had included a few pop songs on his debut album. Even allowing for the fact that Jones and Dolenz were primarily actors at that time, there was an established pool of musical talent among the four.
The angst had to do with the fact that the four were allowed little involvement with the first two albums, other than providing vocals. Still, both Tork and Nesmith played on a few of the cuts, and Nesmith contributed two of his songs on the debut album, and a third one on the second album. As the group balanced the schedule for filming the TV show with making personal appearances and learning how to play together, they became increasingly frustrated with the stonewalling about playing on their own recordings.
It was in this atmosphere that Michael Nesmith finally blew the lid off the whole pretense. While in England in early 1967, Nesmith announced to the press that the group was not allowed to play on their records and that the fans had the right to know what was going on.
Take a note here, those who like to compare the Monkees to the Milli Vanilli debacle of the 1990’s. The truth didn’t come out because of a snafu with the equipment at a concert or because a snitch leaked something to the press. In this case, a Monkee stepped up to the plate and laid it out for all to see. Even within that context, nobody has ever denied the fact that the four members of the group did their own singing, without benefit of a bunch of digital hocus-pocus.
What Happened Next
Rather than applauding the Monkees for telling the truth, they were crucified mercilessly by the rock press of the day. The facts that they did sing the songs and eventually took control of their records (with the exception of Changes, the 1970 album that many feel is best forgotten) and put themselves out on the concert stage so people could judge for themselves were conveniently overlooked. There were a few voices crying into the rock wilderness, such as John Lennon admiring the group for their combination of comedy and music, comparing them to the early Marx Brothers. Even the support of the late rock journalist, Lillian Roxon (who wrote the original edition of Rock Encyclopedia), who gave the group kudos for taking control of the music and performing live so people could judge for themselves, did little to earn the Monkees any credibility among those elite who claimed to know what was hip and what was not.
As the Monkees dwindled from a quartet to a trio and finally a duet by 1970, the conditions under which those first two albums were recorded continued to dog the group. In the years since, each Monkee has continued to hone their individual musical talents. Nesmith signed a contract with RCA and released a series of albums that are among some of the best examples of country-rock from the era. Nesmith is sometimes credited with creating one of the first bona fide music videos in the late 1970’s, and coming up with an idea that was eventually worked into MTV, the first music video cable network. Tork worked off and on in music, finally putting together an ace blues band, Shoe Suede Blues. Dolenz and Jones both continued to do projects together and separately over the years, in between Monkee reunions.
The bottom line is that much of the criticism of the Monkees is more folklore than fact. While never claiming to be the next big thing in terms of musical innovation, the group individually and collectively has made significant contributions to the music world. Even as membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still denied them, they have been recognized by the Hit Parade Hall of Fame, as well as being recognized for their contributions to television. And judging by the reviews of their UK and the first of their US concerts on their 45th Anniversary Tour, there are plenty of people out there who know first hand that the guys do sing, do play, and are truly a band in every sense of the word.