The Monkees- The Prefab Four and their unlikely rise to stardom.
"Madness!! Auditions Folk and Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for 4 insane boys ages 17-21. Want spirited Ben Frank's types. Have courage to work. Must come down for interview." Original ad for auditions for the Monkees TV show.
Imagine what it must have been like for four young men who didn't know each other at all to be chosen and thrust into a rock and roll band, television show, and media circus all at a young age. The fact that the Monkees TV show ever got made at all was a miracle, much less that it led to 40 years of concerts and great memories for baby boomers and their descendants.
It all started when the show's creators, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider got the idea for a TV comedy after watching the Beatles movies like Hard Day's Night. The mixing of comedy and rock music didn't seem like a natural fit, but the Beatles were so talented that they managed to pull it off. Could another group follow in their footsteps? The odds were not good.
Finally, in 1966, the creators got the green light from the producers to cast and begin producing The Monkees, and the show got off the ground. In two short years, 58 episodes were produced and many popular songs and albums were produced, and it says a lot about both the cast and producers that they were able to make this work. In just two years The Monkees won an Emmy award for best comedy, got fantastic ratings, and rocketed its stars to superstardom.
Called "The Prefab Four", the Monkees were derided by serious music critics as an artificial creation. The four musicians didn't play instruments on most of the early songs, nor did the write their own music. They were controlled by Don Kirschner, who made most of the important musical decisions until he was tossed out by the producers later on. This was a sore point with the Monkees, as they saw themselves as serious musicians and continually asked for a chance to play their own creations and appear in public actually playing live music. After the end of the first season, the band eventually got their wish, touring to Hawaii to play their first real concert.
The TV show itself is actually pretty entertaining, considering how new these actors were. Their personalities shined through, the stories were silly and stupid, and you got a sense that the band members genuinely cared about each other. (Though it later appears that the usual tensions between the four personalities broke up the band over and over in future years.) They invited over-the-top villains to be the foils, and the boys always prevailed while providing some great music in the process. The Monkees popularized music videos, famously got rid of the laugh track, and poked fun at themselves by breaking the fourth wall many times. The show is hard to find these days, and even DVD's are no longer in production, but I found all episodes readily available on You Tube.
Being a product of the sixties, there are a lot of shortcomings that most shows of that era shared. Women are not given meaningful roles except as screaming groupies. People of color are almost non-existent. The Vietnam War, which was raging at the time and causing massive protests, was never mentioned. And the fashion and hair style choices are definitely from that era. Still, the innocent mayhem the show represented was just what people needed back then.
Each member of the Monkees brought with them interesting stories and talents.
- Davy Jones, who died in 2012, was the first band member cast by the producers. He was cute, very British, small in stature, and got his start as a Broadway actor in the show Oliver!. Jones performed in Ed Sullivan show the same night that the Beatles made their first appearance, and their wild reception inspired him. While he was adept at keyboards and drums, Jones was chosen to sing vocals and stand in the front of the band because of his appeal to teen girls. You can usually see him playing maracas and the tambourine, if only to look like he's doing something. Even though born in the US, Jones was almost drafted by the US army and sent to Vietnam, a fact that caused him and the band great concern.
- Peter Tork, who died in 2019, was one of the last members cast. Tork was typecast as the "dumb" Monkee, and would find himself in all sorts of trouble in many of the episodes, only to be rescued by the other members. Tork played banjo, guitar, and did some lead vocals for the band, as well as writing some of their later hits. In 1969, he was the first one to leave the band, claiming exhaustion, and he had to pay the band $150,000 per year to get out of the last four years of his contract. After the show ended in 1968 and the movie "Head" flopped at the box office, Tork said that tensions within the band got much worse. After leaving the Monkees he struggled with addiction and financial problems, finally getting sober and joining in on reunions in later years.
- Mike Nesmith was probably the most serious and talented musician of the band, playing lead guitar, and he became the de-facto leader in negotiations with the producers. Nesmith wrote many of the later songs, and was the main instigator in the fight to perform and produce their own songs. He got the nickname "wool hat" because on the show he often wore a green wool hat on his head, initially to keep his hair out of his eyes. Nesmith left the band in 1970, and had strained relations with some of the members that caused him to miss some of the reunion tours. He also inherited a large sum of money from his family, the inventors of liquid paper, and didn't need the tour money anymore.
- Mickey Dolenz was originally an actor, but became the band's most popular vocalist with his distinctive voice. He was often seen as the drummer, but had a microphone back there so he could do double duty. Dolenz was the "funny" Monkee, and his comic abilities were almost as good as his singing. Dolenz stayed with the band the longest, taking part in every reunion and television special over 40+ years. He wrote a few of the Monkees songs, but it was his voice and personality that personified the band. And he almost was cast as the Fonz in Happy Days! (Henry Winkler was chosen instead because Dolenz was deemed to tall for the other actors.)
The Monkees TV show was cancelled in 1968 after only two seasons, though the network would have extended it for another year. (The ratings were great!) The boys wanted to completely change the format to a variety show, having bored of the comedy scripts, and the network refused. They tried their hand at movies in 1968 with a strange psychedelic movie, Head, written by a youngJack Nicholson. That movie bombed, and the band began its slow dissolution. Who knows what might have happened if they'd been able to switch to a variety show and stick around a few more years?
What amazes me is how resilient the Monkees have been since their cancellation and dissolution, coming back every ten years or so with new tours, albums, and appearances. Only an elite number of bands can make that much of an impact that people keep rediscovering them and asking for more. I recently attended the farewell tour, a show with just Mickey Dolenz and Mike Nesmith aided by a backup band, and it was packed with Monkee fans from all over. Dolenz sounded as good as ever, and it's clear that he's been the glue that has held this franchise together. We will miss them all when they're gone, but they leave behind music and mirth that perhaps future generations may discover.
Below are three great videos that give you some idea of the uniqueness of the Monkees.
The first one is their first single, Last Train to Clarksville, written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. When it premiered on the show only the vocals were the real thing, but eventually it became their big hit. Debuting a month before the show did, it climbed the charts and helped make the show a success. Supposedly about a soldier leaving for Vietnam, it tells a bittersweet story in a great package.
The second video is a fascinating interview with Mike and Davy that was added to the pilot episode. The Monkees was originally going to be passed on by the network because no one could identify with the band members. Once the audience saw these interviews, and the ways the boys showed their candid personalities, things changed dramatically, and the show was given the go ahead for production.
Finally, here is a surprisingly beautiful a Capella song from the Monkees Christmas episode. It gives you an intimate picture of how much they loved to produce music together, as most of us appreciate as well.