Number One With a Banana: Fans Go Ape Over the Monkees
Let’s put it in perspective right up front. The soundtrack to “West Side Story” back in 1962 held Billboard’s Number 1 spot in America for 54 weeks. Over a year, mind you, holding that top position. But if you look carefully, you’ll see that it didn’t retain that slot for 54 weeks in a row. No, the album that held the numero uno spot for the most weeks in a row would be another soundtrack, the one to “South Pacific.” It sat on the Billboard album summit uninterrupted for 31 weeks in 1958. Outside of soundtracks, no recording artists have had their LP last at number one over the length of that solid block of time. Sure, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” reigned supreme for 37 weeks…but again, it was a nonconsecutive stretch. One set of artists, however, did commandeer the top spot for 31 weeks in a row…with two back-to-back albums. These artists weren’t even supposed to be a real rock group. But from November 12, 1966 all the way to June 17, 1967, seven full months, America couldn’t get enough of the fabricated act known as The Monkees.
The times that gave birth to The Monkees may have had something to do with it. As 1966 was nearing an end, Vietnam was coughing up far more American casualties than had ever been expected. People were waking up to the fact that the engagement in Southeast Asia was turning into a full-scale war. During the summer, race riots were igniting all across the country on a regular basis. A guy named Charles Whitman had just climbed up the University of Texas’ tower and picked off innocent pedestrians with a high-powered rifle, in one of the country’s first instances of indiscriminate mass murder. In a peculiar fashion, Americans seem to look to popular entertainment at times of crisis to help anesthetize their fears and uncertainties. The biggest initial burst of production in the film industry occurred during the United States’ great Depression era of the 1930s. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that after JFK was assassinated, a mourning country embraced an innocent, happy-go-lucky quartet from Britain to lift them out of their sadness with songs of cheer and love. 1966 was unearthing more troubles and laying bare deep historical wounds in America. Yet those previously darling Beatles had just finished touring forever. They were holing up in the studio, moving into a more detached, introspective, psychedelic phase. The arrival of The Monkees couldn’t have been more perfectly timed.
The line between reality and make-believe truly blurred during these tumultuous months. As Americans tuned into a show about a rock ‘n’ roll group having fun and living a happy, fanciful life every week, somewhere along the way, folks began to believe that the personalities onscreen were actually living that musical life offscreen. One can argue that the calculation for this misconception had been knowingly orchestrated by the producers who set this whole endeavor into motion. Yes, they wanted people to watch their show. Sure, they counted on people buying the records. But at what point were The Monkees themselves supposed to stop being actors and become known primarily as musicians? Or was that supposed to happen at all? This part of the equation had not apparently been thought through.
Pop history has erroneously pinpointed the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” as the inspirational phenomenon that got Monkee creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider thinking about a sitcom involving a rock group. “I had the idea for the Monkees years before the Beatles arrived,” Rafelson clarified to author Harold Bronson. “I wrote it as a pilot for Universal in 1960. It was about a folk group – something about which I knew, because I was traveling with a group of four unruly and chaotic musicians in Mexico in 1953. I used many of the incidents that happened to me in Mexico when I was seventeen years old in ‘The Monkees’ episodes.” Rafelson had been immersed in music and television work throughout his early career. He created and directed the show “Hootenanny.” While The Beatles’ 1964 film renewed an interest in his idea, Rafelson was intent on assimilating many of the techniques coming out of the French New Wave style of cinema at the time. Namely, handheld camerawork, jump-cutting, and surreal storylines.
Sitting over at Columbia Studios was a friend of Bob’s named Bert Schneider. Bert’s father, Abe, ran Columbia. Abe had made his son treasurer of Screen Gems, an off-shoot company of the studio. One of Bert’s recent investments around the mid-60s was the purchase of a publishing group out of New York called Nevins-Kirshner Music. Schneider wished to oversee his own pop division. The publishing group he had bought was run by one of the best executives in the business, the guy people in “the know” referred to as “The Man With The Golden Ear.” Don Kirshner was his name, and he had a knack for putting together talented songwriters with promising musicians and selecting tunes that he knew were going to be hits. His golden touch had already spawned strong singles for acts like The Animals and Herman’s Hermits.
This collaborative mix of powerful people soon put in motion the Monkee machine. Bert and Bob dreamt up the idea of a comedy rock show, one in which they could peddle original songs directly to the teen market. This was the first time in history that the recording, radio and television industries would be utilized collectively to mutually foist a living commodity, one of popular entertainment, to eager consumers. As the years have shown since, it certainly galvanized a trend.
Forming their own company, Raybert Productions, Bert and Bob went to the head of Screen Gems, actor Jackie Cooper, star of the old Little Rascals films, and sold him on the idea. Money in the form of $225,000 was greenlighted for a pilot, and NBC was interested in seeing the finished product. Excitedly, the two men fashioned guidelines for the “types” of characters they wanted for their rock group.
At first, the duo considered hiring an established act that could play their own instruments and the producers would just shape the show around them. Bands like The Byrds and The Lovin’ Spoonful were put on a list. But soon that plan was scrapped with the reasoning that Bert and Bob would be tied to a pre-existing group’s previous recordings and contracts. “Bert wanted strange types,” Monkees’ lead singer Davy Jones later said. “He wanted raw, new stuff that he alone could bring in.”
Davy Jones was already under contract to Screen Gems. Born December 30, 1945 in Manchester, England, Davy Jones grew up to be a short, good-looking lad who dreamed of being a horse jockey. Instead, he became immersed in television and stage work in Great Britain, most notably in a recurring part on the BBC’s “Coronation Street” series. By the time he was age 15, Davy lived in New York in his own apartment and starred as the Artful Dodger onstage in the musical “Oliver!” He was nominated for a Tony Award in this role, and when the cast of his Broadway play was invited to appear on CBS-TV’s “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, they shared the bill with four soon-to-be-phenomenal musicians from Liverpool making their debut on American television. Hollywood beckoned young Davy thereafter, and he made appearances on primetime shows like “Ben Casey.” In 1965, he released a solo album under his own name. This is when he and Bert crossed paths.
Snaring Davy on-board his new sit-com venture, Bert teamed the young man up with another producer on the show, Ward Sylvester. Together, Ward and Davy went to local Hollywood nightclubs, searching for personalities that might be worthy of asking in to the studio for an audition. “We saw Mike first, hosting New Talent Night at the Troubadour, a folk rock club that still exists,” Ward explained to author Harold Bronson. Born exactly three years before Davy, on December 30, 1942, Mike Nesmith grew up in Texas as an only child. Unsure of his horizons, the soft-spoken, low-key Monkee-in-waiting did a brief stint in the Air Force before enrolling at San Antonio College to study music. With guitar in hand, teaching himself how to play, Mike worked the local folk clubs and soon settled down, marrying Phyllis Barbour in 1963. After the birth of their son, the family moved west to LA, where Nesmith joined with John London and Bill Sleeper to play in a folk trio, strumming under the uninspired name of Mike, John, and Bill. A single was released on Omnibus Records before Nesmith went solo. He soon released three more singles, one under his own name and two under the moniker, Michael Blessing.
It was actually an ad the producers placed in the Hollywood trade paper Variety in September 1965 that eventually piqued Nesmith’s interest enough to audition. “Madness! Auditions: Folk and Rock Musicians – Singers for Acting Roles in a New TV Series. Running parts for four insane boys, ages 17-21,” it read. Mike’s family 1956 station wagon had just been repossessed by a finance company. He was hurting for a break. He went to the audition. So did over 400 other wannabe Monkees. Legend has long held that one Charles Manson showed up for a crack at being a lovable teen idol. While this rumor’s never been verified, there was, however, another shy, soft-spoken fellow sitting in the waiting area that day with Nesmith by the name of Peter Tork.
Born February 13, 1942 in Washington D.C., young Peter Torkelson was weened in several eastern cities due to the callings of his father’s professorial teaching positions but soon settled into a suburb in Connecticut. Like Nesmith, Peter started playing guitar and soon fell in with the folk circuit. Opening for acts like Jose Feliciano in small Greenwich Village, New York clubs, Tork, who had shortened his name, became friends with another aspiring musician, Stephen Stills, later of the Buffalo Springfield. Along the way, he married a woman named Jody, but they divorced soon thereafter. Relocating to Los Angeles, Peter strummed his way around the city’s coffeehouses and made ends meet washing dishes for $50 a week.
His buddy Stephen Stills was called in to meet Bert and Bob. They were very interested in Stills’ musical abilities, but the confident singer/songwriter wasn’t too sure he had the acting bug in him. Agreeing with the producers to contribute to the music end of the project however he could, Stills went and told Tork about the show, urging the mellow folkie to try out. Thus, Peter showed up for the auditions on the same day as Nesmith. The two didn’t reach out and become chums that afternoon, nor would their relationship get much better over the years ahead. “Unfortunately, even from the very beginning, it was apparent that Mike and Peter were destined for confrontation. There really couldn’t be two more incompatible characters,” drummer Micky Dolenz observed in his autobiography. “Mike is pragmatic. Peter is ethereal. Peter is laid-back, Mike is impatient. Mike is oil, Peter is water. There’s no way these two would have ever gotten together to form a group under normal circumstances…” As for Dolenz, he tried his best to get along with everyone.
Born March 8, 1945 in Tarzana, California, Micky was raised by a family headed by an actor. Micky’s dad was featured in several movie roles throughout the 1950s. Whereas, Mike and Peter shared a background in music, Micky’s past mirrored that of Davy’s. Adopting the stage name Mickey Braddock, Dolenz starred as the orphan boy Corky in the 1956-1958 television program, “Circus Boy.” Cancellation of the series forced Dolenz to go from adulation overnight to regular Valley kid, facing life at a lower gear. He remained a thespian, guest starring on episodes of “Peyton Place” and “Playhouse 90,” but also began studying architectural drafting. By the mid-60s, Micky had a hankering to front a band. “I first saw Micky performing in a bowling alley with a group called the Missing Links,” producer Ward Sylvester told Harold Bronson. “Micky did seem to me to be the Jerry Lewis-like clown we were looking for. He was always on.” The wacky, and unemployed, Dolenz was invited to a private audition with Bert and Bob.
To find the “bent” attitude they were looking for in the tone of their project, Bert and Bob interviewed each subject differently. Sometimes they completely ignored the applicant. Or they tossed a golf ball back and forth to each other. Anything to arouse some spontaneity in the potential Monkee being interviewed. When Micky entered their office, the two producers were balancing soda bottles and paper cups, pyramid-style, on their desk. After a moment, Micky keyed into the madness, swiped a cup up, placed it on the stack, and shouted, “Checkmate!” He was hired shortly thereafter.
Bert and Bob finally had their foursome. Nesmith, Jones, Tork, and Dolenz. Rejecting names like The Inevitables, The Creeps, and even The Turtles (which, of course, was later used elsewhere), they settled on the misspelled Monkees, one small allusion to the misspelled Beatles. Since Peter and Mike were accomplished guitarists, they were to assume that role on the show. Davy would sing lead and bang a tambourine. Which left Micky, who also was a guitar player. With no training whatsoever, Dolenz was designated the group’s drummer for the series.
Two musicians who had approached Bert and Bob to be in the Monkees, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, but were passed over in the acting category, were nonetheless contracted to come up with two songs for the initial pilot episode. Along with the song “I Wanna Be Free,” they recorded “(The Theme from) The Monkees” using their own vocals. According to Hart, the show’s theme song was inspired by the Dave Clark Five’s single “Catch Us If You Can.” On November 13, 1965, filming began in Del Mar, California on the Monkees’ pilot episode and lasted five days. The four actors lip-synced to the Boyce/Hart compositions. Shortly after completion, Peter later related that he sat Micky down and taught him how to play the drums.
Bob edited the pilot and submitted it to the network for their approval. An audience test group gave it one of the lowest ratings possible for a potential show. Undaunted, Rafelson raced back into the editing room and re-cut the episode. Since the focus group seemed to find the Monkees brash and interchangeable, Bob put in snippets of the boys’ audition test screenings, where they were personable and distinctive. This became a fixture in future shows. The pace was chopped up more, giving it a freestyle feel. And the character of an adult manager who worked in a record store was excised from the storyline altogether. The young and hip Bert Schneider didn’t want any authority figure overseeing the boys’ antics. “Up until then, shows like ‘Father Knows Best’ and ‘My Three Sons’ always had adults,” Peter related to Harold Bronson. Micky observed to Creem Magazine, “The Monkees” ended up being the first time in the history of television that young people were seen as the leaders of their own destiny…free. And not smoking dope. And not screwing little 12-year old girls. And not being irresponsible.”
24 hours after submitting the revised edit, NBC gave the go-ahead order for 32 episodes. 72 hours later, major commercial sponsors were locked in to support the show. In the first few months of 1966, Bert and Bob began hiring writers and production staff. Don Kirshner, back in his New York offices, was given the title of music supervisor. His job was to corral a stable of songwriters and producers to come up with bonafide hits for the newly-minted foursome. Each episode would contain two songs, usually one used during a ‘romp’ montage or a ‘love’ vignette, and one ‘performance’ song the Monkees would be seen playing to. As for the Monkees themselves, well, they were left to try become acquainted with one another for awhile.
“When I first met Micky, I thought he was nowhere,” Peter told Tiger Beat magazine in April 1968. “I thought he was right out of ‘Readers’ Digest.’ He seemed to be everything I stood against: second-hand humor, second-hand situations, everything. I thought, well, they hired him because they needed someone with professional experience. Period.” Davy told Creem magazine, “We didn’t know each other very well when we were originally working together, and we hadn’t experienced a lot of things in common…we had no social hours.” However uncomfortable the foursome found their newly-forged relationship to be, they all agreed on one thing. They didn’t want to just be puppets on their television broadcast. “When we first found out that we were going to be the Monkees, we called a meeting to show each other what ideas we had and find out what directions we wanted to take,” Mike explained to Blitz Magazine in 1978. “We discussed our musical interests for awhile and figured we had better get some new equipment to practice on. We piled up in a truck and drove to a music store and bought about $5,000 worth of new equipment. We went into a studio and cut some rehearsal tracks.”
According to Nesmith, the group laid down close to a hundred songs, mostly covers of established tunes, but some were original compositions by Mike. “I can’t give you a specific figure on how many tracks we laid down,” Mike told Blitz Magazine, “but a hundred seems like a pretty accurate estimate. We recorded those in the studios at Columbia before the whole television thing started. Of course, at the time, we had no idea what was going to happen with the series. We were just a fun band.” A short time later, Don Kirshner called them into hear what they had recorded. “He listened and seemed to like what he heard,” Mike continued, “but also said that this was not at all the musical directions that he had intended for the Monkees. And you know the rest of the story. It soon became apparent to me that I would not be satisfied playing in that context for very long.” Kirshner was already putting out the word to studio session players that they were needed for upcoming Monkees’ recording gigs. Meanwhile, somewhat deflated, the four members holed up on Stage 3 on the Screen Gems studio lot and began to learn how to act with one another.
James Frawley was an actor in New York who worked with an improv group called The Premise, a troupe that featured George Segal and Buck Henry amongst others. Frawley had also directed a few short 16mm films in an avant-garde style. Both ingredients were perfect for his landing the job to coach and direct the Monkees in their television endeavor. For two months on the Hollywood soundstage, he honed their skills in technical and improvisational acting. On May 31, 1966, initial filming for the television series commenced.
Workdays were long, usually from 7:00 in the morning to 7:00 at night. The months of improv had paid off. The four actors were loose with each other, tossing in cutting remarks that left them in stitches. Although the Monkees would claim that many of their lines were ad-libbed, director Frawley stated that they stuck pretty close to the script. Out of the four characterizations the boys had to portray, Peter’s identity on the show was the least like his own demeanor. The Peter character on the program was naïve and a bit slow-witted. On the other hand, the real Peter, as Ward Sylvester told Harold Bronson, “is very intelligent and very well-educated. He always surprises me with allusions to classical music and to classical literature. He’s very spiritual and very insightful. He had to suppress an awful lot of that to be the Peter that we know from television.”
Studio lots were run very strictly with union rules that never allowed for much flexibility in those days. But Frawley was somehow able to coax the kinetic pacing he required for his show out of his exhausted team. “We had the fastest crew in Hollywood,” he related to Andrew Sandoval. “I would get sometimes 40, 50, or 60 setups a day – which is a lot of shots. Most television shows get 15 or 20 a day, but because of the nature of the editing, I needed very much to get that kind of rhythm going.”
Don Kirshner was not getting very far in finding producers willing to go into the recording studio to oversee music for what they perceived would be a project dismissed as a loser teeny-bopper show. Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart soon stepped back up to the plate. “I told Donnie, ‘I’ve got this band that I work with in clubs called the Candy Store Prophets,” Hart later shared with author Harold Bronson. “We’ll rehearse the songs that we would like to record with my group, and we’ll go into a cheap rehearsal studio, and you come down and listen and if you like what you hear, give us the job.’ He came down, and we played him two or three songs, and he said, ‘You guys got it. Go into RCA and start cutting the first album.’
On June 10th, the four members of the Monkees showed up at the RCA Victor Studios in Hollywood. Boyce and Hart were behind the console and their Candy Store Prophets were in the studio, ready to play. Glen Campbell was a session player at the recording and would sit in on numerous tracks throughout the next few months. Davy Jones sang lead vocal on Boyce/Hart’s song “Let’s Dance On.” The camaraderie that the four Monkees had built up over the preceding months exploded in carefree shoving and playful wrestling. Boyce and Hart had to halt the session. “From that night on,” Bobby Hart to Harold Bronson, “we never had more than one Monkee in the studio at a time. We just didn’t trust what might happen.” Micky Dolenz wound up singing lead on the song during a July 6th recording session.
Music producer Jack Keller, on the insistence of Don Kirshner, began to sit in on Boyce and Hart’s sessions to oversee quality and give his two cents’ worth. On July 7th, while Boyce and Hart were recording some of the Monkees singing tunes at RCA Studios, Mike Nesmith set up over at another Hollywood studio, Western Recorders, and began laying down his own tracks. They recorded a song Mike had written called “Papa Gene’s Blues.” The style of the song was a little bit of country, but most certainly with a rock-tinged edge. Nesmith was adept at fusing these two genres, and as his song catalog grew, one could easily isolate him as one of the first progenitors of country-rock. During this session, he allowed more than one Monkee to sit in the studio with him. Peter played his guitar with five other session guitarists on the track. This moment would be the only time that any member of the band would be lending an instrumental contribution to the recordings laid down for the group’s first two blockbuster albums.
“Mike fought hard to be involved in the recordings,” Micky related in his biography. “He put together his own studio group and got a couple of his songs on the first album, and was encouraging the rest of us to do the same. It wasn’t all altruistic, mind you. He knew full well what the economic potential was of writing a number one hit song, and he wanted his chance.”
And so it went, throughout the rest of July, Boyce and Hart recorded their sessions, while Mike was producing some of his own. Since the four Monkees acted all day long at Screen Gems, evenings were spent sequestered in recording. They were definitely working on overdrive. During a July 25th session, each Monkee was given a crack at singing lead vocals on Boyce and Hart’s song “Last Train To Clarksville” that night. As was the case with the majority of The Monkees’ output, Micky was given the lead. This recording would be issued as a single on August 16, 1966, with the B-side song “Take A Giant Step,” and rock fans would soon be waking up to a worldwide phenomenon.
Don Kirshner was constantly sending out tunes written by his contracted employees in New York for song consideration on the albums. Carole King and her husband Gerry Goffin wrote a number of tunes for the Monkees during this period, including “I Won’t Be The Same Without Her,” “So Goes Love,” and “Sweet Young Thing.” Towards the end of July, the group was already recording songs that would ultimately appear on their second album, like “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.”
When “Last Train To Clarksville” was finally issued as a single in mid-August, nobody had heard of the Monkees. Their show had still not debuted. Nevertheless, it made its way into the Billboard Top 100 in a month’s time. By November 5, 1966, after the programs had become “must-see” TV, the single went to number one on the chart for a week. While many detractors saw the group as a fabricated pop machine with no social conscience, according to Micky, the Monkees were subversive from the start. He claimed to Creem magazine that “Last Train To Clarksville” was anti-war. “It was about a soldier. ‘And I don’t know if I’m ever coming home’ (the lyric). It was subtle.” Bobby Hart, who co-wrote the tune, later told Harold Bronson, “The song’s about a guy who’s going off to war, not knowing if he’s ever going to come back. He wants to spend one more night with his girlfriend. We never considered it a war protest song until we heard Micky Dolenz in an interview explaining it that way. I thought, ‘Why not, it sounds good to me.”
By the start of August 1966, the first season of “The Monkees” had finished production and the group had laid down all of their tracks for their debut album. The foursome, nonetheless, spent the rest of the summer back in the recording studio. The first episode of their show was set to air on Monday, September 12th at 7:30pm on NBC. Local Los Angeles radio station KHJ was playing “Last Train To Clarksville” on the hour every hour leading up to the 12th. To meet the press and let America see their faces, the Monkees flew by helicopter to Del Mar, California on September 11th, landing near a 16-passenger train. Climbing aboard, they sang a few tunes and chatted up reporters all the way back to LA. The next day, their nutty, off-the-cuff series began. Although the storylines were simplistic (i.e. The Monkees save a princess, go to a séance, work for a toy company, etc.), the viewing audience, especially young children and teenagers, became entranced. The boys’ charm was the element that kept people tuning in from week to week. And, of course, the hit songs. The Monkees became an overnight sensation, pretty much, overnight. By the end of October, the show was number one in ratings for its time slot.
Monkee cards, lunchboxes, wool hats, posters, bubblegum, and models flooded the marketplace soon after. Bert and Bob had a goldmine on their hands. The Monkees themselves almost didn’t seem to notice. They were back in the recording studio during the rest of September and much of October, churning out future tracks for albums. Don Kirshner began to augment Boyce and Hart’s output by hiring producer Jeff Barry in New York to record all the instrumentation for songs like Goffin/King’s “Sometime in the Morning” and “I Don’t Think You Know Me,” and then he would send the tapes to Los Angeles for the Monkees to insert their vocals onto.
One of these tracks recorded in late October was written by a popular singer in his own right, Neil Diamond. “I’m A Believer,” with Micky Dolenz on lead vocals, would be released the following month as a single and hit number one on the chart almost immediately on November 12th. “The individual song that was near and dearest to my heart was ‘I’m A Believer,” Don Kirshner related to Harold Bronson, “because Neil Diamond really wanted to keep the song for himself, and it was a major fight to get it from him. I think it’s Neil’s biggest song as a writer. It’s my particular favorite because that song catapulted the Monkees into a whole different level, and got the whole feeling of every boy and girl in America wanting to be part of the Monkees’ phenomenon.”
That phenomenon translated to almost 5,000 fan letters being received from around the country a day. And it yielded the Monkees a number one album. Released shortly after the debut of the show, the group’s self-titled debut LP rose up the Billboard album chart over a six week period. On November 12, 1966, the same day as their second single hit the top of its chart, the Monkees’ album nudged aside the soundtrack to “Dr. Zhivago,” and went on to remain in the number one album position for 13 consecutive weeks. The singles, the album and the TV show had officially and effectively launched Monkeemania.
The Monkees were elated but also exhausted. Micky and Davy moved into a rented house in the Hollywood Hills, and the boys barely had any time to themselves. The only social gathering they seemed to savor was playing together in a weekly softball game in the San Fernando Valley. Micky related in his biography that he’d been so busy, he truly had not grasped the enormity of their popularity. In early December, he went to a mall in the Valley where he always shopped in the past to buy some Christmas gifts. “I was busy concentrating on my shopping list and hadn’t got more than fifty feet inside when I heard screams! I looked up and saw dozens of people running toward me. ‘S***! A fire,’ I thought to myself. I turned to run out of the door but was surrounded. They weren’t trying to get out. They were trying to get me! I barely made it out with my life. And never got my shopping done. There was no doubt about it…I had arrived.”
The media and even some of the Monkees’ own publicity machine seemed to constantly refer to their image as a copycat of the Beatles. “They want us to be the Beatles,” Mike told Look magazine in December 1966, “but we’re not. We’re us. We’re funny. They’re in the middle of something good, and they’re trying to sell something else.” Peter later told Creem magazine, “We weren’t the Beatles, and we never said that we would be. We never said that we were going to be the Beatles. What we were is what we were. Which I look back on it now, and I think we were unique.” John Lennon seemed to support America’s new sensation, empathizing with the harried overexposure. “They’ve got their own scene,” he said, “and I won’t send them down for it. You try a weekly television show, and see if you can manage one half as good!”
One of the main arenas the boys hadn’t conquered up to this point was performing live. The four members felt they’d rehearsed enough together to be able to put on a decent show. Dick Clark lent a hand in booking their first gig at the Honolulu International Center Arena in Hawaii on December 3, 1966. The reason they picked that remote location was, according to Micky, because should they bomb, who would know? The concert was a success. While the craftsmanship of the Monkees performance might have been average, the audience of screaming, hysterical fans didn’t seem to mind. Another plus from the show was the fact that Davy Jones met Linda Haines, a clothes designer, who would later become his wife.
The Monkees were subsequently booked on a 12-city jaunt across America beginning the day after Christmas. Hordes of fans camped outside their hotels, and the concerts were sellouts. Unbeknownst to the foursome, Kirshner had hastily assembled tracks together for a second album, “More of The Monkees,” and Colgems, their label, released it while they were in the Midwest on their first tour. “The second record was so angering,” Peter related to Harold Bronson, “because Donnie almost militantly cut us out of the process. By that time we were playing our own music onstage, and we were righteously pissed that the album was released without our knowing anything at all about it. We thought those tracks were being recorded for the TV show, not a new album. We were on the road at the time, and somebody went across the street to the mall to get a copy. We had to buy the album just to hear it.”
Micky wasn’t as concerned about the album’s music as he was about the cover photo the record company plastered on it. The snapshot featured all four Monkees standing side by side, wearing some very dated looking ‘60s wear. Micky told Chicago DJ Ken Cocker, “They made some deal with some clothes company (J.C. Penney), and we had to wear those clothes. Of course, back then there was a lot of paisley around. I don’t know what we were thinking.” However miffed the boys were about the release of this new album, it managed to enter the Billboard chart at number 122 on February 4, 1967, less than a month after its release. One week later, it leapt to number one. “More of The Monkees” knocked their debut album “The Monkees” from the top spot. And this follow-up album would remain perched in the primo position for a longer period of time than its predecessor. For 18 consecutive weeks.
However successful the band had become, The Monkees were disillusioned. What had started as four actors trying to pretend as if they were a full-fledged rock outfit had evolved into four actors eager to truly become an established rock outfit. In fact, just six days after their second album was released, the boys took time off from their tour to go into the studio to lay down some tracks of their own. Instead of Boyce and Hart, or Jack Keller, or Jeff Barry — all previous producers sanctioned by Don Kirshner — the Monkees asked Chip Douglas, a former bassist with The Turtles, to oversee their session. The band re-recorded a tune of Mike’s they first tried recording back before the series had begun. The song, “The Girl I Knew Somewhere,” would soon prove to be a volatile turning point for the group.
Finishing up the last of their gigs on the Winter ’67 tour in Phoenix and San Francisco on the 21st and 22nd of January, the boys took a much-needed vacation. Peter went back to New York, Davy jetted to the Caribbean, and Micky went to London. Mike would later head to London, but he spent some time venting his displeasure of the group’s first two albums to the press. “The music had nothing to do with us,” he related in the January 28, 1967 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. “It was totally dishonest. Do you know how debilitating it is to sit up and have to duplicate somebody else’s records? That’s really what we were doing…Our records are not our forte. I don’t care if we never sell another record…Maybe we were manufactured and put on the air strictly with a lot of hoopla. Tell the world that we’re synthetic because, damn it, we are. Tell them the Monkees were wholly man-made overnight, that millions of dollars have been poured into this thing. Tell the world we don’t record our own music.”
The Monkees’ “secret” had been revealed…not that many folks hadn’t already suspected that they weren’t a “real” group in the first place. But with Mike’s naked revelations to the media, many critics, especially those with journalism degrees, took up a lot of print space chastising and mocking the Monkees because of their ruse. This backlash only fueled the group’s desire to take control of their musical destiny.
Shortly after their respite, Don Kirshner flew out to Los Angeles to give each band member a $250,000 royalty check from their first album. On that day, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, he also presented them with gold discs. Talk got around to their next single. The song “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” was slated to be on the 45’s A-side. For the B-side, Kirshner was opting for a Jeff Barry song called “She Hangs Out.” Mike argued that the band wanted to make their recording of “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” the single’s B-side. Angry words were traded. Mike threatened to quit the band. A crony of Kirshner’s in the hotel room threatened Mike with contractual obligations. Mike ended all threats by smashing his fist through the wall. Kirshner later told Harold Bronson his take on Mike’s standoff. “He said, ‘We’re not recording for you anymore. We want to do our own thing.’ But they all took the money on the work we did on the first albums, then went crying back to Bert and Bob. Because Bert’s father was the president of Columbia Pictures, he had a lot of clout. He said, ‘We want to get rid of Donnie Kirshner.”
Peter conveyed to interviewer Bronson the band’s side of the argument. “What we asked for was to be allowed to be the studio musicians on our own records. We did not ask for creative control. We did not ask to be the producers. We did not ask to replace Kirshner.” Nonetheless, Bert and Bob fired the Man with the Golden Ear. Micky’s later recollections about Kirshner were complimentary if somewhat hazy. “To be honest, I remember very little about Donnie Kirshner,” he wrote in his biography. ‘In years to come he was to claim the title of ‘Monkeemaker.’ That was certainly an overestimation, but he undoubtedly had a profound influence on what we recorded and what was released and, hence, our musical careers.” For Mike Nesmith, his latter day assessment of their music supervisor was almost laudable. “This is really the last thing you’d expect to hear out of a guy like me,” he told Blitz Magazine, “but whatever went down between Don Kirshner and myself at the time simply happened. Don is a corporate executive and simply fulfilled that role.”
The four Monkees had gotten what they wished for. Beginning in March 1967, they sequestered themselves with Chip Douglas at the RCA Victor Studios to lay down tracks for their next LP, “Headquarters.” “We buried ourselves in the studio for six to eight weeks,” Micky said. “That’s all we did. We just recorded that album from start to finish. We lived in there. We slept in there. We had sex in there. It was really down and dirty.”
The resulting album was vibrant, well-produced, and musically-sound. In fact, it sounded much in the same vein as, well, their first two albums. The group was quite satisfied with their effort. Around this time, the last show of their first season of “The Monkees” was broadcast on April 21st. The episodes would be re-run throughout the summer, and Monkee madness only escalated. The boys went back into production on their second season episodes for the television show. With more clout to their name, they demanded more perks. A huge, empty storehouse was placed outside their soundstage, allowing the Monkees to lay about on throw pillows on its floor, play music as loud as they wanted, and smoke pot to their hearts’ content in the dimly-lit interior.
They sought more innovative techniques from director Frawley to insert into their show. Film was shot backwards and edited haphazardly in a scene. Lighting effects were used in surreal moments. Clips from news programs were dropped in for no apparent reason. “I think it marked a very free, innovative, stylistic approach to filming television in a way I haven’t seen since then,” Frawley told Andrew Sandoval. “There are things I see on television now that I think are very innovative stylistically – like the pilot for ‘NYPD Blue.’ But, I think at that time, there was a freedom and an energy that was quite remarkable. A style that was set, that was, as I say, very original for American television.” Frawley went on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Comedy and the show won an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.
The hysteria surrounding the Monkee phenomenon was such that typically outlandish stories began to circulate amongst the band’s many detractors. Micky tried to address these rumors in the May 1967 issue of Tiger Beat. “Since our show went on TV, I’ve heard the following things about us:
- We were killed in a plane crash.
- We all hate each other.
- I’m mad at Davy because he gets all the girls.
- Mike and Phyllis are getting a divorce.
- Peter is dying of a strange disease.
- We were killed in a car crash in Hawaii.
- Davy’s quitting the Monkees.
- We don’t play our own instruments.
Rumors can be pretty bad things when they get started, and all of these that I’ve just mentioned really upset us, and I’m sure they don’t make our fans very happy. Naturally, the answer to all of the above rumors is a big ‘No,’ except the last one, and that’s a ‘yes’ because we do play our own instruments.”
“More of the Monkees” finally ended its reign at the top of the charts on June 17, 1967. The consecutive 31 weeks of being the number one group in America had finally reached the finish line. Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass jumped up to the number one spot that week with the album “Sounds Like…” But Herb’s effort stayed in place for only 7 days. On June 24th, with no single to release from the album, the Monkees’ first authentic group effort, “Headquarters,” put the pre-fab foursome back at number one.
Monkeemania was at its height that summer as the group hit the road again to tour, starting in London on June 30th. And for their opening act, they landed a future legend. “I was in New York, it must have been ’67,” Micky Dolenz recalled for Creem Magazine, “and somebody said you gotta go hear this guitar player. He plays with his teeth. He was playing with the Albert Hammond Group at the time. And so I went down to the Bottom Line or somewhere down in the Village, and there he was playing guitar with his teeth. I thought, ‘Wow! Great!’ And then, God, I guess it was six or eight months later, I was at the Monterey Pop Festival, and simultaneously we needed an act. And the Jimi Hendrix Experience got up onstage, and I said, ‘I know that guy! He was playing guitar with his teeth in the Village.’ Our producer said to us, ‘Well, you need an opening act,’ and I thought he’d really be great. He was colorful and psychedelic, and I was really into that at the time. So we hired him, and he opened for us on quite a few dates.”
Mike Nesmith had already been introduced to the caterwauling sounds of Hendrix during a period he had stayed in London earlier in 1967. While having dinner with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton, John had played them all a tape he’d acquired of Hendrix. Mike had gotten to hear something else while visiting with the Beatles. “I was staying with John Lennon during the recording of the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ album,” he told Harold Bronson. “He would come home and play the acetates from the day’s sessions. ‘What do you think of that sound? Do you think there’s too much bass on there?’ And, of course, I just didn’t have anyway to talk to him because he was just rearranging my musical realities at the time.” Ultimately, the reign of the Monkees’ third album, “Headquarters,” was cut short, prematurely so, after just a single week, when the landmark “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” album shot straight to number one on the Billboard chart on July 1, 1967.
As this month rolled on, Hendrix only lasted seven concert dates with the Monkees. His style of music was obviously so far removed from what the headlining foursome had to offer, and it became quite embarrassing to the group when their teeny-bopper fans out front shouted, ‘We want Davy!’ in the midst of Jimi’s sets. As for the Monkees’ performances during this tour, the screams of adulation seemed to exceed those that emanated from teenagers who witnessed their first set of shows earlier in the year. “We would burst out of these big mock Vox speakers onto the stage,” Micky recalled for interviewer Bronson, “and the place would go bananas. We had one of the first multimedia presentations; we projected this film up behind us on a big movie screen. We’d play big arenas, and it was just when the little flash cameras had come out on the market. The Instamatics, with a flashcube. So, like, 15,000 times four of these little flashcubes would go off simultaneously.”
Just like their Beatle pals, Monkee fan frenzy wasn’t relegated solely to the arenas. Hordes of followers camped outside every one of their nightly stopovers, trying to bribe their way past zealous desk clerks to get a glimpse of their heroes. “I remember once in New York, we pulled away from a hotel,” Micky further related, “and the police and the guards hadn’t been able to keep the kids away from the limo. A couple of them grabbed onto the back and hung onto the antenna or the roof, and the driver was told to take off. He’s in the front and the window between us and him is up, and he’s going thirty miles an hour down Fifth Avenue, and these kids are hanging on the back of the car going, ‘No, wait, stop!’ We didn’t know what to do. He took a corner at thirty miles an hour, and these two kids just bounced off. They got up and were okay and had a great story to tell. It got kind of scary at times.”
After the tour, the Monkees went into the studio to record their fourth album, “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.” Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s wonderful hit “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was included on this LP. Their attitude toward recording had changed once again, however. “Well, after ‘Headquarters,’ we all enjoyed having the control of the vision so much that we didn’t want to give it up to anyone, not even each other,” Micky related in his biography. They went back to recording their songs separately, using studio session players to help them with their individual tracks. The group had reached its zenith. The ensuing decline was long but steady.
The second season of shows premiered on NBC on September 11, 1967. This time the network had only committed to 26 episodes. The Monkees’ last hurrah came with the release of “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.” The album entered the Billboard chart at number 29 on November 25, 1967, and a week later on December 2nd, it scurried to number one. The single “Daydream Believer” also hit the top spot on this date and remained there for a week. Five weeks later, the Beatles were back to kick the Monkees off the pedestal with their release of “Magical Mystery Tour.” The death knell began to sound for this very fortunate quartet.
Jack Nicholson was a friend of Bert and Bob. Having only acted in B-grade movies up to 1967, the charismatic entertainer offered his services to help The Monkees make their first foray onto the big screen. Over a long three-day weekend, the group and Jack checked themselves into a golf resort in the mountainous coastal town of Ojai and brainstormed ideas for their feature film. After much inebriation and toking, Jack had enough material to fashion a whacked-out screenplay called “Head.” It was basically a freestyle, vignette-driven narrative, much like “The Monkees” television program, except that it was overtly more open in its acceptance of the subject of drugs and vehemently opposed to the nation’s involvement in Vietnam. Filmed from February 11, 1968 to May 21, 1968 at a cost of $750,000, the supporting cast was made up of an eclectic group of performers including Annette Funicello, Sonny Liston, Frank Zappa, and Victor Mature.
When the film opened in November 1968, “The Monkees” show had already been cancelled. The group’s fifth album, “The Birds, The Bees, and The Monkees” had not been a commercial success. And critics panned the scattershot dark big-screen comedy, already relegating the foursome to the relic bin. The movie only took in $16,111 in ticket sales.
The writing had been on the wall for sometime. “We were a pain in the a**,” Peter allowed to interviewer Harold Bronson. “We did things that I look back on now with horror. I think Bert and Bob had love/hate feelings for us. They liked us because we weren’t normal characters, and this is a case of taking the bitter with the sweet. You can have Hollywood-trained actors who know how to be quiet and sit still when they’re supposed to sit still, and act when they’re supposed to act, but you’re not going to get crazies like us. I think they eventually got sick of it and didn’t want to do it anymore.” By the end of 1968, the two producers were, indeed, preoccupied in other matters – that of helping Nicholson and his pals Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda get a film called “Easy Rider” off the ground.
Tork was the first to bail. After the group taped a bizarre special for NBC called “33 1/3 Revolutions per Monkees,” Peter informed his bandmates that he was quitting. “For me, it never was a case of the bubble bursting,” he later told Creem Magazine. “It was much more a case of leaving the bubble through the airlock as it slowly fizzled away. I only see this in retrospect. At the time, I wanted to get out because I wanted to be a Beatle-type musician. I wanted to lead my own band. I had no idea how difficult that was at the time. I just wanted to go off and do my own things. Now I wonder about my attitude then. I think it was probably a false attitude.” Nevertheless, after fulfilling a final obligation to tour the Far East with his fellow friends, Peter dropped out.
“If the truth be known, the day Peter quit was probably the happiest day of Mike’s life,” Micky Dolenz wrote in his biography. “They’d never really gotten along, right from day one. Mike had always perceived Peter as untenable, and they’d always been adversarial, if not outright combative.” The remaining threesome loped on, releasing two albums, “Instant Replay” and “The Monkees Present,” that failed to make an impression on consumers or radio station programmers. Although most fans found these LPs to contain middling material, Mike Nesmith had consciously tried to shake up the group’s formula. “What I was doing with the Monkees at the time of the last two albums I appeared on,” he explained to Blitz Magazine, “was to try and move us in the direction of country rock. Of course, I had no intention of leaving the group at the time those albums were recorded, and I had long range goals for us in that retrospect.” In 1969, after Micky purportedly upstaged Mike one night while the Monkees appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Nesmith quit the band.
On January 3, 1970, Davy Jones told New Musical Express magazine, “So far as I am concerned, the Monkees are dead. I am planning a new career on my own.” Before he closed the cage door behind him, Davy ambled back into the studio one more time with Micky Dolenz, and with just the two of them remaining, they released the uninspired Monkees album “Changes.” Not many fans were open to such a depressing change. The era of Monkee madness was over.
Micky went on to direct television shows and music videos in England. He toured with the off-Broadway musical of “Grease!” with Davy. In the ‘90s, he recorded an album for children. Davy sang in different rock revues over the years and got to race as a horse jockey in England. Peter taught school for awhile before performing in a band called the New Monks. He subsequently released a solo album. Mike went on to a successful solo career. He won the first ever music video Grammy award for his landmark TV special “Elephant Parts.” He wrote and directed a Monkees special that aired on ABC. And he spawned a production company, Pacific Arts, which dabbled in films, videos, music and software products.
In 1986, Davy, Peter and Micky toured again as the Monkees. Mike joined them onstage during one performance at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre. A decade later, all four members recorded a new album, “Justus,” that sold a respectable amount of units.
Back in 1966, Micky told Look Magazine, “We’re advertisers. We’re selling a product. We’re selling Monkees. It’s gotta be that way.” But, the Monkees achieved more in their brief stint in the spotlight than just stale hucksterism. They broke out of a mold that had been haphazardly cast around them. Since their roles were ill-defined, they took advantage of their good fortune and strove to establish themselves as something more than just characters stuck between commercial airtime. Did they succeed in making us believe they were serious musical artists? Probably not. But they were groundbreakers. 31 weeks in a row. It’s a tough statistic to easily dismiss. The pop-perfect compositions are still difficult to shake. So what if we could never quite put our finger on whether they were better actors than they were musicians?
The Monkees were great performers, plain and simple.
© 2001 Ned Truslow