Hey, Hey, They're the Monkees: What John Lennon had to say about the band (and much, much more)
It's time to show some love and respect for the so-called Prefab-Four who not only starred on an Emmy Award-winning series but also had many Top 40 hits. Yes, they were a rip-off of the Beatles, but contrary to snarky news articles at the time, all four of the Monkees could actually sing and play musical instruments.
In the Beginning
Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider were aspiring filmmakers who believed that Beatlemania could be somehow translated into a US phenomenon. Their ultimate inspiration came from the "Can't Buy Me Love" sequence in the 1964 Beatles film A Hard Day's Night. They came up with the concept of a sitcom about a pop band in which each episode would include an original song and a fun film "romp," similar to the one featured in the Beatles' film. The pair placed ads in trades like the Hollywood Reporter during the summer of 1965 requesting "folk & roll musicians-singers for acting roles in new TV series" while simultaneously mining the songwriting talents of yet-to-be-discovered future stars such as Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson and John Stewart. Some 400 hopefuls auditioned for the show, and eventually the final four chosen were:
Davy Jones: The Boy Who Would've Been a Jockey
David Jones was born in Manchester, England, and (thanks to his diminutive stature) his father hoped he'd become a jockey. However, a talent scout happened by his school, liked Jones' looks and asked if he could sing. David was recruited to play the Artful Dodger in a West End production of Oliver! He ended up moving to New York to perform with the Broadway cast of the show, which is how he happened to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show the same night the Beatles made their U.S. television debut. Jones later said, "I saw the girls in the audience going crazy and decided that I wanted a piece of that."
Michael Nesmith: Songwriter to Linda Ronstadt
Michael was four years old when his parents divorced. His mom took a secretarial job at a bank to help make ends meet. She was also something of an artist, and painted the bank windows for various holidays in order to earn extra money. It occurred to her one day while typing and trying to erase an error that a painter simply paints over any mistakes. She started experimenting with white tempera paint to cover up typos and eventually marketed her invention under the name "Liquid Paper." When she passed away in 1980 Michael inherited some $50 million of her white-out fortune. In the meantime, though, young Michael yearned to be a musician and formed a folk band. He was also a burgeoning songwriter, and by the time he was hired as a Monkee, Linda Ronstadt had already recorded a song of his called "Different Drum."
Micky Dolenz: Circus Boy
George Michael Dolenz (as he was christened at birth) grew up in a show business family. His father had starred in the TV series The Count of Monte Cristo, and his mother worked as an agent. When Micky was 11 years old he landed the lead in a television series called Circus Boy. As a teen he sang, played guitar and occasionally drummed in various garage bands. But it was actually his knack for impersonations and improv as well as his comedic sense of timing that landed him a role as a Monkee.
Peter Tork: Suggested to the group by Stephen Stills!
After Peter Thorkelson graduated from college in Connecticut, he spent much of his time playing folk music in various clubs in New York's Greenwich Village. He eventually moved to the West Coast and got gigs on the L.A. folk circuit. Stephen Stills (later of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash fame) auditioned for The Monkees and was told that he'd be perfect for the show if only his hairline wasn't already receding and his teeth were in better shape. Rather than being bitter at the rejection, he immediately recommended his good friend and look-alike Peter Tork to the producers. Peter had the appropriate "look" and could also play guitar, bass and banjo, so the group was now complete.
John Lennon Praised Them
The show was an immediate hit and won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series after its first season. Their success was something of a double-edged sword, however, because the group felt compelled to go out on tour to prove themselves to those critics who claimed the Monkees weren't musicians. However, in the record business, it's always a matter of striking while the iron is hot, so the band had to write and record songs in between gigs. And then there was the matter of filming the next season of the series in their "spare time." As John Lennon later said when asked his opinion of The Monkees: "They've got their own scene, 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!"
Just a Word about the Songwriting
Neil Diamond's First Hit
If nothing else, the Monkees gave some fledgling songwriters their first national exposure. "I'm a Believer" gave Neil Diamond his first number one hit as a songwriter. They also gave Harry Nilsson (who would later go on to have hits on his own with "Without You" and "Everybody's Talkin'", to name a few) his chart success when they recorded his tune "Cuddly Toy":
Davy Jones wasn't a Believer
One of the Monkees' number one hits was "Daydream Believer," a song Davy Jones hated at first. He felt that it wasn't in his key, and he didn't understand the lyrics. (He was from England and didn't know what a "homecoming queen" was.) It wasn't until after the tune topped the charts that he grudgingly admitted, "Maybe it's not that bad of a song after all."
The Alternate Title of "Alternate Title"
Micky Dolenz composed a tune that he named after a phrase he'd heard on a British TV series called Til Death Us Do Part. When the song was released, however, BBC censors insisted that its name, "Randy Scouse Git," be replaced with an alternate title, since it was some sort of obscenity in British slang. Dolenz complied by re-naming his song "Alternate Title," and it went all the way to #2 on the British pop charts in 1967.
When Hip-hop started Monkee-ing around
Lest you think the Monkees are simply a 1960s relic, we submit for your consideration the 1991 hit single "Mistadobalina" by rapper Del the Funkee Homosapien. His inspiration (and vocal sample) came from a bizarre throwaway track by the Monkees called "Zilch." Peter Tork had been in an airport one day when he heard "last boarding call for Mr. Dobalina, Mr. Bob Dobalina" over the intercom. The rest of the primitive "rap" was improvised in the studio:
And a final word of Monkee Love
And, in the spirit of the holiday season, we leave you with this a capella version of the Spanish Christmas carol "Riu Chiu." All Monkee naysayers please note: They are singing four-part harmony on their own, no instruments, no electronic enhancement. So there!
Please feel free to share your Monkees love and favorite TV moments/songs/whatever at this time. And thanks so much for reading and commenting on TVHolic this past year. Happy Holidays to All!!