Fifty years of Monkee business

❉ Andrew Hickey, author of ‘Monkee Music’, offers a critical reassessment of the prefab four’s NBC series, which debuted 50 years ago

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Fifty years ago, on the twelfth of September 1966, NBC debuted one of the most important TV shows of its time – a show so important that when that other new September 1966 NBC series, ‘Star Trek’, returned for its second season, they introduced a new character, Pavel Chekov, as a direct imitation of one of the new series’ characters. A show so important that it was directly responsible for the start of the New Hollywood – the movement that would lead, within a decade, to directors like George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg. A show that only lasted two seasons but which was the most important link between the family network programming of the day and the burgeoning counterculture. A show which started as a standard family sitcom but which by the end was a fourth-wall breaking deconstruction of the very idea of the sitcom.

I’m talking, of course, about The Monkees.

A lot has been written, in recent years, about how the Monkees are underrated as musicians. Their 1967 albums ‘Headquarters’ and ‘Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd’. are both now regularly included on “best albums” lists, but even so almost every article about them has to start by saying “no, actually, they really were good musicians, honestly” – defending them against attacks that were made by music journalists who actually thought bands like Iron Butterfly were going to make music history, fifty years ago. For some reason, while we don’t pay any attention to anything else Jann Wenner says, music journalists still feel the need to placate the ghosts of his bad opinions when it comes to this band.

But even to do so, to treat the Monkees as a band that can be compared to Jefferson Airplane or the Grateful Dead or the myriad other wanky San Francisco bands that were for some reason actually perceived as the Monkees’ competition back in 1967, is to completely miss the point of what the Monkees were.

For a start, they were the first true multimedia creation – one reason that they have aged better than many of their contemporaries is that they fit better into the modern context than into their own time. While it was common practice for pop stars to try their hand at starring in films, or for TV performers to have a couple of novelty singles, no-one would seriously think that Boy Wonder, I Love You by Burt Ward was of the same importance as the Batman TV series, or that the Zombies’ guest spot in ‘Bunny Lake is Missing’ was as big a high-point as ‘Odessey and Oracle’. On the other hand, the Monkees were a TV series and a band, conceived as such from the start, and both aspects were equally important to their popularity.

You can see this if you look at any interviews with them – Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith clearly thought they were joining a band that happened to have a TV show, while Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones were taking a TV gig that involved them cutting a few records on the side (Dolenz says, in literally every single interview he’s ever done, that them becoming an actual band was like Leonard Nimoy becoming an actual Vulcan). In truth, they were both, and both were equally important.

So while the Monkees’ body of work as musicians is extraordinary, it’s also important to remember that the six albums they recorded as a four-piece, in a little over two years, and which included at least three masterpieces (‘Headquarters’, ‘Pisces’, and the ‘Head’ soundtrack), were recorded while also making fifty-nine episodes of a TV show, a film, and a TV special.

The film, ‘Head’, has been regarded as a cult classic for decades, and rightly so – it’s one of the most inventive, astonishing, films of the sixties, and required watching for anyone at all interested in the counterculture or just in good film-making. But the TV show has often been dismissed – or if it’s been talked about at all, it’s generally been the later episodes that have been discussed, and generally in their role as a bridge to the experimentalism of ‘Head’.

Those episodes are fascinating – seeing Tim Buckley perform Song to the Siren while perched on a car that had previously been used in a parody of ‘The Steve Allen Show’ by Michael Nesmith dressed as Frank Zappa and Frank Zappa dressed as Michael Nesmith is a reminder of just how odd the programme had become by the end of its two-year run (Buckley’s appearance is on an episode directed and co-written by Dolenz, about a talking marijuana plant from space).

But what all this misses is that even the first episodes of The Monkees were far, far, more innovative than they’re credited with. Dolenz and Tork, especially, often point out how the series was the first one on US TV to show minors living without adult supervision (the age of majority in the US at the time was twenty-one – two of the four Monkees were younger than that when filming started, and they were all playing slightly younger than their real ages), and this was indeed a major step forward.

But the real importance of the show was in its format. What little discussion there has been of the show has tended to emphasise its similarity to other American sitcoms of the time – ‘Gilligan’s Island’, ‘I Dream of Jeannie’, and so on. And it’s certainly true that in terms of the jokes used, it was closer to those than to the Marx Brothers films or Warner Bros. cartoons that inspired it – many of the jokes were of the same standard as those later used on ‘Scooby Doo’ (a show that also owed more to ‘The Monkees’ than is generally acknowledged, and on which Jones later guested).

People claim that the format is based on ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, but other than the brief Can’t Buy Me Love section in that film, which was an obvious inspiration for the musical romps in the series, there’s almost nothing in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’s austere black-and-white realism that’s remotely like ‘The Monkees’. ‘Help!’ is closer, as are the Saturday-morning Beatles cartoons which started broadcast around the time the series went into development. But still, there’s a fundamental difference there.

Just look at what that format actually was – four young men with radically distinct personalities, living together in one house, with no money so they’re forced to try various moneymaking schemes, and with no continuous female presence from week to week. They get caught up in fantastical plots, often break the fourth wall to talk directly to the viewer, and in every episode there’s a several-minute-long musical break, with little to do with the main plot, in which the main characters’ slapstick antics are soundtracked by a pop song.

In other words, it’s the same format as ‘The Goodies’, which had three young men, rather than four, but was otherwise nearly identical – and Bill Oddie has spoken about ‘The Monkees’ as a direct influence on the show. ‘The Goodies’ has no Davy character, and the characters dislike each other more than the TV Monkees do, but there’s a clear connection that can be made of Peter – Tim, Mike – Graeme, and Micky – Bill (indeed Dolenz and Oddie later worked together on the forgotten 80s children’s TV show ‘From The Top’). And ‘The Young Ones’ is another clear descendant.

And to be clear about this, this was not a format that had existed before that time. Without ‘The Monkees’, there would be no ‘Goodies’ or ‘Young Ones’ in the form in which we know them. British TV comedy would be unimaginably different.

‘The Monkees’ has recently been reissued on Blu-Ray, available exclusively from rhino.com . For more on ‘The Monkees’ as a TV series, I recommend Melanie Mitchell’s book ‘Monkee Magic’.

The Monkees’ music is finally getting the reassessment it deserves – and in their recent album ‘Good Times!’ they’re making music as good as any they made at the height of their career – but it’s time for a reassessment of their influence on TV. Maybe this fiftieth anniversary will be the catalyst for precisely that.


❉  Andrew Hickey has written books on topics including superhero comics, 1960s pop music, Doctor Who, and the intersections between those subjects. His first novel, Faction Paradox: Head of State, came out in 2015, and his most recent book, The Black Archive 7: The Mind Robber was published by Obverse Books in September 2016. His writing is crowdfunded at http://patreon.com/andrewhickey if you fancy giving him money.

4 Comments

  1. I’m not sure, Andrew, why you feel the need for the smack-talk on Iron Butterfly, the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. Isn’t it possible that those bands and the Monkees were good?

    • Personally, I’ve never heard anything by them that wasn’t incredibly dull, but obviously people can legitimately differ on that. The point I’m trying to make is more that people like Wenner created a “you’re with us or against us” attitude — which still persists culturally to a huge extent — saying you had to pick a side and *couldn’t* choose both.
      Now, if anyone ever does that, I automatically take the side they’re against *anyway*, but in this case I really do think that none of those bands did any music (that I’ve heard — I know the famous stuff, but have never gone deep in their catalogue) that rose much above the mediocre.
      I’m not trying to attack them as such — my point is more that people like Wenner were using bad political criteria to guide their aesthetic choices, and that that led to them also making what I would consider bad aesthetic ones. If someone likes those bands based on different criteria, I have no problem with that at all — and anyone who says “those bands *and* the Monkees were good” is not using those criteria.

      • Sorry to be coming so late to this. I think the point about the San Francisco bands was that their significance was more cultural than musical. It was music that went so well with a lifestyle (or philosophy or whatever you choose to call it) that when we look back on it now, after that counter-culture has dissipated, it seems kind of incomplete. The aesthetics remain while the politics are long gone. If at the time, it came with a “choose your side” rhetoric those two things were probably associated. The nearest thing for my generation was probably anarcho-punk bands such as Crass.

        But I don’t think that necessarily means the music’s all bad. I honestly can’t listen to the Grateful Dead without falling asleep. But Jefferson Airplane tracks like “Somebody To Love’ or ‘Volunteers’, those sound like genuine classics to me!

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