chip the turtle

Past & Presents: Day 11

Catch & Release

Kelly was in the middle of a rather wonderful dream. He couldn’t quite say why it was wonderful, or even what the fuck was going on, but when he dragged his eyes open and blinked at the rafters above his loft bedroom, he was sorely disappointed to no longer be immersed in that dream.

He closed his eyes, stretching beneath the thick quilts and sighing. Nick grunted beside him when Kelly inadvertently smacked him in the face, and then he took Kelly’s hand in his and rolled over, pulling Kelly’s arm with him until he’d forced Kelly to wrap around him and hold him.

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The Monkees: Manufactured Mockeries or Musical Masterminds?

When they first came “walking down the street”, the Monkees were viewed as anything but legitimate artists.  Instead, the ‘60s group was perceived as just a bunch of “long haired weirdos” on a comedy television show–manufactured byproducts of the Beatles’ success and nothing more.  Even today, the Monkees have been snubbed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as some still consider them “not a real band”.  But what criteria decides what a “real band” is, anyway?  This prejudice towards the group is an uncharitable view of the Monkees and the significant impact they had made as musicians in the ‘60s and beyond.  I’m here to explain why, along with providing a look into the career of the “Pre-Fab Four”.

Early beginnings

The beginnings of the Monkees can be traced back to the year 1965, when television show creators, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider were looking for four young men to play members of a fictional band in a weekly comedy, a concept inspired by the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night, which was released the previous year.  After over 400 responses, and numerous auditions, the final four were finally chosen: Michael Nesmith, a musician from Texas, Peter Tork, a musician from Washington D.C, Davy Jones, a television and Broadway performer from Manchester, and Micky Dolenz, an actor from California.  From the start, the boys were not allowed to play the instruments on the records, professional musicians were hired to play the music, and the famous songwriting duo, Boyce and Hart, were initially employed to produce and write the songs for the group. 

A “fake” band topping the charts

In 1966, a few weeks before the first episode of The Monkees was to premier, the Monkees released their first single, “Last Train to Clarksville”.  The song, written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, became a number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100.  The publics’ ears were open to the first time to the sound of the Monkees, a fictional band now with chart success.  In that moment, the Monkees were more than a fake television band, they were actually successful musicians.  The show, The Monkees, premiered a few weeks later, and ran for two seasons on the television network, NBC.  

Trying to break the “manufactured image”

At the beginning of their career as actors and musicians, the Monkees were not allowed to write songs for the group or even play the instruments on their tracks.  They were only allowed to sing.  This strict rule was set by the Monkees’ music supervisor, Don Kirshner.  Kirshner exalted complete creative control over the group.  This really bothered the group, especially Monkee and musician Michael Nesmith, and numerous attempts were made by the group to try and gain creative control over the band.  Eventually, Michael Nesmith was allowed to record one the songs he wrote with the group for their first, self-titled, album.  Nesmith’s song was called “Papa Genes Blues”.

Although, as proven by Nesmith’s work, the Monkees were capable of creating music, Kirshner believed he could tell what formula will make a pop song a success, and the Monkees playing on their tracks would be anything but a hit.  

Irritations ran the most high when the group’s second album was released called “More of the Monkees”, in 1967.  The four members of the group were angry because they felt that the album was rush produced.  Also, the Monkees had very little control over what songs made the cut and which ones didn’t. Although, “More of the Monkees”, showcased one of the Monkees’ most popular songs, “I’m a Believer”, the group’s dissatisfaction with the album was seen as the “final straw”.

In fact, the Monkees were actually on tour at the time of the album’s release, playing their instruments on stage.  They were angry that they were capable of playing onstage, but had no say in the album.  

“The second record was so angering, because Donnie almost militantly cut us out of the process,” Peter Tork of the Monkees recalled.  “By that time we were playing our own music onstage, and were righteously pissed with the fact that the album was released without our having heard it.”  

The Monkees wanted their music to be authentic.  They didn’t like the idea of being manufactured; and at the very least they wanted to contribute their creative ideas to their work.  Later that year, the Monkees decided to take manners into their own hands.  They met with Don Kirshner to talk about the issues they were having.  Michael Nesmith even threatened to quit if he was not granted the right to create music.  Nesmith’s anger even lead him to threaten Don Kirshner, as he punched a hole in the wall during the meeting and told Kirshner, “that could have been your face”.

Soon, the Monkees finally received what they had been begging for all along.  Don Kirshner was fired and they were granted control over their music!

Headquarters

The group’s first “true” album, Headquarters, was released in May 1967.  On the album, the Monkees were allowed to play instruments, write music, and enjoy their time in the studio as the true, authentic group they wanted to be.  They hired a new producer as well, Chip Douglas of the Turtles.  The album even reached the top of the Billboard charts for a week, until it was moved down to number two in light of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In fact, some of the songs that members of the group wrote became some of their most iconic hits, like “Randy Scouse Git”, written by Micky Dolenz (renamed “Alternate Title” in the UK), and “For Pete’s Sake”, written by Peter Tork.  

Still seen as “fake”

Following the release of Headquarters, they released another album Pieces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones.  This album also gave rise to many popular hits such as “Plesant Valley Sunday”, and Daydream Believer”.  The album was a combination of the Monkees playing the instruments and the professionals. Although the Monkees were becoming a greater musical force in their times recording their own music, critics were still not taking them seriously.  

“It was also at the height of Monkee bashing, which was pretty rampant at that point.  Everybody in the press and in the hippie movement had got us into their target window as being illegitimate and not worthy of consideration as a musical force,” Michael Nesmith said, speaking of this era in the Monkees history.

It’s hard to believe that even with all the criticism, 1967 was a very successful year for the group, as they even managed to outsell the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined that year!  

The Monkees continued to try and fight the criticism and gain acceptance as legitimate artists.  When their show ended in 1968, they were going to make a film.  They felt that they needed to shed the image that the television show had created them.  They felt that this could be best accomplished through a psychedelic experimental film and album entitled Head.  They hired Jack Nicholson to team up with show creators, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, and they decided to take a completely new direction.   

“We wanted to do something special. Something a little extraordinary. Something not quite normal. We really didn’t want to make another episode of the television show,” Peter Tork later commented in regards to their new direction in Head.   “The four of us, Bert Schneider, Bob, and Jack Nicholson all went to Ojai (California) and talked about what we did and didn’t want. We sort of found a common ground. What exactly that was, we wound up leaving to Bob and Jack – the exact script of the movie was basically their idea.”

Not long after  the film, the Monkees broke up, but their music still manages to find fascination and interest with new listeners of all generations.  

With all the Monkees’ success, the question is why is there so much prejudice against a group who tried so hard to make authentic music and take on the record industry?  In some music critics’ eyes, even today, the Monkees were a manufactured band and are nothing more.  As a personal opinion, the group’s determination to have control over their music, take new and experimental directions, and their opposition and struggle with the music recording industry proves that they should be honored in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  

Yes, originally they were manufactured; four strangers brought together to star on a television show about a band aspiring to be like the Beatles, but they became much more than that. Their musical journey brought to life the band that their fictional television personas were aspiring to be.  Although their struggle for respect brought non-resting and often harsh criticism, The Monkees have inspired bands for years to come.  They not only changed the music industry through their determination to create authentic music, but they also changed the relationship between television and popular music for years to come. They demonstrated through their show that television is a medium to deliver genuine pop music to the listeners; a technique still being used today.  

Works Cited

DiBlasi, Alex. “In Defense Of The Monkees.” American Music Review 41.2 (2012): 9-15. Academic Search Complete. Wed. 15 Sept. 2015

Sandoval, Andrew. “Head.” Albumlinernotes. AlbumLinerNotes, n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.

“More of the Monkees.” Albumlinernotes. AlbumLinerNotes, n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2015

Deming, Mark. “The Monkees | Biography.” AllMusic. AllMusic, n.d. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

“The Monkees.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

Swanson, Dave. “48 Years AgoL The Monkees Declare Their Independence on ‘Headquarters;” Ultimate Classic Rock. N.p., 22 May 2015. Web, 18 Sept. 2015

Sandoval, Andrew. Pisces, Aquarius , Capricorn, Jones, Ltd. AlbumLinerNotes, n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2015. 

“The Monkees - 1967 - The Top 25 Teen Idol Breakout Moments.” Rolling Stone. N.p., n.d. Web, 18 Sept. 2015

Matthew Stahl (2002). Authentic boy bands on TV? Performers and impresarios in The Monkees and Making the Band. Popular Music, 21, pp 307-329. doi:10.1017/S0261143002002209.