Let's think back to the summer of 1986, when it was only 20 years ago to the day that the Monkees first said, "Hey, hey!" Concertgoers at the Jones Beach Theater in New York were doing their customary hanging out in the parking lot before the show. But this was not your ordinary rock-concert crowd. When have you ever seen people blasting the soundtrack to Head or Instant Replay in public? In broad daylight, no less! For many years, Monkees fans were resigned to getting odd looks when their secret passion for Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith was revealed. But when MTV began rerunning The Monkees TV series several times daily, it started a ground swell of renewed interest. Seven of the nine then-reissued Monkees albums on Rhino charted respectably. An Arista best-of collection, which also included three new recordings by the group, went platinum. One of the new numbers, "That Was Then, This Is Now," became a Top 20 single. And Davy, Peter and Mickey's reunion tour (Mike Nesmith declined to participate) turned out to be the year's highest grosser. Not bad for a group that had been dormant for nearly two decades.
Even the group's harshest critics had mellowed enough by the band's 20th anniversary to admit that the Monkees had created an armful of great records. And beleaguered fans could now hold their heads up high.
MTV wasn't so understanding when the zany lads snubbed a promised "Super Bowl Tailgate Party" performance the following year. Immediately, the music channel yanked the reruns off the air. Monkees record sales plummeted; it was 1968 all over again. The trio made one last attempt at cashing in on their former selves in 1987 with a tour and an album, Pool It!. Neither did well; most considered the Monkees story a closed book.
But the people at Rhino records are trying to wrench the cover back open again; label founder Harold Bronson purchased the rights to every show, movie and recording the band ever did, even the Monkees' groovy, guitar-shaped logo. In September, the company began reissuing the group's original nine Colgems albums on CD--three at a time in two-month intervals. This week, the second set of titles hits the racks: the Head soundtrack, The Monkees Present and More of the Monkees. Once the remaining albums are out in January 1995, Rhino Home Video will make available all 58 TV episodes, the band's full-length feature film, Head (co-written by Jack Nicholson), and the rarely seen 1969 TV special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee.
Then Rhino will go out of business. Only kidding!
With the exception of Davy playing himself on the Brady Bunch Live shows, Mickey Dolenz has been the only visible Monkee of late. In 1991, he released the daringly titled Mickey Dolenz Puts You to Sleep album, a collection of lullabies for children. Last year, Hyperion Books published I'm a Believer, his take on the Monkees' saga. Currently, Mickey can be seen on Broadway, playing fast-talking disc jockey Vince Fontaine in a revival of Grease that hits the road in a few weeks. How odd it must be for Dolenz, 49, to split his time between portraying a Fifties character in a Seventies play, and rekindling memories of the Sixties in the Nineties for people in their 30s and 40s.
Given the exhaustive self-examination that goes with writing your memoirs, Dolenz has already probably jogged his memory on the subject of the Monkees as much as he's going to. Consequently, many of his accounts on this phone interview from his Manhattan hotel room sound like verbatim quotes from his book. (If you'd like to learn more about the Monkees, wherever possible, we'll list the pages of I'm a Believer where you can hear the same information in greater detail.) Even if people think they've heard all there is to hear about the Monkees, the story will continue being told and retold because it's the only rock 'n' roll fairy tale of its kind. Here was a group that wasn't real, came together through a casting call, sold more records than the Beatles and Elvis combined during its first year of nonexistence, fought its creators to become real and then recorded the rest of its albums independent of one another. Confused? Join the club. The Mickey Monkee Club!
"The whole metamorphosis of the Monkees was very unusual," explains Dolenz. "To this date, I don't think there's been anything like it except maybe Spinal Tap. If you appreciate that The Monkees was a television show first and foremost about a rock group, the fact that we actually became a group is really bizarre. In my book, I say it's like Leonard Nimoy becoming a Vulcan. The line between fantasy and reality disappeared." (Turn to page 91 for the "Vulcan/Spinal Tap" comparison.)
In late 1965, two young Screen Gems producers, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, set out to create a comedy show based on a "Marx Brothers Meets the Beatles" premise. "They were looking for four guys who were gonna jump out of the screen at you," recalls Dolenz ("Auditions," pages 61-68). Mickey was called back several times while the applicants were whittled down from 470 to 30 to, finally, four.
Originally, the plan was to build a show around the Lovin' Spoonful, but since John Sebastian wrote all the group's material, he might have balked at doing, oh, any Neil Sedaka tunes. Teen idol has-beens like Frankie Avalon, Troy Donahue and Paul Peterson were wisely passed on. Future stars were also rejected, like songwriter Paul Williams, who, ironically, looked too simian even for the Monkees but was perfect for the Planet of the Apes movies. Stephen Stills was also turned away for his bad teeth and thinning hair (maybe he should've worn a wool hat!). To this day, one still hears rumors of a Charles Manson audition, but no tangible proof exists. "I don't believe that one," Mickey decries, but it is enticing to think how different the show might have been seeing Manson flash his sparkling eyes instead of Davy!
With dollar signs flashing, Screen Gems set out to create its own Beatles, no doubt noticing that another zany group was being featured daily on Dick Clark's Where the Action Is TV show. Paul Revere and the Raiders, a criminally underrated band, were more revolutionary than their three-cornered hats let on. Here was a garage band with regional chart success now selling a shitload of records overnight via its newfound TV exposure. It should also be noted that in 1965, the Raiders recorded one of the Monkees' biggest signature songs, the Tommy Boyce- and Bobby Hart-penned classic "I'm Not Your Steppin' Stone," later snarled for posterity by another manufactured group, the Sex Pistols.
"Boyce and Hart were recording tracks before the producers even cast us," says Mickey. "The producers and musical supervisors at NBC and RCA all had a clear idea of what audience they wanted to reach, and I ended up singing all of those lead vocals by default. Peter was into folk, which wasn't real popular at the time. Mike was into country, which was almost nonexistent, and Davy was into Broadway, which wasn't real pop-oriented. I was the only one singing rock 'n' roll." The band's first album, with its seven lead-vocal performances by Mickey and instrumental work by Bobby Hart's group Candy Store Prophets, constitutes most people's idea of the "Monkees Sound." Although the TV show was highly derivative of the Beatles movies, the Fabs' sound was only reflected in the Monkees' first single. Boyce and Hart have admitted that they wrote "Last Train to Clarksville" directly after hearing "Paperback Writer" on the radio for the first time.
The rest of the album contained several intriguing musical directions. The Monkees became arguably the first band to take a swipe at raga (sitars, tablas, the sort of stuff you heard on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band a year later). Check out "Take a Giant Step" and "This Just Doesn't Seem to Be My Day." Mike Nesmith may have been restricted to only two cuts per LP in the early days, but it's commonly accepted now that the woolly hatted one--along with that other TV rock star, Ricky Nelson--pretty much invented country-rock for future shit kickers to plunder.
By December 1966, the fictitious band was proficient enough on its instruments to tour. Having tasted freedom on the road, the boys now demanded artistic control in the recording studio.
The real showdown between the group and its creators came when "musical supervisor" Don Kirshner released a second album, More of the Monkees, without the band's knowledge. Consisting mainly of tracks culled from the TV show's first season, it was a virtual dumping ground for Screen Gems songwriters to hawk their wares. The boys took exception to the cover's similarity to Rubber Soul, to the ghastly JC Penney mod fashions they were forced to wear, to inferior tracks like Davy's treacly recital "The Day We Fall in Love," and especially to Don Kirshner's self-serving liner notes, in which he pretty much takes all the credit for everything but the individual Monkees' births. While presenting the group with the gold albums for More of the Monkees, Kirshner got more of the Monkees than he ever bargained for, what with Nesmith putting his fist through the wall in Kirshner's office and screaming, "That could have been your face, motherfucker!"
Faced with the possible defection of a Monkee, Screen Gems instead chose to fire dandy Don as musical supervisor. He would go on to "supervise" two more fictitious TV groups--the Partridge Family, which wasn't really a family, and the Archies, who weren't really people. Kirshner could now relax, as there was no chance of Archie and Jughead barging into his office, demanding artistic control and putting their cartoon fists through his newly replastered wall.
Considering that the Who, the Byrds, the Beach Boys and a host of other popular Sixties groups were rarely allowed to play on their earliest sessions, Nesmith's admission to the press that the Monkees hadn't, either, should have been applauded. Instead, the press chose to exploit the "illegitimate" angle and turn the Monkees into the Milli Vanilli of their day. At least Davy, Mickey, Peter and Mike actually sang on their records, and by the spring of 1967, they played most of the instruments on them, too.
"The first real Monkee album, if you look at the four of us, was Headquarters," Mickey qualifies. Headquarters' combination of no-frills playing and loose studio chatter predated the Beatles' similar Let It Be album by several years. Not only is this modest Monkees album its finest long player, but it holds up considerably better than most albums dated 1967.
Oddly enough, Headquarters and its superb follow-up, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., were the only albums where all four Monkees actually played together on every cut. On the latter album, Mickey experimented with one of the earliest Moog synthesizers, constituting the unwieldy instrument's first appearance on a pop record. Lord knows how many budding Keith Emersons in TV land watched Mickey playing what then looked like a jammed telephone switchboard and pestered their mommies for one of those!
Even though the band had proved it could hold its own in the studio, the session guys were back on full duty for the fifth Monkee LP. The Birds, the Bees and the Monkees is where all sense of group unity is lost. The Monkees beat the Beatles to the dysfunctional punch by releasing solo efforts masquerading as a group offering, six months before the White Album hit the streets. "Most groups, in fact, all groups, have that one singularity of musical vision, usually," Mickey explains (page 69, the "Singularity of Vision" passage). "Sometimes there's two partners, a Lennon and McCartney, a Jagger and Richards, but usually there's one guy or one girl who's the driving force and it's their musical vision that drives the group. In our case, there were four very distinctive lead singers and musical talents that wanted to be heard. So when we did finally wrest the control away, then it was, 'Oh, shit, now what do we do?'
"What happened was they said, 'Okay, Mickey, you're gonna have three cuts on the album.' And I chose my producer, my arranger, my musicians, my songs, usually I wrote 'em alone or with someone else. The same with Mike, Peter and David. And that was coming around to a more natural way of doing things. Then it became these four individual lead singers recording under the banner of the Monkees. It was very strange."
Strange and schizophrenic. Only one cut on TBTB&TM, "Auntie's Municipal Court," contains more than one Monkee. Mickey sings this Nesmith-penned track, which virtually lays the blueprints for R.E.M.'s landmark sound: plenty o' jangling, 12-string guitars and mumbled, cryptic lyrics. Mike's other contributions include the infuriatingly unlistenable "Writing Wrongs" and "Magnolia Simms," which was recorded to sound like an extremely scratchy 78 (shades of McCartney's "Honey Pie"--shame on you, copycat Beatles!).
The album's original sleeve warned the listener that the surface noises, needle skipping and complete silence on the left channel were all intentional. As for the efforts of the other three, Davy's initial songwriting attempts make Herman's Hermits sound like heavy metal, Peter's cuts were railroaded off the record, and Mickey's offerings are the most Monkeelike and entertaining of the bunch.
That patchwork album was the group's first not to reach No. 1 and the first not to receive prime-time exposure, as the show had just been canceled. Mickey, who starred in TV's Circus Boy in the Fifties, took the cancellation as most seasoned TV thespians would. "The death knell! Well, that sounds a bit grim, but when shows are canceled, that's usually the end of a project. In the case of the Monkees, because we had this recording career and recording existence, we went on the road, did tours and recorded for a couple of years. But the show was the thing driving it along, so that obviously made a difference."
The group made one more album as a foursome, as well as one movie, the delightfully trippy Head. The movie's premise, that the whole Monkees phenomenon was a con, is a precursor for the Sex Pistols' far more cynical film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. The Head soundtrack, which went straight into the cutout bins upon release, sounds positively revelatory today with its Monty Pythonesque links between songs and dialogue lifted from Bela Lugosi's stellar Glen or Glenda? monologues. "Carole King wrote some beautiful songs for that movie," adds Mickey. "I thought it was great. But it was weird and it certainly was not what the fans would've expected at the time." The Head LP was packaged in a shiny Mylar sleeve, which reflected the proud record owner's own "head" like a mirror. This innovative design idea would be used to far cheesier effect on Uriah Heep's Look at Yourself album and, later still, for the cover of Madonna's Sex book--which could've garnered more controversy for the Material Girl if it, too, had been named Head.
Following Tork's exit in 1969, the group fulfilled its contractual obligations with three albums. The first, Instant Replay, contains outtakes like the "Last Train to Clarksville" sound-alike "Teardrop City," not surprising since it was recorded during those same 1966 sessions. The group fared far better artistically, if not commercially, on the follow-up, The Monkees Present. Davy and Mickey blossom into fine songwriters, and Mike, as ever, churns out the country-rock that will later win him accolades, but only serves to drive young Monkees fans even further away. Originally scheduled as a double album, here was a case where the supply definitely outweighed the demand. Many of the leftover tracks have since turned up on volumes one and two of Rhino's Missing Links series and are being included as bonus cuts on these reissues.
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The last Monkees record, Changes, finds the group pared down to just the actors, Mickey and Davy. Though it reunites the twosome with "I'm a Believer" producer Jeff Barry, it's serviceable product at best. Davy's bitter comments about the record in the reissue's liner notes reveal that this album was simply a rejected Andy Kim album with his vocals wiped off and Davy and Mickey's substituted. Changes' cover art imitated life, with the two remaining Monkees venturing off in opposite directions. Several years ago, there was a lame attempt to launch a "New Monkees." It failed because there are only four universally accepted Monkees, the ones that Rhino is currently negotiating with for a possible Monkees movie in 1996. So what's it all about, Mickey?
"Well, we don't know yet," he says, laughing. "It's early days, but we are talking about it. I think it'll be more like the original show than Head was."
You mean four guys pushing 50, still living in a beach house, trying to hustle gigs, getting hassled by their landlord and finding secret microfilms planted in their instrument cases?
"You'll just have to wait and see. It'll have to be a surprise."
In the meantime, stick with the albums; they're an even better surprise.