Music News

Musical Comedy's Latest Revival Owes a Lot to the Monkees

The Monkees have survived so many backlashes and revivals that Micky Dolenz can answer most of your questions before you even consider asking them. Just say "TV show" or "actors" or "instruments," by way of priming the pump, and he'll generate an interview that touches on every important piece of the band's strange history and successful revival.

He'll tell you about their formation and their reunions and the way each new generation discovers their TV show and their music. He'll explain how a meta-band in a sitcom transformed, thanks to their own skills and a top-notch songwriting team, into a real band playing fictional versions of themselves. He'll go over the backlash and the backlash against the backlash.

While he's at it, he'll also express his gratitude for the band's lasting popularity; as unflappable as Dolenz is by now, it's still clear that he appreciates pop culture's most recent pro-Monkees swing. But their own success isn't what excites him about it — "The whole Monkees zeitgeist has always been pretty consistent," he says. He's much happier talking about the revival of the kind of musical comedy they performed.

When pressed, Dolenz — who was a working actor and musician when he auditioned for the role — is most comfortable calling himself an entertainer. "I had always sort of dreamed about somehow getting onto Broadway, doing musicals. [But] I was born and raised in L.A. . . . I wasn't in that world; I wasn't swimming in that pond.

"A kid my age on the West Coast, it was about rock 'n' roll — it was about the Beach Boys and then, of course, it was about the Beatles."

Other pilots that TV season were attempting to make that rock 'n' roll connection, and Dolenz auditioned for all of them. "[But] I remember when I went up for the audition with The Monkees, thinking, 'This is different.'

"You put together a bunch of people in a project, you do your best, you work as hard as you can, and you surround yourself with very talented people. And then, if you get lucky . . . I describe it as the whole being greater than the sum of its parts."

The Monkees' odd formula — too much a band to just be musical comedians, too much a troupe of musical comedians to just be a band — made their shifting reputation inevitable, but their staying power means they're now a formula of their own. Shows like Glee and Big Time Rush try for the same combination of surreality and precise pop earnestness, even if they rarely end up tapping into the weird anarchy that drove John Lennon to compare the Monkees to the Marx Brothers.

Which is great — endless grist for TV critics — but doesn't have much to do with helping them fill a reunion show in 2013. That's where the songs come in. Dolenz, sounding decades removed from worrying about the Monkees' old reputation as a manufactured band, is still eager to give the songwriters themselves credit for a lot of their staying power. "Those songs stand up because they were written by some of the greatest songwriters of all time."

Which is certainly true. But the one thing Dolenz won't tell you, while he's telling you everything else about the Monkees — at least not explicitly — is just how much of it depended on the band itself, and their uncanny ability to sell "Daydream Believer" and improvised pratfalls in the same half-hour.

Of course, his self-interview is its own testament to the intuitive grasp the Monkees have on their half-fictional selves. It's its own reminder that after 40-plus years — no matter how and why they came together — Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith are very good at being The Monkees.

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Dan Moore