The Monkees: The 'Prefab Four'

Pundits and mourners alike have long tried to fix the precise moment the '60s -- and the belief that society must and would change forever -- died. Was it when Jimi or Janis OD'd? During the hype of the Summer of Love? At Altamont? Amid the massive cultural overkill at Woodstock? It could be that the real end of innocence came earlier, in disconcertingly cheerful disguise. On Sunday, Sept. 12, 1966, opposite Gilligan's Island, NBC-TV presented the nation with four bouncy, longhaired (yet "clean") representatives of the Now Generation. No, it wasn't John, Paul, George, and Ringo, though producer- masterminds Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider surely hoped for some healthy confusion. Hey hey, it was the Monkees -- the "prefab four," the faces that launched an unprecedented (perhaps still unequaled) marketing blitz, sold (by various estimates) 23 million to 60 million records, and prompted a wave of backlash that still haunts studio masques like poor Paula Abdul. A scant two and a half years later, the party -- and profiteering -- was over. But the youngest boomers proved as nostalgic in the long run as they were fickle in the short. Monkees revivalism dates from at least the mid-'70s, when gasbags like Styx and Supertramp made such pure pop look pretty damn good in retrospect. Now Rhino Records -- that capitalist temple of worship to pop enculturalia -- has completed a staggered rerelease of all nine original albums. And as of this month, for a mere $399.98, you can own a "Deluxe Limited Edition Box Set" containing all 58 episodes of the 1966-68 TV series. Who wouldn't salivate, if only in private? Anyone old enough to sit still for a half-hour weekly episode back then must count the Monkees as a huge formative influence. They made the counterculture cute -- and don't tell me you were listening to Rubber Soul, let alone The Velvet Underground and Nico, at a tender age. Selling that crayon-smudged LP at Mom's '73 garage sale didn't absolve you: the damage is permanent. The Monkees saga blazed trails in ways as relevant to the Wall Street Journal as to rock 'zine Creem. In the end, perhaps, what really counts is that "they" (i.e., the four Monkees and their handlers) created a slew of timeless pop songs, shook up moribund TV programming a bit, and entertained millions who didn't care who was exploiting whom. Thanks for the memories, guys.The Monkees cattle callIn real life, naturally, it wasn't the prettiest story. The 30ish producers Rafelson and Schneider saw the possibilities suggested by Beatlemania and began hatching a broadcast series idea in 1965. Rafelson was an industry gadfly who would later become a major, if erratic, feature film director (Five Easy Pieces); Schneider was a V.P. at Screen Gems Television, whose parent organization, Columbia Pictures, happened to employ his dad as president. Former child star-turned-Screen Gems exec Jackie Cooper approved a pilot episode to center on "the adventures of an innocent team of lovable rock 'n' rollers." A Hard Day's Night provided an obvious model, with its freewheeling, G-rated appropriation of new wave cinema techniques. Director Richard Lester had helped make four shaggy Liverpudlians safe for teenage U.S. consumption. Why couldn't Rafelson and Schneider (soon joined by writers Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker) manufacture a unit telegenic enough to capture Beatles fans and their little siblings? An August 1965 ad in Daily Variety trumpeted "Madness!! Folk and roll musicians-singers.... Running parts for four insane boys, age 17-21." One hundred and thirty-seven showed up at a cattle call, including Paul Williams, Rodney Bingenheimer, Steven Stills, and allegedly even Charles Manson. Looking for "fresh," "spontaneous" personalities, the producer duo winnowed their field down to eight. Screen tests were then shown to an audience of teens. Reactions were recorded and submitted to Screen Gems' research department, and the final decision was based on computerized data analysis. Thus four perky lads found themselves signed to fearsomely restrictive multimedia contracts. Two had real showbiz experience. Davy Jones, the child-proportioned "dreamboat" whose fame would soon force a similarly monikered Brit to change his last name to Bowie, was an adorable, five-foot- three former jockey who had played Oliver!'s Artful Dodger on the West End and Broadway to critical acclaim. Mickey Dolenz had starred in one prime-time series -- the late '50s Circus Boy. Still eager to please, he added a knockabout Rooney-esque quality to the group. The other two were, or wanted to be, musicians. Michael Nesmith, raised poor in Texas (though his mother later made a fortune for inventing Liquid Paper), had drifted to Hollywood and nosed around the folk-rock scene. Older, already married with children, the dour and droll Nesmith became the resident Monkee stoneface. Peter Tork (formerly Torkelson) was another hopeful folk troubadour, although his prospects as a singer were severely limited by his voice. The earnest Tork was the one Monkee said to be utterly unlike his screen persona -- a stoned, perpetually clueless flower child.A little help from their friendsAnother future director, Jim Frawley (The Muppet Movie), was entrusted with training the Monkees -- no one remembers who came up with the name -- as improv-ready actors. Superstar producer Don Kirshner climbed aboard to supervise the music. Since no one expected this quartet from Central Casting to actually play, Kirshner simply commissioned seasoned songwriters, hired session musicians, and deployed "the boys" one by one in the studio for vocals, an approach the Monkees would never live down. From today's vantage point, The Monkees TV series looks as glazed and stale as last week's doughnuts. The Lester-ripped novelties (handheld camera, fast/slo-mo, etc.) can't disguise that back-lot sterility or lend spontaneity to vaudeville-era gags smothered by an overactive laugh track. The musical scenes are more appealing, their senseless visual activity no worse than most current MTV clips. It's worth considering the cultural climate the Monkees debuted in. America hadn't yet found anything very cuddlesome in "longhairs." On the Columbia lot itself, veteran staff shunned these interloping "smart-ass kids." (In the Monkees' film Head, a scene showing studio workers huffing out of the studio commissary in protest as the Monkees enter was based on an actual incident.) But such resistance soon became irrelevant. Principal songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart's "Last Train to Clarksville" shot to No. 1 on the charts, dragging the eponymous Colgems album and subsequent singles to the same position. The show was a smash. Fifty-plus Monkees products -- gum, jewelry, puzzles, dolls -- were licensed to sell. One thousand six hundred stores opened Monkees departments. Before the end of '66, Monkees merchandising had corralled some $20 million from squealing consumers.Learning to playThere were practical problems, however, such as teaching the Monkees to play live really quickly. Adding to already brutal work schedules, the quartet took a crash course in becoming a real band. They didn't mind, though, anxious as they were to stem the ridicule about their playing abilities. Kirshner and company were appalled. These were actors, for Chrissake, and contracted as such. With enormous sums of money at stake, they didn't want Mickey, Peter, Davy, and Mike monkeying around when stellar players (Neil Sedaka, James Burton, Glen Campbell) and tunesmiths (Carol Bayer, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Neil Diamond) had wired public taste so effectively. More of the Monkees was rushed out three months after the first album. The Monkees, who wanted some control over their product, looked at it as an insult. They screamed bloody murder and threatened to walk off the job. Mike Nesmith, after decades as The Most Ashamed Former Monkee, has taken up a conciliatory tone, going so far as to suggest there was never any internal strife in the group. But very early on, Mike was complaining all over the place, telling the Saturday Evening Post in January 1967 that "the music happened in spite of the Monkees.... It was totally dishonest.... I don't care if we ever make another record." As the sole Monkee with actual songwriting credit on albums one and two, Mike made a bundle beyond their otherwise paltry salaries. Yet he now demanded that Kirshner be sent packing or he'd exit himself. Schneider and Rafelson reluctantly acquiesced.Their wayThough cynically reviewed by the fledgling rock press (which treated the Monkees as a ready-made, establishment-wrought punching bag), the four M's pulled together admirably as a touring entity, performing better than they needed to for hysterical throngs of pint-sized fans. But the inorganic nature of their birth precluded any real band sensibility. The Monkees Headquarters, released in mid-'67, was the first collective effort and was duly billed as such on the back cover. It was a fine album, another No. 1. But the lack of a marketable single was duly noted. These golden geese, it seemed, were shooting themselves (and their exasperated bosses) in the foot. On the outside, the Monkees still looked unstoppable. The NBC series was looking toward a second year. Eighty thousand fan letters arrived each week. The holy Beatles invited them to observe Sgt. Pepper recording sessions; Dr. Timothy Leary defended them as "beautiful young sons of the New Age." But the mantle was beginning to slip. Mickey and Peter were jeered for mixing with their betters at the Monterey Pop Festival. And in an absurd lunge at credibility, they hired the Jimi Hendrix Experience to open for them on tour. Hendrix jacked off his guitar, and chaperoning parents had fits of apoplexy. Monkees backlash gained steam. Their manufactured image inspired the Byrds' sarcastic "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" and other more direct media hits. Fame, high living, and peer pressure created internal divisions and uncomfortable personal contradictions. Record sales for Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. were respectable by most standards but slow by the Monkees' ordinarily lofty figures. Although The Birds, the Bees, & the Monkees boasted the hit singles "Daydream Believer" and "Valleri," sales were only one-tenth of those racked up by More of the Monkees. Somewhere en route, the TV series was canned; its stars were too tired and quarrelsome to care. Attention shifted to a film feature, Head, that Rafelson (with cowriter and then out-of-work actor Jack Nicholson) had somehow convinced Columbia brass to fund. Released in late '68 with a disastrous "conceptual" advertising campaign that omitted the band's name, Head was greeted with bewilderment and/or contempt from most quarters. In England, where the Monkees were the rage only months before, the film wasn't even released. Ironically, this plotless, surreal "movie about movies" has done more than any other Monkees product to secure the quartet's status as hip pop icons. If nothing else, Head was an improvement over the TV series' Hellzapoppin'-style hijinks. At best, the film was subversive both on the surface -- with blunt antiwar, antipolice, and anti-Mom-and-apple-pie sentiments -- and in its visually disorienting style. Beginning with the Monkees' "metaphorical suicide" and ending with their Pirandellian entrapment, it's a bleak, apt joke. Still, the humor was Rafelson and Nicholson's, with the Monkees themselves as pawns in their own deconstruction. They tried it themselves with 33« Revolutions per Monkee, an hour-long TV special that attempted Head's psychedelic self- satire to sloppier effect. NBC, lips pursed, slotted the show opposite the Oscar broadcast. Splat.After the fallPeter bought out his contract, bankrupting himself in the process. Mike, the habitual complainer, now strangely resigned, stuck around with stalwart check-cashers Davy and Mickey for a couple more albums, until there were just those two. When Changes came out, wags joked the next move would be an album by "the Monkee." There are no successful ex-phenomena, only failed ones. Mike Nesmith did well, leading various country-rock units before turning to film and video producing (Elephant Parts, Repo Man). Davy Jones, after failed solo recordings (on David Cassidy's label, adding insult to injury) and guest television appearances (including on The Brady Bunch), returned to his up-and-down British acting career. Mickey Dolenz tried out for but lost to Henry Winkler the role of the Fonz on Happy Days; however, he found steady work in the United Kingdom as a director and producer. Peter Tork served four months in prison in '72 for a hash bust, then waited tables, taught guitar, and attempted comebacks. Nickelodeon reruns brought a new generation of fans to the Monkees camp in the mid-'80s, and only Mike resisted the inevitable call for a reunion: nostalgia package tours, an insta-flop New Monkees series (starring freshly scrubbed Central Casting dreamboats), and 1987's old-faces/new-material Pool It! album followed. With a 30th anniversary looming, rumors of a Head sequel and concert tour (with, just maybe, Mike) are being bandied about. It would be best, of course, if somebody -- whoever gets the lion's share of all those residuals -- gave the "prefab four" a large wad of cash and made them promise to stop once and for all. The Monkees were born in a moment of cynical marketing genius, and as cynics will tell you, it doesn't take a genius to know that moment has passed. Still, amid the incandescent pop and the embarrassing hype, for many of us, that moment was ours. The Monkees on discTHE Monkees recorded nine studio albums (there was a live album in 1967, various best ofs, rarities collections, and solo efforts, but only real obsessives care about them). They're hardly seamless pop masterpieces -- this was assembly-line art -- but the recordings are blessed with some good music. Rhino's reissue CDs are tricked out with extensive liner notes, original and added art, plus a generous miscellany of B-sides, alternate takes, and experiments, often giving a very good idea of the Monkees studio habits. (They did seem to have fun "working," just as we imagined.) The Monkees (October '66): A debut-by-the-numbers, with session players dominating and moments of pure glee-club drippiness. But what numbers they were: Goffin and King's "Take a Giant Step," Boyce and Hart's "Clarksville," plus preteen faves "I Wanna Buy Me a Dog," "Gonna Buy Me a Dog" and the inevitable "(Theme from) The Monkees."More Of The Monkees (January '67): Despite protests from "the boys" (forced to model JCPenney clothes on the cover), this album involved some 17 hired-gun songwriters and an army of studio musicians. Five million buyers didn't mind; it featured "I'm a Believer" (the Monkees' biggest hit), "Steppin' Stone," "Sometime in the Morning," and "Hold on Girl." And, of course, Davy's single lamest moment, the hand-holding-amid-rainbows "Day We Fall in Love." The Monkees Headquarters (June '67): After tantrums and threats, Don Kirshner was removed, and the result was this much more organic, folk-tinged album. It had enjoyably silly ("Zilch") and simpering (i.e., Davy) moments; Peter's "For Pete's Sake" was a fine Happening Generation anthem; "You Told Me" was Mike's best-recorded countrypolitan effort to date.Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (November '67): "Pleasant Valley Sunday," mild psychedelia, goofiness, more country-rock, an above-average vehicle for Davy's cuteness (Harry Nilsson's "Cuddly Toy"), several cynical sentiments way over the heads of their audience ("Sunday," "Star Collector," "She Hangs Out"), plus my favorite nonsingle album track: the lilting "The Door into Summer," written by Jeff Barry. The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees (April '68): Already in serious trouble, the band phoned in this resolutely disunified collection. A triumph of arm-twisting for Mike, who gets four mediocre showcases. On the other hand, there's still "Daydream Believer" and "Valleri."Head (December '68): Produced by the band members but evidently assembled by "album coordinator" Jack Nicholson, this is as much a satiric-psychedelic audiocollage as the film is a visual one, full of non sequitur snatches of dialogue and odd juxtapositions of sound. But the around-the-world-in-our- haze concept also lets some of the group's best-produced tracks hang together comfortably. Goffin and King's dreamy meltdown "Porpoise Song," Mike's "Circle Sky," and the usually underused Peter's excellent "Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?" are outstanding. Originally released with a Warholian mirror-foil cover.Instant Replay (February '69): Exit Peter. Davy writes one very nice overlooked popster ("I Won't Be the Same Without Her"), swathed in strings and music-hall smarm; Mike is stale except on "While I Cry"; Mickey drags sister Coco into the studio for the insufferable six-minute closer, "Shorty Blackwell." Feeble.The Monkees Present (October '69): By this time virtually abandoned as a no-longer-lucrative entity, the trio had total creative control at last. First planned as a four-disc solo- showcase extravaganza, the results are mixed yet encouraging, with two of Mike's best songs ("Good Clean Fun" and "Listen to the Band"), some decent Mickey compositions (especially "Mommy and Daddy"), and even a tolerable Davy-penned ballad ("If I Knew").Changes (May '70): A hopeful title for a desperate situation, with Mike now gone and less-than-stellar scribes like Archies producer Jeff Barry, Andy Kim, and Bobby Bloom marking time where Goffin and King, Neil Diamond, et al. had once spun gold. Pretty grim bubblegum stuff. For completists only.

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