The Monkees were one of the strangest stories in both musical and television history.
The story's genesis was actually in July of 1964, when the Beatles first movie A Hard Day's Night was released. The film's smash hit success inspired producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson to cook up a very interesting idea for a new TV series.
The two had the idea of a musical group, sort of like the Beatles, long-haired- yes, but not successful, rich or famous like the Fab Four. The original idea was to cast either the Dave Clark Five or the Lovin' Spoonful as the series leads, but the concept was soon changed to assembling a cast of four unknowns. The fictional rock band, and their TV series, were to be called The Monkees.
The name “Monkees" was derived from a 1957 Elvis Presley movie called Loving You, a movie whose plot featured Elvis as a singer being exploited by an unscrupulous manager. In one overly dramatic scene in Loving You, Elvis confronts his manager and says, “That's what you want isn't it? A monkey in a zoo!" (The double e's in “Monkees" was a semi-pun, like the "beat" in “Beatles.”)
On September 8, 1965, open ads appeared in the two show biz bibles, Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, seeking "folk and musicians-singers for acting roles in a new TV series.” The ad stated that they were looking for "insane boys".
A total of 437 applicants answered the ad, including later-to-become-famous musicians Paul Williams, Stephen Stills, and Harry Nilsson. (There is no truth to the later urban legend that Charles Manson was one of the applicants, as Manson was incarcerated in federal prison at the time.) Four young men, two musicians and two actors, were finally chosen.
The first one cast was Davy Jones, a good-looking British actor, already under contract to Screen Gems. Jones, a former jockey, had recently been touring in the musical Oliver! and, by an amazing coincidence, had actually appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, the night of the Beatles legendary appearance.
George Michael “Micky" Dolenz was an actor who had starred as a child in the TV show Circus Boy in the fifties. Micky was making the rounds at local auditions and had played guitar in a band called the Missing Links.
Robert Michael “Mike" Nesmith, having served briefly in the U.S. Air Force, was a musician/composer/singer who had made a handful of recordings under the alias “Michael Blessing." (Mike was the only member of the Monkees who actually saw the ad in the trades.)
Peter Tork, the last Monkee to be cast, was suggested for the audition by Stephen Stills, his roommate, and was currently a musician playing gigs in the Greenwich Village area.
The four young men took a six-week course in improvisational comedy (taught by director James Frawley) and it was soon discovered that all four displayed real humor, talent and chemistry in front of the camera. On the show, the four would be playing a rock band and, in an unprecedented move, would actually be recording songs, which would be released as records and albums. The songs would be premiered and promoted in videos that would be featured every week on the show.
The Monkees television series debuted on September 12, 1966, and was an immediate hit with the younger viewers.
Each Monkee, almost naturally, assumed his own character, paralleling the Beatles. Mike was the John Lennon of the group, their intellectual leader; Davy was the Paul McCartney heartthrob the little girls swooned over; Peter was Ringo Starr, dumb but lovable; the Micky-George Harrison match-up didn't quite mesh, as Micky was the group's resident joker and wackiest member, unlike George- the "quiet Beatle.”
The show was funny, clever and original, especially for the times.
After season one, The Monkees TV series won two Emmys, one for Outstanding Comedy Series, at the 1967 Emmy Awards. As frosting on the cake, the boys' records and albums started racking up huge sales numbers.
Each Monkee was paid a near-stipend salary of $450.00 a week as actors (increased to $750.00 in the show's second season). It was the record and album royalties, plus composer's fees, that brought the boys their initial "real money,” not, ironically, the show.
Monkee records, including “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” and others both charted and garnered huge sales figures. Incredibly, in a never-to-be-duplicated feat, four Monkees albums hit the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in one year (1967). In 1967, the Monkees outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined.
A threat to the Monkees' amazing success came after season one, when Davy Jones became eligible for the U.S. military draft. Davy disappeared for three weeks and literally starved himself, dropping several pounds from his already small frame. His plan worked and Davy dodged the bullet of serving uncle sam.
But trouble was brewing and the Monkees' biggest controversy occurred when the news broke out that the Monkees did not play their own instruments. Sadly, this controversy was the first big chink in the armor of the Monkees' huge success, and to this day many fans and "real" rock bands still somewhat "look down" on the Monkees as "impostors" or "fakes."
As if to answer their accusers, the Monkees actually developed a live stage act and were to play over 200 live concerts together over the years, starting in December of 1966. In 1967, the Monkees toured the U.S. and the U.K.; in '68 they toured Australia and Japan. On the '67 tour, a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix was actually booed off the stage, as a warm-up act for the Monkees, and left the tour in frustration after a handful of embarrassing gigs.
The show's 1967-68 second season had a few changes that were to prove both unpopular and unsuccessful, as they diverged too greatly from the magic formula of season one. A laugh track had been featured in season one and it was scrapped for season two.
Musical guests were featured at the end of the show's last three episodes. Mike chatted with Frank Zappa, Micky introduced Tim Buckley and Davy talked to Charlie Smalls about soul. (Peter had planned to bring on Janis Joplin to make an appearance, but the idea was never used.)
But worst of all, the Monkees themselves had changed- too quickly. Like the Beatles, success and fame changed the band, but the Beatles had changed slowly and gradually. By season two, the Monkees had already changed from their the previous season of just a few months ago.
Micky Dolenz now sported a Harpo Marx-like afro haircut, switching from his Beatle-like coif. Mike had ditched his trademark wool hat. The boys seemed somewhat blasé, somehow worldweary.
Instead of the "safe" Monkee image that appealed to the young girls and teenyboppers, the Monkees tried to go more "psychedelic,” more hip. The ratings soon plunged and after just 58 episodes, The Monkees was pulled from the NBC schedule.
The boys made a bizarre film called Head, with the help of then-little-known actor Jack Nicholson and filmed a TV special called 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee.
By December of 1968, Peter Tork bought out his four-year Monkee contract. Mike left the group in 1970. (The final gig for Mike, Micky and Davy was a Kool-Aid commercial.) Davy and Micky played gigs and made a few recordings as a twosome and in various incarnations with others, but the magic was gone.
Over the years, the four would periodically join up and tour and record together. But Mike Nesmith had pretty much moved on, having inherited millions from his mother, who invented a new product called Liquid Paper. Davy Jones died unexpectedly in 2012, and with his passing, the strange, incredible saga of Monkees officially ended.
Their legacy? Four #1 albums, three #1 records, 5 gold albums, and total record sales (reputedly) of over 65,000,000. Plus a cult film and a pretty funny and very enjoyable television series.
Not a bad legacy, I’d say.