Fifty years ago this month Monkee mania began sweeping America and then England as The Monkees, a TV show based on the success of The Beatles and the madcap antics they had displayed in their first movie A Hard Day’s Night, debuted on the NBC Network.
The new made-for-TV band consisted of Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, and Peter Tork, each chosen to display characteristics demonstrated by John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
In fact, the original short description for The Monkees said the show would be about an imaginary band that wanted to be The Beatles, but was never that successful.
However, in real life, the immediate success of the group demonstrated the increasing power and influence of TV, especially shows produced for teenage Baby Boomers.
At the peak of their popularity in 1967, The Monkees outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined. The band placed 10 songs in the Billboard Top 20, with three of their singles including “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” and “Daydream Believer” all reaching number 1.
However, controversy arose when it was reported that on the group’s early songs, while all four of the Monkees sang, they didn’t play instruments or write all the songs on the sessions. When the group was put together, all four had some experience as musicians, but Jones and Dolenz were better known for their acting roles.
1967 was the summer of love with a rise of psychedelia and the hippie culture. The cute, cuddly antics displayed on the TV show fell out of favor with large segments of the youth culture. Ironically, Nesmith, Tork, and Dolenz were heavily involved in the counter culture at the time. However, TV executives didn’t support their desire to be more contemporary and the show was cancelled in February of 1968.
Over the ensuing years, the Monkees, as both solo artists and in various band configurations, have kept touring and performing their music live. In the 1980s, TV reruns exposed the group to a whole new generation of fans and the group reunited to record a new album.
The music of the Monkees continues in movies and TV. The wildly popular kids’ movie Shrek ended with a Smash Mouth version of “I’m a Believer.” The hit television show Breaking Bad featured the song “Goin Down” as the soundtrack to a meth cooking montage. The closing song of the 2013 season of Mad Men was “Porpoise Song,” and the theme from the Monkees cult classic 1968 psychedelic film Head (co-written by a then-young, pre-Easy Rider Jack Nicholson).
The Monkees’ music has been legitimized by the number of artists in many musical fields who have covered the group’s songs. For example, country singer Anne Murray and British sensation Susan Boyle each recorded a version of “Day Dream Believer”. Jazz great Cassandra Wilson had a crossover hit with her take on “Last Rain to Clarksville” in 1995.
Many of today’s biggest rock stars have professed admiration for The Monkees. Bono and U2 are big fans and had Davy Jones join them in concert to sing “Daydream Believer.” Nirvana’s lead singer, the late Kurt Cobain, was also a fan and put the Monkees logo on the back of one of his guitars.
To date, despite their success and influence, The Monkees haven’t been nominated for entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. No less a rock personage than Michael Stipe, whose band REM is in the hall, has contended the Monkees should be inducted.
However, the group has achieved one of the highest American pop culture tributes. The Monkees have been featured on the long-running, award-winning show The Simpsons.
In an episode entitled “Fear of Flying,” a flashback to Marge Simpson’s childhood showed she had taken a Monkees lunchbox on her first day of school, only to have another girl taunt her by telling her not only didn’t the Monkees play their own instruments or write their own songs – even Mike Nesmith’s wool cap wasn’t his own.
In the present, however, Marge’s psychiatrist assures her by saying, “The Monkees weren’t about (their) music, Marge. They were about rebellion, about political and social upheaval.”
As a child, Dolenz starred in the TV series “Circus Boy.” Davy Jones was in the musical “Oliver.” Mike Nesmith wrote “Different Drum,” recorded by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Ponies. Peter Tork can play 12 instruments.
Stephen Stills auditioned for the Monkees, but didn’t get the job. He suggested auditioning to his friend, Peter Tork.
In all, 437 actors and musicians tried out for the 4 parts.
Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Paul Williams, Harry Nilson, and Boyce and Hart are among the songwriters who wrote hits for the Monkees.
In their first season on TV, each Monkee earned $450 per episode.
58 total episodes were made for the show.
Frank Zappa, who was a big fan of the oft-criticized group, and Tim Buckley both appeared on the series.
Jimi Hendrix opened for The Monkees on their 1967 tour until he was removed from the bill for being not suitable for young fans of the band.
The Nesmiths are apparently quite a multi-talented family. Mike’s mother invented White Out, which netted her $47 million.
The Monkees held the record for the longest stay at No. 1 for a record album from 1966 until 1982 when that record was broken by the Australian group Men at Work.
Do you have a favorite Monkee? What about a preferred Monkees’ song? Please leave your Monkee musical memories below and let’s start a conversation.