It started in 1966, uninspired but catchy lyrics “Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees!” introducing a half-hour TV show, a comedy about a boy band, meant to cash in on the popularity of the Beatles. Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork. And, hey, hey, they were in color!
I was six years old. Second grade was the new challenge. The silly boys on TV caught my fancy and right away I was a fan. I still am. Here’s why.
Picture yourself as a young actor/musician, selected as one of four stars in a TV show. Your musical ability is important to the job, which requires you to act like a musician. Other, presumably better artists will be playing the tracks for the music on the show. Segments will be filmed showing you playing an instrument, but you, in reality, will only be singing on the recordings.
Their pretend music roles were oddly cast as appearances were paramount in the TV show. Davy had the best drumming ability but the producers didn’t want him in the back because it would amplify his short stature. Micky, a guitarist, picked up enough pointers about drumming to fake his way through the pilot and dove into formal instruction thereafter. Mike ended up with guitar, though he was more proficient on the bass. Peter, who could play any stringed instrument or keyboard, ended up on bass (bass players will understand the irony of this).
The pay is good, so fair enough. For a while. The TV show proves incredibly popular. If you’re mostly interested in acting (Dolenz and Jones), this is paramount; if you’re mostly interested in music (Nesmith and Tork), the deception begins to chafe.
Wikipedia offers exhaustive information about the artistic and contractual battles that ensued (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Monkees ). The cast gradually gained more artistic control over the music, playing on some of the recorded tracks as well as singing, getting their original work onto album song lists and performing live. Lots of performing live. Demand was huge. The recordings drew a bigger audience than the TV show, which was cancelled after the second season.
Picture yourself as a twenty-something actor/musician, cemented into a TV character identity for the rest of your working life. The money’s still good, but you might be so sick of it all you buy out the rest of your contract and quit (Peter). You didn’t quite realize it would be a struggle to be taken seriously when you tried to move beyond Monkeedom and establish yourself as a recording artist (Mike). It was a good time to be British (Davy), so maybe that identity counterbalanced your Monkee personae when it came to opportunities on the stage (Davy’s pre-Monkee acting credits included a Tony nomination for his portrayal of The Artful Dodger in Oliver). You might have been interested in all of it and figured out how to parlay your Monkee fame into all kinds of projects (Micky).
Some more albums, a few reunion concert tours, a movie, individual careers large and small. The decades pass. The stuff of life happens; cancer (Peter), death (Davy). The stigma of being a made-up group has never fully lifted. Lots of people still think of the four of them as a bunch of no-talent phonies but the evidence does not bear this out.
The entertainment industry is rife with jealousy. I experienced this on a small scale in my decade-plus as Cimarron Sue. When someone gets ahead- -wins a prestigious award, secures a contract for a top-notch festival, etc.- -the bitching and back-stabbing begins, not universally but enough to make a thick hide an important tool in your entertainer tool kit. I believe jealousy has a lot to do with the anti-Monkee sentiment. They got a huge break that many musicians considered unfair. The antics of the producers didn’t help. Their first album, The Monkees, didn’t acknowledge any of the studio musicians who played on it because the TV and record producers wanted to maintain the fantasy that the Monkees were a real group. Perhaps the public believed The Monkees had been informed of this decision, but they had not. Mike Nesmith was livid. He rightly accused the record producers of duping the public, stood up for the talent that had brought the album to life. There was much more to the picture than what appeared on TV.
2016 was the 50th Monkees anniversary. Another reunion tour, mostly Micky and Peter with Mike dropping in here and there, has come and gone. I would have died of joy if I’d been able to see this group in the 1960s and know I would enjoy a concert of theirs today. Why? Because I had the pleasure of seeing Micky Dolenz perform in 2009 at a regional fair. The green in front of the stage was packed with people my age and older, some bouncing grandkids on their hips as they sang and danced along. Micky, then in his late 60s, was a powerhouse entertainer with an excellent band behind him. Yes, he did play his own guitar and showed off some excellent licks.
I like the Monkees. They hearken back to happy childhood memories and their music, whoever played the instrumental tracks, is varied and fun. I respect them for their longevity in the entertainment industry and for the success they’ve garnered, individually and as a group, in spite of critics. Be skeptical if you wish, but, to quote their 1967 release, I’m a believer.