Before we get into this book, maybe we should consider the question “What is / Who are The Monkees?”
One way to answer the question is that The Monkees are four musician-actors: Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith, and Davy Jones. Each band member was an accomplished musician and/or actor before becoming a Monkee. Micky Dolenz was a successful television actor. Davy Jones was a Tony Award-winning actor/singer. Michael Nesmith was a recording artist who wrote Linda Ronstadt’s hit record “Different Drum.” Peter Tork was a working musician in the folk scene and a close friend of Stephen Stills.
Another way to answer the question is that “The Monkees” was a television show that ran for two seasons but has continued to play in syndication for almost fifty years. Dolenz, Tork, Nesmith, and Jones played characters with their own names, and the plots revolved around their work as a band and how it kept being interrupted by a variety of distractions. The show was known for an instantly recognizable theme song, wacky plots, solid comedic performances, and catchy musical sequences. “The Monkees” was in many ways a pioneering example of how to merge music and video for mass audiences. (It’s no surprise that Michael Nesmith was eventually one of the brains behind MTV.)
Or we can look at The Monkees as a recording phenomenon. The Monkees have released numerous albums and many hit singles, mostly in the late 1960s, but their most recent album Good Times! was a top-20 Billboard release in the summer of 2016. On their first two albums, The Monkees did not play their own instruments. The vaunted Wrecking Crew and other studio musicians laid down the instrumental tracks while The Monkees provided lead vocals and some harmonies. For their third album, Headquarters, The Monkees insisted on playing their own instruments. From that point forward, Monkees albums used a mix of studio musicians and the Monkees themselves playing instruments, which is pretty much what every other recording act of the time did too, including The Byrds, The Beach Boys, and other Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.
The Monkees can also be considered as a unique show business phenomenon. Yes, the four members were cast to play a band in a television show that used catchy songs as a cross-media marketing strategy, but they actually became a version of the band they played on television. The show ended decades ago, but various incarnations of The Monkees are still touring and making new music. They began as employees required to play themselves in scripts written by others; however, their personalities were so strong that when the show ended they could continue to be themselves as individuals and as Monkees whenever that suited them.
Although I’ve tried to be objective here, I’ll admit I’m a long-time fan. Although others are more fanatical, the first album I owned was that first Monkees album. I had a Monkees lunch box and trading cards. I’ve met Mike and Micky, and they signed an album cover for me. I took my four-year-old daughter to a Davy Jones concert. I’ve followed everything they’ve ever done.
I understand that it can be hard to take the Monkees seriously. After all, they were built for fun. But as time went along, their catchy pop tunes made room for more sophisticated music, and their skills as actors led to the 1968 film Head, a movie that is symbolic, abstract, visually challenging, musically interesting, and different from anything else I’ve ever seen.
British author Peter Mills makes Head the critical focus of his new book The Monkees, Head, and the 60s. Mills understands The Monkees extremely well, and he does a great job of explaining how their recording, visual, and live performance careers overlap and support each other, even to this day.
Delving into Head is an unenviable task for a critic. To be honest, some of the explication of the film and soundtrack makes for labored reading, but it’s a complex subject. To be even more honest, the book’s title promises a little more than it delivers. Yes, it’s thorough on the band and the movie, but it doesn’t illuminate the entire decade of the 1960s. In fairness, Mills does an excellent job of explaining how The Monkees went from being a popular culture phenomenon to a platform for criticizing popular culture. The book makes clear that The Monkees had important things to say about war, television, fandom, money, and more.
If you’re interested in The Monkees or pop culture, you should get your hands on this book.
Before closing, let me make my case for The Monkees being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They clearly have enough hits, so what’s the holdup? The Monkees are criticized for not playing their own instruments on their records, and for being a manufactured band created in a casting call rather than one that sprang up organically from neighborhood garages.
Let’s break that down a bit. While it’s true that The Monkees did not play instruments on their first two albums, that was not unusual for the time. The Byrds, for example, did not play their own instruments on “Mr. Tambourine Man” and other records. The Beach Boys did not play their own instruments on “Good Vibrations” and many other hits. Both bands are in the Hall of Fame. The use of session musicians was the business model of the time. Studio time is expensive, and tracks could be laid down more efficiently with professional session musicians. The Monkees, however, took the accusations of inauthenticity personally and insisted that their third album, Headquarters, be 100% performed by them. Their next album was also mostly them. After that, they had more freedom, and they played on their own albums but also used session musicians for some tracks.
It’s also true that The Monkees came together in sort of a test tube. They met each other not as working musicians coming together with a common vision of music they wanted to make but as actor-musicians cast in a television series. But they went far beyond simply playing their roles. They became The Monkees and continued to make music after the series ended. Nothing like that happened with The Partridge Family, not to mention The New Monkees, a failed attempt to recreate the Monkee magic.
I could write about The Monkees for a long time, and I’m happy to engage in discussions about them here. For now though, I hope you’ll watch Head (available below or on Youtube) and then delve into this new Peter Mills book!