Around this time each year, when Cleveland’s Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductees are announced, dozens of articles are written by fans and music scholars alike defending the legacy of The Monkees in their laments of the band never being nominated to the hallowed hall of honor, which has been theorized to be an orchestrated snub by the music industry reps that determine these decisions. There are so many articles on this subject that, in all honesty, I doubt I can find anything new to say in defending the Monkees. However, due to their continued popularity, their continuous presence on the world soundscape and their massive fanbase which finds more followers with each generation, I know that I am not alone in being a believer in the Monkees.
Now for those who may be a bit behind on what the actual controversy over the Monkees is, I can sum it up in something Davy Jones said to me when I met him in 2006. In our interview I asked him about his feelings about being excluded from the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and, dismissing the issue, he replied “The Monkees were never a band. We were actors who were hired to be in a TV show about a band.” True, but I believe that in being hired to become a band, the Monkees morphed into something very unique and historically special.
The Monkees, as a concept, were the brainchild of TV producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schnider who were inspired after seeing The Beatles in their film “A Hard Days Night.” A cinematic phenomenon in itself, the young producers thought that the concept of “A Hard Days Night” could be easily transferred to television and sold the premise to Screen Gems in 1965. All they needed now was a band to star in the series. At one point they considered using The Lovin’ Spoonful as the stars of the series, but eventually put out audition notices in The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety which read “Madness!! Auditions. Folk and Roll Musicians – Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for 4 insane boys, aged 17 – 21. Want spirited Ben-Frank types. Have courage to work.” Four hundred young men turned out for the auditions, including future musical icons like Paul Willimas, Harry Nilsson and Steven Stills. But when the casting was done the four lucky men to be cast were Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork.
Four very different type of guys, and different type of performers, the men who would become the Monkees were perfectly chosen for the project. They were to represent the young generation, who had something to say. With a baby face and a cheeky charm, loveable Davy Jones was a star of the London Stage and Broadway and brought British Invasion cred to the project. Former child star Mickey Dolenz was high energy and zany, and although he never worked in music before, he had a great voice and became the Monkees primary lead vocalist. Cool and collected Michael Nesmith had a slow Texas drawl, and as a gifted songwriter himself, became the leader of the group. Peter Tork, another legitimate musician, had an earthy charm, and had connections to the folk/country-rock crowd coming out of Laurel Canyon. The Monkees were born, but it was doubtful that anybody had any idea just how successful that they were to become.
The cross marketing of music and television used for the Monkees was revolutionary for the time and, while promoting music via television had been done successfully before, nothing of this calibre had ever been attempted. The Monkees TV show was aimed at introducing another potential hit record every single week. With a handful of above average pop songs generated by the writing team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who had previously written huge hits for Fats Domino, Curtis Lee and Jay and the Americans, The Monkees entered the studio to record their first album simultaneously while filming the first season of the TV series. This way the recordings of the songs could be used and introduced on each episode, capturing the attention of the viewer who would go and seek out the album in stores. Well, it worked because The Monkees rise to the top was fast. The TV show made its debut on September 12, 1966, the album was released on October 10, 1966, an their first single “Last Train to Clarksville” topped the Billboard Charts in the number one spot by November 5, 1966. It took less than two months for the Monkees to make their TV debut and rise to the top of the charts. That’s far faster than it happened for the Beatles. With their music on the radio, their presence on television and their faces everywhere, soon the Monkees began to rival the Fab Four in popularity, and this is where the vilification of The Monkees by “legitimate music fans” began.
To compare the Monkees and the Beatles is insane. Sure, the Monkees were inspired as a concept by the Beatles, but the bands were very different in origin and in nature. The biggest difference is that The Beatles were creators, while the Monkees were entertainers. But of course, what has been harped on over and over again is that The Monkees “didn’t play their own music.” This is true in the beginning. On the first two Monkees albums, the music was completely performed by studio musicians under the watchful eye of superstar producer Don Kirshner. But, when the taunts of the serious “record buyers” grew louder, the Monkees themselves grew more uncomfortable with the charade, most significantly Mike Nesmith. A proud man who valued his integrity, Nesmith was actually becoming one of the primary songwriters for The Monkees. His songs weren’t being chosen as the singles, but on the debut album, as well as their second album “More of the Monkees,” Nesmith wrote “Papa Gene’s Blues,” “Sweet Young Thing,” “Mary, Mary,” and “The Kind of Girl I Could Love.” He would go on to write fan favorites such as “The Girl That I Knew Somewhere” and “Listen to the Band.” The flack the Monkees were getting for not being legitimate musicians was starting to hurt, and in a struggle for their dignity, Nesmith led a coup to strong arm control away from Kirshner, which had him famously putting a fist through a board room door. The Monkees got their way, and starting with their third album, “Headquarters,” the band began to take closer control in the direction of their music including less studio musicians and more writing credits.
So, with the Monkees singing their songs in the studio, performing on the albums by their third album, contributing to the song writing and soon, appearing in concerts to packed stadiums full of screaming teenagers, the lines of reality and fiction began to blur.
I think what differentiates The Monkees from other fictional bands such as The Partridge Family, The Blues Brothers, Spinal Tap or Kaptain Kool and the Kongs is that, for the exception of Peter Tork, the Monkees were basically playing themselves on television and on stage (Tork, often reported to be the moodiest of the group, was not the sweet child like simpleton he played on TV). Sure, the show was scripted, but the narrative often became metaphysical and played with reality. The Monkees were not playing characters, and their personalities bled through in their on-screen personas, and their pasts and true-life stories were sometimes even referenced.
Furthermore, when the show ended after two seasons, The Monkees continued on as a musical entity, appearing in the film “Head,” making more television appearances, and continuing to record albums, in one combination or another, until 1970. When a resurgence of interest in the Monkees grabbed hold of pop culture in 1986 when the reruns began running on MTV, the Monkees were back on tour and in the recording, studio making new music with 1987’s “Pool It”, followed by new original albums in 1996 (“Justus”), 2016 (“Good Times”) and 2018 (“Christmas Party”). Today, with Mickey Dolenz as the last living Monkee, he still continues to tour, packing in full houses of fans and celebrating the musical legacy of The Monkees.
But what I feel seals the Monkees legacy in music is the quality of the songs they performed. The Monkees recorded songs written by some of the best songwriters in the history of pop music including Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Neil Daimond, Carol King, Gary Goffin, Neil Sedaka, Harry Nilsson and Paul Williams, not to mention those originals penned by Mike Nesmith. Mickey, Mike, Davy and Peter took these songs, went into the studio and interpreted them in their way, and made them some of the most beloved pop hits of all time which continue to be played worldwide. Look. Not everyone is a singer/songwriter. Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra wasn’t going around writing their own hits, and nobody would ever dare questioning the legitimacy of their musical legacies. Meanwhile, nearly everybody in the history of music has had a reliance on studio musicians. To deny The Monkees a certain legitimacy because they “didn’t write or play their own music” is madness. They sang the songs, they played in the public sphere, they rose to the top of the charts, and they have maintained a solid fanbase that continues to grow. If that isn’t legitimate music than I’m not sure what is!
So were the Monkees a real band, or four guys who were hired to play a band on TV? To me, the answer is both. They initially were four guys who were hired to play a band, but fame, circumstances, ambition and opportunity turned them into a real band. The music that they made has touched generation of music lovers, and they made their own special mark on music history.
Should they be in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame? I don’t know. I don’t make these decisions, but if it was up to me, I’d say I’d put them in there right between Joni Mitchell and Bill Monroe.. They may not have been formed organically like most bands, and they may not be in the same creative tier as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, but their popularity has outlived many of the bands that have been inducted so far, at least in the minds of the mass public.
I may not have said anything new here that hasn’t already been said before, but the Monkees fans understand. The Monkees may not ever grow past their shady preassembled pop group origins, but the way their music makes us feel will always remain. The Monkees will always be a top tier band within our hearts.