The Monkees were a pop rock quartet assembled by Robert "Bob" Rafelson and Bert Schneider in Los Angeles in 1966 for the American television series The Monkees, which aired from 1966 to 1968. The members were Americans Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Englishman Davy Jones, who were supervised and popularized by Don Kirshner.
At the time of the band's formation, its producers saw The Monkees as a Beatles-like band. At the start, the band members provided vocals, and were given some performing and production opportunities, but they eventually fought for and earned the right to collectively supervise all musical output under the band's name. The group undertook several concert tours, allowing an opportunity to perform as a live band as well as on the TV series. Although the show was canceled in 1968, the band continued releasing records until 1970. In the 1980s, the television show and music experienced a revival, which led to a series of reunion tours, and new records featuring various incarnations of the band's lineup.
Aspiring filmmakers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider were inspired by the Beatles' film A Hard Day's Night to develop a television series about a fictional rock 'n' roll group. The duo, jointly calling their firm "Raybert Productions," sold the idea to Screen Gems television and in September, 1965, Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter ran an ad seeking "Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series." As many as 400 hopefuls showed up to be considered as one of the "4 insane boys" who would be the stars of the show. From this pool, four were chosen to become the fictional band The Monkees.
George Michael "Micky" Dolenz had been the 10-year-old star of the Circus Boy series in the 1950s, during which time he had used the stage name "Micky Braddock," and was a working actor. He found out about The Monkees through his agent.
Englishman Davy Jones had achieved some initial success on the musical stage. Already recording for the Colpix record label and already under contract at Columbia/Screen Gems, he had been identified in advance as a potential star for the TV series. Indeed, he later acknowledged that The Monkees was initially created primarily around him, even with its linkages to A Hard Day's Night.
Texan Robert Michael "Mike" Nesmith was a songwriter and guitarist who had recorded for Colpix under the name "Michael Blessing." He was the only Monkee who had come in to audition from seeing the original advertisement. He repeatedly denied having been the only musician in the team or, for that matter, much of a musician.
Peter Tork, whose real name was Peter Halsten Thorkelson, was recommended to Rafelson and Schneider by friend Stephen Stills. Tork, a skilled multi-instrumentalist, had performed at various Greenwich Village folk clubs before moving west, where he was a dishwasher before becoming a Monkee. Nesmith subsequently called Tork a better musician, by several orders of magnitude, than Nesmith himself was.
Developing the music
During the casting process, Screen Gems head of music, Don Kirshner was contacted to secure music for the pilot that would become The Monkees. Not getting much interest from his usual stable of Brill Building writers, Kirshner assigned Thomas "Tommy" Boyce and Robert "Bobby" Hart to the project. The duo contributed four demo recordings to the pilot, featuring their own voices.
When The Monkees was picked up as a series, development of the musical side of the project accelerated. Columbia-Screen Gems and RCA Records entered into a joint venture called Colgems Records primarily to distribute Monkees records. Raybert set up a rehearsal space and rented instruments for the group to practice playing, but it quickly became apparent they would not be in shape in time for the series debut. The producers called upon Don Kirshner to recruit a producer for the Monkees sessions.
Kirshner called on Snuff Garrett, helmer of several hits by Gary Lewis & the Playboys, to produce the initial musical cuts for the show. Garrett, upon meeting the four Monkees in June 1966, decided that Jones would sing lead, a choice that was unpopular with the group. This cool reception led Kirshner to drop Garrett and buy out his contract. Kirshner next allowed Nesmith to produce sessions, provided he did not play on any tracks he produced. Nesmith did, however, start using the other Monkees on his sessions, particularly Tork as a guitarist. Kirshner came back to the enthusiastic Boyce and Hart to be the regular producers, but he brought in one of his top east coast men, Jack Keller, to lend some experience to the sessions. Boyce and Hart observed quickly that when brought in to the studio together, the four actors would try to crack each other up. Because of this, they would often bring in each singer individually.
According to Nesmith, it was Dolenz's voice that made the Monkees's sound distinctive, and even during tension-filled times Nesmith and Tork voluntarily turned over lead vocal duties to Dolenz on their own compositions, such as Tork's "For Pete's Sake," which became the closing title theme for the second season of the TV show.
The Monkees' first single, "Last Train to Clarksville," was released in August 1966, just weeks prior to the broadcast and, in conjunction with the first broadcast of the television show on , 1966, on the NBC television network, NBC and Columbia had a major hit on their hands. The first long-playing album, The Monkees, was released in October and shot to the top of the charts.
From TV to stage
Developing a live act
In assigning instruments for purposes of the television show, a dilemma arose as none of the four was an actual drummer. Both Nesmith, a guitarist, and Tork, who could play several stringed and keyboard instruments, declined to give the drum set a try. Jones tested well initially as a novice drummer, but the camera could barely capture him behind the drums due to his short stature. Thus, Dolenz was assigned to become the drummer. Tork taught Dolenz his first few beats on the drums and the producers hired him a teacher.
Unlike most television shows at the time, the Monkees episodes were written with many "setups," requiring frequent breaks to prepare the set and cameras for short bursts of filming. Some of the "bursts" are considered proto-music videos, inasmuch as they were produced to sell the records. Eric Lefcowitz, in The Monkees Tale, pointed out--and Nesmith corroborated him--that the Monkees were first and foremost a video group. The four actors would spend 12-hour days on the set, many of them waiting for the production crew to do their jobs. Noticing that their instruments were left on the set unplugged, the four decided to turn them on and start playing.
After working on the set all day, the Monkees (usually Dolenz) would be called in to the recording studio to cut vocal tracks. As the Monkees were essential to the recording process, there were few limits on how long they could spend in the recording studio, and the result was an extensive catalogue of unreleased recordings.
Pleased with their initial efforts, Columbia, over Kirshner's objections, planned to send the Monkees out to play live concerts. The massive success of the series and its spin-off records created intense pressure to mount a touring version of the group. Against the initial wishes of the producers, Dolenz, Jones, Nesmith, and Tork went out on the road and made their debut live performance in December 1966 in Hawaii.
The band had no time to rehearse a live performance except between takes on set. They worked on the TV series all day, recorded in the studio at night, and slept very little. The weekends were usually filled with special appearances or filming of special sequences.
These performances were sometimes used during the actual series. The episode "Too Many Girls (Fern and Davy)" opens with a live version of "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" being performed as the scene was shot. One entire episode was filmed featuring live music. The last show of the premiere season, "Monkees on Tour," was shot in a documentary style by filming a concert in Phoenix, Arizona. Bob Rafelson wrote and directed that episode.
In commentary tracks included in the DVD release of the first season of the show, Nesmith stated that Tork was better at playing guitar than bass. In Tork's commentary, he stated that Jones was a good drummer and had the live performance lineups been based solely on playing ability, it should have been Tork on guitar, Nesmith on bass, and Jones on drums, with Dolenz taking the fronting role, rather than as it was done with Nesmith on guitar, Tork on bass, and Dolenz on drums, yet when they took over as instrumentalists the members stayed in their known roles. (Jones mostly played maracas and tambourine, filling in briefly for Dolenz on drums on a song and for Tork on bass when he played keyboards.) The four Monkees performed all the instruments and vocals for most of the live set. The most notable exceptions being during each member's solo sections where during the December 1966-May 1967 tour, they were backed by the Candy Store Prophets. During the summer 1967 tour of the United States and Great Britain (from which the Live 1967 recordings are taken), they were backed by a band called the Sundowners. In 1968, the Monkees toured Australia and Japan.
The results were far better than expected. Wherever they went they were greeted by scenes of fan adulation reminiscent of Beatlemania. This gave the singers increased confidence in their fight for control over the musical material chosen for the series.
With Jones sticking primarily to vocals and tambourine (except when filling in on the drums when Dolenz came forward to sing a lead vocal), the Monkees' live act constituted a classic power trio of electric guitar, electric bass, and drums (except when Tork passed the bass part to Jones or one of the Sundowners in order to take up the banjo or electric keyboards).
Meeting the Beatles
Critics of the Monkees observed that they were simply the "prefab four," a made-for-TV knockoff of the Beatles, but the Beatles took it in stride, and made the Monkees welcome when they visited England. John Lennon publicly compared the Monkees' humor to The Marx Brothers. George Harrison praised their self-produced musical attempts, saying, "When they get it all sorted out, they might turn out to be the best." (Peter Tork was later one of the musicians on Harrison's Wonderwall Music, playing Paul McCartney's five-string banjo.)
During the time when the Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Monkees were in England and met the Beatles at a party, partially inspiring the line in the Monkees's tune "Randy Scouse Git" which read "the four kings of EMI are sitting stately on the floor". Nesmith attended the "A Day in the Life" sessions at Abbey Road Studios; he can be seen in the Beatles' home movies, including one scene where he is conversing with Lennon (who called him Monkee Man). Dolenz was also in the studio during a session, which he mentioned while broadcasting for WCBS-FM in New York (incidentally, he interviewed Starr on his program). McCartney can be seen in the 2002 concert film Back in the U.S. singing "Hey, Hey, We're The Monkees," the theme from The Monkees show, while backstage.
Separation with Kirshner
The Monkees had complained that the producers would not allow them to play their own instruments on their records. This campaign eventually forced the series' musical coordinator Don Kirshner to let the group have more participation in the recording process (against his strong objections). This included Nesmith producing his own songs, and band members making instrumental contributions. The Monkees were capable of playing their own instruments on the recordings and they had written some material. Except for the few songs forced through by the Monkees' campaigning, they were not allowed by Kirshner to play or use their own material.
The animosity between Kirshner and the Monkees began in the very early stages of the band. The Monkees' off-screen personalities at the time were much like what became their on screen image (except for Peter). This included the playful, hyperactive antics that are often seen on screen. Apparently, during an early recording session, the four Monkees were clowning around in the studio. The antics escalated until Micky Dolenz poured a Pepsi on Kirshner's head; at the time, Dolenz did not know Kirshner on sight.
Nesmith and Tork were particularly upset when they were on tour in January 1967 and discovered that a second album, More of The Monkees, had been released without their knowledge. The Monkees were annoyed at not having even been told of the release in advance, at having their opinions on the track selection ignored, and also because of the amateurish-looking cover art, which was merely a composite of pictures of the four taken for a J.C. Penney clothing advertisement. Indeed, the Monkees had not even been given a copy of the album; they had to buy it from a record store.
The climax of the rivalry was an intense argument between Nesmith and Kirshner Colgems lawyer Herb Moelis, which took place at the Beverly Hills Hotel in January 1967. Kirshner had presented the group with royalty checks and Nesmith had responded with an ultimatum, demanding a change in the way the Monkees' music is chosen and recorded. Moelis reminded Nesmith that he was under contract. The confrontation ended with Nesmith punching a hole in a wall and saying, "That could have been your face, motherfucker!" (However, all the band members, including Nesmith, reluctantly accepted the royalty checks.)
Kirshner's dismissal came in early February 1967 when an agreement was reached between Colgems and the Monkees to release material directly created by the group in addition to Kirshner-produced material. Kirshner violated this agreement when he released "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You," a selection of Neil Diamond's authorship and composition, as a single with "She Hangs Out," a song recorded in New York with Davy Jones vocals, as the flipside. When the single was discovered, Kirshner was immediately dismissed.
Kirshner was reported to have been incensed by the group's unexpected rebellion, especially when he felt they lacked the musical talent, and were hired for their acting ability alone. This experience led directly to Kirshner's later venture, The Archies, which was an animated series