A manufactured image with no philosophies?

"The Monkees are too hip for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame", writes Robert Forster. Is he right?

Hired as actors for a TV series, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones went on to feature in one of the most successful American pop bands of the 1960s. The four were chosen for their youth, good looks and ability to play themselves. Being able to play musical instruments was not so important. The idea was not to create a band, but to create a TV show about a band. And to make sure things didn’t get out of control, the original contract for the show banned the four Monkees from playing instruments on any of their recordings. All they had to do was say their lines, clown around and sing.

The trouble started when the music began to outperform the TV show. ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ and I’m a Believer’ became huge international hits. Then in January 1967 the sudden release of the band’s second album — More of the Monkees — sent Nesmith over the edge. He told Hit Parader that it "was probably the worst album in the history of the world."

The show created the impression that the band played their own instruments. But in reality, they did little more than add vocal tracks to songs played — and often sung — by studio musicians. The show’s producers, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, relied on Columbia Pictures for funding. And, according to Peter Doggett, "Columbia insisted that the music for the show must come from the pool of talent contracted to their publishing subsidiary, Screen-Gems Columbia, headed by Don Kirshner."

Monkees fans like to cast Kirshner as the villain. An industry insider and notorious control freak, Kirshner was also responsible for another successful manufactured pop band — the cartoon-based Archies. But unlike Archie Andrews, Mike Nesmith had a very real, very physical off screen existence. Nesmith was also something of a control freak. And as a songwriter and musician in his own right, he wanted more creative input into the records that carried his picture and name. He wasn’t happy being a real musician in a fictional band.

Things came to a head when Nesmith got into an argument with Kirshner and Screen Gems executive Herb Moelis — an argument that ended with Nesmith putting his fist through a wall. Eventually Kirshner was dropped and the Monkees recorded Headquarters, their first album as a real band. While nobody argues that the musicianship was as good as on the first two albums, many Monkees fans see Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd as their best work. As Robert Forster writes in February’s Monthly:

There is still the gloriously rich mix of songwriting and there is still the sound, a big warm studio mix of live instrumentation at the exotic end of the pop scale. But there is also a voice here, hard won by four young men who in making two classic albums became the Frankenstein’s monster that walked.

Micky Dolenz once said that "The Monkees were a garage band, the first cheap punk garage band. Nobody realised it at the time, and we got a lot of shit. But that’s what we were." In a strange way that’s almost true. There were two bands called the Monkees. One was the fictional group with its songs chosen by Kirshner and played by studio musicians. The other was the monster that walked. It was a band of actors with two genuine musicians in the line up — Nesmith and Tork. And like garage bands everywhere, its less than professional members took a crash course in the basics of rock and roll and pumped out an enthusiastic noise.

Dolenz is right about the shit too. Asked what he thought of the band Jimi Hendrix told Melody Maker: "Oh God I hate them. Dishwater. I really hate somebody like that to make it so big. You can’t knock anybody for making it, but people like the Monkees?" The Byrds’ song ‘So You want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ is allegedly a dig at the Monkees manufactured image. Countless music critics have attacked the band for its lack of originality, its lack of authenticity and its lack of musical talent. It’s true that most of the songs written for them were sanitised, derivative and more than a little sugary. And it’s true that the band’s most popular work wasn’t really their own — they didn’t write it and they didn’t play it. But despite its pedigree, some of the material holds up well.

If a song like ‘(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone’ had been performed by the Sonics instead of the Monkees, it might have become an underground classic. But come to think of it, Steppin’ Stone has become a classic — the the Sex Pistols covered it (YouTube). And how authentic were they?

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Don Arthur
Don Arthur
13 years ago

Did I forget to mention that Mike Nesmith wrote a number of songs for the Monkees? Or that he had a solo career and was a pioneer of country-rock? Or that his mother invented Liquid Paper? Or that he produced the film Repo Man?

I guess you just can’t fit everything into one post.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

Davy Jones voice in ‘Daydream Believer’ is lovely.

Amanda
13 years ago

Did Jimi say that after touring with them, or before? I thought it was before.

I don’t think we can single out the Monkees’ songs as sanitized, deriative and sugary. I’ve always thought, rather, the songs are quite surprising in restrospect for being brave choices (even in the most manufactured period.) ie Last Train to Clarksville is about a guy going to the Vietnam War. Personally,

Amanda
13 years ago

Premature submitting on account of racing for the taxi.

I think I was going to say “Personally, I like them more than the Beatles” or somesuch. Not that that would be hard.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwRjdYTYrKk

I have a CD “Papa Nez: A Loose Salute to Mike Nesmith”, a tribute CD of his solo stuff. It’s very good. The original TV show is also interesting for the musical guests it had on at the time, Zappa and Tim Buckley are two I recall blogging about.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
13 years ago

Amanda – I think you might be right about Hendrix. The remark may have been before the tour with the Monkees.

I’ve fixed up the text.

Francis Xavier Holden
13 years ago

As you point out The Pistols used to do Stepping Stone. And as to how authentic were they. Possibly just as manufactured as any group and certainly in the latter days it was the other members who prevented Sid from playing his instrument not some NYC svengali.

The little missed trend of the 70’s for “Super Groups” seemed to grant authenticity to manufactured groups such as Cream and ELP and the Eagles but not the Monkees. Even Jimi’s experience was put together by Chas Chandler not jimi – at least initially.

Amanda
13 years ago

If I never heard the word “authenticity” in relation to music ever again I would be most content.

derrida derider
derrida derider
13 years ago

Yes, their minders made the serious mistake of hiring Neil Diamond to write and arrange songs for them. Future pretty boy and pretty girl bands have gone out of their way to avoid that sort of mistake.

As Phil Spector said of the Spice Girl’s movie “it was just another p**n movie, except most p**n movies have better music”.

Tony T.
13 years ago

Nesmith’s Nevada Fighter is passable but has one super track in Grand Ennui.

SJ
SJ
13 years ago

Good post, Don. There’s also the MTV thing:

Nesmith recorded a number of LPs for his label, and had a moderate worldwide hit in 1977 with his song “Rio”, the single taken from the album “From A Radio Engine To The Photon Wing”. More importantly, Nesmith created a video clip for “Rio” which, in a roundabout way, helped spur Nesmith’s creation of a television program called Pop Clips for the Nickelodeon cable network. The concept was sold to Time Warner/Amex, who developed it into the MTV network. His single “Cruisin'” was the first video of the MTV generation. Nesmith also won the first Grammy Award (1981) given for Video of the Year for his hour-long Elephant Parts and also had a short-lived series inspired by the video called “Television Parts”.

trackback
13 years ago

Hey Hey where the Monkeys