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?