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The Monkees Biography

Inspired by the burgeoning pop phenomena and armed with an advance from Columbia’s Screen Gems subsidiary, US television producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider began auditions for a show about a struggling pop band in 1965. When extant acts, including the Lovin’ Spoonful, proved inappropriate, an advertisement in the Daily Variety solicited 437 applications, including Stephen Stills, Danny Hutton (later of Three Dog Night) and Paul Williams. Following suitably off-beat auditions, the final choice paired two musicians - Michael Nesmith (Robert Michael Nesmith, 30 December 1942, Houston, Texas, USA; guitar/vocals) and folk singer Peter Tork (b. Peter Halsten Thorkelson, 13 February 1942, Washington, DC, USA; bass/vocals) - with two budding actors and former child stars - Davy Jones (b. 30 December 1945, Manchester, England; vocals) and ex-Circus Boy star Mickey Dolenz (b. George Michael Dolenz, 8 March 1945, Los Angeles, California, USA; drums/vocals).

On 12 September 1966, the first episode of The Monkees was aired by NBC-TV and, despite low initial ratings, the show quickly became hugely popular, a feat mirrored when it was launched in the UK. Attendant singles ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ (US number 1) and ‘I’m A Believer’ (US and UK number 1), and a million-selling debut album confirmed the band as the latest teenage phenomenon, drawing inevitable comparisons with the Beatles. However, news that the quartet did not play on their records fuelled an already simmering internal controversy. Early sessions had been completed by Boyce And Hart, authors of ‘Last Train To Clarksville’, and their backing band, the Candy Store Prophets, with the Monkees simply overdubbing vocals. Musical supervision was later handed to Screen Gems executive Don Kirshner, who in turn called in staff songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Neil Diamond and Jeff Barry to contribute material for the show. This infuriated the Monkees’ two musicians, in particular Nesmith, who described the piecemeal More Of The Monkees as ‘the worst album in the history of the world’. Sales in excess of five million copies exacerbated tension, but the band won tacit approval from Schneider to complete several tracks under their own devices.

An undeterred Kirshner coaxed Jones to sing on the already-completed backing track to ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’ which was issued, without the band’s approval, as their third single. The ensuing altercation saw Kirshner ousted, with the quartet gaining complete artistic freedom. Although not issued as a single in the USA, ‘Alternate Title’ (aka ‘Randy Scouse Git’), Dolenz’s ambitious paean to London, reached number 2 in Britain, while two further 1967 singles, ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ and ‘Daydream Believer’ (composed by John Stewart), achieved gold record status. Headquarters, the first Monkees album on which the band played, was a commercial and artistic success, consisting largely of self-penned material ranging from country rock to vaudevillian pop. Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. featured material drawn from associates Michael Murphy, Nilsson and Chip Martin as the unyielding call on the band’s talents continued. This creative drain was reflected in the disappointing The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees and its accompanying single, ‘Valleri’. The track itself had been recorded in 1966, and was only issued when ‘pirate’ recordings, dubbed off-air from the television series, attracted considerable airplay. ‘The Monkees are dead!’, declared an enraged Nesmith, yet the song sold over a million copies, the band’s last such success.

The appeal of their series had waned as plots grew increasingly loose, and the final episode was screened in the USA on 25 March 1968. The quartet had meanwhile embarked on a feature movie, Head, which contained many in-jokes about their artistic predicaments. Although baffling their one-time teenage audience, it failed to find favour with the underground circuit who still viewed the Monkees as bubblegum. However, Head has since been rightly lauded for its imagination and innovation. A dispirited Peter Tork left following its release, but although the remaining trio continued without him, their commercial decline was as spectacular as its ascendancy. Nesmith left for a solo career in 1969, and the following year the Monkees’ name was dissolved in the wake of Dolenz/Jones recording Changes. However, in 1975, the latter-day duo joined their erstwhile songwriting team in Dolenz, Jones, Boyce And Hart which toured under the banner ‘The Great Golden Hits Of The Monkees Show’.

The project drew cursory interest, but the band’s reputation was bolstered considerably during the 80s, when the independent Rhino Records label reissued the entire Monkees back catalogue and the entire series was rescreened on MTV. Although Nesmith demurred, Dolenz, Jones and Tork embarked on a highly successful, 20th anniversary world tour which engendered a live album and a new studio set, Pool It! They then disbanded as members pursued contrasting interests, while attempts to create the New Monkees around Marty Roos, Larry Saltis, Jared Chandler and Dino Kovas in 1987 were aborted. Although reviled by many contemporary critics, the original band’s work is now regarded as among the best American pop of its era. Rhino Records released an ambitious 21-volume video collection in 1995 containing all 58 episodes of their television series. The following year’s Justus was the first recording by the original band (including Nesmith) for over 20 years, and was followed by their first tour of the UK as a quartet.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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