One of the interesting aspects of working with Lucy Hell in 2007 on the “Voodoo Beat” project of music interviews and reviews came in the form of rattling musician’s chains about the Monkees and their recent (and ridiculous) news of getting barred from the hokey Rock & Roll? Hall of Fame. Still blows my mind that anyone could honestly believe the Monkees existed as anything other than a legitimate (and great) band, but musicians should know better, especially bands who actually made records in the 60s and 70s.
Okay, well, we can’t underestimate the power of urban legend. Despite all the hard evidence to the contrary the myth persists that the Monkees—a TV band—didn’t play their own instruments, weren’t “really” musicians, were never a real band, and of course the new favorite: do not qualify for the phony baloney “Hall of Fame.”
I wonder why Michael Nesmith released all those solo albums? I wonder why Micky Dolenz continued to make Monkees records with Davy Jones after Nesmith and Tork left the band? Weren't they in particular the "actors" of the group--and how could I have actually seen the Monkees live, several times, and Micky Dolenz solo in concert? Why did Davy have a solo album before becoming a Monkee and why the hell did he sing in Oliver? Why is Peter Tork constantly on tour with his band Shoe Suede Blues and why do they bother making records, that is, if Peter isn’t a musician of some sort?
Let’s just explore some of the basic history. Despite an expressed desire to play their own instruments on their first two record albums (The Monkees and More of the Monkees)—Don Kirshner, their record producer, would not let the Monkees record anything other than their voices. Why? Kirshner could hire great studio musicians, and he did, a fairly common music industry practice, not only for a TV band, but for many major recording artists of the time as well. Why?
If Hal Blaine is available to play drums for your albums—do you really want anyone else to do the job?
Of course Blaine is merely one of many skilled musicians hired to record on popular record albums, but let’s just take a peek at Blaine’s resume to see if anyone else, any other so called “real musicians,” had the pleasure of Mr. Blaine’s company.
Hal Blaine played drums for the following music acts: the Association, Barbara Streisand, the Beach Boys (Brian’s favorite drummer), the Byrds, Captain and Tennille, the Carpenters, Dean Martin, Diana Ross, the 5th Dimension, Frank Sinatra, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, the Grass Roots, Henry Mancini, Jan & Dean, John Denver, John Lennon, Johnny Rivers, the Mamas and the Papas, Nancy Sinatra, Neil Diamond, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Simon & Garfunkel, Sonny and Cher, the Supremes, and well, you get the idea. Are all these performers guilty of some sort of fraud?
Well, maybe Streisand, but all kidding aside—no, of course not.
Kirshner actually created the problem by not listening to the band and allowing them more creative freedom. When it comes down to: No, we’re only using “my” guys—it’s time for mutiny, and that’s just what they did.
The issue of who actually played drums or any other instrument on a Monkees record became moot by the third album, Headquarters. The band, who supposedly committed some sort of fraud, were actually the ones who fought for independence and control when most other people would have been more than happy to have someone else do the work for them.
Consider the "boy" bands of today or Britney Spears (and all the other "Britneys") ...
The Monkees, a quartet of funny guys with a mix of acting and musical talent had something that the public connected with, a raw honesty—fueled by a culture rapidly going through the growing pains of civil rights movements and a war in Vietnam. Micky, Davy, Peter, and Mike became Monkees through a handpicked process that began with a casting call in the Hollywood Reporter. That casting call carries its own part of the legend in terms of all the people who tried out—from Steven Stills to Charles Manson. Although the Manson rumor is false, goofball DJ Rodney Bingenheimer actually did try out.
You really have to give due credit to the guys who picked the Monkees. They knew, or at least had a damned good hunch, that these four guys had something unique. Interesting guys all in their individual rights, but together they were magic, and that’s a key sign of any great band.
Now, aside from the music, the Monkees are just plain awesome for having such a fun show. My generation, the kids who grew up on Saturday morning programs, mostly experienced the Monkees in that format. Generally we were too young for the NBC prime time show; we experienced the Monkees in syndication on Saturday mornings with new Monkees Kellogg’s commercials.
The Monkees fit in perfectly with Saturday mornings and that’s how I best remember them. In fact, my other favorite Saturday morning show borrowed the concept of the Monkees's crazy “musical romps.”
That show: Scooby-Doo Where Are You?
Hey, remember when Davy appeared on the New Scooby-Doo Movies?
Or how about when Davy guest-starred on the Brady Bunch?
Davy singing "Girl" on the Brady Bunch.
Cool, goofy, good times ...
Anyway, the Monkees for me held that rare quality of creating a landscape I wanted to actually be a part of, wanted to get lost inside of. Batman and Star Trek were the only other shows during that time period that pulled me in like that. I wanted to live in the Batcave; I wanted to live on the Enterprise. I also wanted to live in the Monkees’s beach house, eat Kellogg’s cereal from giant oversized bowls, meet pretty girls by the surf, and play fun music …
All of those shows had great “complete” formulas. The actors felt friendly and appealing, people we could relate to, awesome music, and they all had great vehicles to cruise for chicks: the Batmobile, the Enterprise, and of course--the Monkeemobile designed by the legendary Dean Jeffries.
You've got to have just the right amount of pins in your voodoo doll to pull off the big magic of becoming a pop culture classic but the Monkees had it all: a hit TV show, a great band with a super cool name, and hit records on the radio that actually didn’t suck!
Maybe that ultimately rubbed other musicians the wrong way. Here were these four guys who answered a Hollywood ad and now they had much bigger songs than most bands. Yet, in order to score those hits, the Monkees had to go up against the best. The Monkees’s competition stood as the toughest ever to exist in popular music: the Beach Boys, the Beatles with all the other interesting Brit invasion bands, the Animals, the Rolling Stones, etc. At the same time the great saloon singers still commanded the stage; the time of the almighty Rat Pack.
No, the Monkees weren’t just given the hits. They had a great vehicle to promote their music, in terms of television and everyone who contributed to the band, but Micky, Davy, Peter, and Mike brought the music to life, and it was damned good. That’s the bottom line. Monkee music kicks ass. There’s good reason the punk bands of the 70s and 80s covered Monkee music. They dug the simplicity and the pure fun of the songs combined with cool lyrics. See: the Dickies performing “She” or the Sex Pistols performing “Stepping Stone.” Two of my favorites for sure, and many of my favorites aren’t actually the hits you hear all the time on the retro radio stations. “Randy Scouse Git,” for example, as good of a Monkees song as you’ll ever hear—written by Micky Dolenz for Headquarters.
Check it out!
Well, if you’re a Monkees fan, I’ve been preaching to the choir, but sometimes that’s exactly who needs to hear the sermon, the ones who actually give a damn. If you’re reading this because you’re lost on Mystery Island or thought this article had something to do with primates, well, you’ve gotten this far—now go give the Monkees a listen.
If you don’t like the Monkees after listening to Davy sing “This Just Doesn’t Seem to be My Day” or Micky singing “Goin’ Down,” well, you suck.
For more information about the Monkees and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, please see our interview with Sandy Jacobson, pertaining to “the Monkees Petition.”