Yeah, there’s some kinda Stones connection. The Most Influential Pop-Rock Band Ever? The Monkees!
Michael Nesmith is a bona fide pop-culture polymath. He is a godfather of the MTV era, having pioneered the modern music-video genre. (His Elephant Parts, a collection of comedy and musical shorts, won the very first Grammy for video of the year in 1982.) He was also the executive producer of the 1984 punk comedy Repo Man, one of the best American movies of the Reagan era. Before that, he was a foundational figure in the Laurel Canyon country-rock scene, having handed Linda Ronstadt one of her first hit singles with his song “Different Drum.” Oh, and he happened to play the guitar-picking wiseacre with a Texas drawl and ski cap in the The Monkees television series, a massive success that aired from 1966 to 1968. I say “happened to play,” because when you hear Nesmith, who is 78 and one of two surviving Monkees, talk, you get the impression that he sees himself less as a member of an enormously popular band than as an actor on a TV show called The Monkees.
The implication, as ever, is that the Monkees aren’t—and were never—quite real.
In their heyday, they were famously the “Prefab Four”—a bubblegum fantasy dreamed up by a couple of young Hollywood hustlers named Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. The two of them caught the Beatles in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night and had the kind of idea that makes people in the entertainment industry very rich: They would take A Hard Day’s Night, set it in L.A., cast four hungry actor-musicians, christen them the Monkees, and turn them into a huge, huge band. It was synergy before synergy was a thing, a totalized vision of media saturation: The series, in their daydream imaginings, would be the hit at the hub of a Monkees franchise, spawning million-selling records, arena tours, and merchandising galore. Radio listeners would become TV watchers, TV watchers would buy records…around and around and around it would go.
As it turned out, Rafelson and Schneider had gotten it precisely right: That is just what went down. Now, 55 years after the series premiered, Nesmith and Micky Dolenz, the Monkees’ drummer and lead vocalist, are heading back on the road in a tour billed as a farewell. The dates begin September 10, in Spokane, Washington, wind around the country (with a stop at New York’s Town Hall on October 24), and finish November 14 at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. As a victory lap, it’s bittersweet, coming in the wake of COVID and following the deaths in recent years of fellow members Davy Jones and Peter Tork. It’s also an indication, if anyone cares about the semantics anymore, that the Monkees are, in fact, very much real, no matter what Nesmith or Dolenz may think—a talented and original band, a pop-culture force, a touchstone for multiple generations, a lasting influence, and even today, a viable commodity. Nesmith’s vast résumé alone practically proves the point.
It began in September of 1965, when 437 hopefuls responded to ads in The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety to try out for one of the four roles in a new TV series for NBC. Among them were Stephen Stills, Paul Williams, and Harry Nilsson—but not, as the urban legend goes, Charlie Manson. Stills was dinged, but his roommate, Tork, a Greenwich Village folkie type, got a part. A year later, the Monkees—the series and the group—became a sensation. The first season of The Monkees won two Emmys. In 1967, four Monkees albums landed at number one on the Billboard chart in one year—a feat that might never be duplicated. (The Beatles came close, with three top LPs in three separate years.) Hits like “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” and “Daydream Believer” clogged the radio airwaves—undeniable earworms, every one.
And then something funny happened on the way to teenybopper fame and ignominy. In its second season, The Monkees swerved into the avant-garde, hosting such unimpeachably credible guests as Frank Zappa and Tim Buckley. Howard Kaylan of the Turtles and Mothers of Invention gazed upon the show and professed, “I loved it.” While The Monkees beamed into millions of American living rooms week after week (and would later enjoy a robust life in syndication), the various Monkees themselves were often found in the company of their exalted peers. Some were welcomed by the Beatles (Nesmith was a house guest of John Lennon’s) and some members were seen hobnobbing at Monterey Pop. Later, Crosby, Stills, and Nash would conduct rehearsals at Tork’s house in Studio City before they signed with Atlantic Records. The Tork lair was also where the Stones rehearsed for their 1969 American tour, with its fateful stop at Altamont.
When the Monkees decided it was time to implode, having grown tired of the teen-idol game as the counterculture took hold, they did it in high style, with a movie that can be best described as totally batshit: the surreal 1968 cult film Head, written by Jack Nicholson. Dennis Hopper made a cameo, seeming to beg Rafelson for development money, a bit of borderline cinema verité. That year, Rafelson and Schneider freed up the funds that allowed Hopper and Peter Fonda to make Easy Rider, a film that arguably rearranged the landscape of Hollywood. In other words, cinema’s enduring symbol of the 1960s—the movie that pushed Hollywood into the decade of Scorsese, Coppola, and Bogdanovich—was made with Monkees money.
The music? Well, it was bubblegum—in the best way. Truth be told, the musicians who joined the Monkees on their first two albums were L.A. session-player superstars who could have blown most “real” ’60s bands off the stage. The songwriters—Carole King, Harry Nilsson, Boyce and Hart, Neil Diamond, John Stewart—were top-shelf, and Nesmith’s own contributions put him in company with Gene Clark and Neil Young as a prime exemplar of post-Dylan songwriting. The puppy-dog-cute Davy Jones was inevitably handed the band’s sweeter material to sing, but he had legit pipes: He’d even landed a Tony nomination as a street kid in Oliver! Tork—adept as he was on banjo, guitar, bass, and keyboards—brought multi-instrumental flair. Dolenz, the drummer with the incandescent leer, may have been a child actor in TV’s Circus Boy, but as a rock vocalist, he was hard to top. There’s a reason, after all, why bands like the Sex Pistols and Minor Threat covered “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” a song Dolenz delivered with proto-punk perfection.
The joke the Monkees have never been able to live down is that Jimi Hendrix—the Zeus of rock’s guitar gods—opened for them on tour. This is generally regarded as hilarious irony and/or mind-boggling injustice. Two things on that. First, the Monkees helped break Hendrix in America: credit where credit is due. (They also tapped Ike and Tina Turner for opening slots, showing they knew epochal artists when they saw them.) And second, among my own generation (X; I’m too young to remember the Monkees as stars of NBC and Top 40 radio) and my music-snob, vinyl-obsessed peers, I have probably had more conversations about the Monkees—about their impact, their ability to create joy and wonderment, the way they introduced the whole realm of pop music to us as young people—than I’ve had about Hendrix. I’m guessing the same might be said of MSNBC’s Brian Williams; he’s a Monkees obsessive and even had a blog for a while whose title was borrowed from a Monkees song, 1967’s “Daily Nightly,” considered the first rock recording to feature a Moog synthesizer. (Dolenz had bought the third Moog ever sold.)
As Nesmith noted in his wry and wonderful 2017 memoir Infinite Tuesday, “What had started as a copy of the 1960s became a fact of the 1960s.” In the 21st century, there have been rewarding Monkees tours and a well-received album, in 2016, produced in part by the late popsmith Adam Schlesinger. The Monkees played on it, along with members of Fountains of Wayne and other latter-day guitar-pop bands.
Not that anyone should really care anymore what the Monkees actually played on or not. These days, after all, we tend to roll our eyes at the concept of authenticity. It’s played out. The current Poptimism era—of divas, boy bands, K-pop—is a celebration of artifice. It’s about producer-driven, committee-written, well-synergized ear candy. We’re living in a new heyday of bubblegum, arguably the best there’s ever been. As such, you could venture to say that it’s not Hendrix, the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Aretha, or James Brown who, in the fullness of time, have turned out to be the most-influential artists of pop’s most-celebrated, most-mythologized, most-golden age. Hey, hey: It’s probably the Monkees.