Monkees make their mark
It started off as a TV show featuring a struggling pop band in Los Angeles, but in a bizarre twist of fate, fantasy became reality as The Monkees became a bona fide pop group, releasing a number of hit albums, touring, and actually playing their instruments!
But there was controversy in the sixties when it was discovered the band didn’t really play on their records. The show’s producers were keen to get the recorded product in the shops and therefore recruited the best session musicians with generally only the singers in the band adding vocals.
In the end, this caused the band to rebel and they eventually gained control of their music and played the music on the records.
The Monkees themselves were four different types of characters; British-born Davy Jones was a Broadway and singing star who had been groomed from the start to appear in the TV show. He was also the Monkee who got the girl (usually), and he was already known to us here in the UK as Ena Sharples’ grandson in ‘Coronation Street’.
Micky Dolenz was a child actor who had found fame as ‘Circus Boy’ in the late 50s and had also appeared in bands around Los Angeles. He was the crazy one.
Peter Tork was from Washington and had been performing on the folk music circuit since the early 60s. Peter’s character in the show was the ‘dumb’ one. However, he himself was far from dumb. He usually played bass and keyboards with the band and was actually a better guitar player than the ‘official’ guitarist.
Texan Mike Nesmith completed the quartet. A country musician, he had already released a number of records under the name of Michael Blessing before successfully auditioning for the show.
The TV show ran for two seasons (58 episodes) which had the four boys in a series of madcap adventures interspersed with tracks from whatever album or single they had on release at the time.
A feature film, ‘Head’ also came out in 1968, and became a ‘cult’ film because of its outlandishness and apparent incomprehensibility.
Because of the runaway success of the TV show, The Monkees became the first artists to win two Emmy Awards,
But it is the music for which they are mostly remembered Their hits defined the period of 1967–1969 with such songs as ‘Last Train to Clarksville’, ‘Daydream Believer’, ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ and ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’ (written by Neil Diamond).
After the series ended, first Peter Tork and then Michael Nesmith left, leaving Micky and Davy to carry on until they too called it a day in 1970.
Since then, the number of reunions generally had two or three of the originals, and in 1997, all four toured in support of a brand new album (‘Justus’) they had written, produced and recorded all by themselves.
They last toured the UK in 2011 (again without Nesmith), but then in 2012 disaster struck when Davy Jones suddenly passed away. Micky and Peter have continued to tour, sometimes with Nesmith, but they have never been back to the UK……until now.
The Monkees return to Britain in September to play two shows. The first is on September 4 at the London Eventim (Hammersmith) Apollo and a couple of days later at the Mosely Folk Festival in Birmingham.
This time, it is just Micky and Peter with a band of backing musicians. Micky – who for a time lived in England – spoke about the shows.
But, what about Mike Nesmith and the fact that he wasn’t coming over for these dates.
“Well, he has only toured with us a few times – maybe three or four and he always marches to the beat of his own drum.”
But there is always the possibility of him appearing with them sometime.
“Oh yes, he’s always invited of course, but he is always incredibly busy and at the moment he’s in the process of writing a book. Touring is tough and he hasn’t done as much as I, Peter and Davy.”
Speaking of Davy, this will be the first time The Monkees have appeared in the UK since he passed away. It must be a strange feeling not to have him on stage. After all, of all The Monkees’ reunions, Davy and Micky are the only band members to be ever-present.
“Well, yeah. It was quite a loss and he was a lot of fun to be around.”
But he won’t be forgotten.
“Oh, no. “We pay homage to him at every show and we include some of the songs he sang. Also, we do a lot of multi-media with lots of footage from the TV show, which includes a lot of stuff never before seen.”
“In fact, we were the first to bring multi-media on tour with us. We even did it back in the sixties with cinema screens.”
Another ‘first’ by The Monkees is that they were one of the very first to use a moog synthesiser in pop music, on the track ‘Star Collector’.
There were lots of stories of excess and madness back in those heady days, but was it true?
“Well, I think it was pretty tame compared with whatgoes on now. I led a pretty normal life really, I was married and had a kid, plus I’d already been in the business for 10 – 15 years.
“To be honest, in my case when we were at the height of it all, there wasn’t the time or energy to do anything but work. The TV show took up to 15 hours a day, and because I did most of the lead singing, I had to go to the recording studios, usually with Davy, after filming.”
The film ‘Head’ alienated a lot of the fans as it was aimed at a more adult audience as The Monkees wanted to ‘mature’.
“I personally liked it, but I still don’t understand what it’s all about. It’s a unique film, a very strange movie, but I was proud of the work I did in it as an actor.”
“You have to understand who was behind it; there was Jack Nicholson and Martin Scorcese and these guys are the ones who created the independent Hollywood film industry. They bucked against the old-school Hollywood system and, to me, that was what the movie was about, using The Monkees as a metaphor to deconstruct the old system.”
With Peter and Micky being the focus these days, the shows could have featured more comedy, but Micky refutes that.
“No, it’s all to do with the music. We always do all the songs, including some songs from ‘Head’ and Mike’s stuff.
“We did an acoustic set of Mike’s stuff in the States and we’ve brought that back into the show, and we do a singalong for some of Davy’s songs.
“And with the technology, we have the multi-media part of the show which is so easy to put together today and we have put together some footage and out-takes.
“But to be honest, if you’re not a fan of The Monkees, you shouldn’t really be going, but if you are, you won’t be disappointed.”
With such a catalogue, picking a favourite Monkees’ song is understandably difficult for Micky.
“Oh boy, that’s tough. We had such an incredible stable of writers like Boyce and Hart, Neil
Diamond and Carole King among them. I really like some of the Goffin and King tunes on stage and ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’:‘The Porpoise Song’ from ‘Head’. That’s phenomenal.
Sadly, The Monkees are only playing the two shows this time around, but there may be good news.
“Frankly, we’re gearing up for our 50th anniversary next year and I suspect that we’ll be coming over for that.”
And as for being a Monkee for almost 50 years, Micky grins and states.
“I couldn’t be happier.”
The Monkees, featuring Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, appear at the London Eventim Hammersmith Apollo on Friday, September 4, and at Moseley Folk Festival on Sunday, September 6.