The advertisement in Variety proclaimed “Madness!! Auditions. Folk & Roll musicians-singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17 – 21 . . .”
Hollywood TV producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider placed the ad late in 1965 as the first step towards a weekly series recreating the winning chemistry of The Beatles‘ Hard Days Night (1964) movie.
437 hopefuls attended the auditions and when a suitable four had been selected, they were taught how to act, how to improvise and, most importantly, how to mime to records.
After an initial attempt to let the quartet create its own music, it was realised that though they each possessed a modicum of musical talent, they were a long way from being a group.
Fortunately, Don Kirshner, the entrepreneur who had invented the Brill Building system of assembly-line pop hit manufacture, had been put in overall control of the show’s musical output.
The song chosen as The Monkees’ first single, Last Train To Clarksville, was said to have been written by Boyce and Hart during a 20-minute coffee break.
In the studio during recording, Kirshner devised its distinctive “no-no-no-no” wails as a deliberate echo of The Beatles‘ famous “yeah, yeah, yeah”.
Despite a $100,000 launch campaign preceding the 16 August release of the single, it didn’t dent the US Top 10 until a week after the first screening of The Monkees TV show on 12 September. Eight weeks later it was at #1.
The chosen four, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, became instant stars, and shops were flooded with merchandising from woolly hats like the one Mike wore in the show to Monkees dolls, bracelets, lunch boxes, shirts, watches, chewing gum and pencil cases. But it wasn’t all plain sailing.
Initial ratings were poor, largely because middle America didn’t immediately take to the idea that long-haired youths playing loud rock music deserved a regular weekly TV series.
Many TV critics panned the blatant plagiarism at the show’s heart. A Newsweek critic observed; “Television is a medium which thrives on thievery . . . Beatlemania has been exchanged for Monkeeshines”.
Nevertheless, the show was soon attracting 10 million viewers across America every Monday evening, and the teenage audience responded to the anarchic script which came from much of the show being improvised. “We don’t learn scripts,” said Nesmith. “Hell, we don’t even read ’em”.
By February 1967, The Monkees had become bona fide pop stars. But their two albums of perfectly crafted pop had featured no actual Monkee involvement beyond singing and songwriting, and the press cried foul.
No matter that the über-cool Byrds were absent from their Mr Tambourine Man session, or that the Pet Sounds era Beach Boys barely plugged into an amp . . . jealousy from lesser beat groups put The Monkees on the defensive.
Couple this with the controlling tendencies of their producer, the golden-eared Don Kirshner, and a rebellion was fermenting – “Hey Hey we’re the corporate puppets”.
Mike Nesmith unburdened himself to the press, saying;” The music had nothing to do with us. It was totally dishonest. Do you know how debilitating it is to have to duplicate other people’s records? That’s what we were doing”.
The television network and the production company were in a real quandary. The TV show was only 20 episodes into its first season and The Monkees were the #1 rock & roll group in America. When A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You was released as a single without consulting the members of The Monkees (and with Davy Jones the only member of the group to appear on it), Nesmith gave his ultimatum – either Kirshner was fired or he quit, effective immediately.
Execs at Screen Gems had paid a fortune to make those four actor-singers into superstars and they realised they couldn’t suddenly replace one of them. With that, Nesmith stayed and Kirshner was out of the picture.
By June 1968 The Monkees were fighting with the Screen Gems film company over ownership of the group name.
By September it nearly didn’t matter as confused audience reactions to advance screenings of the avant-garde Monkees feature film Head prompted Screen Gems to delay the opening and send the film back for re-editing.
As the decade drew to a close, Peter Tork quit The Monkees. He was to be followed shortly by Mike Nesmith. Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz continued recording, but when the aptly-titled Changes album flopped in June 1970, they too called it a day.
Having smuggled some of the first country-rock onto The Monkees’ records, Mike Nesmith formed The First National Band and turned western-style country on its head – highlighted by Red Rhodes’ pedal-steel and his lazy Texan drawl.
In 1986, three of the original Monkees – Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz – officially reunited. Mike Nesmith, a reluctant Monkee even at the height of their stardom, remained the only hold-out.
The reunited Monkees broke records for ticket and merchandise sales when they toured for the first time in 18 years. Originally booked to play eleven weeks of summer concerts at US theme parks and state fairs, the tour was extended and moved into larger, more prestigious venues. The Far East and Europe were added to the schedule.
At the same time, the charts were saturated with reissued Monkees albums, an anthology package, and a newly recorded single, That Was Then, This Is Now. And the TV show was back in syndication too . . .
Davy Jones died in his sleep at his home in Florida in February 2012. The singer (aged 66) had suffered a massive heart attack.
Peter Tork died at his home in Connecticut in February 2019, aged 77, from adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer of the salivary glands. He had battled the disease since 2009.
Mike Nesmith died from heart failure at his home in Carmel Valley, California, on 10 December 2021, aged 78