In 1966 I was 12 and the world was 9. I had no truck with those so-called rockers The Beatles from England with cute voices only partly because the girls my age were freaking nuts about those guys. Mostly I was very upset about the existential probability that a large portion of the female population in my particular age group were exhibiting disturbing mental lapses in judgement and might volunteer themselves as slaves to four guys with weird accents. Luckily, I was 12, it was the summer of 1966, and the benchmark for true success as a human being then as now was “Do you have a TV show?”
1966. Ok, I’m going to go old guy on you. Television was not just ramping up, it was taking over household bath/pajama schedules. I don’t know how parents in the 19th century, titled “You’ve got 2 hours to heat your bathwater by yer Grampa’s pipe” got their kids to bed. For us, it was the threat of missing Mr. Ed. That will get your ass moving, let me tell ya. Unless it was the summer. Reality at the time was different. TV shows did about 30 episodes, then between May and September went on hiatus so guys like Alan Young and Rod Serling could spend a few months in rehab.
But the rest of us just waited until the TV season started again. Which pretty quickly morphed into scientific activity like scraping the gunpowder out of rolls of caps on the back yard picnic table so you could explode a model you spent a week building. (There are 5.7 per 8 readers out there who have no idea what I just said). After all, there were only three stations on the box and the intellectual breadth of the medium spanned Mr. Ed to Gilligan’s Island. We could wait.
This was before air conditioning, before color TV. Before electric windows and toasted bread. OK, we had toast but it was an iffy thing depending on your mother’s mood. My mom, may she remain forever at rest for our sake, used to cook our eggs then call us to get up. By the time we got down to the breakfast table these same eggs could kill a marine. I still can’t eat the flippin things.
Those summers before you had to start working seemed interminable. Large lakes of boredom dotted by islands like the 4th of July, games of Stratego on the picnic table, and the daily agony of deciding between Good Humor and Mr. Softee. I remember one of the highlights of the summer was when trucks filled with DDT would show up in the neighborhood to spray the oak trees to kill the cicadas and june bugs, shooting out billowing clouds of the stuff covering the trees, the homes, the cars, the picnic tables, and kids who knew no better than to run behind it sucking in that sweet sweet steam.
Which explains the popularity and credibility of Mr. Ed. And, the Monkees.
By the time August brought Back-to-School sales, still the cruelest of annual milestones, she also brought the TV network onslaught of commercials for the upcoming season’s new shows. This year there was something more than Mr Ed. Something more than Gilligan’s Island. Even more important than My Mother The Car. The Monkees.
In 1962 a guy named Bob Rafelson tried to sell the idea of a TV series with a rock band to Revue, the television subsidiary of Universal Pictures. Bob was a little ahead of the times, about 3-4 years ahead. No one could understand what he was talking about until those Moxie Moppets came out with A Hard Day’s Night and TV honchos realized there was a new market to scam. The American Teen with the Beatles on the bean. Rafelson’s original idea was to use an actual band and chronicle the lives, and in fact tried to get the Lovin’ Spoonful but they had signed a record contract. Bob had to punt.
Rafelson teamed up with Bert Schneider, whose dad ran a TV division for Columbia. That was lucky. They realized that in order to keep this idea afloat they had to create a band. Bob and Bert hired Don Kirshner. Kirshner started casting for semi-musicians, guys who could at least fake it, and hired two music producers to create the songs and the vibe. Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart.
Kirshner had a couple of songwriters in his stable named Neil Diamond and Carole King. They both wrote songs for the Monkees, as did Boyce and Hart. Really Boyce and Hart were responsible for their most well received songs like “Last Train to Clarksville” (first hit) and “I’m a Believer”, as well as being responsible to get the four clowns the studio hired for the show to act like musicians in front of a camera.
Davy Jones was a British actor who had done musical theater including playing the Artful Dodger in Oliver. He could sing and play drums. Micky Dolenz was a child actor who could sing, quite well in fact, but had no instrumental talent. Mike Nesmith was a musician whose main axe was bass, and Peter Tork was an accomplished guitar/keyboard player. So it was natural Boyce and Hart decided the line-up should be Dolenz on drums, Nesmith on guitar, Tork on bass, and Jones in front. As a bass player I was personally affronted because they put Tork on bass just because he was goofy. Ok, Ok, I know it makes sense, but I was insulted. But since all four had to appear they knew what they were doing on TV there was work to be done.
Truth was this was a band later and then shortly. The producers had to use studio musicians since the boys were not a band, not completely familiar with their instrumental roles, and there was that pesky TV show that had to be produced. With all the time that went into the show there was little time to develop these guys into anything more than guys who LOOKED like they were playing. This was not entirely unprecedented. Studio groups like the Funk Brothers (Motown), the Wrecking Crew (everybody in LA), and the Swampers in Muscle Shoals (all things from Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and Lynyrd Skynyrd) played behind 90% of the groups in the 60’s and 70’s. But, this was the first real boy band. The first of many to come, where we found out later they weren’t playing actually but were pretending to.
The show was fun, goofy, and a true period piece. The jokes weren’t funny the first time but years later when we discovered marijuana we caught the deeper nuance of what they were doing. Really. Ok I don’t remember exactly what that nuance was but I think I remember it happened. Even Frank Zappa loved these guys, and in fact appeared on one episode and did a cameo in their movie. Very weird. Frank always said he hated drugs but this lapse in judgment speaks to at least a few weeks on the pipe.
In 1967 the first Monkees album outsold the Beatles’ Sarge Pepper and Rolling Stones Their Satanic Majesties Request. Combined. I knew you wouldn’t believe me, go look it up, we’ll wait. But by ’67 the boys had begun to chafe under the yoke of boybanddom and got control of the production of their music. And that was the end of that. I know it’s hard to believe to those who lived through that time that the show and the band’s respectable output lasted only two years, but remember, even the Beatles heavy output only really lasted 6.
Last year I had a dream that I was working for a magazine, not named Copper, that bought a time machine. They had me go back in time to interview the Monkee Men on the 50h anniversary of the show’s debut. No I am not kidding. I dream like this. I met the band, and followed Jones into the studio during the recording of “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” by Neil Diamond. This was somehow in Dallas and after the session Mike Nesmith invited me to take a run down to Houston to spend a day with his aunt. I repeat I am not kidding; I can describe in detail her house, family room and back yard. Later in the day we took a walk to where she had her car stored, a mint condition Rambler station wagon, and Mike drove us to get ice cream. We then went back to Dallas where I shook hands with everyone and hopped back in that time machine to write my article, which I suspect pretty much wrote itself. Coolest dream I’d had since I spent an afternoon in a flat in London with the Beatles when they wrote “Eleanor Rigby”.
I’m beginning to suspect I chose the Monkees as a subject because of that dream I had. Certainly the dream got me thinking about those times and that show. Wait. I remember. A Monkees song was the first song I played in a band in Windsor Locks. (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone. We played that song so many times Barry’s parents divorced and sold the house.