Why “The Monkees” Was a Perfect Meld of Television and Music (That Will Never Happen Again)
Never before or since has a television show had such a lasting impact on the world of music.
51 years ago, future Academy Award-winner Bert Schneider (Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show) and future Academy Award-nominee Rob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces, The Postman Always Rings Twice) came up with an idea for a television show about a four-man band and their weekly hijinks, similar to The Beatles’ style shown in Help! and A Hard Day’s Night. Greenlit by NBC, and with the musical efforts of music industry executive Don Kirshner and songwriting/producing team Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, these men were going to create, simultaneously, a band and a television show to showcase that band. A combination of a televised music video program and a weekly sitcom with an absurdist wackiness and camp that feels right at home in the 1960s. A year later, in 1966, the band hit the top of the charts, followed by immediate ratings love.
It’s possible you have some random Facebook friend or person you follow on Twitter, perhaps a person that was fairly young in the late 1960s, that has brought up the Monkees as a band in the past couple of weeks. That would be because the Monkees have reentered the social consciousness by releasing Good Times!, their first album in 20 years in recognition of their 50 year anniversary. Regrettably, the incredibly talented heartthrob for young girls in the 1960s (including Jan Brady on The Brady Bunch) Davy Jones passed away in 2012, but his contribution to the Monkees is still evident on the new album with a never-before released song written by Neil Diamond. I fully admit to extreme bias as a nearly life-long Monkees fan, but I strongly encourage you to give their new album a listen, especially if you enjoy that nostalgic ’60s pop.
But there’s a reason this band, 50 years after their creation, 46 years after their official breakup, and an iconic voice down, are still given attention from the New York Times and Rolling Stone. Most groups with this set of circumstances would be ignored… but not the Monkees. And that’s because the Monkees were a unique cultural phenomenon that have left an indelible mark on popular culture and society.
The task of creating The Monkees was simple: Find four young men who could act and be silly, but who could also sing and perhaps play instruments. The creators found their band in musicians Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, and the vocally talented duo of Tony Award-nominee Davy Jones and former child actor Micky Dolenz. The television series followed the basic premise of a struggling, unknown band trying to earn enough money for monthly rent either by landing gigs or performing random tasks, like working at a toy factory or staying overnight at an eerie mansion. These attempts were always derailed by some kind of ridiculous hijinks, often involving a ridiculously hammy and over-the-top single-episode antagonist, or derailed by the desire of the boys to find a pretty woman to date. Davy was the one falling in love every week (often multiple times an episode), Peter was the affably dense goof, Mike was the still-absurd comparative straight man, and Micky was the even more absurd comedian.
Each episode would contain at least one moment where the band would perform a song, sometimes with a reason stated, sometimes just to play over ridiculous hijinks or to represent the feelings of the boys. The singles that were most successful on the charts played on several episodes (with their first #1 hit “Last Train to Clarksville” being played on 3 episodes in a row in the first season). A basic premise, somewhat archetypal characters, cheesy and obvious effects… It was absolutely perfect as a marriage of the music and television industries. And it will almost definitely never happen again.
“Now wait,” I hear some of you saying. “What about television shows like The Partridge Family or Glee?”
To you, I say hold your horses, Brandon. (I know at least one of you thinking this is a Brandon. You know who you are.) Let’s talk about the other shows. Yes, music and television have met together. And, yes, sometimes the shows have resembled the format of The Monkees very closely, such as with the Nickelodeon show Big Time Rush. But none of these shows ever managed to create both the long-lasting televised and musical success of The Monkees, who received two Emmy Awards their first year, had three #1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, had four #1 charting albums, had a total of 15x Platinum in album sales and had 6 singles to go gold (all that before the age of digital downloads), outselling The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined at their peak, not to mention launching the careers of Neil Diamond and Jack Nicholson (a lengthier story for another time). And, unlike Glee and The Partridge Family, the Monkees went on to become a real band instead of staying firmly manufactured. (Specifically, Glee relied either primarily or wholly on covering, and sometimes plagiarizing, already existing music, while the Monkees crafted original tunes.)
The Monkees had a few things going for it these series did not. The most obvious difference is the show was not a coherent story like most of the others. Each episode was insular to all the other episodes and would affect the boys and the series in no real way. For example, at the end of the episode “The Audition,” (a humorous meta-story in which the boys are trying to score an audition with an NBC executive for a deal for a television show, snatched from them immediately after they win thanks to a singing secretary), Peter disappears from the Monkeemobile. The other boys go to a missing persons detective agency featured earlier in the episode, the episode ends with humorous hijinks… and Peter is back for the next episode with no commentary about where he went or how they found him. And no comment was needed.
The show established itself immediately with its style borrowing from the comedy of I Love Lucy and The Benny Hill Show, and the campiness of Adam West’s Batman. The Monkees don superhero costumes and fly off in the sky? Don’t question it. They break all their musical equipment after a musical Frankenstein-style experiment? They’ll have new gear next episode. Glee banked on characters interacting and creating compelling stories. The only consistent characters for The Monkees were the titular ones (with the occasional repeat appearance of their crotchety apartment super).
What definitely can’t be denied set The Monkees apart, though, was the sporadically included after-episode segments where audiences were given a glimpse at the people behind The Monkees. If an episode ran short, Davy, Micky, Mike, and Peter would be sat down and asked questions about who they were really, beyond their televised personae. This allowed audiences to see the boys as genuine. And the segments weren’t always ridiculous puff questions. In one segment, there was a question asked about riots on Sunset Boulevard, and Micky answers by saying he was there, and that calling them riots is an incredibly inaccurate view perpetuated by journalists who, to paraphrase, find riot easier to spell because it’s only four letters.
Another question about hair length, which was somehow an actual source of friction between younger and older Americans, allowed Mike to respond with something along the lines of “I want everyone to be allowed to wear their hair whatever length they want.” These segments, while perhaps too rare for my personal tastes, allowed the Monkees to be seen as genuine people, as well as genuine members of the youthful counter-culture, anti-establishment movement so prevalent during the Vietnam War. This endeared the group to its youthful audience, and that audience in turn drove sales and charts to the top for the Monkees. While Glee specifically had a more impressive resume of awards and charting songs over its six years, it simply never held the national conversation and consciousness the way The Monkees did. Kids won’t likely grow up saying, “I want to be a singer because of Glee.” The Monkees had that power. As popular as Glee and The Partridge Family were as shows, and even as musical acts, neither can close to touching the impact that the Monkees and their series had, and still have, on pop music and pop culture.
Sadly, the synergy between music production and television like the Monkees had will never happen again. You see, even with that brilliant experiment that could be called nothing if not successful, there was a fatal flaw with The Monkees as a show that brought its too swift end. The synergy was fully between the television and music producers… but not the band itself. When Don Kirshner released More of the Monkees, the band’s second album, that was the beginning of the end. The Monkees, particularly Mike and Peter, were infuriated that this album had come out without any creative input from the band itself, and they issued an ultimatum: Either Don goes or we do. Rightly unwilling to try to recast the members of this cash cow, Kirshner was fired before the show’s second season. From there, the Monkees went on to make some of their best albums, trying to shake off the “non-musician” “Pre-fab Four” labels they’d been given, in Headquarters, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., and The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees. But the band, which had not come together organically as the most successful bands tend to, started to fracture in its creative collaborations. When their only feature film Head came out as a massive flop, and the associated album struggled to even reach its height of #45 on the charts, Peter Tork left the band, and from there, it was a race to the official dissolution of the group.
But for two wonderful years of television, music, and merchandising as a fully-formed foursome, the Monkees etched their name into pop culture history. Giving the world televised music videos 15 years before MTV (which would later show The Monkees in a very successful day-long marathon in 1986, tipping their hat to the band that had made their own programming possible), creating the success that allowed Jack Nicholson to become a movie star, and at their peak outselling and even gaining the respect of the venerable band The Beatles, the perfect storm of talent, opportunity, and culture known as The Monkees will almost certainly never be seen again, for better or for worse.