“I was standing at a place we were playing. We were backstage and it’s like two minutes before we’re supposed to go on. And this guy walks up to me, he’s a reporter you know, like that anyway. I’m standing with my guitar over my back, he walks up to me and says, ‘Is it true that you don’t play your own instruments?’ I said, ‘Wait a minute! I’m fixin’ to walk out there in front of 15,000 people, man. If I don’t play my own instruments I’m in a lot of trouble!’”— Michael Nesmith, January 1967
The birth of The Monkees as a live performing act is a more complex tale than one might think. From the public narrative, one might assume that it wasn’t until Headquarters that they really came into their own as a functioning musical unit. Well, not quite. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the possibility of The Monkees creating their own music from the outset was not ruled out at first — once they were recruited and the series green lit, the four spent a goodly while rehearsing and trying out on their own.
In fact, for a band supposedly manufactured to mime along to the backing tracks produced by the cream of L.A. and New York’s session musicians, playing live together was on the agenda almost from the moment the show was cast. Jones recalled how they used to have to steal moments away from the cameras on set in order to try and get some sense of how they’d function as a band:
For three months we practised our music. When you don’t know a thing about music it’s a little hard to keep the beat. I had never even picked up an instrument, but Mike, Micky, and Peter were great on guitar. We just played for something to do, and Screen Gems rented the instruments for us. We decided someone would have to play the drums and Micky volunteered, though he couldn’t really play them — he couldn’t keep rhythm. Peter got to be the bass guitarist because Mike didn’t want to play it.
In Davy’s description it really is like a play, with cast members learning to get to grips with a role, and the most ambitious ensuring they bag the role they want. In these circumstances it soon became apparent that “casting” is one thing, and “being” is another. What’s more, the pressures of time were such that they would simply not be able to develop as a group, putting in the dedicated and exclusive hours it takes to build up a real group sound. Had they flown out of the blocks musically in spring ’66, perhaps some kind of balance might have been achieved, but the four backgrounds were so different that a musical union proved elusive, and would have to wait a year, until they really did have something in common: being Monkees.
As with any other new band, the early results were mixed. But the truth is it’s rare for a band to find their sound right out of the blocks, and if they do it’s often the result of years of playing together away from recording studios — think of the early murmurs of R.E.M. — or that the sound they chance upon defines them and they find it difficult to develop beyond it — think of Gang Of Four and their Entertainment! So the quartet had to find moments to play together and — imagine this happening to your first musical efforts — were scrutinised by TV studio executives, music publishers, and hit songwriters.
Unsurprisingly, despite the “not good, but not bad” sound they made (according to Nesmith), pressures of time and deadline led the investors in the show to fall back upon the swifter, safer option of calling in the Brill Building system — hit songs by proven hit songwriters. The difference here was that, as we will see, Boyce & Hart’s songs were to some degree the signature sound of the early Monkees tunes — that is, something with obvious teen appeal and, please, extremely good pop songs, which sounded now but not like they’d been cut from the cloth to order by a musical tailor in a single morning’s labour. So this compromise between song, time, and sound gave The Monkees a musical identity that involved but also overrode the difficulties of mixing four distinct musical identities together very quickly. Micky Dolenz is fond of drawing a comparison between the mixing of identities in the quartet to a chemical reaction that could easily get out of control, and he’s not wrong — the songs of Boyce & Hart provided a common musical language all four could speak, and for the time being, the nuclear reaction was kept safe within the confines of the lab. Once the songs were provided for the four to play, the musical identity could grow.
The first public appearance the group made was, it may surprise the reader to learn, playing live. Not only that, but playing live on a train. A competition organised by a Los Angeles radio station, Boss Radio, provided the Monkee project’s target audience with their first opportunity to see the foursome, and see them play live.
First they met the members of the band on the beach at Del Mar, about 100 miles south of the city, on the way to San Diego. Del Mar had been renamed “Clarkesville” for the day, with the approval of the town’s mayor, who was understandably glad to grab some of the excitement and lustre for his patch. The band arrived by helicopters — no mistaking the “specialness” or indeed the investment there — and mingled with the 400 or so winners on the beach, then all clambered aboard a train which carried everyone back north to L.A.
On the way, The Monkees gave their very first live show for their target audience. Some footage of this day survives, incredibly, and can be found on YouTube — originally in color and with sound but preserved there in silent black-and-white, as if it were 1912, but it is unmistakably the swinging 60s in full flight, the blue touch paper clearly about to be lit for the next stage skyward. Indeed, the event took place the day before the TV show debuted on NBC on September 12, 1966. NBC was then pursuing a younger audience as the baby-boomers reached adulthood and was weeding out longstanding shows in favor of smarter, quicker, and more contemporary programming. The Monkees fit right in.
This was the first in the great dazzling succession of events at the time, and three months later, due to the demand caused by the success of the show and the records, they would make their “real” concert stage debut in Hawaii on December 3, 1966, but this curious, charming event did indeed incorporate their first live show — as ever with The Monkees, the music was at the centre of things, right there in the mix, but not the whole story.
We don’t have a record of that first show, but we know some facts, and we have a great example of its probable highlights in “Monkees On Tour.” The show was staged by David Winters, who also directed two episodes of the TV show, one from each season — “A Coffin Too Frequent” and “Monkees Blow Their Minds.” He also taught choreography to Teri Garr and Antonia Basilotta, aka Toni Basil, both future contributors to Head. The efforts tour designer Winters put into the staging — if not choreography in the girl-group or modern boy-band sense — were clearly paying dividends, and the innovative use of film clips and images to accompany the live performance was not only already in place but also proving itself very effective. An obvious mix for a band made for television, we might now observe, but pioneering stuff in late 1966, and the multimedia dimension of the live show — even the pops of the flashcubes — was a key part of its impact.
This continues up to the most recent Monkees shows in 2016, with Davy able to “perform” via the screen for the likes of “Daddy’s Song” and “Daydream Believer”; and, in another amazing twist, Nesmith was able to contribute “Papa Gene’s Blues” to the live set from home via Skype. The indivisible connection between popular music and the moving image has always been central to the appeal and success of The Monkees and requires us to rethink our whole idea of what live performance is and can be. But the kids in Hawaii didn’t care about that — they just wanted to tell the new band how much they loved them.
I asked Monkees songwriter Bobby Hart what he recalled from his experience of these early shows:
Well, we were all surprised from the first tour. We went out for about six months or so and it was mind-blowing. We couldn’t believe that you could turn an American group into something like The Beatles that fast, but of course with television it was instant. It was fast with The Beatles, too. The show came on in September and we went out on the first tour, I think it was January of ’67. It was quick, and there was a hiatus too, since they’d just finished the shooting season so they put them out on the road. It was hard work for everyone, and the pandemonium didn’t make it any easier: parking the limo, getting caught in crowds. The energy out there for these four guys was amazing, though, and even though it was the music that got them there I suppose they didn’t want to hear the songs, just see their heroes.
You can definitely hear that love in the summer concert recordings. Did you do a little set for The Candy Store Prophets (Boyce & Hart’s band) and then come on for the solo spots, I wondered? How did that work?
We did little spots. They were well received, but people were just waiting for Davy to come out. The supports had 20 minutes. I don’t think anybody was really interested. Nobody cared. They wanted to see Davy and Micky. Behind the scenes, I guess the real fans started to look at the labels to see who wrote the music, but I think even today people assume artists write their own songs. They don’t even think about the background, who is playing, who is writing or whatever. There’s no information that you can read on a download. In those days, with the labels and jackets, the print was big enough for you to see the names.
So, while he was right at the centre of the phenomenon in terms of involvement and being on the road with them, Hart also seemed to feel a distance between himself and the band who were making his songs, if not the writers, very famous indeed. The Candy Store Prophets were the first group to develop the template for these live shows that would last throughout the peak period of The Monkees’ success, coming back on mid-set to provide backing for the solo spots. Thus even as The Monkees developed fast as a unit, their individuality was emphasised via the solo spots.
As hinted at in “Monkees On Tour,” the four were quite different: Davy’s show tunes (“Gonna Build A Mountain” or, occasionally, “The Joker”); Micky’s James Brown R&B shtick built into “Mary, Mary” (a song that has had a strange and wonderful afterlife as the basis for a Run-DMC cover) was supplemented by his take on Ray Charles’s “I Got A Woman”; Peter shone with his folk banjo playing (usually “Cripple Creek” but sometimes “East Virginia Blues” or “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate”); and Mike unfailingly delivered “You Can’t Judge A Book By Looking At The Cover,” Wille Dixon via Bo Diddley, complete with maracas and stage moves.
So — show tunes, rock & roll, folk tunes, and R&B/soul numbers. Four types of American. An unlikely palette from which the teen sensations of 1967 should choose to draw, but that was The Monkees — or at least part of them. With some bands you can say they are more than the sum of their parts, but in The Monkees’ case it’s harder to tell — like much else in their story, courage and innovation provided the impetus, rather than settled acquaintances with a certain style, sound, or songbook.