Oh God, I hate them!” Jimi Hendrix once told Melody Maker when asked his opinion about the Monkees. “Dishwater.” His words reflected the consensus among serious musicians, but 30 years later, virtually every track the Monkees recorded and every foot of film they shot is commercially available, which means they’ve been almost as exhaustively documented as, well, Jimi Hendrix. For a band whose name is synonymous with musical fraud, the Monkees’ endurance is nothing short of phenomenal.
To celebrate their 30th anniversary, the Monkees have gone it alone in the studio, dispensing with the coterie of producers, songwriters, and session players that crafted their original hits. The punning title of their new record implies that, after all these years, they’re still smarting from the slings and arrows they endured as the first made-for-TV rock band. “A Disgrace to the Pop World,” declared the London Sunday Mirror in early 1967. “Here are a bunch of kids trading on other people’s talents and cashing in on millions.”
A few years previous, the notion of good-looking singers controlled by their management would have been taken very much for granted, but the Monkees had the misfortune to arrive during a major sea change in popular music. In the late 50s and early 60s, visionary producers like Phil Spector and the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller developed rock ‘n’ roll record-making as an art quite distinct from live performance; they selected and arranged the singers as well as the songs, manufacturing celebrity to sell singles to a teen market. Bob Dylan’s evolution from folkie to a rock artist in 1965 redefined the role of the singer: now a visionary in his own right, the singer was expected to write his own material and control the recording process; the focus of the industry shifted from singles to albums and from teens to young adults. Hired only to act, sing, and make it through a Tiger Beat interview without bringing up Vietnam, the Monkees at first answered to their appointed hitmaker, Don Kirshner. But using their celebrity as leverage they eventually seized artistic control–as it turned out, a Pyrrhic victory.
More significantly, the Monkees prefigured the next major shift in popular music: the first group to chart number-one records as a direct result of constant TV exposure, they laid the groundwork for music television, a highly collaborative medium that would drag the singer right back into the role of a celebrity “trading on other people’s talents.” As actors they were part of an improvisational team that included producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, Paul Mazursky, and Jack Nicholson. Their hits were handed to them by a stable of crack songwriters like Neil Diamond, Carole King, Harry Nilsson, and Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart; their nine albums contain instrumental performances by the likes of Glen Campbell, James Burton, Hal Blaine, Billy Preston, Buddy Miles, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young.
The Monkee who found it most difficult to live with the band’s original Faustian bargain, naturally, was the most serious musician of the four, a 23-year-old Texas folksinger named Michael Nesmith. A country-rock pioneer–his songs on the first Monkees album predate the Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday by almost a year–Nesmith took it most to heart when the Monkees were denounced as frauds. From the start he led the others in revolt against Kirshner, and in January 1967 he spilled the beans to the Saturday Evening Post, calling the Monkees’ first two albums “totally dishonest. Do you know how debilitating it is to sit up and have to duplicate somebody else’s records?” he fretted. “That’s really what we were doing.”
Last year Dave Marsh decried the “cult of authenticity” that haunted Kurt Cobain, tracing its origins to the folk community and following its development into the spurious notion of “indie credibility.” But honesty has always been one of rock’s most redeeming values, and today’s artists still grapple with the issues of musical integrity that plagued Nesmith. For him, it was no consolation that Phil Spector had substituted Darlene Love and the Blossoms for the Crystals on “He’s a Rebel,” or that hired guns played most of the Byrds’ cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” or that the Beach Boys no longer cut the instrumental tracks for their own records. Soon after the Saturday Evening Post flap, Nesmith told Schneider that he would walk off the show unless the Monkees were allowed to play on their own records.
“It was an arrogant and ridiculous thing for me to have done and it was probably terribly offensive to Bert,” Nesmith admitted in the book Monkeemania. “But I was not impelled by a feeling of self-aggrandizement or a play for more cookies. It was an artistic impulse.” After Kirshner issued an unauthorized Monkees single, Schneider had him sacked and let the inmates take over the asylum.
Nesmith led Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones through two albums as a real band. The slight but charming Headquarters featured solid songs by Dolenz, Tork, and especially Nesmith, and it was more consistent in texture than the Kirshner albums. Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. replaced Dolenz with a session drummer but delivered a superior mix of country, bubblegum, and psychedelia. But the exhausting task of recording while filming a television series prompted the four to rely again on sidemen (now listed in the album credits). After that only Nesmith wrote any worthwhile tunes. The cancellation of The Monkees and the subsequent slide in record sales cemented the common perception of the band as a laughable footnote in rock history.
For all his protestations, Nesmith evidently understood the power the Monkees had tapped, and in the late 70s, his Pacific Arts Corporation produced a Nickelodeon series called Popclips, which was used as a blueprint in conceiving MTV. “I can’t say that MTV is an invention of Mike Nesmith’s,” Bert Schneider testified in The Monkees Tale, “but it’s damn near his invention.”
The marriage of television and pop music reconfigured the relationship between recording and performance: whereas concert tours had been the most effective means of promoting a record, an artist could now reach even more buyers through an imaginative video. This freed the artist to pursue more innovative soundscapes in the studio, but it also demanded the kind of star wattage that sells feature films, and less videogenic musicians suffered as a consequence. Music television also revived the artistic viability of acts as opposed to bands–a distinction that former child actors Jones and Dolenz had been careful to make about the Monkees in 1967. Now Madonna could be excused for lip-synching in concert (something the Monkees never did) in order to reproduce a dance number originally choreographed for video. MTV was by necessity a collaborative medium, and the singer, though still likely to write his own material, once again became a visual objectification of other people’s creative work. Viewed in this context, the Monkees suddenly seem less fraudulent than prophetic.
The integrity of music video is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it has given us medicine shows like Milli Vanilli, who in 1990 became the first artists to have a Grammy rescinded when the academy learned that they hadn’t sung a note on the multiplatinum Girl You Know It’s True. On the other hand, it has provided a valuable commercial tool for sonic innovators in studio-oriented genres like hip-hop and ambient, whose work can be difficult to dramatize in a live setting. When Portishead’s Geoff Barrow chose Beth Gibbons out of 20 candidates to sing over his hypnotic dance tracks, he was completing a circle begun by Phil Spector, who used manufactured girl groups to front his Wall of Sound productions. The fact that Portishead used a film, To Kill a Dead Man, as part of their recent tour demonstrates how music video has blurred the line between the visual and the aural, the record and the performance.
MTV has repaid the Monkees in spades. In 1986 it broadcast a marathon of the entire TV series, sending a greatest hits collection sailing up the charts and reuniting Dolenz, Jones, and Tork for a new record and a profitable nostalgia tour. Rhino has reissued all of their albums, five anthologies, a four-CD box set, and a $400 video box of the series; on their current tour, Dolenz, Jones, and Tork are commanding a $35 ticket. For a group demanding justice, they make quite a comfortable living as beneficiaries of the Monkees brand.
Tork, Dolenz, and Jones have re-formed in various combinations since the mid-70s, but with Justus they’ve upped the ante by finally luring Nesmith back into the fold, making this the first full Monkees reunion. Unfortunately, Justus is a stinker of near-epic proportions. It opens with a remake of “Circle Sky,” a Nesmith barn burner the band performed live in their 1968 film Head; the new version lumbers along under the weight of Nesmith’s grunge guitar, Dolenz’s ham-fisted tom-tom work, and Jones’s barely synchronized maracas. Jones and Dolenz contribute most of the new songs, but their stale chord changes and forgettable lyrics don’t give Tork and Nesmith, both talented players, much to work with. Jones’s showbiz baritone seems unchanged from the 60s, but Dolenz’s keening tenor, a hallmark of the band’s classic singles, has grown tight and shrill with age. Nesmith’s only new song is “Admiral Mike,” a rant against the advertising industry that rings pretty hollow coming from a middle-aged millionaire. To make matters worse, it’s sung by Dolenz, who made his post-Monkees living as a successful producer of commercials. The one notable track is “I Believe You,” a peculiar ballad by the perpetually overlooked Tork.
The record cover exploits the clever guitar logo that so many associate with the Monkees’ heyday, but the craggy visages of band members peering through it are liable to scare off all but the most devoted fans. Perhaps there is some justice in the world after all: he who lives by the image dies by the image. Ultimately, the Monkees’ role in the transformation of rock music into a multimedia experience may prove more significant than anything they ever sent through a stereo speaker. In light of that, their new declaration of musical independence seems quaint and a little quixotic. That battle was won–and the war lost–many years ago.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jay Silverman.