From the outset, it was made clear that the Monkees were hired to be television actors first, and musicians a distant second. There would be original material generated for them to sing in the series, mostly by professional songwriters like Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, and Neil Diamond. There would be records as well, with weekly exposure to promote the tunes, but the group wouldn't do much more than sing, although the series would give the impression that they played their own instruments.
On the other hand, they weren't devoid of musical talent, and at their best, managed to craft some enduring pop/rock hits. "I'm a Believer", "Last Train to Clarksville", "A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You", "Pleasant Valley Sunday", "Stepping Stone", "Valleri" and "Daydream Believer" were all pleasantly jangling, harmony rock numbers with clever hook lines, and all were huge hits in 1966-68. Scorned at their peak by hipsters for not playing on many of their own records, the group gained some belated critical respect for their catchy, good-time brand of pop.
The TV show was a big hit with young audiences between 1966 and 1968, with slapstick comedy, super-fast editing, and thin plots that could be banded together by almost surreal humour. It wasn't A Hard Day's Night, but it was, in its way, innovative relative to the conventions of television at the time. The irony was that, by the time the series debuted in September 1966, the Beatles themselves had just released Revolver, and had evolved way beyond their moptop phase into psychedelia.
Also in September 1966, their debut single "Last Train to Clarksville" became their first big hit, reaching number one, as did the follow-up, "I'm a Believer". They were quickly one of the most popular acts in the business, yet they were not allowed to play anything on most of their first records, only to sing; the instruments would be handled by session players. This was particularly hard for Mike Nesmith, a serious musician and songwriter, to swallow, although he did manage to place a few of his own tunes on their records from the start.
Eventually the Monkees revealed that they didn't play on most of their own records, and Nesmith in particular incited the group to wrest control of their recordings into their own hands. Partly to deflect criticism of the group as nothing more than puppets, and partly to effect control over their musical destiny (some of their early recordings had been packaged and released without their consent), the Monkees did indeed play and write much of the music on their third album, "Headquarters" (1967), with a lot of help from producer Chip Douglas . It didn't prove the band to be hidden geniuses, in fact sounding not much different from their previous releases, but as a hard-won victory to establish their own identity, it was a major point of pride. They would continue, however, to rely upon industry songwriters for the rest of their hit singles, and frequently employ session musicians throughout the rest of their career.
Despite the questions surrounding their musical competence, the Monkees did tour before live audiences. They made their own contribution to rock history by enlisting Jimi Hendrix , then barely known in the U.S., as an opening act for a 1967 tour; Hendrix lasted only a few shows before everyone agreed that the combination was a mismatch (to put it mildly). But the Monkees were always a lot hipper personally than many assumed from their bubblegum packaging. Their albums are strewn with rather ambitious, even mildly psychedelic cuts, some rather successful, some absolutely awful.
In 1968, they gained their freak credentials with the movie "Head", a messy, indulgent, occasionally inspired piece of drug-addled weirdness that was co-written and co-produced by Jack Nicholson (before he had broken through to stardom with Easy Rider).
By 1968, the Monkee phenomenon was drawing to a close. The show's final episode aired in March 1968, and Head, released in November, was not a commercial success, confusing the teenyboppers and confounding the critics. Surprisingly, it was not Nesmith, but Tork who was the first to leave the group, at the end of 1968. They carried on as a trio, releasing a couple of fairly dismal albums in 1969, as well as producing a little-seen TV special.
By the end of the '60s, Nesmith, who had established his credentials as a songwriter with "Different Drum," which was taken into the Top 20 by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys, was also gone, to start a lengthy solo career that finally allowed him to stretch out as a serious artist. That left only Dolenz and Jones, who fulfilled the Monkees contract with the pointless 'Changes' album in 1970.
When enough years separated the music from the hype, the Monkees underwent a critical rehab of sorts, as listeners fondly remembered their singles as classy, well-executed, fun pop/rock. That led to a predictable clamour for a reunion, especially after their albums were reissued to surprisingly swift sales in the mid-'80s, and their series was rerun on MTV.
Nesmith was having none of it; by this time he was a respected and hugely successful music video mogul with his Pacific Arts company. The other three did reunite to tour and record a predictably horrendous album, "Pool It!" (Nesmith did join them once onstage in 1989). Rhino records has treated the Monkee catalogue with a great deal of respect, reissuing all of their original albums on CD with added unreleased/rare bonus tracks, and even assembling a box set.
Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork celebrated the Monkees' 30th anniversary with a concert tour that ran throughout 1996. In 1997, Michael Nesmith joined them for a spring concert tour of Great Britain and Ireland. All four Monkees were with their concert tour in the U.S. in the summer of 1997.
In 1999 Davy Jones was to have co-starred again with Peter Noone and Bobby Sherman on the Teen Idols concert tour, but in early April, Davy announced he would be leaving the tour immediately. Davy did not appear on any Teen Idols dates that year. In 2003, Davy was performing solo shows with his band around the country, as well as training horses.
Micky Dolenz began working seriously on his directing career in 1999. He directed an episode of the ABC-TV sitcom Boy Meets World. With Davy's departure from the 1999 edition of the Teen Idols tour, Micky was asked to take his place on the tour, and he accepted the invitation. He continued to act and perform solo on the oldies circut.
Peter Tork was touring regularly with his blues band Shoe Suede Blues.
Michael Nesmith completed a bicoastal book tour to promote his novel, "The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora" (1998, St. Martin's Press). He also began working on his second novel, and trying to drum up interest in getting his script, "Fried Pies", turned into a feature film. Michael Nesmith's long-running legal trouble with PBS was finally concluded when a federal court jury awarded him a settlement of nearly $47 million dollars. PBS appealed the verdict. In 2003, Michael was working on a new album, "Rays".
By 2006, the members of the Monkees were saying that they had no plans to work together in the future. "I would not work with those guys again if my life depended on it," Jones told Scripps Howard News Service. "I can't be responsible for their attitudes and the way they treat people." But by February 2011, Jones had changed his mind as he and Micky Dolenz along with Peter Tork announced plans to play ten shows in Britain in May, including a concert at London's prestigious Royal Albert Hall, before moving to North America in June and July. Michael Nesmith did not take part in the reunion. It didn't take long for old wounds to re-open however, and on August 8th, 2011, the trio cancelled the remainder of the tour "due to internal group issues and conflicts". This marked the third consecutive time which The Monkees, as either a threesome or a quartet, did not complete a tour without either losing members or cancelling some of the dates.
For 2012, Dolenz, Tork and Jones had separate touring schedules, with Dolenz being by far the busiest. All hopes of another full Monkees reunion were dashed on February 29th, 2012 when Davy Jones suffered a fatal heart attack at his Florida home at the age of 66. He is survived by his wife Jessica and four daughters. Not wanting his March 7th funeral to turn into a media circus, none of his former band mates attended. Sales of The Monkees back catalogue shot up 1,267% during the week after Davy's death, with two LPs, re-entering the Billboard 200 album chart. "The Best of the Monkees" was #20 and "Flashback With the Monkees" went to #125. Collectively, the group's albums sold 29,000 copies that week.
The band was back in the news again in August of 2012 when they announced that the surviving members, including Michael Nesmith, would reunite for a 12 date tour of the United States. That jaunt began in July, 2013 in Port Chester, New York.
Although many critics dismiss the band as "the fabricated four", The Monkees left us with a series of fondly remembered, toe-tapping hits from the classic age of Rock and Roll.
Be sure to read Gary James' interviews with Davy Jones and Michael Nesmith