1967! The Summer of Love! Hippies! And Milton Keynes (see below)! Enjoying a deservedly lengthy month-long stint at the top of the charts were The Monkees with I’m a Believer.
Although I’m a snob when it comes to music, and think the entertainment industry took over the music business to such an extent it stifled creativity and nearly brought about its demise, I have a massive soft spot for The Monkees. In fact it’s not a soft spot – they’re easily one of my favourite groups of the 60s. And their rise and fall is a fascinating subject.
It’s widely acknowledged that The Monkees were an American attempt at apeing (ho ho) The Beatles, but in fact aspiring filmmaker Bob Rafelson first came up with it back in 1962. I wonder how that would have ended up? In 1964 he was working for the film company Screen Gems and had teamed up with Bert Schneider. They had just formed Raybert Productions when they saw A Hard Day’s Night, and Schneider thought the time might be right to revive his idea. He was right, and Screen Gems snapped up the idea.
Fast forward to May 1965, and Raybert Productions wanted folk-rockers The Lovin’ Spoonful to be their band, but as singer John Sebastian had already signed to make recordings, they had to look elsewhere. And as the plan was for the TV show to feature a pretend band, why limit themselves to just musicians?
Mancunian actor Davy Jones was chosen first. He had appeared in Coronation Street and made waves as the Artful Dodger in the Broadway show Oliver! He just needed a big break, was already signed to Screen Gems, and with his baby-face and sweet demeanour, could easily pass for a Paul McCartney-type. One down.
The other three members were all from the US and came from auditions held later that year. Micky Dolenz, from Los Angeles, California, was also an actor, having appeared as a child in the TV series Circus Boy. He did have some experience of being in a band though, and, importantly, he had a great voice.
Mike Nesmith, from Houston Texas, had been working as a musician since 1963, and had featured in a few bands, as well as performing on his own. His audition showcased a laconic humour and bullish personality, so they now had their John Lennon. Maybe they’d even let him write some tunes?
Last to be chosen was fellow musician Peter Tork, who was part of the Greenwich Village folk scene. Stephen Stills suggested he try out after being rejected himself. Poor Tork, despite being gifted and bright, was soon portraying a bumbling but lovable fool – basically, Ringo Starr in A Hard Day’s Night.
While the auditions went on, Don Krishner was hired to sort out the music for the pilot episode. Kirshner had been instrumental in making Bobby Darin famous, and knew the Brill Building team of songwriters, so seemed like a great choice. But he couldn’t get any interest, so he tried Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart instead. They wrote the theme to the series, and offered up another three songs, so things were looking good, apart from the fact The Monkees couldn’t play anything together, and the plan was to release an album to cash in on the series.
Their eponymous debut album was recorded in June 1966, and by and large the formula was to have one Monkee singing per track, with everything else supplied by session musicians The Wrecking Crew. Debut single Last Train to Clarksville, sounding not dissimilar to Paperback Writer, was released before the show had been aired, and still did pretty well. However, Nesmith wasn’t happy that the actual musicians received no credit on the LP.
The series was a smash as soon as it began in the US that September, and a month later the follow-up was recorded. I’m a Believer had been written and originally recorded by Neil Diamond, then still a struggling Brill Building songwriter. The Monkees version featured Dolenz on vocals, along with, among others, Al Gorgoni on guitar (he had played on Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence), Buddy Salzman on drums, and that chirpy organ hook at the start and through the choruses came from Stan Free on a Vox Continental.
Nesmith certainly had a point in wanting The Monkees to be responsible for ‘real music’, but all these years later, people still go mad to I’m a Believer, and they don’t care who did what. It’s such a lovely, warm track, that captures how the joy of love at first sight can melt the hardest of hearts. The success of the TV series was in a large part due to the charm of the group, and somehow, no matter who appeared on their recorded output, that charm shone through too, whether by luck or design, or both, I can’t say. The Monkees at their best put their name to 60s pop at its best, and I’m a Believer is among their finest singles. That’s partly down to producer Jeff Barry, who had written many hit singles before then, including Do Wah Diddy Diddy.
The TV series began in the UK on New Year’s Eve 1966, and Monkeemania began soon after when this single climbed the charts. Tensions soon rose though when the band discovered it had been included on their second album, More of the Monkees. They didn’t even know the album existed until it was too late, and were horrified at the track listing and cover image. Nesmith told Melody Maker it was ‘probably the worst album in the history of the world’. Matters came to a head in an argument with Kirshner that resulted in Nesmith threatening to quit before punching a hole in a wall and shouting ‘that could have been your face!’ to a lawyer. Soon after, Kirshner was let go.
And then things got really interesting. The Monkees wrested control of their output, and in February 1967 they began recording their third album Headquarters. For the first and only time of their original run as a band, they performed the tracks pretty much on their own, and had more of a hand in the songwriting, with Chip Douglas from the Turtles on bass and production duties. Largely country-rock-flavoured, Headquarters is a great achievement for a ‘manufactured’ band. It may not be up there with the classic albums of 1967, but it’s a giant leap forward for the foursome. Highlight for me is Micky Dolenz’s noise-fest closer Randy Scouse Git, named after one of Alf Garnett’s favourite outbursts at his son-in-law (played by Tony Blair’s father-in-law, Tony Booth) on BBC One sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. It nearly became their second number 1 too, but stalled at number two against All You Need Is Love.
It’s a shame The Monkees then chose to rely on session musicians again, as I think it sped up their demise. Having said that, they still had more authority over who they worked with, and fourth album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd, released that November, is just as good, if not better than its predecessor. It featured Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s wonderful and blissful Pleasant Valley Sunday, which had been a single during the Summer of Love. The album featured a Moog synthesizer – Dolenz was one of the first owners of the instrument. Another classic hit single was released as 1967 drew to a close – Daydream Believer, Davy Jones’s finest hour as a singer.
The TV show had been getting weirder, the band were touring as a real unit, alongside The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and they were hanging out with The Beatles. Amazing times for a group who weren’t supposed to be able to play.
1968 wasn’t such a great year, but at least it was interesting. NBC announced they wouldn’t renew the show for a third season in February, and shortly afterwards they released The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees. The band mostly worked alone, with their own team of musicians, making for an eclectic sound. Nesmith fares the best with the low-key psychedelic strum of Tapioca Tundra.
Rafelson and Schneider had it in mind to create a feature film for The Monkees. What the group didn’t know at the start was that their plan was a work of cynical avant-garde genius that would cynically tear apart at the notion of the group. Written by then-unknown actor Jack Nicholson with Rafelson, Head set out to prove that no matter what the band members did to try and break free of their public image, they would always be considered nothing more than a cartoon band, no more real than the Archies, also created in 1968. Head is one of the greatest music films of all time, a technicolour masterpiece with a dark heart. And the soundtrack is just as great. There aren’t many actual songs, but they’re all excellent, especially Goffin and King’s spaced-out Porpoise Song and sweet love song As We Go Along, plus Tork finally gets the spotlight with the fuzzy blast of the marvellously named Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again? Nesmith always contributed great songs to their albums, but Circle Sky, an impressive blast of acid-country-rock, is one of his best.
In 1969, not long after their disappointing TV special 33⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee, Tork left, and the downhill slide truly began. There were still some great songs, including both tracks on the single Someday Man/Listen to the Band, but things were never the same again. The Monkees Present, released in October, was the last to feature Nesmith. Dolenz and Jones soldiered on with one more album, Changes, released in 1970. It was a new decade, and time to move on.
In the meantime each member had varying degrees of success. Nesmith became a country-rock pioneer and helped invent MTV. Dolenz moved into acting and directing, and along the way he made UK children’s series Metal Mickey in the 80s. Incidentally, both he and Nesmith auditioned to be the Fonz in Happy Days. Jones went back to mostly acting, and became a popular choice for cameos in US sitcoms. He also became a jockey. Tork was in the public eye the least, but I get the feeling he liked it that way.
There have been a number of reunions, most notably in 1986 when repeats of the series prompted a revival and new 20th anniversary album, minus Nesmith, called Pool It! It’s shockingly bad. A large factor in Nesmith’s reluctance to tour was money. He inherited $25 million when his mother, the inventor of liquid paper, passed away. This meant there was no financial incentive to reunite, so over the years he only got involved again when he really felt like it.
He returned in 1996 when they celebrated their 30th anniversary with Justus, an album featuring the band writing, performing and producing every song. Another poor collection, bar the Circle Sky remake, but not as bad as Pool It! They also reunited for another TV special, but it wasn’t half as clever as it thought it was. Following a tour of the UK, Nesmith left again and relations became strained. In 2010 they reformed for the final time as a quartet, as Jones died of a heart attack in 2012, aged 66.
In 2015, Dolenz and Tork toured together, and the following year they released a new album, Good Times!, to commemorate their 50th anniversary. Nesmith joined in, and Jones appeared too posthumously. With songs by musicians including Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, XTC’s Andy Partridge and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Good Times! was, against all odds, a great listen. Highlight for me was Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher’s Birth of an Accidental Hipster.
This would have been the perfect way to end the Monkees, but, buoyed by the reception to Good Times!, they released an album this past Christmas. Christmas Party features a similar line-up of songwriters, and once again, Jones is exhumed, but its mostly cheesy and Dolenz’s vocals really grate on me. Tork’s contribution was minimal due to illness, with him contributing only a sweet banjo-led version of the traditional Angels We Have Heard on High. Perhaps he knew he hadn’t long, for this was his final contribution to the Monkees. Tork sadly died aged 77 only last week.
The Monkees were certainly not perfect. They could be corny, and recorded some terrible songs at times, particularly those godawful mawkish ballads sung by Jones on the first two albums. But how many groups, put together by the industry, have been able to do what they did, to take over and create better results? They may have been manufactured, but they can’t be compared to, say, the boy bands of the 90s. My issue with Westlife et al isn’t that somebody is telling them what to do, it’s the quality of the material, the cynicism, and the lack of effort. The people behind The Monkees were often craftsmen, and as I said before, in their best material, the charm of Mike, Davy, Micky and Peter shines through, and they could experiment, be far-out, and savage at times (the Sex Pistols even covered (I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone). I’m a Believer is one of their best. I love The Monkees, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
28 years after it reached number 1, I’m a Believer was nearly a chart-topper for my favourite comedians, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. Attempting to repeat the success of Dizzy, recorded with the Wonder Stuff, they teamed up with indie rockers EMF for a great, beefed-up version, and you can see the video here.
Written by: Neil Diamond
Producer: Jeff Barry
Weeks at number 1: 4 (19 January-15 February)
Field hockey player Kathryn Johnson – 21 January
Swimmer Nick Gillingham – 22 January
Actress Olivia d’Abo – 22 January
Producer Joe Meek – 3 February (read more here)
Publisher Victor Gollancz – 8 February
23 January: The village Milton Keynes in northern Buckinghamshire was formally designated as a new town. Over the next few decades it became Britain’s largest of its kind.
26 January: Parliament amounted it would nationalise 90% of the British steel industry.
3 February: Eccentric genius producer Joe Meek killed himself – you can read more about that whole sorry tale here.
6 February: Soviet Union Premier Alexei Kosygin arrived in the UK for an eight-day visit, with a visit the Queen thrown in too.
7 February: The British National Front was founded by South African AK Chesterton.
12 February: 1967 was a turbulent year for The Rolling Stones, with their troubles beginning when police raided the home of Keith Richards. He, Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser were later charged with possession of drugs.