Good Times, Forever: Looking Back on 50 Years of the Monkees
This year saw a new record and a 50th anniversary tour, but two questions have always persisted: How do you define The Monkees? And what makes a Monkees song?
In 1965 in the state of California, over 400 people turned out to audition for a comedic television show in which the main characters would comprise a rock band. Four were selected, each with varying levels of acting and musical experience. Fifty years ago, on September 12, 1966, the show debuted on NBC. Months later, the group would be one of the biggest phenomena in the history of American culture. In 1967, The Monkees TV show was a smashing success, and the self-titled album released to complement the show sold 35 million records, outselling The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined. But while they may have been the biggest group in the world, the band famously wasn't allowed to write its own songs or play instruments on the albums. Just as quickly as the success of the "band" exploded, the dominos began to fall. The show was cancelled after two seasons. By 1968, they had already lost a member and the charm that the original incarnation possessed. Over the years, the tale has gone that in their heyday, The Monkees were engaged in a battle for creative control, and that ever since their career has been riddled with internal drama.
Although The Monkees were conceived as a novelty, they withstood the test of time and became beloved musicians—American Treasures, if you will. On and off, over the past five decades, they've released a full catalogue of records and toured the world. In May, to celebrate the band's 50th anniversary, they released a record called Good Times. It was their first new album in 20 years and the first since the passing of heartthrob Davy Jones in 2012.
When I decided to interview The Monkees, I knew it would be a really meaningful experience. As a kid, I would watch reruns of the show on "Nick at Nite," and the first album I ever owned was a Monkees' Greatest Hits record that my mother gave me in my Christmas stocking. The experience was pretty full circle as a writer. But, as my experience talking to Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork would prove, understanding the trajectory of The Monkees is outright confusing. It became clear that describing the new record is far less interesting than trying to answer two simple questions: How do you define The Monkees? And what makes a Monkees song?
There isn't much to romanticize about the recording process of Good Times. To put it bluntly, the truth is that there's no story to it at all. Don't get me wrong; Good Times is a great record. It's a breath of fresh air that features pop-songs, beach music, and even a desperate love ballad. The work itself is a culmination of the efforts of many, but it's more of a skillful curation than any broad artistic statement.
Adam Schlesinger, the Fountains of Wayne frontman, produced the album. Weezer's Rivers Cuomo wrote the track "She Makes Me Laugh," and Noel Gallagher of Oasis teamed up with British songwriter Paul Weller to pen "Birth of an Accidental Hipster." The album also includes songs by classic Monkees contributors such as Neil Diamond, Boyce & Hart, Harry Nilsson, Carole King, and Gerry Goffin. Of course, the album features the performances of and (some) writing from its members, Tork, Nesmith, Dolenz, as well as a posthumous track from the angelic Davy Jones. This list is only a portion of the people responsible for the creation of Good Times. But honestly , the process is really no different than how Monkees records have always been made. As Dolenz made clear, it's been pretty tactical from the group's onset.
"It's not as much of a fairy tale as you would think," 71-year-old Dolenz said, discussing the band's career in my first interview. "It was all part of their plan." He's referring to the producers, writers, and NBC executives who were in charge of constructing the situational comedy The Monkees back in the 60s. The tryout requirements were that they could sing, dance, and play an instrument. But the gig itself sought theatrical skills, not musicianship. Dolenz and I talked about this for a while, as I'm sure he has with every journalist. We talked about the group's unprecedented level of success and the often-told controversy of the struggle for creative control. We ran through the dismantling and series of reincarnations The Monkees have undergone over the past half-century. But just like that, my time with Dolenz was up. He was off to Nashville to rehearse with Tork for their nationwide tour. We didn't even get to talk about the new album.
I hung up the phone humbled yet underwhelmed by how fast the time went by. I googled some of the specific stories Dolenz told after recognizing some of his catchphrases. "It's like Leonard Nimoy really becoming a Vulcan," he said, laughing at the Star Trek reference. I knew he'd said that in a VH1 Behind The Music special. His metaphor about Pinocchio becoming a real boy was in there too. And his "Holy shit, I'm famous!" moment, when he was bum-rushed at a shopping mall during Christmastime, I'd already seen that in the Huffington Post. But this didn't bother me. The Monkees are a product of formulaic development. Dolenz was a pleasant man, and after 50 years of talking to the press, wouldn't you run out of stories, too? This was really my fault. In my following interviews, I'd try to get all the details about their history that others have overlooked. And once we get to talking about the release of Good Times, I'd finally understand what this all meant. But before anyone tries to wrap their head around this phenomenon as a whole, it's important to understand the timeline chronologically. It'll give scope and context to the cultural impact The Monkees made so many years ago.
In 1966 when The Monkees series premiered, creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider took four young men and turned them into a mischievous and handsome gang perfect for television. The show's antics were always accompanied by singing performances, all of which were written and composed by others. The show's musical supervisor, Don Kirshner, had all of The Monkees' songs written and performed by artists who went on to be the most defining voices in popular music. It's no wonder why so many of those tunes became chart-smashing singles and staple sing-a-longs. Take "I'm A Believer," for example (later redistributed to the youth via Smash Mouth and Shrek), which was penned by Neil Diamond. Classics such as "Last Train to Clarksville," "I Wanna Be Free," "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone," and the snappy TV theme song, were all written by songwriting duo Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. The likes of Gerry Goffin, Carole King, and the best studio musicians were responsible for the earliest recordings of the band. Because of the infrastructure and resources The Monkees had, they were able to enter the mainstream in a big, big way.
But it wasn't the timeslot on NBC alone that garnered the explosive success of The Monkees show; a lot of it had to do with its cheerful appeal. In the 60s, living rooms were starting to be filled with televisions, and the news and sad nature of global conflict and politics were more accessible than they'd ever been. In 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and in every subsequent year the people of this country would be more inundated with global hyperrealism. Not surprisingly, while plenty of adults enjoyed the show, the majority of fans were children and teenagers.
"While we might've been romantic or love objects, we weren't sex objects in the same way The Beatles or the Stones were," 73-year-old Michael Nesmith said. "It had to do with innocence."
While The Monkees' antics were mostly about being silly and farting around, the context made it much more meaningful. "While these kids were in the yard playing with their Tonka toys, Vietnam and all this other stuff was happening all around them," Nesmith said. "It creates a very odd tension during a time [period] that children are being protected from. The Monkees were part of that bubble that people could crawl into."
While these kids were in the yard playing with their Tonka toys, Vietnam and all this other stuff was happening all around them... The Monkees were part of that bubble that people could crawl into.
Peter Tork confirmed that essence of innocence. In fact, re-tapping that feeling is really what made the live shows any good this summer. "They're there for a reason," 74-year-old Tork said of his crowds. "They're there to remember that time and attitude." And that's something that he's really he had to keep in mind on this most recent tour. As it turns out, Michael Nesmith barely performed on it after all, save for a few of guest appearances, one of which was on Skype and the final of which, in September, marked what he said was his last time performing with the band. That upbeat innocence is presumably difficult to maintain when you're two men down and many years older.
When I met with Nesmith in a hotel conference room on Park Avenue, I assumed that because he was doing interviews to promote the new album, that he'd be part of the 50th anniversary shows. But he said he would be busy writing a book until November. This sort of inconsistency is just a speck in the riddling history of The Monkees' career, which he began to analyze. In retrospect, Nesmith still sees the fruition of the group as farfetched as ever.
"I thought I was auditioning for a band they were going to put on television," Nesmith said. "But it was the other way around. I think it surprised the hell out of everyone that it became a band."
"It was a television show about imaginary characters," Dolenz said, citing John Lennon's comparison of them to the Marx Brothers. "I was an actor-musician, like Miley Cyrus, and I was cast into this show playing a wacky drummer. That's how I've looked at it. Whenever I go back on the road or do television, to some degree, I'm going back to playing that character."
Dolenz's word choice of "to some degree," is important here. What made Monkeemania so overwhelming was the speed at which it happened. That blast into stardom would quickly blur the lines between fiction and reality, especially when the band started touring.
Before going on the road, the group already had a hectic lifestyle. They'd wake up at five in the morning to film ten hours a day, go to the studio at night to track vocals, then go home and collapse. On the weekends, they'd practice for gigs. Back then this approach was unheard of and the execution was the embodiment of faking it 'til you make it.
But they didn't really understand the magnitude of what was happening until they started packing out venues. Their massive crew would fill hotels and airplanes; it was a fleet that Nesmith suggests would consist of eight semi-trucks and six tour buses today. "'Here We Come,' so to speak!" he said chuckling, a hat-tip to the show's theme song. The Monkees hadn't written or played instruments on any of their songs, but they were playing sold-out concerts around the country.
"All we did was create facsimiles of great records when we played," Nesmith said unashamed. "We couldn't play like those session guys; they were rocket scientists. I played like this…" he said, sloppily flailing his arms.
The guys couldn't play to the caliber of their rock'n'roll counterparts of the 1960s, but that didn't matter to thousands of young. The full presentation of the live show was more than enough. They didn't need to shred like The Jimi Hendrix Experience did when they were billed as the band's opener. In fact, the screaming crowds couldn't give a shit about hearing "Purple Haze," all they wanted was the dreamy Davy Jones to serenade them.
Despite the differences in proficiency between the boys and Hendrix's band, they did have something in common: their dual personas on and off stage. According to Dolenz, Hendrix and his crew were ripping rockstars onstage; offstage they were quiet and shy. Onstage, The Monkees were America's answer to The Beatles; offstage they were just kids with acting gigs of a lifetime. Little did they know how quickly they'd changed the zeitgeist of popular music.
"I never had a moment to register any of it," Dolenz said. Funnily enough, he was the only one tempered to attention, having being raised a child star with his own fan club. But back then there were no instant lines of communication, no social media to witness a rise in the ranks of the public sphere. "We knew we had hit records," he continued, "But none of us had any clue of the intensity we'd see."
Massive fame doesn't always lead to longevity. And just as many overnight success stories go, after a peak came a valley. Plain and simple, The Monkees got worn out, quickly. "It sounds weird, but it was getting a bit old," Dolenz said. The first two seasons of The Monkees were a combined 58 episodes, the equivalent of five seasons in modern television. In the two years the show ran, the band also had four consecutive number one albums. At one point in late '67, the band held the number one and two spots on the Billboard chart at the same time. Their third album, Headquarters, was bumped out of the number slot by The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. At that point they'd broken off from music supervisor Kirshner, and the hit machine wasn't quite as powerful as it was before. For that album, the band entered the studio as a single unit. Regardless of its commercial success, it proved to be a large technical challenge for the band as musicians. It ended up being a number record anyway, but it sold significantly fewer units than its predecessor More of the Monkees. By the time they were ready to record their fourth LP, they reverted back to Kirshner's model of assembly, only without his power and connections pulling the strings.
In 1968, after the TV show was cancelled, The Monkees released the Jack Nicholson-directed Head, a film that was dark and psychedelic, a far departure from what Monkees fans were used to. It was a protest on war, a commentary on commercialization, and an inside look at their collective identity struggle. The film was a nonsensical hallucination where the band members became tired of their lives on a Hollywood set. Random characters challenge them: A diner waitress calls them "God's gift to eight-year-olds," then asking, "Why don't you have them write you some talent?" Frank Zappa makes a cameo, telling Davy Jones to spend less time dancing and more on music. The messages, though laced in ridiculous metaphors, were obvious. The band literally jumping off a bridge was probably the least subtle of them all. The film itself was a box office disaster. Shortly after, Tork quit. By 1970, so did Nesmith, and The Monkees were laid to rest for the first time.
While The Monkees insist that the infamous "struggle for creative control" wasn't what made the bubble burst, they'll acknowledge that it did exist. It all started when the fictitious part of the Monkees began to fuse with them as real people. "We had a lot to learn about what constituted that band," Nesmith explained. "They started creating these characters around who we were as people. Then they used our real names." During the whirlwind of success, it may have been their names, they may have played the live gigs, but they still resented that it wasn't even partially their own tunes.
"It wasn't about getting total control," Dolenz said. "It was about just having some say in the music. We had absolutely nothing to say about what was recorded, when, who was writing or producing, or even the picture on the front of the album. We had no input at all."
"We all understood what the final thing was supposed to be, to create this band the way it was written," Nesmith said. "But you can't write a live performance. That's real. That's why people have such a hard time understanding what this is."
As a band, we were never one of the greats. But as an idea, it's got a lot of appeal. It does to me.
It is hard to understand. The generally recycled narrative of the group for decades has suggested that Michael Nesmith spearheaded the "palace revolution" (another catchphrase) in a battle for their musicianship, but he said otherwise.
"That wasn't the way it went down, and it's real hard for people who are trying to write a story about it to understand," Nesmith said sympathetically. From his perspective, he was never the guy to raise his fist and yell, "God dammit! We want to play our own music!" (Although the Behind the Music episode referenced a story where he punched through a wall at The Beverly Hills Hotel during a meeting). He said the real head-butting was between the management on each side of the country dealing with the iron-fist-ruling "musical overlord" Don Kirshner. "So people get it wrong, it was really deep," he said. "But it was a struggle that everybody is familiar with who's trying to do good work."
Dolenz concurred that there wasn't some massive creative meltdown. "That's the urban story, but it isn't what happened," Dolenz said. "It wasn't any kind of implosion at all; the television show was cancelled, like all eventually are. That was as much our choice as anybody else."
Of their own volition, between 1970 and 2016, The Monkees would have waves of resurgence: The series would be rebroadcast, the band would tour, and they'd release more albums. Every time The Monkees re-emerged, so would their fanbase. So how the hell did this group-band-whatever-they-are have such a short initial life cycle but such long-term longevity?
"As a band, we were never one of the greats," Nesmith admitted. "But as an idea, it's got a lot of appeal. It does to me. And it happened over the decades, I don't know why."
Nesmith's uncertainty in 2016 is the defining mystery of The Monkees. If you talk to the guys, in some moments they're completely confident in what it means to be The Monkees or what it takes to write a Monkees song. In other moments, it's a shot in the dark.
Take the track "I Know What I Know," the song Nesmith actually wrote himself for Good Times. It's a melancholy tune about a man so helplessly in love that he can't even speak. "I lived it out," Nesmith said, while pounding his fist against his chest. "We all have in some way. You touch that space," he said pointing to his heart and exhaling strongly. "Phew, this is hard." Nesmith has been writing these sorts of lonesome folk-rock songs ever since he picked up a guitar, but they rarely found a place on one of the albums. When A&R rep Andrew Sandoval told Nesmith he thought the track was perfect for the new record, he was floored. "On the Monkees record!?" he laughed. This was a rare occurrence compared to the 60s. As the powers that be once famously told Nesmith, "That's not a Monkees song." To which he replied, "But I am a Monkee!"
Sandovol's response was much different than old days, when Nesmith wrote "Different Drum" and his bosses told him to take it elsewhere. He did, and Linda Rondstadt and the Stone Poneys released the hit single in 1967. "It was completely rejected," Nesmith said. "They wanted 'I'm A Believer,' that Neil Diamond stuff. That's fine, I wouldn't know a pop song if it bit me on the nose. I don't know how to write those," he said frankly, while pondering even the newest of Monkees songs.
"I have an appreciation for songs like 'You Bring The Summer' and 'She Makes Me Laugh,' [both on Good Times] which are much more Monkee-ish than I know. I know a very melancholy [style of songwriting] that makes you really sad if you're lonely, but also has a certain amount of hope to it," Nesmith said. "But that's not Monkee stuff— but now it sort of is. You meet people who put the Monkees in a completely different space in their head. I don't recognize it, I mean, I acknowledge it but I don't know it when I see it. I guess I just have to trust that other people are shooting straight with me."
It isn't clear what constitutes a Monkees song or how they should be categorized in the history books, but Nesmith relies on the vehemence of others to let him know where the chips fall. Here's a band whose history is stamped with this yearning for some semblance of artistic integrity, but after all these years, they have returned to the old system. In fact, Nesmith told me that he specifically asked to go into the studio alone when he recorded his parts for Good Times. He sings with Dolenz on "Me and Magdalena," although they never entered a room together to sing it.
"There's a lot for me to absorb in the whole Monkees thing every time I go into it," he said. "This was going to be fast. We were gonna get my stuff done in a few hours. I had to dial it into my schedule. I could sing my harmony parts really quick, that way we don't have to go through the process of reuniting and getting back in sync with the whole Monkees thing. Micky lives in the center of it. Peter and I are more peripheral."
Through the decades, Nesmith tended to be the guy who sat out when the band would get back at it. He's long had the public reputation that he didn't care quite as much as the others, and there has likewise been a theory that there was some unspoken tension between him and the rest of the group. "It's just a distortion," he said. "I don't know how that persists. None of that was true. We were never on the outs."
I appealed to him, citing his absence from this current tour, on the 50th anniversary, as a perfect example, I asked, "Can you see why people get that impression?"
"It's totally wrong," he replied. "The idea that I'm not a supporter of this has deviled us for a long time."
Still, a few weeks after our interview, on August 19, Nesmith took to Facebook to announce that his final show with the band would be on September 16 at Hollywood Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. He said it would be a fitting date to say goodbye, just four days after the anniversary of the television show. He would then move on to his book tour in 2017, do some solo concerts, and other projects. In the post he wrote, "I see the specter of the multiple Sinatra retirement/farewells—and this seems like the perfect time for me to step off, sit down and shut up."
It's a bummer that something so magical can come off so political or superficial; you know, the back-and-forth, the recycled quotes, or the very trained PR style interview plugs. An outsider will probably never truly understand the internal workings of it all. Pulling the curtain back on the modern incarnation of The Monkees is beautiful because of the time it's endured and the magic it produced, but it's somewhat sad that the story appears to still boil down to business and semantics.
Both Nesmith and Tork confirmed this when I tried to touch a gentle note and talk about how it feels carrying on after Davy Jones passed away in 2012. Or even just playing live without Nesmith in 2016.
"We miss Davy's ineffable—he was a tremendous guy on stage. And we miss Michael's rather dour personality," Tork said about the current tour. "But we go on." On this tour, Dolenz and Tork performed songs such as "Daydream Believer" with Jones's vocals on tape in the background.
"I don't know how to put this exactly, except that you do what you've got to do," Tork said. "You have a job to do, you have to pay attention, if you don't it's going to go to shit in no time flat. The business of whether it's overwhelming that we're doing Davy or if we care that Michael is someplace else, all of those things are distractions on stage."
You make jokes, you carry on, but you can't get emotionally deeply involved too much. At a Monkees show, I don't think so!
Tork did strike an emotional chord when he did a recent interview with CBS Sunday Morning, but he said that onstage isn't the right place or time for that. Prone to making dad jokes, Tork didn't seem ruthless, more barricaded than anything. "Onstage, I've got work to do pal!" he said. "It's fun to have Davy on stage, the ghost of Christmas past, you make jokes, you carry on, but you can't get emotionally deeply involved too much. At a Monkees show, I don't think so!"
To be fair, it's unbelievable that Tork has the energy to perform at all, much less with the level of heart and convulsive laughing he and Dolenz exchange on stage as the "Two-kees." He said feels blessed to continue to play, and that energy was clear when the duo performed at the historic Town Hall in New York, plowing through different hits, instruments, and visuals.
Tork's sentimentality did come out a bit when we discussed a track he sang for the new album. "Little Girl," was he originally wrote in the late 60s to be a follow up to "I Wanna Be Free." Tork said the song came through him naturally, and it's a shame that Davy Jones never got to sing it. So he sang it for him.
Nesmith was a little more distant when it came to the subject of Jones. Rather than rehashing memories as he's done before, he referred to him as the missing shade of The Monkees' palette. "To not have his voice is a loss," he said, citing his singing more than his charm.
But then, he brought up when the three went on tour for the first time after Jones passed of a heart attack at 66. They didn't use a tape but instead had the crowds sing his parts. How Nesmith spoke about it revealed something about his relationship with Jones, what he meant to the Monkees, and what the Monkees mean to the world.
"Something happened in those performances," Nesmith realized. "People appropriate the Monkees. They become part of the band. They all have it inside of them in some way. The fan appropriates it in the same way that we do, and we acknowledge that. We know that we're playing a role for them. I don't know anything else like that. We didn't plan it, it's not our product or creative work, but it happens. I think that's the thing that sustains it."
To this day, the guys continue to walk the line between ruling The Monkees as a group of actors or an actual band. They all go on the record confirming that The Monkees transcended television into a musical anomaly, but they lean back and settle that at the end of the day, it's still a constructed mechanism.
The Monkees, though, has always been more than its moving parts. "I don't know anything from good, but I know what I like!" Tork said, chuckling about their new album . And that might be the easiest way to reconcile all of this. The Monkees are a phenomenon unlike any other in music. Trying to make sense of a cultural outlier, an oddity, is just as senseless as trying to reproduce it. As for the magic of The Monkees, your best bet is to revel in its mystery.
Lead illustration by Stefani Akner.
Photos of The Monkees performing at Town Hall in New York by Derek Scancarelli.
Derek Scancarelli is still a believer. Follow him on Twitter.