Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays – The Monkees

Welcome back my friends, to the drivel that never ends – Laydees and Gentlebodies, Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays proudly present yet another of our light-loafered, lubed-up and luxuriant leaps over the pavilion-end puddles of musical magnificence.

Tonight’s missive will consider a popular beat combo, oft’ dismissed as nowt but the fabricated house band of a cynical production company. But John Lennon admired them, Frank Zappa praised them, Jimi Hendrix was embarrassed by them, the FBI kept tabs on them, and, over the course of their glittering career, they managed shift well over 75 million records. Here they come, walking down the street – Hey! Hey! It’s the Monkees!

The Monkees were of course an entirely manufactured band, assembled as a north American response to the 1960’s “British invasion” and the massive success of The Beatles. The aim was to reclaim the American charts from the seemingly endless run of successful British bands who were washing up on U.S. shores with, from the perspective of North American record labels, alarming regularity.

Eventually, two shrewd entertainment producers, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, decided if you can’t beat ’em you might as well join ’em and hatched their cunning plan. Rafelson and Schneider approached the U.S. band, Lovin’ Spoonful, to see if the fancied the idea of larks-a-plenty in a brand new music-based sitcom. The boys in the band wasted absolutely no time in saying thanks, but no thanks. So Bob and Bert had a re-think and came up with the idea of creating a band from scratch. Et voila, The Monkees were born.

Rafelson and Schneider placed an ad seeking young, musically talented performers for their new project. The project they had in mind was a television comedy series with a spin-off soundtrack to be based on the wacky antics of The Beatles in their film, A Hard Day’s Night. The advert (published in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter) worked a treat and drew hundreds of young hopefuls to the subsequent auditions.

Eventually, just four performers were selected: Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork (with a few bright young things kept in reserve in case any of our intrepid quartet failed to deliver the goofy goods). Jones was a seasoned acting pro with Broadway and West End experience; Dolenz was a former child actor currently belting out hits of the day in various cover bands; Nesmith and Tork were both musicians and songwriters.

Tork was actually recommended by Stephen Stills, who was himself a leading candidate for the band, but dropped out when it was decided he looked too old for the part. Dolenz later recalled the rumour that Stills was dropped because he lacked adequate Hollywood dentistry, but claimed that was a joke, as was the rumour that Charles Manson had auditioned for the band. “I just a made a joke”, Dolenz later claimed, “and everybody took it as gospel.”

Anyway, whatever the reasons, it seems the producers chose well, as, despite being complete strangers, the four Monkees quickly developed a genuine on-screen chemistry that delighted the producers and which later grew into genuine friendship.


Production went well and the TV show debuted in 1966. It featured a blend of scripted comedic shenanigans, goofy improv and mimed musical performances, and it quickly became a massive international success. Although it ran for only two seasons, the show picked up two Emmy Awards: Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy.

The musical side of the project was equally successful, with multiple platinum awards for their first five albums, a handful of Grammys and a seemingly endless stream of top ten hit singles around the world. This success is perhaps unsurprising, as there were some seriously talented heavy hitters in the songwriting team, with Neil Diamond, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Carole Bayer Sager, Harry Nilsson. Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart all making significant contributions on the songwriting front. Studio performances on most of the first two albums were handled by a bunch of absolutely top-notch session musicians, known collectively as The Wrecking Crew.

By 1967, The Monkees were such a huge international success they could embark on their first tour across the Atlantic. Sadly, they were not well received by the British music press who promptly denounced them as the “Pre-Fab Four”. The Sunday Mirror was particularly snooty and even called The Monkees a disgrace to the world of popular music. Gosh! How very precious of them.

Happily, the Fab Four’s attitude to the Pre-Fab Four was nowhere near as silly and The Beatles invited The Monkees along to Abbey Road Studios to watch the recording sessions for A Day in the Life. Lennon expressed admiration for the show and claimed he never missed an episode; Tork and Harrison apparently got on very well and in fact would later record together, and Dolenz certainly seemed to be inspired by British TV culture (possibly by the character of Alf Garnett) as he promptly composed the track Randy Scouse Git after the Monkees’ visit to Blighty.

However, as successful as the Monkees television series was, it didn’t last long and was wrapped up in March 1968 after just two seasons and 58 episodes (with the occasional special thrown in for good measure). Everyone wanted a third series, but they simply couldn’t agree on a direction for the show. So, eventually, it was cancelled. It had followed the fictionalised narrative of a young band trying to make it big, and off-screen that’s exactly what the lads had achieved. Therefore, unsurprisingly, despite the show’s cancellation, the Monkees decided to stick together and continue to record music.

By ’67, the boys had actually become a genuine band and were recording as a fully functioning, self-contained unit, playing their instruments in the studio and writing a lot of their own songs. But the manufactured material was still very much in production, and when their management team released the band’s second album, More of the Monkees, without even bothering to tell the band, a somewhat fractious turf war broke out. The band were greatly displeased, slagged off the album and dug their heels in until they gained a lot more control over their recorded output.

Their third album, Headquarters, soon followed and it really does feel like a genuine album by a real band. It was a multi-platinum international success and probably marks the high water mark for The Monkees in terms of genuine band creativity.

At the same time, with no more TV shows in the pipeline, The Monkees began filming their feature film, Head, co-written and co-produced by Bob Rafelson and (a then relatively unknown) Jack Nicholson. The film featured a string cameo appearances by various celebrities including Victor Mature, Teri Garr, Sonny Liston and Frank Zappa, and was nothing – absolutely nothing – like The Monkees television show.

Head was not well received; it was not well received at all. After some appallingly poor audience response test screenings, the film was butchered in post-production in a desperate attempt to salvage something useable from the project. They did not succeed and Head was a commercial failure that managed to achieve the worst of both worlds: it alienated the band’s teenage fans and completely failed to attract a more adult audience.

Nevertheless, over the years, Head has developed a substantial cult following for its (at times) innovative style and its (at times) intelligent humour. Nesmith, in particular, seemed quite fond of the film and would later describe the soundtrack as one of his favourite achievements by the band.


And it was apparently around this time that one of the more bizarre aspects of The Monkees’ career began to develop. Allegedly, the FBI started to take an interest in the band and their links to the growing U.S. counterculture movement that was beginning to have an effect on the political landscape of 1960’s America. This wasn’t actually discovered until 2011, when a small section of the FBI’s files on the band came to light. Micky Dolenz was much intrigued by this development and is still prodding away at the FBI, as he would very much like to know a bit more about this secret dossier and its contents. From the very small sections that have come to light, it seems the FBI were deeply concerned that the boys in the band might very well be (horror of horrors) “beatnik types”.

However, perhaps to the relief of the FBI, the Monkees project seemed to be losing momentum. Peter Tork jumped ship in late ’68 (spending an absolute fortune to buy his way out of his contract) and in ’69 the three remaining Monkees embarked on a major tour that garnered positive critical reaction, but was much less popular with the punters. Dates were cancelled due to poor ticket sales and Dolenz later remarked that the tour “was like kicking a dead horse”. Sadly, The Monkees phenomenon seemed to be over.

Nesmith was next out of the door, resigning to concentrate on his country-rock group, Michael Nesmith & the First National Band. This left Dolenz and Jones to record the decidedly lightweight Changes as the ninth and final album by the original incarnation of The Monkees. On September 22, 1970, the final recording session by (what was left of) The Monkees took place and the band officially broke up.

And that, it would seem, was that: The Monkees had been a carefully constructed and tremendously successful teeny pop sensation, had enjoyed a splendid run of worldwide smash hits with all the scream-teen adulation that went with it, but had kinda run out of steam when they tried to take themselves seriously and be a proper band. Nevertheless, it had been a fun ride, a very lucrative ride, and a damn fine effort by all concerned.


But then, along came the ’80s and along came MTV…

Mike’s mum, Bette Nesmith, was a seriously successful business woman, having invented Whiteout, a very popular typewriter correction fluid (Tippex, to us Europeans and April Fool’s Day coffee whitener to office idiots everywhere). When Mike’s mum sadly passed away, he used a somewhat sizeable inheritance to fund his production company, Pacific Arts, which was a tremendous success and something of a pioneer in the burgeoning development of music videos in the late 70s and early 80s.

Nesmith and his team developed a proto-MTV show for Nickelodeon called Popclips – basically a series of music videos linked by VJs as a visual version of the traditional DJ. It was radio on TV for the video age. The giant Time Warner/Amex consortium was much impressed by Popclips and thought it a rather splendid wheeze. They believed the concept had some serious money-making potential, bought the rights from Nesmith, turned Pop Clips into an entire TV station and the mighty MTV was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.

Being the Godfather of MTV quickly turned into double-bubble for Mike, because when MTV became the absolutely monstrous success that it did, it (along with Nickelodeon TV) began to re-run all of the Monkees’ old television shows. To the delight and surprise of The Monkees, they were soon getting some seriously good viewing figures and, as a result, a whole new generation of fans were lapping up the wacky antics of the Pre-Fab Four and cheerfully jumping on board The Monkees’ bandwagon.

Suddenly, the boys were back in town: The Monkees were seriously cool and very much in demand. Their old albums began selling again and their singles started getting some serious airplay. As a result, between ’86 and ’89, the band were able to undertake a series of highly successful (and highly lucrative) tours, release a brand new album (the frankly ropey Pool It!), nab themselves a few more platinum discs and were eventually inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame. All-in-all, and no doubt to the delight of all concerned, the mid to late 80s was a very successful period and a cracking second run for the boys in the band.

The Monkees (in various forms and line-ups – Nesmith would often be tied up with his production company) cheerfully and successfully continued to tour and record new material in the early ’90s, and the band’s eleventh album, Justus, was released in 1996. This was quite a significant release for the band as it was the first album since ’68 on which all four original members performed and produced. Sadly, it would also be the last studio album on which all four Monkees would directly participate. The album was produced by the Monkees, written by the Monkees, performed by the Monkees (hence the album’s title, Justus = Just Us) and, to be honest, it was a pretty decent effort from a band so late in their career.

A hugely successful 30th anniversary world tour followed, including a splendid UK tour that was topped off by two sold-out concerts at Wembley Arena. It is one of my enduring regrets that I did not attend those Wembley gigs. I’ve heard bootleg recordings of those performances and they were first-rate shows. The boys really were on top form.

However, by the late 90s, their tours were apparently becoming rather grumpy affairs and they eventually went on hiatus. They were back again in the early noughties but, once again, all was not well on The Good Ship Simian. However, this time they solved their backstage problems by the simple expediency of throwing Pete Tork overboard. Tork later said, somewhat ruefully, “I take full responsibility for the problems on tour… I had a meltdown… I really just behaved inappropriately… I apologized to them”.

The band went on hiatus again in 2002 but were back in 2011 (this time with a well behaved Tork, but without the ever-busy Nesmith) for a hugely successful 45th Anniversary Tour that packed halls and grossed millions. Sadly, however, it would prove to be the last for Davy Jones, who died of a heart attack in 2012.

The surviving trio continued to tour successfully and surprised everyone in 2016 when they released an album of new material, titled Good Times! The album celebrated their 50th anniversary and the surprise was not that the album was released, but that it wasn’t just good – it was seriously bloody good! Quite possibly the best of their career.

Good Times! featured contributions from all four members (with posthumous contributions from Jones using vocals he had previously recorded) and was the biggest seller (excluding compilations) the band had produced for quite some time. The success of Good Times was followed up by yet another highly successful tour and (unfortunately) the hasty release of a very cheesy Christmas cash-in album (over which we shall draw a discrete veil).

Sadly, over the next few years, although the band continued to work, frailty began to overtake them. Peter Tork passed away in 2019 and Nesmith left us in 2021, leaving Dolenz as the only surviving member of the Monkees.

So what do we make of the Pre-Fab Four? Clearly, The Monkees were not the first manufactured pop act, but they were probably the first manufactured band put together for a dedicated TV show – a show about a band trying to be successful in the music industry. However, the fictional creation became real, developed a life of its own and the band’s real-life success in the music industry eventually exceeded the success of the TV show for which it had been created. As Micky Dolenz once said, it was “like the cast of Star Trek joining NASA”.

Credit is also due to the show’s producers. They changed the world of pop music forever. They created the first made-for-TV band and kick-started an entirely new relationship between popular music and the moving image – a cross pollination which genuinely changed the music industry in ways that continue to evolve to this very day. The band’s live shows were also innovative. They were the first to use big video screens and made-for-concert footage in a live concert setting – something that is now ubiquitous and utterly routine in live performance.

Of course, many will argue the success of The Monkees opened Pandora’s Box and paved the way for the hideous legion of manufactured pop horrors that inevitably followed in their wake (The Partridge Family, Spice Girls, One Direction, Busted, Girls Aloud and the countless other musical monstrosities the music industry cynically vomited over the poor paying public) – and there is of course much substance to this grim and depressing argument.

But I prefer to remember great songwriting, performed with sincerity, by a likeable bunch of individuals with genuine talent; and of course a peerless collection of superbly crafted pop songs that still bring joy and still stand as perfect examples of the genre, well over half a century since their initial creation.

Anyway, that’s yer lot for this week’s Fabulously Flamboyant Friday, so we’ll wrap things up with my favourite Monkees song.

May your pillows be tasty, your gardens inclined and your puddles well jumped.

Goodnight, and may your frog go with you – Not ‘arf!

Featured Image: The Monkees (1967). Still taken from the TV programme of the same name. Fair dealing/fair use

© Ivory Cutlery 2024