or, “Davy Jones, you will be missed.”
I first encountered Monkees in old re-runs on Nickelodeon. This was also the time in which Nickelodeon was re-running the original “Muppet Show” so I’m not sure the executives were really paying attention to what they were showing, or were certain children wouldn’t actually understand the humor. Eventually I learned the Monkees were a band and the TV show was about the band, or maybe that was vice versa. My interest in the Monkees has been renewed and I’ve learned more about them.
The story of the fabrication of the Monkees sounds so much like the contrived plot of a Hollywood movie and yet it’s all totally true. The production team behind the Monkees wanted an American version of the Beatles. In a way, I can’t blame them. The Beatles were and are huge sellers. They held auditions for the band and the show would be the vehicle to popularize the band. They hired a music producer who had an unerring sense for the next big hit to be in charge of all the music for the Monkees. Frankly, the producers were well ahead of their time. Some forty years later, we call this “American Idol” although those winners don’t get a show (well, unless they end up on some other reality show…) and everyone thinks it’s a great new thing. Not so much. While the producers were cynically trying to exploit the young generation for sheer profit, the ploy mostly worked. The Monkees had four number one albums. As they gained success, they fought against the producers for control of their own music. The music producer in question seemed to regard them as ungrateful no-talent hacks and continued to produce pop hits without them and took great satisifaction when his bands did better. The Monkees also had the colossal bad luck to release “Headquarters,” their first album entirely under their control, just one week before the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Oops. But “Headquarters” was number 1 for that week anyway. The original television producers used the Monkees’ desire to make a movie as their own ticket into the world of movies. When the Monkees movie failed, as perhaps it was doomed from the beginning, the producers abandoned them and went onto a very successful movie career (they produced Easy Rider). Ultimately, the downfall was that the four of them, coming from diverse backgrounds, wanted to take their music in different directions. The band couldn’t survive the creative differences, so one by one they quit. Their show was cancelled at the end of the second season by their own volition because they wanted to do a variety show instead of a sitcom. As I said, it sounds like a contrived Hollywood movie and yet it’s completely true.
This particular musing is about the sitcom rather than the music, although obviously the music was an integral part of the show. The four Monkees break down as – Davy is the cute one, Micky is the silly one (also has the most distinctive voice), Mike is the smart and serious one, and Peter is the dumb one. This was loosely based on their actual personalities except for Peter who was apparently quite intellectual. This was also loosely based on the personality of the Beatles (to better exploit the youth). The four could actually play various instruments although Peter was the only one trying to make it as a musician. Ironically, none of them could play the drums and Micky got the job because Davy was too short for the look of the band. The boys are a struggling band and a lot of the shows use that as the plot driver, although there is one episode where I know that the plot driver was, “Davy Jones is also a jockey.” I have a friend who also watched “The Monkees” on Nickelodeon and decided she wanted to marry Davy Jones. When her parents pointed out that he was in his forties at the time, she declared, “Age doesn’t matter!” Such is the enduring power of a teen idol. Also, while all of them dress up in drag every now and then, Micky really looked the best. His James Cagney impression is about as good as Ryan Stiles’ John Wayne. Davy Jones was of course British and Mike was from Texas with a heavy accent. Whenever Mike tried to do any other accent, he still sounded really Texan. The four also do have a nice kind of natural chemistry for physical comedy.
The show used a number of techniques that were quite new and original for the time, such as avant garde, proto-music videos, and breaking the fourth wall. By proto-music video, I mean that there was a part in which they would start singing. Sometimes this was simply played over the story (think of any “Scooby Doo Where Are You?” chase scene ever). Sometimes this was completely disjointed from the story and more like a music video we would recognize. The comedy was for the most part quite slapstick but there were some excellent sight gags and a lot of good one-liners (“Peter, play dumb;” “Why do I always have to play dumb? Why can’t I play smart for once?”). I, as you may have noticed, like media that plays with being meta (such as breaking the fourth wall). There’s an episode where Micky actually walks off-set to ask the writers for a great idea to get them out of their wacky jam (it didn’t work). In a way, there were acting out a cartoon. When Davy Jones guest stars on “The Scooby Doo Movies,” his actions as an actual animated Monkee are not so different from the show. There were a couple of episodes even featuring spooky castles and mad scientists and door chase scenes that reminded me strongly of Scooby Doo, although that’s not fair since the Monkees aired before the first Scooby Doo. There were also some running gags, the most obvious of which was that Davy fell in love with a new girl nearly every episode (Mike – “He’s in love…for the first time today”) which usually caused all sorts of havoc. Sometimes the show would run a minute or two short, and it would end with someone trying to interview the group or get them to do something funny. They didn’t seem to take that too seriously and the interviewer always sounded pretty baffled by their antics. There was one interview, however, that reminded me that the 60s were not the happy-go-lucky time the sitcom represented as the four of them were discussing the L.A. riots. Micky made a scathing remark about how journalists must not be very smart because he was down there and it was just a demonstration, but “demonstration” is a very long word and hard to spell, so journalists just use “riots.”
It is campy, it is cartoony, and you’ll wonder what the fashion designers of the time were thinking, but it is also clever, highly entertaining, and the music is darn catchy (I find actually I like the non-hits better than the hits, although this may be because I haven’t heard those songs as much as the hits [seriously, radio, they had more than “Last Train to Clarksville; you can tell I do not heart radio]). I heart the Monkees.