- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
In September 1965, both Variety and the Hollywood Reporter ran an attention-grabbing advertisement:
Madness! Auditions. Folk and Roll Musicians – Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for four insane boys, age 17-21.
From the 437 hopeful applicants, coveted roles were assigned to Mike Nesmith (22), Peter Tork (23), Mickey Dolenz (20), and Davy Jones (19).
The Monkees were created to ride the slipstream of Beatlemania and were hired to mimic the Beatles’ zany antics in A Hard Day’s Night, their 1964 semi-documentary debut flick. The Monkees’ TV plotline involved a struggling rock quartet in search of their Big Break.
A well-received TV pilot was filmed in late 1965, and in early 1966 NBC-TV picked up The Monkees as a weekly primetime series.
The four young men then embarked on a grueling schedule of improv classes, band rehearsals, and filming. Early on, Monkees members were limited to vocal work, with only professional session musicians providing the instrumental music.
The Monkees, a half-hour show, hit big when it debuted in September 1966. Tunesmiths Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart wrote the band’s first 45 (a No. 1 winner): “Last Train to Clarksville” featured a chord structure, jangly guitar lines, and vocal harmonies lifted directly from the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer.”
The Boyce-Hart team would eventually create three more winning singles. Other professional songwriters (including Neil Diamond and Carole King) were rushed in to keep the hits flowing. The Monkees’ eponymous debut album also skyrocketed to the top of the Billboard charts.
The Prefab Four (as sneering cynics often labeled them) were off and running.
By that December, growing pressure led the Monkees to begin touring, with each member hurrying to master his instrument well enough to perform onstage.
No problem, as it turned out, since, akin to the Beatles’ shows, much of the music played was lost to the eardrum-piercing screams that tsunami-ed in nightly from the vast teenybopper audiences.
Making music was better than faking music, and the Monkees’ men worked hard to improve. In January 1967, a mere four months after “Clarksville” introduced them to the world, the Monkees held their first recording session as a fully functioning, self-contained band.
The Monkees TV show, though, was another issue entirely. By the end of the second season, the quartet had tired of the filming grind and pronounced the third-season scripts monotonous and stale.
When they suggested a format change to a one-hour variety show, their idea was quickly squelched and the series was axed, which undoubtedly crushed countless teenage hearts.
During their two-year reign, though, when the foursome often successfully challenged the almighty Beatles, the Monkees sold more than 75 million records around the world.
Had they been just a bubblegum fantasy quartet, one that was never quite real, undeserving of any real respect?
Not to everybody. Vanity Fair writer Mark Rozzo once opined, “They were a pop culture force … They created joy and wonderment and introduced the whole realm of pop music to a huge audience of young people.”
Although Randal C. Hill’s heart lives in the past, the rest of him resides in Bandon, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.