Music has been part of the culture of the United States of America from before the nation's birth, largely accompanying the immigrants who founded and populated the 13 New World colonies. Over time, the pivotal musical styles of the USA began to spread to other countries, driven by a constant craving for new forms of entertainment. It was enabled almost entirely by the invention of recording technology through which music could be more easily shared with the world. Although many inventors had attempted recording sound, it was not until 1877 when an American, Thomas Alva Edison, first succeeded with his tinfoil cylinder recordings.
By the 1950s, technology had progressed wildly, first to discs and then to bulky audio tape recorders and microphones from which the discs could be produced. A generation of music entrepreneurs collected many hours of the 'American sound' that had become fodder for the relatively new industries of music distribution and radio broadcasting. The early blues, jazz, mountain, and early rock music all carried the stamp of novelty, initiating a new era in music across the world.
This music began to influence musicians and music lovers - mostly the young - on every continent. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones both credit early examples of American blues and rock as formative influences to their own original styles. And the wave came crashing back onto American shores in the form of the British Invasion of the 1960s, and with this came The Beatles' movies, namely A Hard Day's Night and Help.
Making the Best of a Bad Situation
Columbia, Victor, Decca, Capitol, MGM and Mercury were the giants of the US recording industry. Columbia's film and television franchise, Screen Gems, marvelled at the style and success of the Beatles movie A Hard Day's Night and realised that they now had a formula to make something unique to the music industry: a television show about an American rock quartet, based loosely on the Fab Four. They chose the name The Monkees and set about recruiting a group - a common method today - although the true aim was to create a television series for which the group would be both actors and promoters.
Making the Madness!!
In the 9 September, 1965 issue of Variety1, an advertisement appeared announcing:
M A D N E S S ! !
Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers
for acting roles in new TV series.
Running parts for 4 insane boys, ages 17-21.
Want spirited Ben Frank's-types.
Have courage to work.
The open auditions were held by the producers, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, and included a wide variety of some 437 hopefuls. Of the many, few were chosen.
Davy Jones, first of British radio and TV, and ultimately of musical theatre fame (he played The Artful Dodger in David Merrick's West End production of the smash hit Oliver!), he was already under contract to Columbia Pictures/Screen Gems Television. The telly production was to be, in part, a showcase for him.
Micky Dolenz (George Michael Dolenz), who had previous television experience - he had performed in the title role in the 1950s television series Circus Boy as Mickey Braddock.
Michael Nesmith, a folk guitarist who performed live and as a session musician. He already had a record contract with Colpix Records and sometimes recorded under the name Michael Blessing. He was also the only one of the four who had actually seen the advertisement.
Peter Tork (Peter Torkelson), who had gained a folk following in area clubs playing guitar and banjo. He had been part of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village until he moved to Los Angeles, and was probably the only musician who played any instrument on the group's first album, The Monkees. Peter heard of the auditions from Stephen Stills.
Among those not selected were:
Stephen Stills, later of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and still later of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Rodney Bingenheimer, disk jockey and long-time staple of KROK radio in California.
Paul Williams, famed songwriter and performer.
Danny Hutton, of Three Dog Night.
Although rumoured to, one who did not actually audition was Charles Manson, who was in prison from 1961 through to 21 March, 1967 - with no parole for auditions.
Introduction Please, Maestro
The initial team included Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, the creators of the Beatles-based concept, and music director Don Kirschner, who had a stable of songwriters heading for fame: Neil Diamond, Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Harry Nilsson, Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil - not to mention other contributors like Screen Gems' Jack Keller and Diane Hildebrand. Kirschner also gained access to some of Los Angeles' top session musicians like Bob West and Glen Campbell.
The team of music writers were housed in a single building, their area composed of small rooms with thin walls. They were all competing to create the 'hit songs', and they could all hear what the others were up to, yet they managed to create some memorable and now historic numbers, including 'Last Train to Clarksville' (1966), 'I'm a Believer' (1966) and 'Daydream Believer' (1967).
The Monkees, however, had been practising, like a garage band, to play on their first joint record. It came as quite a shock when Kirschner arrived with the studio tracks all layered and ready for the boys' vocals. This was pretty much how it went for the first two records, until the lads were able to wrest creative control away from Kirschner and finally play the majority of the music on their third album, Headquarters.
The Monkees finally aired on 12 September, 1966 on the NBC television network in the USA, and ran for 58 episodes.
Who's on First?
The set must have been quite chaotic. Despite the fact that it was largely slapstick humour, the management wanted to maintain a lot of control. The management even created 'the box', a room equipped with four coloured lights, each representing a member of the group. As each light went on, the actors knew who was now wanted on the set. The rest of the time, smoke could be seen escaping through tiny openings of the box, smelling strangely of burning rope.
The success of The Monkees, from 1966 through 1968, was disturbing for more organically grown bands. This wild, pre-fab group outsold both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in 1967. In fact, it forced the Beatles to abandon their mop-top pop image and move immediately into psychedelia with their album Revolver.
The Monkees followed their TV success with one of the least successful movies of all time, Head. In it, The Monkees - along with writers like Jack Nicholson2 and actors like Victor Mature, Teri Garr, Annette Funicello, Vito Scotti, Sonny Liston, and Frank Zappa - seem to lampoon their own band, TV series and success.
The movie contains a lot of hidden references to the trials and tribulations of the group's fight for musical integrity against the ColGems hit factory (including using a World War II tank to blow up a Coke machine in the middle of a desert - Coca Cola was part owner of ColGems). The company refused to promote it as a Monkees movie and only aired a few commercials of a man's face with the word HEAD above it. It distributed the movie to a few local theatres, and pulled it after three days.
In 1986, MTV ran a 24-hour Monkees TV marathon, titled Pleasant Valley Sunday3. The marathon and subsequent airing of the shows was seen by MTV to have been the saviour of the network, which had been losing popularity and was accused of relying on way too much sex and violence. The Monkees added a missing air of youthfulness and fun.
A New York promoter contacted them and revived the 20-year-old band with a reunion record and tour. And in 1989, they received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The Monkees have had several successful anniversary tours since then, including headlining the 'Happy Together' tours. Strangely, the Turtles4 dropped out of these whenever The Monkees were going to headline, possibly a case of professional jealousy.
All in all however, the group has secured a solid place in rock 'n' roll history. At the time of writing, they have 11 studio albums to their name5, and a string of unforgettable hit singles. Whatever else happens, they are still consummate crowd pleasers on the radio, at dance clubs and in concert. Sometimes you just want to hear music to which you know the words; I'm a believer.