By Jessica Wheeler, Music Columnist
When the Monkees take the stage in Clearwater on May 20, it will be to a widely diverse audience. Monkees fans range in age from 8 to 80, and those fans will be there in full force as the band hits the road in honor of their 50th anniversary. With their first brand new album in twenty years (Good Times, out May 27), there’s even more to celebrate.
But while you might see the appeal of the Monkees for children and for those who remember watching the Monkees television program when it aired in the 1960s, there are many other sides to the band—and many other reasons to love them.
Who are the Monkees for?
The Monkees began with the idea to make a television show influenced by the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night. After scouting for months, producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider cast actors Davy Jones, a pint-sized, tailor-made teen idol with a voguish English accent and floppy hair, and Micky Dolenz, a former child star with a manic comedic energy and a voice perfectly suited for pop radio. To balance the actors, they decided to cast musicians in the other two roles. They found Michael Nesmith, a lanky Texan with a penchant for writing country-influenced pop melodies, and Peter Tork, an ex-Greenwich Village folkie and multi-instrumentalist who came recommended by his friend Stephen Stills.
Their television show used jump cuts, fish eye lens shots, and other innovative techniques directly influenced by the New Wave of European cinema. The Monkees pioneered the music video, with each episode featuring a “romp” where the band would whimsically vamp for the cameras as their songs played. The innovation was rewarded when the show won two Emmy awards, including one for Outstanding Comedy Series, before being cancelled after two seasons. But the Monkees’ impact on cinema was only beginning. Their feature film, HEAD, was an experimental exegesis of celebrity that flopped on its release, but has since become at arthouse classic. The film was co-written by Jack Nicholson, a then-struggling actor who was friends with Monkees producers Rafelson and Schneider. Using the money they had made from the Monkees, the Rafelson-Schneider-Nicholson team would go on to produce such movies as Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider. Post-Monkees, Michael Nesmith would continue to dabble in music video, winning the first-ever music video Grammy award for Elephant Parts.
Ask any music nerd worth their salt, and they’ll tell you—the Monkees’ records are top-notch. Initially intended to be vehicles of promotion for the Monkees’ television show, the records quickly took on a life of their own. The group had little say over what material they recorded on their first two albums, but they fought for and eventually won the right to play on, write songs for, and oversee their subsequent records. Eventually, the records became more successful than the television show. In 1967, the Monkees outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined. That same year, they scored a record-breaking four number one albums within one year—a feat that will likely never be matched.
The band recorded songs by famed writers like Carole King (“Pleasant Valley Sunday”) and Neil Diamond (“I’m a Believer,” “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.”). They also introduced audiences to up-and-coming writers like Harry Nilsson, soon to hit it big with his own hits like “Everybody’s Talkin’”. Nilsson was able to quit his job as a bank clerk when the Monkees recorded his song “Cuddly Toy.”
Other claims to fame? The Monkees boasted Jimi Hendrix as an opening act, were befriended by the Beatles, and earned the respect of the Los Angeles musicians who became their peers. In the decades since, they’ve influenced everyone from REM to XTC, and their new album features songs written by the likes of Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie, Postal Service), Noel Gallagher (Oasis), Paul Weller (The Jam), and Rivers Cuomo (Weezer).
Fashionistas and Choreographers
The Monkees were surprisingly ahead of their time when it came to fashion. While they certainly helped to popularize Nehru jackets, love beads, and bell-bottoms, they also took some fashion risks that made them pioneers. In 1968, Micky Dolenz was among the first to wear the white Adidas sneakers later popularized by Run—D.M.C. (who, perhaps not coincidentally, also covered the Monkees song “Mary Mary”). Micky can also be spotted wearing a backwards shirt several decades before Kriss Kross. And Davy Jones was the clear inspiration for Axl Rose’s famous serpentine dance.
The Monkees dominated the covers of 16 and Tiger Beat in the late 60’s, appearing more than any other figure. With members carefully selected to appeal to a broad range of teenaged fans, it’s no surprise that the Monkees were a huge hit with teen girls in their heyday. But a quick perusal of Monkees-related tags on Tumblr will reveal that the band still scores big with many teen fans, who still swoon over the guys—except this time, the photos are scanned pages of those same old teen magazines from 1967, lovingly collected and archived by a new generation of fans.
It’s no secret that kids have always loved the Monkees. When the show premiered back in 1966, it wasn’t just the teenage girls who loved the band. Boys and girls alike were entertained by the zany television show, and loved singing along to the catchy songs. Today, that sense of fun still permeates the air at Monkees concerts, and you’ll find children of all ages enjoying the tunes and dancing in the aisles.
Of course, no Monkees show would be complete without the original fans, the ones who followed the band back when they were brand new. Whether they were devotees who never missed an episode of the television show, or casual fans who couldn’t escape the Monkees on the radio, the memories come rushing back with the opening chords of “Last Train to Clarksville.”
Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork will perform as The Monkees on May 20 in Clearwater at Ruth Eckerd Hall. The album Good Times, featuring Dolenz, Tork, and Nesmith, releases May 27. The late Davy Jones is also featured on the album, via older recordings that have been completed by the rest of the band.
Jessica Wheeler is the music columnist for AliveTampaBay.