Monday, 9 April 2018

Monkees Essay: A Manufactured Image With No Philosophies?


Well done, you made it to the halfway part of the book (or halfway through our 'music' section at any rate!) We can't give you a prize to celebrate I'm afraid, though you probably deserve one, but we can shake things up a bit by moving outside talking about our respective AAA bands' discography and moving on to what makes them stand out from their peers and offer something no other band can. In truth these essays kind of run across the whole book and you can read them in any order, but now we've reached the halfway point it's quite useful to take stock of where we've been and why before working out where we will go next. As far as The Monkees go it’s almost time to take the last Train To Clarksville already – but they’ll be back for three reunion projects to cme. The question is, which are the real Monkees to bring back – the ‘real’ bunch of musicians, the ‘fake’ television characters or the weird and uniquely subversive hybrid that existed towards the end of their original run?...
In these essays in the middle of these books we’ve been trying to look at what made a band unique and stand out, what made them special enough for me to want to get to know them enough to write a zillion words on each of them and why I believe they belong in this series. The Monkees is perhaps Alan’s Album Archives’ most divisive band. To some of our readers they’re the epitome of everything that went wrong with music and meant that we ended up (*shudder*) with The Spice Girls that they’ve been campaigning against for fifty years. For others they are the only manufactured group in history to overcome their origins, turn the tables on their creator and spend half their career laughing at the craziness of fame. When The Monkees sang on [  ] ‘Ditty Diego’ that they had a ‘manufactured image with no philosophies’ though they were clearly lying. I put it to you, dear reader, that The Monkees caused more subversism to the nation’s youth than any other band of the 1960s (even The Beatles), but that they did so in such a manner that they could get away with it at tea-time on Saturday nights (before Dr Who and after Jukebox Jury). How did they do it?
Well, The Monkees suffered from being the only group on our list that were dreamt up and marketed before they even existed. The infamous advert that started the whole thing was tailored to teenagers of that particular point in time (1965-1966): ‘MADNESS! Auditions: Folk & Roll Musicians & Singers wanted for acting roles in new TV series. Want spirited Ben Franks types. Have courage to work. Must come for interview’. That’s pretty specific in as much as any short job advert can be – nowhere does it say that the producers want rebels, philosophers, free-thinkers, radicals or even musicians (the four Monkees were hired as four actors who could sound right saying the lines and didn’t look too daft with instruments in their hands). However the subversion is already there is you know where to look for it: if you’re wondering who Ben Franks is, I don’t think they mean the rugby player or the philosopher but the coffee house on Sunset Boulevard where post-beatnik pre-hippie teenagers used to hang out. It is, not coincidentally, the site where hippie rebellion first took flight in a big way against the law with the famous ‘sunset strip riots’ of 1967 when teens were fed up of following a city curfew and Ben Franks refused to cut their twenty-four-hour opening times (and as references in Mike Nesmith song [  ] ‘Daily Nightly’ and TV episode ‘Find The Monkees’). It’s probably not a coincidence too that the place was named after American president Benjamin Franklin, but in a shortened slang-heavy version of his name that made him more hip and contemporary. There was a feeling amongst 1960s American youth culture that the adults had somehow got society ‘wrong’ : Vietnam was still raging, Korea had just finished, they had been born into World War Two and lived under the threat of conscription. They also lived in a land that was changing societal rules everyday – women were slowly edging closer towards equality, civil riots were slowly gaining coverage and mafia and gangs were slowly fading out. The 1960s was in many ways an era that lied to itself (and itself from the inside) when you scratch under the surface and realize exactly what was happening, but at it’s best was a hopeful time that anything could happen and that things could change. The Monkees, by being the group aimed at the youngest audience of rock and roll and pop fans, was central to this in a way few people realized (except perhaps Frank Zappa, who saw them as counter-culture rebels and the perfect starting point for anarchy, which is why he appeared in both their TV series and their one and only feature film).
There’s a difference here already. To get The Monkees on our screens Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider effectively sold this series to Screen Gems as a cute series to hook teenagers that wouldn’t scare the mums and dads away and with a huge marketing potential for tie-in records. They agreed to use tried and tested (and very 1950s sounding) producer-writers in Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, brrtought on board 1950s expert Don Kirshner (who was, truth be told, more than a little confused by the new 1960s model of teenager) and most of the staff writers on the TV series came from the world of sitcoms and music hall, not the music worlds (lead writers Dee Caruso worked for The Smothers Brothers and Gerald Gardner worked for Red Skelton, while they both worked for secret agent comedy ‘Get Smart!’ – other writers Jack Winters worked for The Dick Van Dyke Show and Treva Silverman – one of the first women scriptwriters in the business – worked for The Mary Tyler Moore Show). The people making this show are from yesteryear (actually they were all in their thirties at their latest, but in a decade when things changed by the week this made a lot of difference) and the youngest people were Bert and Bob in their late twenties. It’s not exactly an attempt to get youth onto screen the way it really was by using young people to write. Interestingly it’s the directors who buck the trend (James Frawley ends up working for The Muppets and gets his directorial debut with ‘The Royal Flush, making him surely one of the only directors to ever get an Emmy award nomination for his first completed piece of work) and the cast.
The Monkees was set up so that everything around them could be safe and stable, something that elder generations could understand (which is why so many of their jokes come straight out of The Marx Brothers, who in their day were every bit as subversive as The Monkees’ first season). But they weren’t: Bert and Bob could oh so easily have cast famous actors in the four main parts. The Monkees themselves spoof the sort of thing an ‘adult’ version of The Monkees might have become in ‘Head’ when Davy is going out with sweet Annette Funicello and worrying about making enough money as a violin player. It could have been awful – and that’s where ‘The New Monkees’ (a sequel launched in the 1990s) went wrong: somehow things had changed by then so the 1960s was the era of the adults and rather than be allowed to be teens from the 1990s they were often the ‘oldest’ people in the room (the show isn’t actually that bad but compared to the original is like comparing the original TV series and film re-make of ‘Bewitched’, The Monkees’ closest on-TV predecessor in terms of jokes and youthful energy). But they didn’t: The Monkees were four unknowns. They could have been you watching at home. Indeed, the cleverness of the series is that they were probably exactly like you watching at home at a time when The Beatles inspired everyone to start a band and yet not everybody couldbe lucky enough to make a living at it.
That in itself is huge and the entire ‘philosophy’ The Monkees were centred around. Nobody on television was representing this particular generation whose main drives weren’t always sex and gang warfare as before but music. The ideal wasn’t being a sportstar, a politician or a purtlizer prize winning writer but to be on stage with The Monkees (or date one of them). Putting something on television is a subversive act if it’s something that has never been seen before. There’s a reason Hitler spent so much of the Nazi annual budget on films even at a time of great depression: he wanted people who didn’t understand him to see the re-actions of people who did and feel they were missing something. There had never been a series before The Monkees where the youngsters were the heroes, not the punchline for a joke about long haired layabouts. What’s so brilliant about the first TV series and to some extent the first two albums is that The Monkees manage to straddle the line of beinbg just cute enough for the parents to buy them or watch them – and cheeky enough for the children to want to. There are so many additional first in the series too: it’s easy to forget now every programme is twice and quick and fast but the cuts made between scenes must have been incredibly tiring for a viewer at the time of a certain age – and incredinbly exciting for their offspring (The Monkees generally used twice as many camera shots as other programmes of the day). The music ‘romp’ scenes too are quite unlike anything ever seen before (if you somehow missed ‘A Hard Day’s Night’) and felt so different and fresh. Filmed on the hoof by a young unknown cast and shot by unknown hungry directors, it’s a radical re-think of how TV programmes were made and particularly on screen rather than in the studio The Monkees was a genuinelty daring pioneering programme that at least half of the shows on today owe something of their DNA to, if only for the directors and programme-makers who were inspired by it.
The brilliance too is in the casting which manages to give a little something for everybody: Davy is cute – but they don’t try to soft-soap his very 1960s teen outlook; Mike is responsible and in charge – but that doesn’t stop his character butting heads, thinking he can do better and running for mayor over crooked politicians or fighting for justice; Peter is sweet and silly, but also very mystical and doing his own thing, as early as the first episode ‘proper’ where his belt buckle is out of line to everyone else’s; Micky is groomed as the perfect teen hearthrhob with the gorgeous voice – but he’s also wildly unpredictable, so that you never know what he’s going to do next. The Monkees, especially in 1966, is a triumph of getting the mixture just right between what will work on television in 1966 and what will work with audiences. The Monkees’ production team stumbled out it remarkably quickly too, although in retrospect it’s no surprise the oddly angular and unlikeable characters in the pilot went down so badly on first viewing (the characters are much sharper in ‘The Royal Flush’ where instead of being introduced the programme makers assme we’re already friends and that we’ll ‘catch up’). It worked too: across 1967, when The Beatles and The Rolling Stones got too heavy and serious, The Monkees outsold them both combined – the only act to outperform on the charts round the world that year was, err, the cast of ‘The Sound Of Music!
Then the big revolution of 1967 happens and the world’s critics get the odd idea that The Monkees aren’t a real band but hired actors (no shit Sherlock: that’s why they had auditions!) and The Monkees stop being cool. The confusion comes from a variety of sources though that the programme-makers probably couldn’t have predicted. There had never been a series quite like The Monkees before and nobody quite knew what the rules were. At the same time The Monkees were aping a band and a movement for whom authenticity was king – it’s no surprise that the bands who actually lasted, rather than being a short-lived craze, were the ones for whom music was a matter of life or death. For The Monkees in the series too music was a serious matter of life or death. Plus the band were unknowns who used their own names rather than stage ones (though Micky was supposed to be ‘Micky Braddock’ until the elevbenth hour, his acting nom de plume from the ‘Circus Boy’ days). Musicians came from nowhere and somehow ended up as actors (just look at A Hard Day’s Night) so surely this was the same? But of course it wasn’t. The Monkees was an artificial construct, as opposed to simply using a real existing group of musicians who already played together because that’s not how the programme was sold – it was intended at first to be a programme about the 1960s youthful revolution shot from the outside, not experienced firsthand from the inside.
The revolution where The Monkees took back control from Don Kirshner, with Bob and Bert letting them, was perhaps the bravest thing any TV cast has ever ever done. Micky compares it to ‘Leonard Nimoy becoming a Vulcan’ after years of telling us it was like ‘Pinocchio realy becoming a little boy’. It’s the first time that fictional creations had attempted to become ‘real’. And The Monkees philosophy changes overnight: they are no longer made for younger teenagers who think they’re cute but for slightly older, even more subversives. Parents aren’t meant to love The Monkees of the second TV series the way they do the first series. The scripts become full of improvised jokes about drugs and sex and see guest appearances from Frank Zappa and Charlie Smalls (one of the first black people to appear on TV in a documentary segment that wasn’t *about* black musicians and their colour or ‘subversive music’). The Monkees act more like themselves, from their hair to their clothes to their improvised remarks to the fact that they have a bigger hand not just in the music but the scripts (with one episode written by Micky) and direction (with Micky and Peter both in charge for episodes). This is actually a bigger revolution: Leonard Nimoy, Vulcan or not, didn’t start filming all things Star Trek until the 1980s and no other cvast had as much imput into their acting work as The Monkees did. The problem, though, is that the revolution happened so fast on TV that the production team aren’t ready for it yet: there aren’t legions of fans who’d grown up on The Monkees and wanted to write for them and there were no other junior writers, so the establishment figures were instead asked to write ‘groovier’ and The Monkees lose the balance they once had.
Things are easier going in the music world. The musician half of The Monkees (Mike and Peter) had been trying to get more involved from the beginning and Nesmith especially had been producing sessions from almost the minute The Monkees were cast. Faced with letting The Monkees become a rejected con in the same way Milli Vanilli were twenty years later, Bert and Bob sensibly let The Monkees prove just how much they can do. They got lucky. The odds are huge against four people hired as actors with some musical background also being great composers and before The Monkees only Mike had ever tried (with varying success). Somehow The Monkees became four talented composers all with their own distinct styles. All four would have individually been heralded as the big creative voice in any band formed around them – The Monkees got four (even Davy, the last to start writing, becomes arguably the best by the time of the split in 1970). They went out on concert tours where they actually played their own instruments in front of millions of fans (and sounded a lot better than many bands in the 1960s too). They made albums where they played every single note except a tiny bit of bass work and some strings were by them and them alone (far less outside work than that used by, say, The Beatles) and then came clean on the back sleeve. They started picking the material – and a subversive lot it was too. Until 1968 Harry Nilsson couldn’t get a song placed with any act because he was seen as a bit too daring and revolutionary – [  ] ‘Cuddly Toy’ one of his most subversive songs about a gangbang with The Hell’s Angels and a biker chick, ended up on both album and in the TV series. [  ] ‘DStar Collector’, about a groupie looking for sex, ends up being sung by teen idol Davy. [  ] ‘Zor and Zam’ is the cry of a generation – two fat Kings nobody voted for in an endless feud where everybody suffers until the population dodge the draft and refuse to turn up. Tork comes up with [  ] ‘For Pete’s Sake’ in which a whole generation have got to be free and that peace, love and understanding will win (back in the vaults Peter’s [  ] ‘Lady’s Baby’, about how sex results in children when you really love somebody, is also daring as hell for 1968). Micky comes up with a song named [  ] ‘Randy Scouse Git’ – something even The Beatles wouldn’t dare use – and later [  ] ‘Mommy and Daddy’, a song that I still consider one of the most ground-breaking songs by any act (especially in the unreleased version, but also the censored one, with it’s cries to ask teenagers and pre-teens to see through their parents’ fakery and to ask uncomfortable questions about American Indians and The Wild West, about pills, about JFk’s assassination and wars). Even Davy gets into the act with [  ] ‘War Games’ as classy an anti-war protest song as anything The Monkees’ competitors were writing.
Somehow that still wasn’t seen as enough though. The Monkees had been sold so spectacularly as something ‘safe’ that elder potential fans couldn’t see past the marketing strategy. Younger fans too dropped The Monkees like a hot brick for the most part when the music papers (and their older siblings) decided that if they didn’t play their own instruments they couldn’t be ‘cool’ (even though The Beach Boys and The Mamas and Papas didn’t either and nobody ever mentioned that; oh and as well as making twice as many records as most bands The Monkees also filmed fifty-six TV shows in a two year period – over one a fortnight. It’s a wonder they found the time to make ‘Headquarters’ by themselves).
What bothers me is that The Monkees never pretended to be anything other than what they were. Watch enough TV series and you soon get the jokes that this is an artificial construct (more on that in our essay on The Monkees and postmodernism here) – the scriptwriters all live in a hut and don’t speak English while being ordered to write by a man with a whip, the series being born out of perspiration not inspiration; the director often gets involved asking for the cast to do something differently; the stage-hands and prop dressers often get involved – they’re even introduced to the viewer in the Christmas episode. The big one though and the revolutionary bit that people miss is the invention of the ‘one minute short’ segments that appeared almost from the first (when ‘The Royal Flush’ was genuinely under-running) . Putting the characters aside, we see real questions asked to real people and see a whole new side to The Monkees: Peter is suddenly much more serious, Mike much more angry and Micky much shyer (only Davy ‘fakes’ his character self for many of the chats). The subjects covered range from what they got up to between filming sessions (proving they have a life) to the impact of their sudden fame (proving they are different to the characters of the show) to the generational divide (something nobody was speaking about on television – and certainly not on the side of the kids). Nowadays every programme seems to have its own outtakes section (something else Shrek nicked from The Monokees, along with the humour and ‘I’m A Believer’!); none did before The Monkees where reality and fiction live hand in hand with each other. Even on the records The Monkees were one of the first to include un-posed shots of people actually making music (headquarters) or that mentioned the songwriters involved proudly on the back covers (see Don Kirshner’s rolecall on ‘More Of The Monkees’, an odd thing to do in retrospect at the height of the ‘don’t play their own instruments’ backlash).
This is one of the great ironies of our times, with The Monkees dismissed as being irrerverent and philosophy free pap pop not worth listening to. The Monkees, in their new-look period, had reached the point where they encouraged to be outright revolutionaries. There has never been nor will there ever be a TV show as astonishing as ‘The Monkees In Paris’ (in which The Monkees get fed up of always doing the same old jokes and take off for an episode long romp set to music, before coming home to do the same thing all over again – complete with a genuine outtake thrown in where an elder guest star gets stroppy over their unprofessionalism). There has never been music as groundbreaking as ‘You and I’, where Davy actiuvely taunts his audience for making him yesterday’s news and moving on to a new face. And there will never, ever be another ‘Head’, where a supposed pop act use their last throw of the dice (with the funding for the film so far ahead it couldn’t be pulled) to attack everything fake:Hollywood, the music business, the way TV shows are made, societal norms, war as something real rather than a sport and ultimaterly the band themselves who try so hard to break free and even commit suicide to escape their fate, but still somehow end up as props carted away to the warehouse at the end of the film (‘33 and a Third too’,m the biggest difference being that this latest production team clearly hate The Monkees too – Head still loved them). Far from being a fake and empty bit of pop, The Monkees are as real as any band that doesn’t exist can be and as revolutionary as any show on at tea-time on a Saturday can be. Anyone who doesn’t get that or thinks The Monkees aren’t a ‘proper’ band who ‘count’ as anything other than marketing frolics is so badly missing the point.
That’s left a problem though. The Monkees keep returning because their audience want them so badly – in 1976, 1986, 1996 and err 2012 (I had money on a reunion in 2006!) But what Monkees ought to return? For the most part it’s the original fictional Monkees as they were created: teenage heart-throbs still trying to get a job (the music videos for ‘Pool It!’ like [  ] ‘Heart And Soul’ get this spot on as three Monkees wake up after twenty years in a freezer to find they need to make a music video – and the low budget video for [  ] ‘Every Step Of The Way’ is exactly what ‘our’ Monkees would have made; less so in ‘Episode 761’ which just has The Monkees stuck where they always were until the end – when suddenly this infamously penniless band is suddenly popular and remembered with a love and respect that doesn’t quite fit). On stage too The Monkees generally play with an outside band and sing the songs they did in their early years (which must have sucked no end – especially for Peter who once gave us [  ] ‘Can You Dig It?’ and [  ] ‘Long Title’ and finds himself back to singing [  ] ‘Your Auntie Grizelda’ for a living). But even then The Monkees sneaked a bit of extra in: amongst the hits and the regular tours are ones like the four-way one in 1996 (when The Monkees played every single note themselves again, garage band style) and 2002 (when, minus Mike, Peter became the band’s de facto music director and they started doing rarer, more unusual and more adult material). The most recent reunion, 2016’s ‘Good Times’, is an odd hybrid – half the time The Monkees are their cute younger selves updated for the 21st century; at other times gthey’re the subversive band they were in 1969 before fate – and lessening record sales – took them right back to where they started, with Micky and Davy singing other people’s cutesiepie pop songs for a living. The Monkees career is a rollercoaster ride and fans of one era don’t necessarily like the others. However one thing no one can ever claim (if they are looking) is that this is a band who were manufactured behind the image – or that they had no philosophies. The Monkees had several, the most notable being to always be authentic and true to yourselves in life – even if, as a band or as hired actors to be a band, they couldn’t.

Other Monkees articles from this site you might be interested in reading: 
'More Of The Monkees' (1967) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/more-of-monkees-1967.html

'Headquarters' (1967)  
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-10-monkees-headquarters-1967.html

'Pisces Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones LTD' (1967)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-18-monkees-pisces-aquarius.html

'The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees' (1968)  
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/06/news-views-and-music-issue-34-birds.html

'Head' (1968)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-27-monkees-head-1968.html

'Instant Replay' (1969)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/news-views-and-music-issue-64-monkees.html

'The Monkees Present' (1969)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/news-views-and-music-issue-148-monkees.html

'Changes' (1970)  
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/news-views-and-music-issue-95-monkees.html
‘JustUs# (1996) https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/the-monkees-justus-1996.html
'Good Times!' (2016) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-monkees-good-times-2016-or-are-they.html
'Only Shades Of Grey' : The Monkees In Relation To Postmodernism (University Dissertation) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/university-dissertation-monkees-in.html
Auditions, Screen Tests and Pre-Fame Recordings http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/the-monkees-auditions-and-screen-tests.html
Surviving TV Clips http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/the-monkees-surviving-tv-clips.html
The TV Series - Season  One (19966-1967) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/the-monkees-tv-series-season-one-196667.html
The TV Series - Season Two (1967-1968) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/05/the-monkees-tv-series-season-two-1967.html
'HEAD/33 and a third Revolutions Per Monkee/Episode #761' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/05/the-monkees-head33-and-third.html
Monkee Sidetrips: The Boyce and Hart Catalogue http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/05/monkees-side-trips-boyce-and-hart.html
Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part One 1967-1975
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/05/the-monkees-livesolocompilation-albums.html
Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part Two 1976-1986
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-monkees-livesolocompilation-albums.html
Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part Three 1987-2014 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-monkees-livesolocompilations-part.html

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