, both the TV show and the band, were created in 1966
by Columbia Screen Gems
TV producers Bob Rafelson
and Bert Schneider
and music publisher Don Kirshner
. The idea was to create a band to replicate the look and sound of The Beatles
, circa A Hard Day's Night
and for this reason open auditions were held in Los Angeles
after publication of an advert in Variety
Almost every aspiring musician in LA attended the auditions, including Harry Nilsson (who would later write several songs, such as Cuddly Toy and Daddy's Song for the band), Stephen Stills and Bryan Maclean (of Love). Charles Manson is also alleged to have auditioned, although sources on that vary. In the end four people were chosen:
Micky Dolenz, the band's 'drummer' (he had never played before the TV show), had been a child star in the TV show Circus Boy and was the possessor of a fine white soul voice (Dolenz's singing was often underrated, but has recently been the subject of something of a reassessment) and a decent comic actor.
Davy Jones was primarily chosen as 'teen appeal'. The least musically able of the four, he had been a child actor in the British TV show Coronation Street before moving to America to play the Artful Dodger in the Broadway version of Oliver!. When not singing (he was a very weak singer, but was given many lead vocals to appeal to young girls) he 'played' the maracas.
Mike Nesmith was and is a genuinely talented musician - a fine country-rock singer, a decent guitarist, and a songwriter who was capable of occasional moments of true inspiration. He was also the son of the woman who invented liquid paper (in a cooking accident!) and so financially secure. This meant he had less to lose than the other band members, and he would often be a thorn in the side of the record and TV companies.
Peter Tork, a folk guitarist who switched to bass for the band, rounded out the band. He was already an experienced musician before joining the Monkees, although still an unknown.
The TV series for which these four were brought together was an excellent piece of surrealist comedy, and uniformly praised. The music they made was more controversial, however. Tork was horrified when he arrived at the session for their first single, The Last Train To Clarksville, to find that the backing track had already been recorded by the Wrecking Crew, and that even though he had his own idea for a guitar countermelody his input was neither requested nor allowed. While they made some fine singles (mostly written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, but with some written by Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Neil Diamond and other Brill Building hitmakers), their album tracks were almost uniformly dreck, and the musicians in the band were understandably annoyed to be left out of recording their own albums.
They were also concerned that they couldn't reproduce the sound of their records on stage (although Frank Zappa in a typical back-handed compliment said they were the best sounding live band in California - 'because they can afford good equipment') and Nesmith in particular, who had been spending time with 'real musicians', even visiting the recording of The Beatles' A Day In The Life was getting increasingly frustrated at his own songs getting passed over (including Different Drum, which he gave to the Stone Poneys when it was turned down for the Monkees).
As a result of the increasing acrimony between band and record label, eventually, from their third album on, they were allowed to play and write on their own records, and have some say in the choice of outside material. However, they were restricted to Secreen Gems writers, so the albums continued to be patchy, despite their nurturing of writing talent like Nilsson. None of the band except Nesmith were songwriters of any real ability (although Dolenz wrote the extraordinary Randy Scouse Git/Alternate Title which suggests that he could have been really good if he put his mind to writing), but they all used their positions to encourage musicians they admired - featuring Zappa and Tim Buckley on their TV show and having Jimi Hendrix as a support act.
In 1968, after the cancellation of the TV show, they released their masterwork, the film and album Head. The film, written by Jack Nicholson and Rafelson under the influence of copious amounts of psychedelics, is one of the truly great films of the 60s. A concerted attempt to destroy and satirise their own image, this film does most of the things Monty Python's Flying Circus became famous for a year later, as well as being an obvious influence on Zappa's 200 Motels (Zappa appears in the film, as do Nicholson, Sonny Liston, Victor Mature and many more incongrous guest stars).
The film starts with the band's collective suicide, and goes on from there to attack nearly every sacred cow there is, with some great individual lines ("Boys, don't never make fun of no cripples", "Don't move, I want to forget you just the way you are"), many of them at their own expense ("Well, if it isn't God's gift to the four year olds. Still paying tribute to Ringo Starr?"), as well as having some truly disturbing moments (the quick cut from the famous clip of a Vietnamese prisoner of war being shot in the head to a girl screaming in the audience at a concert is an image that will always stay with me). The music is more patchy than the rest of the film, but still has some excellent moments. The film destroyed the Monkees' career, as one can only imagine they wanted, given their relentless attacks upon themselves throughout ("The money's in/we're made of tin/we're here to sell you more"). I somehow can't see any of today's manufactured bands doing anything like this.
After Head, one by one the band members bought themselves out of their contract, starting with Tork, and with the last album, Changes, by Dolenz and Jones alone, the joke in the industry was that the next album would be by 'the Monkee'. The band went on to solo projects, but only Nesmith had any real success, with his First National Band making many records that stand up well as contemporaries of The Flying Burrito Brothers.
In the mid-70s Dolenz and Jones teamed up with Boyce and Hart for a 'Monkeees' reunion that due to trademark issues had to tour with the unwieldy name 'Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart Present The Great Golden Hits Of The Monkees Show - The Guys That Wrote 'Em And The Guys That Sang 'Em. This tour was shortlived, but there was a bigger 'reunion' in 1988, when three of the four (Nesmith refused to take part) got together on the back of renewed interest (MTV were showing the old Monkees TV shows). They released a dire album, Pool It!, but the reunion didn't take off as they'd hoped - apparently Davy Jones behaved like a primadonna and alienated many in the business, cutting off their chances of TV and radio appearances. Around this time there was also a 'new Monkees' TV show, with young actors, that was a dismal failure.
The whole band (including Nesmith) reunited in the mid-90s to record another poor album, Justus (which had one good track - a rerecording of Nesmith's Head song Circle Sky), make a one-off TV special (written by Nesmith, and well worth watching), and do a short world tour. After this tour, Nesmith left again, and the others continued as a three-piece.
Currently Tork is out of the band again, and Dolenz and Jones are touring as 'the Monkees'. Tork and Jones also appear as solo artists on package oldies tours, and Nesmith was last heard of putting together a multimedia CD-Rom based on the Byrds' So You Wanna Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star? (a song many have claimed was based on the Monkees. Any reunions are both unlikely and unnecessary - the band left us with a handful of great singles (and Daydream Believer, I'm A Believer, Pleasant Valley Sunday and others are great) and one of the best films ever made, and everything they've tried to do together since has merely made that small but worthwhile legacy seem that much more tainted.