As a journalist and armchair psychologist (with an advanced degree in psychology), I am watching all the hoopla surrounding the Monkees latest resurgence with awe and wonder, and felt compelled to do a bit of research to figure it all out. Suddenly once again they are everywhere -- on television, radio, and in print. They have a new album release that is getting critical acclaim, and there is great attention to this and their current two member 50th Anniversary tour.
Why am I, a working professional and journalist at age 60, with an eclectic music collection, and widely varied taste in music, still an unembarrassed huge fan after all these years? Why are they just now getting attention and respect?
For those too young to know who they are, I hope you will read this anyway, because it is unlikely that anyone in your generation will come close to the lasting (50-year) impact that both the Beatles and Monkees made in mine.
There, I said it. Both groups mentioned in the same breath. The Beatles are in a class of their own of course, and they were the first, and the pioneers in developing the teenage mania and frenzy for a rock band. (Prior idols were individuals such as Elvis.)
Since I was of that era, a mere 8-years-old when the Beatles came to be, but aware enough of how they changed the music world forever, and 11 when the Monkees came on the scene, I was an eyewitness to the mass hysteria on both subjects.
Monkeemania was very similar to Beatlemania, except it was a product of something on our side of the ocean. This is not a talent comparison -- I will get to that soon enough, just comparing the absolute mania attached to both phenomenons.
The Monkees weren't the first to use a television show vehicle to sell teen music -- I believe Ricky Nelson was the first, but they sure were the most successful.
At any rate, what the Monkees did, they did phenomenally well for a very short period of time. They should have been a flash in the pan, a blip on the pop culture radar, but they have diehard fans in just about every generation since they first aired a weekly television show in fall of 1966. The 1970s brought in new fans with reruns shown, and the 1980s had MTV airing it, bringing a slew of new fans who not only demanded concerts, they demanded new records. And the Monkees obliged, even though one of the original four was not part of it at that time -- (Mike Nesmith).
From my research, and from examining fan sites, it appears that some of the 1980s fans are as passionate as us original 1960s fans. And some of those 1980s people must be working for the media because the respect in the media recently is unprecedented.
Going back to their origins in the 1960s, the Monkees blew up big -- gigantic -- and outsold the Beatles in 1967, and then just a year later completely fizzled. Mike Nesmith, who was the most musically gifted of the bunch, first informed critics that the Monkees were a "fake" -- not writing their music, or even playing their own instruments on their records. That began the across-the-board scorn for the group by most music critics, music journalists and the like. This contempt for the group they called the "pre-fab four" has endured for many years. This type of contempt has denied them entry to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, even though scores of musicians today say they were inspired by them, and of course tons of groups in the Hall never played their own instruments or wrote their own music.
Of course in the 1960s, if you have seen the movie about the Wrecking Crew, it was common to use studio musicians for even the biggest, most popular bands, including the Beach Boys. Yet, Mike Nesmith, who was artistically frustrated, brought the disrespect towards the Monkees and no one else by sharing this information with the press. That started a cycle of the Monkees trying to prove themselves with more and more experimentation and involvement in their own music.
If you play their music, both the original two albums of "manufactured" pop, and then subsequent albums, you see how deeply profound their music was and how it was a true reflection of 1960s rock. It's not just pop fluff if you go through their entire catalog. Mike Nesmith practically invented country rock, Micky Dolenz -- one of the golden rock voices -- was among the first to use a moog synthesizer on songs, and all four were writing music and taking chances.
Some of their earlier numbers written by Neil Diamond, Carole King, and even Diane Hildebrand, are such pop standards that you can even hear them in elevator muzak on any given day. Just take a listen to Early Morning Blues and Greens, Sometime in the Morning, and Pleasant Valley Sunday just for three of many examples. Beautiful pieces of music, and true classics, like so many of their others. Their later music is quite sophisticated and I didn't completely appreciate it until I was older and more mature.
The reason the Monkees lasted just two years on television before they made a movie called "Head," now a cult classic, and were then cancelled by the network, and the reason the group was finished shortly after that, can be explained by a psychological phenomenon knows as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Once these nobodies became superstars, they demanded creative control over the artistic expression, and the music became a sophisticated psychedelic experiment that none of their teeny bopper fans could understand. They had food, fame, fortune, and they were on the top level of the hierarchy looking for personal fulfillment and self-actualization. Egos got in the way. They were also looking for respect, which was never to be achieved due to their own sabotage, and they weren't interested in continuing to please their young and loyal fan base. They were the architects of their own undoing, and that is clear from every reference material you read on them. Trying to impress their contemporaries and peers was much more important than the confused tweens they left behind.
I remember well the end of the second television season in 1968 and remember thinking that their stuff was becoming bizarre. Teenyboppers first felt abandoned by the Beatles as they entered their drug induced psychedelic phase, and now by the Monkees. I grieved the loss of my beloved group when they broke up, even though it had gotten to where I could not relate to them. (Although even at age 12, I did appreciate the ultimate stoner Daily Nightly linked here, just because Micky belted it out so gorgeously in Grace Slick style and with such sincerity.) There were legions like me who were crushed. Curiously though, I never held it against them and grew to appreciate their more complex music.
I truly understand and can now appreciate what a magnificent work of art they were on the screen and in the studio. The four of them together produced such magic. There was an utter brilliance about the quick cuts, the slapstick, and the techniques used in their song videos. (They won an Emmy award for best comedy series.) The songs have held up well, and the series -- especially from the first season, is still laugh-out-loud funny; almost Marx Brothers funny. This is why the Monkees remain a pop culture phenomenon. Each year they gain new fans as they discover them.
No one ever criticized Herman's Hemits, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, or even the Turtles for playing bubblegum pop. Though it was a reflection of the music of the times, the Monkees have been held in contempt for it. Also, in the current decade, the Beach Boys tour with just one surviving member, and no one questions it, and when the Who goes out with just two, it is fine. Yet there is criticism that only two of the four Monkees are on the 50th Anniversary tour. With Davy Jones now deceased, and Mike Nesmith a too busy millionaire, that is the way it has to be. It seems that all the scorn and criticism by some in the rock world stayed with the Monkees even after all these years. It is a critical double standard, but fans remain loyal and undaunted.
Perhaps with their critically acclaimed new album release, and their 50th anniversary tour, there will be a whole new generation of people joining in Monkee fandom. Micky Dolenz is one of the truly great voices in rock and roll, and this voice has done and can still do everything from a lilting ballad to screaming and scatting. Mike Nesmith was a country rock pioneer. Davy Jones was the ultimate showman, and Peter Tork a multi-talented musician. You can get a glimpse of these qualities on their new album Good Times.
Could it be that this is the year, finally, that all the naysayers from the past take a good listen to their catalog, and watch their antics on film, and accord them with very deserving and overdue respect?
Happy Anniversary Monkees, from a 50-year and forevermore fan. I know Davy Jones is with you in spirit.
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