Their first album went to No. 1. So did their second, third and fourth. At one point, they held the two top spots on the album charts. In 18 Months, they had three No. 1 singles, two No. 2s, two No. 3s -- nine top-20 songs in all.
In 1967 they sold 35 million albums, twice as many as the Beatles and Rolling Stones combined. Tours attracted screaming fans; merchandise flew out the door. The word "mania" was invoked, though it seemed a tad tame.
Hey, hey, they were the Monkees, rock's first cathode ray tube babies.
And hey, hey, they're the Monkees again.
Twenty years past their television debut and 17 years after breaking up, Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz and Peter Tork are touring again to sold-out concerts in 100 cities. Michael Nesmith, who is active in film and video production, declined the reunion -- but Nesmith or no, Monkeemania lives.
In February, MTV ran 45 "Monkees" episodes back to back on a "Pleasant Valley Sunday" (can hearing the Monkees' theme song 90 times in less than 24 hours cause brain damage?). In subsequent months, episodes started showing up twice then three times a day. Another cable network, Nickelodeon, plans to air the show this fall on its evening block of '60s programs, and other stations around the country are already showing it.
All the original Monkees albums have been reissued on Rhino Records; a greatest-hits package is back on the charts and just went gold. And they concerts have been selling out as close to instantly as one could expect from a group that hadn't been together for almost a generation.
"It's a whole new generation," Mickey Dolenz noted before a concert at Wolf Trap a few weeks ago (the group performs there again Thursday). "We took a one-generation break."
Television has apparently freeze-framed the Monkees at a point in time and consciousness where they are, and will be forever, 20 (though Jones in fact is 40, Dolenz 41 and Tork 44). But many of their new fans weren't even born when the group split up.
"It's very strange to have mothers and daughters fighting for our autographs," says Dolenz, who has carved out a successful career in the British film industry over the last decade. Which may explain why it's also hard getting used to the screams again. "Peter and Davy have toured in Australia and Japan, so they're used to it, but I hadn't stood on a stage in years. I felt very self-conscious with all these people looking at me. I couldn't remember how to move my hands or how to dance, and I could hardly remember how to sing."
They'd had to learn those things 20 years earlier, of course: Created for and by television, the Monkees only gradually became the stars they started out mimicking. But theirs is also a story about identity, creative control, media manipulation and the ping-pong effects that occur when those forces clash.
That was then and this is now, however. And like so many things from the 60's, the Monkees are back with no vengeance -- though getting them together for 120 concerts was a bit of challenge.
"Over the years others have tried, but there wasn't availability or interest or the economics weren't right," says Dolenz, who remains the most outgoing Monkee. He'd always said any reunion would cost a lot of money; apparently the string of sellouts has insured that this hurdle was hurdled. But what really tipped the scale, he says, "was the possibility of doing another Monkees movie."
If they do, it might go something like this . . .
Once upon a time in 1965, two sharp young producers were looking to television as an entry point to film-making. Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, operating as Raybert, persuaded Screen Gems to bankroll a pilot about the zany adventures of four long-haired rock 'n' rollers (it didn't hurt that Schneider's father was president of Columbia Pictures, which owned Screen Gems).
The idea for the show was rooted in Richard Lester's two classic Beatles films, "A Hard Dayard Day's Night" and "Help," and at first, thought was given to building it around an existing pop group, the Lovin' Spoonful.
Instead a simple audition notice ran in Daily Variety: Madness!! Auditions Folk & Rock Musicians-Singers Running Parts for 4 Insane Boys, Ages 17-21 Want Spirited Ben Frank's Types Have Courage to Work Must Come Down for Interview Eventually, 437 of them showed up, including Stephen Stills, Paul Williams and (rumor has it) Charles Manson.
As it turned out, only one of the future Monkees -- Michael Nesmith, a Texan who'd worked in various Los Angeles bands -- saw the Variety notice.
Peter Tork (born Thorkelson, in Washington, D.C.) was a friend of Stills, who told him about the audition.
Davy Jones, who was already under contract to Screen Gems, had started acting in England at the age of 11; he'd come to America at 16 to play the Artful Dodger in the Broadway run of "Oliver!" and eventually headed to Hollywood.
Mickey Dolenz, who learned of the auditions from his agent, had a similarly long career behind him. The son of an actor, he'd starred at 10 in the TV series "Circus Boy," and like Jones was busy doing guest shots on various series (their first meeting was in the studio cafeteria when they were doing "Route 66" and "Ben Casey").
This show was to be different: Not only was it one of the first family sitcoms lacking a father figure, but the characters would use their real names, if not their real personalities. "They had two regular guys and a tiny heartthrob and they needed an offbeat king of guy," says Peter Tork. "So I brought that simpleton in, a part I had developed on the Greenwich Village scene. I enjoyed that role. I still do, sometimes."
After settling on the raw materials -- two actors and two musicians -- Rafelson and Schneider went directly into the manufacturing of the Monkees. One of his first decisions was to use outside songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. The list of Monkees songwriters would eventually include Neil Diamond, David Gates, Neil Sedaka, Carole Bayer (now Sager), Carole King, Gerry Goffin and Jeff Barry (though, to their credit, the Monkees refused to sing Barry's "Sugar, Sugar"). Raybert also decided to use studio musicians to cover for the Monkees, a weapon later used by critics to bludgeon the group.
The first episode ran on NBC Monday, Sept. 12, 1966, slotted against another teen favorite, "Gilligan's Island." Although it would win an Emmy for Best Comedy Series, "The Monkees' " initial ratings were not as impressive as the reviews.
"They were just the basic sort of stories that had been done before by the Bowery Boys and the Marx Brothers," says Davy Jones, who was almost always the show's romantic lead (generic plot synopsis: Davy meets girl, Monkees sing song, Davy loses girl, Monkees sing song).
The series -- zany, good-natured and technically snappy -- was the match that ignited Monkeemania. The group's first single, "Last Train to Clarksville," which had been selling respectably before the show, took off like a shot. The monkees debut album, released the same day as their first show, sold 3 million copies in two months, which was faster than the Beatles' first album had sold. It also held the No. 1 spot for 13 straight weeks, a record that stood for 16 years until Men at Work went to work.
Overnight, four previously unknown young men were stars. Soon it didn't make much difference whether it was television, records, concerts or merchandise like Mike's wool hat, Peter's love beads, Mickey's lunch pail or Davy's princess phone: America's teeny-boppers could't get enough. NBC was getting 50,000 letters a week. In England, a young British musician had to change his name from David Jones to David Bowie.
"A friend told me I had two top-10 records in Billboard," Dolenz recalls. "I said, 'What's Billboard?' I had absolutely no idea. I was an actor playing the part of Mickey the Monkee. I think the success took everybody by surprise."
It didn't take long for the brickbats to start flying, particularly when it became obvious that the Monkees -- in the heyday of the singer-songwriter -- were barely involved in their own music. But even though the critics dismissed them as an overhyped rip-off ("the Prefab Four"), the Monkees' young fans genuinely saw them as America's Beatles.
Dolenz, for one, always had the right perspective about the Beatles comparisons.
"I always felt nothing could be further from the truth. We were nothing like the Beatles, except for the fact that we had long hair. But so did Harpo Marx. In fact, it was John Lennon who compared us to the Marx Brothers," a more accurate analogy.
"We never had to learn to be musicans," Dolenz points out, contradicting most common criticism with varying degrees of talent. Peter had studied music at Juilliard and played seven instruments; Mike played rock 'n' roll and classical guitar. Davy was a singer on the stages of London and New York.
"I was cast as the drummer so I had more problems than the others," he adds. "But, with all respect, rock drumming is not brain surgery, and the stuff we did was very simple. I learned the drums just like in 'Circus Boy' I had to learn to ride an elephant. When we went on our first concert tour, we played everything ourselves, and it sounded better than the records because it was much more enthusiastic."
So were they actors or rockers? "It got very hazy at some point," Dolenz says. "If you define a rock group as a bunch of guys who record the songs and rehearse them and go out and play them in front of an audience, we definitely became a rock group. From my point of view, 'The Monkees' was simply a television show about a rock 'n' roll group, like 'Star Trek' was a television show about a starship commander. Eventually we became the rock 'n' roll group, like Clayton Moore eventually became the Lone Ranger."
As the show became a hit, the power struggles began: for identity, for greater remuneration.
Under their Screen Gems contract the Monkees were getting only $450 a week. Still, this seemed the smaller problem. "Coming off the street, the money they were giving us seemed like an awful lot," Tork says. And in any case, as Jones points out, "when I got my first royalty check from the Monkees recordings, it was for $250,000, and the second one was for $360,000. Within a year I made a million dollars in royalties, and that was at 1 1/4 percent."
The more intense battle was for control, of the music in particular.
"David and I didn't want control," says Dolenz. "We were actors, performers, so we were very pleased to be directed. But Mike and Peter were dedicated musicians, and it did wear on them." Eventually, the Monkees won the right to perform their own compositions.
"Maybe the tension was part of it," Dolenz concedes. "The powers that be at RCA and Columbia and NBC and Raybert were always trying to control the music. They wanted music that would reach a very wide demographic, which by definition means it has to be simple, melodic, Middle American, not too ethnic."
Which is how Dolenz ended up singing most of the leads. "Mike's voice was very country-western, which was still an offshoot back then. Peter's was very folky. Davy was into Broadway and Tony Newley, so he sang ballads. I sang the leads by default . . . There wasn't anybody else who could just scream and have no identifiable accent."
Some of the Monkees' pop songs stand up well today: "I'm a Believer," "Last Train to Clarksville," "Daydreamer Believer," "I'm Not Your (Stepin' Stone)." The last is still one of the tunes rock bands are weaned on. "I always noticed they were good pop tunes," says Tork. "I was very disturbed at how we were shunted aside from the production back then, but nowadays I listen to the records and sometimes they sound real good and sometimes they sound just awful. I don't judge the songs anymore."
But if that music, much of it badly recorded, was the Monkees' fuel, it was the television series that powered their spectacular success and provoked a flood of criticms for its inanity.
"At the time it meant absolutely nothing that the media maligned us," Dolenz says testily. "In retrospect, most of the bad malignments came from critics who had no idea what we were doing -- it went right over their heads. We were the first group to combine television, an electronic medium, with music, and join these two forces together in a concerted assault on the consumer."We called them romps at the time," he adds, "and the music video sections were very well defined. We knew how important they were. :And it didn't go over the heads of the kids, whopicked up on intuitively as something new and innovation.
Although NBC's watchdogs kept anything resembling caustic ommentary off the show, they never messed with the slapstick visuals or its old-fashioned joke-punchline approach. But "it's the improvisation that makes it stand up,"Dolenz says. "Rafelson and Schneider were really very clever. They created an environment where we could literally have a party and flip out."
Dolenz sometimes watches the shows with his children and in his mind, they hold up well. "Of course, Idon't remember much objectively. I'm told I hada great time. But so much is going on, so much is happening."
Despite his years in show business, there was no way Dolenz -- or any of the others -- could have been prepared for the mania. "Actually, being a child actor heped more after," Dolenz notes. "I'd been through it before intuitively with 'Circus Boy.' I went on tours, did parades, signed autographs, so I was prepared for that adulation. But I also learned at a very early age that they're not yelling at you, they're yelling at the image of you. A lot of people in rock 'n' roll when the downside comes, as it always must, can't handle that and don't survive, literally."
Frustrated by the process of success and fame, jaded by its results, the MOnkees exposed the downside in "head," the seldome seen film they made in 1968. Directed by Rafelson and written by Jack Nicholson, who was then trying to establish himself as a scriptwriter in case the acting didn't pan out, "Head" was attenpted parody that turned into a financial and critical disaster.
"It was by far the most obtuse, eclectic, episodic show I've ever seen, and I'm very proud of it," says Dolenz. "That was the Monkees saying, 'All right, you want us to be relevant, here's some relevance for you.' Relevance meant, in part, including the famous footage of a South Vietnamese police chief executive a Viet Cong prisoner. "We showed that 40 times."
"We went with Jack to a California resort for a three-day weekend, sat around and brainstormed" Dolenz recalls. "Head" was an expose of us, a self-deprecation, but also a self-clensing, a purge, using the Monkees phenomenon to tear apart Hollywood and all the illusions.
The critics didn't see it that way and wrote some of the harshest reviews any film had engendered. The public, which didn't seem interested in seeing "Head," didn't get a chance, since it was pulled almost immediately. The last television episode had run in March 1968, and without the show, themusic, which had only occasionally been of value, died.
"Head," which began and ended with a collective suicide attempt, was an appropriate metaphor for the end of the Monkees -- though they really went out with a television special, "33 1/3 Revolutions per Monkee," which went over worse than the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour." The mania had already faced as the public opted for music with a heavier form and heavier content.
Tommy Boyce andBobby Hart continued to write and perform and in 1975 toured with Dolenz and Jones as "The Great Olden Hits of the Monkees -- the Guys That Wrote 'em and theGuys That Sang 'em."
Dolenz, twice married with three children, spent the first few years after Monkeemania "recuperating by playing tennis around the world. It had been a very intense time." He did some bit parts on television and in the movies and voice-overs for Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
When Dolenz went onstage in London in 1975 in Harry Nilsson's "The POint," "my agent got a demonstration reel to the BBC, who gave me a job directing drama. I fell off my chair and I've never looked back." Or gone back -- like Jones, Dolenz now lives in England. "The business is not as big as Hollywood, but it's straighter, more levelheaded. There's very few steps between creation andmanifestation."
Michael Nesmith went on to record a series of excellent albums that didn't sell, and in the late '70s he emerged as a pioneer in the music video field. In 1981 he sensed a new wave and put together a program of pop clips on Nickelodeon; not long after, Warner Amex, which owns Nickelodeon, presented the world with MTV.
Nesmith's post-Monkee's career was eased no doubt by a $25 million inheritance (his mother invented Liquid Paper) and he has since moved into film production ("Timerider" and thecult and critical favorite "Repo Man"). Oddly enough, he also found himself back on NBC last year with "Television Parts," a show mixing comedy and music (including some British segments directed by Dolenz).
Davy Jones, the 5-foot-3 teen idol who had once dreamed of being a jockey, moved back toEngland, where he now breeds and races horses -- he wants to win the Grand National -- and does a lot of theater. "For me," Jones says, "the Monkees was just another part." He has written an autobiography "They Made a Monkee Out of Me," to be published in the spring.
Peter Tork went through a private and public hell of divorces, boom-tobust finances and a short prison term for hashish possession. At one point he was working as a singing waiter in California. Nwo five year past any alcohol and drug dependence, he hasmore recently taught music and put together various bands, including thePeter Tork Project. "It may be impossible for us to outgrow being ex-Monkees," he says. "But at this point in my life nothing would please mr more than to be a Monkee three months a year and to pursue a solo career the rest of the time."
The Monkee's lives have intertwined over the years and may do so again in the film project. Dolenz, Jones and Tork did a couple of concerts together in 1976 and 1977, and in the early ' 80s, they individually toured Japan, where they had become superstars after "Daydream Believer" was used ina Kodak commercial. Tork and Jones do yearly tours of Australia.
And now the Monkees are making more money singing the old songs than they did the first time around. Still, Dolenz is quick to define the reconstituted band as a "reunion, not a revival or a regrouping, I'ts a happy-birthday celebration, and as that it's wonderful. MTV did not know we were going on tour' we didn't know they were going to run the show. As long as that spontaneity and enthusiasm remain, I'll stick with it' I'd be a foot not to."
Adds Jones, "We've all grown up and we've shown the people -- and the industry -- that we weren't just a flash in the pan 20 years ago. We are a legitimate force and ready to do what we did years ago . . . adn do it again."