I´m (still) a believer
THE MONKEES !
says Norman Warwick
The Monkees were a rock and pop band, formed in Los Angeles in 1966, whose line-up consisted of the American actor/musicians Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork alongside English actor/singer Davy Jones. The group was conceived in 1965 by television producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider for the situation comedy series of the same name. Music credited to the band was released on LP, as well as being included in the show, which aired from 1966 to 1968.
While the sitcom was a mostly straightforward affair, the music production generated tension and controversy almost from the beginning. Music supervisor Don Kirshner was dissatisfied with the actor/musicians’ musical abilities, and he limited their involvement during the recording process, instead using a stable of professional songwriters and studio musicians to craft multiple hit albums and singles. Upset with this arrangement and facing public backlash for not playing on the recordings, the band members soon gained full control over the recording process. For two albums, the Monkees mostly performed as a group, but within a year, each member was pursuing his own interests under the Monkees name. By the end of 1968, they were once again a group in name only, the show had been canceled, and their motion picture, Head, had flopped. Tork left the band soon after, followed by Nesmith a year later, and the Monkees officially broke up in 1970.
A revival of interest in the television show came in 1986, leading to a series of official reunion tours, a television special, and four new full-length records, all of which spanned the next 35 years, though these efforts rarely comprised all four members performing together. With Jones’ death in 2012 and Tork’s in 2019, Dolenz and Nesmith were left to embark on a farewell tour in 2021, finishing shortly before Nesmith’s death at the end of the year.
Spurred by the success of the show, the Monkees were one of the most successful bands of the 1960s. The band sold more than 75 million records worldwide making them one of the biggest-selling groups of all time with international hits, including Last Train to Clarksville, I’m A Believer, A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You, Pleasant Valley Sunday, and Daydream Believer, and four chart-topping albums. Newspapers and magazines falsely reported that the Monkees outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined in 1967, a claim that originated from Nesmith in a 1977 interview.
Aspiring filmmaker Bob Rafelson developed the initial idea for The Monkees in 1962, but was unsuccessful in selling the series. He had tried selling it to Revue, the television division of Universal Pictures. In May 1964, while working at Screen Gems, Rafelson teamed up with Bert Schneider, whose father, Abraham Schneider, headed the Colpix Records and Screen Gems Television units of Columbia Pictures. Rafelson and Schneider ultimately formed Raybert Productions.
The Beatles’ films A Hard Day’s Night (right) and Help! inspired Rafelson and Schneider to revive Rafelson’s idea for The Monkees. As The Raybert Producers, they sold the show to Screen Gems Television on April 16, 1965. Rafelson and Schneider’s original idea was to cast an existing New York folk rock group, the Lovin’ Spoonful, who were not widely known at the time. However, John Sebastian had already signed the band to a record contract, which would have denied Screen Gems the right to market music from the show.
In September 1964 Davy Jones (left) was signed to a long-term contract to appear in TV programs for Screen Gems, make feature films for Columbia Pictures and to record music for the Colpix label. Rafelson and Schneider already had him in mind for their project after their plans for the Lovin’ Spoonful fell through. His involvement was publicly announced on July 14, 1965, when The Hollywood Reporter stated that he was expected to return to the United States in September (after a trip to England) “to prepare for [a] TV pilot for Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson”. Jones had previously starred as the Artful Dodger in the Broadway theatre show Oliver!, which debuted on December 17, 1962, and his performance was later seen on The Ed Sullivan Show the same night as the Beatles’ first appearance on that show, February 9, 1964. He was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical in 1963.
On September 8–10, 1965, Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter ran an ad to cast the remainder of the band/cast members for the TV show:
Madness!! Auditions. Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17–21. Want spirited Ben Frank’s-types. Have courage to work. Must come down for interview.
Out of 437 applicants, the other three chosen for the cast of the TV show were Michael Nesmith (right) , Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz. Nesmith had been working as a musician since early 1963 and had been recording and releasing music under various names, including Michael Blessing and “Mike & John & Bill” and had studied drama in college. Of the final four, Nesmith was the only one who actually saw the ad in Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
Pete Tork, (left) the last to be chosen, had been working the Greenwich Village scene as a musician, and had shared the stage with Pete Seeger; he learned of The Monkees from Stephen Stills, whom Rafelson and Schneider had rejected as a songwriter. Dolenz was an actor (his father was veteran character actor George Dolenz) who had starred in the TV series Circus Boy as a child, using the stage name Mickey Braddock, and was produced by Screen Gems. He had also played guitar and sung in a band called the Missing Links, which released one single, Don’t Do It. By that time he was using his real name; he found out about The Monkees through his agent.
During the casting process Don Kirshner, Screen Gems’ head of music, was contacted to secure music for The Monkees pilot. Kirshner’s Brill Building firm Aldon Music had an extensive portfolio of songwriters, many in need of work after the British Invasion had reorganized the American music scene; while several Aldon writers contributed songs to the Monkees during their existence, the bulk of the song-writing for the group would fall upon Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, two songwriters who were only beginning to break through to success at the time. Boyce and Hart contributed four demo recordings for the pilot. One of these recordings was (Theme From) The Monkees which helped get the series the green light.[
When The Monkees was picked up as a series, development of the musical side of the project accelerated. Columbia–Screen Gems and RCA Victor entered into a joint venture called Colgems Records primarily to distribute Monkees records. Raybert set up a rehearsal space and rented instruments for the group to practice playing in April 1966,] but it quickly became apparent they would not be in shape in time for the series debut. The producers called upon Kirshner to recruit a producer for the Monkees sessions.
Kirshner called on Snuff Garrett, composer of several hits by Gary Lewis & the Playboys, to produce the initial musical cuts for the show. Garrett, upon meeting the four Monkees in June 1966, decided that Jones would sing lead, a choice that was unpopular with the group. This cool reception led Kirshner to drop Garrett and buy out his contract. Kirshner next allowed Nesmith to produce sessions, provided he did not play on any tracks he produced. Nesmith did, however, start using the other Monkees on his sessions, particularly Tork as a guitarist. Kirshner came back to the enthusiastic Boyce and Hart to be the regular producers, but he brought in one of his top East Coast associates, Jack Keller, to lend some production experience to the sessions. Boyce and Hart observed quickly that when brought into the studio together, the four actors fooled around and tried to crack each other up. Because of this, they often brought in each singer individually.
According to Nesmith, it was the voice of Micky Dolenz (left) that made the Monkees’ sound distinctive, and even during tension-filled times Nesmith and Tork sometimes turned over lead vocal duties to Dolenz on their own compositions, such as Tork’s For Pete’s Sake, which became the closing title theme for the second season of the television show.
The Monkees’ debut and second albums were meant to be a soundtrack to the first season of the TV show, to cash in on the audience. In the 2006 Rhino Deluxe Edition re-issue of their second album, More of the Monkees, Mike Nesmith stated, “The first album shows up and I look at it with horror because it makes [us] appear as if we are a rock ‘n’ roll band. There’s no credit for the other musicians. I go completely ballistic, and I say, ‘What are you people thinking?’ [The powers that be say], ‘Well, you know, it’s the fantasy.’ I say, ‘It’s not the fantasy. You’ve crossed the line here! You are now duping the public. They know when they look at the television series that we’re not a rock ‘n’ roll band; it’s a show about a rock ‘n’ roll band. … nobody for a minute believes that we are somehow this accomplished rock ‘n’ roll band that got their own television show. … you putting the record out like this is just beyond the pale.” Within a few months of their debut album, Music Supervisor Don Kirshner was forcibly dismissed and the Monkees took control as a real band.
The Monkees’ first single, Last Train to Clarksville b/w Take a Giant Step, was released in August 1966, just weeks prior to the TV broadcast debut. In conjunction with the first broadcast of the television show on September 12, 1966, on the NBC television network, NBC and Columbia had a major hit on their hands. The first long-playing album, The Monkees, was released a month later; it spent 13 weeks at No. 1 and stayed on the Billboard charts for 78 weeks. Twenty years later, during their reunion, it spent another 24 weeks on the Billboard charts. The album included Nesmith on lead vocals on Papa Gene’s Blues, a folk-rock and country-rock fusion that Nesmith also wrote.
In assigning instruments for purposes of the television show, a dilemma arose as to which of the four would be the drummer. Both Nesmith (a skilled guitarist and bassist) and Tork (who could play several stringed and keyboard instruments) were peripherally familiar with the instrument but both declined to give the drum set a try. Jones knew how to play the drums and tested well enough initially on the instrument, but the producers felt that, behind a drum kit, the camera would exaggerate his short stature and make him virtually hidden from view. Thus, Dolenz (who only knew how to play the guitar) was assigned to become the drummer. Tork taught Dolenz his first few beats on the drums, enough for him to fake his way through filming the pilot, but he was soon taught how to play properly. Thus, the line-up for the TV show most frequently featured Nesmith on guitar, Tork on bass, Dolenz on drums and Jones as a frontman, singer and percussionist, although this line-up did not correspond to the members’ musical strengths. Tork was a more experienced guitar player than Nesmith, while Nesmith had trained on the bass. While Jones had a strong lead voice, and did sing lead on several Monkees recordings, Dolenz’s voice is regarded, particularly by Nesmith, as distinctive and a hallmark of the Monkees’ sound. This theoretical line-up was actually depicted once, in the music video for the band’s song Words, which shows Jones on drums, Tork playing lead guitar, Nesmith on bass and Dolenz fronting the group. In concert appearances Tork also took much of the guitar duties, even in appearances with Nesmith, and Dolenz often plays rhythm guitar on stage.
Unlike most television shows of the time, The Monkees episodes were written with many set-ups, requiring frequent breaks to prepare the set and cameras for short bursts of filming. Some of the “bursts” are considered proto-music videos, in as much as they were produced to sell the records. The Monkees Tale author Eric Lefcowitz noted that the Monkees were—first and foremost—a video group. The four actors spent 12-hour days on the set, many of them waiting for the production crew to do their jobs. Noticing that their instruments were left on the set unplugged, the four decided to turn them on and start playing.
After working on the set all day, the Monkees (usually Dolenz or Jones) would be called into the recording studio to cut vocal tracks. As the band was essential to this aspect of the recording process, there were few limits on how long they could spend in the recording studio, and the result was an extensive catalogue of unreleased recordings.
Pleased with their initial efforts, Columbia (over Kirshner’s objections) planned to send the Monkees out to play live concerts. The massive success of the series—and its spin-off records—created intense pressure to mount a touring version of the group. Against the initial wishes of the producers, the band went out on the road and made their debut live performance in December 1966 in Hawaii.
They had no time to rehearse a live performance except between takes on set. They worked on the TV series all day, recorded in the studio at night and slept very little. The weekends were usually filled with special appearances or filming of special sequences. These performances were sometimes used during the actual series. The episode Too Many Girls (Fern and Davy) opens with a live version of (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone being performed as the scene was shot. One entire episode was filmed featuring live music. The last show of the premiere season, Monkees on Tour, was shot in a documentary style by filming a concert in Phoenix, Arizona, on January 21, 1967. Bob Rafelson wrote and directed the episode.
In DVD commentary tracks included in the Season One release, Nesmith admitted that Tork was better at playing guitar than bass. In Tork’s commentary he stated that Jones was a good drummer, and had the live performance lineups been based solely on playing ability, it should have been Tork on guitar, Nesmith on bass and Jones on drums, with Dolenz taking the fronting role. The four Monkees performed all the instruments and vocals for most of the live set. The most notable exceptions were during each member’s solo sections where, during the December 1966 – May 1967 tour, they were backed by the Candy Store Prophets. During the summer, 1967 tour of the United States and the UK (from which the Live 1967 recordings are taken), they were backed by a band called the Sundowners. The Monkees toured Australia and Japan in 1968. The results were far better than expected. Wherever they went, the group was greeted by scenes of fan adulation reminiscent of Beatlemania. This gave the singers increased confidence in their fight for control over the musical material chosen for the series.
Andrew Sandoval noted in Rhino’s 2006 Deluxe Edition CD reissue of More of the Monkees that album sales were outstripping Nielsen ratings, meaning that more people were buying the music than watching the television show, prompting the producers to create more music for more albums. Sandoval also noted that their second album, More of the Monkees, propelled by their second single, I’m a Believer b/w (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone, became the biggest-selling LP of their career, spending 70 weeks on the Billboard charts, staying No. 1 for 18 weeks, becoming the third-highest-selling album of the 1960s. (The album also returned to the charts in 1986 for another 26 weeks.)
At the time songwriters Boyce and Hart (right) considered the Monkees to be their project, with Tommy Boyce stating in the 2006 Rhino reissue of More of the Monkees that he considered the Monkees to be actors in the television show, while Boyce and Hart were the songwriters and producers doing the records. They wanted Micky to sing the faster songs and have Davy sing the ballads. He also stated in the liner notes that he felt that Michael’s country leanings did not fit in with the Monkees’ image; and, although he thought that Peter was a great musician, Peter had a different process of thinking about songs that was not right for the Monkees. Music Co-ordinator Kirshner, though, realizing how important the music was, wanted to move the music in a newer direction than Boyce and Hart, and so he decided to move the production to New York where his A-list of writers/producers resided.
However, the Monkees had already been complaining that the music publishing company would not allow them to play their own instruments on their records or to use more of their own material. These complaints intensified when Kirshner moved track recording from California to New York, leaving the band out of the musical process until they were called upon to add their vocals to the completed tracks. Kirshner told Sandoval in 2006, “[I controlled the group] because I had a contract. I kicked them out of the studio because I had a TV show that I had to put songs in, and to me it was a business and I had to knock off the songs.” Dolenz recounted to Sandoval: “To me, these were the soundtrack albums to the show, and it wasn’t my job. My job was to be an actor and to come in and to sing the stuff when I was asked to do so. I had no problem with that . . . It wasn’t until Mike and Peter started getting so upset that Davy and I started defending them … they were upset because it wasn’t the way they were used to making music. The artist is the bottom line. The artist decides what songs are gonna go on and in what order and who writes ’em and who produces ’em.” Nesmith, when asked about the situation, in Rolling Stone magazine, said, “… We were confused, especially me. But all of us shared the desire to play the songs we were singing. Everyone was accomplished–the notion [that] I was the only musician is one of those rumors that got started and won’t stop–but it was not true … We were also kids with our own taste in music and were happier performing songs we liked–and/or wrote–than songs that were handed to us … The [TV show’s] producers [in Hollywood] backed us and David went along. None of us could have fought the battles we did [with the music publishers] without the explicit support of the show’s producers.” Eventually the group’s efforts would pay off, gaining them more participation in the recording process and laying the groundwork for Kirshner’s departure.
Four months after their debut single was released in September 1966, on January 16, 1967, the Monkees held their first recording session as a fully functioning, self-contained band, recording an early version of Nesmith’s self-composed top 40 hit single The Girl I Knew Somewhere, along with All of Your Toys and She’s So Far Out, She’s In The same month, Kirshner released their second album of songs that used session musicians, More of the Monkees, without the band’s knowledge. Nesmith and Tork were particularly upset when they were on tour in January 1967 and discovered this second album. The Monkees were annoyed at not having even been told of the release in advance, at having their opinions on the track selection ignored, at Kirshner’s self-congratulatory liner notes and also because of the amateurish-looking cover art, which was merely a composite of pictures of the four taken for a J.C. Penney clothing advertisement. Indeed, the Monkees had not even been given a copy of the album; they had to buy it from a record store.
The climax of the rivalry between Kirshner and the band was an intense argument among Nesmith, Kirshner and Colgems lawyer Herb Moelis, which took place at the Beverly Hills Hotel in January 1967. Kirshner had presented the group with royalty checks and gold records. Nesmith had responded with an ultimatum, demanding a change in the way the Monkees’ music was chosen and recorded. Moelis reminded Nesmith that he was under contract. The confrontation ended with Nesmith punching a hole in a wall and saying, “That could have been your face!” However, each of the members, including Nesmith, accepted the $250,000 royalty checks (equivalent to approximately $1,900,000 in today’s funds). Kirshner was reported to have been incensed by the group’s unexpected rebellion, especially when he felt they had a “modicum” of talent when compared to the superstars of the day like John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Soon after, Colgems and the Monkees reached an agreement not to release material directly created by the group together with unrelated Kirshner-produced material. Kirshner immediately violated this agreement in early February 1967, when he released A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You, composed and written by Neil Diamond (left), as a single with an early version of She Hangs Out, a song recorded in New York with Davy Jones’ vocals, as the B-side. (This single was only released in Canada and was withdrawn after a couple of weeks.) As a result, Kirshner was fired from the project, leaving the Monkees in charge of their own musical direction.
Screen Gems held the publishing rights to a wealth of material, with the Monkees being offered the first choice of many new songs. Due to the abundance of material numerous tracks were recorded, but these were left unreleased until Rhino Records started releasing them through the Missing Links series of albums starting in the late 1980s. A rumour persists that the Monkees were offered “Sugar, Sugar” in 1967, but declined to record it. Producer and songwriter Jeff Barry, joint writer and composer of “Sugar, Sugar”, subsequently attached to The Archies cartoon group, with Andy Kim, has denied this, saying that the song had not even been written at the time.
The Monkees wanted to pick the songs they sang and played on, the songs they recorded and be the Monkees. With Kirshner dismissed as musical supervisor, in late February 1967 Nesmith hired former Turtles bassist Douglas Farthing Hatlelid, who was better known by his stage name Chip Douglas, to produce the next Monkees album, which was to be the first Monkees album where they were the only musicians, outside of most of the bass, and the horns. Douglas was responsible for both music presentation—actually leading the band and engineering recordings—and playing bass on most of Headquarters. This album, along with their next, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., served as the soundtrack to the second season of the television show.
In March 1967 The Girl That I Knew Somewhere, composed by Nesmith and performed by Dolenz, Nesmith, Tork and bassist John London, was issued as the B-side to the Monkees’ third single, A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You, and it rose to No. 39 on the charts. The A-side rose to No. 2.
Issued in May 1967, Headquarters had no songs released as singles in the United States, but it was still their third No. 1 album in a row, with many of its songs played on the second season of the television show. Having a more country-folk-rock sound than the pop outings under Kirshner, Sandoval notes in the 2007 Deluxe Edition reissue from Rhino that the album rose to No. 1 on May 24, 1967, with the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper released the following week, which moved Headquarters to the #2 spot on the charts for the next 11 weeks—the same weeks which became known by the counter-culture as the Summer Of Love. A selection that Dolenz wrote and composed, Randy Scouse Git, was issued under the title Alternate Title (owing to the controversial nature of its original title) as a single internationally, where it rose to No. 2 on the charts in the UK and Norway, and in the top 10 in other parts of the world. Tork’s For Pete’s Sake was used as the closing theme for the television show. Nesmith continued in his country-rock leanings, adding the pedal steel guitar to three of the songs, along with contributing his self-composed countrified-rock song Sunny Girlfriend. Tork added the banjo to the Nesmith-composed rocker You Told Me, a song whose introduction was satirical of the Beatles’ Taxman. Other notable songs are the Nesmith-composed straightforward pop-rock song You Just May Be The One (the only track from their peak years to feature the Monkees playing the same instruments they were shown to play on the television show), used on the television series during both seasons, along with Shades Of Gray (with piano introduction written by Tork), Forget That Girl, and No Time, used in the television show. The Monkees wrote five of the 12 songs on the album, plus the two tracks Band 6 and Zilch. The Los Angeles Times, when reviewing Headquarters, stated that “The Monkees Upgrade Album Quality” and that “The Monkees are getting better. Headquarters has more interesting songs and a better quality level [than previous albums]… None of the tracks is a throwaway… The improvement trend is laudable.”
The high of Headquarters was short-lived, however. Recording and producing as a group was Tork’s major interest and he hoped that the four would continue working together as a band on future recordings, according to the liner notes of the 2007 Rhino reissue of Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.. Cuddly Toy on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. marked the last time Dolenz, who originally played guitar before the Monkees, made a solo stand as a studio drummer. In commentary for the DVD release of the second season of the show, Tork said that Dolenz was “incapable of repeating a triumph.” Having been a drummer for one album, Dolenz lost interest in being a drummer and, indeed, he largely gave up playing instruments on Monkees recordings to session musicians like “Fast” Eddie Hoh.
Producer Chip Douglas also had identified Dolenz’s drumming as the weak point in the collective musicianship of the quartet, having to splice together multiple takes of Dolenz’ “shaky” drumming for final use. By this point, the four did not have a common vision regarding their musical interests, with Nesmith and Jones also moving in different directions—Nesmith following his country/folk instincts and Jones reaching for Broadway-style numbers. The next three albums featured a diverse mixture of musical style influences, including country-rock, folk-rock, psychedelic rock, soul/R&B, guitar rock, Broadway and English music hall sensibilities.
At the height of their fame in 1967, they also suffered from a media backlash. Nesmith states in the 2007 Rhino reissue of Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., “Everybody in the press and in the hippie movement had got us into their target window as being illegitimate and not worthy of consideration as a musical force [or] certainly any kind of cultural force. We were under siege; wherever we went there was such resentment for us. We were constantly mocked and humiliated by the press. We were really gettin’ beat up pretty good. We all knew what was going on inside. Kirshner had been purged. We’d gone to try to make Headquarters and found out that it was only marginally okay and that our better move was to just go back to the original song-writing and song-making strategy of the first albums except with a clear indication of how [the music] came to be… The rabid element and the hatred that was engendered is almost impossible to describe. It lingers to this day among people my own age.” Tork disagreed with Nesmith’s assessment of Headquarters, stating, “I don’t think the Pisces album was as groovy to listen to as Headquarters. Technically it was much better, but I think it suffers for that reason.”
With Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., the Monkees’ fourth album, they went back to making music for the television show, except that they had control over the music and which songs would be chosen. They used a mixture of themselves and session musicians on the album. They used this strategy of themselves playing ´pins, plus adding session musicians (including the Wrecking Crew, Louie Shelton, Glen Campbell, members of the Byrds and the Association, drummer “Fast” Eddie Hoh, Lowell George, Stephen Stills, Buddy Miles, and Neil Young) throughout their recording career, relying more on session musicians when the group became temporarily estranged after Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. and recorded some of their songs separately.
Using Chip Douglas again to produce, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., released in November 1967 was the Monkees’ fourth No. 1 album in a row, staying at No. 1 for 5 weeks, and was also their last No. 1 album. It featured the hit single Pleasant Valley Sunday (#3 on charts) b/w Words (#11 on charts), the A-side had Nesmith on electric guitar/backing vocals, Tork on piano/backing vocals, Dolenz on lead vocals and possibly guitar and Jones on backing vocals; the B-side had Micky and Peter alternating lead vocals, Peter played organ, Mike played guitar, percussion, and provided backing vocals, and Davy provided percussion and backing vocals. Other notable items about this album is that it features an early use of the Moog synthesizer on two tracks, the Nesmith-penned Daily Nightly, along with Star Collector. All of its songs, except for two, were featured on the Monkees’ television show during the second season.
The song What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?, recorded in June 1967 and featured on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., is seen as a landmark in the fusion of country and rock] despite Nesmith’s prior country-flavored rock songs for the Monkees. Nesmith stated, “One of the things that I really felt was honest was country-rock. I wanted to move the Monkees more into that because … if we get closer to country music, we’ll get closer to blues, and country blues, and so forth. … It had a lot of un-country things in it: a familiar change from a I major to a VI minor—those kinds of things. So it was a little kind of a new wave country song. It didn’t sound like the country songs of the time, which was Buck Owens.”
Their next single, the John Stewart composition Daydream Believer (with a piano intro written by Tork), shot to No. 1 on the charts, letting the Monkees hold the No. 1 position in the singles chart and the album chart with Pisces simultaneously. Daydream Believer used the non-album track Goin’ Down as its B-side, which featured Nesmith and Tork on guitar with Micky on lead vocals.
During their 1986 reunion, both Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. returned to the charts for 17 weeks.
The Monkees decided that they no longer needed Chip Douglas as a producer, and starting in November 1967, they largely produced their own sessions. Although credited to the whole band, the songs were mostly solo efforts. In a couple of cases, Boyce and Hart had returned from the first two albums to produce, but credit was given to the Monkees. It was also during this time that Michael Nesmith recorded his first solo album, The Wichita Train Whistle Sings, a big band jazz instrumental collection of interpretations of Nesmith’s compositions, arranged by the jazz musician Shorty Rogers. Praising Nesmith in The Los Angeles Times, jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote, “Verbally and musically, Mike Nesmith is one of the most articulate spokesmen for the new and literate breed of pop musicians who have sprung from the loins of primitive rock. [The album] with its carriage trade of symphony, rock, country, western, and swing, and with jazz riding in the caboose, may well indicate where contemporary popular music will be situated in the early 1970s.”
The album is considered by some to be the Monkees’ White Album (Sandoval mentions this in the liner notes of Rhino Handmade’s 2010 Deluxe reissue of the album); the songs reflected the respective band members’ own musical tastes, which resulted in an eclectic album (although Peter did not have a song on the album). Micky sang the pop songs (e.g., I’ll Be Back Upon My Feet), and performed a double vocal with Mike on the Nesmith/Allison composed Auntie’s Municipal Court. Davy sang the ballads (e.g., Daydream Believer and We Were Made for Each Other) and Nesmith contributed some experimental songs, like the progressive Writing Wrongs, the unusual hit song Tapioca Tundra and the lo-fi 1920s sound of Magnolia Simms. This last song is notable for added effects to make it sound like an old record (even including a “record skipping” simulation) made before the Beatles Honey Pie, which used a similar effect.
Propelled by the hit singles Daydream Believer and Valleri, along with Nesmith’s self-penned top 40 hit Tapioca Tundra, The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees reached No. 3 on the Billboard charts shortly after it was released in April 1968. It was the first album released after NBC announced they were not renewing The Monkees for a third season. The album cover—a quaint collage of items looking like a display in a jumble shop or toy store—was chosen over the Monkees’ objections. It was the last Monkees’ album to be released in separate, dedicated mono and stereo mixes. During the 1986 reunion, it returned to the Billboard charts for 11 weeks.
During the filming of the second season, the band became tired of scripts which they deemed monotonous and stale. They had already succeeded in eliminating the laugh-track (a then-standard on American sitcoms), with the bulk of Season 2 episodes airing minus the canned chuckles. They proposed switching the format of the series to become more like a variety show, with musical guests and live performances. This desire was partially fulfilled within some second-season episodes, with guest stars like musicians Frank Zappa, Tim Buckley and Charlie Smalls (composer of The Wiz) performing on the show. However, NBC was not interested in eliminating the existing format, and the group (except for Peter) had little desire to continue for a third season. Tork said in DVD commentary that everyone had developed such difficult personalities that the big-name stars invited as guests on the show invariably left the experience “hating everybody”.
Screen Gems and NBC went ahead with the existing format anyway, commissioning Monkees writers Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso to create a straight-comedy, no-music half-hour in the Monkees mold; a pilot episode was filmed with the then-popular nightclub act the Pickle Brothers. The pilot had the same energy and pace of The Monkees, but never became a series.
In June 1968, Music Supervisor Lester Sill chose to release the two non-album tracks D.W. Washburn b/w It’s Nice To Be With You as the Monkees’ next single. The Leiber/Stoller-penned A-side broke into the Top 20, peaking at No. 19 on the charts.
After The Monkees was cancelled in February 1968, Rafelson directed the four Monkees in a feature film, Head. Schneider was executive producer, and the project was co-written and co-produced by Bob Rafelson with a then-relatively unknown Jack Nicholson.
The film, conceived and edited in a stream of consciousness style, featured oddball cameo appearances by movie stars Victor Mature, Annette Funicello, a young Teri Garr, boxer Sonny Liston, famous stripper Carol Doda, Green Bay Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke, and musician Frank Zappa. It was filmed at Columbia Pictures‘ Screen Gems studios and on location in California, Utah, and the Bahamas between February 19 and May 17, 1968, and premiered in New York City on November 6 of that year (the film later debuted in Hollywood on November 20).
The film was not a commercial success, in part because it was the antithesis of The Monkees television show, intended to comprehensively demolish the group’s carefully groomed public image. Rafelson and Nicholson’s Ditty Diego-War Chant (recited at the start of the film by the group) ruthlessly parodies Boyce and Hart’s Monkees Theme. A sparse advertising campaign (with no mention of the Monkees) hurt any chances of the film doing well, and it played briefly in half-filled theaters. In the DVD commentary, Nesmith said that everyone associated with the Monkees “had gone crazy” by this time. They were each using the platform of the Monkees to push their own disparate career goals, to the detriment of the Monkees project. Nesmith added that Head was Rafelson and Nicholson’s intentional effort to “kill” the Monkees, so that they would no longer be bothered with the matter. Indeed, Rafelson and Schneider severed all ties to the band amid the bitterness that ensued over the commercial failure of Head. At the time, Rafelson told the press, “I grooved on those four in very special ways while at the same time thinking they had absolutely no talent.”
Released in October 1968, the single from the album, The Porpoise Song, is a psychedelic pop song written by Goffin and King, with lead vocals from Micky Dolenz and backing vocals from Davy Jones, and it reached No. 62 on the Billboard charts.
The soundtrack album to the movie, Head, reached No. 45 on the Billboard charts. Jack Nicholson assembled the film’s soundtrack album, weaving dialogue and sound effects from the film in between the songs from the film. The six (plus Ditty Diego) Monkees songs on the album range from psychedelic pop to straightforward rockers to Broadway rock to eastern-influenced pop to a folk-rock ballad. Although the Monkees performed Circle Sky live in the film, the studio version is chosen for the soundtrack album. The live version was later released on various compilations, including Rhino’s Missing Links series of Monkees albums. The soundtrack album also includes a song from the film’s composer, Ken Thorne. The album had a mylar cover, to give it a mirror-like appearance, so that the person looking at the cover would see his own head, a play on the album title Head. Peter Tork said, “That was something special… [Jack] Nicholson coordinated the record, made it up from the soundtrack. He made it different from the movie. There’s a line in the movie where [Frank] Zappa says, ‘That’s pretty white.’ Then there’s another line in the movie that was not juxtaposed in the movie, but Nicholson put them together in the [soundtrack album], when Mike says, ‘And the same thing goes for Christmas’… that’s funny… very different from the movie… that was very important and wonderful that he assembled the record differently from the movie… It was a different artistic experience.”
Over the intervening years Head has developed a cult following for its innovative style and anarchic humor. Members of the Monkees, Nesmith in particular, cite the soundtrack album as one of the crowning achievements of the band.
The story of what Mike Nesmith went on to write, record, produce and film in his solo career is another tale that is usually long in the telling. I am holding the press even as I enter the next full stop.
Watch this space.