In Defense of the Monkees

I have a deep emotional attachment to the Pre-Fab Four. Their debut album, left behind by my older brothers when they moved on to adulthood, was one of my favorite records to play and play and play as a kid, and their sitcom (1966-68) was (and is) one of my favorite tv shows. Scoff if you will, but a  mutual appreciation for the Monkees is among the things that binds me to my very best friends, including one particular one, who introduced me to all of their later albums as well as rarities like their 1969 television special.

The criticisms are real well known. “They aren’t really a rock group.” “They’re a corporate product”. “They don’t really play their instruments”. And here are my answers:

It’s ALL a corporate product. If you know about it, the chances are about 98% that that knowledge has flown to you on the whirl-i-gig of show business.

Yes, the Monkees were created by television producers (Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. Rafelson was the nephew of the guy who wrote The Jazz Singer). The guys those producers hired needed to be likable comic actors and believable as musicians. If anything, in reality, the producers achieved MORE credibility than they needed to have done. Two of the four (Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork) had actual street cred as musicians, and one of them (Nesmith) was a first class pop songwriter who penned many of the group’s lasting hits, as well as others for himself as a solo artist, and other pop singers as well (such as Linda Ronstadt). Tork’s songs were also great — “For Pete’s Sake”, his best, became the closing theme music for the show. Dolenz also wrote a couple of excellent songs, notable “Randy Scouse Git”. Even Davy Jones wrote songs, although he would have to be a distant fourth in a ranking of his abilities as a writer.

Some of the Monkees don’t play instruments, and on a lot of their records, none of them plays instruments? So what? Neither does Elvis.

Do you dislike the idea of auditions for a band? Well…Johnny Rotten auditioned for the Sex Pistols. Ringo Starr was hired to be the drummer of The Beatles when they got a record contract — it’s show biz. It’s all show biz, and it’s all a consumer product, including all those rock artists who provide you with the illusion of aloofness and integrity. This realization, some think, is what drove Kurt Cobain to suicide. Bob Dylan of course constantly tries to subvert this trap by periodically being as uncommercial as possible. More often than not, though, he does what he does in order to get paid.

Some people, I suppose, don’t like the Monkees’ music, and that’s legitimate (taste being subjective), but I am strongly not in that camp. Even the most indie of indie artists has to admit that there are times — indeed many times — when a collaborative, corporate product comes together and works…Hollywood movies, Broadway shows, etc. A lot of it, yes, a majority of it, is crap. But sometimes the elements click. If you asked me “Could you hire a bunch of professional songwriters from the Brill Building, and a bunch of studio musicians, and come up with great records?” I would have answered unequivocally, no! But the Monkees are the exception that proves the rule. I’ve much to this topic, but ’til then follow the links above for thoughts on the individual members of the quartet!

To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.

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