The Monkees represent a challenge to fans of music. They are at once a marketing vehicle and a band that changed the musical scene in the Sixties. Debates continue on the merit of their artistic efforts.
I think this makes them an interesting case study for the creative process. They found ways to embrace their identity despite having to work within the limitations of being a “boy band.” I think there are many lessons about working as a creative person that we can learn from their history and influence on pop culture.
1. Selling out
The one film the Monkees produced hit you hard with the manufactured reality of the band. They set the tone early in the film. The opening lines mock the critical reception of the show, their image, and the movie itself.
“Hey hey we are the Monkees
You know we love to please
A manufactured image
With no philosophies”
2. Ruining a good thing
Speaking of “Head,” the film is the product of intense brainstorming that took place over one weekend. The movie was a flop and alienated their fan base. This film will last as a testament to the creative and surreal ideas of the men behind the phenomena.
3. Breaking free
There was much tension behind the scenes of the show when it came to choosing songs. By the second album, Tork and Nesmith pushed for more creative control. They got their wish and soon the Monkees became a real band writing their own music.
4. Blaze of glory
For a manufactured band, they had many #1 hits. For the year of 1967, when they came on the scene, they outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
5. Great writers
Some of the best musicians from the 60′s submitted music for the group to perform. Including one of my favorites, Harry Nilsson. Two of his songs would be used by the band, “Cuddly Toy” and “Daddy’s Song.”
Every member of the band was a musician and could play an instrument. Nesmith, Tork and Dolenz already had some success in the music business before they were cast. Davy Jones was a rising star and was already locked into a contract with Screen Gems before the series began.
One of the first uses of the Moog synthesizer in popular music appears in the Monkee’s song, “Daily Nightly.” Dolenz was the third musician to ever purchase a Moog.
Famously, the Beatles held an exclusive party for the Monkees that became the inspiration for “Randy Scouse Git.” Peter Tork was even invited to play on George Harrison’s solo album, “Wonderwall.” His contribution is missing from the record release, but it is heard in the film.
Some musicians have produced well-known covers of Monkees’ tunes. Here is a particular favorite, They Might Be Giants performing “Zilch.”
Monkee Mania was inescapable in the 60′s. Just like other bands in the popular culture, they had their own marketing machine pumping out merch. I was actually able to buy a vintage set of Monkee pin buttons that I proudly display on my messenger bag.
The producers of the Monkees wanted to capture the counter-culture, a growing market. They saw the success of the Beatles film, “A Hard Day’s Night,” and wanted to replicate that experience. The Monkees were part of a marketing scheme to tap into the youth demographic, but it was one of the few acts that recognized their growing influence.
“We’re just trying to be friendly,
Come watch us sing and play.
We’re the young generation,
And we got something to say.”
12. Impact on the popular culture
The Monkees continue to inspire young musicians and writers. The past season of “Breaking Bad” featured a montage set to the tune, “Goin’ Down.” Micky Dolenz said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter:
“’Goin’ Down’ has nothing to do with drugs, obviously… And I certainly don’t condone meth — that is nasty stuff that kills a lot of people and ruins a lot of lives. … On the other hand, I like the TV show, it’s very well-made. … And no, I didn’t make a penny.”
In 2011, The Monkees celebrated their 45th anniversary. This would be the last time the trio of Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones would perform together. Jones passed away in February of 2012.
In Jones’ honor, Mike Nesmith will reunite with Tork and Dolenz for a brief tour this year. The last time Nesmith played with the band was 1986. The tour kicks off in November — I am buying my ticket, will you be there?