For a band that was originally envisioned as America’s answer to the Beatles, taking the form of a sitcom, The Monkees honestly didn’t do all that bad when it came to fulfilling that vision. John Lennon once even referred to them as the ‘Marx Brothers’ in honor of their comedy prowess, and then he got to lean back and relax while he watched the Marx Brothers of pop-rock sell more albums than he did. Not only did they move more records than he did, but in 1967, they sold more albums than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined. Not too shabby for a band that didn’t even pen their own music.
The Monkees didn’t just have a legion of adoring fans, but they had a legion of shrieking fans just as the Beatles did. They also were honored with two Emmys and sold more than 50 million records worldwide. Despite their, let’s say, questionable origins, there wasn’t a shadow of a doubt that what they had was exactly what musics fans of the 60s were interested in. They had the ‘it’ factor long before that phrase was even coined.
Even so, as it was with so many musical acts that came before them so many since, the history of The Monkees is riddled with tragedy, poverty, substance abuse, and band members getting on the last nerves of others. It’s nothing particularly new really, but for a band that was famous for being cheerful and funny, it might come as a surprise to some viewers to learn that the story of the Monkees was not quite as humorous and upbeat as the characters that viewers adored during those tow short-lived TV seasons back in the 60s.
In 1965, a couple of TV producers came up with an idea. Or perhaps more accurately, they were trying to capitalize on someone else’s good idea. The incredible success that the Beatles attained with their movies, A Hard Day’s Night and Help inspired them to want to do a similar thing with an American sitcom, and that’s precisely how the Monkees came to be. The members of the band didn’t come together organically in the way that most bands typically do. Instead, they were hand-selected, and not necessarily for their musical talents but more so for things that meshed well for network television.
They were chosen for their charisma, good looks, and acting skills. Their musical gifts were pretty much just an afterthought. Still, at least two of the band members, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, were in fact accomplished musicians. Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones also were quite talented musicians but they weren’t initially. They had to pretty much develop that as they went.
The show was conceived pretty much the same way as any sitcom is. The actors were assigned characters to play which meant that no one ever intended for the Monkees to write their own material. The music was to be strictly prerecorded, with the band providing vocals only. After The Monkees released their first single and played a couple of shows, however, it became abundantly clear that they were more than just your run-of-the-mill actors, the big-wigs at the tops remained in control.
So what that meant was that the Monkees were never quite able to get rid of their less-than-inspirational origin story and thus became universally known as the ‘Pre-Fab Four’; a witty wordplay referring to prefabrication coupled with the Beatles nickname ‘The Fab Four’.
The Monkees Became Fed Up Over Their Lack Of Creative Control
In January 1967. Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith were infuriated when they listened to their second album ‘More of the Monkees’, only to discover that it was essentially just regurgitated music from the show. At that point, the band finally decided that enough was enough, and demanded that they be granted creative control over their own material.
Luckily for them, The Monkees were famous enough at this time that the producers couldn’t simply replace them with more agreeable performers. So they gave in to their demands, fired the show’s music coordinator, and the Monkees, at last, became the ‘real’ band that critics had for so long accused them of not being.
The new issue at hand though was that creative freedom essentially meant more freedom to disagree as well, the band’s newfound autonomy also ended up highlighting their creative differences. Their third and fourth albums were commercially successful, but their fifth album, The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees, felt somewhat disjointed.
And it was around this time that the television series was canceled. The band was dissatisfied with the sitcom format and felt that it should be more like a variety show than anything. Instead of taking their input, the network felt that it was better just to scrap the whole show altogether. That mattered little to the band though, because they were already hard at work developing their first movie.
The Monkees Did A Great Job At Alienating Their Fans
Finding success in the music industry has a lot to do with the preferences of your fans, but success in movies depends largely on a handful of other factors such as screenwriting, storyline, and not being so bizarre that the kids who make up the majority of your supporters don’t walk out of the theater wondering why they ever liked you in the first place.
The Monkees 1968 movie, Head, pretty much faltered on all of these key points. The screenplay of the film was written by Jack Nicholson, but even having a name like his attached to the project back then didn’t do much in the way of promoting it because at the time Jack Nicholson was essentially just a B-movie actor that no one had even heard of.
The band essentially came up with the premise for the film while they were high as a kite at a party, and Nicholson took all of those ideas and stitched them together into a screenplay while he was also tripping on acid. So the end result was a film that was a bizarre, plotless, garbled commentary on everything from capitalism, media manipulation, police brutality, and the exploitation of a senseless tragedy. It was a disastrous moment for The Monkees and their pristine manufactured image was forever tarnished. Even worse was the fact that the film was poorly promoted, so the audiences that did actually go to see it were left scratching their heads wondering what exactly they had just witnessed. Calling the film a flop is a bit of an understatement.
Nowadays, however, Head has achieved cult-classic status and the bulk of modern critics seem to have a level of appreciation for it, but back in those days, it was essentially the beginning and the end of the Monkees’ film career.
All Good Things Must Come To An End
Head’s dismal box office performance was a disappointment to everybody involved in the project, but Peter Tork seemed especially disillusioned by the experience. In a 2011 interview, he shared that the movie ‘dropped like a ball of dark star’. He went on to explain that the ‘simile of a rock in the water’ was ‘too mild for how badly’ the movie bombed. The weekend after Head’s west coast premiere, the Monkees got together to collaborate on a television special called ’33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. Shortly after that, Tork left the group. The last three remaining members of the band stuck it out for another album or two but they couldn’t seem to produce any new hits as they used. So really, at that point, it seemed as if the band had become stagnate.
By the end of 1969, Nesmith too quit the band. He had already put out a solo album and saw the writing on the wall when it came to the future of the Monkees. A solo career at that point seemed like a better thing to focus his efforts on. Jones and Dolenz went into the studio to record one final album, but the two-man version of the Monkees was obviously just a shell of what the band had once been. By 1970, it was fairly obvious that the band no longer had much of a future. The Monkees officially disbanded after that last album. They ended not on a high note, but with a whimper.
The Monkees Each Hit Rock Bottom
Things pretty much started to fall apart for each member of the band after they broke up. The first Monkee to reach the end of his rope was Peter Tork. After the band’s dissolution, Tork formed a band called Release which incidentally fell apart before they could even release a single album. Tork then attempted to form a production company but that project too fizzled.
After Tork’s money ran out, he was forced to rent his home to a friend to avoid losing it to foreclosure. He then moved into David Crosby’s basement with his pregnant girlfriend. To make matters worse, Tork was then arrested for possession of hashish was sentenced to serve three months in an Oklahoma prison.
Tork then took a stab at becoming a high school teacher while coaching baseball, but that attempt at normalcy also failed when he couldn’t align himself with the structure of the school system and got himself fired. He then turned to the bottle to cope with his woes and pretty much remained drunk until the early 1980s.
Fortunately, he was able to put the booze down in the early 80s, and shortly after that, he stopped taking drugs. It was only then that he was able to revitalize his musical career.
Michale Nesmith’s rock bottom moment was brought on by a much different adversary. His primary problems were with the IRS. Almost immediately after the Monkees disbanded, the feds showed up with a huge pill for unpaid taxes and started seizing property. So after experiencing a rollercoaster ride of fame and fortune, he was left with pretty much nothing to show for it.
After the IRS pretty much took all of his belongings, Nesmith’s marriage fell apart and he dealt with that low blow in the most toxic way imaginable – by engaging in an affair with the wife of one of his closest friends.
Micky Dolenz was almost the next victim of the Monkees curse, but instead of floundering for too long after the band broke up, he was able to revitalize his career by 1975 when he went to the UK to star in a musical. Instead of spending three months there, he ended up sticking around for 12 years working as a director and producer.
The Monkees eventually got back together again in 1986 for their 20th-anniversary tour. For their 30th anniversary in 1996, the band members recorded another album, Justus, which was the first Monkees record written and produced entirely by Dolenz, Tork, Jones, and Nesmith.
The band subsequently went on tour again but that’s when things got messy. For their 1996 tour, Nesmith ended up dropping out early on and the remaining members were pretty candid about how they felt about it. They toured once again in 2001, but this time it was Tork who dropped out.
In 2011, The Monkees got together and toured one final time, this time without Michael Nesmith from the get-go. That tour was probably one of the most successful of their career, but a year later Davy Jones died of a heart attack and that pretty much was the moment that the Monkees officially were no more.
In 2019, Peter Tork passed away after battling a rare form of head and neck cancer for nearly a decade.
Well, that’s pretty much the whole Monkees story in a nutshell. Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed going on this little retrospective journey with us.
What was your favorite Monkees song, between Daydream Believer, I’m a Believer, and their signature ‘Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkees’ theme? Let us know in the comments section below.
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