Roxanne Tellier: MonkeeMania!

january roxanneRamping up to the 50th anniversary of The Beatles February 9, 1964  appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, it’s easy to forget that one of the other acts on that same show, on that same evening, featured a slight, young “Artful Dodger” – one David Jones, aged 19, belting out a song from the hit Broadway play Oliver! During that performance Jones sang “I’d Do Anything” with the entire cast.

beatles hard days night runJust one year later, Jones would be the first to be cast in the musical/comedy television show The Monkees, which had been inspired by The Beatles success. The film “A Hard Day’s Night” had highlighted a radical style of filmmaking cum documentary, which capitalized on the group’s success, and further cemented the quirky quartet as funny/sexy/lovable/and decidedly chase-worthy young men.

monkee audition noticeWhere there’s mania, there’s money to be made, and television executives at the NBC Network wanted a piece of that action. So how do you find “four footloose, improvisational, zany guys?”

(Ben Frank’s was a late night restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, where you could find long haired, beatnik weirdos who liked their bacon and eggs in the wee hours, after playing monkees early picor attending gigs.)

437 young men turned out for the auditions, including Harry Nilsson, Paul Williams, Stephen Stills, Van Dyke Parks, Danny Hutton, Rodney Bingenheimer and John Sebastian. It was rumored that Charles Manson tried out, but he was a little busy at the time, as he was still in prison on Terminal Island. From this group of mostly struggling musicians and actors, it was Davy Jones, with fellow child actor Micky Dolenz, guitarist Michael ‘Wool Hat’ Nesmith and folkie Peter Tork who captured the producers’ imaginations.

Davy had come to California seeking a solo singing career. He was already under contract to Columbia Pictures, based on his earlier television appearances and some recording success in England. With his long hair and charming British accent, Screen Gems, the television arm of Columbia, snapped him up, and commissioned a project that would feature his talents. Davy still had to audition for the role, however.

Mike Nesmith had a following already. But during auditions, what the producers noticed about him was his trademark wool hat. The tall lanky Texan had moved to L.A. at the age of 20, and was soon performing under the name Michael Blessing. Here’s a rare clip of him performing (hatless) “Until It’s Time For You To Go” on the “Lloyd Thaxton Show” in 1965.

monkees tork and stillsAfter twice flunking out of college, Peter Tork’s attempt to make it as a musician in New York fizzled. Undeterred, he decided to take his chances in L.A., were he soon found himself washing dishes for a living between the occasional gig. But a chance meet up with old New York friend Steven Stills lead to him playing piano with Stills and Ron Long, aka “The Buffalo Fish.” It was Stills that brought the audition ad to Tork’s attention.

monkees circus boyChild star Micky Dolenz grew up in an L.A. showbiz family, and had his first series role at the age of 10, as “Corky” in “Circus Boy.” In 1965, he was up for several pilots, but was taken by the casual, laidback attitudes of producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson.

monkees rafelson schneiderSchneider’s father was president of Columbia Pictures, and offered them the chance to make a pilot episode for a television series. Aspiring filmmaker Rafelson’s dream was to showcase aspiring musicians and their lifestyles.

And so the four newly cast Monkees, and two young dreamers, came together. Could they capture and Americanize the kind of musical and sexual ‘lightning in a bottle’ that had teenagers around the world screaming for the Liverpudlian moptops?

Monkees early promo picEach Monkee would have a strong personality. Davy was the cute British heartthrob with a penchant for the ladies. Mike was the “Will Rogers” type in a green hat, Peter played the role of the ‘cute but dumb’ guy, and Micky’s frenetic energy and humour pulled it all together.

But the initial pilot episode sank like a stone. Television’s ‘Standards and Practices’ had insisted that there be an adult character to balance the boys’ silliness, so a manager who ran a record store was dreamed up. Audiences couldn’t easily differentiate between the boys; the characters weren’t standing out. So the creators went back to the beginning, cutting out the manager, and inserting clips from the original auditions. Monkees Screen Tests; mix of silent and sound

monkees 16 magazineThe first episode premiered on the NBC network on 12 September 1966. Shot in the quick-cut, Richard Lester style, the pilot’s ratings went through the roof. The core story of four cute, striving musicians, living together in a beach house in Malibu, struggling for gigs and to pay the rent, suited the times and the general giddy feeling of teenagers in 1965. And North America’s teenyboppers fell in love.

The episodes, always loosely based on a silly premise, were largely improvisational, drew mainly from the slapstick madcap antics of classic film comedians like the Marx Brothers, and The Three Stooges, and regularly broke the ‘third wall’ barrier of film, so that the audience felt a real kinship to the boys. And every episode, no matter what the premise, ended happily and musically.

monkees last trainMusic publisher Don Kirshner, with his link to Brill Building songwriters, was brought in as creative music director. The first song he chose was a Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart tune called Last Train To Clarksville.”  (They had also written the Monkees’ iconic theme song.) The song went to Number One on Billboard shortly after the show hit the air.

For most of the first season, none of the group actually played on the records, although they did their own singing. The music on their first records was played by studio musicians, usually some combination of Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, James Burton, David Gates, Carol Kaye, Jim Gordon and Hal Blaine, and in fact, at least the entire first album, minus their voices, had already been recorded before the series began.  Despite the accusations that the boys were “manufactured” and “not real musicians,” Nesmith and Dolenz played guitar, and Dolenz took drum lessons, so that he could play drums on camera. Tork played guitar, keyboards and banjo. Jones learned to play drums and guitar, and a custom bass guitar was made especially for him. He also played percussion instruments.

As the band’s popularity grew, so did their proficiency on their instruments, and soon they were performing live for adoring audiences. This naturally led to them wanting to don-kirshner-and-the-monkeesrecord on their albums, but Kirschner had a tight grip on the music production, even going so far as to issue a whole album without even telling the band. In 1967, Nesmith and Tork, both of whom were professional musicians and song writers, pressured Jones and Dolenz into presenting a united front. Despite heated arguments between Nesmith and Kirschner, Kirschner stood firm on his principles. But when he released “A Little Bit Of Me, A Little Bit of You” (written by Neil Diamond) without permission, he was summarily fired from the show’s production team.

But their adventures had only begun.

Read Part Two of MonkeeMania! next Sunday. But here are a few links that might be of interest to fans:

Link to article by Steve Stills in TigerBeat magazine, July 1967. “My Friend Peter.”

A link to most of the tv episodes:

= RT =

Roxanne’s column appears here every Sunday 

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DBAWIS_ButtonRoxanne Tellier has been singing since she was 10 months old … no, really. Not like she’s telling anyone else how to live their lives, because she’s not judgmental, and most 10 month olds need a little more time to figure out how to hold a microphone. After years of doing things she didn’t want to do, she’s found herself working with a bunch of crazy people who are as batshit crazy and devoted to music as she is, and so she can be found every Monday at Cherry Cola’s, completely unable to think of anything funny to say, as the co-host of Bob Segarini’s The Bobcast. Come and mock her. She’s good with that. And she laughs. A lot. But not at you.

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