Okay, I’ll admit it. They’re not the “Fab Four.” In fact, they are best known for being the “Prefab Four.” Still, that amusing — if somewhat misleading — moniker should in no way deter The Monkees from gaining enshrinement in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. For the 1960s pop music quartet of Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and the late Davy Jones, who created such chart-topping hits as “I’m a Believer,” “Daydream Believer” and “Last Train to Clarksville,” deserve to be on the scenic shores of Lake Erie as much as any of this year's inductees.
Why? Simply put, the Monkees were no mere “made for TV” rock band, even though that’s how they initially came together thanks to the efforts of then up and coming film producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider in 1965. Rafelson and Schneider, who would go on to make such cinematic classics as “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces,” were looking to replicate in rock album sales and television ratings the same kind of runaway success The Beatles had achieved with their first appearance on the silver screen (“A Hard Day’s Night”) the previous year. “The Beatles made it all happen, that’s the reality,” Schneider later said. “Our ambitions were to make movies. We began with a TV series because that was a foot in the door. It was easier to get a pilot of a TV series made than it was to get a movie made.”
This musical injustice should be rectified as soon as possible.
“The Monkees” debuted on NBC-TV in the fall of 1966 and became an instant hit while chronicling the comic misadventures of four young musicians trying to fulfill their dreams of rock stardom. Along the way, they overcame such varied obstacles as prying landlords, organized crime bosses, foreign spies, blood thirsty vampires, overweening magazine journalists, demented hillbillies and even an occasional extraterrestrial. As an added inducement to watch, each show featured a Monkee song which invariably became a Top 20 hit.
My favorite episode was “I Wanna Be a Teenage Monster” (1967), where an aspiring mad scientist, played by the great character actor John Hoyt, kidnaps the Monkees and transfers their collective musical abilities into the body of an android. After some hilarious riffs on 1960s hippie culture, exploitive talent agents and television medicine ads, our fearless lads regain what was taken from them in a surreal slapstick comedy sequence worthy of the Marx Brothers. As Tork deadpans at the close of the show, “We don’t have any [talent] to spare.”
“They were the first video band,” former Viacom CEO and MTV executive Tom Freston once told Rolling Stone magazine. “We all made fun of their music back in the 1960s, but they’re classics.”
Indeed, if you turn on your FM radio dial today, you can readily hear any number of the band's past hits being played on a regular basis. Even underrated works like “Porpoise Song,” a psychedelic masterpiece, was given prominent play in a 2013 episode of the critically acclaimed "Mad Men" cable series. Whether the show’s dour fictional lead character Don Draper would have approved of the band is open to the imagination.
"Head,” the trippy 1968 film, which represents the Monkees’ one and only stab at movie-making and was likened to “'A Hard Day’s Night' on acid,” marked the official end of the group. Tork left shortly thereafter to pursue a solo career and was soon followed by Nesmith, who had a major hand in creating MTV and the entire music video genre in general. Dolenz and Jones tried to continue as a duo but quickly called it quits.
We all made fun of their music back in the 1960s, but they’re classics.Tom Freston
Thanks to a popular revival of their television series on cable television in the 1980s, the Monkees reformed and made a successful musical comeback that produced a pair of well received albums (“Pool It” and “Justus”) and several reunion tours around the country. Outside of the recording of “Justus,” accomplished guitarist and songwriter Nesmith stayed mostly away from Monkee-related projects as Dolenz, Tork and Jones carried the group’s banner as a trio well into the 21st century. But with vocalist Jones’ passing away from a heart attack at the age of 66 in 2012, Nesmith has since returned to the band’s fold with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and perspective. “We were always more television than anything else,” he confessed to the writer Andy Greene in 2013. “If you look at the start of the television age, which was 1950, there was still enough TVs to count. Then in 1966, when the show came on the air, we had an audience that had never not known television. It had a huge effect inside the medium in a way that’s very hard to understand and measure.”
Maybe that’s why the good folks over at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have neglected to enshrine the Monkees. This musical injustice should be rectified as soon as possible.
Hey, hey, they are the Monkees after all.