The joyful noise of The Monkees

From as long as I can remember, my nightmare always starts and ends the same way every single time. I’m in a large bed that’s improbably being propelled down a busy road full of cars in a city that vaguely seems like it might be somewhere in America, but only a version I’ve seen on television. I’m not alone in the bed. Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith – The Monkees – are there with me, and we’re singing their theme song. I know the words off by heart and we’re all really happy. At some point, always near the last verse of the song, we’re no longer in the city but inside a slaughterhouse full of poor animals banging their heads off the conveyor belt, screaming for help. I turn to my prefab friends, Davy, Micky, Peter and Michael only to see they’re no longer there. I am alone with terrified animals. My magical bed on wheels is caught up in the machine, blades spinning, blood spraying. I jump off the bed and run, only to find the conveyor belt is throwing me backwards like an evil treadmill. And then… I wake up. I always wake up. When this dream happens (usually after eating pizza or cheese on toast after eight o’clock), it feels like an old repeat that I’ve seen too many times, but I can’t really change the channel. As nightmares go, it’s a strange one. What were they trying to tell me? “Stop eating cheese on toast,” probably.

Why The Monkees? I don’t know. I’ve always associated them with joy, fun, and goodness. I’m not naïve, of course. They were a sixties band. They did drugs and some of them probably took part in an orgy or two. Then again, even on television, during their eponymous show, they always looked like they were having all the fun, just…not the kind they likely had offscreen. They were a gang no-one could defeat. Best friends who always won against the establishment and played some tunes along the way. Strangely, in that ‘life imitating art’ story arc, they really did win against the establishment, the coven of critics who always downplayed their abilities, talents, and success. Originally manufactured as an American Beatles for a fictional band on television, The Monkees were all multi-talented performers who took control and became a real band who wrote their own material. Not only that, even The Beatles would laud them.

When Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider created The Monkees for TV, they put out an ad in the trade paper full of hippy scenester lingo, easily recognised by the young men on the scene they were trying to appeal to, the kind who were singing in Greenwich Village folk bars. Davy Jones, from Liverpool (the coolest city in the world at that point), was a trained actor as was Micky Dolenz. Both of them had previous success as actors, and both answered the call, treating it like their next job. Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith, meanwhile, were struggling to make it into mainstream music. Peter Tork was a hippie singer/songwriter who happened to look like a proper popstar. Michael came from a wealthy background due to his mother being the inventor of Liquid Paper and had released music under various different names. He’d also go on to invent the TV show that became MTV, indirectly transforming pop music forever. Back then, he was just another musician trying to get a break. The advert for a brand new TV show seemed like a good idea – clearly selling out gigs was more preferable than selling out to The Man.

The TV show was a huge success but the music was already prepared. For Peter and Michael, in particular, this was insulting. They wanted control. Davy, not so much. He didn’t seem too invested in being part of a real band. Micky eventually saw things the same way as Peter and Michael, which is just as well because his voice is one of the best voices in sixties pop music. I kid you not. Listen to those songs and hear him sing. The TV show made him the drummer. Madness! And so they went on tour singing songs they didn’t write…until Michael launched a takeover bid, got power for the band, and together with his new bandmates (yes, real bandmates!) recorded Headquarters, their first real album. Oh, the songs from their earlier albums are amazing. All of the singles proper pop classics. It turned out they could actually write good pop songs without being production puppets. Oh, the still had help. After all, like all the best popstars, Davy Jones couldn’t play an instrument and looked like a spare part in the setting of a band. But creatively, The Monkees were in control. They had their input.

Years later, long after the initial impact of Monkeemania, I was bored and trapped in my home, feeling terror at the thought of breathing in air that others had passed through their lungs, just incase they’d added a killer virus to the mix. During the first lockdown, I turned to things that made me happy. Books, Doctor Who (particularly Jodie Whittaker’s first year, which felt uncomplicated and innocent), and music. At some point I decided to transfer some CDs to my iTunes. I’ve bought a lot of CDs over the years. Going through the boxes, I recovered an old Monkees Greatest Hits and remembered the nightmares they used to give me, but also how much I listened to their songs. Okay, I thought. Let’s try this out again. Really, you can’t deny their sound. Daydream Believer, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Steppin Stone, Last Train to Clarksville, Randy Scouse Git, You Told Me. The sound of The Monkees is joyful and silly (and increasingly weird as they progressed). I was enchanted by their silliness, a much-needed tonic at an extremely dark period. Then I found them again on YouTube, which is full of episodes of their TV show from the ’60s. I eagerly watched them, finding something to keep me away from the news, where newsreaders gave daily figures of a death toll too high to contemplate. It helped, funnily enough. During that lockdown, I made the decision to love The Monkees again, fully embrace their zany fun-filled world. I even accepted Micky with his straight hair and his frizzy perm which came later, a useful way of dating the time period the TV show was recorded. If it’s an episode with a frizzy perm, it’s Season 2, when the band were beginning their descent. Hairstyles as history markers! Even without the TV show *and their insane movie Head*, the music still works. Good songs always do. Times change, but a catchy melody is forever. After all, a band like The Monkees can be manufactured, but creating their energy, their joyful noise, is far more difficult to put a price on – but invaluable when you just press play and enjoy the songs when there’s little else around to appreciate.

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