The 1960s gave us a lot of pop culture phenomena, whether you’re talking about The Beatles, James Bond, Adam West‘s Batman, the horror soap opera Dark Shadows or the small screen’s answer to the Fab Four, The Monkees TV show.
Airing between 1966 and 1968, The Monkees TV show turned its stars — Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork — into superstars of the highest order, and it wasn’t long before the series spun off hit albums and singles, and saw the foursome hit the road in concert, becoming even more popular.
Woman’s World caught up with star Micky Dolenz, now 78-years-young, as he looks back at The Monkees TV show, sharing his views on its highs and lows, what it’s all been about and how it’s gone on for all of these years.
1. The Monkees TV show was “lightning in a bottle”
To be fair, nobody really knows why anything connects with the audience in the way that it does, and why one piece of pop culture entertainment becomes a phenomenon while others don’t. The Monkees TV show definitely falls into the former category. “Like the old story,” laughs Micky Dolenz, “you take the watch apart to see how it works and, of course, it doesn’t work anymore. You can’t reduce these things.”
As Micky points out, all anyone can do is come up with an idea and combine it with a group of people, with all involved just does their best to make it work. “The way I look at it,” he says, “is that at a certain point the whole becomes greater than the sum of it’s parts. One of the producers of The Monkees once said, ‘We just caught lighting in a bottle,’ and that’s how I look at it. It was the writing, it was the songwriting, it was the comedy of the TV show, the directing and, of course, the four of us.”
2. The Monkees TV show was NOT trying to cash in on The Beatles
Micky argues against the notion that the show, and the band it featured, was trying to cash in on the insane popularity of The Beatles, describing The Monkees TV show, instead, as a series about an imaginary band that lived in a large beach house (actually constructed on the Columbia Pictures lot at the time) that shared the mutual dream of becoming The Beatles.
“It was that struggle for that success that I think had a lot to do with touching all those kids out there around the country, and around the world,” Micky muses, “that were in their basements and living rooms and garages. They wanted to be The Beatles, too. It’s important to remember that The Monkees never made it [on the show]; it was the struggle for success that resonated with so many kids.”
3. The Monkees didn’t write their own songs
While The Monkees may have taken its inspiration from wanting to be The Beatles in terms of its creation, one important distinction between the two groups is that while the Fab Four largely wrote their own songs, The Monkees, by and large, depended on the songwriting skills of others.
It’s a fact that the critics pounced on early on, and one that Micky dismisses with a wave of the hand. “They were unbelievable songwriters,” he says. “Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Neil Sadaka, Paul Williams, Harry Nilsson, Carole Bayer Sager. I’m thrilled they were there.”
4. The Monkees were NOT a band, they were mostly actors
As their derisive monker as the Pre-Fab Four would seem to indicate, there were many that didn’t really look at the members of The Monkees as being an actual band, and, surprisingly, Micky actually agrees with those people.
“I was happy to be cast in a television show about a band,” Micky explains. “That’s a fine distinction, but an important one. I was playing the role of the wacky drummer, and part of that job was they’d say, ‘Okay, on Tuesday night you’re going to record a lead vocal for a couple of songs.’ I approached it as an entertainer, an actor and a singer. That was my job.”
5. On the other hand, Mike Nesmith was a singer-songwriter
When Mike Nesmith was brought aboard The Monkees TV show, he was under the assumption that part of the reason he’d been hired was because he’d had experience as a singer-songwriter. As it turned out, nothing could be further from the truth and it really frustrated him. There was a time early on when he approached the producers and performed, on the guitar, a song he’d written called “Different Drum.” Shockingly (at least to him), he was dismissed and told that the song wouldn’t make a good Monkees track.
Relates Micky, “He was confused and said, ‘Wait a minute, I am one of The Monkees.’ And they said, ‘Well, that’s true, but that’s not a Monkees tune.’ So he went and gave it to a young girl kicking around in Los Angeles at the time named Linda Ronstadt.”
6. Mike Nesmith Inspired Micky to Try His Hand at Songwriting
For Mike, music was an important part of who he was and he was the one who inspired Micky to get into songwriting. While Micky would never describe himself as “prolific,” he did go on to write a few different tunes. “The difference between Nes and myself,” Mickey shares with a chuckle, “is that I was used to being cast into something and following directions and hitting my mark.”
7. The Monkees sparked ‘Pinocchio syndrome’
There was an undeniable moment when the group did transition from being just a television show about a band to actually becoming one: when they were told by their bosses to hit the road and start performing concerts in an effort to promote the series. “It was definitely strange for the time,” Micky concurs, “though today it wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary at all given TV shows like The Voice and American Idol.“
Again, it fell to Nesmith to point out that when he, Micky, Davy and Pete started to perform the show’s music live, it was akin to the moment when Pinocchio — the wooden puppet — became a real little boy. “Remember when the cast of Glee used to tour? When they went out and performed, were they the characters on the TV show or were they themselves?” Micky asks. “In my opinion, there are two Monkees. One was the imaginary one on the television show never making it, and then there’s the band that rehearsed and worked our butts off to do live concerts. And eventually we did do hundreds of live concerts on the road.”
8. The Monkees TV show had fans in (very) high places
While there was a general perception out there that The Monkees was a kid’s TV show, there were some big name fans of the series that kind of “got it.” One of then was psychologist, author and purveyor of psychedelic drugs Timothy Leary, who in his book The Politics of Ecstasy, spent half a chapter talking about the group, and the fact they were the ones who brought long hair into the living room via the series.
Suggests Micky, “At that point, if you had long hair and bell bottoms, the only time you were on television is when you were being arrested. So the show made it okay to have long hair and bell bottoms; it did not mean you were going to commit crimes against nature. So the people that I cared about got it. John Lennon was the first one to say ‘I like The Monkees. They’re like the Marx Brothers.'”
9. This Oscar-winning actor helped produce The Monkees movie
Immediately after NBC canceled The Monkees in 1968, producer Bob Rafelson decided that he wanted to direct a big screen movie featuring the four TV show cast members to, in a sense, deconstruct the whole Monkees image.
Writing the script with actor Jack Nicholson, they came up with a very strange film called Head that few people are able to describe given its surreal nature. “We didn’t want to do a 90-minute episode of The Monkees,” says Micky. “We’d been fettered quite a bit during the TV show because of network censors, and so the general consensus was, ‘Let’s do something a little bit out there.’ Bob introduced us to this B-movie actor Jack Nicholson, who was going to come on board and be part of it and write it. It was a very bizarre screenplay.”
10. The Monkees TV show owes its rebirth to MTV
The members of The Monkees pretty much went their own ways in life and in terms of career, although when MTV began airing the series in reruns in the mid-1980s, it ignited a whole new wave of Monkeemania. The result? a 20th anniversary tour, a new album titled Pool It!, the hit single “That Was Then, This is Now” and a greatest hits album.
For Micky, part of the excitement regarding this was the fact that in the intervening years he’d gone to England to work in television as a producer and director, escaping the whole “ex-Monkee” title. “When I did go back to The Monkees in the ’80s for the reunion,” he says, “I was thrilled. It was only supposed to be a little 10-week tour, if that, just for the reunion. But it lasted … well, it’s lasted until this day.”
Keep reading about more Classic TV and nostalgia from the 1960s!