It's early 1966 and America is getting ready to fight back. The casting call has gone out around Hollywood: 'Four insane boys,' are needed to play The Monkees, soon to be known mockingly as the prefab four.
Among the contenders were a few musicians, a little slow to realise that it was actors the producers wanted. Stephen Stills, a virtuoso guitarist, had lovely blond hair but at 21 it was already looking a bit thin and Stills wasn't cute so they asked him, in the nicest way, if he had any blond friends who were better looking and not going bald.
Stills sent along Peter Tork, an intellectual New Yorker, who was promptly cast in The Monkees as the slow-brained foil to Mickey Dolenz's zany wit. As musicians neither Tork nor Dolenz were a patch on Stills but that didn't matter – someone else would be writing the songs and playing them.
The brain behind the prefabs was young gun movie director, Bob Rafelson and where Rafelson went in those days, Jack Nicholson was sure to be hanging around, smoking pot and grinning. In 1968, with the Monkees brand already in steep-decline, Nicholson flexed his writing muscles on the script for their movie HEAD. Among many other mad-cap ideas, he rewrote the famous TV theme.
Hey, hey we're the Monkees
people say we monkee around
we're too busy singing
to put anybody down
became, in Jack's version:
Hey, hey we're the Monkees
you know we love to please
a manufactured image
with no philosophies
As Tork and co sang the last lines the screen flashed up the photo of an American soldier shooting a Vietnamese boy in the head on a street in Saigon. Elsewhere in the film the lovable prefabs play flakes of dandruff in an ageing actor's hair whilst following orders from a disembodied director who makes The Truman Show's Ed 'cue the sun' Harris look like a model of benign tolerance. When Tork complains about a scene in which he has to hit a woman it's pointed out to him that the woman is played by a drag queen anyway. The band try to escape their slavery by jumping off a bridge, but even that turns out to be scripted.
Elsewhere in the film the lovable prefabs play flakes of dandruff in an ageing actor's hair whilst following orders from a disembodied director who makes The Truman Show's Ed 'cue the sun' Harris look like a model of benign tolerance.
But before any of this were two glorious years of hits, I'm a Believer, Last Train to Clarksville, A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You, Daydream Believer and all the rest. Add that to a massively successful TV show and what have you got? - more money sloshing around than any of these LA stoners had imagined in their wildest dreams.
Tork bought a big old house where he set up an art collective, a real life version of the Monkees TV-set 'pad' where instead of the prefabs in their British mod clothes, it was beaded, braided American hippies like Stills and David Crosby, recently departed from the Byrds. The sound they put together (with ex-Hollies front man Graham Nash) would morph into the laid-back Californiana of The Eagles that ruled world-wide by the middle of the next decade.
For Tork, supporting Stills was pay-back for that audition tip-off and a form of therapy after the abuse hurled at the Monkees when the media decided to ridicule them for not playing their own instruments. Another mate, Frank Zappa, the muso's muso, was brought in to send up the critics. 'You should spend more time on your music,' he tells Davy Jones in HEAD 'The youth of America depends on you to lead the way.'
For some reason (answers on a postcard) Zappa appears leading a tethered bull. His lines are delivered through its peevish bellowing.
'That song was pretty white,' he admonishes after hearing the band play.
'Well I am white,' Jones replies, 'what can I do about it?'
Later, Zappa, dressed as Mike Nesmith interviews Mike Nesmith dressed as Zappa. HEAD was described at the time as 'a mind-blowing collage' and, 'a free-for-all freakout, ' it's now essential text for students trying to decipher want went on in that long-ago decade. They breathe the name Rafelson with the same reverence as Antonioni.
HEAD was described at the time as 'a mind-blowing collage' and, 'a free-for-all freakout, ' it's now essential text for students trying to decipher want went on in that long-ago decade.
Across the pond, Apple (the OTHER Apple) was born as a vehicle by which pop stars could use their money to help other artists. But such was the speed of the Monkees enrichment it is possible to say that by 1968 they were doing some things BEFORE the mighty Brits they had been set up to emulate. Feeling chipper, Mickey Dolenz zipped over to London to meet the Beatles. He captured the moment in a song and was even allowed to sing his own lyrics.
'The four kings of EMI are sitting stately on the floor
There are birds out on the side walk and a valet at the door.'
When Dolenz asked Lennon, 'Do you think we're a cheap imitation of The Beatles?' Lennon replied 'I think you're the greatest comic talent since the Marx Brothers.' High praise considering that Rafelson's ideas for the TV show had pretty much been nicked from the Beatles movies of Richard Lester who in turn adapted the French New Wave and Brecht (jump cuts, characters addressing the audience, stepping through the 'fourth wall,' etc.)
The Monkees may have started off derivative, but their good fortune turned them into trendsetters, not in their own art but in the art their money helped to make. Part of the reason is that, by the end of the sixties, California was edging ahead of London as a creative hub – (while McCartney was championing Mary Hopkin and Scaffold, Tork in LA supported the fledging efforts of 19-year-old Jackson Browne, another seminal influence on Don Henley and Co)
But the real dividend payout came with Easy Rider, Rafelson and Nicholson's 1969 collaboration which launched the career of Denis Hopper and instantly established itself as the definitive document of the American sixties - at least until Woodstock came along the following year. Like Woodstock, the soundtrack album to Easy Rider is even more important than the movie.
Peter Benedict's new musical Monkee Business, now at Manchester Opera House, has a nice grasp on the cold-war shenanigans of the period. Cut off behind their iron curtain, young Russians had intolerable cravings for every American fad. In Benedict's show an unscrupulous promoter realises that with their TV's permanently tuned to Khrushchev speeches, the Russians won't know what The Monkees actually look like, so he hires some lads who can sing and dance a bit to impersonate them on a tour of the USSR. Actors playing actors, it all sits nicely in the spirit of the original imitators.
By '69 The Monkees were history. Tork was the first to quit and go back to the real Monkees pad where Stephen Stills was hanging out in the hash fumes. Since failing the Monkees auditions Stills had a brief but brilliant career with Buffalo Springfield. On his own terms he had found out what stardom meant. When he sang 'You don't have to cry,' Stills may well have been singing for his friend, one burned-out Monkee.
'Are you thinking of telephones
and managers and where you have to be an noon?
You are living a reality I left years ago
It quite nearly killed me.'
Monkee Business runs at Manchester Opera House till April 14, then Glasgow Empire 17-21 and Sunderland Empire 24-28
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