Monkees circa 1970

This month brings the conclusion of the PLANET OF THE APES trilogy, and to commemorate, ComicsVerse is going Ape! We’ll be focusing on all things simian by looking at some of our favorite pop culture primates. For more articles in this series, click here!

First up, Aaron Young prompts a discussion about a different kind of primate — the surprisingly successful 1960s band The Monkees!

When you think of famous bands from the 60s you probably think of The Beatles. Or maybe you think of the Rolling Stones. There’s even a chance you’d think about The Who or The Beach Boys. You probably wouldn’t think of pop/rock band The Monkees. But believe it or not there was a period of time when the Monkees’ albums outsold any two of these other groups combined. However, the Monkees were far from a conventional rock group as they constantly blurred the lines between rock stars and actors.

Monkees 1966 Concert
Monkees’ 1966 “Last Train to Clarksville”

You see, the Monkees were originally formed for a television series titled (you guessed it) THE MONKEES created by producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider in 1965. Rafelson and Schneider sought to capitalize on the popularity of the Beatles and their hit movie A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. So they wrote a comedy about a struggling Beatles-like band living in the same house together. Casting calls for the TV Show read “Looking for 4 Insane Boys.”  After an extensive casting process, the producers settled on actors Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, and Peter Tork.

People Said They’d Monkey Around

Rafelson and Schneider realized that to make their MONKEES TV show into a pop sensation they would have to make the Monkees into a real band. So, they hired professional record producers and songwriters (including the likes of Neil Diamond and Carole King) to write songs for the fledgling band. The producers initially gave the Monkees very little creative control over their music. In the band’s first two albums, trained professional studio musicians played all of the instruments. The Monkees only had their vocal tracks recorded on the albums. Over time, the band’s frustration with their lack of control over their music increased. Michael Nesmith famously threatened one of the record producers by punching a hole in the wall and saying, “that could have been your face.”

CLICK: Can’t get enough classic rock? Check out our article on the intersection of rock and comics!

Their freshman album, titled (once again) The Monkees was released in 1966, and sold over five million copies. It remained in the top spot of the Billboard 200 for 13 weeks only to be displaced by their second album titled More of the Monkees. It became the bestselling album of the year in the U.S., beating The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Meanwhile their singles, “Last Train from Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” and “Daydream Believer” all reached the number spot on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. The band’s musical success is fascinating due to the fact that only Michael Nesmith was a trained musician. Micky Dolenz has remarked that “it’s as if Leonard Nimoy actually became a Vulcan.”

Their television show also enjoyed a large amount of success. The situational comedy combined the dynamics of the Marx Brothers with the counter-culture vibe that young people could relate to. The show had terrific ratings for its two season run and actually received two Emmy Awards in 1967.

Later Years

After the cancellation of their show and a box office disaster with the movie HEAD, the Monkees began to splinter. Their songs did not have the same amount of success as earlier albums, and their audiences did not seem to relate to them as much as before. By 1971, the band had ceased to be, with each member going their separate ways.

Monkees Reunion Tour
From Left to Right: Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork

The Monkees have reunited numerous times over the last few decades. Most recently, in 2016, the band released an album titled “Good Times!” to commemorate their 50th anniversary as well as honor the posthumous Davy Jones. In reviewing the album, the New York Times wrote “Fifty years later, the Monkees are still endearing.”

CLICK: Want more pop music? Check out our review of Lady Gaga’s Joanne!

Over the years, it has become increasingly controversial that The Monkees have been omitted from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Peter Tork has argued that Jann Wenner, co-founder of The Rolling Stone magazine and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, has lobbied to keep the band out of Hall of Fame due to a general distaste for this music. It is highly possible that Wenner could not get over the fact that The Monkees didn’t play their own instruments on their first two albums. If that is the case, I humbly suggest that Wenner get over his grudge.

The Monkees set the blueprint for all future boy bands, from the Backstreet Boys to the New Kids on the Block to One Direction. Davy Jones meanwhile set the stage for future teen heartthrobs like Justin Bieber or Jesse McCartney. Moreover, some of their songs (in particular “Daydream Believer” and “I’m a Believer”) have become immortalized pop songs which everybody can recognize.  The Monkees may not have been as talented or innovative as the Beatles or the Stones. But The Monkees’ heart, energy, and humor earn them a place in the history of rock and roll.

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