Welcome to Monkees’ Week, a celebration of my first musical love on their 50th anniversary! I’ll be discussing the first wave of Monkeemania and the TV show, what The Monkees have meant to me these past 30 years of being a fan, their discography, their case for being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and their legacy (including the second wave of Monkeemania in 1986–7).
On 12 September 1966, Monday, at 7:30 PM, The Monkees débuted on NBC, to immediate success. This series was a long time in coming, as Bob Rafelson had the idea for a show about a band since 1960. Given the musical climate of the early Sixties, however, he wasn’t able to garner enough interest in such a project till April 1965. He and Bert Schneider sold the idea to Screen Gems, and that August, a pilot script was written.
On 8 September 1965, The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety ran an ad:
Madness!! Auditions. Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running Parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21. Want spirited Ben Frank’s types. Have courage to work. Must come down for interview.
There were 437 auditions, including Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Paul Williams, Danny Hutton, and Van Dyke Parks. Urban myth claims Charles Manson auditioned too, though he was in prison at the time.
Of the four finalists who went down in musical history, only Michael Nesmith came because of the ad. The others were referred by agents or on friends’ recommendations. Peter Tork was recommended by his buddy Stephen Stills when he went in to audition and was told his hair and teeth wouldn’t photograph well on camera.
George Michael Dolenz, Jr. is the son of Slovenian-born screen legend George Dolenz (né Jure Dolenc) and 1940s actor Janelle Johnson. Since George was really old-school, he insisted Janelle retire from acting upon their marriage. In his autobiography, Micky said he kind of felt sad at how his mother was compelled to end a promising career, but also was thankful he had the experience of growing up with one parent at home all the time.
From 1956–8, Micky starred in Circus Boy. Out of fear of his ethnic name and dark curly hair, he was billed as Micky Braddock and his hair was dyed blonde. After the show ended, Micky did a few acting jobs, but mostly focused on his education. Later on, he became passionately interested in music.
David Thomas Jones began acting as a teenager, though following his mother’s tragic death from emphysema when he was 14, he began training as a jockey. However, his trainer, Basil Foster, had other ideas, and got him the role of the Artful Dodger in Oliver! This launched him into success, leading all the way to Ed Sullivan (famously the same night as The Beatles’ début performance) and a recording contract with Screen Gems.
Peter Halsten Thorkelson was very musically gifted from a young age, learning piano at nine and branching out into a number of other instruments. In the early Sixties, he moved to NYC and joined the Greenwich Village folk music scene. It was there that he befriended a number of other future famous musicians like Stephen Stills.
Robert Michael Nesmith hails from Texas, and is the son of the late Bette Nesmith Graham, the inventor of Liquid Paper. His parents divorced when he was four, and his mother worked as a secretary to support them. Eventually, she rose to become executive secretary at Texas Bank and Trust, the highest position women in that industry were able to attain in that era.
Nez served in the Air Force for awhile, and then got into folk music. He and his then-wife Phyllis moved to L.A. in 1964 so he could pursue a musical career.
It was absolute beshert (destiny) that out of all those hundreds of hopefuls, these four fellows were chosen, and meshed together so well. They became so much more than a fictional band on a TV show, rebelling against their handlers to become a real band. Nez was the one who fought longest and hardest for more creative control.
Though they all had prior musical training or experience to some degree, they weren’t allowed to do much on their first two albums (the second of which was put together and released without their knowledge).
Monkeemania was immediate, similar to the Beatlemania of several years earlier. Young girls couldn’t stop screaming by their concerts, so much so they drowned out opening act Jimi Hendrix. They booed him offstage. Micky noted in his autobiography how refreshingly polite the Japanese fans were. Since screaming by a concert is considered very rude, they instead waved handkerchiefs to show enthusiasm.
The Monkees played their instruments live, in spite of being blocked from doing much in the studio.
Sadly, NBC cancelled the show after only two seasons, though The Monkees continued making albums. They also made one of the weirdest films I’ve ever seen, Head, and did a TV special, 33⅓ Revolutions per Monkee. Peter left after this. Their string of classic albums ended in 1970, after Nez left.
Fifty years on, the boys are still belovèd and popular. This May, they released an excellent album to mark their 50th anniversary, and it quickly jumped to #1 on Amazon.