We spoke with Peter Mills, author of the recently published The Monkees, Head, and the 60s. The book may be the definitive book on 60s pop and television phenomenons The Monkees and is a must-read for the band's fans, as well as anyone with an interest in a singular moment in pop culture history. Here's what Peter had to say.
Well I was too young to really be aware of the wider phenomenon in the 60’s, although my sister had some of the records and we would watch the TV show and collect the chewing gum trading cards and so on. The show debuted on the BBC on New Year’s Eve 1966 and was an instant smash, the records cramming the UK charts in early ’67. There was also a big-selling magazine, Monkees Monthly, and they were covered in the teen mags like Jackie and Fab 208 as well as the ‘adult’ music press, such as the venerable Melody Maker and the New Musical Express (NME). Part of the appeal was definitely that one of the group was English; it made them seem less "American" – and not necessarily just 25% less! Davy Jones definitely brought a British sense of humour to the show, a more irreverent style which I think found a dynamic echo in Mickey Dolenz and added a lot to the "improv" side of things. I think what British audiences liked about the group and the show was that they were good at what they did and didn’t appear to take themselves too seriously – a mix which is always a winner for a UK fanbase.
It’s also my impression from reading the magazine and newspaper coverage of the time that people in the UK were less bothered about the "scandal" of the session musicians playing on the early hits, and that the endorsement of The Beatles went a long way toward ensuring they were welcomed in Britain – Mickey wrote "Randy Scouse Git" (in the UK, "Alternate Title") as a kind of travelogue of his first visit to London in January 1967. Their Wembley concerts in the June and July of that year were extraordinarily well-received, providing quite the moment for Swinging London in the Summer Of Love. The appeal has never really waned — 1997’s Justus quartet tour sold out arenas round the UK but didn’t survive the transition back to the US. The Monkees have remained tremendously popular in the UK, even through the fallow days of the 70’s, chiefly thanks to the repeats of the TV show over the long school summer holidays – British kids (such as myself) discovered them that way in the mid-70’s and subsequent repeats on the BBC in the early 80’s and 90’s brought in new waves of young fans.
The Monkees was unique in that, while scripted, it had a very non-linear flow —slapstick, mixed with surrealism, dada-ism, and psychedelia. You make a great point in your book about why this was appealing to it’s young audience in the lack of clear parental figures. Can you elaborate?
The mix of slapstick and the surreal was central to the storytelling appeal: this matched with the liberating force of the great pop tunes which studded the shows made The Monkees take off like a rocket. The controlled chaos of the TV show, with its magical elements – wish for the object that will get you out of a fix and there it is – closely resembles the imaginative play world of children. Boyce and Hart’s "(Theme From) The Monkees" invited its audience to "come and watch us sing and play" expressing energy and innocence and as such was built to appeal directly to a young audience who lived through their imaginations. That’s why so many of the plots resemble models from children’s stories with a groovy gloss – lonely kids, sweethearts kept apart by parents and, most cruelly, step-parents, modern day princesses and fairy tales, space aliens, swashbuckling pirates. Yet it’s there to appease parents too – who could disapprove of their kids singing and playing? Similarly, the episodes were often moral fables in which, by the end, the right thing was done and equilibrium restored in time for the closing theme – in that, The Monkees always put me in mind of the line from George Harrison’s ‘It’s All Too Much’ from Yellow Submarine: ‘Show me that I’m everywhere, and get me home for tea’. It’s a wild, colourful, unpredictable ride, but one which takes you home safely in the end. This is also one of the covert ways the circularity of Head resembles the TV show, albeit in a darker and more adult manner.
The absence of a parental figure from the show nearly didn’t happen – the pilot featured a manager who was dropped once the show was go. Elsewhere, adults were outfoxed: the boys’ landlord was a money-grabbing schmuck who could be outwitted or plain old shut out. The nearest thing they had to a father figure was the mannequin Mr. Schneider (named as an in-joke: Bob Rafelson’s partner in creating The Monkees was Bert Schneider, scion of the Columbia film dynasty), who offered advice only when directly consulted via a tug on his string, activating his voicebox. So in their ‘pad’ there was freedom, no-one saying, to press a Beatle title into service, "you can’t do that" – every child’s dream! Four guys living together, having adventures, falling in and out of love, laughing and pursuing their dreams alongside their friends– a set-up best enjoyed as fantasy for the school-age viewer but surely everyone who has lived in a shared rented house has at some point felt like they were living in an episode of The Monkees. What was exceptional in 1966 is now a standard rite of passage for the young. Putting it on primetime TV opened the windows of possibility for a new generation – maybe, just maybe, they didn’t have to replicate the lives and values of their parents. The Monkees embodied this, and music was at the heart of this new possibility.
What differentiates the Monkees music from either other “fake” groups like the Archies or the Partridge Family, or the real but saccharine “pop” acts of the day, such as Herman’s Hermits or the Dave Clark Five. Clearly, to their legion of supporters, they were a much more “legitimate" musical outfit.
What differentiates them is what they did just over 50 years ago in late January 1967 at the Beverly Hills Hotel in a meeting with Don Kirshner and his lawyer – under Nesmith and Tork’s direction, The Monkees fired their ‘musical supervisor’ Kirshner and assumed control of their own musical output. In doing so they went from being a ‘fake’ band (though they were real enough) to being a ‘real’ one. Dolenz has rather beautifully described it as ‘like Pinocchio becoming a real boy’, a description of which I will never tire. Kirshner had sown the seeds of his own demise by forcing the quartet together out on stage to promote the musical wing of the project while it was still piping hot, making them ‘be’ rather than ‘act’ as The Monkees. It was on the concert stages of December ’66 and January ’67 that they actually became a band rather than four actors ‘pretending’ to be a band. The massive, instant commercial success of the series and the musical output connected with it gave the four young men the leverage to do this – they used the project’s own success against Kirshner.
The Partridge Family never gave a live performance – it was David Cassidy who had the "real world" career beyond the show, and bore the burden the association brought. One of the great enigmas and what-ifs of The Monkees’ story is what might have happened had they used the screen names originally penciled in for the four characters; instead they used their own names and the mask stuck. In The Partridge Family, David was ‘Keith’, the lovely Susan was ‘Laurie’ and Shirley was, well, ‘Shirley’ but because she was already such a big star it didn’t matter — the distinction was there. She was also that parental figure which The Monkees did without: like real-world contemporaries The Osmonds and The Jackson 5, the Partridges were a family. None of this was coincidence; the series was developed produced and owned by the same people who had created The Monkees – Columbia and Screen Gems — and Partridge Family music was issued on Bell Records, the successor to Colgems, the bespoke label set up to release Monkee music. The industry men had learned their lesson from the dramatic and turbulent consequences of failing to fully control the success of The Monkees and would not tolerate any repetition of the ‘musical revolution’ that took place in the flamingo-pink luxury of the Beverly Hills Hotel.
The Archies were of course The Monkees’ nemesis, a band who would never answer back – Kirshner’s revenge. Apocryphally, it was the prospect of "Sugar Sugar" being recorded ‘by’ The Monkees that provided the last straw for Nesmith. Herman’s Hermits existed as a vehicle for Davy’s fellow- Mancunian Peter Noone and never really had pretensions of creating anything other than the pop hits they delivered, while Dave Clark was, from day one, a sharp-eyed businessman rather than a creative spirit – the last thing on earth Clark would have done would have been to, in Mike Love’s infamous phrase, "fuck with the formula." Which was precisely what Nesmith and his fellow Monkees did. Thank goodness.
Let’s talk a little bit about the Monkees movie Head. Any ideas on what the heck that Bob Rafelson/Jack Nicholson script looked like, particularly to the movie company financing it, and what they thought about it? As we’ll talk about below, they were a bit of a target here.
The script of Head was typed out on 99 pages of A4 by Jack Nicholson, based on a slew of ideas thrown into the pot on a long (if not entirely ‘lost’) weekend in Ojai, California, in late October 1967 where the four Monkees, Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, de facto manager Brendan Cahill and Nicholson free-associated ideas under varying degrees of influence – amazingly Mickey Dolenz has some silent Super 8 of this weekend, and the scene was recreated for the year 2000 Rhino biopic of the band Daydream Believers. A photocopy of the script, complete with additions and annotations and the film’s original title "Changes" rendered on the front in the shape of the Monkees guitar logo, has slipped into the collectors market and can be found reasonably priced if you go looking for it. Much of what made it into the film is found verbatim on the page and it’s clear that the script was written very quickly – by February ‘68 they were shooting. Equally, much was dropped or changed (usually for the better) and the script reveals changes to the musical content too – all this and more is detailed in my book.
Before setting out on shooting, Raybert (the company formed by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider to produce The Monkees show back in ’65) were in a highly advantageous position – not only were their boys the hottest act on the planet in 1967 when the film was green-lit (infamously outselling Beatles, Stones and Elvis in that epochal year) but Schneider’s father Abe was the Head (no pun intended) of parent company Columbia Pictures. So that’s how they get away with the seditious (in Hollywood ’68 terms) burning up of a facsimile of the Columbia logo in the film’s final moments, and using a mainstream movie budget to create a counter-cultural challenge to all that the star machine of Hollywood represented at that time. In that, Head is not a million miles from the "palace revolution" of the year before – the project’s success was used against itself by the people at its centre. This is yet another way in which the whole Monkees project is quite unlike anything that went before or came after in the field of popular culture; it was, it seemed, the harbinger of a new world.
Head was really an extension of the TV show in its format (which was probably appealing to fans) but with several inter-connected points on what’s “real,” what is packaged and how to break out of pre-conceived notions, but I would guess the majority of fans who saw it at the time didn’t “get” that but that notion has become clearer over time. Agree, disagree?
The commonplace and entirely understandable reaction to seeing Head for the first time is ‘what a mess!’ or, as a German exchange student said to me after a screening, "someone just had an acid trip and put it on film." Both may well be to some degree correct, but studying the film closely has revealed to me something above and beyond a stoner movie, or a kind of chemically charged, moving action painting. For example, the collage inserts of footage that could have come from that evening’s news, the random channel surfing, prankster vox pops, the adverts gnawing at the heart of the American Dream – all superbly chosen and deployed. Consider too the finesse and fine detail of the musical sequences – listen to how the tension in the 12-second cello note breaks as Dolenz’s body hits the water in the ‘Porpoise Song’ sequence, or the momentary glimpse of the controversial Edward Kienholz car at Mike’s birthday party. These are not "chaotic" moments – they are examples of remarkably precise plotting and a careful arrangement of iconography and sound.
Having said that, it’s a hell of a task to swallow this movie whole. I’d definitely argue it’s a movie which, like a great novel or a painting, really rewards repeated consideration. In that it possesses a musical quality — we think nothing of listening to songs or albums over and over again, yet we rarely watch films with similar frequency. That’s partly a matter of time, as music tends to come in more concise packages, and it’s harder to "get" a film in one go. The patterns and structures of Head remain remarkable even by 21st century criteria so it’s little wonder it failed commercially in its own era. We could in truth say the same about the music of The Velvet Underground or Nick Drake, or the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, for that matter – art out of time in its own day, but slowly the rest of the world has caught up. I’d say the same is true for the whole Monkees project, actually, but especially Head.
A key theme in the movie is an effort to identify what is real – the film’s ‘theme’ ‘Porpoise Song’, written to order for the movie by Goffin and King for Dolenz to sing, says it out loud: "wanting to feel, to know what is real." Peter Tork’s sizzling, incendiary "Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again" asks a similar question: "Can I see my way to know what’s really real?" These were thoughts in harmony with the spirit of the age, certainly, but particularly pertinent for the group, especially in the context of Head. In the film, the band are portrayed a couple of times as mannequins, notably in the ‘concert riot’ sequence, where the fans rip the band apart, find they are tailor’s dummies and yet seem unperturbed, rejoicing in their trophies anyway. Later in the film Tork reminds Dolenz that Peter is "always the dummy" after another riotous assembly at a boxing match between Sonny Liston and Davy Jones (you want to see it now, don’t you!) and later still a peeved Nesmith announces that "you think they call us plastic now, babe, wait until I tell ‘em how we really do it!" The film’s chief target is their own public image, using that local narrative to try and discover "what is real" in a wider sense – to pull off the masks that had stuck in ’66 and in doing so set both them and their audience free. The film’s final bleak joke on the band suggests that such a goal wasn’t achieveable by The Monkees – or, as the following years showed, maybe just not at that time.
The Monkees were created in a Hollywood studio, designed to be consumed by the eyes and ears, born to be sold. In that sense they were indeed "manufactured." But somehow, somewhere along the line something happened and the base metal was turned to gold; even efforts to subvert that success, like Head, have subsequently only added to the appeal and the sense of a one-off, unrepeatable success. It’s not even simply that the "fake" became "real"; the "manufactured" product became, due to forces beyond everyone’s control, even better than the real thing.
Care to weigh in at all on the alternate reality/universe currently at play at the highest level of American government? It is surreal…
I’m no expert but the film’s central theme of the distinction between the "real" and the "fake" dissolving to the extent that we are no longer able, as the film’s "fake" Guru says, "to distinguish between the real and the vividly imagined experience" certainly seems to find some resonance in the current political climate in the US.
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