The Unlikely Collaborations Between The Monkees And Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa was a man who you could describe as aggressively anti-commercial and someone who courted divisiveness. He made all sorts of different kinds of music. He made jazz that only the most ardent of jazz aficionados could enjoy, and composed classical pieces. He made rock songs filled with lyrics made up of exceedingly sophomoric jokes. One of his signature songs is called “Don’t Eat Yellow Snow.” Zappa was opinionated and brash and counter-culture. He pretended to like The Shaggs, for God’s sake! (He called The Shaggs better than The Beatles, once. It is a presumption that he was insincere in his affinity for The Shaggs because, well, have you listened to The Shaggs?)

Michael Nesmith and Davy Jones, on the face of things, were not like Frank Zappa. They were both Monkees, or rather, members of the “Pre-Fab Four.” They were prepackaged to appeal to Beatles fans. They were as focused about their TV show as they were about music. In the beginning, they weren’t wholly responsible for the instrumentation on their albums, or the songwriting. Eventually, they did take on a bigger role in the creation of their own music, and, while their music was market researched within an inch of its life to appeal to the masses, the show The Monkees was actually quite weird and goofy and fairly funny. Nevertheless, The Monkees were seen as being on the forefront of “mainstream culture” — Davy Jones was on The Brady Bunch.

Obviously, a dichotomy is being established between Zappa and The Monkees. Why does one take the time to make it clear to the reader that two entities seemingly have nothing in common? So they can blow their minds by telling them that, in fact, they had more in common than you realize. This is the case with Zappa and The Monkees. It’d be weird, at this point, if it wasn’t.

Yes, the man who made an album called We’re Only in It for the Money to poke fun at The Beatles made guest appearances on two Monkees projects. The first instance, and the most iconic instance, was in the episode “The Monkees Blow Their Minds.” It is the penultimate episode of the show, and the main plot involves a mentalist gaining control of Peter Tork’s mind to use him in his nightclub act. That is not a particularly weird story for The Monkees. However, before they get into that action, there is a cold open involving Mr. Zappa and Mike Nesmith.

If you were going to pair any Monkee with Zappa, Nesmith makes the most sense. He was a sardonic oddball who was a producer on the movie Repo Man. He probably thought Zappa was funny, and maybe Zappa liked him too. According to Barry Miles’ book Frank Zappa, Zappa was a fan of The Monkees, and actually invited Micky Dolenz to join his band, the Mothers of Invention. That didn’t happen, but they did get Zappa on their TV show.

The cold open is, ostensibly, an interview between Nesmith and Zappa, but they decided to weird it up a bit, with great results. Zappa portrayed Nesmith, while Nesmith played Zappa. Zappa wears Nesmith’s iconic clothing, including his hat. Nesmith, meanwhile, dons a cheap wig, and cheaper nose, to play Zappa. His fake nose keeps falling off. The interview is awkward and stilted. Then Zappa, the actual Zappa, “plays” a car by smashing it and lighting it on fire and stuff while Nesmith conducts.

It’s truly bizarre, and a little distancing, but it’s also funny. It has nothing to do with anything, it’s just a strange little thing they did because Zappa wanted to stop by, but it works. It feels more like The Monkees’ style of humor than Zappa’s, but, then again, Zappa is a bit of a chameleon. Were there a lot of Zappa fans who tuned into The Monkees, though? How many people were excited and enthused by Zappa’s appearance? And how many people were just like, “Frank Zappa, eh? That’s weird.” This was not modern times, of course, it was the 1960s, so this sort of information is less accessible. In these modern times, you could just plug “Frank Zappa The Monkees” into Twitter and see what people are saying.

After The Monkees ended, they regrouped for the 1968 film Head. The Monkees was an oddball, but sweet, show. Head, by comparison, is a super weird departure. Co-written by Jack Nicholson, the film is a bizarre, counterculture film with a heavy drug influence. All sorts of people showed up in it, including their ol’ pal Zappa. Zappa plays a character solely credited as “The Critic.” Davy Jones, and a group of other people, leave a big, dark room and head out into the bright sunshine. One of those people is Zappa, who has a big bull on a leash. Zappa tells him he needs to work on his music, and that the youth of America is depending on him. Also, the bull talks.

It’s a short little cameo, and it’s not even close to being the weirdest thing in the movie. It does speak to the notion that Zappa was a true fan of The Monkees, though. Otherwise, why bother with this brief appearance with a bull? It’s the sort of cameo you make for a friend, like all those guys who pop up in Will Ferrell’s movies. This scene is not as funny as the one from The Monkees, but it is good.

The Monkees would occasionally work together, here and there, after Head, although Nesmith would not always be involved. Now, of course, Jones has since died, so any reunion is out of the question. Zappa would go on to make his own movie, 200 Motels, and he would also get himself banned from Saturday Night Live after hosting it. He just didn’t jibe with the so called “counter-culture” ideas of SNL. He apparently felt much more at home with guys like The Monkees. The world is a strange place.