This week sees The Monkees releasing the album Good Times!, which is their first album in a decade. However, what’s more important is that they are releasing the album in 2016, as the year marks their 50th anniversary. Things aren’t quite the same now: Davy Jones has passed away, and a release from the group now feels like a bit of a novelty, but that’s the Monkees of the present, though. The Monkees of the past remain an indelible part of ‘60s culture and, fortunately for them, their contributions to the culture in the current landscape are fully accepted for what they were.
No matter what you feel about The Monkees, they were not “authentic,” in the traditional sense. They were, as the old dismissive epithet goes, the Pre-Fab Four. Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Micky Dolenz were put together to star in a television show. They were looking for people who could act, be a little musically inclined, and fit into the image they had in mind for the show. The Monkees, as a concept, existed before the band even really existed.
The TV show which bared the group’s name debuted in 1966 and ran for 58 episodes over two seasons. It was a fourth wall breaking, anything for a laugh, gag a minute program, with tight pop-rock musical performances thrown in. If you don’t like “random” humor, perhaps it is not your thing, but the show still holds up and, for the time, was innovative and fresh. It was just an attempt to capture the teenaged audience going nuts for The Beatles and the British Invasion (even though only one Monkee, Jones, was British), but it rose above that to really achieve something as a TV program.
Had The Monkees only existed as a TV show, there would probably have been no backlash whatsoever — there could be no accusations of illegitimacy. However, the quartet played “themselves,” and they also released albums, starting with a self-titled debut in 1966. This is where “the problem” with The Monkees arose. All four Monkees had experience as musicians, but for television purposes, they didn’t all get to play their best instrument. Dolenz, for example, hadn’t played the drums, and had to learn on the fly. He was also the best singer of the four, but Davy Jones was too short to put on the drums, and his teen idol looks probably belonged front and center.
On their first album, Nesmith had a couple writing credits, but he was the only Monkee for which that was the case. Only one Monkee, Peter Tork, got to play an instrument on the album, fittingly on the two tracks Nesmith got to produce. Otherwise, session musicians, notably The Wrecking Crew, did all the instrumentation, while The Monkees handled the singing. There’s good music on the album, but The Monkees, who were busy making a TV show, and had to deal with their management not wanting them to be a working band, didn’t really get to have much of a say in it.
Session musicians were a major part of the music industry back in the day. Documentaries like The Wrecking Crew and 20 Feet from Stardom open the door to these fascinating musicians who were fundamental in creating the music we have loved for decades. In these films, we learn the open secret that a lot of girl groups had their vocals dubbed over. That wasn’t the case with The Monkees, of course, but the point is that their records were not anathema to the way pop music worked at the time. Furthermore, The Monkees had an entirely different career, as television stars, to worry about. They were musicians, but they had other pressing needs.
Alas, in rock music, authenticity was considered important. Despite being expertly crafted and wonderfully performed, The Monkees were viewed as frauds, and their music was considered invalid. The London Sunday Mirror called them a “disgrace to the pop world.” This is odd, because it was still music that actually was being made to entertain the masses, and the music was good. On top of that, only one more album, More of the Monkees, didn’t feature major contributions from the band. By their third album, Headquarters, they were not all that different from a lot of bands. They didn’t write all the songs they recorded, but they wrote, and performed, on many of them.
The Monkees’ credentials only grew. They kept releasing music even after their show got cancelled. They made the completely insane movie Head. They had proven they were more than just a group of guys put together for the sake of a TV show trying to make money off Beatlemania. Of course, by the release of their feature film, Head, they weren’t really in the zeitgeist anymore. People weren’t really paying attention to The Monkees, at least until reruns of their show popped up on MTV in the ‘80s, at which point they were kitschy nostalgia fodder.
Now, though, 50 years later, The Monkees can be appreciated for what they were. Obviously, there are still music fans, many of them old school rock fans who complain about the state of modern pop music, but, by and large, “authenticity” in that classic sense matters less. Well, first and foremost, time has allowed us to realize that accusations about The Monkees were unfounded, more or less. Time heals all wounds, and there is no longer hysteria about finding out the group didn’t always play their instruments on their albums. Who really cares about that? Their show was good, and their music was good, and regardless of what a “Monkees song” really meant at the time, that’s what matters. It’s not a scenario akin to Milli Vanilli where they were lip-syncing. They sang on all songs and musically contributed to many of them.
On top of that, many of us have now lived through an era where prepackaged musicians dominated the landscape. Bubblegum pop like The Spice Girls, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, that’s just a portion of the list of artists who weren’t all that different than The Monkees. They got some flack, sure, but not to the same degree as The Monkees, and they were less qualified musicians than any of them. They were entertainers putting on a show, and that become normalized. Hell, even a Grammy winner like Adele doesn’t write her own songs. Thus, looking back at The Monkees through that prism, it doesn’t feel that odd. It just feels like what pop music is, and has been for decades.
It seems strange that something as frothy as The Monkees could ever draw such ire, although that’s not terribly surprising in the world of pop culture fandom. People love music, and some people take it very seriously, and it didn’t seem, perhaps, that The Monkees were serious enough. Fortunately, the distancing power of time, and the changes in the music industry, has made this a more palatable world for The Monkees. Were they to be created today, outside of their personas and schtick being decidedly unmodern, they would fit right in. Whether you love them nostalgically, or just because you think they were good, you can do it now in a world much more accepting, and appreciative, of The Monkees’ legacy.