Davy Jones passed away today at the age of 66. And while my Monkee fandom has ebbed and flowed over the last decade or so, the fact remains that The Monkees played an incredibly important role in my musical education. And I suspect I’m not alone.
I grew up in the late 1970s as a child of the late 1950s. The only music I heard was doo-wop, Dion & The Belmonts, Buddy Holly, Elvis and countless other greats. Sha Na Na provided a kid friendly television alternative to the radio and Grease was one of the first movies I can remember seeing. The oldies revival boom of the mid to late 1970s ensured that there was a constant flow of live shows to be brought to as a precocious 5-year-old (The Shirelles, Del Shannon, Jan & Dean, The Platters and many, many more). As far as I knew that music was current. It was what everyone listened to, right?
Wrong. In 1982 MTV arrived in our house and the thought free world of mainstream musical mediocrity was presented to me in all of its visual glory. Duran Duran rode on yachts. Pat Benatar was defeating the Nazis and Michael Jackson was dancing with zombies. I had to admit that those things did not happen in any of the episodes of Sha Na Na that I’d ever seen, so I took the bait. And by 1986 I really didn’t care about music anymore. Job done, early MTV.
In February of 1986 my best friend told me that MTV would be running a marathon of The Monkees television series. Both of us had watched and enjoyed the show as kids, but neither of us would have expected our reaction. For about 2 years my friend and I soaked up every bit of Monkee information, memorabilia and music it was possible to find in small-town New Hampshire. Since this marathon coincided with the emergence of the VCR in popular culture it meant that every episode and interview could be recorded and watched and rewatched. We saw them live three times, bought their books, got their autographs and listened to their albums constantly. What The Monkees did was to rekindle my love of music -which is slightly ironic when you consider that The Monkees legacy is not so much a musical one, but a cultural one.
In a nutshell The Monkees were an example of two talented musicians and two talented actors being thrown together so that a studio could make money off of “the kids” and “the scene” as they thought people wanted to see it. The music was a means to an end and the ride was over in about two years. The four participants were shown the door most ungraciously* and the studio moved on to their next project. But what those two years showed us about marketing and about creating a product that fits the times is astounding. I don’t think that any attempt by Hollywood to create a multimedia celebrity to capitalize on a demographic since has quite matched its intensity (some may say Glee, but I’m not convinced).
Today many people think of The Monkees in unflattering terms. They see them as a group of guys that tried to get into a party without an invitation. Guys who wanted to be The Beatles, but were really just a bunch of cheats. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. The Monkees were well aware of the fact that they were acting the part of a rock and roll band and that part of this was to have albums released. They wanted to perform on them, but they were turned down by management. They fought to gain creative control and won. They recorded one full album as a band, realized they were not quite good enough together to do it again, and decided to have each individual produce their own solo material that they brought in and placed on Monkees records. There really weren’t any delusions of grandeur there. It was the reaction to the television series that got them the attention, and I think they always knew that.
But getting back to Davy Jones, his passing makes me remember that no man gave up more to become a Monkee than Davy Jones. He had a promising career on Broadway ahead of him (he had already been nominated for a Tony award) and was probably about to be promoted as a teen idol in his own right. Becoming a Monkee was probably the quickest way available to achieve superstardom, but it also cost him any shot of solo success in music or on Broadway. There was a darker side to Davy Jones (he was not the happy, cherub-faced imp that he portrayed on TV) and I always got the sense that he knew the decision he made to take that one gig meant he traded a long career on the top of a mountain for a few moments in the stratosphere. He didn’t know that going in.
And even though Davy Jones is no more responsible for it than any of the other Monkees I thank him for his part in making me care about music again. When The Monkees returned to fame in 1986 they became the first band that I absolutely had to know EVERYTHING about, so I devoured books about them and about bands of the sixties. Within a year I began to split my loyalties between The Monkees and The Beatles and never looked back. But regardless of how I feel about their music, their television series or their place in history I know that I’ll always be able to trace my musical knowledge back to a single point in early 1986.
Here is a song from The Monkees infamous flop turned cult-hit 1968 film, Head. “Daddy’s Song” was written by Harry Nilsson, who would go on to fame a few years after the film’s release. And Davy’s dance partner? That’s young choreographer Toni Basil, who would help to destroy my love of music a mere 14 years later with the help of MTV.
*If you ever want to see proof of how unceremoniously The Monkees were abandoned by the studio you need look no further than Head. The show’s creators/producers (who really wanted to be free of the band so that they could become serious filmmakers) told a band desperate to be taken seriously that writing a film in which they kill off their bubblegum image was a good idea and that they’d be behind them all the way. The Monkees were only too eager to shed their teenybopper image and wrote scenes showing the band committing suicide by jumping off a bridge together, fighting in Vietnam, hitting women, mocking the handicapped and generally being unlikeable (albeit in a cartoonish way). The studio then delayed the release until after the TV show was cancelled, decided not to mention The Monkees were even in the film in the TV, radio and print ads, and ignored it altogether when it eventually was released. They got their wish, the film flopped and The Monkees were finished. The producers were free to go make Easy Rider , which is what they wanted to do all along. Needless to say I adore the film.