REWIND: Spotlight on The Monkees, who eventually did play their own instruments

The Monkees, Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork

The Monkees are your favorite band in 2020. The numbers don’t lie. Courtesy: Getty Images.

According to our traffic metrics your favorite band is The Monkees. Yes, you. You may disagree but pageviews don’t lie.

We’ve had three Monkees stories this year: A review of Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz at Sketchfest, a review of Nesmith and Dolenz’s live album and an interview with Dolenz. They all had a frankly shocking number of people read them. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m a Monkees fan, but I didn’t know there were that many of us out there.

So to feed the public’s insatiable desire for fresh Monkees content, and to educate my undoubtedly young and hip readership about what’s apparently the most popular band in the world in 2020, here’s the latest in my now two-part series on old bands you should appreciate more.

The Monkees — “Last Train to Clarksville”

The rumors are true: The Monkees were invented by TV producers for a sitcom.

Originally, the concept for the show was being about a band that desperately wanted to be The Beatles but were lovable failures. To that end they hired Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork. They were all actors with experience in music, but they were primarily comic actors, nonetheless.

Their first couple albums were seen as an extension of the show, and thus mostly overseen by the show’s music supervisor, Don Kirshner, with the actual members of the then-“band” in quotes contributing as much as they could fight for around their shooting schedule.

That said, if it resulted in a song as good as “Last Train to Clarksville,” it couldn’t be all bad.

The Monkees — “I’m a Believer”

The band’s second album, creatively titled More of the Monkees, is notable for a few reasons.

First, it had a couple songs, including this one, written by Neil Diamond. Yes, that Neil Diamond. Really!

Second, More of the Monkees actually sold more copies than The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is arguably (by me) the greatest album of all time. Really. Look it up.

Third, and I’m also not making this up even though it absolutely sounds like I am, Jimi Hendrix’s first American tour was opening for The Monkees after the release of this album.

The world is weird, guys.

The Monkees — “A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You”

This song is notable for getting Kirshner fired and making The Monkees a real, proper band.

Kirshner liked two things: his stable of songwriters and Davy Jones as the band’s frontman. The former was understandable since one of those songwriters was aforementioned legend Neil Diamond, but the latter was more a point of contention since all the band members shared vocal duties.

But Kirshner, the power going directly to his head, ignored them and released two Jones-sung songs as the A and B sides of a single in Canada, with this being the A-side. He didn’t ask the band for permission. He didn’t really ask anyone for permission, and to top it all off, he had “My Favorite Monkee — Davy Jones Sings” printed on the albums.

And that was about it for him.

The Monkees — “Daydream Believer”

From the Monkees’ third album onward they were a normal band, albeit one that were also shooting a sitcom in an era where they were expected to have an episode every week pretty much perpetually. So they didn’t sleep much.

Their first album as a legit, proper band with creative control was Headquarters, but it’s not one of my favorites so we’re skipping to a single recorded during the sessions for their fourth album and released on their fifth. It was their last huge, timeless hit.

Also, most of all, anyone who claims to not like “Daydream Believer” is lying to you. It’s a great song.

The Monkees — “Listen to the Band”

The year 1968 was not kind to the Monkees. First, their show was canceled. Then their movie debut, Head, tanked along with its soundtrack. Their TV special was even worse. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, Peter Tork quit the band.

All that said, they did prove the perception that they were actors who didn’t play their own instruments wrong, even if it was initially true to their chagrin. Their show was canceled in 1968 but the band kept releasing albums.

Their eighth of nine albums included this song, which was considered for their very first album but ultimately passed over. It topped out at No. 100 on the Billboard chart, showing that perhaps that was a good decision. After its was released, Nesmith quit to pursue a critically acclaimed career as a folk singer-songwriter. He wrote the song that became Linda Ronstadt’s first hit. The band made one more album as a duo, and broke up in 1970.

But of course you all knew that already, and are probably already correcting me in the comments if you disagree with any of my assessments.

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(37) Comments

  1. Thomas

    The Monkees were a very special band . Their voices and harmonies are outstanding ! They became a real band and it took a lot of courage to fire Kirshner and win the right to be musicians on their own albums . They should have been commended but the critics never gave them the credit they deserved . To this day the radio stations don’t play all their songs . They have songs like Door into Summer , Can you dig it ? Do I have to do this all over again?Aunties Municipal Court , Love is only sleeping , Circle Sky, Writing Wrongs that are right up there with the best songs ever made and you don’t hear them . The Monkees are like Pinocchio and just like he became a real man , they became a real band . A truly amazing story !

    1. Michele

      As Mike has pointed out many times throughout the decades, the Pinocchio metaphor falls apart because Geppetto actually wanted a real boy. The creators of the Monkees did not want a real band, and often did everything they could to discourage the boys from becoming a real band.

    2. Lesa

      Great analysis! Completely agree. I like their music as much, if not more, than.... dare I say it... The Beatles. Yep, I said it.

  2. Tom Lawrence

    Nice piece. Small note, Mike Nesmith wrote “Different Drum” in 1965, before joining The Monkees, and it was a hit for the Stone Poneys in 1967 while the Prefab Four were at their peak.

  3. Glenn

    I’m encouraged by anyone who recognizes the Monkees complete career and body of work. The notion that they did not play their own instruments died over 50 years ago as they have been actively involved in performing in various configurations since then. As for the article, I feel Headquarters was quickly dismissed and while Zi respect your opinion, I believe it was one of their best, but without a released single, often gets overlooked. I am also puzzled by the lack of credit for Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones , LTD, another solid, and probably their best, album.

    1. Michele

      Agreed. headquarters is a marvel When you look at it through the lens of what it represented and achieved. They disregarded the Box they were being told to perform in, took matters into their own hands, and achieved a damn good sound all on their own. That's about as punk as it gets. I will never understand why For Pete's Sake was not released as a single. With the screentime that it got during the second season's closing credits, seems like a no-brainer for a hit.

      1. Moon

        For Pete's Sake is a GREAT song! I listened to it twice this morning. I love Mickey's voice and tend to prefer the songs he sang lead on.

  4. Michele

    I appreciate the depth of talent that all four Monkees had; the more one examines Each of them, the more impressive they become. I think it is stretching it, though, to refer to Nesmith and Tork as primarily comic actors. I do not believe Mike had any acting experience prior, and Peter had only limited experience in student films, I believe. They were definitely musicians primarily and actors secondarily.

  5. Al

    All four members had some ability playing musical instruments when hired for the show - but curiously, they ALL were assigned to instruments that were not their primary ones! They didn't have the benefit of developing chemistry together as a "normal" band would, and to crank out something like 4 albums in a year and a half while doing the TV shoots is beyond crazy. I think it is a testament to their talents and ambitions to see them obtain some creative control so quickly after first forming. To me, Headquarters was a raw, brilliant album, all theirs, and the next was even better. It was fast and huge growth from when they were first hired as comic musical actors. Tork played 5 or 6 instruments, Dolenz possesses a signature voice, and Nesmith is not only a prolific songwriter, he invented MTV and pretty much invented country rock. Davy was the cover boy for the teen mags and did his thing, and he had some inspired vocal moments. Nobody should ever be shy to be a fan of theirs. They were fun, they had foresight (first recorded use of a Moog synth, played by Dolenz, for instance), they pioneered music videos, and they became a good band.

  6. james leo stand

    Also don't forget the later albums. Good times and Christmas party are excellent. Justus and pool it are good. The Dolenz Jones Boyce and Hart album is also good.

    1. Lynn Hall

      Everybody forgets that album. I saw Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart in concert. Their songs still pop into my head all the time.

  7. Cindy

    The Monkees never got the credit they deserved. Micky had and still has an incredible voice. Mike is an awesome songwriter. Peter was a wonderful musician. Davy was a great singer as well. I was only 11 when I became a fan of their's and still am to this day. All people have to do is listen to their music to see they were good. I have the boxed set of all their albums and love listening to them. It is sad that critica still do not recognize their talent. But fans still love them. I know I always will. By the way I love Neil Diamond and The Beatles too.

  8. Christina tello

    Great article :) I'm 32 and became a Monkees fan as a child in the late 90s when the show was in syndication. I've had the joy of seeing them in concert and meeting Davey in 2011. I'm glad to see the Monkees revival in full swing!!

    1. Rob Thomas

      The Monkees show was MTV without the knowledge of it. I mean songs performed around the comedy acting, how much more MTV can one get?

  9. Lisa Matney

    I have always loved The Monkees. I have been a fan from the very beginning in 1966. I was a small child, but looked forwards to every Monday night. I didn't get to see them in concert until 1986. I loved it. The only thing missing was my favorite Monkee, Michael Nesmith. I finally got to see him perform for the first time in Nashville, TN, September of 2018. I was in Heaven. I wished Mike and Micky would come to Kentucky. Some of us older fans can't travel long distances any more. By the way, I enjoyed reading this article.

  10. Rene W Brignone

    All one needs to do is listen to the ' Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma ' album and you wil know where most of the talent in the band came from. Not to say others weren't but Nesmith needed very little whiteout (tic )when composing music or writing lyrics.

  11. Jose Rodriguez

    The first albums I ever bought were "The Monkees" and "More of the Monkees" in the 1960s. I am now 70 years old and still a fan.

    1. Terry Marvin

      Sunday, April 19, 2020--4:47 pm CST My guess is: The reason why the Monkees are the most popular band in 2020, is probably because of the death of Peter Tork last year and he got recognition he deserved in a lot of magazines and a couple of award shows and on the internet. Peter is really missed by a lot of Monkee fans as well Davy Jones who passed away in 2012. I hope there will be an updated documentary about the Monkees as well as an updated biopic movie about them. The other reason The Monkees are very popular in 2020 is probably because they were the first music video band. Those are my feelings about the Monkees. I still think about The Monkees and I still love them even though Davy Jones (12/30/1945 to 2/29/ 2012) and Peter Tork (2/13/1942 to 2/21/2019) are no longer with us.

  12. Fernanda

    Amo desde que os vi pela primeira vez, criança quando passou aqui no Brasil (anos 60) ainda hoje acompanho. Com certeza minha banda favorita sempre.

  13. Thom Kapp

    It's true. They were a made for TV band. But they evolved into a great group with lasting appeal. The jerks at the rock and roll Hall of fame can't get past their prejudice. Typical of rolling stone and they're worthless attempt at journalism.

  14. Marty Smith

    I've loved them from the very beginning. It's nice to see new interest in them, and Michael and Micky touring so successfully this many years on. Also great they include Door Into Summer in their shows, one of my favourite songs. Each member was uniquely talented in their own way. RIP Davy Jones and the lovely Peter Tork, who was a phenomenal musician.

  15. Jon Osborn

    The Mon KEES are a complicated story. First off, the new live cd is without the face of the band and their best musician in the band. Davy and Peter. And much of what you said, has been said a MILLION times before. Don't get it wrong though. It is nice to see it out there. They have HEAVILY depended on other people to write, play and produce much of what has came out though the years. When they fought to have control of their albums in the 60's, they gave it right back. Justus is not very good. Pool It was okay. Good Times was good because of other people involved with this project. Magdelena, You Bring The Summer and She Makes Me Laugh are all songs written, played and produced by other people. Do The Monkees deserve to be in the Rock Hall? of Course!! BUT, they had help in ways, no other band had. The best song writers, studio musicians and oh yeah, a TV show to promote the stuff. Screen Gems, Boyce & Hart, Carloe King and Neil Diamond made The Monkees. Paul Revere & The Raiders were a better band. Mark Lindsay could write, produce and sing. They both belong in the Rock hall in my opinion.

  16. Paul Armstrong

    I'm 60 this June and for many Brits of my age the Monkees were far more important than the Beatles. Not really into analysing them, just loved everything about them. Still find their shows great fun, and, yes, I agree, anyone who says they don't like "Daydream Believer" is a liar!

  17. Daniel Burkett

    For a "band" that really WASN'T a band, they sure did turn into a good one!! It's a shame that no one, LEAST of all, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recognizes this. The Monkees were, and still are, I guess, considered a joke in the music world. They were not a "real" band, but Davy, Peter, Mike, and Mickey became one, much to the disbelief of the music world. It's also a shame that, to this day, no one takes The Monkees seriously, which is totally wrong. Their music is just as good, maybe even better, than what was out there, back in the '60s. Listen to their songs, and you may find yourself liking them, DESPITE all the noise and criticism!!!! I DARE you!!!

  18. Jon Osborn

    The Mon KEES were a good band. The Beatles were far better in every way. None of The Monks had a successful solo career. Even Mike Nesmith had a nominal solo career. All The Beatles had successful solo careers. Daydream Believer was a good song. Still is. Nothing to do with this comparison though. And I won't be buying the Live CD either. No Davy or Peter. Not enough. Paul Revere & The Raiders baby!!!!!

  19. Thomas

    I disagree with Jon. The Monkees were much better than the Beatles . The music and the songs were of much better quality . A lot of the Beatles songs were lousy and just filler material. What is I dig a pony ? Rocky Racoon , Bungalow Bill Octypus Garden ,Blackbird , Something and Let it Be we’re very average songs . Nothing great! Listen to the best album ever recorded Pisces Jones and Acquarius LTD ! It blows always anything the Beatles did ! And the Raiders are just a very average band . Nothing special . The Monkees were the best !

    1. Jon Osborn

      Thomas. It's hardly comparable. Look, everyone has an opinion and I respect yours. Paul McCartney on his own is better than The Mon KEES. And Paul Revere & The Raiders blows the monkees out of the water. None of the Mon KEES ever wrote one major hit in the 60's while they were in the band. I am not talking album cuts. The Beatles were and still are the biggest band that ever lived. It's disgraceful how BAD the solo stuff of the monkees were. Even Nesmith's stuff sucks. Sorry. Mark Lindsay had hits as a solo artist. And Listen To The Band is a minor hit that most people don't know. Here is some news that this article did not print. The Mon KEES turned down Sugar Sugar. And Mike Nesmith told Don Kirshner that I'm A Believer would never be a hit. lol Here is a good one for you. Davy Jones was charged with Domestic Violence in Florida just before he died.

  20. Thomas

    Jon it’s ok I respect your opinion too, however Nesmith’s solo albums were absolutely fantastic . Every song on the albums are all excellent . Peter Tork did a few great albums also . McCartneys solo albums are all excellent . George Harrison’s all things must pass is fantastic !Ringo’s and Johns albums were mediocre at best . I do agree the Raiders were a good band . I just feel there is no band that has the talent the Monkees did . Just listen to Head and the Birds , The Bees and the Monkees . The songs are incredible ! Total space out man!

  21. Jon Osborn

    Okay Thomas. The Monkees are a good band. I will leave it there. How are you doing in this pandemic? Where do you live? I am in Las Vegas.

  22. Thomas

    The Monkees are just my favorite !!! I listen to the Beatles , Led. Zepplin , Spanky and our Gang , Fifth Dimension, The Who , B 52s , the Turtles, Deep Purple , Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Cowsills , Iron Butterfly and Cream. But the Monkees beat them all! How about you?

  23. Jon Osborn

    Paul Revere And The Raiders are my main interest. Love many of the 60's stuff. Monkees are okay. Love The Beatles. Check out my website for Paul Revere And The Raiders. See ya.

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