It was lovely to read another supportive review of Why The Monkees Matter – this one by Derham Groves writing for The Journal of American Culture. Happily, I had the pleasure of meeting with Derham when he was in Los Angeles for a conference. We shared a lovely dinner at the Hollywood/Highland complex while he told me the plans for a Monkees 50th anniversary of their concert tour of Australia at his home base, the Melbourne University library. If you live in Melbourne, check it out. — Rosanne
The publication of Why The Monkees Matter: Teenagers, Television, and American Pop Culture by Rosanne Welch happily coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of The Monkees—both the TV show and the pop group. In response to casting calls in The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety in 1965, American performers Mike Nesmith (b. 1942), Peter Tork (b. 1942), and Micky Dolenz (b. 1945) and English performer Davy Jones (1945-2012) were plucked from the 400 hopefuls who answered the ads to play the four members of a fictitious, struggling, garage band in a new teen comedy TV series, both to be called The Monkees. While Nesmith and Tork were unknown to the general public, Dolenz (as Mickey Braddock) had starred as “Corky” in the TV series Circus Boy (19561958), and Jones had played “The Artful Dodger” in the original Broadway production (1963) of the musical Oliver! The Monkees TV series ran from 1966 to 1968, while The Monkees pop group broke up in 1971, then reformed again in 1989.
Many critics and historians who have discussed The Monkees in the past have focused mostly on the group’s music, whereas Welch focuses mostly on the TV series. However, it is almost impossible to separate one from the other. The way in which The Monkees was formed standard for the cast of a TV show but seen by many as “inauthentic” for the members of a band—casts doubts about the musicianship of Nesmith, Tork, Dolenz, and Jones (unfairly, both Welch and I agree). When The Monkees toured Australia in 1968 (I was twelve years old and remember it very well), a TV reporter in Brisbane impertinently asked Jones: “When do you think you might break up and try something like music?” Jones responded by throwing a glass of water in the reporter’s face, to which he retaliated by doing likewise to Jones. (The Canberra Times, 23 September 1968).
Welch was right not to get bogged down too much by the controversy over the merit of The Monkees’ music, which is surely “old hat” anyway. Firstly, at least three of the group’s hits “I’m a Believer” (1966), “Last Train to Clarksville” (1966), and “Daydream Believer” (1967)—are widely recognized nowadays as “standards” of the era. Secondly, the two manifestations of The Monkees have both stood the test of time: the TV show has endured thanks initially to reruns, then to DVD, and now to YouTube; while the pop group’s three surviving members continue to perform into their seventies, most recently in 2016 to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary.
The four actor—musicians were hired to essentially play caricatures of themselves on The Monkees. This was underpinned by the decision to use their own given names on the show, that is, “Mike,” “Peter,” “Micky,” and “Davy.” As such, The Monkees were following a tradition established by some of America’s greatest comedians, including Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Laurel and Hardy, Lucille Ball, and The Three Stooges. But The Beatles had the greatest effect on The Monkees. The English pop group influenced The Monkees’ zoomorphic name and the cute misspelling of “monkeys”; the group’s gender and size and particular mix of personalities; and the group’s zany antics on the TV show, which were modeled on those of The Beatles in their hit films, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). Coincidentally, Davy Jones and the Broadway cast of Oliver! performed on The Ed Sullivan Show on the same night in 1964 as The Beatles did. “I watched The Beatles from the side of the stage,” Jones recalled. “I saw the girls going crazy, and I said to myself, ‘This is it, I want a piece of that'” (Los Angeles Times, 1 March 2012).
Each chapter of Why The Monkees Matter looks at a different aspect of the TV series, such as its contribution to American counterculture in the 1960s; how feminism, gender, and sexuality were played out on the show; the role the scriptwriters played in making The Monkees a success; how the personalities of “Mike,” “Peter,” “Micky,” and “Davy” evolved over the course of the TV series’ two seasons and fifty-eight episodes and so on. But a constant theme throughout Welch’s book is metatextuality on The Monkees, that is, the two levels of dialogue that were going on one between the actor—musicians on the set and the other between the actor—musicians and the TV audience. While this was nothing new on television (Jack Benny and George Burns, mentioned above, both often interrupted the action to directly speak to or look at the TV audience), The Monkees introduced metatextuality to a new generation and, what is more, did it in fresh new ways, such as including outtakes at the end of the shows. While this is regularly done nowadays, it was rather “shocking” in 1966—and certainly very “hip.”
—Derham Groves, University of Melbourne