FORTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, the first episode of The Monkees aired on NBC. Starring a group of four young actors culled from a lengthy audition process, the sitcom took its cue from the mixture of comedy and music of the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night and ended up pioneering many techniques that served as precursors to the music video era. "I guess the closest thing nowadays would be Glee—a television show about an imaginary glee club," says Micky Dolenz, one of three Monkees participating in this year's 45th anniversary tour. "And The Monkees was a TV show about an imaginary group. But all the people in the group could actually sing and play and dance, like the cast of Glee can actually sing and play and dance. That's the closest similarity I've seen come down the pike."
It's important to note, however, that the Monkees' musical material was original to the group—they never did karaoke cover versions of existing hits. It was incredibly fortuitous that the show's production studio, Screen Gems, had an extensive music publishing branch, and the ensuing string of Monkees singles and albums contains some of the finest pop music of the 1960s. It certainly helped that songwriters like Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, and Harry Nilsson contributed songs. It also helped that each of the four actors—Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones—had musical ideas of their own to contribute. Nesmith, in particular, revealed himself to be one of the best songwriters of the era, and while he's not participating in this tour, the other three will perform several of his compositions.
"When I go back to do these shows, I choose to call them a 'revival,'" says Dolenz, recalling previous reunions over the years. "Like if you were going to do a revival of the musical Cats or Chicago or some musical theater revival, because when I go back and do these, I go back as an actor, singer, musician, recreating my role as the wacky drummer of the Monkees."
That "role," however, shares Dolenz's actual name; it's been both a blessing and a curse that he and the other Monkees have often been mixed up with their TV characters over the years. "I've always wondered if it would have been better for me to have a character name on the television show," he says. "In the original script, of course, the names weren't Micky, Davy, Peter, and Mike. The pilot script had entirely different names because they hadn't cast anybody yet. At some point they decided to use all real names and, you know, who knows if it would have made a difference or not."
I suspect that the Monkees were better off with their own names, because when they decided to wrest creative control of their records away from musical director Don Kirshner at the height of Monkeemania in 1967—a "palace coup" is how Dolenz characterizes it—they blossomed as writers and musicians. 1967's Headquarters was the first record on which they played nearly all the instruments and chose the material; it's one of the era's most charming albums. Its follow-up, 1967's Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., is even better, balancing the work of outside songwriters with their own. Moments of brilliance continue to crop up in subsequent releases, particularly on the soundtrack to their 1968 movie Head in songs like "As We Go Along" and "Circle Sky." On this tour, the Monkees are performing all the songs from Head for the first time, as well as other obscurities chosen by fans through an internet poll, including songs from the gargantuan trove of outtakes that have been unearthed via Rhino Records' reissues of the Monkees' catalog.
Still, Dolenz considers the Monkees' legacy as that of a TV show rather than a band whose catalog is equal to that of their musical peers from the '60s. "The Monkees were nothing like the Beatles," he says by way of example. "The Monkees was a television show about a group that wanted to be the Beatles. On the television show, we never were famous, which I think is an important part of the show. That was one of the things that resonated, because it represented all of those kids out there in the world in their garages and in their basements that were trying to be famous. And that was an important distinction."