Three of the four Monkees--Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork--are sat on a sofa upstairs at Soho's Groucho Club, sipping on after-lunch coffees and mineral waters and discussing a career that has yielded a string of hit singles ("Last Train To Clarksville," "I'm A Believer," "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You," "Pleasant Valley Sunday,' "Daydream Believer") and U.S. number one albums (The Monkees, More Of The Monkees, Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.) and seen them awarded the dubious status of "first band created for TV," providing a model for such atrocities as "The X Factor."
"At the time we were criticized for it," says Micky Dolenz, dapper in black suit, black pinstriped shirt, and black trilby. "Now we're seen as some kind of pioneers, but 'The Monkees' were never like 'American Idol.' Yes, we were created for a TV program, but we transcended that. We started out as two actors and two musicians and ended up as four actors and four musicians."
It's been 10 years since the reconfigured trio last stepped out under the Monkees banner, but with a series of U.K. shows in May, it's big grins all 'round. Although their 2001 jaunt fell apart when Peter Tork quit in a huff over his bandmates' drinking ("We were getting along pretty well until I had a meltdown," Tork told Rolling Stone), and Davy Jones claimed as recently as 2009 that he'd never work with the Monkees again, any leftover animosities are skillfully hidden.
For better or worse, they are bound to the U.S. TV series that, over its original 1966-'68 run and via Saturday morning repeats through the '70s and '80s, defined the ideal of the pop group for several subsequent generations.
"We've got absolutely nothing to complain about when we look back these days, but at the same time, we're not living in the past," says Dolenz, currently treading the boards as Wilbur Turnblad in the musical Hairspray at London's Shaftesbury Theatre. "We've all been successful in our solo pursuits, but being in the Monkees was an unbelievable experience and it's great to have the opportunity to go back and do it again."
You're reuniting to celebrate 45 years of the Monkees. Sadly without Mike Nesmith, though...
Micky Dolenz: We'd love Mike to come out with us. He is always welcome but he doesn't like touring. You've got to remember we are in our sixties now, and he has things in his life keeping him busy and it just happened that our three schedules were open in summer so we could all get together to do the tour. It was as simple as that.
What can we expect from the shows?
Davy Jones: We know people don't want to go to a Monkees concert and not hear "Daydream Believer," "I'm A Believer," "Last Train To Clarksville," the greatest hits as they were in their original form, but we also want to show each of our individual talents like we did in the TV show, and so Peter might do a couple of bluesy numbers, Micky might do "Saturday's Child"--we've never done that one live before--and I might do some Davy tweety songs like "When Love Comes Knockin' (At Your Door)."
The Monkees 1968 movie, Head, is a brilliant, subversive moment in pop. Did you see it as groundbreaking at the time?
Micky: At the time I didn't know what it was, but over the years I've come to realize it was groundbreaking because the producers were at the beginning of the independent film industry in Los Angeles, and I look at it as the deconstruction not just of the Monkees, but using the Monkees metaphorically as a deconstruction of old Hollywood.
Davy: I wasn't thrilled with it. I look at it and see Micky's acting in it with the coke machine and stuff and I think he's a brilliant actor and he has one of the best voices in the business, but I would have made a different movie altogether, because for a start our fans couldn't get in to cinemas to see it as they had to be over 16. That was a good way of throwing it in the toilet. Now when people ask me about it, I just say I don't know what it was about, but people seem to like it.
Peter: It was groundbreaking at the level of the film industry, but I'd seen all that stuff done many times before on the underground scene. I see it as [director] Bob Rafelson's take on us and I think Rafelson's point is always, "Life sucks and you are stupid if you don't know that," and I don't think that's a very encouraging thought, but that's Rafelson's statement and that's the point of the movie, and all of his other movies make the same point. I didn't like working with Rafelson very much, he's not a very kindly man, he's not a very sympathetic man, he doesn't have much heart, and that made it difficult. There were times when I let myself get overcome with fear for the part and he laughed at me for looking afraid, and that was really tough.
33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee took the deconstruction of The Monkees further and was arguably more transgressive, as it was aired on mainstream TV.
Peter: It's using the Monkees to make the same point, Monkees as product, and the deconstruction of their conception. We had Pinocchio complexes and we wanted to break free of the strings. But we were even puppets in our own deconstruction. I got to meet Little Richard, though, which was amazing. It went up against the Academy Awards in one time zone so no one watched it, but in another zone it did really well.
Davey: No one but Jack Good, who made it, knew who Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll were, but I loved it as I thought she was gorgeous. And we got to work with Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis and the Clara Ward Singers. We were wondering if Peter should play "Solfeggietto" by C.P.E. Bach and me sing Bill Dorsey's "String For My Kite" from it at our upcoming shows.
You were manufactured for TV and portrayed as a struggling band trying desperately to find fame. In reality you were hugely successful with hit records and tours. Was there a moment when you thought you'd transcended the TV image to become a proper band?
Micky: It started out as a TV show about a band in a beach house, that was the TV Monkees, that was one entity, but when we started rehearsing and playing and went on the road, that was a different entity. So there were two Monkees: the one you saw on TV and the one that we really became.
Peter: If there is a discussion to be had on the Monkees and who they were: Well, most people will say it was the four of us or the three of us now, but the Monkees was a major operation that included [creators] Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson and [music director] Don Kirshner, and the four of us really ranked third after those guys in terms of the structure of the thing. We did what we were cast to do, but when we were shooting the pilot, and we had barely met each other and I'd just finished teaching Micky "shboom shboom" on the drums and there's a break and we're standing there with our instruments in our hands. I've got a bass, Mike's got a guitar, Micky is sitting at the drums, Davy has a tambourine, and we turn on the amps and we start playing songs we've never played together before like "Johnny B Goode" and everyone got up and danced; that's when I thought we were a proper band. There wasn't really a moment when I didn't think that. And Capitol Records said they would have signed us without the TV show, anyway.
At a time when our perceptions of what defined a rock 'n' roll band were changing, when notions of authenticity were integral, you came under criticism for not playing on your records. Now we know that groups such as the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Box Tops relied on sessioneers for their early records.
Micky: We got a lot of stick for that when we were the last ones who should have done. But we got to work with such great songwriters and musicians: Glen Campbell, James Burton, Hal Blaine. It's about time the Wrecking Crew got their proper recognition. But it didn't help that on the TV show we were not allowed to broach any subjects that were sensitive, controversial, or political. The NBC censors meant we weren't topical. There's that famous episode, "The Devil And Peter Tork," which is just Faust essentially--Peter sells his soul to the devil to play the harp. There's a line in it where I say, "If you do that when you die you'll go to hell," and NBC said, "You can't use the word 'hell'" and Bob fought and fought to keep it in, but they bleeped it out.
Despite censorship and the origins of the band, you still had a dialogue with the counterculture.
Micky: We were going to the Trip and watching the Byrds. David Crosby was a friend. We knew the Beatles and they got us, we were friends with Jimi Hendrix and took the Experience out on tour for their first U.S. shows. We knew Janis Joplin and Mama Cass. We had Frank Zappa on the show, we gave Tim Buckley his premiere.
Davy: I remember looking across the street from where I was living one day' the Byrds and Sonny & Cher were playing at the top of the street and then down the street Little Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan were playing. It was all happening and everyone was making their own way and when we saw the Association or the Beach Boys or Jan & Dean, it was all fun. We'd joke about how we'd be knocking each other out the charts the following week. There was never hostility.
Finally, can you ever escape from being a Monkee?
Peter: [laughs] The question I get asked most is, "Are you still talking to the other guys?"
Davy: Yeah, I'll do a show, sign an autograph, and I'll always be asked, "Where's Micky?" or "How's Pete?" or "Why don't you guys get back together?" I always feel connected to the Monkees. When I went to the audition for the show, it was just another job to me. I was a working actor. I was signed to Screen Gems already. I never thought about it. To me it's no different to the school play. I gave it the same energy I gave in the school play. But then on meeting the other Monkees, having these three other guys to bounce off, I soon thought, "Wow, how great is this? I just have to play myself, be myself..."
Micky: I still have the pilot script where the show is spelt "The Monkeys." I knew it was different from the start. I'd been up for three other pilots that year, but I remember coming out after meeting Bob and Bert and just thinking, "I'd like to get this one." I remember it clearly. For the two years we were filming, we were so busy. We'd arrive at the studio at 7am, spend 10 to 12 hours on the set, record at night, rehearse at the weekend, film 26 episodes a year. We were always together. It was our life.