The above condemnation of The Monkees has dogged their legend, and clouded their sparkling contribution to pop culture for the past 40 years. It shouldn't have.
For, as Oz-rock historian Glenn A. Baker has pointed out, neither did Simon and Garfunkel, The Mamas and the Papas or The Byrds on a lot of their recorded output – to name but a few. Session musicians played instead, indeed, quite plausibly the same session musicians for all of these bands, The Monkees included.
For that was the way pop music was laid down in those days – perhaps it still is: Time is money in the record company's studio and a session guitarist can get the track in the can for rock perpetuity in 3 minutes 30, no fluffs, no retakes, rock perfection, next please.
60s brainiacs, correct me if you will, but rock legend has it that The Kinks didn't play the immortal guitar riff on You Really Got Me, also that Them never played a note on Baby Please Don't Go, and Pete Townsend didn't play the famous lead guitar solo on Can't Explain.
So who did play all this stuff? One man evidently, a young session muso by the name of Jimmy Page – at a time when Led Zeppelin was but a gleam in his eye. Evidently Pete Townsend, whenever playing Can't Explain live, ripped out a solo as radically unlike Page's as he could in protest at this state of affairs.
I assume The Monkees might have protested also, if they’d had the time: In addition to outselling The Beatles and the Rolling Stones put together for a few years running, they were also spending 18 hours a day 7 days a week recording a top-rating TV show.
In the late 80s, Aaron Spelling, producer of The Love Boat, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, etc, conferred upon a grateful planet his version of The Monkees. It was called The Heights: Spelling brought together some young actors and musicians to play a fictional bunch of well-groomed American teens who share a house, form a band, hang out. If you never saw this TV show, you didn’t miss anything. It lasted about five minutes.
In the mid-60s, TV producers Bob Raphelson and Bert Schneider brought together two actors and two musicians to play a fictional bunch of well-groomed American teens who share a house, form a band, hang out. The show was a smash hit, they really did outsell The Beatles and Stones for a while, toured live as a band (even getting as far as Australia), started writing their own songs (even playing on some of their own tracks, I believe), also writing and directing their own episodes of the TV show and making an excellent cinema movie called Head.
The TV show went into international syndication and is still being played somewhere in the world as you read this, 40 years later. Oh, just a footnote, but the producers of the show took the profits to make a film you may have heard of. It was called Easy Rider.
A brief profile of The Monkees personnel: Davy Jones was the teen heart-throb of the group. English, he was a talented singer/dancer who'd played 'the Artful Dodger' in the West End production of Oliver Twist. Mickey Dolenz had been a child star in an early TV production called Circus Boy. A gifted singer, he evidently learnt to play drums for The Monkees in about two weeks flat. Mike Nesmith was the 'thinking' teenybopper's Monkee, and a fine musician in his own right, as was the most goofily likeable member of the quartet, Peter Tork, in real life an outspoken figure in U.S. hippy circles.
For something as transient and disposable as a Hollywood TV sit-com, The Monkees had an unusual energy about it. Even now it seems vibrant, at times anarchic, charming and very funny, not to mention the wonderful songs performed per episode. The episodes the Monkees actually wrote and directed themselves were even better, Nesmith's twisted fairytale homage being a stand-out for me…
Peter, the noble knight on a quest through the Enchanted Forest, meets Mickey, playing a demented Goldilocks, curls and all.
(Peter): 'But Goldilocks, aren't you scared?! I mean, this forest if full of wicked witches, vampires, demons, goblins and wolves! Aren't you scared they'll catch you and eat you?'
(Mickey as Goldilocks): 'Oh, no, they can't touch me, I'm not afraid, not me…'
(Peter): 'But how come? Do you have some magic spell or something?'
(Peter): 'Then how come you're not afraid?'
(Mickey): 'Because I'm a MEAN LITTLE GIRL.'
Other outstanding moments of this series include one of the final episodes (if not the final episode): Mickey Dolenz puts the whole show aside and says, 'Ladies and Gentleman, Tim Buckley.' His friend, Buckley, then plays the most hauntingly emotive version of one of his early songs (live in the studio, I think…).
Another episode features no less than Frank Zappa dressed up as Mike Nesmith, Nesmith as Zappa, complete with oversized rubber nose. Nesmith (playing Zappa) damns The Monkees' music as 'banal and insipid', Zappa (as Nesmith) vehemently defending the charge.
Indeed, as a group, The Monkees got serious respect from such credible musos as Zappa. And others too… One John Lennon saw the Monkees for what they were: According to the learned Mr Baker, Lennon called them 'the greatest comic talent since the Marx Brothers'. Indeed, The Monkees got respect from the people who counted. No wonder. They deserved it. Shame they didn't play their instruments…