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A fictional TV quartet seemingly created to take advantage of Beatlemania, The Monkees took flight from their manufactured beginnings to become a legitimate band and one of the top-selling acts in the history of popular music.
As detailed in The Monkees: The Day-By-Day Story of the ’60s TV Pop Sensation, the show was conceived by producer Bob Rafelson, who wanted to create something centered around the antics and adventures of a band based on his own experiences as a musician. It was an idea that predated The Beatles, although, as he later conceded, one that became commercially plausible following the successful release of A Hard Day’s Night in summer 1964.
Rafelson and his Raybert Productions co-founder, Bert Schneider, sold the concept to Screen Gems, the TV subsidiary of Columbia Pictures, in April 1965. The partners considered focusing on an already formulated band, with emerging folk-rock act The Lovin’ Spoonful among the top candidates, before electing to put The Monkees together one by one.
The four Monkees survived unorthodox auditions to earn their roles
On September 8, 1965, the call to arms for would-be Monkees appeared in the trade publications Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter which read:
Folk & Roll Musicians Singers
for acting roles in new TV series.
Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21
Want spirited Ben Frank’s-types
Have courage to work.
Must come down for interview.
The advertisement drew a reported 437 applicants, though only one of the eventual winners responded immediately.
Michael Nesmith was an up-and-coming singer-songwriter with a folk-rock group called The Survivors. He had already recorded for Screen Gems’ Colpix Records, under the name Michael Blessing.
Peter Tork, a veteran of the Greenwich Village scene, missed the advertisement but was prodded to get involved by a pre-Buffalo Springfield Stephen Stills, who was rejected from Monkees consideration due to his bad teeth and thinning hair.
Micky Dolenz was the former child star of the late-1950s TV show Circus Boy and a part-time performing musician. Although his show business career had dimmed considerably, he was able to secure a private audition on the strength of his résumé.
Davy Jones, with a Tony Award nomination for his performance in Oliver under his belt, had already signed a screen deal with Columbia Pictures and released singles through Colpix. As such, he was favored to claim a spot in the band, though he still had to win over the show’s creators.
The auditions were an off-the-wall affair, with Schneider and Rafelson often acting in bizarre ways to see how the applicants would respond. Nesmith and Tork, with more to prove than their future bandmates, were up to the challenge. The former, who became recognizable for his wool hat, also carried around a bag of laundry that he was ostensibly afraid to leave in his car. And Tork, who had his chair pulled out from under him by Schneider, responded by knocking things off the producers’ desk.
Ultimately, the winners were chosen for their individual talents and charms, but also with an eye toward how they would mesh together as a group. With Nesmith on guitar, Tork on bass, Dolenz on drums and Jones as lead singer, the four filmed a pilot in late 1965, before heading home to await their fate.
The band’s members had to learn how to play together
A rejiggered version of the pilot, with the screen tests of the quartet tacked on, was a hit with test audiences, and in early 1966 NBC picked up The Monkees.
Thus began the difficult phase of not only pulling the show together but getting the four stars to resemble a functioning band. Dolenz, for one, was learning his instrument from scratch, and the varied styles and influences on display made for a collective sound that didn’t entirely mesh.
With time at a premium, producers tapped industry executive Don Kirshner and his songwriting team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, all of whom had contributed to the pilot, to take over the musical direction of the show. A new entity called Colgems Records, under the direction of Kirshner, was established specifically for the purpose of distributing the band’s recordings.
Beginning in April 1966, The Monkees embarked on a grueling schedule of band rehearsal, improv classes and filming. With Kirshner running a tight ship, the boys were limited to vocal work in the early going as session players banged out the music, though they were eventually given a little more leeway in the studio.
Their first hit was sung by Dolenz, not Jones
In mid-August, Colgems released The Monkees’ debut single, “Last Train to Clarksville.” Although Jones was supposed to be the frontman and would go on to croon other hits like “Daydream Believer,” it was Dolenz who belted out this tune that put The Monkees on the map.
Prior to the show’s premiere, the group embarked on a whirlwind promotional tour that swung through major stops in Chicago, Boston, New York and Los Angeles. At one point, the band performed on a moving train for the winners of a radio contest, with Dolenz recalling his drums falling all over the place.
But there was no stopping the momentum: The Monkees debuted on NBC on September 12, 1966, and with the release of their self-titled album a month later, and “Last Train to Clarksville” on its way to the top of the charts, the cultural phenomenon was officially up and running.
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