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Hey, Hey, It’s The Monkees! A Made-For-TV Band That Outgrew the Small Screen

Music | September 13, 2018

Micky Dolenz as Micky, Peter Tork as Peter, Michael Nesmith as Mike, Davy Jones as Davy -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

What started out as an innovated idea for a television show that would chronicle the imaginary rise to fame by an imaginary Beatle-esque band turned into a hit band that recorded some of the sixties most memorable songs and sold out concert halls across the country. The four actors who answered the audition ad in Daily Vanity became icons of the decade and heartthrobs to teenage girls from coast to coast. Hey, Hey, here’s how The Monkees came to be! 

The Beatles Hard Day’s Night Film Inspired the TV Show Developers

The initial idea for the television show, The Monkees, actually began in 1962 as the brainchild of aspiring filmmaker, Bob Rafelson. But he was unsuccessful in selling his pitch to TV executives. Rafelson shelved his idea and went to work for Screen Gems where he met Bert Schneider, whose father was an executive for the TV unit at Columbia Pictures. Encouraged by his father, Schneider and Rafelson formed their own production company, Raybert Productions. Then, in 1964, the Beatles film Hard Day’s Night hit the big screen and further heightened Beatlemania. The success of Hard Day’s Night led Rafelson and Schneider to resurrect Rafelson’s old idea for a similar-style television series. This time around, the concept for The Monkees was more favorably received. Rafelson and Schneider sold the idea to Screen Gems Television in 1965.

The Original Idea was to Feature an Existing Band

Rafelson and Schneider originally wanted to use a real band in their TV show. In fact, they had a band in mind already. At the time, the New York-based rock band, the Lovin’ Spoonful, was an up-and-coming group that was slowly gaining a following. Rafelson and Schneider wanted to document the antics of this real-life band as they sought to find stardom. It was not meant to be, however. Just before being approached by Rafelson and Schneider, the Lovin’ Spoonful signed a record contract which meant that Screen Gems would not own the rights to the group’s music. The deal fell through, leaving Rafelson and Schneider with a TV show about a band, but with no band. 

Enter Davy Jones

When the Lovin’ Spoonful idea dissolved, Rafelson and Schneider knew who they wanted to contact for their show. Davy Jones was a young British actor and singer who had garnered attention for playing the Artful Dodger in Broadway’s Oliver! In fact, he performed a scene from the musical on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964…the same night that the Beatles made their historic appearance on the late night show. Jones was talented, attractive and British…the perfect candidate for a role on The Monkees. 

Madness! The Producers Ran an Ad Looking for Other Cast Members

The Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter both ran audition ads in early September 1965. The ad read:

Madness!! Auditions. 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 the courage to work. Must come down for interview.

The ad caught the attention of 437 young men who came down to audition for a part on the show. Ironically, only one of the boys cast…Michael Nesmith…had actually seen the ad. Nesmith had been working as a musician for a few years and even recorded a few of his own songs. Additionally, he had studied drama in college. His combined acting and musical experience helped him land a spot on The Monkees. 

Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz Learned About the Auditions Elsewhere

Micky Dolenz was the son of an actor and had appeared in his own television show as a child. His agent told him about The Monkees and suggested he audition. Dolenz could sing and play the guitar and even recorded a minor hit with the band, the Missing Links. His agent thought he had the right combination of talent to join The Monkees. Peter Tork was the last cast member to join The Monkees. Prior to making the leap to television, he was a Greenwich Village musician. One of his friends and fellow musicians, Pete Seeger, had been rejected for The Monkees and he told Tork about the auditions. 

For Strangers, the Four Boys hit it off…Too Good at Times!

For a musical group that didn’t come together organically, Jones, Nesmith, Tork, and Dolenz got along quite well, but they weren’t ready, musically, for the debut of The Monkees. The television studio first assigned Jones the lead singing position, but the rest of the members did not take favorably to that. Nesmith later said that it was Dolenz’s unique voice and style that helped to create The Monkees sound. The music producers, at first, didn’t allow the boys to play their instruments on any of the recordings but relented once they realized the talent of the four. The producers learned quickly that they had to take each boy into the studio and record him individually. If they put all four together in the studio, the four would goof around and make each other laugh too much. 

The Monkees Took Control of Their Own Music

Although the premise of the television show was one of following the adventures of a wannabe rock band on their way to stardom, the music of The Monkees soon overtook the television series. Tork, Nesmith, Dolenz, and Jones eventually took over creative control of their own music. The group’s first single, “Last Train to Clarksville” spent 13 weeks at number one and helped to launch the popularity of the TV show and the band. The Monkees television show ran from 1966 to 1968. The series was considered groundbreaking in that many of the scenes were shot like proto-music videos, a genre that was still more than a decade away. 

The Monkees Continued Their Music After the TV Show Ended…for a Time

When the television series ended in 1968, The Monkees continued to record their music and go on concert tours. They released hits such as “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone,” “Day Dream Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “I’m A Believer.” In 1970, Peter Tork left the group. Soon after, Michael Nesmith left. 

The Monkees were the Forerunner of Other “Invented” Bands

The Monkees were unique in their creation. Prior to The Monkees, bands formed organically when musicians met each other and decided to perform together. But The Monkees were individually selected and put together as strangers to make music. It was an unusual approach but one that would happen more and more after The Monkees. One of the best-selling groups of all time, One Direction, was formed the same way, as was the TV show band-turned real band, Big Time Rush. In many ways, The Monkees laid the foundation for other, studio-created bands that would follow. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.