Monday, September 12, 2011

Not Bad for a Long-Haired Weirdo: The Monkees and Radical Television

“[P]eople put us down…They say we’re totally manufactured, totally nebulous, have nothing to do or say. But no statement is a statement, you see. Absolutely. Not doing anything is something, man.”
-Mike Nesmith

In the above quote from the August 10, 1967, edition of The Houston Chronicle, Monkee Mike Nesmith's embarrassment regarding criticism that his band and show were vacuous is palpable. But did he have a point? Was The Monkees project really so insipid that the only way to give it the sheen of legitimacy was to offer the flimsy defense that "no statement is a statement"? Or was Nesmith just as guilty of overlooking the true political statement of The Monkees as his critics?

Mike Nesmith in 1967.

45 years ago today, Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones first invaded network television with their goofy antics and pleasant pop songs. That’s not all they did. “The Monkees” gleefully shattered any number of television rules. Without any parental supervision (the only recurring adult in their world was their greedy landlord, Mr. Babbitt), The Monkees were free to expose the phoniness of T.V., satirize other shows, break the fourth wall to address the audience directly, and indulge in plenty of pure surrealism. All of this was highly unusual in an age of dim-witted, formulaic fare: “F Troop”, “My Three Sons”, “The Beverly Hillbillies”, “Flipper”, “Gilligan’s Island” (which aired opposite “The Monkees”), “I Dream of Jeannie” (which aired after it).

Stylistically, “The Monkees” had more in common with the sly pop-art parody “Batman”, which had debuted on ABC the previous January. More subtly, it tread in the footsteps of “The Twilight Zone”. Like Rod Serling, “Monkees” creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider used their series to smuggle politics on the air in a seemingly harmless package. Just as Serling knew sci-fi and fantasy were not taken seriously enough to scrutinize, Rafelson and Schneider apparently understood that sitcoms—particularly those as silly as “The Monkees”—could sneak below the censorship radar. “The Monkees” rarely ran aground of NBC’s bowdlerizers. When it did, it was for innocuous things, such as showing a woman in a bikini (which was blurred out of “Too Many Girls” in re-runs) or using the word “Hell (which was bleeped out of “The Devil and Peter Tork”). This left the producers, writers, and the stars of “The Monkees” to get on with communicating their collective statement and radicalizing American television.

“The Monkees” was the first show to bring anti-establishment, long-haired young people into American living rooms on a weekly basis. Unlike the shaggy, “commie” criminals Friday and Gannon apprehended every week on “Dragnet”, or the daft Beatles parodies that appeared on shows like “The Munsters” or “The Flintstones” from time to time, hippies were the protagonists of “The Monkees”, and they often imparted their message of peace. That may not seem very radical, yet such messages are regarded as downright anti-American during wartime. This is not some dated attitude limited to the Vietnam era. Recall that after Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, Warner Brothers altered an image of Amanda Bynes flashing the peace sign from advertisements for the banal teen comedy What a Girl Wants for fear it would be viewed as a war protest.

Although stylistically radical, the season-one “Monkees” scripts did not delve deeply into political content. That was reserved for the unique candid interview segments used to both fill out short episodes and give viewers a more intimate portrait of their new idols. Half way through that debut season, Rafelson was picking the Monkees’ brains about prejudice against long-haired men (Tork invoked “the civil rights act” when harassed about his shaggy locks) and the recent teen protests ignited by an imposed 10 PM curfew on the Sunset Strip. Dolenz was among the protestors at the media-dubbed “riot,” where the worst act of violence was a single overturned car. As he explained, “In actuality, since I was there, they’ve been demonstrations. But I guess a lot of journalists don’t know how to spell ‘demonstration,’ so they use the word ‘riot’ because it only has four letters.” That’s a prickly statement to come from a supposedly vacuous puppet with “nothing to do or say” and air on T.V. in the first month of 1967. For the first time, a network sitcom was giving direct voice to young people and standing unequivocally on their side. The hippies, heads, peaceniks, and commies had taken over television.

(The Sunset Strip interview segment begins at 6:08)

Acid booster Timothy Leary was among the first critics to recognize the political impact of “The Monkees”, writing in his book The Politics of Ecstasy (1968):
“[T]he Monkees use the new energies to sing the new songs and pass on the new message… At early evening kiddie-time on Monday the Monkees would rush through a parody drama, burlesquing the very shows that glue Mom and Dad to the set during prime time. Spoofing the movies and the violence and the down-heavy-conflict-emotion themes that fascinate the middle-aged.

And woven into the fast-moving psychedelic stream of action were the prophetic, holy, challenging words. Micky was rapping quickly, dropping literary names, making scholarly references; then the sudden psychedelic switch of the reality channel. He looked straight at the camera, right into your living room, and up-leveled the comedy by saying: ‘Pretty good talking for a long-haired weirdo, huh, Mr. and Mrs. America? (sic)’ And then ZAP, flash. Back to the innocuous comedy.

Or, in a spy drama, Micky warned Peter: ‘Why this involves the responsibility for blowing up the entire world!’

Peter, confidentially: ‘I’ll take that responsibility!’

And Micky, with a glance at the camera, said, ‘Wow! With a little more ego he’ll be ready to run for President! (sic)’

Why, it all happened so fast, LBJ, you didn’t even see it.”

As Leary alludes, the show’s subversiveness was particularly cagey since it was aimed at T.V.’s most impressionable viewers: pre-teens. “The Monkees" helped dose its adolescent viewers with a healthy—and necessary— tab of anti-establishment sentiment. “Question your leaders,” The Monkees told their viewers. “Peace is an answer,” they said. “Your individuality is your individuality.” Nesmith’s “no statement is a statement” line is contradicted by one in the series’ otherwise dopey theme tune: “We’re the young generation and we’ve got something to say.” The subversive messages tucked inside “The Monkees” may have assisted an even younger generation to develop the desire to have something to say too.

While other groups were parroting messages of freedom and revolution, The Monkees were actively applying them to their own lives. Just five months after the series debuted, Mike Nesmith dropped the bomb that his group did not play the instruments on their records, instructing The Saturday Evening Post to “Tell the world we’re synthetic because, damn it, we are.” When he insisted that he and the guys, who had already been performing as a live band for months, should be allowed to play on their recordings, Herb Moelis of Colgems Records reminded Nesmith that he was under contract and had no say in the production of The Monkees’ disks. Reaching the limits of flower-power pacifism, Nesmith put his fist through a wall and told Moelis, “That could have been your face, motherfucker.” Although serious musicians Nesmith and Tork had the most invested in the mutiny, actor Dolenz stuck by them in the kind of act of solidarity on which revolutions are built (more of an old-entertainment type, Jones was a bit of a counterrevolutionary and music-supervisor Don Kirshner successfully lured the diminutive Monkee into the studio to record several tracks the unacceptable way).

Before long, The Monkees were granted freedom to write, choose, and record their own music. Because their show and records were so popular, the execs wanted to keep the guys happy… and keep them from walking out on their contracts. The move resulted in the two best albums of The Monkees’ career: Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, LTD. They didn’t just use their newfound freedom to up the quality of their records; they upped those records’ political content. This further radicalized their T.V. show, as The Monkees now romped to songs decrying war (“Zor & Zam”, Tork’s “For Pete’s Sake”, which served as the closing theme throughout the second season), chronicling the Sunset Strip protests (Nesmith’s “Daily Nightly”), satirizing drug dealers (“Salesman”) and the establishment (Dolenz’s “Randy Scouse Git”), presenting scandalous sexual situations (“Cuddly Toy”, “Star Collector”), sneering at the police and celebrating pot (the group-composition “No Time”), and criticizing suburban conformity (the big hit “Pleasant Valley Sunday”). Released after the show went off the air in 1968, Micky’s “Mommy and Daddy” (“Ask your mommy and daddy what happened to the Indian…”) was even more pointedly political.

The Monkees also wrangled greater control over the extra-musical content of their show, increasing the level of improvisation and bizarre in-jokes (“Save the Texas prairie chicken!” “Frodis!”) while often appearing visibly stoned on camera (particularly apparent in “The Monkee’s Paw”). Rafelson and Schneider gave Tork and Dolenz permission to direct episodes. Dolenz’s “Mijacogeo”, which he also scripted, is a scathing criticism of television’s brain-deadening effects. The hero of the piece is a giant, alien marijuana plant with a football for a head and a weirdly touching peace philosophy. Appropriately, this most radical of “Monkees” episodes was the last one to air in the series’ original run. Rafelson and his boys were now free to get even further out with the one and only Monkees movie. Co-written by Jack Nicholson, Head took an even sharper blade to T.V. and continued the massacre to slice up the war in Vietnam, American conservatism and consumerism, and The Monkees’ manufactured image.

Nesmith and Dolenz in “Mijacogeo (The Frodis Caper)”

Despite their numerous achievements, The Monkees couldn't buy themselves a lick of praise from the press or the increasing snobby rock audience. Yet the company they kept further validated the guys' hip credentials. As has often been repeated, they introduced The Jimi Hendrix Experience to mainstream America by inviting the band to open for them during their 1967 tour (the pre-teen audience was not receptive, and Hendrix and his band soon booked). They did the same for Frank Zappa and Tim Buckley by giving the musicians guest spots on their T.V. show. The Monkees were championed by tastemakers, such as Zappa, John Lennon, Jerry Garcia, and Eric Burdon, and were reportedly scheduled to appear on an early episode of The Who’s proposed T.V. show “Sound and Picture City”. The program never materialized, but Dolenz and Keith Moon remained good friends. The Byrds only criticized the contrived way The Monkees were assembled with “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star”. In truth, The Byrds respected the guys, even inviting Nesmith to sit in with them on stage at the Berkeley Community Theatre in August of 1968. Byrds bassist Chris Hillman accurately described the Monkee as “a great songwriter and singer” in a 1973 interview with Zigzag magazine. Neil Young and Dewey Martin of Buffalo Springfield played on several Monkees recordings. The Springfield also selected longtime friend Tork to introduce them at the Monterey Pop Festival. George Harrison recruited Tork to play banjo on the score he composed for the 1968 film Wonderwall. Lennon invited Nesmith to the recording of the orchestra on "A Day in the Life", and the Monkee appears in a filmed document of the session. Perennial genius Brian Wilson was the first signee on a petition calling for their induction into the cliquey Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
(Monkee chats with Beatle at 3:24)

Alternately, “The Monkees” T.V. show could be embarrassingly status quo at times, particularly with its habitual portrayal of women as personality-devoid sex objects and the cringe-inducing stereotypes of “The Monkees Chow Mein”, “Son of a Gypsy”, and “It’s a Nice Place to Visit.” Of such things, Nesmith, Dolenz, Tork, and Jones had no more control than The Beatles had of the depiction of “filthy Easterners” in Help! “The Monkees” did not exist entirely outside of its era, but it certainly subverted it more radically than any comedy program before it. Not bad for four long-haired weirdos, huh, America?
The Monkees backstage with Jack Nicholson while making Head.
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