Question: When I was growing up, I heard a rumor that the Monkees couldn't really play their instruments. Is that true? Thanks. — Monica T., Altoona, Pa.
Televisionary: It's not that they couldn't play their instruments, Monica. It's just that when they were cast for the series, which ran from September 1966 to August 1968 on NBC, musical talent wasn't exactly the first thing the producers were looking for. And because they didn't have much confidence in their cast members' abilities, their contributions to their early hits were limited, which led to a bit of a revolt further down the line when the songs became hits and the guys wanted to play their own music.
Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz all had some musical experience, though certainly not enough when the show launched — and not enough together — to sound like the tight, poppy band the series required. But it didn't matter in the beginning, since creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who would later go on to produce Easy Rider, were chiefly looking for a certain spontaneity when casting the show. When the 437 applicants who answered a Variety ad stepped into the co-creators' offices, they found the men playing with blocks, or they may have had a cup of coffee tossed at them. "If we got an immediate reaction, we knew that was our sort of guy," Rafelson told TV Guide in 1967.
The fact that they might also be able to play instruments didn't seem to matter, since the producers brought in studio musicians and producer Don Kirshner to put together early hits like "Last Train to Clarksville," which was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, with the guys supplying only the vocals. Kirshner created the Monkees sound without really consulting the Monkees themselves. "I heard them. They were loud," he said of his first exposure to the band. "It was not the right sound. Not a young, happy, driving pulsating sound of today. I wanted a musical sex image. Something you'd recognize next time you heard it. Davy was OK — for musical comedy. Mike was the weakest singer as far as I was concerned. Micky was a natural mimic. And he had the best voice for our purposes. He did the lead on 'Last Train.' Davy and Peter sang some background harmony. Mike wasn't on the record at all. Boyce and Hart and handpicked professional musicians played it. The boys told me, 'Donny, anything you want to do is OK with us.'"
That, of course, didn't last very long. "Last Train" became a big hit and the Monkees sold 6 million singles and 8 million albums, making Kirshner rich since he got 15 percent of his record company's net profits before taxes. The fellas took in a 1.25 percent royalty, which wasn't bad, but wasn't near Kirshner's take.
Artistically speaking, the band members wanted more say in what they did. Before the show started shooting, they were trained as improv actors and schooled in some music basics, but had no time to develop their own stuff, given the shooting schedules of 10 to 12 hours daily. They got it together enough to play in concert, but relations with Kirshner began to sour when the guys found it difficult to record anything of their own that met with his approval.
So in January 1967, the band met with Kirshner in his Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow. They demanded the right to play their own instruments and choose their own songs. Kirshner balked. "Donny," Nesmith said, "we could sing 'Happy Birthday' with a beat and it would sell a million records. [Your argument] is no longer valid because we are the Monkees and we have that incredible TV exposure." When Kirshner didn't come around, Nesmith threatened to quit. Upon being told to look at his contract and reconsider, Nesmith put his fist through a wall.
It only got worse from there. "Bert knew I meant it when I said I'd quit the whole complex, pack up my gear, go to Mexico or Tahiti, eat coconuts and let everybody sue me," Nesmith said. Schneider and the studio did indeed believe him. And within a month Kirshner was out. A few weeks later, the band recorded their album Headquarters, which also became a No. 1 seller, vindicating the group.
Of course, that vindication was short-lived. Nesmith's observation about the band doing well because of their TV exposure was right on the money. After the show was canceled, and without any pals in the music industry, the good times ended and the band broke up.