Sight gags, clever word play and physical comedy, one of the catchiest theme songs in TV history, and, oh yeah, a concept that turned a created-for-television musical act into a chart-topping real-life band that once outsold The Beatles and The Rolling Stones… we’re talking about The Monkees, of course, the groundbreaking 1966-68 TV series that produced more fun — and more hit records — than any other musical-themed primetime show.
The series — which made teen pin-up stars of cast/band members Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith — will mark its official 50th anniversary on September 12, but in celebration of this week’s release of the new complete series Blu-ray collection of the TV show from Rhino, we’re rounding up 25 band tales that might surprise even the most devoted Monkee-head… and which should inspire everyone to take a fresh look at the delightfully silly and meta classic.
1. Which came first: The Monkees TV series or The Monkees, The Monkees’ debut album? The TV series debuted on September 12, 1966, while the as-seen-on-TV group’s first, self-titled album debuted on October 10, 1966. The record, which included the number one hit single “Last Train to Clarksville,” spent 13 weeks atop the Billboard 200 album chart, until it was knocked off by… The Monkees’ second album, More of the Monkees, which included the Neil Diamond-penned number one hit “I’m a Believer.”
Photo: Rhino Records
2. Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Carole Bayer Sager, Michael Martin Murphey, Paul Williams, and Harry Nilsson are among the hitmakers who wrote songs for The Monkees in their early days as a band, and to celebrate the group’s and the TV series’ 50th anniversary, a collection of Monkee-lovin’ current hit songwriters wrote music especially for The Monkees’ critically-acclaimed 2016 release Good Times! Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie), XTC’s Andy Partridge, Oasis’ Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller contributed songs to the new CD, while Oscar-nominated songwriter and producer Adam Schlesinger – also the executive music producer of The CW hit Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — wrote a Good Times! track and produced the album. The record, the band’s first album since the 2012 death of Davy Jones, was recorded in just two months, despite the fact that the three surviving band members were never in the studio at the same time. Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork have reunited for a tour to mark the anniversary, and plan to be on the road through the end of 2016.
Photo: Everett Collection
3. Most random Monkees-related trivia ever: Michael Nesmith’s mother, Bette Nesmith Graham, invented Liquid Paper. Bette was a secretary and painter who used her paint knowledge to come up with a clever solution for correcting mistakes in typewritten documents: instead of messily erasing them, she treated typos by covering them up and typing over them. The single mom (who made an uncredited guest appearance in the Season 1 “Dance, Monkee, Dance” episode) turned her DIY solution into a business she initially ran from her house. The inheritance Nesmith received when his mom died in 1980 made him wealthy, aside from his Monkees earnings.
4. Speaking of, The Monkees’ earnings for the TV series: $450 per episode each, for Season 1, and $750 per episode each, for Season 2. In 2014 dollars, that is equivalent to roughly $3,280 per episode for Season 1 and $5,320 an episode for Season 2. Comparison: After the show’s debut season won the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy, each of The Monkees made about half of one percent of the $1 million per episode salary the three main cast members of The Big Bang Theory currently earn.
5. Because the idea for The Monkees was sparked by The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night, some critics insisted on dubbing the TV band “The Prefab Four.” But, last laughs: in 1967, thanks in part to the power of television, The Monkees sold more records than The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, combined. That same year, The Monkees toured the United States with Jimi Hendrix as their opening act… for seven shows. Hendrix didn’t share a fanbase with The Monkees, and after just a week’s worth of July concert dates where his psychedelic sounds got him booed by the teen-filled audiences, he decided to spend the rest of his summer — and career — sans Monkees.
6. Many in the music industry, especially during the early days of The Monkees, refused to acknowledge the group as anything more than a faux band created just for TV, and it wasn’t until The Monkees’ second album that they were even allowed to play instruments on their own recordings. But the group members had previous musical experience – Nesmith, for example, wrote “Different Drum” in 1965, and the song became a hit for Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys in 1967 (and was performed, in a goofily sped-up version, by Nesmith in the “Too Many Girls” episode of The Monkees).
Nesmith would later have an even bigger impact in the merging world of music and television, as he’s often credited with inventing, or at least having a big hand in the creation of, MTV. Post-Monkees, Nesmith continued to record music, and in the 1970s began making video “clips” to accompany his releases. One of those clips, 1977’s “Rio,” turned the song into a hit in Australia, and Nesmith created a half-hour weekly Nickelodeon TV series, PopClips, which featured music videos like The Rolling Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend,” The Waitresses’ “I Know What Boys Like,” and The Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket,” introduced by comedians like Howie Mandel and Charles Fleischer.
When future MTV execs saw what Nesmith had done, they asked him to head up a channel that would play music clips 24 hours a day. “I said, ‘No, because what you’re talking about is setting a channel full of commercials for records… and that just doesn’t light my fire,’” Nesmith told Vanity Fair. “[Future MTV COO] John [Lack] said, ‘We are going to take this and run with it. You sure you don’t want a seat on this bus?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m sure. Just pay me for what I’ve done and I’ll go away.’”
7. Producers ran a casting ad in the September 8, 1965 issue of Variety to find the lineup for The Monkees, but only Michael Nesmith was cast via the ad. Among the 437 people who responded to the Variety notice: Paul Williams, Stephen Stills, and Harry Nilsson. When Nilsson didn’t get the gig, he recommended his roommate, Peter Tork, to producers. The ad called for “folk & roll musicians and singer … running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21 … want spirited Ben Frank’s types.” Ben Franks was a 24-hour coffee shop/hipster hangout on the Sunset Strip in L.A., in the address now occupied by Mel’s Drive-In. One of the most famous regulars at Ben Frank’s: Frank Zappa, who made a particularly surreal guest appearance in the “Monkees Blow Their Minds” episode, in which Zappa played Nesmith, Nesmith played Zappa, and the two interviewed each other.
8. Despite an ongoing urban legend, Charles Manson did not audition for The Monkees: he was in prison at the time auditions were underway. Others who did: “The Monster Mash” singer Bobby “Boris” Pickett, Three Dog Night’s Danny Hutton, famous Los Angeles DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, and Beach Boys Smile collaborator, lyricist Van Dyke Parks.
Davy Jones as The Artful Dodger, ca. 1963-1964 (Photo: Everett Collection)
9. Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz were cast as Monkees through their agents. Jones was an actor who had received a 1963 Tony nomination for his performance in Oliver!, while Dolenz was a kid actor who had starred in the 1956-58 NBC/ABC family drama Circus Boy, about Corky, an orphan who is raised by circus people and whose best friend is Bimbo the elephant. Inside joke: The Monkees episode “Monkees at the Circus” opens with Dolenz cheekily saying, “Hey, I haven’t been to the circus since I was a kid!”
Mickey Dolenz (as Mickey Braddock, r.) in Circus Boy (Photo: Everett Collection)
10. Whatever happened to Nesmith’s trademark green wool cap? He told Rolling Stone he lost it decades ago, when he threw it into the audience during a solo performance. “But I do wear a wool hat at home all the time when its cold, just not that one,” he added.
11. Random guest appearance in The Monkees episode “Art, For Monkees’ Sake”: Liberace, who destroyed a piano with a golden sledgehammer in a performance art piece at a museum.
12. Oh yes, there was a Christmas episode of The Monkees. “The Monkees’ Christmas Show” originally aired on Dec. 25, 1967, and it found the fellas trying to help a little boy named Melvin rediscover the spirit of the holiday. Melvin was played by The Munsters star Butch Patrick. In one of their many fourth wall-breaking moments, The Monkees also introduced many of the series’ crew and office employees to viewers at the end of the episode.
13. Davy Jones guest starred in the classic Brady Bunch episode “Getting Davy Jones,” in which Marcia, Marcia, Marcia promised she could get him to perform at the school prom. Jones, Peter Tork, and Micky Dolenz also starred as themselves in 1995’s The Brady Bunch Movie, but only Jones sang the song “Girl” in both Brady TV and movie lands.
14. All 58 episodes of The Monkees series have been remastered from the original negatives for the new Rhino Blu-ray box set The Monkees: The Complete Series, featuring a cool lenticular cover, audio commentary from all four members (including new commentary from Micky Dolenz), bonus material like the original Kellogg’s commercials that aired during the episodes, and newly discovered outtakes from the series. The set, limited to 10,000 individually numbered releases, also includes The Monkees’ performances on Laugh-In, The Johnny Cash Show, and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, and never-before-seen footage of the band backstage at the 1967 Emmy Awards.
15. Also featured in the Blu-ray box set: The Monkees’ trippy 1968 movie, Head, co-written by and co-starring Oscar winner Jack Nicholson. The plotless, stream of consciousness musical satire – which takes jabs at everything from the Vietnam War to The Monkees’ made-for-TV band status – also stars Annette Funicello, Frank Zappa, Teri Garr, Victor Mature, boxer Sonny Liston, and Nicholson pal Dennis Hopper. The movie, a commercial flop that has since become a cult classic because of its sheer weirdness – was brainstormed during a weekend at a California resort with The Monkees, Nicholson, and Oscar-nominated filmmaker/Monkees co-creator Bob Rafelson.
16. In Season 2’s “The Devil and Peter Tork” episode of The Monkees, Pete makes a deal with the Devil, in which he swaps his soul for a sweet golden harp. More importantly, it provided the group with a chance to poke fun at network standards, which would not allow them to utter the word “hell” on television, even if they were referring to the Devil’s ‘hood and not using it as a curse word. In a scene before Mike wins Pete’s soul back in a clever trial, the guys get bleeped every time they say the word “hell,” even when Micky says, “You can’t say ‘hell’ on television.” The episode earned an Emmy nomination for director James Frawley.
17. Dean Jeffries, the Hollywood auto legend who created the Monkeemobile — a modified Pontiac GTO — also painted the custom “Little Bastard” logo on the Porsche 550 Spyder that was driven by James Dean during his fatal accident in 1955.
18. The Monkees currently airs on Antenna TV on Sunday nights.
19. Star Trek papa Gene Roddenberry was inspired by a Monkee to create the character of Chekov during the second season of the original Trek series. In the 1968 book The Making of Star Trek, by Stephen E. Whitfield and Roddenberry, the Trek creator shared a memo he wrote in 1966 to casting director Joe D’Agosta, suggesting, “Keeping our teenage audience in mind, also keeping aware of current trends, let’s watch for a young, irreverent, English-accent Beatle type to try on the show, possibly with an eye to him reoccurring. Like the smallish fellow who looks to be a hit on The Monkees,” Roddenberry added, referring to Davy Jones. “Personally I find this type spirited and refreshing, and I think our episodes could use that kind of lift.”
Davy Jones and Walter Koenig as Chekov in Star Trek (Photos: Getty Images/Everett Collection)
20. Other names considered before the TV series and band were named The Monkees: The Creeps and The Inevitables, according to the book Monkey Business: The Revolutionary Made-for-TV Band by Eric Lefcowitz.
21. The Jonas Brothers say a rainy vacation spent indoors watching The Monkees for three days is what inspired their 2009-10 Disney Channel series Jonas, in which they played brothers who are in a famous band together.
22. After Season 2 of The Monkees, the band wanted to morph the series into more of a variety show for Season 3, while NBC wanted it to continue as it was, and add back in the laugh track that had been removed for Season 2. In the end, both sides compromised: neither got what it wanted, and The Monkees was cancelled instead.
23. Micky Dolenz co-wrote, directed, and of course, co-starred in The Monkees series finale episode, “The Frodis Caper” (also sometimes titled “Mijacogeo”), in which comedian Rip Taylor played an evil wizard who wanted to control people’s minds via their television sets. The episode also featured a cameo appearance by musician Tim Buckley, who performed a folk version of his oft-covered “Song to the Siren.”
24. A two-time guest star on The Monkees: Len Lesser, Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo, who played bank robber George in “Monkees in a Ghost Town,” and baddie Red, who was trying to steal the ranch of Mike’s Aunt Kate in “Monkees in Texas.”
The New Monkees (Photo: Everett)
25. The Beatles inspired the creation of The Monkees, and The Monkees inspired the creation of New Monkees, an ill-fated attempt to capitalize on the success of the originals with a new TV series and band. New Monkees revolved around a quartet – played by Larry Saltis, Jared Chandler, Marty Ross, and Konstantinos Kovas – who lived in a mansion with a butler named Manfred, a talking computer who used to work for the government, and a waitress-staffed diner inside. Despite all those amenities, New Monkees lasted for just 13 episodes during its 1987 syndicated run. As for the band New Monkees, they released one single – “What I Want” – and had no hits.
The Monkees: The Complete Series Box Set on Blu-ray is available at Monkees.com