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Jordan Runtagh
September 30, 2016 01:45 PM

When was the last time you thought about The Iron Horse? Or The Time Tunnel? How about The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.? All are television shows that premiered the second week of September in 1966, and all have effectively faded from memory. Not so with The Monkees, the groundbreaking TV-music-performance project that ran amok across the late ’60s pop cultural landscape like Frankenstein’s multimedia monster. 50 years later, it’s still very much alive.

Earlier this year, the three surviving Monkees reunited in the studio with producer Adam Schlesinger – a veteran of the uber-poppy Fountains of Wayne and the tunesmith behind the brilliant ’60s sound-alike “That Thing You Do.” Vintage studio tracks, abandoned for decades, were revamped, and top tier superfans including Noel Gallagher, Rivers Cuomo and Ben Gibbard all rushed to contribute fresh songs.

The result was Good Times!, the Monkees’ strongest album since their heyday. It soared into the Billboard Top 20 (a first since 1968’s The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees), and onto Rolling Stone‘s mid-year “Best Of” list. Featuring instrumental and compositional contributions from the members themselves, it’s also one of the most authentic works of their career – proving to any nay-sayers that the Monkees are indeed a real band.

And they’ve got the road hours to prove it. Micky Dolenz, the voice on smashes like “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday” has been on tour since May, playing to rapturous crowds across North America with Monkee-mate Peter Tork. On Sep. 16th they were joined at Los Angeles’ Pantages Theater by the occasionally errant Monkee Michael Nesmith for what could well be the final live show featuring the trio.

But then again, maybe not. The Monkees emit an inexplicable force, one that constantly draws its former members back into its orbit. It’s the same force that brings fans of all ages out in droves to watch them perform live, and keeps their music in the ears and hearts of several generations. It’s a force that Dolenz, now 71, could have scarcely imagined when he first auditioned for the show more than half a century ago.

“The producers of The Monkees were once asked about the success,” Dolenz tells PEOPLE. “And they said, ‘You know, we just caught lightening in a bottle.’ And I think that’s sort of the answer. You can’t reduce this stuff in any scientific scene. You can’t take Star Trek apart and say, ‘Oh, it was just William Shatner.’ Or ‘Oh no, it was just the writing, or just the sets, or it was just the special effects.’ It’s the same thing with The Monkees. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”

Much like Star Trek, which premiered just four days earlier on NBC, The Monkees inspired fan clubs and annual conventions supported by a rabid subculture, plus millions of more casual fans who can’t, say, immediately recall the name of the episode where Nesmith dressed in drag as Princess Gwen (answer: Episode #48, “Fairy Tale”). But unlike the extra terrestrial voyages of the starship Enterprise, The Monkees offered a closer look at the changes happening within our own country – and it made some uncomfortable.

“The network was very, very scared of the show,” he says. “They were really worried because the only time you saw longhaired children on television in those days, they were being arrested! So then along we come with long hair and bell-bottoms and paisley and stuff. We’re just nice kids and we just want have fun, we’re not committing crimes against nature.”

In addition to their television personas, the Monkees found themselves thrust into the unexpected role of youth ambassadors to mainstream America. “The little kids could say to their parents, ‘See, the Monkees have long hair and they’re ok.'” Though their corporate ties certainly affected their credibility in some hipper-than-thou circles, the show provided a voice for the young generation who had something to say.

David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith
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It was a heady position for a guy barely into his twenties. For Dolenz, the whole phenomenon began as just another acting gig. Born into a show business family (his parents George Dolenz and Janelle Johnson were both performers), he was already a television vet by the time he was a teenager, having scored the lead on the series Circus Boy and smaller parts on a number of other shows.

By the time the Monkees auditions took place in 1965, he was preparing to say farewell to his days as a child star. “I remember that year, I was in school studying to be an architect. That’s what I had decided I wanted to do after high school. I thought, ‘I better get serious’ and I was doing little [acting] day jobs, kind of like summer jobs, to keep busy and make a little money. I was going to college in Los Angeles and I was going to be an architect – and if that didn’t work out, I was going to fall back on show business!”

His Plan B panned out. In the summer of 1965 he went on a series of auditions, with The Monkees being just one of many. “There were three other shows I remember that were music oriented, so it was in the air. There was one about a Peter, Paul and Mary-like folk group. I even remember the name: it was called The Happeners. I didn’t get that one, obviously. There was another that about a surfing band, a Beach Boys kind of show. And there was one like a family band, a New Christy Minstrels hootenanny family thing. But when I auditioned for The Monkees, I remember thinking even at the time, ‘This is really different, I really hope I get this one.'”

The tone was set by producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who were not much older than Dolenz. “They were Beatles fans, and that was kind of unusual at the time. Because usually producers were 60 or 70-year-old guys smoking a cigar in a suit, saying, ‘We want to do something that the kids will like.’ When I walked into the audition with the producer, I thought they were there auditioning! They were in jeans and t-shirts and lounging around with empty pizza boxes and stuff. So it was different.”

But it was the music that would truly set the series apart. The production employed some of the biggest songwriters in the business, including Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (the pair who wrote the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” the Shangri-La’s “Leader of the Pack,” and the Exciters’ “Do-Wah-Diddy”), Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (the duo behind the Righteous Brothers’ perennial “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” and numerous hits by Paul Revere and the Raiders), plus the incomparable Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart (responsible for many Monkees’ classics, including the famous theme tune) – not to mention future household names like Neil Diamond, Carole King and Harry Nilsson.

After being cast alongside his Monkee brethren Tork, Nesmith and Davy Jones, Dolenz was expected to put in significant time in the studio to crank out song after song. “It was a lot of work!” he says. “It was really intense because a normal group would just record and go on the road. We were on the set 10 to 12 hours a day filming the show nonstop and then recording at night, and then rehearsing to eventually go on tour during the weekends. You’ve got a lot of stamina at 20 or 21 years old, but there wasn’t time for much else.”

To help with the load, producers called in a crack team of studio musicians known across Los Angeles as “the Wrecking Crew” to lay down instrumental tracks for the Monkees to sing on. It was an open industry secret that many major groups – the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys and the Byrds among them – did not play on their own recordings. “Nobody talked about it,” Dolenz says now. The practice may sound deceitful, but the reasons were strictly practical. “It was expensive to record. You had to do it fast. The technology didn’t exist as it does today to have multiple takes and do stuff technically. So all the groups used studio cats. It’s not that they couldn’t play – the guys in the Byrds could play, the guys in the Beach Boys could play. That’s just what you did when you were in the studio and knock this stuff out.”

Though hired primarily as actors, Nesmith and Tork resented the lack of musical input on their early songs. “Peter tells the story of going into the studio with his bass guitar in the early days, and they said, ‘What are you doing here?'”

Dolenz himself had performed in several rock ‘n’ roll cover bands before The Monkees, and was also an accomplished classical guitarist. Still, he felt no indignity about being uninvolved with the music. “From my point of view, I was playing the part of this character on a television show, so I approached it from a very different angle. They cast me as the drummer. And I said, ‘Fine, when do I start.’ That’s what you would do if you were cast into a movie or a TV show. They’d say ‘You’re going to learn to ride a horse, you’re going to learn to scuba dive,’ or whatever. I had no problem with that.”

But the waters began to get murky: were they actors or were they a band? In keeping with the tradition of the day, the record sleeves gave no indication that they bolstered by studio musicians. The fact that they used their real names on the TV show only added to the confusion. Despite their repeated assertions to the contrary (“This isn’t a rock ‘n’ roll group. This is an act,” Jones told Newsweek in 1966), many fans believed that the Monkees were a hard-working real-life garage band that had been plucked from obscurity to star in a weekly series.

A sizable controversy mushroomed when the press, eager to tear down the latest pop idol, shockingly “revealed” that the band did not play their instruments. Critics derisively dubbed them “the pre-Fab four” and accused them of intentionally defrauding the public. To this day, the Monkees take heat for doing what so-called “legitimate” bands had been doing for years. “Ironically, we were the only ones that didn’t have a choice [in playing]. We were never asked,” says Dolenz.

Today he compares The Monkees to recent shows like Glee. “It’s a television show about an imaginary glee-club, but they can all do it. They can all sing and dance and act and perform, and I understand they go on the road. All those kids weren’t faking it. So nowadays it’s quite common to have a show like that. But when The Monkees came out in ’66, nothing like that had ever happened. The Monkees came out and broke the barrier between television and radio, and radio and touring, and record companies and television and radio. It was this concerted assault on the consumer, because technology was available and becoming more readily available. The Monkees were the first one, and we got a lot of sh-t for it.”

Not that it hurt sales. Their second album, More of the Monkees, went on to become the best selling album of 1967 in the United States – beating the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Emboldened by the huge sales, the four young men fought for the right to choose their own songs and play their own instruments. “Mike was the one who sort of spearheaded the palace revolt, if you like. From what he told me, he’d been promised that he was going to get his music and his songs in the show. So he went in and said, ‘Here’s some songs.’ He played one of the first songs he’d written, and they said ‘No, that’s not a Monkees tune.’ And he said, ‘Well, wait a minute – I am one of the Monkees.'”

Nesmith ultimately gave the song, a country-tinged ditty called “Different Drum,” to a young singer named Linda Ronstadt, who took it into the Top 20.

By February 1967, the Monkees had succeeded in firing Don Kirshner, the show’s music director, on a legal technicality, giving them much more control over their musical destiny. They performed nearly all of the instruments on that year’s Headquarters, writing half the songs themselves. By that summer, they were on the road, playing sell-out concerts across the globe as a fully functioning band.

For Dolenz, the transformation from actor to rock star was surreal. Today he likens it to Star Trek‘s Leonard Nimoy actually becoming a Vulcan alien like his character, Spock. “We did it all by ourselves. There was no orchestra or other people playing. It the four of us playing. In fact, it really was a power trio because David didn’t play an instrument. He played a little guitar and sat down at the drums once in a while, but it was mostly Mike on the 12-string [guitar], Peter on the bass and me on the drums. So it was like a power trio.” Recordings made of the tour were eventually released on 1987’s Live 1967. “It’s quite exciting because it gave you an idea of what it was like, live in ’67. That’s when the band, the characters of the television show, became the band for real.”

The band would survive the cancellation of the show in March of 1968, and the lukewarm reception that greeted Head, their misunderstood feature film, released that November. Though the Monkees would go their separate ways in the ’70s, their fervent fan-base and shared history would draw them back together for a series of high profile reunion albums (1987’s Pool It! and 1996’s Justus) and tours.

It was just after their 45th anniversary trek that Jones suffered a fatal heart attack on Feb. 29, 2012. “That was a shocker, I’ll tell you,” says Dolenz. “He was supposedly in very good health. Nobody saw that one coming. We wondered after that, ‘How are we going to go out without Davy Jones?’ And Mike, Peter and I said, ‘Well, let’s just do a couple concerts, not as a memorial but as closure for fans.'” The shows were a huge success. Each night, the crowd would sing along to Jones’ signature song, “Daydream Believer.”

On the eve of the Monkees’ 50th anniversary, Dolenz, Nesmith and Tork were approached to mark the occasion with a new record. A dive into the tape vault revealed several incomplete session tapes dating back to the ’60s. One was a demo for a rollicking number called “Good Times,” featuring a scratch vocal by the song’s composer, the late Harry Nilsson, who died of a heart disease in 1994.

Getty

“When I heard that, that’s sort of what kicked the whole thing off,” explains Dolenz. “I had become very, very good friends with Harry. He and I became very close over the years. I’m godfather to one of his children. So when I heard that, I was like ‘Oh my god, I can sing a duet with my old friend Harry Nilsson – are you kidding me?'” A disused Carole King song called “Wasn’t Born to Follow” also surfaced, as well work from Jeff Barry, and Boyce and Hart. Most poignantly, the Neil Diamond-penned “Love to Love” featured a forgotten vocal by Jones. “All of a sudden it became, ‘We really got something here.’ We were just thrilled.”

The album that would become Good Times! is a potent mix of then and now – with the “now” taking the form of surprisingly convincing neo-Monkees tracks penned by a dazzling array of modern music heavyweights. “We had a lot more material submitted that we couldn’t even get to,” Dolenz marvels. 50 years later, everyone still wants to write for the Monkees.

“I’m so proud of that album,” he continues. “I just think it’s one of the best things we’ve done in a long, long time.”

The record ends with a track composed by Dolenz and Schlesinger, the rowdy “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time).” It seems to sum up the whole story – those whirlwind days bouncing between the soundstage and the recording studio, the frenzied live tours and the late nights carousing the Sunset Strip club scene a group of rock ‘n’ roll buddies including Nilsson, Keith Moon, Alice Cooper and John Lennon.

“It’s that standing joke: if you remember the ’60s you weren’t really there. That’s not entirely true, at least not in my case. But when they ask me if I was there I say, ‘I was, and I’m told I had a great time.'”

The Monkees tour continues, so check their website for more info – they may be coming to your town!

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