In the mid-’60s, it was impossible to escape the pop culture presence of The Monkees. The weekly sitcom about a band struggling to make it was a massive hit on NBC, spawning chart-topping albums, sold-out tours and even a psychedelic cinematic effort, Head, written by a young Jack Nicholson. During their heyday, the Monkees had an almost unfathomable influence on the younger generation and the charts, thanks to hits like “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “I’m a Believer” and “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.” The series may have been a comedy about wisecracking cut-ups, but via the show, the Monkees inadvertently provided an empathetic role model for thousands of aspiring bands who had a shared ambition and struggle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, each of the Monkees was a talented actor, singer and musician in their own right, and that’s still evident as Monkees Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz continue to tour today, both solo and together. Pro Sound News recently caught up with Dolenz, who talked about the early days.
On evolving the concept
Originally, The Monkees wasn’t a group or a band; it was a TV show about this imaginary band that lived in this beach house in Malibu and were trying to be The Beatles. So if you approach it from that point of view, everything else makes a lot of sense and it set the course. It was about the struggle for success—and I think that is the thing that helped endear it to all those generations of kids out there, rehearsing in their garages, basements and living rooms. That said, the producers of the show must have known that if the pilot episode sold, we would have to go out and perform; otherwise, they wouldn’t have hired musicians and singers. The Monkees was much more like a Marx Brothers musical than The Beatles. The Marx Brothers could sing, play, dance, act and do comedy. It was John Lennon, actually, who compared us to the Marx Brothers. That was by far the most accurate description of us if you understand the genetics behind that.
On the audition
You had to be a musician, a singer and an actor to get through the auditions. My audition piece, which I still do in my solo show, was “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry. Originally, I was a guitar player singing in cover bands, playing songs like “Wooly Bully,” “Money” by Barrett Strong, “House of the Rising Sun” by Eric Burden. That’s when the producers came along for the audition. I passed it, but they did say to me, ‘You are going to be the drummer, because we have enough guitar players.’ Then eventually the four of us went on to perform hundreds of concerts in front of tens of thousands of people.
On studio cats
During those times and the early records in the studio, the Wrecking Crew was everywhere. They were playing the Beach Boys stuff, working with The Byrds, everybody. It is about time those people finally got the credit due them. I remember quite clearly sitting at the feet of Hal Blaine at RCA Victor studio; also with Earl Palmer and Carol Kaye and Glen Campbell. Hal would give me a pointer here or a pointer there, and I was studying feverishly, trying to keep up with him. Recording sessions were a very different situation back then; they were much more difficult, much more expensive and much more involved. It was not like today, where you can record something with your laptop in your living room.
On Hendrix opening for The Monkees
I was in New York, and we were doing publicity, getting ready for the first tour. Somebody said, “You’ve got to come down to the Village and see this guy; he plays guitar with his teeth!” I remember that show very clearly, sitting at front row center. Then sure enough, there’s this young kid playing guitar with his teeth. Months later, I am at Monterey Pop Festival, and out comes this trio all dressed up in these psychedelic, fancy clothes. That, of course, was Mitch, Noel and Jimi, who were all very theatrical. We were looking for an opening act and we regarded The Monkees as a very theatrical act, so we asked them to open, and they thought it was a good idea. Jimi was the opening act for half a dozen dates or so, and we were blown away by his music. The fans, of course, were there to see The Monkees and they didn’t get it. He would be singing “Purple Haze” and the fans would be going, ‘We want Davy and Micky!” Embarrassing but true.
On recent recordings
In terms of recording, the last thing we did was a Christmas album last year with Mike and Peter [Tork], when he was still with us. We’ve also done a live album with Mike for our tour, which will be coming out on Rhino Records soon. We had a big album out in 2016 called Good Times, which went Top 20—for a 50-year-old band, that’s not bad goin’! We had some great writers on that album; in addition to original writers Neil Diamond and Carol King, we also had Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie, Rivers Cuomo from Weezer and many others. During all these years, I’ve never really been a prolific writer. Every once and a while I’ll get a crazy idea and write a tune, but I am not the kind of person who gets up in the morning at 10 a.m. and says, ‘I’m going to sit in the studio and write.’ That said, I wish I could, but I’m just not that kind of person.