It happened after young movie and TV director Bob Rafelson, looking for his big break, dreamt up a show about a struggling rock band.
He ran a production company called Raybert with his business partner Bert Schneider, whose father was the head of Columbia Pictures.
The TV division of Columbia agreed in 1965 to go ahead with the project. All that was then needed was a band – or, at least, “four insane boys” who could literally play the part. Both the Dave Clark Five and Lovin’ Spoonful turned down the idea.
Rafelson and Schneider went on to audition then unknown stars of the future such as Harry Nilsson, Stephen Stills and Van Dyke Parks, but finally settled on two former child actors – Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz – and two obscure folk singers – Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork.
Rafelson later denied that his idea was inspired by The Beatles and especially Richard Lester's "A Hard Day's Night" movie. He said that he had conceived the show before The Beatles existed, and it was based on his time as an itinerant musician “more interested in having fun than in earning a living”.
In any event, The Monkees television show burst onto TV screens the following year and was an instant success with its cheerful anti-establishment spirit, witty, knockabout humour and innovative direction.
It also produced a string of memorable hits including I’m A Believer, Pleasant Valley Sunday and Last Train To Clarksville, establishing The Monkees, briefly, as America’s leading rock band.
Stung by reports – which were true – that they didn't play on their own records, the band practised hard and went on tour. They took creative control with their third album, "Headquarters", and became bona fide rock stars.
Their demise was signalled when they teamed up with Jack Nicholson in 1968 to make the psychedelic art movie, "Head", directed by Rafelson. Praised by critics, the movie bombed with fans and caused dissension in the band.
A disillusioned Tork was the first to quit, followed by Nesmith in 1970.
Englishman Davy Jones died of a heart attack in 2012, aged 66, and American Peter Tork of complications of adenoid cystic carcinoma in 2019, aged 77. The music of The Monkees lives on though and has been celebrated with the 50th anniversary release of a new album, Good Times.
Published: August 3, 2016