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Hey, Hey, We're Criminally Underrated!

The Monkees and a Look into Why They Deserve Better

Over the years, many amazing and well respected musicians/bands have left their mark on the world. Beginning with a 1965 Newspaper ad, the music and television worlds were treated to a mix-up that would surely leave theirs. The Monkees debuted on NBC in 1966 with an endearingly odd and new style. It was fast paced, surreal, young, and downright absurd. The creation came from the minds of producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider and that’s just what it was in the beginning, a prefabricated creation. The four young men who came to makeup the band had auditioned and were chosen for a television series. This was always something that separated the gang of Monkees from other bands & musical acts and is the origin to a larger problem. The Monkees have never fully been accepted and respected by the music community. In their heyday, they were looked down on, they were seen as juvenile, they were not considered a real band. They were what little brothers and sisters listened to and watched but never considered "real" music. The media criticized them for this plenty of times. But the fact of the matter is that the Monkees came onto the scene and did something wonderful with their music. It’s time they stop being overlooked because they are actually hidden gems. Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith, and Micky Dolenz were criminally underrated as the Monkees and all on their own.

In order to fully go into detail for the band as individuals, it is best to explain just why they were underrated together first. The Monkees were a well crafted and well thought out machine rather than a regularly formed band which was all fine and dandy for the humble beginnings. But as the four individuals grew and the show evolved, it became clear that there was something else there to explore. What it all boils down to is the fact that the show-runners hired two musicians and two actors. Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork were the musicians. Peter was the most knowledgeable about music, “I’m the only one of the four of us who was in possession of that body of information. I took piano for six years and French horn for a couple, plus music theory in college.” (Dfanelli) He had been playing as a solo act and in a variety of groups, including one with Stephen Stills. Nesmith was a proficient songwriter from Texas who’d been playing around the Troubadour. To their opposite stood the actors, little ol’ David Jones of Oliver! fame and a former child star, Micky Dolenz. While Mike and Peter were hoping for more musical opportunities, Davy and Micky seemed fine with the job they were given. But the biggest crime in the Monkees history is the fact that no one seemed to treat them in a truly beneficial way. Be it, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider or songwriters; Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and most notably, Don Kirshner. Not to say these were bad people looking to purposefully sabotage the band, which is not true. No, these were just people who because they played a part in the creation of the fake band, they would never look at the four them as anything else but fake.

In the shows early days and for a long while, the Monkees did not play their own instruments nor did they really write songs (though they later would get these chances) but they did sing and act. It wasn't much but through that minimal taste of music, the world experienced something that was truly underappreciated. Those Monkees could really take what they were dealt with and run with it. They were hilarious, they were nuts but most importantly they worked stunningly well together. Micky and Davy could naturally bounce off each other in a scene, as seen in their screen tests together. Mike and Micky even had an amazing natural comedic flow together that can be most notably seen in the episode; "Son of a Gypsy." Though the show was eventually a success, the music in the show was overlooked. Kirshner hired songwriters and a stable of musicians to create catchy, engaging tracks that the band could pretend to perform on the show and the boys didn't have much to do but sing. “They wanted to have creative control, and they thought they had more talent than they really had.” (Kirshner) Starting from the beginning, the boys were not taken very seriously.

The Monkees (some more than others) were at odds with Kirshner when it came to that creative freedom and Mike Nesmith had taken the lead to end it all. Everything came to a head with one very infamous Monkees tale that includes a very passionate Mike, a clueless Kirshner, and a fist through a wall. So Mike ended up finally getting what he wished for and the Monkees conducted their first recording sessions under their own creative control and came out with the album known as Headquarters. Despite the lack of general support, the band managed to come together and the album was released on May 22, 1967. Charting at the No. 1 spot in the US. It stayed at that position for only one week, before being replaced by the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Which is a pretty impressive achievement on its own. Despite the huge ego of Kirshner and the general public viewing them as just juvenile or novelty, the Monkees proved their worth and they did it together.

Davy Jones is perhaps the most iconic of the Monkees bunch and gets the most attention from the general audience. So it makes sense to start with him. He was well liked by the likes of Kirshner and didn’t put up as much of a fight as Peter or Mike. In the case of this Monkee, Davy gets shelved as just the "pretty" boy when in fact, Davy was actually pretty musically solid. “Davy is a great musician; he just can’t play an instrument! He has the feeling for music, and he is already picking up pieces on the piano, bass and drums. Some people you can never teach about music, but Davy is a musician at heart.” (Tork) Davy was a Broadway boy with a unique voice and there were many times he showcased his talent besides just the most popular hit "Daydream Believer."

Davy’s lineup of hidden gems during the Monkees run could begin with an all too specific version of "She Hangs Out," which is a stereo remix from a deluxe edition of Headquarters. In this tune, Davy really showed off his ability to do a sweet toned voice. Jones also did a wonderful job with non-hits such as "Hard to Believe," "The Poster," and "The Girl I Left Behind Me." There was also his great take of Neil Diamond's "Love to Love," which wasn’t released until 2016’s Good Times! album. The man also did a phenomenal job on "Shades of Gray" with Peter Tork.

Another of the four zany boys was Peter Tork, born Peter Thorkelson. Peter was perhaps the most overlooked and underrated of the bunch. Peter was criminally underutilized during the bands run. Peter knew what he was talking about because he was knowledgeable and proficient with music. But songwriters like Tommy Boyce did not seem to care and didn't let him down easy. “I did give Peter a voice audition on Saturday’s Child but I had to finally say, 'look Pete, I can’t play banjo and you can’t sing. If I played the banjo, I’d sound like you singing, I have to erase the tape.'” (Baker) It must have been quite degrading to hear. Not to mention when Peter started the show, he truly believed he could be included in the musical aspects only to be told it was all done and he could play no part in it. But Peter could play and he could play great. Tork’s talents can be seen on plenty of overlooked Monkees tunes.

Over their career, the Monkees had plenty of music released and some previously unreleased. The general public is aware of such hits like "I’m a Believer" and "Daydream Believer," but there were plenty of amazing songs that maybe didn’t get as much attention. Some of these tunes involved great efforts from Tork. Hidden Peter gems include his vocals on songs such as "Shades of Gray," "Words," and his version of "I Don’t Think You Know Me." There was also a left over song from the 1968 sessions for The Birds, the Bees, & the Monkees called "Come On In," which was hidden away for decades. That song features perhaps one of Tork’s best vocal performances, sounding sweet and vulnerable in the purest of ways. While a lot of Tork’s best songs and features didn’t end up making the cut, the song "For Pete’s Sake" (co-written with Joseph Richards) ended up in the end screen of the show’s second season. That song embodied everything that Peter was and what he believed. Many people thought the Monkees were just mindless pop, mainly how Kirshner saw them best, but they had plenty of songs like "For Pete’s Sake" that meant something and stood for something.

Michael Nesmith is known for being the Monkee to put up the most of a fight when it concerned creative freedom. This includes the infamous wall punching incident in which he had reached his end with Kirshner’s ego and punched the wall of a Beverly Hills hotel room. There is a lot to be said about Nesmith and how he saw the Monkees. He fought hard enough to be able to write and produce some of his own songs and was maybe aiming to make the group more along what he wanted. “If the truth be known, the day Peter quit was probably the happiest day of Mike’s life…” “Finally he was out of the way. Now Mike could get on with doing what he had always wanted to do, make the Monkees his group.” (Dolenz) Michael Nesmith worked hard to get where he got and though he didn’t always get along the best with his band-mates, he had their best interest in heart at points. Like when Peter left angry with the Tommy Boyce after the "Saturday’s Child" voice audition and came back with Mike for backup, “So Peter left in a huff and came back with Michael, who pulled off his motorcycle helmet, crashed it down onto the console and demanded, "Why don’t you let Peter sing? You guys never let us come to the sessions. It’s just you two with Davy and Micky." (Baker) Mike also knew what he was talking about when it came to a better Monkees setup, “Micky should’ve been in front all along. You know, he is so good. Why we stuck him back on the drums, that was one of the dumber things we ever did. Between David and Micky up front, I mean, you got two power hitters up here, you know? I just stand there, and I don’t do anything. I go over and stand by my amp and play the guitar. And Peter probably could have been a better drummer than Micky because Peter’s a better musician than Micky.” When it came down to it, Mike deserved credit for the hard work it took to get the creative freedom.

Michael Nesmith was a proficient songwriter and had even penned "Different Drum," a song which later grew fame through Linda Ronstadt. During the Monkees run, Nesmith had a couple of hidden gems and well written tunes. Most notably, "Mary, Mary," "The Girl I Knew Somewhere," and "Good Clean Fun." Though Mike didn’t sing too often and wasn’t valued in that aspect to a lot of people involved, such as Kirshner; “Mike was the weakest singer as far as I was concerned,” (Kirshner) he actually had a nice vocal range that’s displayed extremely well in "Love Is Only Sleeping" where easily slips from low to high and that isn’t appreciated enough. In fact, Mike and Peter barely got any respect at all when it came to singing. But in songs like Nesmith’s "Nine Times Blue," Mike shows off his sweet Texan voice. The song itself is wonderful and was at its absolute best when performed on the Johnny Cash show with Davy and Micky singing the harmonies. Any chance to have Micky sing with Mike should be taken. They have one of the most underrated vocal blends in music history.

Micky Dolenz was the voice of the Monkees and the glue that held that band together for as long as they did. Dolenz is almost every fans secret favorite but not a lot will come right out and say it. Not only did Micky have one of the purest and sweetest voices in music that is still constantly being overlooked but the guy was just the easiest to get along with and during the show’s run he did just that. Without Micky, they almost surely would have fallen apart because in the early show days while the others butted heads, Micky had good relationships with each of them. That’s not to say it stayed that way forever but for the most part, Micky was that glue. He understood Mike’s fight for creative control, he was good friends with Peter and got along extremely well with Davy. His good attitude can be seen the most in the times in which Dolenz, Jones and Tork were reunited without Nesmith. Tork and Jones would often shade the absent member but in countless videos and transcripts, Micky held his tongue and was nice about Mike. Where Peter needs credit for his musical talent and Mike should earn credit for getting some creative freedom, Micky needs credit for keeping them all from killing each other.

Micky sang the lead on plenty of Monkees tunes but that still wasn’t enough. The kid could sing and it wasn’t/isn’t recognized often because of the stigma the Monkees have around them for being juvenile. His voice could be pure, sweet and soft but then also have a rock and roll edge to it. Some of the best examples of the secret weapon kind of voice he had include "I’ll Spend My Life With You," "Goin' Down," "I Wanna Be Free (Fast Version)," "No Time," "Randy Scouse Git," and so much more. But songs like "Sometime in the Morning" and "As We Go Along" really showcase that borderline adorable voice he has that was like no other. So many people missed out and are still missing out on hearing it because popular classic rock radio stations still don’t even play the Monkees (Shoutout to MeTV FM for still playing them!) because they still carry that stigma. Micky’s voice is pure magic and not to mention that blend he had with Nesmith again but it can be heard to its full potential in the wonderful song "Pleasant Valley Sunday." There’s also the wonderful blend he had with his sister, Coco, that can be heard brilliantly in the song "She’ll Be There" from Missing Links Vol. 3.

What it all boils down to in the end is that the Monkees were a wonderfully weird band that the general audience wasn’t quite sure what to do with. Were they fake? Were they real? It was hard to tell. They never got the respect they deserved because of that. Music fans had this sort of stigma against the band and the people behind the scenes, such as Kirshner, could do know better when it came to finding the right way to handle them. Together, the band actually produced a wide range of wonderful content that was missed by a lot of people because of the suffering they endured as a result of the stigma and the lack of correct support. Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith, and Micky Dolenz deserve recognition for the work they did and the wonderful music they created. There is so much more they did together and further as individuals that wasn’t even touched on here. The Monkees have been getting swept under the rug for far too long now. There is more to them then "mindless pop music."


Personal Note: I wanted to add something to this essay. This might not be my best work. My sources aren’t the best, and I may have gotten things wrong. But I wanted to get this message out there because the Monkees are one of the most underrated bands there ever was. So I wanted to add a little anecdote at the end here to help aid this point.

My father is also very into music (just as everyone else in my family is) and once my sister and I got far down the rabbit hole that is the Monkees, he had to endure it too. We played them all the time. And after a while, he explained to us that he was never actually aware of how many great songs the Monkees had. He came from a generation that lived on the radio which only pumped out the big hits. My sister and I just dove straight into everything Monkees and found so many deep tracks and hidden gems that it showed him just what they had under their belt the whole time that he had missed.

He now loves the song "Goin' Down" and actually refers to Micky as an angel because of his pure voice. Can’t say that my sister and I aren’t extremely proud of that.

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