Splitsider

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

The Monkees, The Old New Monkees, and New Monkees: How to Destroy A Beloved Franchise

The Monkees was one of the greatest, hippest, most forward-thinking sitcoms ever, if not the first modern-day, non-cheesy sitcom. Which is remarkable, considering that it existed as an Americanized, TV rip-off of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night starring a completely prefabricated band that didn’t write its songs and only later learned how to play their instruments. The cynical, corporate, the-lil’-bastards-oughta-like-this should have bled through every frame and every note. But it didn’t. Because producer Columbia Pictures and its TV wing Screen Gems didn’t care too much about micro-managing this thing, they let the cast, producers, and writers, all of them inexperienced, do whatever they wanted. The result was a gleefully zany show. Things The Monkees did before pretty much any other comedy did: quick cuts. Irony. Breaking the fourth wall. Not appealing to the squares. Actually being funny, or at least funnier than Petticoat Junction and My Three Sons. It captured a moment in time: the freewheeling, youthful, optimistic, pre-Manson ‘60s. (It even says so, right there in the theme song lyrics, that they’re the young generation, and that they’ve got something to say.)

One could argue that in the ‘60s, The Monkees popularized and even invented the definitive media delivery device of the ‘80s, the music video. At the end of each episode, over audio of one of the band’s brand-new fave-rave super hits, the band would act out a little self-contained scenario, or continue the action from the episode. Monkee Michael Nesmith, the only Monkee who didn’t need to work (the urban legend is true — his mother invented Liquid Paper) and the only one with a solo top 40 hit single, drifted away from music and into video production. By the ‘70s, Monkees-inspired music videos were becoming more and more common, to where New Zealand had an all music video show called Radio With Pictures. Chicken/egg: that in turn inspired Nesmith to make basically the same show for the very, very young Nickelodeon in 1979 called PopClips (which ran well into the ‘80s under the name Nick Rocks). It did well enough that Nickelodeon’s parent company, Warner Cable, decided in 1981 to spin off the show into a music video channel: MTV.

So MTV pretty much played music videos and concerts all the time for the first five years of its existence. Perhaps sensing that it just couldn’t do this forever, and that it should maybe have some structure, the network acquired the rights to the 1966-68 Monkees TV show, which wasn’t widely seen in reruns because there were only 58 episodes; shows generally made it into perpetual reruns if they had made at least 100. MTV debuted The Monkees with a 24-hour marathon in 1986 that it barely promoted. Executives were shocked when the ratings reports came in and revealed that old Monkees episodes were among the most watched things ever put up on MTV. Monkees reruns became an MTV staple and were picked up by Nickelodeon and for local syndication, too.

Basically, completely out of the blue with only the tangential reasoning of “It’s the 20th anniversary of that show we all liked, that totally inspired that thing we like now,” a second wave of Monkeesmania was afoot. Naturally, the Monkees themselves crawled out of obscurity, boat shows, dinner theater, solo county fair shows, and fabulous wealth (Nesmith only) to properly reunite after more than 15 years apart.

As they’d been the most popular group in America for a brief, bizarre moment in the mid-60s, once again the Monkees, or the middle-aged dudes who looked like your dad’s skeezy salesmen buddies who purported to once be the Monkees, were the most popular band in America. Or close to it. Arista Records released a compilation of Monkees hits with three new songs on it, one of which, “That Was Then, This Is Now,” which is about lady love, and not the Monkees themselves, went top 20. An all-new album called Pool It! was planned for release in 1987.

It probably would have been a massive hit, too, with all that sweet, built-in daily MTV exposure until the Monkees went and screwed it all up, as Monkees are wont to do. In January 1987, the Monkees were invited to MTV’s big corporate Super Bowl party (because MTV is just that hardcore, you guys). They couldn’t make it due to a scheduling problem. (That’s the official excuse. If I know my Monkees history, the real reason was that the band got lost in a haunted house, or they couldn’t find short little Davy because he’d gotten mobbed by a bunch of pretty teenage girls.) The network thought that the band that owed them everything (who really owed them everything) snubbed them royally. Monkees reruns were thusly pulled from both MTV and sister-network Nickelodeon.

The public still enjoyed the Monkees, though. To a degree. The 1987 summer tour sold out stadiums and arenas backed with Boomers and teens eager to hear the old, awesome hits and none of the new ones from Pool It! (which didn’t involve Michael Nesmith and spawned two terrible, barely commercially noticed generic ‘80s crappy singles, “Every Step of the Way” and “Heart and Soul”).

By fall 1987, the Monkees revival was basically over, what with the lack of reruns on cable and the three remaining Monkees’ insistence on performing and promoting their new material, which amounted to joyless Cutting Crew B-sides. Besides, they were old and weird, and music is youth driven, as the Monkees epitomized back in the day. In 1987 they just reminded everyone of their own mortality and eventual descent into awkward, middle-aged baldinghood.

The only way to capitalize on the renewed Monkees fever, or what was left of it, then, was for the enterprising producers at Columbia Pictures Television to make new Monkees, or New Monkees as they cleverly called the idea. It would include a new prefabricated band of handsome, moldable potential stars and a new zany sitcom to show them off and hawk their wares. In the minds of Columbia, they’d be as popular as the old Monkees and the old Monkees revival combined!

Instead, New Monkees were about as popular and envelope-pushing as the New Christy Minstrels.

As had been done with the original Monkees, New Monkees (no definite article, like the equally edgy Carpenters or Eagles) were assembled after thousands of twenty-something actors with musical talent auditioned. Columbia whittled it down to four guys, all of whom had some musical experience, although some more than others. Bassist Marty Ross had been in a signed band (and had once written for the defunct soap The Edge of Night!); guitarist Jared Chandler, guitarist Larry Saltis, and drummer Dino Kovas had not (and lacked any notable soap opera writing credentials).

As was Monkees tradition, the setting and plot for New Monkees was loose, although in a terribly forced, contrived kind of way. Despite the fact that they were a struggling rock band, they lived in a huge, cavernous, Pee Wee’s Playhouse-meets-House of Leaves mansion, and they’d get lost in craaaaazy rooms and such. Oh, and there was a diner inside of the house, staffed by a sassy sitcom waitress. Oh, and a talking computer. Because it was an ‘80 sitcom, that’s why. FUN FACT: New Monkees was produced, and occasionally directed, by 29-year-old Victor Fresco. This was his first credit; he later went on to create Andy Richter Controls the Universe and Better Off Ted.

What worked about The Monkees was that it was such a stark contrast and refreshing alternative to other ‘60s sitcoms. New Monkees was as bad as all the other ‘80s sitcoms, definitely not an alternative to Growing Pains or Head of the Class. In fact, it was worse — it wasn’t on a network, it was syndicated, so it had a low budget and low creative ambitions. It was the comedy of Small Wonder with the music of California Dreams. Hell, they even had a robot-like thing on New Monkees.

The main problem with New Monkees was that even though it was a slick, mainstream corporate product, it tried to argue that rock n’ roll, and especially New Monkees’ brand of rock n’ roll, was a dangerous, salacious novelty. Maybe that’s how they tried to get the Boomers in — “that thing you liked when you were young that made you feel like a badass is still dangerous, and you too are a dangerous badass and not aging and getting lame at all” is the subtle message. The band is depicted as weirdoes for being rock musicians. Even the sentient computer actively decides that it likes rock music and that it will serve this group of slovenly misfits. This is 1987. Like rock was anything but passé by 1987, which is why rap and grunge happened.

Also making New Monkees useless was the massive cultural shift between 1968 and 1987. In the late ‘60s there was a Generation Gap and a young group of people who felt hopeless and doomed as they sent their best and brightest to fight their parents’ war. The ‘80s, however, were superficial and everybody just wanted to buy lots of stuff and look cool. And middle-class white people, which New Monkees was squarely aimed at, by and large could do just that, regardless of their generation. Economic contentment does not breed good comedy or music, which leaves its attempts at social commentary (one episode posits the idea of making lots of pope merchandise) feeling half-hearted if not false.

And it’s not like New Monkees’ music is really even technically rock music. If the Monkees (or the studio hired songwriters, rather) ripped off the Beatles, the most important and popular band of the ‘60s, then to New Monkees, the most important and popular band of the ‘80s was Mr. Mister, because that’s who New Monkees both sounded and looked like. The music, also prefabricated with an army of songwriters, producers, and studio musicians, is so vapid and unmemorable it makes Wang Chung sound like Bad Brains.

Agreeing with me on that point was basically everyone. One album, New Monkees, was released, as was one single “What I Want.” Neither made any charts. Originally supposed to be on the air for 22 episodes, New Monkees was pulled from syndication early, after 13 episodes, something which almost never happens. In the markets where it actually aired, it was getting beaten by reruns of The Monkees. No big loss for the world. The Monkees revival was, at that point, really, truly, definitely over with.

Like the original Monkees, there wasn’t much solo musical success for the members of New Monkees, although they turned out alright. Chandler acted in bit parts in movies like Teen Witch, Point Break, and Operation Dumbo Drop before segueing into a career as a weapons and military advisor for action films. Saltis, Kovas, and Ross have played in assorted bands. Ross also once engaged a colleague of mine in a comments section flame war, proudly boasting that he “owns two houses in a nicer part of Los Angeles.” Sure, but I bet neither of them have a talking computer or a butler.

But wait! Somebody did manage to pull off a successful Monkees revival that maintained the original’s tone while also reflecting the unique social, comic, and musical mores of its era. Okay, so it’s a parody sketch, but “The Grungies” from The Ben Stiller Show is a spot-on parody of The Monkees and the first, if not last, bit of comedy to seriously call out the grunge moment for its lack of substance.

Brian Boone is too busy not singing to put anybody down.

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  • http://jeslyncat.tumblr.com jeslyncat

    Bless you for this article. Massive Monkees fan here and my rock and roll history professor NEVER UNDERSTOOD.

  • grovberg

    As I read this, I realized that as a boyband in the post-boyband era, Big Time Rush is basically the Monkees of my daughters' generation. The show is way better than it has any right to be, and stuffed to the brim with genuinely amusing wacky hijinks and likable characters (and notably often directed by Better Off Dead's Savage Steve Holland) that never take things too seriously. And the music is, while not exactly breaking new ground, solid and a big step up from the music and shows coming out of Disney's tween programming these days.

  • becky@twitter

    please just buy one of these and put me out of my misery:
    http://www.amazon.com/Loftus-JW-0006-Bang-Gun-Flag/dp/B0006GJXW4

  • DMcK

    Also worth noting re: the original Monkees is that they sort of intentionally (with the help of Bob Rafelson) auto-destructed their fabricated TV careers via their pretty awesome feature film Head.

  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    So, Michael Nesmith basically invented MTV?

    And, I liked Heart & Soul… but I was 7.

  • Orr

    Nesmith never "drifted away from music", at all. In fact, he went on to make a handful of great records in the early and mid Seventies with his First National Band and Second National Band. In the process he helped to create yet another thing: Country Rock. He recorded through the late Seventies and Eighties under his own name- some very fine music in this period as well. Thanks,

    • Lydia

      i like your comment, i am ashamed that i didn't know this! thank you!

  • Clarke Barry@twitter

    THANK YOU for giving Mike Nesmith credit for essentially inventing MTV. I have had this particular argument with the uninformed for decades. BTW: Aa a first run viewer then right in the target demo (tweeishly-teen) they sucked and we KNEW they could not play. Still we bought their singles 'cause girls liked them.

  • Lydia

    um there is only one Monkee's, this only includes Davy Jones<3, Mickey Dloenz, Peter Tork and Micheal Nesmith… some people don't understand the importance of pure wholesome music, that we don't get anymore. Pop really began with the Monkee's and ended with them. now you might think that i am just another craby adult telling you about music.. but i'm really a young teenager that is mad that people think that there is two monkees…

  • Joe_momma

    Shame, because the new guys had some talent, at least Marty, Larry and Dino did.