The Monkees: How the Prefab Four became a vital 1960s band in their own right

16 November 2022, 11:57 | Updated: 16 November 2022, 12:33

By Mayer Nissim

The Monkees were manufactured for a TV show, but shrugged off those prefab beginnings and strike out on their own.

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As Beatlemania swept the globe in the 1960s, it inevitably inspired a load of copycats both at home and abroad.

One of the groups that – on the face of it at least – most self-consciously imitated the Fab Four was The Monkees... so much so that some people unkindly referred to them as The Prefab Four.

But did you know the roots of The Monkees actually spread back to before the British Invasion?

And while their early screen and studio work riffed on what The Beatles were doing, The Monkees swiftly gained their own independence and identity.

Read on for everything you ever wanted to know about The Monkees.

When and how did The Monkees form and who were all the band members?

The Monkees
The Monkees. Picture: Getty Images

Unlike The Beatles (schoolmates), The Beach Boys (family), The Monkees' origins were much less organic.

The Monkees were one of the first manufactured pop groups (hence the "Prefab Four" nickname), being put together by filmmaker Bob Radelson and producer Bert Schneider.

Bob had actually come up with the idea for The Monkees TV show in 1962 – before Beatlemania – but failed to get it past the pitching stage..

It was only after teaming up with Schneider and following the success of The Beatles and their hyperreal hits A Hard Day's Night and Help! they successfully sold the concept to Screen Gems Television on April 16, 1965.

Instead of making a new group for the telly, the original idea was to use an existing real band, with New York folk group The Lovin' Spoonful even auditioning for the show.

Perhaps fortunately, the band had already signed a record contract and so their music couldn't be used in the show, so the producers looked instead towards Davy Jones – a Manchester born Brit who had already signed his own TV deal with Screen Gems in September 1964.

So Davy was a lock. But they still needed a whole band to make this work, so placed a now-immortal ad in Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter in September 1965.

Madness!!
Auditions
Folk & Rock Musician-Singers
For Acting Roles in New TV Series
Running Parts for 4 Insane Boys, Age 17-21
Want Spirited Ben Frank’s Types
Have Courage To Work
Must Come Down For Interview

- The Hollywood Reporter

A whopping 437 budding stars applied, among them Stephen Stills (soon to be part of Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young)).

Stills was rejected and the lineup was instead rounded out by working musician Mike Nesmith, Greenwich Village player Peter Tork and actor and budding popstar Mickey Dolenz.

Did The Monkees write their own songs or play their own instruments?

The Monkees getting to grips with their instruments
The Monkees getting to grips with their instruments. Picture: Getty Images

The Monkees were much mocked for "not writing their own songs and not playing their own instruments" over the years and initially that was (more or less) true.

It's worth remembering that many successful artists didn't write their own tunes – especially before The Beatles made doing that more commonplace.

When the group were conceived, the plan was for Brill Building company Aldon Music to provide the material, with much of it being written by the up-and-coming partnership of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart.

When it comes to playing the songs, again it wasn't unheard of for significant chunks of 1960s pop records to be augmented by session players.

In fact, some future superstars cut their teeth as studio musicians for hire – including the likes of Glen Campbell, Jimmy Page, Rick Wakeman, Elton John, and even Jimi Hendrix.

With that said, the bands themselves could actually play a bit, and producers rented some instruments and rehearsal space for the group to get up to scratch. Unfortunately, the timeline was always going to be too tight for the launch of the show in April 1996.

It's worth noting that the public was always told that The Monkees weren't a "real" band.

"The series stars a fearsome foursome in the Monkees, a wholly manufactured singing group of attractive young men who come off as a combination of the Beatles, the Dead End Kids and the Marx Brothers," read a Washington Post report before the show even aired.

"Critics will cry foul. Longhairs will demand, outraged, that they be removed from the air. But the kids will adore the Monkees.

"Unlike other rock 'n' roll groups, the boys had never performed together before. Indeed, they'd never even met."

While they were filming the first series, the band got in the studio, first with The Wrecking Crew and then another session group called The Candy Store Prophets.

Despite their creators were occasionally being less than honest, the band themselves were being completely open about the help they were getting in the studio to back their singing (Davy Jones: "This isn't a rock 'n' roll group. This is an act.").

When debut album The Monkees came out in 1966, aside from a sprinkling of Tork guitar nearly all the music was played by session players, not that you'd know that to look at the album sleeve.

Nonetheless, the band were pushing to write their own material and play their instruments, while Nesmith also did some production work.

Album number two More of the Monkeys came out without the band even knowing, and was much of the same – mixing their vocals with backing from session musicians.

The same month the foursome had their first session as a proper band, leading up to release of their third album Headquarters in 1967.

While the record featured songwriting contributions from Boyce & Hart and others like Cynthia Weil & Barry Mann, it also had plenty of material written by the group themselves.

Most importantly, it was primarily played by the group. Micky Dolenz on vocals, drums and guitar, Davy Jones on vocals and percussion, Michael Nesmith on vocals, guitars and organs, and Peter Tork on vocals, guitars, piano and bass.

Regardless of how they started, The Monkees were now a proper band.

When did The Monkees TV show launch and how many episodes did it air for?

The first episode of The Monkees aired on September 12, 1966 on NBC.

It lasted for just two seasons – a total of 68 episodes – with the finale being broadcast on March 25, 1968.

While pop critics were initially sniffy about the band, the TV show won two Emmy Awards, picking up the 1967 gongs for Outstanding Comedy Series and Oustanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy.

What were The Monkees biggest songs and albums?

Whether written for them or by the band themselves, The Monkees put out a tremendous number of classic songs during their lifetime.

They released nine studio albums during their initial run, six of which featured all four original members. Their debut The Monkees and quirky soundtrack Head are often recognised as their best.

Their very biggest hits include:

  • Last Train to Clarksville
  • I'm a Believer
  • (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone"
  • A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You
  • (Theme from) The Monkees
  • Randy Scouse Git
  • Pleasant Valley Sunday
  • Daydream Believer
  • She
  • Valleri
  • Porpoise Song
  • Listen to the Band
  • You Bring the Summer

When did The Monkees split up and reunite, and when did the band end?

The Monkees first run as a four-piece lasted just a couple of years. Peter Tork left the group, buying out the last four years of his contract for hundreds of thousands of dollars at the end of 1968.

He claimed to be exhausted, and with a whopping SIX albums in two years, you can absolutely believe him.

The Monkees continued, but after the albums Instant Replay and The Monkees Present, Nesmith was next out of the door in 1970.

Still working under The Monkees banner, Dolenz and Jones released the album Changes that year, which finally fulfilled the original deal, and The Monkees disbanded.

That was far from the end of the story, though.

Jones and Dolenz stayed in the business with their solo careers, and when The Monkees TV show went into syndication the public got a thirst for all things Monkees.

A 1976 Greatest Hits album went into the charts, and Jones and Dolenz joined forces with regular Monkees songwriters Boyce & Heart, and even released an album of new material, while Tork even played with the band at a couple of shows.

Then came a Monkees marathon on the fledgling MTV and repeats of the TV show on Nickelodeon, prompting a 20th anniversary reunion of Dolenz, Jones and Tork, with Nesmith even joining in for a few scattered shows.

The quartet were all present and correct in 1989 when the group received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Dolenz and Tork recorded the new single 'That Was Then, This Is Now', credited to The Monkees, which was included an a new compilation Then & Now... The Best of The Monkees, which also featured 'Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere' and a cover of Paul Revere and the Raiders' 'Kicks'.

The album Pool It! featuring Jones, Dolenz and Tork (but not Nesmith) came in 1987, and in 1996 all four recorded their 11th studio album Justus.

Nesmith quit touring with the group after their British jaunt in 1997, and Tork was fired by Jones and Dolenz ahead of their 2001 tour, with the duo then putting The Monkees on hold once more.

The differences were put to one side, and Jones, Dolenz and Tork had a well-received 45th anniversary tour in 2011 (still no Nesmith), but this lineup of the band ended when Jones died on February 29, 2012 of a heart attack, aged only 66.

That summer, Nesmith reunited with surviving members Dolenz and Tork for some further shows, though he didn't join in the band's 2015 tour.

In 2016, The Monkees released the album Good Times! featuring Dolenz, Tork, Nesmith and – using some old vocals laid down in the 1960s – even a posthumous contribution from Jones.

Produced by Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger, the album was a massive success, getting to number 14 in the US and number 29 in the UK.

Dolenz and Tork toured once more to celebrate the group's 50th anniversary, with Nesmith again popping in for the occasional show.

Dolenz and Nesmith later toured as The Monkees Present: The Mike and Micky Show, and The Monkees reunited with Schlesinger for the festive album Christmas Party in late 2018.

Tork died of cancer on February 21, 2019, and after the initial waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dolenz and Nesmith eventually celebrated the work of The Monkees with The Monkees farewell tour, which ended on November 14, 2021 at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles.

Nesmith died of heart failure on December 10, 2021, leaving Dolenz as the last surviving member of the band. He continues to play the group's songs on his Micky Dolenz Celebrates the Monkees Tour.