MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

The Monkees? Man, the last train from nowhere

JACK BATTEN May 1 1967
MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

The Monkees? Man, the last train from nowhere

JACK BATTEN May 1 1967

The Monkees? Man, the last train from nowhere

JACK BATTEN

MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

THE SOUND was familiar. Ai-i-i-i-y-a-u-e-e-e-e-e!! It swelled off the floor of the arena like a giant expanding balloon until it threatened to squeeze out the walls. The scene was familiar too. Eighteen thousand teeny-boppers, tricked up like so many miniature Chers, clutching the sides of their ironed hair and blowing their tiny minds. They screamed and wept and moaned and in the darkness of the building they carried on their restless search for some new terrifying and elemental level in their lives.

MAY, 1967 VOLUME 80 NUMBER 5

But not really terrifying because this was Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto on a Sunday afternoon early in April and the 18,000 teenagers and pre-teenagers were acting out one of the familiar and accepted rites of the 1960s — turning their emotions loose on four young men who wear their hair long and play rock V roll music. It could be the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or the Lovin’ Spoonful. It doesn’t matter that much whose group it is. It’s the kids’ ritual that counts and the ritual is essentially an innocent, a kind of funny thing. It’s just something that’s all about youth.

The group this April Sunday happened to be the Monkees, the hottest property on records and TV in the 1966-67 season. But — hold on — there was something not quite right about the Monkees up on the Gardens stage. They didn’t just stand there and offer their music like the other groups. They moved around the platform like directed dolls. They were mannered and they played to the teeny-boppers shamelessly. Their music, when you could catch traces of it through the bedlam, displayed none of the attractive complexity of the Beatles or the good warm sound of the Lovin’ Spoonful. These guys, compared to the rest, were mechanics.

And the truth is that the Monkees aren't quite right. They are the result of perhaps the most massively cynical enterprise in recent show business history. The operators who conceived the Monkees and manipulated them into a billion-dollar industry make the PR man who bribed teenage girls to swoon for Frank Sinatra in 1942 seem like a model of rectitude.

The Monkee operation got under way in the fall of 1965 when two Hollywood producers, Robert Rafelson and Berton Schneider, placed an ad in the show-biz trade papers for “Folk & Rock Musician-Singers For Acting Roles in New TV Series. Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 1721.” Out of the 437 boys who auditioned. Rafelson and Schneider judged four to be insane enough to carry their projected comedy series about the heart-warming adventures of a happy band of rock ’n’ rollers: Michael Nesmith, an out - of - work protest singer; Davy Jones, a tiny English exjockey who’d appeared on Broadway in Oliver; Mickey Dolenz, a retired big-beat singer; and Peter Tork, another down-on-his-luck folkie (Tork’s father lectures in English at the University of Saskatchewan).

For the following few months, Rafelson and Schneider kept the four winners locked in a studio with an acting instructor who drilled them in the principles of “ad-lib” performing. And while the boys were learning how to improvise, the producers were industriously at work shaping up a format for the series by looting comedy routines from the Marx Brothers, screen personalities from the Bowery Boys and film techniques from Richard Lester, the man who directed the two Beatle films. And yet another master manipulator, Donald Kirshner

— who isn't known in pop music circles as “The Man With The Golden Ear” for nothing — was spending long hours over his tape machine in an effort to create a distinctive Monkees sound — though “create” is hardly accurate since the Monkees’ ultimate style was, and is, a blurred Xerox of very early Beatles music.

The result of all this cunning labor was Instant Money. Last autumn the TV show turned into a hit in North America and Britain. And why not? The first shows in the series had already been revamped to suit the tastes of a preview test audience of typical teenagers. The Monkees’ first two single records. Last Train To Clarksville and I'm A Believer, each soared over three million in sales, even though they owed more to Donald Kirshncr’s electronic magic than to the Monkees’ voices (“Whatever is jarring or irritating,” Kirshner says, “you can just bury electronically”). The first two Monkee LPs sprang into first and second place in album sales, and when the Monkees ventured on the road this spring, they lured in bigger audiences than the Beatles had a year earlier. The 18,000 teeny-boppers who crammed into Maple Leaf Gardens paid slightly more than $91,000 for the privilege of screaming.

And then, inevitably, there were Monkee by-products. Monkee buttons, Monkee books, Monkee dolls, Monkeemobiles, a Monkee green wool hat like the one Mike Nesmith wears. You can’t get your hands on the original hat — it’s been cast in bronze

— but if you have $15,000 to invest, you can purchase a franchise for a Monkees Soft Drink Niteclub.

All the Monkees people started to feel rich. Maybe too rich — greed has recently begun to set in. Kirshner got word that he might be short-changed by Schneider and hired a battery of lawyers to look after his interests. At the same time, two Hollywood producers reputedly brought a suit for $6,850,000 claiming that SchneiderRafelson stole the Monkees idea from them. In April the Monkees fan club in Canada dissolved, apparently in an argument over who should divide the potential spoils. And even the four Monkees themselves were beginning to grow just a little dissatisfied with their lot. “The music had nothing to do with us,” Mike Nesmith told one reporter, referring to the first Monkee records. “It was totally dishonest.”

But the Monkee empire is holding together. The producers, the TV network, the bookers, the record company, the Monkee manufacturers, all the people sharing in all that money will see to that. The Monkees will endure — at least until the teeny-hoppers in places like Maple Leaf Gardens close their mouths and listen for just a little while. Then they might hear the sound of a crass and cynical promotion.