I would like to say something contrary about the Monkees, so if you’re one of those people who subscribes to the hagiographic rendering of the band’s importance to rock history, I suggest you stop reading now.
Since Davy Jones’ untimely passing, I’ve been hearing a lot about how awesome the Monkees were, which is true, and how they were better than the Beatles, which is not. Generally, it’s only people who heard the Monkees decades after the group’s dissolution that believe this, so let’s go back to the source for a bit of clarity. I guarantee if you ask a true blue Baby Boomer what they thought of the band in their heyday, they will tell you that the Monkees were a) unserious and b) for kids. Like my mom says, “When you had the Beatles and all this other great music, why would you ever listen to the Monkees?” Granted, she was a Mexican-American growing up in East L.A., perhaps not the Monkees’ target demographic. So what about my Inland Empire raised, lilywhite Pa? His clearest recollection of Mickey Dolenz is not as a member of the Monkees, but as the titular character in Circus Boy, my dad’s favorite Saturday morning TV programs growing up in the 1950s. He actually still refuses to believe that Mickey Dolenz and Circus Boy are the same person, but I digress.
Drawing a line in the sand between the Beatles and the Monkees is a moot point, anyway. The Monkees were modeled wholesale on the Beatles, right down to picking Davy Jones to be the “cute one” a la Paul McCartney. Without the Beatles, there would be no Monkees and it’s begging the question to compare them. Not to mention that the Beatles formed themselves, wrote all their own songs, crystallized our notion of what constitutes a proper rock band, and set songwriting standards that modern groups are still striving to meet. The Monkees? Not so much.
I also hear a lot about how the Monkees are underrated, even from established rock critics who should know better. This is completely false. If a band is truly underrated, then it probably follows that most people wouldn’t be familiar with their music, that their influence isn’t widely understood, and that their place in rock history unassured. The Monkees fulfill none of these criteria. Their songs are played on the radio every day. If you want any Monkees record, you can go out and buy it on beautifully reissued, 180-gram vinyl. Their catalog has been lovingly anthologized in box sets and endlessly reshuffled greatest hits compilations. Kids born in 1992 are saying they were a better band than the Beatles. Their music will still be played 50 years from now. What more could we possibly owe the Monkees? They were a fake band who became real and then became legendary. The Monkees are neither underrated nor overrated; rather, they are correctly rated as a good mid-sixties guitar group who were put together to sell white-washed guitar pop to the budding and eminently marketable youth demographic. In short, the Monkees were the perfect embodiment of the capitalistic forces driving the advent of rock music and youth culture in the 1960s. That the band’s music turned out to be a sparkling blend of folk, pop, and rock was just an afterthought.
Ultimately, there is one major thing that stands between the Monkees and the greatness everyone seems to be ascribing them: in a time of incredible musical innovation, the Monkees never innovated. This is something the remaining band members themselves would admit, I think. Not to say that they weren’t individually talented musicians/songwriters, but anything that the Monkees put out was always a reaction to what was already being done by bands like the Beatles, the Byrds, and Love, rather than being musical breakthroughs in and of themselves. In fact, it would be hard to write about the Monkees without mentioning Other People’s Records, which isn’t really a much of a testament to their supposed greatness.
Case in point: almost all the songs listed as evidence of the Monkees’ genius in this glowing piece were written by other people. Even “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone”, which the author so praises, was recorded by Paul Revere and the Raiders months before the Monkees made it a b-side in November of 1966. Plus every garage band in the world recorded that track (a short discussion of why that is can be found here) so it wasn’t exactly an obscure gem by the time the Sex Pistols got around to putting their spin on the Boyce and Hart penned stomper.
Yes, the Monkees were a terrific “band” who recorded classic songs and we all love them, but let’s not pretend they were on par with the Beatles and let’s not give them more credit than they truly deserve. The Monkees were great for what they were, maybe even the best at what they were, but that’s all they ever were. And that’s all I have to say about that.