Kev reviews the first season of The Monkees – The show that introduced the world to Mike, Davy, Micky and Peter who would go on to become the greatest, manufactured boy band in history.
For nearly 40 years The Monkees have been a staple part of pop culture – a phenomenal group who had achieved so much popularity throughout two television series, a movie and a number of diverse and unforgettable songs in the space of three years (1966-1969) until their first official split. Of course to this day they still continue to perform, whether it be solo efforts or reunions that seem to occur every ten years or so. The band have a rich history, full of good and bad times and as such this probably isn’t the best place for me to go on and on about their lives.
So to set up their TV debut.
Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith were recruited to star in a television series that would focus on the lives of a struggling band that lived together and got up to all kinds of crazy adventures. This move was largely inspired after the incredible success of The Beatles with their feature A Hard Day’s Night, who were hot property in both England and America. The project was the creation of Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider who claimed that the concept was boiled in their heads in 1962 and it wasn’t until The Beatles‘ breakthrough film that anyone would listen to them.
The most important part of the show was to pick four charismatic young guys who each had a different personality and yet maintained a true friendship within their group. Picking out each individual is a simple task and one that would see each member take on specific roles throughout both series. The formula used for this series would later repeat itself in many others television shows, which has now turned a once unique concept into something of a cliché itself over time.
After the raw pilot had been filmed two songwriters by the name of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart were contracted by the producers of the show to come up with the music that would play out to the ‘mythical’ group’s “romps”. Davy, Micky, Peter and Michael were already experienced musicians in one way or another, despite initial ignorant claims that they did not play their own instruments (granted Davey would have to prove himself later as the band’s success grew and for the time being he was dancer/tambourine extraordinaire) and could not be taken seriously as a band. It would be after their success on television that the group would scale new heights and begin tours that would prove critics wrong, launching them into the hearts of millions and gaining a following that hadn’t been seen since the rise of The Beatles.
Former horse jockey Davy Jones took up acting at a young age, already having appeared in “Coronation Street” and Broadway musicals by the age of twenty. Naturally he was brought on board and billed as the pretty boy of the group; he certainly lived up to his reputation and overnight became the fantasy of many a young girl’s dream. Though not the most accomplished musician he lent his talents to the group in other areas with a fine voice and a great love of dancing. Of course the main thing that troubled the series was that each week Davy would quite easily fall in love with a different girl. It became quickly apparent that the formula grew tiring as the series went on and so newer storylines would be written in.
Micky Dolenz, quite possibly the most insane member of The Monkees came on board with prior acting experience, having starred in Circus Boy as a child in the 50’s. At the time of joining The Monkees at age twenty he clearly showed an amazing talent for physical comedy and improvisation. As such Micky plays the clown and steals too many moments to count. When he’s not doing hilariously awful James Cagney impressions he’s being a mad scientist or coming up with the worst of ideas. As a singer his voice is the most unique and when given the chance he can easily rival the likes of those who inspired him. James Brown eat your heart own when Mickey sings “Goin’ Down” and then “Daily Nightly”. Of course “Last Train to Clarksville” and “(I’m not your) Steppin’ Stone” are now firmly cemented as being songs of his that wouldn’t sound as good had anyone else covered them.
Bob Rafelson had found 24-year-old Peter Tork working as a dishwasher when he was recommended to him by an unsuccessful Monkee applicant. The struggling musician was brought in to play the gentle and quiet member who is naïve and not quite as dumb as is suggested. Largely he is the foil, he’s the guy that gets the gang into trouble but retains the most loveable and innocent qualities.
Michael Nesmith is regarded as the group’s leader. He’s reserved, calm and keeps the band together. Arguably he’s the best song writer, with a leaning toward country pop and with classic songs like “I don’t think you know me at all”, “you just may be the one”, “The kind of girl I could Love” and “What am I doing Hangin’ Round?” to which he was selected to perform as lead singer then there’s little to argue with his overall talents. And then there was the hat. Who can dismiss the memorable, green wool hat that would earn him the nickname of “Wool hat”, which he tried so hard to shake off. By season two the hat would be used considerably less in favour of huge shades but it is part of Michael’s character and a quirky one at that which has remained a lovable quality within the show, even if he himself grew tired of it.
As a whole though the group’s members continued to be individual players. They made their songs their own in a way, forever synonymous with the tunes they sang along to and it was those individual traits that made them so lovable, and it was their unpredictable nature that always ended up surprising people whenever they appeared on screen.
There are always television shows that claim to have done things that no other show has, it seems that the most important ones come about every decade or so and the television debut of one of America’s most loved bands is certainly justifiable in being such a series of unique proportions. The Monkees television series lasted for only two seasons. In 1966 the first series comprising of 32 episodes hit TV screens and from episode one it is clear to see why it took off and become as monumental as it did.
The Monkees is a series of sheer defiance that is both satirical and surreal, it ambitiously mocks the media and amusingly it gets away with it. The genius of the writers and the set pieces that move at a frantic pace only serve to further showcase the energy of these four young talents who treat the sets with an innocent wide eyed quality, like a child playing with its first toy. The rules are that there are no rules.
Season one is anarchic absurdity, with each episode seeing the gang get themselves into and out of mischief in the unlikeliest of situations. The simple formula often sees them embroiled in kidnapping plots, rescuing maidens, dealing with clichéd bad guys or simply running away from their moustachioed pursuers. Behind each simple plot device laid a number of clever additions including a multitude of brilliant sight gags and the occasional dig at society which quite clearly went over the heads of the NBC executives because I do wonder just how they got away with this show. I can only give the staff full credit for flawlessly breaking conventional show structuring by offering fragmented pieces that appear to be so strange and of little sense to actually be considered as threatening toward anyone, add to the fact that they appeared to have little relevance to the actual furthering of any given storyline.
No doubt the boy’s were considered crazy and were happy to go along with whatever the writers had been concocting at the time, ad-libbing much along the way. In a time when Monty Python was offering a similar style of surreal humour and irreverent jokes much seemed to feel ahead of its time. It’s not like shows such as these were in abundance and it is why they feel so fresh. The Monkees dared to be different and it paid off.
Every episode features what is referred to as a “romp”. These romps were designed primarily to promote forthcoming singles from the band. This was again a smart move as each week the series would play often in its entirety the band’s latest single, ensuring a number one spot on several occasions. The romps play at least twice, sometimes thrice in each episode and work as small segments that has the pals usually escaping from the bad guys while pulling off an assortment of tricks. As the episodes go on a selection of hit tunes are often repeated and as great as they are it does tend to become tiresome when the same song crops up week after week. This certainly worked a treat as a marketing ploy but when watching 32 episodes back to back it is understandable that you would inevitably want to hear some other classics in there. This is nit picking on my behalf though and after saying that it’s hard to get bored of the likes of “Take the Last Train to Clarksville”, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “Daydream Believer” and in actuality Rhino Entertainment have worked hard in restoring these to their original state. Later re-runs did indeed offer a more varied selection of songs but for the purists we have these episodes as they were originally broadcast. In addition to this the series featured a number of advertisements through Kelloggs, who sponsored the series and expected each episode to open with The Monkees endorsing their product, which has also been reinstated in these episodes. To be honest I find the Kelloggs logos to be intrusive during the end credits and often before the show and even though they appeared here back in the day I’d have been happier without them on each episode and rather have them as extras on the set.
Rhino Entertainment have put together an almost stunning package, filled with truly worthwhile features. It’s this kind of loving attention that we don’t get to see all too often and for a show so important it’s great to witness a real collaborative effort, with plenty of input from Davy, Peter and Michael (but nothing from Micky until the season 2 release).
Before I get on to the contents of each disc I should mention the box in which they’re housed. Here we have a cardboard replica of an old 60’s vinyl player, a lovely design which is solid enough but requires care in looking after. A hinge allows the top to pop up, revealing a turntable that encloses six DVD’s in card sleeves which resemble 45’s. This is a really nice idea that captures the spirit of the show and looks most pleasing on the shelf but I should warn you to take care when removing the discs as they can easily slide out of their covers. A booklet also accompanies the packaging, featuring facts and photos. My main reservation would be about the asking price, just how much of that is meant to reflect the quality here?
Rhino present the series in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio which has been remastered from the original 35mm prints. The show looks good, given its age. The remastering process isn’t as thorough as it probably could have been, with the series showing clear signs of the print’s age but having said that it still looks very nice. The show is a particularly colourful one and that side of things has been catered for remarkably well. Flesh tones are good though tend to get a little pinkish at times but that can be put down to the source material. A little bit of edge enhancement makes it onto the transfer, that isn’t surprising with all things considered and it doesn’t prove to be distracting. There’s some grain which varies from episode to episode, again a natural occurrence and overall there doesn’t seem to be anything bad that can be attributed to the authoring process. The only major flaws of the presentation is aliasing and cross colourisation which causes yellow patches of colour on white, checked and shiny surfaces.
I don’t quite understand the need to create artificial tracks for series that were never meant to have them. Rhino have included 5.1 remixes for each episode. I have never in my experience watching DVD’s come across a track so offensive. The 5.1 surround track is awful, to put it nicely. There is no individual separation, music and dialogue comes through every speaker at once and to make matters worse it sounds hollow and tinny. Avoid at all costs, I’m not kidding when I say you’ll have had enough after 10 seconds.
Thankfully Rhino have included the original mono track, which gives the show a much better feel, with far more natural sounds, keeping clear throughout and free from any major issues. Could have saved yourselves a lot of bother in the first place, fellas.
Each episode comes with a plethora of facts which can be accessed from each episode’s own menu in “Episode Trivia”. These are brought to us courtesy of The Aaron Handy III TV Web Shrine and are very thorough, well researched pieces. Often the facts presented are insignificant, with many being overly keen observations that highlight continuity errors and so on. Still they’re interesting and we find out about many of the extra actors and episode listings which explain certain songs used or omitted from later broadcasts. Well worth reading into after each episode.
Each disc also contains “Play Romps”. These are simply all of the romps that appear in each episode which have been collected and placed as one feature, so if you wish you can watch them all in order without visiting the episodes themselves.
The rest of the features differ from disc to disc, so I shall discuss them accordingly.
Audio Commentary for “Royal Flush” with director, James Frawley
Frawley introduces us to the first ever episode of the series, which was also his first directorial job. He discusses about having worked with the lads for three months prior to shooting so their individual strengths could be built upon for the series. He clearly enjoys the show and loves it for just being silly. Basically they made things up as they went along, the under cranking and various comical moments all worked for a time when practically no one else was doing this kind of humour. A lot of episodes are made up of first takes, from rapid photography during extremely busy schedules.
Audio Commentary for “Royal Flush” with Davy Jones
Davy has some very fond memories when watching the show. He enjoys talking about the amount of girls he’d have to act with – a real chore I’m sure. Davy talks about having to get used to the amount of set ups per day but concedes it was a lot of fun as he speaks highly of those that made it all possible. He’s having a laugh watching the episode, acknowledging the odd moment of hokeyness, which always worked so well for the group.
Audio Commentary for “Monkee vs. Machine” with Creator/Director, Bob Rafelson
Bob starts off by saying his memory is shot, so he’ll try his best in remembering certain things. He talks about the way in which the series works, the background for the band which sees them as struggling artists trying to make ends meet by taking odd jobs. Visually the show had to reflect how little money the group had, which set them up as “adversaries against the establishment”. The whole design process behind the car, the house and the clothing was all geared around a certain societarian approach. This was also Bob’s first directing gig and it was a learning experience which he didn’t even think he could pull off. The commentary talks much about the making of process and how the director himself had to go about bringing the show to life.
Audio Commentary for “Monkee vs. Machine” with Peter Tork
Although he pauses for considerable lengths, Peter remembers much of his time working on the show and about each episode. He admits to having problems with his character and how he had to play him. He tends to talk less about himself and the other actors involved, mainly the supporting cast and bit players as well as the talents behind the “Monkeemobile”.
Audio Commentary for “Here Come the Monkees – The Pilot” with Michael Nesmith
Michael kicks off by explaining how the pilot episode had failed and that a new approach was taken to make it succeed. For this episode they included Michael and Davy’s screen tests in hopes of making the show more likeable, to be able to see these actors outside of the series. He mentions Boyce and Hart and doing their tunes and then moving from location to location for filming the pilot. There wasn’t any real narrative and just a selection of various pieces to entice the network. His inexperience with working in front of a camera is touched upon as he explains being merely a “follower”, only having had prior stage experience without cameras.
Audio Commentary for “Here Come the Monkees – The Pilot” with Peter Tork
Peter joins us again and this time takes us into the pilot episode by explaining its evolution from concept to final result. The series originally intended to have an authority figure for the boys but it was soon decided to take away that figure and have the group manage on their own, being that they were of an age to do so and it was something that hadn’t been tried on TV before. He mentions Michael’s custom guitars and the relative continuity slips throughout which he tries hard to piece together. There’s an amusing moment where he mentions having gone without pot for ten days and he wasn’t allowed to take any on set but as he says “it wasn’t habit forming”.
Audio Commentary for “I’ve Got a Little Song Here” with Michael Nesmith
Michael talks about having little creative input in the show, still being new and inexperienced to the magic of television. He goes on to mention how similar antagonists were used each week for the show and various villains had similar traits. More importantly he addresses the very real issue of fraudsters, which this episode highlights. There are companies out there who will con you out of money, whether it is song writing or acting, but Michael mentions that the narrative was of little importance and that continuity was often twisted deliberately. The main song for this episode “I’m Gonna Buy Me a Dog” is fondly remembered as it was the only song used for the series that was actually an outtake, something which turned into a gag and had the boys goofing off.
Audio Commentary for “Dance, Monkey, Dance” with Director, James Frawley
After a slow start Frawley introduces this episode that was shot largely on the sound stage. This was one of Peter’s episodes, designed for his character that would see him being manipulated by a dance instructing school. Just in case everyone thought that Peter was really dumb Frawley lets us know he wasn’t. He mentions a lot of references which had been put in for themselves as opposed to anyone else. Though aimed at a young audience the cast and crew never considered it as being a kid’s show. Frawley points out sets and props being re-used from time to time and mentions how a lot of the gags were reminiscent of The Three Stooges’ and Marx Brothers’ routines. There are some repetitive moments, which he had covered previously but there’s still a few points of interest.
Audio Commentary for “Too Many Girls (Davy and Fern)” with Davy Jones
As with the previous track Davy talks about time constraints but goes on to mention how whenever instruments were on set that would be the time for the group to rehearse their music in-between takes and so forth. He praises the writers from time to time and has a good recollection of various other onset hands, such as prop masters and costume designers as he looks back at the fashion of the day. He dishes out a few anecdotes here and there and keeps the track entertaining. It’s amusing when he notices some frosted out shots of some of the female cast members where apparently it was deemed too much to show on television when in fact there is nothing revealing at all, certainly no major cleavage.
Audio Commentary for “The Monkees on Tour”
There are in fact three separate commentaries for this track from composer, Bobby Hart, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith but they’re not all that wildly different to one another. There are a lot of recollections about going on the tour which all seem similar and insightful in their own ways.
16mm Pilot of “The Monkees”
This opens up with Davy and Michael’s audition tapes before moving on to the main feature. The quality here is very poor and degraded but it’s nice to see it being made available. Structurally the episode moves along similar to how it did during its reworked, broadcast state, with just a few changes here and there where music is concerned and a couple of visual gags.
Monkees Commercials (5.50)
This is a series of commercials that the Monkees did for Kellogg’s. They’re all very silly with the group being dressed up as doctors, athletes or detectives, goofing off on set along to cheesy music. Again the quality is low but to even have them here is nice enough.
Interview with songwriter, Bobby Hart (24.08)
This is a very informative and lengthy interview that has Bobby talk about his entire career basically, from his roots up until he joined the producers for the hit television show. There’s a lot of very interesting moments from one of the greatest songwriters of his generation.
Here are sixty photos, ranging from behind the scenes footage to casting notes and old, scanned biographies, which if you take time out to study you can make them out quite easily. Some very interesting bits and pieces.
The Monkees are an American institution, they did for their country what The Beatles did for ours and they managed to be just as entertaining, if not more so. Personally I enjoy their music far more, their energy and enthusiasm was unique and their humour so absurd it just has to be loved. Above all else The Monkees embraced its culture, poked fun at the very performers who took part in it and mocked itself wholeheartedly. The Monkees defined a generation and as this first series shows they were masters of their craft.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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