The Monkees For The Hall Of Fame
The Monkees Need A Good Lawyer To Argue Their Case For Induction. I Give It A Try.
Last month, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announced its latest group of nominees for induction, a list which includes Willie Nelson, George Michael, the White Stripes, Joy Division, and other worthy candidates. (The Spinners seem to be a controversial choice, but since my first-ever concert was seeing those Motown legends, I'm rooting for those guys.)
No one should be surprised that the Monkees were not included in this list of nominees. I'm pretty sure the Monkees have never appeared on this list, even though a number of lackluster artists, like Bon Jovi and KISS, now share space in Cleveland with Elvis, the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix. Many other deserving acts, not just the Monkees, but also Love, Captain Beefheart, Big Star, Pavement, Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio, the Pixies, the Breeders, the B-52's, Sonic Youth, and the Fall have not even entered the conversation about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I think most rock fans could make a good argument for many on the above list, but the Monkees are a special case. The Monkees need a good lawyer to argue their case, as the argument for their induction is an extraordinarily difficult one to make. I've argued dozens of legal cases easier than that nightmare scenario, The Monkees v. the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Here is the standard argument, you know, the losing argument that for more than thirty years (they were first eligible in 1991) has not delivered the Monkees to the promised land:
The Monkees' best songs reached perfection: "I'm A Believer," "The Porpoise Song," "Listen to the Band," and "Pleasant Valley Sunday" are luminous gems with astonishing sparkle, so much so that any other rock group with songs so good would have made it to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by now. In part because of these great songs, the Monkees were one of the best-selling acts of the '60s. Their big hits, including "Daydream Believer," "Last Train to Clarksville," and "I'm a Believer," still play on the radio and upon streaming services. "Mary, Mary," written by Michael Nesmith, and covered by both the Butterfield Blues Band and rap group Run-DMC, and "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone," covered by both the Sex Pistols and Minor Threat, reveal the Monkees' versatility, range, and boundless rock energy, qualities heard again and again in not just "I'm A Believer," but also "She," "You Just May Be the One," "The Door Into Summer," "Words," "Love is Only Sleeping", and many others.
Although I agree with all of the above, I think it's a flawed argument, especially because the success of many of these songs is due to the talents of Neil Diamond, Mann & Weil, Boyce & Hart, Goffin & King, and former Kingston Trio member John Stewart, who wrote perhaps their signature song, "Daydream Believer." I would be remiss not to mention all of the studio musicians who played on these magical records, especially Chip Douglas and Eddie Hoh, the drummer on "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and "Daydream Believer."
As I researched the session musicians who played on these landmark recordings, I learned that Peter Tork did contribute the lovely piano on "Daydream Believer," while Michael Nesmith (the guy with the knit hat) did play lead guitar on "Pleasant Valley Sunday." Such arguments are verboten for prosecutors like me, who was taught to play offense not defense, and the Monkees need no defense-- they need an advocate. So I'll say it now, and then rest the defense--although the Monkees, especially Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith, did play instruments on the Monkees' albums, and the Monkees did sing (beautifully) on all of these songs, those facts serve to defend the Monkees, and I'm not here to defend the Monkees, but to prove their greatness. So here goes:
The Monkees, born as a "fake" and "pre-fabricated" band, but who went on to actually write, record, and perform as a real band, had a real influence on the bands that followed them, but this influence is so subtle, it's almost impossible to discern if one merely listens to their records. The strange thing about the Monkees is that what makes them so deserving for induction is also the thing likely to keep them out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: their role in changing the presentation of rock music from a vehicle for show business and corporate entertainment, to a format for artistic expression. In other words, maybe the Monkees' most lasting influence is not what they did or did not do in the studio, or how their records did on the pop charts, or even the greatness of their best songs, but what they did on television when they were pretending to be in a rock band.
If you go on YouTube, and watch a few of their lip-synched performances from their Emmy-winning TV show, the Monkees' demeanor, poise, delivery, and attitude defy every expectation one might have for a made-for-television rock band. Part of this is because in the world of the show, the Monkees were not famous rock stars, but merely fledgling musicians, a circumstance which lent the Monkees themselves a bracing degree of modesty. Mickey Dolenz, Davey Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork achieved a kind of casual grace in their sitcom because they weren't trying to be cool or pretending to be big rock stars. Instead, they were natural, good-natured, friendly. They were boyish, but not in a boy-band kind of way. The Monkees' completely assured conveyance of these qualities reflect four disciplined performers who deliberately avoided the kind of awkward show business clichés one would expect from a fake rock band. Watch what the group does as they pretend to perform Mike Nesmith's song "You Just May Be The One":
Although the Monkees have a reputation for being goofy or "zany," there is no zaniness here. Instead the Monkees show a serious, almost shy demeanor, as shown by the singer's natural behavior, his lack of awkward facial expressions, and the overall stillness and self-possession of his bandmates. The performance is intercut with scenes of "bass player" Peter Tork vying for some girl's attention with a rival suitor played by George Furth, a legendary Broadway figure. (Furth wrote the book and won a Tony for Stephen Sondheim's landmark play Company.) Observe the amount of hammy shtick Furth serves up in his performance compared to Peter Tork's, which is a master class in understatement. How many musicians manage to be this graceful and charming on TV, and not sullen, surly, bored, or just plain weird, like Billy Squier in his unfortunate "Rock Me Tonite" video? Tork's restraint was an approach shared by all of the Monkees, even Davy Jones, the performer with the most theatrical background in the group. (When the Beatles first came to America, Davey Jones was playing the Artful Dodger in the Broadway production of Oliver!; Jones first met the Beatles while making an appearance with his Oliver! cast-mates on the same Ed Sullivan broadcast in which the Beatles made their historic debut).
The Monkees' self-effacing portrayal of a rock band is an achievement made evident by the failure of so many '60s bands to bring rock credibility to their TV appearances, the worst being the Beatles in "Magical Mystery Tour," but also others who made rock 'n roll look like a joke. Here are two appalling examples, the Turtles performing "Happy Together" and Gary Puckett & The Union Gap performing "Lady Willpower":
These dated, almost ludicrous performances from the Turtles and Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, with their bad hair, bad clothes, goofy facial expressions, bad dancing, and overall awkwardness, shed light not only upon the bad habits which the Monkees managed to avoid, but also the damage such bad habits had upon rock music itself, a genre at the time just gaining its footing as a viable artistic genre. Bob Dylan, maybe the most important figure in this effort to establish rock's credibility, was very conscious of the harm caused by shtick and hokiness, even going so far as criticizing Mick Jagger's stage antics:
I always wish him the best. But to see him jumping around like he does—I don't give a shit in what age, from Altamont to RFK Stadium—you don't have to do that, man. It's still hipper and cooler to be Ray Charles, sittin' at the piano, not movin' shit. And still getting across, you know? Pushing rhythm and soul across. It's got nothin' to do with jumping around. I mean, what could it possibly have to do with jumping around?
The intelligent diffidence and slacker vibe the Monkees perfected was an important rock attitude, especially to Generation X members too young to have seen the Beatles live or on Ed Sullivan, but old enough to have been spellbound by Monkees reruns on Saturday morning TV and then later on MTV. For many rock fans my age (late 40s, early 50s), the Monkees (and unfortunately Donnie & Marie) were the introduction to rock 'n roll. To members of my generation, it's easy to see the influence the Monkees' anti-showmanship had on the next generation of indie rock and alternative bands, from the Feelies, R.E.M., and Galaxie 500, and then to Nirvana, the Breeders, and Weezer, all artists who downplayed their professionalism in favor of a low-key, almost amateurish energy. When Beavis and Butthead yelled "Try Harder!...TRY!!!" during Pavement's "Rattled by the Rush" video, they are noticing a kind of anti-corporate, anti-professional rock pose whose origin goes back to the Monkees. It's a spirit infusing one of the best rock 'n roll moments in movie history, the high school reunion scene in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild, in which the Feelies (as the Willies), beautifully and stylishly play their song, "Crazy Rhythms," David Bowie's "Fame,"and last but not least (but not in the following video) the Monkees' "I'm A Believer":
I don't think I've seen anyone look cooler than the Feelies did in Something Wild, though the Monkees come close. I would love to see them both get into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame-- the place could use a few bands like these, bands whose music makes you feel young each time you hear it.