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This is Now : Monkees Interview for UK Tour 1997

March 31, 2011 by  
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Hey hey – we’re the Spice Girls’ grandads

They were the first manufactured band – and they’re back. Charles
Laurence talks to the Monkees

THE unmistakable sound of a pop band in full swing is leaking from the
sound stage of a low white building in Burbank, California. The Monkees,
the notorious “prefab Four” of the 1960s and the world’s first
manufactured pop band, are together again and rehearsing for their
comeback tour.

Inside is a scene to raise a chuckle among all those rock critics who
carped that the Monkees, put together by a television network for a
children’s show, couldn’t play their own instruments and lip-synched to
somebody else’s music. The drums bang, the keyboards hum, the guitars
strum. But two of the Monkees, Mickey Dolenz, the “zany” one with the
big, wide face, and Peter Tork, the “goofy” blond with the floppy hair,
are sitting on a leather sofa sipping drinks. Only one Monkee, Michael
Nesmith- the quiet one who used to wear a knitted ski-cap – is playing
his guitar and singing into a microphone. The rest are . . . back-up

So what’s new, boys? Dolenz jumps up and offers a handshake of welcome
to the happy, bubbly world of the Monkees, his smile as broad as ever
but these days setting off a cascade of wrinkles. Nesmith is working on
a song he has written himself, he explains, and will be performing it on
tour with the back-up men.

Back in the Sixties, when the band sold millions of copies of songs such
as I’m a Believer and Last Train to Clarksville, their instruments were
merely actors’ props. But when their television show ended and the
Monkees decided to seize “artistic control” and play their own songs,
they flopped. They have been in the rock-and-roll wilderness for 27

They are coming back together, they say, for fun and money. But the old
accusations of prefab music still clearly sting. Their new album is
pointedly called Justus (“just us”), with a guarantee that every song is
written and performed by Monkees.

Even now, this seems unnecessarily risky; the real legacy of the Monkees
is simply that they were the first manufactured band: they are the
grandfathers of the Spice Girls and all those bands who have been
assembled by managers and studios to score bull’s-eyes on marketing

Peter Tork, who ended up with a failed blues band living in a northern
California hippy colony after the fall, sees grand implications and
existential meaning in the return of the original casting-call band.
He talks about the “meta-artistic look” they are taking at themselves,
and of how it is “consistent with the current trends in art
deconstruction and post modernism”. With their television special, their
album and tour, they are, he says earnestly, “asking all the existential
questions: are we? aren’t we?” Phew: Meta-artistic, deconstructed,
post-modern, existential Monkees.

“I do mean it. Every word of it,” says Tork. “And I don’t mind if it
does sound absurd.” Well, the Monkees were always meant to be “zany” in
a 1960s sort of way, and Tork’s soliloquy is certainly true to that.
The other Monkees seem unconvinced. Even now, all in their fifties and
grizzled to boot, they generate a sort of hyper-conversation with ideas
and subject matter bouncing from one to the other and each man still
dedicated to giving his own twist, just like in the old television show.
“What you have to remember,” says Dolenz, returning the conversation to
earth, “is that we were all just hired hands. We were hired to be actors
acting a pop group; we weren’t a pop group, or at least not at first.”
We should, he adds, think of this as more of a one-off revival of a
Broadway musical like Showboat.

Davy Jones, the original Monkees front man and designated British
heart-throb, goes along with Dolenz. This may be because, of the four
who won the job from 440 hopefuls at a fabled casting call from NBC
television in 1965, Dolenz and Jones had already developed a degree of
showbusiness pragmatism as established child actors. “The comeback’s no
big deal,” says Jones, who is also a trained jockey. “It’s just
wonderful to be making money, and have fun. Ah . . . money, pleasure,
the orgasmic rush of being a heart-throb again!” He has, he points out,
homes to maintain in England and Los Angeles, a second divorce to pay
for, and horses to feed.

On the subject of money, Nesmith has only one brief comment to make:
“I’ve never had any problems with it.” This is in large part because his
mother, a secretary, had a flash of genius and invented Liquid Paper
“whiteout”. She sold the formula for $20 million; Nesmith has commuted
to LA today from New Mexico in his private jet. “He spends all his time
counting his money,” says Tork, who is broke.

Nesmith scowls. His comments on other subjects also prove brief.
“Comeback? I have absolutely no intention of making a comeback,” he
says, deadpan. “We’ve had the Sixties. Been there, done that.” He has a
grey beard and short-cropped grey hair under a Harley-Davidson
motorcycle hat.

There have been various Monkees reunions before – ’75, and ’86 with
three of them, and more cabaret and amusement park turns with just Jones
and Tork – but this is the first time that Nesmith has agreed to return.
It is making all the difference. They are getting attention and there is
an air of excitement. His remarks, however, have somewhat flattened the

Tork has the job of keeping the ball bouncing. “Hey, me, I’m still
ambitious,” he says. “I want to be a pop star. Maybe I’m old enough
now.” Age: he has hit on a subject they can all agree on. They have all,
as Jones puts it, “been down the road a bit”. He counts up, and
concludes that the Monkees can account for 13 wives and 20 children, who
vary in age from 28 to eight. Dolenz tells a story of how shocked he was
when he picked up the British ‘teen magazine Bliss for his 15-year-old
daughter Charlotte, and found the Position of the Month feature,complete
with where-to-put-what illustrations. “What,” he asks, “is going on over

Tork says he knows what Dolenz means. “When I was 17, I saw no reason
why a girl shouldn’t be sexually active at 16, preferably with me,” he
says. “And when my daughter was 16 . . . no way!”

It is all too easy to forget that the Monkees, while never precisely sex
symbols, were once huge. Their soap ran for 52 episodes and 16 million
albums were sold. They might have been miming to soundtracks laid by
other musicians – they played, believe it or not, with Jimi Hendrix,
Frank Zappa, Stephen Stills and Glen Campbell, among others – but when
they appeared at Wembley Stadium, they were the first to launch the
concept of the “stadium band”.

The memories are not made easier by the fact that for all their efforts
to grow into their super-status as a pop group – Dolenz learnt to play
drums, Jones a bit of guitar, while the other two polished-up their
existing skills – their run in the charts ended so abruptly.
Tork eventually became a teacher. Nesmith bought himself out of his
contract, became a country-and-western singer, movie and pop- video
maker. Dolenz went to London, invested well in property and produced pop
films and children’s shows for the BBC. Jones went back to musicals,
among other things. Last year, he was on the road with Grease.
Tork and Nesmith, in particular, are keen to revise a little history.
They hate the idea of being remembered as a gang of innocent teenage
patsies. They smoked dope and chased girls like the best of them, and
they want us to know it. “We were,” says Nesmith, not entirely
convincingly, “part of the counter-culture.”

But the new album, surely, is offered as some sort of vindication?
“Hey,” says Tork “it was just that we thought we’re all still alive,
still getting along, and why not try it out?” And for once, Nesmith was
free from “other commitments”, and said he’d come along.
The next plan is for a full-length Monkees movie, deconstructionist of
course. Ticket sales for the tour are going well, and the television
special in America was watched by 16 million people, more than in their

“We have nothing to vindicate,” says Nesmith tersely. “You either get
it, or you don’t.”

The Monkees’s tour of nine UK cities begins at Newcastle Arena on March
7 and ends at Wembley Arena on March 20.

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