In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1967: The Monkees’ More of the Monkees
The Monkees are a fascinating case: a band put together by TV producers for a sitcom meant to capitalize on the Beatles. Initially, the Monkees were supposed to be four guys playing a band on TV. They were never meant to be real. The only thing the members were supposed to do was sing their songs and perform them on their show while air playing the instruments assigned to them.
The sitcom becomes a hit but the music becomes a bigger phenomenon going head to head with the Beatles on the charts and ultimately outselling them in 1967. The members see this and want to prove they could be a real band. They start going on tour to packed stadiums but they didn’t write or play on any of the songs they made popular. To further being seen as a real band, they fought tooth and nail for more creative and business input ultimately winning but to diminishing returns.
The funny part of it all is that as a fake band, The Monkees managed to create some solid pop bangers. While they were very clearly presented as a Beatles ripoff, those songs are fun and well-made enough to stand on their own. But it all came at the expense of the band members who hated that they were being portrayed as a band but not allowed to play and write their own music. It all came to a head with the Monkees’ second album More of the Monkees, 1967’s best-selling album.
In a way, the Monkees were inevitable. When the Beatles arrived in America in 1964, they created such an unparalleled phenomenon not seen since that in its wake the pop charts were dominated by groups riding the wave of this newfound rock and roll excitement as in the British Invasion or groups that were trying their best to replicate the energy the Beatles brought to America. Eventually, someone had to capitalize on this.
Enter producer and aspiring filmmaker Bob Rafelson who came up with the initial idea for the Monkees before the Beatles even arrived in America. But early attempts at selling the idea went nowhere. Rafelson would get new inspiration for his series after seeing The Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night that came out at the height of Beatlemania in 1964. Partnering with fellow producer Bert Schneider, the two of them modeled their series on A Hard Day’s Night showing the crazy adventures of a fictional rock band.
Rafelson and Schneider soon got the series idea sold to Screen Gems, the TV division of Columbia Pictures. The initial plan was to cast the rising New York folk-rock band the Lovin’ Spoonful in their show before that idea flamed out quickly. Soon, they put out an ad for the show in Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter stating, “Madness!! Auditions. Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running Parts for 4 insane boys, age 17–21. Want spirited Ben Frank’s types. Have courage to work. Must come down for interview.” Soon enough, 437 boys applied for spots on the show before coming down to four: Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Mickey Dolenz.
All four members had come from various backgrounds in music and acting. Davy Jones was a British actor who before The Monkees was best known for his role as Artful Dodger in Oliver on Broadway. He performed his Oliver role on the same Ed Sullivan Show episode that the Beatles made their American debut on in 1964. Speaking about it years later Jones said, “I watched the Beatles from the side of the stage, I saw the girls going crazy, and I said to myself, this is it, I want a piece of that.” He would soon enough. Michael Nesmith was a local folk musician playing in Los Angeles when a friend alerted him to the ad. Peter Tork was another folk musician who’d been playing in New York’s Greenwich Village folk scene when his friend and fellow musician Stephen Stills suggested Tork after being rejected from the show for not being good looking. (Just picture that. Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills & Nash being a member of The Monkees.) Mickey Dolenz was a child actor who had played in a local rock group before auditioning for The Monkees.
Once together, the members filmed a test pilot to shop to TV networks. Early audience reaction was favorable which led NBC to pick up the series in 1966. Musical talent wasn’t much of a priority with the producers assigning each member to an instrument they thought they looked good playing. This proved problematic as some members especially Dolenz were not skilled in their instruments. Between learning their instruments, rehearsals, and filming, the Monkees had little time to devote to actual recording.
To alleviate this, Screen Gems’ musical director Don Kirshner was appointed to handle the music for the Monkees along with the songwriting team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Kirshner established absolute control over the music only allowing the band members to sing on their songs and nothing else though Nesmith and Tork were able to contribute as musicians albeit minimally. The songs were written by Boyce and Hart as well as many top industry songwriters of the time including Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, and Carole Bayer Sager. The music was recorded by the best session musicians of the time which included members of the Wrecking Crew.
NBC premiered The Monkees in September 1966. I don’t have much attachment to show. Didn’t grow up with it so I can’t give a full assessment but from watching an episode it’s basically what the producers intentions were. A wacky adventure sitcom with the occasional performances thrown in. John Lennon even compared The Monkees to the comedy of the Marx brothers. From a technical perspective, The Monkees was pretty cutting edge for the time with now commonplace tactics like characters breaking the fourth wall. The show was an immediate hit in the ratings but that was nothing compared to the success of the music.
More people were buying Monkees records than they were watching the TV show. Their self-titled debut was released soon after the show’s premiere quickly going to #1 on Billboard’s album charts staying there for 13 weeks being certified quintuple platinum. The album was led by “Last Train To Clarksville,” a cheery jangly song about a Vietnam soldier wanting to see his girlfriend before going off to war. The song did everything to copy The Beatles with the “Oh no no no” response done as a copy of The Beatles’ famous “Yeah yeah yeah” response. Boyce even came up with the title after mishearing a lyric in The Beatles recent #1 “Paperback Writer” and the song’s guitar tone is a direct lift of “Paperback Writer.” It’s also a fun jam reaching #1 on the Hot 100 in November 1966.
The albums were meant purely as soundtracks to the show featuring the songs that The Monkees would perform on every episode. But that wasn’t what the albums said. The album covers featured all four Monkees members with their name upfront without any mention that this was a soundtrack to a TV show. And the albums gave no credit to the outside writers and musicians who made the songs. To the music-buying public, the Monkees were portrayed as a real band who also had their own TV show. This didn’t sit well with the band members.
As popularity for their music rose, demands grew for the Monkees to go out on tour. This was a tough move for the band who had little time to rehearse for a concert in between taping their show and recording their vocals. the Monkees made their concert debut to a packed crowd of screaming fans in Hawaii in December 1966 before going on a nationwide tour. Playing live helped grow confidence within the Monkees as a regular band as well as demanding more input on their records.
It was during the Monkees’ tour in January 1967 when their follow-up album More of the Monkees was released and the band members didn’t have any knowledge about it. They only found out about the album when someone handed them a copy to their surprise and anger. The band members didn’t like the cover, the linear notes, and the fact that they had no say at all in the album. This further escalated tensions between the band and Kirshner. Half the members were actually fine with just playing a band but soon joined in the fight. The conflict came to a head at a meeting with Kirshner at the Beverly Hills Hotel where Nesmith demanded the band play and write their songs before punching a hole in the wall.
Despite the tension, Kirshner’s method was paying off greatly. More of the Monkees wound up performing better than the debut knocking it out of #1 on the album charts staying there for 18 weeks and selling over five million copies being certified quintuple platinum like the debut. At one point, the Monkees had the top two albums in America and later the top two albums of the entire year. They were outselling even The Beatles who came out in 1967 with their monumental Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album which placed at #10 on 1967’s best-sellers list. People were eating this up in 1967.
Researching about the Monkees and the ensuing phenomenon for this review, it’s easy to see their success as a case of instant nostalgia for the early British Invasion. When the show debuted in the fall of 1966, the Beatles had quit touring and were moving away from the simple joyous bursts of holding hands that introduced them to America with releases like Rubber Soul and Revolver moving them in a more mature artistic direction. Much of pop music began to follow down this path with the flowery psychedelia that was taking shape in ’66 and ’67. In a VH1 Behind the Music episode on The Monkees, one critic points out that if you were 14 or under at the time you weren’t ready for Sgt. Pepper’s or Pet Sounds. The Monkees were king to this demographic. Hearing the Monkees and their bright simple tunes amidst the Summer of Love must have felt like 1964 again.
This success wasn’t without its critics. A lot of the criticism labeled at the Monkees were for the same reasons a lot of boy bands and teen idols don’t get much critical love. They didn’t play their instruments, they didn’t write their songs, and they came together in an inorganic way. It wasn’t helped by the fact that music criticism around this time began adopting what we now call a “rockist” approach to authenticity favoring artists who are heavily involved in their music and often writing off manufactured pop groups. Music critics even went as far as to call the Monkees the “Pre-Fab Four.”
In a way, I get this. The Monkees were in no way creative forces in the way the Beatles were at the time. They were just meant to be a TV show parody of them. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t capable of making some solid songs even if the members weren’t writing or playing on them. Authenticity in popular music is a stupid thing anyway. If a song is great then who cares if it’s authentic or real enough. Plus, with what we know now about the Monkees not being allowed to play and write their own music, it’s more appropriate to be blaming the higher-ups like Don Kirshner for not giving them any artistic and business control.
That said, it’s not hard to understand why the Monkees would be upset at More of the Monkees. It very clearly sounds like the work of people quickly capitalizing on a newfound phenomenon. It literally says it right there in the title. Just giving people more of what they like. And considering that the band members were completely in the dark about the album, I’d also feel angry about it being released. I wouldn’t call the album bad like what the members think but it’s definitely an album that is more or less a rushed out collection of forgettably catchy bubblegum rock. But it’s one with a timeless lead single.
The big standout on the album is easily the final track, the Neil Diamond penned “I’m A Believer” which quickly followed “Last Train to Clarksville” to #1 on the Hot 100 spending 7 weeks on top. It’s probably the Monkees’ signature song today given all the airplay, covers, and recognition it’s gotten over the years. People of my generation likely know “I’m A Believer” from Smash Mouth’s 2001 cover for the popular Shrek movie. It’s not going away. I’m not complaining as “I’m A Believer” is another solid catchy pop banger from the twangy guitars to the organ riff to the dreamy vocals. Hard to feel down when it’s on.
The rest of the album doesn’t live up to “I’m A Believer” but there are still some fun moments here and there. Many of the songs are clear attempts at replicating the jangly hard rock that the Beatles and many other rock acts were doing at the time. Tracks like “She,” “Mary, Mary,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” are catchy and fun bubblegum pop-rock jams. With the harpsichord on “Hold on Girl” it’s also getting in with the more baroque pop stylings of Pet Sounds and what Sgt. Peppers would be.
In terms of the singing, Dolenz and Jones are the main stars of the album. Each gets five songs to sing while Tork sings on “Your Auntie Grizelda” and Nesmith sings on “The Kind of Girl I Could Love.” Dolenz mainly sings the uptempo jams while Jones gets the more tender love songs including “The Day We Fall In Love” where Jones is doing this romantic whispering schtick. Meanwhile, Dolenz brings a harder rock edge to his performance especially on “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.” There is some Beatles resemblance especially with Tork’s singing on “Your Auntie Grizelda” which is so similar to Ringo Starr that I’m wondering if listeners at the time though the real thing was singing.
While the Monkees did not play on the album, it’s hard to complain when you have the best session musicians that you could get in the ‘60s playing here. This includes Wrecking Crew members like the future country-pop superstar Glen Campbell on guitar, Carol Kaye on bass/guitar, and Hal Blaine on drums. As I said in my last Best Sellers review, you couldn’t go wrong getting the Wrecking Crew to play on your songs in the ‘60s. It’s nowhere near their best work but they still do their best regardless. As Kaye herself recalled, “Not that we loved the music. There were some tunes that were yuck. But you did your best to turn them into hit records anyway.” Everyone involved knows what they’re doing and do some nice little grooves and riffs.
More of the Monkees mainly exists now as a representation of the Monkees’ insane popularity in 1967 rather than any serious piece of music. This album wasn’t made to survive past its moment it was made for. It’s also a quick album clocking in under a half-hour with fourteen tracks with not one going over three minutes. More of the Monkees isn’t going to change your life but if you’re into ‘60s jangly bubblegum pop-rock made by the best session musicians of the day for a short-lived TV sitcom of a band that became a bigger phenomenon in real life than you could do worse.
The Monkees would eventually get their wish to make their own music firing Don Kirshner soon after More of the Monkees. (Kirshner would later become the music coordinator for the animated cartoon The Archies which spawned the massive 1969 #1 smash “Sugar, Sugar.” Since the characters were animated, Kirshner didn’t have to worry about a cast rebellion.) The Monkees, meanwhile, continued on their massive hot streak releasing their first album made together as a band Headquarters. The album was their third consecutive #1. The next effort, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. was another success giving the group its fourth consecutive #1 album. Singles-wise, the hits kept coming which culminated in their third and last Hot 100 #1 “Daydream Believer” in December 1967.
Going into 1968, the Monkees decided to make their next career move into movies. Out of that came Head, a heavily psychedelic trip of a movie with a co-producing credit from a then-unknown Jack Nicholson. The movie and its accompanying soundtrack were a complete bomb alienating the Monkees’ teenage fanbase. The failure of Head helped to end the Monkees as a hit machine not helped by the cancelation of their sitcom in 1968 after two seasons and Peter Tork leaving the group.
Now a trio, the Monkees put out a couple more albums leaning more into heavy psychedelia to little success, a far cry from a couple of years earlier. Nesmith left in 1969 and the remaining two members put out an album in 1970 before officially breaking up the group. The band members spent time focusing on their solo careers until the inevitable reunion. Reruns of their show in the ‘80s helped revive interest in the Monkees leading to the release of “That Was Then, This Is Now” becoming their last major charting hit peaking at #20 in 1986. Since then, the Monkees would keep performing and releasing albums in the years ahead even as two of their members have passed away. Davy Jones died from a heart attack in 2012 at age 66. Peter Tork followed in 2019 of cancer at age 77.
Honorable Mention: Despite 1967 being a big year in the breakthrough of the hippie counterculture, the 10 big albums of the year largely don’t reflect it between more Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, film soundtracks, and a Temptations greatest hits album. But at #10 is arguably the biggest reflection of it with the aforementioned Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album that practically changed music forever making everyone see The Beatles as the most influential band of all time and encouraging other bands to go in a more album-oriented direction. Not much else needs to be said.
Next time: We’re gonna get heavy with Are You Experienced? the album that introduced rock to arguably its most influential guitarist