In recognition of the passing of Peter Tork, some observations about The Monkees.
When The Monkees television series premiered in 1966, the Beatles had just vanished from touring and they had even stopped making films. I don’t count Yellow Submarine or Magical Mystery Tour as Beatle films, they were Beatles product. The Beatles continued to make musical films to promote their new songs for the Ed Sullivan Show, but the Monkees weekly series largely filled a void created by The Beatles, for a young generation that was defining pop culture in America.
The Monkees phenomenon was fast and furious. The first TV episode aired in September 1966 and last one March 1968. The first single, “Last Train to Clarkesville” was released on August 16, 1966. There were nine official albums released between 1966 and 1970, as the group continued to produce albums after the series ended, even as group members departed the lineup.
The Monkees never escaped the “pre-fab four” label as a TV version of the Beatles. The show did have a youthful and fun charm, and it served to showcase some pretty good music. The producers used a songwriting factory to churn out many hit records, and early on, the Monkees only contributed vocals. Later the group began to flex their muscle and rebelled against the outside songwriting and studio musicians. While it gave them more satisfaction and voice over their music, their abilities did not match the songwriting of King/Goffin, Boyce/Hart, Neil Diamond and others who contributed radio-worthy songs.
After the show was cancelled in 1968, the group continued making records, but by the end there were only two Monkees left.
As the first album was being recorded, Peter Tork reportedly showed up at the studio with his instruments thinking he was going to play on the songs. He was told that we wasn’t needed until the vocals were to be recorded. Even then, his contribution was small, as Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones shared the majority of the lead vocals.
Through the years, there were variations of Monkee reunions, although Mike Nesmith participated in the fewest. After Davy Jones died, Nesmith returned to the fold and toured with the other two, as they included filmclips and vocals of Jones in their show. A final album was released in 2016 and amongst the tracks were unreleased vocals of Jones.
Being a Monkee was a mixed blessing, not only were they not taken very seriously as musicians, it also typecast them in their 20’s. Each of them dealt with it differently and it would appear that mostly they embraced the identification, particularly in later years. Just last year, there was even a “Mike & Mickey Tour” playing a cross-section of Monkees songs, not just the hits.
Peter Tork played the lovable but sometimes clueless member of the group, who as legend has it, was suggested to the TV producers by Stephen Stills. Tork had an active musical career beyond the various Monkees projects. He was a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, and pursued folk music before he joined the group.
Baby boomers who grew up with the show and the records mourned the death of Davy Jones and will mourn for Peter Tork. It is hard to lose something from our youth, a sign of our own mortality.
Rest in Peace, Peter.