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TRIBUTE: Davy Jones and The Monkees Change the World
March 1, 2012  | By Diane Werts

It's not quite the loss of a Beatle. But it's obviously up there in pop culture significance, considering how TV and other media played up Wednesday's news of the death of Davy Jones, star of TV touchstone The Monkees and the top-selling rock band of the same name.

Some will scoff -- The Monkees were a manufactured group, their '60s show looks silly, et al. But Davy Jones' death seemed to strike a chord in baby boomers -- and even in younger culture vultures, who still hear Monkees tunes like "Daydream Believer" on oldies radio, on movie soundtracks, or as background sound in public places.

Maybe it's because The Monkees stand for a particular pop culture moment, at a confluence of events, trends and fault lines. The show's 1966-68 TV run essentially defines the morph of what we'll call the Mad Men '60s -- on-the-surface simple, sunny, neat -- into the Vietnam-era, with all of its messy, moody, culture-shift conflicts.


And Davy Jones [far right in the show photos at right], alongside still-living Monkees cohorts Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith, was peculiarly at the crux of that. In so many ways.

*** Their NBC series about the misadventures of an aspiring rock group won a best-comedy Emmy (yes!) for its vivacious mosaic of standard storyline (Davy falls in love with a princess), musical song "romps" (early music videos?), and quick-cut editing harking back to silent movie slapstick. At a time straightforward shows like "The Andy Griffith Show" were topping the ratings, The Monkees pointed the way toward more stylized collages, sometimes surreal techniques, edgy in-jokes and namechecks, and -- now I want to bite my tongue -- making mucho moolah off of show-related merchandise. (Anybody still got a pair of Monkee Boots from Thom McAn?)


*** The Monkees really did reflect societal trends, despite their fancifully simplistic TV plots. Just look at the show. Season 1 episodes have the boys -- and they did seem to be "boys," despite being in their 20s -- wearing tidy matching outfits, with trendy longish hair, yes, but definitely clean and polite. In Season 2, Micky's 'do has grown out into a naturally curly mop, sideburns are stretching down toward chins, and -- heavens! -- they're wearing tie-dyes and dashiki! Those sweet heartthrob Monkees were, dare we say it, suddenly, sort of, almost dangerous.

*** Their behind-the-camera talent, too, speaks for shifts in the '60s showbiz industry. Early Monkees music was ordered up by Tin Pan Alley producer Don Kirshner, from reliable songwriters who'd been crafting pop innocence for a decade, as executed by top studio musicians. But those "prefab" Monkees demanded before long to play their instruments themselves, to write their own songs, to create albums as an aesthetic whole rather as a-few-hit-singles-and-filler, to release music that meant something to them. And then there's the production pair behind the entire Monkees concept/creation -- Bert Schneider would go on to produce the scathing Vietnam-strategy docu-takedown Hearts and Minds (1974), while partner Bob Rafelson would direct counterculture classics like Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Stay Hungry (1976).

monkees-head-western.jpg head-davy-jones.jpg

*** Still think The Monkees were just a teenybopper fad? Check out their 1968 feature film Head -- a bizarre (perhaps drug-fueled?) conglomeration of freeform sketches, covering everything from the horrors of war to the terrors of pop stardom, from music-hall ditties to psychedelic synth, from movie studio madness to human-size dandruff. (Believe me, the movie's even weirder than that sounds.) Rafelson directed, from a script he wrote with Jack Nicholson. (Yes, that Jack.) It's hard to call the film's actors a true "cast," since they're more like cameo drop-ins rarely relating to one another, but just look at the lineup -- boxer Sonny Liston, Mother of Invention Frank Zappa, silicone stripper Carol Doda, crossdresser T.C. Jones, movie veteran Victor Mature, beach idol Annette Funicello, footballer Ray Nitschke, indie film madman Timothy Carey ("The World's Greatest Sinner"). Nothing teeny, nor bop. Just a movie that in its brashly topical (in)sanity utterly explains the bellwether year of 1968.

Obviously, The Monkees and The Monkees meant more than ephemeral amusement, even if you don't buy all I say about their significance. Or why does Davy's death make ABC's World News Tonight, with Diane Sawyer lamenting that "startling bulletin" and showing a clip of Davy's Brady Bunch gig?

His British pluck was the sweetness and light of the show (and the group), so maybe that's what makes his passing so "startling." (Also, of course, Jones was only 66.) He was the concept's closest link to earlier breezier times. Peter was a broody misfit, oozing '60s angst. Micky was goofy, but also seemed high-strung. (Thank god for his equally high lead vocals, some of pop music's most underrated -- deceptively gorgeous and slyly expressive.) Real-life military veteran Mike was too adult-seeming and brainy for true youth appeal. ("And besides, girls, he's married.")


With Davy now gone, so in a way is the group's innocence -- although in truth it disappeared sometime around their third album and the second half of the show's first season. Soon The Monkees was delivering mini-documentaries of the group touring, Brazilian Christmas carols, and mock presidential candidate Pat Paulsen narrating tales of alien abduction. Lest anyone miss the point, later episode titles included "Monkees Blow Their Minds" (Frank Zappa played Mike Nesmith) and the inexplicably named final episode "Mijacogeo," in which TV attempts to take over the world.

Check 'em all out on disc. Click links to order The Monkees Season 1 DVD and The Monkees Season 2 DVD, or their movie Head on DVD. (Season 2 includes the little-seen trippy TV special "33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee," shown post-series in 1969, with Brian Auger, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little RIchard, Buddy Miles and more.)

TV kicks in a few hastily scheduled documentary portraits. Bio channel dumps its Friday night lineup (March 2) to insert its Monkees episode of Biography (8 and 10 p.m. ET) and a Davy Jones hour of Biography Remembers (9 and 11 p.m. ET).

Smithsonian Channel has the fascinating Making The Monkees special encoring Sunday (March 4) at 11 a.m. ET. (Also see Making the Monkees streaming online here).

And The Monkees '60s series itself continues to air on broadcast digital subchannel Antenna TV, if you're lucky enough to have access to this pop culture treasure chest. (Click link for local affiliates and channel numbers.)

Antenna TV moved quickly to assemble a Davy-honoring Monkees marathon starting Saturday (March 3) at 5 p.m. ET, a time when the channel normally airs just two episodes. Antenna had been scheduled that day to air the final-episode oddity "Mijacogeo" at 5 and the series' pilot at 5:30!

Now we get to settle in Saturday at 5 p.m. ET for 31 straight hours (!) of The Monkees -- all 58 series episodes, followed Sunday at 10 p.m. ET by that mind-blowing movie Head.

Rev up the recorder.

Hey, hey, they're The Monkees . . .


Noel Holston said:

Thanks for that wonderful remembrance of the show, the group and Mr. Jones, Diane. And for putting it all into a historical context. The Emmy that The Monkees won notwithstanding, I'm not sure the Academy members who voted for it fully appreciated what a radical departure it was, stylistically, from the standard sitcom of its day. Even more so than the Beatles movie that inspired it, the show was truly surreal at times, almost in a Pythonesque way. And one last info tidbit: Writing for The Monkees was the first TV break for my friend Treva Silverman, who would later win an Emmy of her own for writing the Mary Tyler Moore episode about Lou and Edie Grant's divorce.

Sally W. said:

Terrific post for giving us perspective about Davy Jones and the Monkees! They were before my time, but I think those of us growing up on sitcom reruns couldn't avoid them and their impact on pop culture.

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