They were completely fake, they were mostly unlovable, other people wrote their songs—and they were still better than The Beatles.
I don’t give The Monkees much thought, but surely one must have a heart of stone to read about the death of lead singer Davy Jones without whistling “Daydream Believer” for the rest of the day.
Jones was one of those funny little musical Anthony Newley/Dudley Moore/Peter Noone fellows that England alone is capable of producing (or was, before the effects of post-rationing nutrition kicked in).
By most accounts, Jones was a likable chap, and the most adorable Monkee by far.
Naturally, every obit noted that Jones and his bandmates were “actors who sing” and “singers who act” (to use venerable casting-call expressions) who’d been hired to portray an imaginary rock group on TV (the better to exploit stateside Beatlemania).
The four stars (over)acted out a California Kodachrome Keystone Kops spin-off of A Hard Day’s Night on the small screen once a week. For two seasons, the Monkees sang Brill Building tunes and mimed playing their instruments to tracks laid down by the finest studio musicians Screen Gems could buy.
The kindest critics figured The Monkees would serve as a musical gateway drug luring kids into “real” music such as Pet Sounds. These voices were outnumbered by cynics who dubbed them the “The Pre-Fab Four.”
But like that naughty old blues song goes, “The men don’t know, but the little girls understand.” The little girls didn’t care: In 1967, The Monkees outsold The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined. They were filling stadiums and partying with, well, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
The “Pinocchio” elements of The Monkees’ saga strike an archetypal nerve. “Drummer” Mickey Dolenz compares the phenomenon to “Leonard Nimoy really becoming a Vulcan.”
Yet in hindsight, the obsession with The Monkees’ authenticity or lack thereof seems as selectively wrongheaded as nearly every other bit of received liberal countercultural wisdom.
Did no one think to remind his fellow hipsters at the time that Bob Dylan, the self-styled reincarnation of Woody Guthrie, was really Robert Allen Zimmerman, a Jew from Minnesota?
And just how “real” were The Beatles? Does anyone believe those lovable, non-threatening mop tops weren’t screwing their way across America after their cuddly Ed Sullivan appearance? As clear-eyed fan Andrew Ferguson has noted, not even the group’s powerful, perpetual posthumous PR machine has kept all the nasty stories about these adorable ambassadors for peace and love from leaking out:
The note Paul sent John one day in the waning days of the group: “You and your Jap tart think you’re hot s—”? Or…the time an airline stewardess offered George a glass of wine, not knowing he was deep in meditation. “F— off,” the spiritual Beatle replied.
With their obsession for everything natural and their disdain for that “one word: plastics,” the Boomers always forget that their beloved Don Quixote who fought “phoniness,” Holden Caulfield, was a boy of undeveloped brain narrating his picaresque adventures from his psychiatrist’s office.
Today, fewer people seem to care about authenticity. When we do care, it’s a kind of Conquest’s First Law, but one of culture, not politics—we have some personal, petty, peevish reason to do so. Principle doesn’t tend to enter into it.
For instance: How long have natural C cups such as me been sniffing snobbishly about porn stars’ hideous bolted-on boobs? Why, for exactly as long as millions of men haven’t been giving a damn about my sniffing.
However, a Gen X ex-punk such as me can’t imagine anyone seriously objecting that the Sex Pistols were cooked up by a rag-trade Fagin as a Situationist prank to con two record labels into signing and then firing (at great expense) a horrible band. Because as it turned out, the joke was on everyone, including the group: They were good.
The Monkees and Sex Pistols both illustrate a cosmic artistic law that dictates “fake” art can sometimes spawn great art. In The Monkees’ case, Ed Driscoll notes that this ersatz corporate bubblegum band indirectly financed the filming of Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. One member (crusty Liquid Paper heir Mike Nesmith) became the Ernie Kovacs of what we now call music videos.
(This law is illustrated equally well by The Godfather, a quickie airport novel written to pay off the author’s gambling debts that inspired a couple of cinematic masterworks. The book is still considered a Mafia Bible by real-life mobsters who apparently don’t know or care that Mario Puzo, who knew nothing of authentic Cosa Nostra rituals, pretty much made them up.)
During the last song in the final gig of their abortion of an American tour, the Pistols’ Johnny Rotten—like a jackal successfully auditioning for the role of Richard III—asked the unlistening audience and himself, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” He took back his real name and later performed a searing cri de coeur about image, identity, authenticity, and fame’s toxic demands.
Then a few years ago, he made a butter commercial.
The ex-punks I know shrugged, chuckled over that, and wished old John Lydon well. We want our heroes to make a living. Hell, it’s not like we’re hippies.
I only wish the ad had been for margarine instead. That would have been perfect. Too perfect to be real, I guess.
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