Frank Zappa and Mike Nesmith
The television show The Monkees ran from 1966-1968. I grew up on the Monkees and I had a crush on all four of them. I still miss the off-hand, deadpan humour and the surrealism, I miss the characters (who were known by their real-life names), their affectionate, faux-naif interactions, the insane sets. People think these shows simply came from a more innocent time, but the faux innocence actually masked a sort of post-McCarthy-era proposition. The show was set and shot in Los Angeles where people were still being chucked out of establishments for wearing their hair long and there were riots in L.A. in 1967 over a 10 pm downtown curfew for “youth under 21,” so the aesthetics of the show felt more iconoclastic then than they might seem now.
Like Sid and Marty Krofft’s Lidsville and HR PufnStuf, and other shows like Green Acres, The Monkees habitually broke the 4th wall, with actors directly addressing the camera and crew and mocking sitcom conventions. This was a new thing for television and it felt revolutionary at the time. I actually see less of this experimentation now than I did then. Each Monkees episode also featured what was actually an early version of music videos, as well as complicated surrealist sequences and the use of newer techniques like jump cuts.
When the Monkees began in 1966 as a manufactured pop group in the image of the Beatles, they actually outsold the Beatles and the Stones for a time. They were decent musicians in their own right and a couple of them eventually went on to play on Beatles recordings, thus closing the loop. Jimi Hendrix opened for them on tour, which granted wasn’t the right way around. After the Monkees was cancelled in 1968, the band continued for a couple of years and then went separate musical ways.
While it’s true that they produced a fair amount of bubblegum, the Monkees had a distinct sound that transcended their producers’ involvement. More than that, they had a completely unique interpersonal chemistry. I’ve never seen that done again, not like that. And the fact that I, ubersuperhater of slapstick, can adore the Monkees with their perpetual physical humour and collisions is an indication of something. I think it might be the unusual combination of irony and love.
Above, Davy Jones dramatizing with swan on hotel grounds during a tour. Also included here are screenshots, many from Season 1, episodes 28 and 29. As Season 1 progressed it got much weirder. The episode “On the Line” involved numerous riffs on the telephone (actually telephone gags persisted through three seasons). Then there was the emphasis on unicyles and bicycles, wheels in general, objects mounted on wheels whether pedalled or not (bathtubs, harpsichords).
By 1968 the costumes were less Mod and more groovy. Sadly I currently can’t get hold of Season 3.
More on the relationship between surrealism and 60s counterculture in subsequent posts. I love Mike Nesmith’s boots. So did he. They lasted more than one season.
Directly above and below, classic surreal musical sequence in the offices of the “Urgent Answering Service” from the episode “On The Line.” I am in love with the logo of a giant ear containing a small rotary telephone all mounted on a bare foot.
Above, the ever laid back Mike Nesmith on motorized skateboard. Below, all four in the Monkeemobile, a customized Pontiac GTO.
Above, the California beachhouse where they all (fictionally) lived, its clapboard exterior hardly matching the odd quasi-medieval interiors (below).