A roadmap to the psychedelic musings of uncensored Monkees, The Monkees, Head, and the 60s just might help you sort it all out.
Nine albums over four years. That seems like an incredible pace for a band’s studio output – some might call it “factory-like.” And for the Monkees, they were indeed something like a music-making machine. Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith were the actor-musicians selected to represent the brand, but behind them was an assembly line populated by some of the biggest industry names of the time. Inspired by the Beatles crossover from radio to film in Help! and A Hard Day’s Night, the Monkees concept developed as a small-screen, sitcom style variation on that theme. The finished product exceeded expectations. The design worked so well that the “band” became a band, the “musicians” took over their music and fiction became less imaginary. Where did “Micky” end and Micky begin? Was there even a vanishing point?
The Monkees, Head, and the 60s focuses on the rise and fall of the Monkees from the fateful casting call advertisement published in 1965 to their last album of that era in 1970, which featured only the duo of Dolenz and Jones, as Tork and Nesmith had already vacated the band. It’s a compressed story arc, informed and amplified by the chaos of the countercultural movement of the late ‘60s. Author Peter Mills arranges his narrative around their full-length film Head, asserting that its release in 1968 after the cancellation of “The Monkees” TV series is a defining line of demarcation in terms of style, intention and identity mapping.
Mills uses the opening chapters of his book as a general purpose chronology of the group’s formation, introducing readers to key figures and industry dynamics without getting too mired down into the minutiae of the connectivity among Brill Building power players. Embedded in detailed passages about process (i.e. what team wrote what song, who was chosen to sing it, etc.) are revealing nuggets about the members and how they understood their purpose and relation to each other. When Mike is passed over for the vocal performance of Harry Nilsson’s “Daddy’s Song” in favor of Davy, he reflects, “For me it was an aspiration; for him it was a vocation.” The tension between the Monkees’ egolessness and individual expression is something that Mills explores as this grand experiment in performance art continued to breathe and evolve.
This chronology sets readers up to contextualize Head as the sea change in the Monkees’ portfolio. Psychedelic, surreal, risqué and topical, Head was a loose collection of vignettes conceived of and written under the direction of a then-unknown Jack Nicholson. Mills richly describes the film scene by scene and song by song, pointing out sources of controversy (gruesome footage of the murder of Nguyen Van Lem), artistic innovation (subliminal imaging, solarization) and philosophical messaging (from post-modern self-reflection to Eastern meditation). Praise it or pan it, it was undoubtedly a bit of a mess. Pauline Kael famously walked out of the screening after only an hour, objecting to intermixing war atrocities with the deliberate commodification of a (deliberately commodified) rock group. Mills doesn’t seek to confront the criticism but instead asks the readers to look closely at what the Monkees were saying with Head, as it was one of the rare times they were speaking for themselves.
Mills writes with the depth of a scholar and the enthusiasm of a fan, which saves the work from the dryness of detail that necessarily populates the exposition. Since Head was a late-era offering from the group, this volume will be of most interest to baby-boomer Monkees fans as opposed to the Gen Xers, who remember them most for the MTV Monkees Marathon of 1986 or that rerun of “The Brady Bunch” where Davy agrees to play at Marcia’s prom. A roadmap to the psychedelic musings of uncensored Monkees, The Monkees, Head, and the 60s just might help you sort it all out. Or at least explain why they cast themselves as flakes of dandruff.