The 50th anniversary of The Monkees has given us a fine new album (produced by Adam Schlesinger, whose work on That Thing You Do was a perfect lead-up), and given the band some of the respect they’ve deserved all along. Lazily dismissed as “fake-Beatles,” their influence and, more importantly, their music, has stood the test of time. In recent years, the band’s omission from the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame has become more of a dig against the Hall than The Monkees, and we’re firmly on the side that says if a Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame exists at all, The Monkees have a big place in it.
The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame inductions are an annual tradition that, for all the wrong reasons, unite Monkees’ fans (of which there are millions) and Monkees’ haters (of which there are thousands). Each year The Monkees get passed over, and each year a lively but pointless argument ensues: Why aren’t the Monkees in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame? The argument always seems to center around whether or not they are a “credible” or “real” rock band, but it’s a pretty easy argument to dismiss, whether you choose to argue the facts of the Monkees (yes, they did write songs, play instruments and tour) against the parroted misperceptions rooted in the first 18 months of their 50-year career. The arguments against the Monkees could also be knocked down by simply holding up even the most dismissive view of the band against the careers of many proud Hall Of Fame inductees. Objective, substantial parallels can easily be drawn between the Monkees and the Sex Pistols (assembled, manipulated, and marketed by their media-saavy manager), Ricky Nelson (TV star first, rock star second), Elvis Presley (didn’t write his own songs), or any number of the vocal groups currently gracing the Hall Of Fame, but The Monkees most closely resemble the Motown acts that have been rightfully honored as inductees.
When compare The Monkees to The Supremes, The Four Tops, or The Temptations, their deserved place in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, makes a lot more sense
When you stop comparing the Monkees to The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and start comparing them to The Supremes, The Four Tops or The Temptations instead, The Monkees’ place in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame makes a lot more sense. Rock snobs who cling to calcified rules of “authenticity” (a word that has no place in popular culture, let alone rock & roll, but that’s a different rant), seem to make exceptions for the Motown artists who violate their sacred commandments of Rock Cred. Certainly nobody protested The Supremes’ induction because that they didn’t write their own songs or because their image was rigorously controlled to ensure the widest possible appeal. There was no campaign to keep The Four Tops out of the Rock Hall because they didn’t play the instruments on their records but were instead backed instead by an anonymous (if furiously talented) band of studio players. We heard exactly nobody attack the Temptations as inductees because they were fed hits by producers eager to cash in on the next next-big-thing, shifting the band’s sound and image to capitalize on trends ranging from supper-club pop to psychedelic rock. And that’s perfectly acceptable, because the crass, production-line mentality of Motown’s hit machine was exactly what made those groups so great. Berry Gordy assembled the best writers, producers, and musicians and then put them through a quality-control regimen with even higher standards than the Cadillac factories he was emulating. He literally sent his artists to charm school, where they were taught how to dance, dress, shake hands, and conduct TV interviews in a way that would avoid giving fans any sense that that the raging turmoil that defined the mid-to-late ’60s had any impact on the lives of the singers behind their favorite songs. This process not only produced some of the best music of the 20th century, but it allowed Motown to take it mainstream via prime-time TV. Everybody wins.
Now, don’t take a word of what’s been written above as a cynical dismissal of Motown, its music or its methods: We’re unabashed, b-side-level fans of what they did and how they did it, even as we celebrate artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder for breaking free and dragging Motown in to the eye of the social storm the label consciously provided shelter from. But we think the Motown comparison speaks to a larger point about dismantling these tired, old ideas about “credibility” or “authenticity” and why it’s time to stop conflating them with quality. Because when we listen to The Monkees, we undeniably hear quality. As we do with Motown, we hear the convergence of the era’s best songwriters (Neil Diamond, Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, David Gates and, of course, Boyce & Hart) and musicians (the Wrecking Crew), backing four accomplished artists who had the talent and charisma to take these songs to the masses.
Where the Motown comparison falls apart, and where the myths of The Monkees being “fake” crumble, is in the nagging fact that less than two years after forming, The Monkees deliberately stepped out of the star-making machinery that created them and assumed creative control of their music and image. In a particularly rock ’n’ roll move, Mike Nesmith sealed the contentious break with the band’s puppet-master Don Kirshner (himself, ironically, a Hall Of Fame inductee in part for creating The Monkees and The Archies), by putting his fist through a wall while shouting to Kirshner, “That could have been your face!” By the end of 1967, the band started writing, playing and touring in earnest (hand-picking then relatively unknown Jimi Hendrix as their opening act, no less). Once they started calling their own shots, they made their most critically acclaimed album, Headquarters, which Mojo called “a masterpiece of ’60s pop.”
From there, The Monkees were free to explore psychedelia, which they did with their deeply surreal film Head and its equally trippy soundtrack, which kicks in to gear with “The Porpoise Song” (since covered by indie rock bands, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of The Dead and Django Django).
It should surprise no one who does their homework that the Monkees could survive on their own. After all, each member had a solo career going before the TV show brought them together and Nesmith was already a successful songwriter, having written “Different Drum,” the hit that introduced Linda Rondstat to the world. He’s also since gotten his due alongside Gram Parsons as an early pioneer of country-rock, which you can hear in The Monkees’ “Some Of Shelly’s Blues.”
So, yeah, The Monkees are more than most people give them credit for, but even taken at face value, reduced to the false stereotypes that have dogged them for almost 50 years, they still hold up and deserve respect. If all they did was have a run of massively successful pop records crafted by the most talented producers, musicians, and songwriters of the ’60s — pioneering the music video and inspiring two generations of kids to pick up guitars and start bands along the way — they’re still every bit as valid and credible as so many other artists we revere and welcomed in to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame with open arms and warm memories. Change your point of view, strip away the unwarranted baggage, and you’re left with a pile of great music. And that’s credible enough for us.