100 Days of Pop: Episode 19 The Monkees!

After a decade long battle with cancer, Peter Tork of the Monkees dies at 77. On this episode of the Pop100, we honor the very first Pop-Marketing band, the MONKEES! And if you’re asking what could you glean from a Beatles rip-off pop band from the late ’60s. Ye of little faith!

The Monkees TV show aired from 1966 to 1968. It is nuts to think about how much culture they jammed into those 2 years. They released 4 albums. went on an international band tour. began creating what Criterion called the most psychedelic film of the 60s. They introduced the US to Jimi Hendrix who was their opening act in 67. There was a car, The MonkeeMobile which though awesome was a pop-marketing story for another time. They Inspired Gene Roddenberry to introduce the character of Chekov in Star Trek, in response to the popularity of Davy Jones. Were credited as a pioneer of MTV and the concept of music videos. Finally they Paved the way for every boy band that followed in their wake. New Kids, NSync, One Direction all owe a large part of the creative freedoms to the group known as the Monkees baby

In 1965 two LA producers, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, inspired by the Beatles film, A Hard Days Night, pitched a TV show that followed a fake band around the world. If it worked, they’d have direct control of this make-believe band. Giving them complete control of everything. The sponsorships, the merchandise and the music that came from the show. All cream on top. They just needed, you know..some dirty hippies.

They found their frontman first. Davy Jones, a rising British actor that had won some Tony’s . He was British and he could sing- Check!

To find the rest of the band they did what anyone would do. They put out an ad in the Hollywood Reporter.

Who came back was Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz & Mike Nesmith. Their powers combined you got yourself a folk-rock bubble gum pop boy group for the ages!

The plan was simple. To the creators, this wasn’t a band. It was a show with actors. By separating the show from the music they could apply focus on each. The guys could focus on the show while studio musicians and writers focused on the music. In fact, the Monkees only laid down the vocals on the first 2 albums. They didn’t play the music because it was a show about a fake band.

The first album dropped a few weeks after the show’s premiere. It spent 13 weeks at #1 on the billboards and 78 weeks straight on the charts.

The Monkees both the TV show and the music were a massive hit from the get and the plan was a screaming success

So how could a success this large only stay in the zeitgeist for 2 years? What happened that lead to a sharp decline in attention that mirrored the sharp rise? Glad you asked!  

The creators made 2 large mistakes that ultimately doomed the Monkees, and seeded the fall from grace.

The first was the decision to release the first album with no mention of the other musicians and creators involved in the production.

It's so innocent. It not a lie, more of an omission. The youth just wouldn’t get it? The wizards behind the curtain took it upon themselves to create a more seamless narrative. We're all pretending here right? It's a much easier pill to swallow, just to say that the boys did it all. This action would be the beginning of the end.

We are creatures of story. The thing that makes us human, is our magical ability to suspend belief. To let go of logic and believe that a TV show, a movie or a game is real or pseudo-real. We as an audience are willing participants. When an audience sees a magic show, they know that the woman or man on stage is NOT a sorcerer. An incredible and powerful contract between the creator and the consumer gets inked.

Here's our first pop-marketing lesson of the day. NEVER take the relationship you share with your consumer and audience for granted. Young or old, your audience is willing and able to suspend belief as long as you are honest with them. They don't need you to dumb it down or to spoon-feed it to them.

Yes, the audience will suspend belief. They'll cry, laugh gasp in horror, but don’t break that contract.  

If the creators would have been open with the way the music ws created, giving credit to the musicians and artists involved, it would have been another story.  Instead the guys were judged as “Milli Vanillis”. Traitors of the art. The guys were torn to shreds by critics who called them the PRE-FAB Four.  It deeply affected their perception in the world as well as the perception of themselves.

The other mistake is connected to the first. The creators didn't just believe they were smarter than their audience but smarter than their talent. The guys didn't know what they were and was surprised by the record not mentioning the other artists as the audience was. We’re talking youth culture in the late ’60s. What the hell do you think they would do?  They rebelled along with the audience. They wanted to become a real band and fought their creators. They learned the instruments between takes and valiantly by the third album they were doing the music themselves. However, The damage was already done.

The band's rebellion took its final stand with the creation of HEAD, their own movie. A pop-marketing side note here is that the movie was a partnership with Jack Nicholson and the group of guys who later brought us Easy Rider. A psychedelic demolishing and shedding of their original bubble gum pop image. drugs, war, sex, and the MAN were all themes. Though this film was ahead of its time. It may have been an impactful piece of cinematic art, but it bombed. Leaving the audience even more confused and aware of the original betrayal.

The group did unshackle themselves from their creators and become a real band, but in the battle they had lost the war, falling out of trend.

It's really not as tragic of a story as it appears. The Monkees are a pop culture icon. They were touring together 50 years later, when all of the crap and bad blood were forgotten and audiences were nostalgic for what the band meant to them.

These guys were rebels man. They were fighters that were complete strangers that proved the creators wrong.

This Peter Tork quote from a 2016 interview w/ the Telegraph sums it up very well. "This is not a band," Tork told the Telegraph. "It's an entertainment operation whose function is Monkee music. It took me a while to get to grips with that but what great music it turned out to be! And what a wild and wonderful trip it has taken us on!”

So the lesson is that though it's completely possible to create culture and to make a band, you must do 2 things. Never underestimate your audience, especially if it's the youth of America. And always bring your influencers or talent along for the ride. Articulate the situation up front. Listen and co-create from the beginning and once you let it go into the wild, it's much more likely to not turn around and bite your hand off.

But cheer up Sleepy Jean!. This is Joe Cox the Pop Marketer and the ultimate Day Dream Believer thanking you for tuning in and reminding you to and visit Pop-marketer.com for more popmarketing goodness and sign up to the Weekly Zeitgeist email and get more news delivered to your inbox every couple of weeks.  

Joe Cox