One of the most maligned and mis-understood groups in pop history, The Monkees left an indelible legacy.
Producing hit after hit, their eventual descent into the avant garde provided the 60s with one of its most potent pop narratives. Reforming last year, Clash editor Simon Harper sat down with Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones from The Monkees for a lengthy chat about their time together.
When news broke last night that integral member Davy Jones had passed way, the Clash team began searching through the archives for the original transcription.
Presented without any edits, we believe the full interview helps fans get to grips with a vital figure from the evolution of pop.
– – –
Davy, you uprooted England and moved to America at a very young age. Was that a big risk for you?
Davy: Not really, because I had a job. I left the West End – I was in Oliver, and the producer from America came over, saw me in the part, thought I’d be better for the American audience than the kid that was doing it, I replaced him in Canada, and I was in Broadway. It was a tough thing for me because they broke down at Christmas – there was no show on Christmas Day or the next day – and I didn’t know what to do. I was fifteen years old, and I just sat on the pavement outside the theatre at the stage door eating a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. I was going, ‘What am I doing here? This is ridiculous. I want to go home’. The same thing when I left home at fourteen and went into the stables; I cried a couple of times. But you’ve got to grow up and you’ve got to move on. So, it wasn’t a risk professionally – personally it was a risk, because I had to be a grown-up before most kids have left school, and I was pretty much on my own. But New York was buzzing: Dudley Moore was in Beyond The Fringe, Tony Newley was in Stop The World, and there were other actors on the Broadway stage that I kept company with… I was going to Birdland and watching Buddy Rich and Peggy Lee and hanging out with all these different people that were friends of Georgia Brown’s – Shirley Jones, Jack Cassidy… It was kinda scary, but then I got into the American life and my career is over in America. I have been back a few times – in the Eighties I did pantomime and things like that – and I’ve still got sisters: one in Manchester, one in Accrington and one in Norfolk. But, you know, time goes by too fast. I’m sixty-five-years-old and I don’t get it. We’re still working, we’ve all got our own careers, and we just once in a while reminisce, and what better way to do it than with each other and the great songs that we sing.
You all were establishing your own careers by the time you answered the advert for what became The Monkees…
Peter: Actually, only one of us did. Only one of us actually saw the advert directly.
Davy: Who was that?
Mickey: I had an agent, because I had already had a series, so I was sent… Peter: And Davy already had the part. Davy: I had already signed to Columbia Screen Gems and gone and looked at Wackiest Ship In The Army, Hogan’s Heroes and a bunch of other stuff. I’d done Farmer’s Daughter and Bewitched and a bunch of programmes, so they were just waiting to find these guys, you know what I mean?
Mickey: Peter heard about it from Stephen Stills.
Peter: I think he’d met Bob socially and had mentioned it to him. Steve and I were the kids who looked alike on the Greenwich Village streets – kids would say, ‘There’s this new kid on the streets that looks just like you’. And so Bob said to Steve, ‘Do you know anybody who looks like you and has about one tenth your talent?’ Steve thought immediately of me, and suggested that I try out for the part.
Davy: Actually, Mike Nesmith was signed to Colpix Records, the same record company I was signed to – so was Michael Blessing – so they knew about him. I remember him walking into the audition. I’m sitting there with Lester Sill and with the Executive Producer, and he walks in with his pants tucked into his high boots up to his knees, and he had a cowboy shirt on, and he had his laundry over his shoulder, and he said, [adopts southern drawl] ‘How long is this gonna take?’ And I went, ‘Wow man, we don’t want this guy!’ I never ever thought that he was gonna be part of The Monkees, but I think that he filled a gap and a place in the show that we wanted that sort of straight face…
Mickey: Sorry, what was the question? I’ve lost track.
You didn’t let me get to the question! I was going to say that you were all building your own careers, and that on the one hand the opportunity of The Monkees could be a surefire route to success, but on the other, your friends might view you as selling out and taking the easy option. Did you give this any consideration?
Davy: I don’t think anything’s easy in show business.
Peter: I didn’t weigh up those options. Mickey: I already had a series… You gotta understand – I don’t know if you know the history of The Monkees – The Monkees was a television show, but that started…
Peter: You did know that, right?
Mickey: You’d be surprised how many people don’t. Even a journalist that I’ve talked to thought the misconception that The Monkees were a band and they got a TV show, but it was the opposite way around: there was this TV show about this band. When I went for the interview for the audition, I’d already been up for three pilots that year – I’d already had a series as a kid – and this was a show where I was going to play the wacky drummer in this rock and roll band.
But you couldn’t play drums.
Mickey: No, I played guitar.
Peter: I, on the other hand, was going to play a dull drummer!
Davy: And I couldn’t play the drums because they couldn’t see me behind them!
Mickey: My initial [audition] piece was ‘Johnny B Goode’.
Did you have to learn to play drums for the role?
Mickey: For the show?
Davy: You know what? The equipment was on the stage, so when we were filming eventually, when they were setting up another shot, which took twenty or thirty minutes, they’d be playing and banging away and carrying on, so it wasn’t like they weren’t familiar with each other.
Mickey: I took it as an assignment to learn the drums. If they’d have cast me as a scuba diver in a series I would have gone and taken scuba lessons. But I was a musician: I played guitar and I could read music. But again, I was playing the part of a wacky drummer that could sing and play.
Peter: The issue of the selling out thing was really an entirely independent event. The noise about The Monkees not being the kind of band that everybody thought was the ideal band, and because we were actors playing that kind of band – we had an interviewer in here who said that The Monkees’ set-up was her bliss; somehow somewhere there was a band that actually lives together. The fact that that wasn’t the reality bothered a lot of people, who had got it into their heads that that was the only valid artistic expression on the face of the earth, and they accused us of selling out. If that was in fact the only valid aesthetic, we would have been selling out, but it wasn’t. Not one of these kids didn’t enjoy some TV show or other.
Mickey: There’s been so many shows since The Monkees, like Glee for example, which is a show about kids in a glee club in an imaginary school. But they can actually sing and dance.
Davy: Talking about living together, I seem to remember they were making studios in remote places like Montana on the top of a mountain so they could take the band, put them in the studio, and they’d get the job done. My friend Lindy Goetz managed the Chili Peppers for years. He rented a house on Laurel Canyon and he put them in there. He rented the place so he could go and rehearse for their new album, and put recording equipment in there and everything. Because this one was here, he was over there, this guy was smoking, this guy was doing this, and they couldn’t keep them all together. So he put them in that place. It took them eight months before they made an album, because they had a house together and they had chicks there, and they all thought they had freeform to do whatever they wanted to do.
Mickey: There was an enormous amount of control and structure. We were hired. We had press at 2.30, 3.30, 4.30, 5, then to the studio, wardrobe call… this was every day for years. Twelve hours a day we were on the set just filming the show, and then we had to rehearse, and at night we were recording. I remember doing three lead vocals in a night. Those long days must have taken some real dedication.
Davy: No, it was like a party.
Mickey: It was hard work though. I remember being tired! It was hard work and it was constant. We would have a hiatus in that we could go party sometimes, but boy, I remember every morning for weeks and weeks in a row and we filmed every day. We were getting up at five thirty, six o’clock… Even at nineteen or twenty years old, you can’t party that hard and get up at that time in the morning, and you’d had to learn your lines for the next day’s shoot…
Peter: And say them!
Mickey: Yeah. So that’s twelve hours a day. Then going into the studio for a couple of hours after that. Then on the weekends I was practising on the drums whenever I had the chance. Those two years were tough.
The story about The Monkees wrestling creative control from management stems from the confidence you felt after seeing the audience reactions on your first tour…
Davy: Some girl came up with an album and said, ‘Will you sign this?’ And we went, ‘What is that?’ She said, ‘It’s your new album!’ It was ‘More Of The Monkees’; we were dressed in JC Penney clothes…
Mickey: Oh God, I hate that cover.
Peter: And on the back of it, Don Kirschner said, “All these people that I hired gave the songs that made this wonderful album.”
Mickey: There was some creative conflict. To be fair, Mike was the one that sort of spearheaded the palace revolt, and Peter was a close second.
Peter: Because I bought into what was wrong with The Monkees – all the flak that was coming at us, I bought into it. And so did Mike. It was Mike who said “Call us fake because we are”, and the press were only too eager to oblige.
Mickey: But it wasn’t fake, any more than Glee is fake.
Peter: We didn’t know how to make records. I did not realise you learn to play your instrument, then you learn to play it in public, then making records goes on top of that. It’s a third skill.
Davy: I didn’t know about royalties. In fact, we were in the studio one day and these guys are all jamming and we made up a song as we’re talking. Then we came out the studio and we go into the booth and the engineer says, ‘Hey man, that was cool. What was that?’ And we said, ‘What did we do? We don’t remember what we did.’ He said, ‘It sounds great, this. We ought to do something with this.’ We said, ‘You can have it.’ We gave him the publishing on the song and everything. He bought a friggin’ house in the Valley for $75,000 with his royalities statement! We weren’t making that kind of money! We were making four hundred dollars a week for getting up at that time in the morning and going into the studios. But we didn’t care. We had a TV show, we were acting, and we became friends.
Peter: So yes, we got the confidence to be able to perform because we were performing live on stage night after night after night, and we got to the point where we said ‘We can do this’. And making a record then became a much easier process. And also because we’d watched those other producers make records and I got to see how it was done.
Davy: It was just one good fun time. We had money in our pockets, we were driving our new cars, and it wasn’t about dollars and cents at the end of the day.
Peter: So I guess you could say it was a good thing that we got all that flak, because it spurred us further. I mean, some people never bought. Nobody ever lets you forget your first impression on them.
When you began writing your own songs, did you have any idea of what you wanted The Monkees to be?
Peter: No. We wanted to be whoever we were. Trying to say who we were was a job from the outside. We didn’t have that job.
Mickey: You’ve also got to remember, unlike most bands where there’s one singular musical vision – the song writer or whoever – they surround themselves with friends or relatives who share that vision. In our case, as we were cast together, there’s four very distinct musical visions, and four very distinct lead singers. That in a way became problematic because when we did wrest all this control, we made this one album ‘Headquarters’ together, just the four of us, and then we started going off and producing, writing and singing our own music, using each other’s talents. It became almost four different groups, because we all have very different tastes, and they’re all good.
Davy: ‘What kind of music do you play, Davy?’ ‘Oh, mine’s called Broadway rock’.
Mickey: Peter likes the blues, I like rock and roll, Mike likes electric country rock… It’s funny, I did this show called Gone Country, and Big And Rich, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this country band, but I’ll be damned, Mike was doing that electric country rock forty years ago!
Davy: Yeah, he was very instrumental in that. And other things, techniques film-wise and other things… We’re not saying that we were the first people to do a lot of the stuff that we did – the fast framing, the moving camera… I’m sick and tired of watching the frickin’ moving cameras on these TV shows now. I’m getting dizzy and throwing up if they don’t keep it still. Just let me hear the guy talk!
Mickey: That seems to have gone a little out of style now.
Davy: When we did the movie Head, they needed to shoot from a helicopter. So the prop man designed this thing to sit on the side of the helicopter so that when the helicopter turned, the camera stayed still. That’s what you call a Steadicam these days. It was a piece of wood and a metal pipe that he put together!
Peter: You were asking, how to get along in music? Be yourself, everybody else is taken.
Mickey: There are two words in show business; there’s ‘show’ and there’s ‘business’. You’ve gotta be pretty good at both to get successful and stay successful. You’ve got to have the talent – that’s the ‘show’ part of it – but you also need to have the business chops, or else you’d better hire somebody that does. And that’s why you see so many talented people that never make it, and you go, ‘Why haven’t they made it?’ Probably because they haven’t got the business chops. Conversely, you see people that are really successful, and you go, ‘How the hell did they make it?’ Probably because they’ve got great business chops.
Peter: You can make it on a lot of one and a little of the other, but you have to have at least some of both.
Davy: I know what you’ve gotta have in show business. I am an entertainer: I love to entertain. I love to show off. I did it in the school play, I did it in church, I did it all over the place. I don’t always want to be the centre of attention when I walk into a room – sometimes I just want to be quiet and I want to listen. You’ve got to be a good listener and a good talker. And I wonder what these kids today going through American Idol and the rest of it… When that girl that won the first American turned round and says that the head of Arista, Clive Davis, knows nothing about music – he’s gotta know something otherwise he wouldn’t have been successful for the last forty-five years. She said, ‘He knows nothing about music’. Then she came off the tour; she wasn’t happy with the choice of music that the record company was giving to her, and like we did, she wanted to write her own stuff and express herself. And now you hear Beyonce is writing all the songs on her record. We weren’t individual hit writers and songsmiths after The Monkees, because really the record company or the public or whoever it was didn’t want us to be that. I don’t know what the balance is or how you can give advice, but you’ve got to have a good confidante. My brother-in-law is mine. I’ve gone through all kinds of cheating people in my life who’ve stolen money from me, and I walk away. I think, ‘More fool me’. But I’m not gonna walk away from this, because I wanna work with these guys, and I like working them, and why shouldn’t I?
Peter: The biggest advice… One guy said to me early on, shouldn’t I get a back-up job? Shouldn’t I get something to fall back on? And my first thought was no – partly because I’m a contrarian kind of guy – but no. Give all you’ve got to this, because if you’re thirteen or fifteen or seventeen and you want to do this, if you put this on hold and become a dentist, you will be thirty-five, and you’ll be working off your student loan until forever before you get to pick up your guitar again. Whereas if you keep going and you decide finally that as a practical matter you don’t want to pursue this as a career, you can start to become a dentist at thirty-five. You can’t do it the other way around.
Davy: Someone said to me, ‘I used to be a drummer’. I said, ‘No, you didn’t used to be a drummer. You are a drummer, and you need get back on the drums and just play. I go into the fuckin’ Holiday Inn and I see a singer and I say, ‘Oh my god’, but that singer’s not necessarily an entertainer. He’s a singer, and he sounds great, and I think I’d certainly have him sing at my daughter’s wedding… I’m not being facetious. I don’t mean that. What I’m saying is, when we get together a magical thing happens – for all of us. Call it whatever you want – crap, manufactured, whatever. What we call it is great fun.
How have you guys sustained your relationships?
Peter: By staying away from each other!
Davy: If anyone says anything about these guys, they’d better have their fists up. Because I have tremendous respect for them. I might be putting them down and making fun of them, but you can’t.
Peter: I praise these guys to the skies. People do not realise what gifts these guys have got, so I have to tell them.
If you could go back and do it all over again, would you change anything?
Davy: I’d change my socks.
Mickey: I think there’s lots of things I would do differently.
Peter: If I knew then what I know now, I would be sixty-nine years old trying to go into it!
Davy: If you don’t have regrets, you’re an idiot. There are things that happened in our lives, together and otherwise that we are not the happiest over. Words stick more than anything, and you’ve gotta be very careful what you say. I’d rather have a punch on the jaw than someone speak to me in a bad tone. Years ago, when we did our first tour and I came out of the BBC having just done an interview, there was this young guy there in his twenties and I said, ‘How you doing, mate?’ And he says, ‘I’m not your mate!’ And I had to keep walking. …
Davy: You’ve got to let the curtain down. That’s the advice I give. Find something else that you can do; I have horses, Peter has his beautiful house in Penssylvania… When the curtain comes down, you’re this person like everybody else. Don’t exclude yourself.
Peter: Believe in yourself at all times. You won’t believe in yourself at all times, but pretend you do.
– – –
Interview by Simon Harper