They were one of the easiest bands to hate, and their songs among the easiest to love.
We’re talking about the Monkees, of course, who in their 1966-68 heyday were despised by the pop cognoscenti as phonies, the Prefabricated Four, in an era when the Fab Four (a.k.a. the Beatles) were reshaping pop as an art form and being mentioned in the same breath as Mozart and Bach, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin.
Back then, no one worth his or her hipster credentials would dare launch a strenuous defence of Davy Jones, who died Wednesday at age 66, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith. They were L.A. plastic fantastic, manufactured by TV executives, hired on the basis of their looks (Davy, of course, was the Cute One, the Monkees’ Paul; Nesmith, the Acerbic One, an ersatz John Lennon in a tuque) and – heresy! – they couldn’t play their own instruments nor, for the most part, write their own songs!
Today, these knocks don’t even rate as quibbles. They were barely quibbles even back then because somehow millions were able to overlook the alleged deficiencies of Davy and company to make both their TV show and most of their many recordings major commercial hits.Indeed, before Abba and the Carpenters and Katy Perry, the Monkees towered as one of pop’s original guilty pleasures.
The proof’s in the songs. Who really cared then, and who cares now that, on the first few recordings at least, the guitars and drums weren’t played by the Prefab Four? The songs themselves were, more often than not, masterpieces of pop craft in both writing and execution. Sure, critics will continue to hail Light My Fire and Dock of the Bay and Jumpin’ Jack Flash as the soundtrack choices of the era – but attention (and R-E-S-P-E-C-T) must also be paid to I’m a Believer and A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You (both written by Neil Diamond), Last Train to Clarksville (by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart) and Daydream Believer (the Kingston Trio’s John Stewart).
When word of Davy Jones’s death began to circulate in The Globe and Mail newsroom Wednesday, staffers (and not just greying baby boomers) began to scan YouTube clips from the TV show. Others spontaneously began to warble Monkees songs to themselves and with their colleagues: Oh, I could hide ’neath the wings/Of the bluebird as she sings/The six o’clock alarm would never ring.... You’re not the only cuddly toy that was ever enjoyed by any boy.... Cuz I’m leavin’ in the mornin’/And I must see you again/We’ll have one more night together.... I yi-yi-yi-yi-y’im not yer steppin’ stone....
Pop is short for popular, and, by definition, the popular is ephemeral, transient and short-lived, like a glittering bubble. No one in the Monkees, I’m sure, expected to have a long run on TV, in the recording studio and on radio. But the run that Davy, Mike, Mickey and Peter did have was all the sweeter for the intensity and exhilaration of its velocity.
Over the years, there have been petitions to gain the Monkees a berth in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They’ve fallen mostly on deaf ears, however, and it’s unlikely even the death of Jones will be impetus enough to change the situation. After all, the Hall prides itself on being a Valhalla of rock-as-art gods. The Monkees, by contrast, were too busy being unabashedly in it for the money, the flicker of fame and (yes) for the fun. In fact, in their use of top-flight session musicians (Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, among them) and hired composers, the Monkees were very much the rule rather than the exception in pop history. Somewhere, Frank Sinatra is no doubt offering a welcoming handshake to Davy Jones.
Globe Arts writer James Adams attended the same high school in Regina as Peter Tork’s brother.