It’s the sort of capricious coincidence that even a hack Hollywood scriptwriter might hesitate to spring on an audience: The very first time The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show – specifically, Feb. 9, 1964 – Sullivan also showcased the cast of Oliver! (then a major hit on Broadway) on the same program. Included among the players, in the role of the Artful Dodger: Davy Jones, a charismatic young Brit who, just two years later, would enjoy instant international fame as a member of The Monkees.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Jones, who passed away Wednesday at age 66, was cast along with Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Houston-born Michael Nesmith by producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider as part of a scheme to manufacture a faux Beatles boy band for The Monkees, an NBC sitcom conceived as a kinda-sorta weekly version of A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Richard Lester’s spirited cinematic romp featuring The Fab Four more or less playing themselves.
I’m not ashamed to admit that, somewhere in the dark recesses of a hall closet, I still have dusty vinyl LPs like The Monkees and More of The Monkees. And when I hear “I’m a Believer” or “Daydream Believer” as supermarket Muzak, I smile. And I listen.
The game plan called for the band to actually record songs – many of them written by such notable tunesmiths as Neil Diamond, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart – that would be presented on the sitcom in segments best described as pre-MTV music videos (much like sequences in A Hard Day’s Night and the follow-up Beatle flick, 1965’s Help!).
Even before the first episode aired on NBC, The Monkees’ debut single – “Last Train to Clarksville” — was released to radio stations and record stores. It was, to put it succinctly, a smash.
And the hits just kept on coming. For a while, at least.
Given the group’s crassly commercial raison d'etre, it was doubtless inevitable that some wag would describe The Monkees as The Pre-Fab Four, and that the label would stick. Still, many Baby Boomers recall the sitcom with a fair amount of fondness. And with good reason: For all its silly stretches of self-indulgence, the show frequently was very funny and visually inventive, and fully deserved its 1967 Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.
And even if you never watched the show during its two years in prime time and decades in syndication, it’s hard to deny, if you’re at all honest, the enduring appeal of such chart-topping Monkees singles as “Last Train to Clarksville,” “Daydream Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (which, despite its mild satire of complacent suburbanites, used to be played in heavy rotation as a crowd-rouser at Astros games) and, best of all, the phenomenally popular Neil Diamond-composed “I’m a Believer” (later recycled by Smash Mouth as the unofficial theme of Shrek).
Never mind that, at first, Jones and his fellow Monkees weren’t even ready to play their own instruments either on the show or in the recording studio. For a brief, shining moment, all four members of the Pre-Fab Four generated a frenzy of fan adulation not unlike Beatlemania. And Jones in particular had a fleeting run as a genuine teen idol, something he would good-sportingly joke about in later years.
I’m not ashamed to admit that, somewhere in the dark recesses of a hall closet, I still have dusty vinyl LPs like The Monkees and More of The Monkees. And when I happen upon one of the group’s ‘60s hits on oldies radio, or when I hear “I’m a Believer” or “Daydream Believer” as supermarket Muzak, I smile. And I listen.
The Nicholson connection
But there’s an entirely non-musical reason why I have a warm place in my heart for Davy Jones and all the other Monkees. Back in the day, the aforementioned Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider made a lot of money with their sitcom. And while they were a great deal less successful with a Monkees movie spin-off – Head (1968), which turned off many fans by satirizing the sort of cynical showbiz hucksterism that led to the manufacturing of The Monkees in the first place – Rafelson and Schneider remained active in motion pictures.
How active? Well, you may have heard of some of the films that they helped get made: Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Picture Show (1971) and the Oscar-winning documentary Hearts and Minds (1974).
It’s not an overstatement to say that, were it not been for the success of the Pre-Fab Four, Jack Nicholson – who co-starred in Easy Rider and played the lead in Five Easy Pieces, earning two Oscar nominations in the process – might never have made the leap from underemployed character actor and part-time scriptwriter (he helped write Head) to international superstar and living legend.
And Rafelson and Schneider almost certainly never would have had the muscle to play major roles in launching the New Hollywood era of envelope-pushing and enduringly influential American movies.
Which, come to think of it, also is the sort of thing no Hollywood hack would dare to invent.