The ’60s was a decade of unimaginable creativity and musical exploration. It brought about a new pop zealousness and the first few rumblings of rock music that were destined to bring the radio to its knees. And then there were The Monkees, a band whose artificial origins were as synthetic as the situations on the television show for which they were created. Over the years, they’ve been relegated to reunion shows and an occasional pop culture reference. But there was more to the band than most people realize, and their records, while firmly entrenched within the hypersaccharine pop aesthetic the decade eventually reveled in, were more subtle and meticulous than most people assume.
What people have to realize is that pop music, in all its ecstatic and joyous movements, was the product of a populist society and time. So it makes sense that some of the most memorable and successful pop music was created to feed the masses and entertain rather than enlighten. And there’s nothing wrong with that aim-music should be all things to everyone. Even the most perfunctory modern pop music can be dissected to find that there is quite a bit going on under that sickly sweet veneer.
Formed in Los Angeles in 1965 by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, The Monkees came into being because the network wanted a musical show that could draw on the popularity of bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys. The show aired from 1966 to 1968 and catapulted the careers of Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Davy Jones and Peter Tork. When the show first aired, the band’s music was strictly managed and cultivated by producer Don Kirshner.
The band had to contend with missives from network and label executives on the general direction of the music, but after a time, they slowly began gaining a bit of control over the direction they were heading. After a succession of producers and writers proved incapable of working with the band, Nesmith was tagged as producer for some of the earliest sessions-with the catch that he couldn’t perform on any of the songs he produced. The band’s first single, “Last Train to Clarksville,” was released in August 1966 and immediately became a staple of pop radio-and this was before the show had even aired its first episode.
They racked up an impressive collection of hits and were among the most famous pop musicians of their time, even if their origins were a bit sketchy. But the band would soon grow tired of what they saw as the timid and unobtrusive pop/television landscape. Not that they disowned their work-they simply wanted the freedom to branch out and try different things. But for people who came to them through the show and their radio-ready singles, this idea of breaking away from their established formula was a bit hard to understand. Why mess with a good thing, right?
The show was canceled in 1968, and the band wanted to put forth a statement of intent as to the direction they wanted to go. And so, with Rafelson directing, the band shot a film called “Head,” which was co-produced and co-written by Rafelson and a then-unknown actor named Jack Nicholson. The band wanted to play around with the psychedelics of stream-of-consciousness songwriting, and the film is a direct extension of this desire. The music was far different from anything they’d attempted before-though the odd array of cameos (including boxer Sonny Liston, Frank Zappa, Annette Funicello and others) was more than enough to secure the film’s weirdo pop persona.
But all this posturing and anti-pop determination would have been worthless if the music wasn’t any good. And the band didn’t disappoint. It wasn’t conventional by any means and was often pointedly contrary to the sounds of their previous successes, but “Head” represented a giant leap forward in the band’s ability to tackle new themes and ideas without letting their past bog down their future. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the film wasn’t a commercial success nor highly regarded by critics at the time, though some did praise its wildly exuberant and oddly sincere weirdness.
The album/soundtrack is broken down into roughly half original songs and half assorted bits of sound and vocal snippets from the film. It makes for a very disparate listening experience-but one the band captured perfectly to tape. The band may have had mixed emotions on the final product, but it’s hard not to see how this project allowed them to move past the shadow of their hits and discover something quite personal about themselves, about their own musical inclinations and tendencies-and how they could function, even for a moment, outside the wheel of mainstream music.
Tracks such as “Porpoise Song” and “Circle Sky” find the band investigating a different sort of pop functionality-one that allows for an unfurling of ideas and a production unhampered by conglomerate label roundtables. “Head” is an odd film, and one that nearly cost the band their vaulted status as one of pop music’s greatest accidents (at least initially). But the accompanying music gave them a chance to explore anything they wanted, even if the end product did split the band in terms of how they felt about it.
For a moment, The Monkees weren’t bound by television roots. They had the ability to confound, delight and even anger a good many of their fans. “Head” marked their independence in many ways and gave them the confidence to try new things. They were always going to be pop stars, but after this, they had a new purpose and confidence in their own musical talents. “Head” may have almost cost them their careers, but in the end, it gave them a belief in their own worth as musicians and as people who were more than just the sum of their pasts.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.