MONKEES & MANUFACTURING
This week on the Sunday Service we had a special contribution from the journalist Taylor Parkes. He analyzed the peculiar nature of the Monkees as a manufactured band. Here is the audio and a transcript. The audio is only available in the UK.
The Monkees – the most peculiar manufactured pop group in history. What happened here, and how, and why?
The Monkees' story is over-familiar: hired off the back of a hip-talking advert to play the roles of hip-talking musicians in a well-bankrolled TV show - then worked half to death, in the television studio by day and recording studio by night. At first they were only allowed to add their voices to pre-prepared backing tracks, written by the finest professional songwriters of the era and performed by LA's slick batallion of rock and roll session men. Sometimes that meant being dropped into stuff like this:
...but more often, it meant being blessed with stuff like this:
Aside from the fact that they made people happy, most of these records are great, and not diminished by their pre-fabricated nature any more than all those hits by The Supremes or The Ronettes or Rihanna. But what makes The Monkees special, and so endlessly fascinating, is the way they turned their situation to their own advantage.
The members of The Monkees were chosen in horribly modern focus-group style, by showing kids a load of screen tests and gauging their reactions, but the results were fortuitously strange. If you were putting together a boy band now, you probably wouldn't choose a Christian Scientist country singer, a banjo-playing folkie pothead, a Hollywood brat with a concave face and a failed jockey from Manchester. You certainly wouldn't choose a bunch of awkward sods whose egos and imaginations compelled them to strain at the leash.
The early Monkee records were rather like the first few Girls Aloud singles: state-of-the-art pop records put together by talented professionals, fronted by conveniently good-looking hopefuls. Some of these so-called professionals, it turns out, are in fact quite professional, and rather good at what they do. But it's hard to imagine Girls Aloud, much less any of the boy bands, wandering off the reservation in quite the same way as The Monkees. That's because there's a difference between accepting the process and using it. The Monkees developed, contrary to popular belief, not by insisting that they have it all their way but through a fine mixture of arrogance and humility - a need to impose themselves and an understanding of their limits.
Once they'd wrestled creative control from music supervisor Don Kirshner, they only made one album - “Headquarters” - as a self-contained band. After that, they tended to do their own thing in separate studios, recording their own songs and hand-picking the best or weirdest tunes available on the market, backed up by their favourite session men, or friends from West Coast rock bands – Doug Dillard, Stephen Stills, Ry Cooder – some of the best musicians in LA at the time. So even when they lapsed into total self-indulgence, The Monkees always sounded great. For talentless triers like Davy Jones, it helps to be able to say "I'm going to record my new song in Sunset Sound studios in Hollywood. I think I'll ring up the 23-year-old Neil Young and get him to play lead guitar."
So, the lesson most people think they've learnt from The Monkees and their struggle with giants is that you have to do your own thing, man. But I'd say another lesson well worth learning is that “your own thing” can be approached from several different angles, and for all but the genuine one-offs, ploughing a single, determined furrow may not be the answer. No one likes being told what to do, but most of us are good at some things, not so good at others, and we operate best with gentle guidance and a careful division of labour.
The sheer strangeness of the records that The Monkees made once put in charge of their own destiny was partly a product of the times, partly the product of those naughty 60s drugs, partly the result of their unique opportunity to do whatever they wanted with a backup team sufficiently skilled to make it sound convincing. In other words, manufacturing provided a framework within which their talent could suddenly function in a way which never would have happened in a bedroom or a garage.
And part of what makes The Monkees such an interesting group is the fact that they weren't a band. No conventions, no hierarchy, no trademark sound on which to fall back whenever they got lazy. On those later albums, patchy as they are, almost every track sounds wildly different from the last: psychedelic country music, acid ragtime, frazzled soul, hard rock, folk ballads, queasy bubblegum, raga jamming, Soft Machine-like freakouts, the first appearance of a synthesizer on a pop record... directionless perhaps, but creative in a way that few bands ever can be.
Received wisdom tells us that pop music is about total freedom – but few of us know how to use freedom. You can hear it in the useless meanderings of rock's free-est men. You can see it in the workshy wastefulness of brand new bands who think they're The Rolling Stones before they've even made a record: acting world-weary while reeking of desperation to gain access to the world, or what they imagine the world to be... a sealed, exclusive space. This is meant to stand for liberty. Somehow, this is meant to have something to do with self-expression.
Well, we're all manufactured. Forces beyond our control make us what we are, and it's just a matter of how we choose to move within that cell. If we try to pretend that's not the case, or that it's not important, we can end up restricting ourselves further.
It's not that young artistes should submit to manipulation by tired know-nothings, or that The Beatles would have been better if they'd relied on Tin Pan Alley and the British showbiz tradition. It's just that this insistence on total self-sufficiency, which has become an orthodoxy in modern pop music, is nonsense.
The unspoken conventions of rock and roll, meant to protect and encourage self-expression, often stifle creativity, because they make it hard for unexpected things to happen. Anything that breaks those lines will generally be interesting at least – it's not manufacturing that's the enemy of ingenuity, it's dogma. Even when it's rooted in undying faith in your own “vision”.
Without the lessons learned and the connections made in their first six months, I don't think The Monkees would have become one of the strangest and most rewarding groups of the late 1960s – I don't think The Monkees would have become anything at all. Maybe we should understand that sometimes creation is about knowing what we should react against and what we shouldn't. Maybe we should accept that sometimes our untrammelled fancies aren't as worthwhile as we'd like, and mean no more to other people than the details of our dreams.
Maybe there really aren't that many auteurs in the world. Maybe we should stop pretending that there are.
Jarvis Cocker Blog BBC 6 Music
Jarvis Cocker Blog BBC 6 Music