Davy Jones, signifier of modernity

Paul Mason
Former economics editor, Newsnight

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionJones was the only English member of The Monkees

There was an immediate buzz in the world of seven-year-old boys when The Monkees first aired in the UK. We knew about, and could sing, The Beatles. We knew about, but had not a clue as to the significance of, the Rolling Stones.

I personally do not remember seeing the film Help! or A Hard Day's Night until I was in my teens - but we could intuit that the series was a general reference to "that thing", whatever it was, that was going on in the outside world.

What was "that thing"? Well if you look at any single shot from The Monkees TV series you will see it. Long hair, kaftan-weirdness, a cool, laconic disdain for authority, spending power; the ubiquity of the picked electric guitar; surf culture. Not hugely hidden beneath the surface were soft drugs and anti-establishment messages, as exemplified by the series' first ever Radio Times entry:

"What do The Monkees want? To be free... to make every day Saturday night, to climb impossible mountains, to take a trolley car to the moon, to deflate stuffed shirts."

The Monkees were, of course, a studio-created Beatles-wannabe band and the TV series a straight American lift from "Help!". But for a time in my childhood they loomed larger than the real thing.

This is because a) their music was actually good, especially the hit singles written by, for example, serious pop giants like Neil Diamond and folksinger John Stewart; b) they were American. And while, in the films of the Beatles they are relentlessly trying to be Scouse lower-middle class boys, in the songs The Beatles were trying to sound American, as everybody did.

And so The Monkees had a weird advantage of seeming like "the real thing", even though the slickness of the production values told you they were not.

Another thing about The Monkees worth noting, as cultural commentary, is that the production values of the TV show were genuinely ground-breaking: it repeatedly broke the fourth wall; it used genuine out-takes from the screen-tests; it was effectively a "human cartoon" in its action sequences.

It used the same kind of cinematography you would see used in wacky, semi-surreal European movies: jump cuts, speedups, crash zooms. It was, in the era of uber-toxic pink bubblegum, a kind of visual equivalent.

And The Monkees were unleashed on unwary British pre-teen audience at the precise moment that reality would also bombard us with unsettling images of radicalisation, war, craziness.

Not long after the series started, in early 1967, I think I must have seen my first kaftan in Leigh, Lancashire, worn by a very endearing young woman on the wrong side of puberty to myself: because of The Monkees I was not shocked by this.

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe Monkees: Signifiers of modernity

George Best was, at that time, in the middle of that glorious season 1966-7 that would see his hair lengthen and his stubble darken. George slipping past the entire Benfica defence, The Monkees, the kaftan girl, the My Lai massacre, Manfred Mann (I can still hear the lyrics of "My Name Is Jack and I Live In the Back of the Greta Garbo Home For Wayward Boys and Girls" every time I close my eyes and think of summer holidays in Cornwall)… all these were what we would now call "signifiers" of modernity.

Just as the Kray Twins, Enoch Powell and the "tired and emotional" Foreign Secretary George Brown were symbols of pre-modernity.

And of all the signifiers of modernity, Davy Jones signified most. He was the English kid who ended up in America, perched on the bonnet of the Monkeemobile next to its stupidly large chrome engine block, peering at us through his fringe; the Artful Dodger transported to the land of Marvel Comics and bubblegum, oblivious to My Lai, Altamont, the Watts Riots and the impending breakup of the actual Beatles themselves.

When we look back at the 60s now we do so through anachronisms provided to us through mass culture: even serious treatments like the surf film Big Wednesday or the Brit social drama Our Friends In the North tend to project back on the "innocent" phase, the inevitable disillusion that was to come.

What's remarkable about The Monkees TV series is that it captured the innocence and exuberance in fine detail. If you watch just one episode of it, on the occasion of Davy Jones' untimely death aged 66, you will feel just a bit of what it was like before it all went wrong.

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