This story is from the September 25th, 1986 issue of Rolling Stone.
The needle drops on an ancient phonograph and out crackles the familiar opening lines of the Monkees’ theme song: “Here we come, walkin’ down the street…” The Monkees are amiably snapping fingers and lip-syncing along to it, when the record hits a scratch. With comic looks of perplexity, they huddle at center stage. The solution? Peter Tork walks over and blasts the record player to smithereens with a huge stick of dynamite. When the smoke clears, the Monkees and their eight-member backup band break into “Last Train to Clarksville,” and this time they’re playing and singing for real.
“Clarksville” leads off what has become the hottest show of the summer. Touring for the first time in eighteen years, the Monkees are breaking records for ticket and merchandise sales around the country. Originally booked to play eleven weeks of summer concerts at theme parks and state fairs, the tour has been extended into the fall and has moved to larger, more prestigious venues. The Far East and Europe have been added to the schedule.
“Everybody is in shock over what’s going on with them,” says promoter Eric Hening, who is handling some of the dates on the Southern leg of the tour. In a soft concert season, the Monkees are a guaranteed sellout, with cities that don’t appear on their itinerary clamoring for concerts. At present, the Monkees have more records on the charts than any other act: four reissued albums and one anthology package, plus a newly recorded single, “That Was Then, This Is Now.” And the Monkees TV show, which originally ran from September 1966 to August 1968, is back in syndication.
The Monkees’ improbable success is turning into something more than just a summer rerun. Three of the original Monkees – Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork – have officially reunited, retaining David Fishof, who organized their reunion, as their manager. (Michael Nesmith, a reluctant Monkee even at the height of the group’s stardom, remains the lone holdout.) The Monkees are as surprised as anyone by their sudden revival. Nonetheless, they have their theories.
“The music’s come around after the disco and synthesizers of the Seventies,” says Dolenz. “Wharn!, ‘Manic Monday’ and ‘All I Need Is a Miracle’ are things we could have done. They don’t call it bubblegum anymore.”
“We weren’t the greatest musicians in the world,” admits Jones. “I mean, we played the national anthem and people from every country stood up. But we were good, we were fun.”
“They were the first video band,” notes Tom Freston, general manager of MTV, whose spring airing of the Monkees series helped to get the ball rolling. “We all made fun of their music back in the Sixties, but they’re classics.”
The story behind the return of Monkeemania in the mid-Eighties sounds as far-fetched as any of the cockeyed plots from the original TV shows. “No one’s even gonna want us,” Dolenz told Fishof when approached about a reunion. But Fishof persisted. By the time they consented, the Monkees found themselves being heavily promoted on two other fronts: MTV’s Monkee marathons and Rhino Records’ reissue of their entire back catalog. The June appearance of a Monkees greatest-hits package on Arista is just the latest wrinkle. Surprisingly, none of the parties involved – Fishof, MTV or the record companies – knew that any of the others had plans vis-à-vis the Monkees.
David Fishof, a thirty-year-old who made his fortune representing sports figures, had in recent years presented a series of Sixties-revival package tours. In early September, Fishof, urged on by various Monkees fan clubs, hatched the idea to reassemble the Monkees for a twentieth-anniversary tour. The Monkees had the most identifiable personalities and highest individual name recognition of any Sixties group but the Beatles. But more important, they still had fans. Fishof started his member-by-member crusade with Peter Tork, who was living in Manhattan. Tork, who’d recently advertised his services as a music and vocal coach for thirty dollars an hour in The Village Voice, initially turned Fishof down but accepted his invitation to watch one of his Happy Together shows from backstage before making a final decision. “God, we could do this too!” said Tork, half-convinced. Tork and Fishof went to England to press their case on Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones.
Dolenz was living in a fifteen-bedroom mansion in England and working as a successful TV and video director. Fishof found Jones, a former jockey, happily tending his horses and appearing in a production of Godspell in London. It took some tall talking and fourteen transatlantic trips on Fishof’s part, not to mention an avalanche of letters from Monkees fans, to persuade three dubious Monkees to team up for a summer tour. “I think I finally closed the deal the day before rehearsals,” says Fishof, laughing. Michael Nesmith, who was busy running his Pacific Arts Video company, couldn’t be persuaded to join in, but he sent a stuffed dummy of himself to the press conference at which Davy, Micky and Peter announced their reunion.
Last winter, while Fishof was busy convincing the recalcitrant Monkees to tour, the executives at MTV, headquartered one floor above him, were simultaneously mulling over how to present the fifty-eight Monkees episodes they had acquired from Columbia Pictures. The rock-video channel aired forty-five shows back-to-back one weekend in late February, ran two episodes a day in March, three a day in April and then repeated the weekend marathon in late June. “We’ve never received such a volume of mail,” said MTV’s Freston. “We were dumbfounded by the whole thing.”
At the same time, Rhino and Arista were giving the group’s records a second lease on life. One and a half years ago, Harold Bronson, a cofounder of the California-based reissue-oriented Rhino label, licensed rights to the Monkees’ nine original albums. The initial batch of reissues included lesser-known, post-TV-show albums. The label had intended to lead off with the first four Monkees albums but delayed their release until the original master tapes could be tracked down. The wait proved fortuitous: Rhino’s reissue of The Monkees, More of the Monkees, Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricom and Jones coincided with this summer’s tour and TV hoopla, and all four albums entered the charts simultaneously.
Meanwhile, back on the East Coast, Arista records began assembling a greatest-hits package. Arista staffers Roy Lott and Mitchell Cohen, unaware of any impending Monkees activity, began batting around a track lineup back in December. For them, it was a “weekend project,” a labor-of-love package to celebrate the band’s anniversary. By February, they’d learned that a reunion tour was in the making, and Lott asked Dolenz if he and the others would be interested in recording some new songs. Tork and Dolenz assented, and the two cut three new songs in mid-May with producer Michael Lloyd. Jones chose to pass on the project.
The finished album, Then & Now… The Best of the Monkees, comprises eleven old songs and the three new tracks. Already, “That Was Then, This is Now,” a cover of a song by the Sixties-influenced New York City band the Mosquitos, has bulleted into the Top Twenty, and the album has sold 600,000 copies. A new album for Arista, involving the three current Monkees, is tentatively in the works for next year, and even Nesmith may participate in a TV movie that’s on the drawing board. Dolenz, Jones and Tork are not involved with another project in the offing – a new series from Columbia Pictures Television based on the original Monkees TV show.
Miraculously, two decades after their creation, the Monkees are making people happy again – especially concert promoters. The Monkees’ hour-long show includes twenty-two songs and a goodly dose of their whimsical personalities. Micky is still the group’s resident maniac, stopping the show with his knee-dropping, speed-rapping, James Brown-style performance of “Goin’ Down.” Peter, the Monkees’ best musician, sings amusing novelties like “Auntie Grizelda.” And little Davy Jones still manages to melt the girls’ hearts, holding hands with swooning audience members while crooning “I Wanna Be Free.”
Just what is it about the Monkees that has hit such a resonant chord in 1986? The songs, written by such pop stalwarts as Boyce and Hart, Neil Diamond, Carole King and Harry Nilsson, hold up surprisingly well, as do the Monkees’ well-produced records. The TV shows were witty and well written, and precursors of today’s “video music.” Exposure has kept the Monkees’ name alive over the years. They now have a three-tiered following of original fans with a born-again interest in the Sixties; another audience that watched them in syndication in the Seventies; and that group’s younger siblings, whose route to Monkeemania was MTV.
There may be generations of unborn Monkees fans still to come. In the meantime, however, Harold Bronson of Rhino Records has the final word on their present-day success: “People are responding to those elements that were unique about the era that the Monkees embrace – the exuberance, the adventurousness, the artistry. All of those elements that are lacking today.”