Let It Be: Fiat Monkees & Golden Beatles
By Grant Williams
“And when the brokenhearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be.”
– Let It Be, The Beatles
“Oh, and our good times starts and end
Without dollar one to spend.
But how much, baby, do we really need?”
– Daydream Believer, The Monkees
“But today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light.
Today there is no black or white,
Only shades of gray.”
– Shades of Grey, The Monkees
“Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see.”
– Strawberry Fields Forever, The Beatles
Things That Make You Go Hmmm…
Madness!! Auditions. Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running Parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21. Want spirited Ben Frank’s types. Have courage to work. Must come down for interview.
On September 8-10, 1965, this ad appeared in the Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety, as two aspiring filmmakers, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, inspired by what was to become one of the best and most influential musical films of all time, set about trying to cast the leads in a television show about four crazy kids living the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that the protagonists in the aforementioned film had made so appealing to the masses.
That film was A Hard Day’s Night, its stars The Beatles, and the four young men (chosen from 437 applicants) who would be groomed to supplant them in Americans’ hearts and minds were Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Mike Nesmith. Together, these four part-time musicians and wannabe actors would become The Monkees; and Rafelson & Schneider’s plan was to make them bigger than even The Beatles could dream of being. Armed as they were with the power of television entering its golden age, they had the odds stacked in their favour — or so it seemed.
In 1965, the Beatles were the preeminent band in the world and at the very peak of their power. The time seemed right for a knock-off band that would enable its architects to live the high life and create untold riches out of thin air. After all, The Beatles were genuinely talented songwriters and musicians, and those were in limited supply, even in the 1960s. It was far easier to produce a band that didn’t have to rely on something tangible, such as talent, in order to be accepted by the public — as long as you could sell it to people by capitalizing on The Beatles’ success.
That band was to be The Monkees.
The premise was, in the words of Dolenz, to produce “a TV show about an imaginary band … that wanted to be The Beatles, [but] that was never successful”.
The Beatles were music’s gold standard; the Monkees would be a convenient fiat alternative.
Interestingly enough, given this week’s reference to The Beatles, the word fiat comes from the Latin fiat, meaning “let it be” (or “it shall be”; but, since Paul McCartney didn’t choose that as the title of his anthem to the assumption that everything will magically work out in the end, it’s not quite as convenient for the purposes of my ramblings).
How did the fiat alternative to John, Paul, George, and Ringo fare? Well, the answer is perhaps somewhat surprising.
Initially, The Pre-Fab Four, Mike, Davy, Peter, and Mickey (it just doesn’t have the same ring[o] to it, I’m afraid), were assiduously kept away from the musical instruments they were supposed to play when recording the songs that would, according to Rafelson & Schneider’s strategy, sell by the millions and make everybody rich — despite the fact that they were all reasonably accomplished musicians and, in the case of Nesmith and, latterly, Dolenz, capable of composing successful pop songs.
Jones was chosen to sing lead vocals (something that rankled with the rest of the band, who felt that Dolenz’s more distinctive voice was far more likely to set the band apart); Dolenz was picked as the drummer (even though Jones was far more accomplished in that role, but his diminutive stature meant he disappeared behind the high-hat cymbals); Nesmith took lead guitar (even though Dolenz was an accomplished guitarist but had never played drums before); and that left Tork, who picked up the bass (even though Nesmith was skilled in the playing of that instrument) and keyboards.
In short, an alternative to the most successful band of the day was created by parties interested in having a simpler, more lucrative alternative under their control. It was created and configured not with its long-term viability in mind but rather with appearances as the main driver, in the expectation that, even though the level of talent underpinning the band was hardly of the calibre of Lennon & McCartney, it would be enough — at least for a while.
And guess what? It was.
In August 1966, the Monkees’ debut single, “Last Train to Clarksville”, was released and Monkeemania was born. The group’s network TV show debuted a month later, in September 1966 (in the days when there were only a handful of channels to watch). It was designed to appeal to the teen audience enthralled with the lovable Brits, and so the band’s popularity was assured — despite the impracticalities of the project, which were highlighted very clearly in a review that ran in the Washington Post:
The series stars a fearsome foursome in the Monkees, a wholly manufactured singing group of attractive young men who come off as a combination of The Beatles, the Dead End Kids and the Marx Brothers. Critics will cry foul. Longhairs will demand, outraged, that they be removed from the air. But the kids will adore the Monkees …. unlike other rock ‘n’ roll groups, the boys had never performed together before. Indeed, they’d never even met …. they’ve been working to create their own sound.
In reality, the Monkees didn’t play their own instruments on their debut album (which led to enormous conflict between the band and their producers), but the popularity of “The Fiatles” was undiminished. Their “upbeat, young, happy, driving, pulsating sound” was all that mattered to both their creators and their audience. As long as the masses accepted The Monkees, the talent underpinning their success was of altogether secondary importance.
The following year, 1967, something rather extraordinary happened.
That year, The Beatles released a collection of songs in an album entitled Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — which would go on to be voted the number-one album of all time by Rolling Stone magazine (a position it retains to this day). Meanwhile, another popular rock combo of the day, The Rolling Stones, released two albums, Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request; Jimi Hendrix introduced the public to Are You Experienced?; and The Doors unveiled their eponymous debut album, featuring “Break on Through”, “The End”, and “Light My Fire”.
Well, guess what?
The number-one, top-selling album of 1967 was (drum roll, please):
Yes folks, More of The Monkees, featuring “When Love Comes Knockin’ (At Your Door)”, written by Carole Bayer Sager and Neil Sedaka; “Sometime in the Morning”, penned by Gerry Goffin and Carole King; “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”, by Boyce and Hart; and the instant classic “I’m A Believer” … hot off the pen of Neil Diamond.
Not only that, but if we let our eyes wander down the list of 1967’s best-selling albums, we find at number two The Monkees, which included “(Theme from) The Monkees” and “Last Train to Clarksville” — both of which were writen by Boyce and Hart.
Now, to be absolutely clear, I am not bagging the Monkees — I happen to love their music — but merely making the (somewhat labored) point that sometimes a fiat alternative to something backed with something a little more valuable, can have its day in the sun and even supplant its intrinsically more sound cousin for a brief period.
But ultimately, over time, something which is real will always be recognized by the masses as superior to something created for superficial purposes — particularly during times of crisis.
For those keeping score at home, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are second only to Bob Dylan’s 11 albums in the top 500, with 10 each, and the Beatles have 4 albums in the top 10 (including, of course, the number-one album of all-time in Sgt. Pepper).
The Monkees don’t appear in the top 500.