MIKE NESMITH of THE
WHAT'S the right way to address someone
who's as famous as John Lennon or Mick Jagger? Do you picture
a tall, thoughtful yet endearingly goofy guy with a bobble hat
and plump for "Mike"? Or should you set aside everything
you learnt during childhood about the serious one from The Monkees
and call the man who inherited the Tippex millions and inadvertently
invented MTV when he sold the rights of the pop video to Warner
Brothers, "Michael"? It's a toughie, alright.
The question, in the end, boils down to the conundrum that lay
at the heart of The Monkees: whether you ascribe more importance
to fact or fiction. The Monkees, remember, were never a real
group. Mike Nesmith, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Mickey Dolenz
were actors starring in a show about an out of work rock'n'roll
band, but the fictional creation was so engaging that a month
after the show was initially aired in September 1966, The Monkees
had their first, bona fide, US number one with "Last Train
To Clarksville". Paradox, ahoy!
After that, things spiralled wildly out of control as the line
between reality and fantasy became even more blurred. By Christmas
1966, the foursome had started playing live and penning original
songs, but the big news with the press in 1967 was their admission
that they didn't actually play on any of their early records.
Unsure whether fact or fiction was in the right in this case,
the media plumped for outrage, making the fans question their
love for a made-up band. To which the Monkees replied in 1968
with the psychedelic film, "Head".
"I think 'Head' was successful, artistically, and it was
rated very high by our peers and the film industry. Still is,"
says Michael, on the phone from his Texas home. "The only
mistake is to ascribe it to a drug culture. The film was tackling
the blurred line between fact and fiction. The fictional band,
The Monkees, which never existed, it was just a construct of
a TV show, was coming to life and the machine couldn't handle
it and kept trying to put it back in the box.
"The powers that were, specifically [publisher] Don Kirshner,
didn't know what to think when I said we might as well play since
we can. He said, 'You can't play pop music. Nobody's going to
listen to your songs', and we said, 'No. The times they have-a-changed'.
So the movie brought that forward and in doing that, we alienated
a lot of people. There's a scene where we go to a commissary
and it clears out and it's obvious everyone hates us because
we didn't play the game."
Despite the presence of Jack Nicholson as co-writer, the film
was a critical and commercial flop, but it has much to recommend
it. The trademark zany Monkees humour is intercut with sardonic
touches and harsh satirical undertones and one particular moment
of nastiness - Davy telling someone he's wants to forget them
just the way they are - points to the darker Monkees of "Alternate
"I think you're off in the wrong direction there,"
counters Nesmith. "Remember, the man was abusing David and
the line that preceded it was, 'Well, if it isn't God's gift
to the twelve year olds'. That's a full-on insult and I can assure
you it was the sort of insult that was levelled continually,
so David wasn't being mean or dark, he was just taking care of
himself. We encountered that much more aggressively in Britain
than anywhere else. The old establishment was going, 'Why don't
you cut your hair', and 'Alternate Title' was a rail against
Did you encounter a lot of tabloid hostility in the sixties?
"Oh yeah. The hostility from the tabloids has been continual
and unmitigated since the beginning. Somebody got it into their
head that The Monkees weren't a real band and somehow this was
wrong. I always stare at them dumbfounded. Like, 'That's right!
You now have the point of departure that everyone who enjoys
The Monkees understands'. It was not a real band, it was us playing
and having a good time as not a real band. What it is is real
Do you think the original TV series captured the spirit of the
"It certainly did of television. I was talking to a journalist
and he came to the series in its re-runs and he said what made
it work for him was the child-like logic. It gave voice to his
ten-year-old sensibilities, which was how old he was when he
first saw it, and there was an understanding of life and the
way things worked that had more to do with his pre-pubescent
sensibilities than the sixties. It was independent of the times
and I think that's one of the reasons it's hung on for thirty
years and why people keep coming back to it. Because every ten
year old that stumbles into it, feels like they've stumbled into
Not long after the release of "Head", The Monkees made
a TV special called "33 1/2 Revolutions Per Monkee",
which took some of the ideas of blurred reality and working within
a machine and diluted them to the point of impotence.
"'33 1/2' was just a dreadful piece," groans Michael.
"It was not good television, we were very ill-used and the
Monkees phenomenon wasn't understood. That's why when I wrote
this year's TV special, I was thinking, 'What's the best way
into this?'. And it dawned on me, the way to have the best time
is to take the position that The Monkees never went off the air.
It's 30 years later, here are these guys, in their fifties, living
in a beach house and what is it exactly they do? And so it was
a very funny point of departure and I made the point that The
Monkees are just television rather than a product of corporate
Nesmith's also working on a full length feature and has freely
admitted that he only joined the recent reunion tour to promote
the film. So what's it about?
"It involves the tabloid press and, again, it has a lot
to do with the sensibilities that were in 'Head', which is the
difference between fact and fiction. We have a tabloid magazine
in the US called 'The Weekly World News' and it's by some of
the brightest, funniest guys writing in journalism and there's
not one word of truth in it. They make it all up, entirely, top
to bottom. It's the magazine that says aliens are in congress
and we've hooked up creatively with these guys and come up with
a notion for encountering that dynamic in the film."
Mention of the media prompts Michael to start talking about the
emergence of the Internet - he has his own website at videoranch.com
- and the changing face of information technology. He's clearly
plugged into trends and developments, so does he think that The
Monkees helped pave the way for the boy (and girl) bands of the
Nineties by legitimising the concept of the manufactured group?
"You're asking me for cause-effect here and I can't really
give it to you," he muses. "It certainly dawned on
somebody that it's perfectly legitimate to assemble a rock'n'roll
group. And that the notion that it had to be organic or somehow
come out of lightning striking pond scum was ridiculous."
Are you aware of The Spice Girls?
"Yeah. Years ago, when I invented MTV, I kept my hand in
and watched it and they really fit that MTV model. I like looking
at them. . .from that standpoint. It seems to me they're doing
it exactly right. I'm not a big fan of theirs because it's not
the sort of music I'm interested in. But I do like the way they've
positioned themselves as characters. Do I see any parallels with
The Monkees? Not really, because the Monkees records were artifacts
of the TV show, whereas The Spice Girls are a recording and video
phenomenon. It'll be interesting to see how their film goes.
They'll have as much trouble with that as we had making 'Head'".
Michael's made his reasons for touring very clear, but he must
have still been touched by the elated response of the fans on
their March tour. Seeing a packed Wembley Arena freak out to
"Listen To The Band" was certainly a thrill for me.
"I had mixed feeling about it. I enjoyed seeing the fans.
We came because of a mandate from the fans and that was satisfying.
But I prefer to play songs I've written in a different environment,
so playing all those other songs was not as fulfilling to me
as it can be when I stand there with a guitar and sing my songs.
But I looked forward every night to 'Listen To The Band'. One,
I wrote it, so I'm able to convey something through the song,
and two, it's fun playing with Mickey and Peter and the ensemble
with us that gave it all that horsepower."
Is "Listen To The Band" the Monkees song you're most
"That's a good way to say it. We were off the air and it
was right at the end of everything when I delivered that record
and everyone said, 'No, that is not a Monkees song. This won't
work'. But, much to my satisfaction, it's proved to be one of
our most enduring songs. I think I was able to get everything
I wanted to say about the Monkees into it. And I love the way
the music recurs, the way it rolls around on itself again so
it can be played over and over and over."
What did you want to express with the song?
"Well, it says, 'Plays a song and no-one listens'. That's
the phrase that really says it and it's able to crystallise,
still, everything I was feeling at that time. It's 'He plays
a song and no-one listens, I need help, I'm falling again'. It's
the feeling of falling backwards into this thing of nobody getting
it. But it's also, "Play the drums a little bit louder,
tell me I can live without her', so the only thing that's going
to give me comfort here is what I'm doing. It takes the spirit
of the idea and really conveys it and that's what makes me the
most proud. I'd love to hear someone cover that song. I don't
know who could."
Whoever it was, they'd need - like Evan Dando had when he covered
"Different Drum", which Michael says he's yet to hear
- an understanding that reality and fantasy can often become
blurred and that the interesting territory is right in the centre
of the two. Talking of which, during the epic version of "Listen
To The Band" that closes "33 1/2", there's a moment
where it strips back to percussion and weird noises and it is
techno. Blimey. . .looks like Michael invented that as well!
"Ha ha ha! I suppose you're right. What do I think of techno?
I like it. One of the things I'm working on right now is latin-country.
The thing that's kept me from just completely falling into the
country and western bag is you can't really dance to it. You
can line dance, but to jump and around have a good time, you
need something that's kicking you along. And nothing does that,
for me, like some of the early latin rhythms. So from that standpoint,
I like the techno music and I like the hip hop music and I especially
like the beat of rap music. It's just unfortunate that it tends
not to be representative of too much."
Well, who'd have guessed it? Looks like you can take the boy
away from the bobble hat but you can never take the bobble hat
away from the boy.
THE NESMITH FILES
Four weird facts about the serious Monkee
* Michael's mother invented Tippex and
he sold the rights for a cool $28 million in 1989
* Nesmith was nominated for a Grammy award for his last solo
* Michael accidentally invented the pop video when he recorded
a short film for his song, "Rio". He later sold the
patent for "pop clips" to Warners for a pot of cash
and - viola! - MTV was born.
* Nesmith has released over thirteen solo albums, slightly more
than The Monkees achieved. His most famous solo song, "Different
Drum" was covered by The Lemonheads in what many consider
to be their finest moment.
© Ian Watson, first published in Melody