March 1st, 2012
This photo is from what I think was the last ever photocall the Monkees did, on what I think was Davy Jones’ last visit to his hometown of Manchester. I was about three feet away at the time.
At the show that night, Davy Jones made a joke that he made every night of that tour – “I used to be a heartthrob, now I’m a coronary”.
What has any of this to do with the Mindless Ones, though? Why bring up a faded teen idol who hadn’t had a hit in forty years?
Well, firstly, why not? We’d been discussing the Monkees among ourselves a little, anyway — I’d been arguing that they were better than the Doors, and there’s a lot of Mindless love for the film and album Head — but even if we hadn’t, the influence of the Monkees on the stuff we all love should not be underestimated.
I remember talking to my Dad once about growing up in the 60s, and he said “there were only three things worth watching on TV — Doctor Who, Batman and The Monkees, and a bit later there was The Prisoner”
And that’s the context in which The Monkees has to be seen – it’s a US 1960s sitcom, with all that that entails, but it’s a remarkably self-aware one, working on the cusp of pop-art and psychedelia, and often with a SF or superheroic element:
People often talk about the Monkees as being a manufactured band, created to the formula of the Beatles. This is, of course, to totally misread the situation. If you were trying to replicate the success of the Beatles, and create teen idols, would *you* choose a curmudgeonly Christian Scientist country singer with huge sideburns, a banjo player with a great talent at physical comedy, and a flat-faced former child star who could sing wonderfully (who you put behind the drums)?
No, you wouldn’t, and that’s because the Monkees weren’t created as a band, but as a TV show – they were chosen for their abilities as comic actors rather than for their musicianship or purported similarities to the Beatles.
One person you would choose, though, is Davy Jones. A clean-cut non-threatening British boy, who’s starred in musical theatre for years already, has a Beatles haircut and pouting lips? You’d put him in your boy band all right.
Davy Jones himself used to say, when talking about the Beatles comparison, that John Lennon had told him “the Monkees are more like the Marx Brothers than the Beatles”, and that’s true. And if that’s the case, Davy, with his conventional good looks, his love of singing rather soppy love songs, his reputation as being the best of the bunch in real life, and his romantic lead style character, was Zeppo.
Which sounds like a knock, until you compare Animal Crackers or Horse Feathers or Duck Soup with A Night In Casablanca or Love Happy. A good straight man is worth his weight in gold. And Davy Jones was one of the best.
He was also an excellent singer, when he was allowed. Unfortunately, he was forced to sing outside his natural baritone range for much of the band’s career — something he resented later in life, and which made his vocals on many of the band’s records not up to what he was capable of. But just watch this.
That’s a live a capella performance by the Monkees which in itself should show just how talented a band they actually were. But watch Davy – he’s singing this very intricate, difficult part while picking at his nails. There’s no strain there, no effort, it’s just completely natural.
After their early hits, the band rebelled — Nesmith and Tork wanted to be musicians, not mime to records that someone else created, and Dolenz was happy to go along with them. Jones, on the other hand, was perfectly happy to continue singing the songs he was told to and saying the lines he was given. He had no ambition as a songwriter, unlike Nesmith, and saw The Monkees as just another job, rather than a band-as-gang as Tork seemed to see them.
So it’s all the more impressive that he *did* stick with his bandmates. He stayed with them through the increasingly strange, experimental, idiosyncratic music of their middle and later albums, when he could easily have gone off and had a solo career as a teen idol. He even created some pretty impressive music himself, like this hard rocker about being a teen idol who was about to go on the scrapheap (featuring great guitar from Neil Young):
He also stayed with his bandmates after the TV show had ended, appearing in two of the oddest things ever committed to film.
Head is a masterpiece. Co-written by Jack Nicholson (who also compiled the fantastic soundtrack album), and featuring Frank Zappa, Sonny Liston and Victor Mature, it bears a striking resemblance both to Zappa’s 200 Motels and to Monty Python’s Meaning Of Life, but with a greater thematic coherence and more satirical bite. It is, quite simply, one of the best films of its decade:
After that, the band made the even stranger 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee, which is equally appalingly terrible and astonishingly good, often at the same time. The closest description I can come up with is “imagine if someone wanted to make a musical adaptation of my book about Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers, but accidentally spent the entire budget on cameos by 50s rock legends that take up a couple of minutes total”. It touches on many, many of the things in Seven Soldiers (Eve and the apple, evolution, plastic copies of black entertainers, Frankenstein, fantasy, authorship) but does so in a completely half-arsed manner.
The band split up soon after that.
For much of his later life, Davy Jones was apparently resentful both of the way he was treated by the producers of the Monkees, and of what he saw as sabotage of the band’s career (he often said that rather than Head he thought the band should have made “something like Ghostbusters“). But whenever the Monkees reunited, they gave all the fans what they wanted, and that included those of us who liked the experimental, strange and bizarre work of the mid and late periods. And they did it fantastically well.
Watching them live (minus Nesmith) last year brought Jones’ talents into focus more for me. Dolenz was the lead singer, taking the vast majority of the vocals. Tork was the clown and multi-instrumentalist (playing guitar, keyboards, banjo and French horn during the show). But Jones was the frontman. All the lines were well-rehearsed ones he must have done a thousand times (you can hear some of his stage patter word-for-word on concert bootlegs from the eighties), but he said them all as if they were things that had just entered his head. He went through costume changes, did the dance routine from Daddy’s Song (the first YouTube video above) and did all those old showbiz things that are lost in modern rock and pop music, but which still work.
Davy Jones never wanted to be a pop star — he was really an actor, and only that by accident, when what he really wanted was to be a jockey. One gets the sense he never had any control at all over his career, being at the whim first of his managers, then of his bandmates, and latterly of a public who didn’t want him to do anything but stay 21 forever, bang a tambourine and sing his hits.
But whether he wanted to be a pop star or not, he became one, and he got on with the job and did it, and became one of the great pop stars of all time. I just hope he realised not just how popular the Monkees are, but how good they were.
If this isn’t enough about Davy Jones for you, and to tie it in somehow with comics, Gail Simone has written a nice appreciation of him and the band here, while Mark Evanier talks here about what turned out to be one of Jones’ very last public appearances (if not the last).
But I’ll leave you with Davy as the fans will always remember him, grabbing his man-boobs and offering them to us: