Hey Hey, Micky Dolenz Reflects on 50 Years of The Monkees

"We're the young generation, and we've got something to say." With that provocative, catchy invocation in the perpetually shimmery hit "(Theme From) The Monkees," four lads who were also "too busy singing to put anybody else down" captured the minds and hearts of millions of viewers and listeners when The Monkees TV show debuted in September 1966. And the synergistic connection between TV and music hasn't been the same since.

As an early golden anniversary celebration of sorts, the show and the band will be major topics during the kickoff of the "Peter Noone in Conversation With Micky Dolenz" series that commences with a three-appearance block beginning tomorrow, January 7, at The Space at Westbury in Westbury, New York, followed by Tarrytown Music Hall in Tarrytown, New York on January 8, and then Memorial Auditorium in Montclair, New Jersey on January 9. You can still buy tickets here for Westbury, here for Tarrytown, and here for Montclair.

“It’s going to be a fun conversation, but we won't be playing any music,” says Noone, 68, best known as the lead singer of British Invasion stalwarts Herman's Hermits ("Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter," "I'm Into Something Good"). “We spent a lot of time on tour over the years, so this ties it all together." Adds Dolenz, "It's an interesting concept. The way it was described to me by the producer was that it was a sort of Actor’s Studio with musicians. I was curious, and they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. And I love working with Peter. Up to now, it’s always been in concert, but we’ve worked together onstage a bit and ad-libbed a bit, and have a similar sense of humor."

Before heading east to sit down to jaw with Noone, Dolenz, 70, and I got on the phone to discuss The Monkees' ongoing impact, what he listens to at home, and the song he wrote whose name could not be said in England.

Mike Mettler: So here we are, Micky, sitting on the cusp of 50 years of The Monkees. Did you ever think you’d have a legacy like this when you first started?

Micky Dolenz: No, no, of course not. You never do. You never could. It’s impossible. You hope, and you do your best. You work hard and surround yourself with talented people, and you try to avoid some of the pitfalls and mistakes. I always describe The Monkees as the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. One of the producers said we caught lightning in a bottle. There is no formula. You can’t try it again and expect to get the same results. It doesn’t work.

But, you know, I’m really not the person to ask that question. I’m way too close to it. You should ask some of your readers what they think it is.

Mettler: I think a lot of people are now coming across the show and the music firsthand for the first time. It's something they’ve only heard about but not experienced, and they’re finding it interesting and entertaining.

Dolenz: Entertaining is always a good word to use. That was basically it. It was a TV show about a band that wanted to be The Beatles. And there are some subtleties — like on the television show, we were never successful. We always struggled. And that seemed to work — the struggle for success. All the kids who were out there in their living rooms and basements and garages were learning to play and wanting to be The Beatles, so they could identify with that. The struggle for success — I always felt that was important.

Mettler: It was a struggle every kid could relate to going through after picking up guitars and drumsticks.

Dolenz: Exactly, and that was very wise of the producers to make that part of the brief, and part of the sensibility of it. That was very smart.

And they’ve tried to do shows like The Monkees since then, but invariably, I’ve seen that they’re already successful and they’re all good-looking — and there’s nowhere to go.

Mettler: And now the series gets a 50th anniversary Blu-ray release in late January [The Monkees – Complete TV Series, on January 29]. Do you feel that in some way, that's a validation of what the show was ultimately all about?

Dolenz: From my point of view and perspective, it’s never gone away. I’ve toured solo and as one of The Monkees, and it’s always been incredibly successful. I didn’t pay attention to the criticism and critique back then, and I don’t now.

I love what I do, and I hope that I get an audience. And frankly, I don’t pay that much attention. Back then, when you’re that successful, it’s kind of like, you know — “So what? Who cares?” (laughs)

When you’re that successful and have that following and number of fans — I mean, we knew what we were doing. I can understand, looking back 50 years, that sort of thing wasn’t happening on television or in the record industry. There were very distinct industries, and they were very separate. Very seldom was there any crossover between primetime TV and pop or rock music. I mean, you had people appear on variety shows, of course, but to have that sort of dynamic where the radio stations, the record companies, and television come together — RCA, NBC, and Colgems Music, those were big players — it was the first time, really, that there was this consorted assault on the American consumer.

Mettler: You were that far ahead of your time, in a way.

Dolenz: It was a bit, I suppose; it was, yeah. I went to watch [and mentor on] American Idol a few times because of Nigel Lythgoe, and I remember what Simon Cowell said to me the first time I met him. He said, “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.” (chuckles)

Mettler: And wasn’t the first charting Monkees single one that you sang — “Last Train to Clarksville,” which charted in 1966? Not a bad start.

Dolenz: Yes, that was the first single, full stop. It came out a few weeks or a few months before the show. [The single was released August 1966; the show debuted September 1966.]

Mettler: How did it feel at the time to have such a huge single as everything was just getting underway?

Dolenz: Well, at the time, I was busy working and everything and wasn’t as familiar with the workings of the music industry side of the business — I’m an actor, and had been all my life. I was also a musician who played guitar — folk songs, and rock and roll. But I really wasn’t that familiar with the recording industry or the workings of radio stations. I was a fan; I didn’t know a lot about it.

In fact, Tommy Boyce [the songwriter of “Clarksville”] once told me, “You know you have four singles in the Top 20 in Cashbox?” I said, “What’s Cashbox?” (both laugh) I mean, I’m 20 years old, and I’m working. [Cashbox was a weekly music magazine somewhat akin to Billboard back in the day.]

And you know the whole Monkees story. I still view the whole thing as an entertainer/actor/musician, much in the way I approach musicals. And I’ve done a lot of musicals. In musical theater, you have the same approach and do it the same way — you sing and you act and you dance, and you do comedy.

So I’ve always approach the project like that, though I appreciate that a lot of people don’t understand that, and will preface questions with, “So what did the band do?” Of course, it wasn’t a band; it was a TV show about a band.

Mettler: Eventually, you guys did become a band once you got your working rhythm going, and even went on tour —

Dolenz: And that’s debatable — whether it ever really became a band. Mike [Nesmith] always used to say, when we went on tour, eventually: “It was like Pinocchio became a little boy.”

These days, of course, it’s not so unusual. You look at a television show like Glee — it’s a show about an imaginary glee club. But they go on the road, if I’m not mistaken. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen come along to the Monkee sensibility. The paradigm, if you will, would be something like Glee.

Mettler: What music do you personally enjoy listening to?

Dolenz: Well, you know, back in the ’60s, I’d listen to The Beatles, of course, but I’ve never been the kind of person to put the CD in the car and listen to it over and over. Right now, in the house while I’m talking to you, my wife and I have on Andrés Segovia — light classical in the background, because that was my first instrument. The first thing I learned to play was classical Spanish guitar. We’ll put that on in the morning, which is a very peaceful thing to have with your cup of coffee. And then in the afternoon, for martini time, we put on Frank Sinatra.

Mettler: Frank is the perfect soundtrack for that kind of afternoon. Is there one song in the Monkees canon after all these years that you still love singing?

Dolenz: Absolutely, and that’s a good question. All of those songs were so well written and so well done — by Boyce and Hart, Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, and Paul Williams — I mean, we had such a stable of writers. Phenomenal.

Personally, I like a lot of the stuff Carole King wrote for me, along with Gerry Goffin and her other partners. In fact, I did a CD a few years ago called King for a Day (2010). I love singing all of that stuff.

But “Pleasant Valley Sunday” — such a rocker. And a couple of things Carole wrote for the movie Head (1968), like “Sometime in the Morning,” the ballad I did.

Mettler: You also have the distinction of penning a #2 British single, as a matter of fact, that charted in mid-1967.

Dolenz: Yes, that was back in the Monkees days. It was a great experience.

Mettler: The song had a name that could not be mentioned on British radio back in those days.

Dolenz: (chuckles) Yes, it’s a funny story. The song was originally called “Randy Scouse Git.” I wrote the song when I was in England and visiting people like The Beatles. So it’s about my experience there and the people I met and the people I was with, and the girl who was going to become my wife then, Samantha.

I wrote the song, and I get back to the States. I got a phone call from a representative of the English record company, RCA, and they said, “They want to release your song as a single in England.” And I was like, “Wow! That is cool.” Then they said, “But you have to change the name.” And I said, “What??” They said, “You can’t use ‘Randy Scouse Git.’ ” And I said, “I don’t even know what it means, but I saw it on television on the BBC, on a show called Till Death Us Do Part — which, as you may know, was bought over here and became All in the Family.

Mettler: Yep, Norman Lear bought it, and changed it up.

Dolenz: Yep, exactly, he bought the change of format rights, and turned it into a hit show over here. So I said, “I saw it on the BBC, in the evening, on the television.” And they said, “No, sorry, you can’t do it; it’s rude.” Of course, you have to remember, this is 1967. So I said, “Well, what does it mean?” And the guy says, “A horny Liverpudlian putz.” (both laugh)

Mettler: OK, so maybe you couldn’t say that there after all.

Dolenz: (laughs) Right! So I laughed, and they said, “You have to come up with another title — an alternate title.” And I did, so in England, it’s known as “Alternate Title.” They said they need an alternate title, and I said OK. That’s the title: “Alternate Title.”

And I have the distinction as a songwriter in The Monkees — I mean, Mike [Nesmith] wrote some great stuff, Davy [Jones] wrote some stuff, and Peter [Tork] wrote the theme for the ending of the second season — but I’m the one who got a hit out of one them, so that’s kind of cool.

dommyluc's picture

I'm an old 50-year-old fart, and I seem to recall this startup band that had a minor effect on pop culture during the 1960s, although they couldn't come close to the lasting musical influence of The Monkees, or compete with the eternal musical talent of Mickey Dolenz.
They were called "The Beatles".