Arguments over whether or not The Monkees were a “real” band have pretty much died down by this point, with most retrospective commentators praising the group as a set of talented, ambitious musicians who transcended their artificial roots to become a legitimate act. Tired of being condescended to, Monkees fans have done a lot over the years to highlight facts about song authorship and instrumental proficiency in the group and elevate the band’s reputation above the TV novelty act that it was believed to be for most of its six year run.
On the one hand, it’s nice to see The Monkees being given due credit for their musicianship; certainly the group was much more than a prefab cartoon, and however facile some of their songs seem now, their string of classic hits (“Daydream Believer”, “Valleri”, “I’m A Believer”) continues to resonate as some of the best work to come out of the late 60’s. But I contend that ignoring the inherent artificiality of the band dilutes a lot of what made them so weird, and clouds the interesting motivations that led to their studio experimentation (the bulk of which was, if you haven’t guessed, electronic).
For the non-fans of the band, a quick history: The Monkees were originally assembled in 1965 from a mix of musicians (Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith) and musician/actors (Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones) to be a part of a TV show about the misadventures of a struggling rock-band in the style of A Hard Day’s Night. Much of their early work was written by professional songwriters and performed by studio musicians, but as time went by, the band became increasingly fixated on creative autonomy and engaged in frequent struggles with their management to become a “real group”. A slew of critically regarded (now) albums including Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones Ltd. were produced by the band once they were granted semi-independence, but the internally controlled version of The Monkees was short-lived, and the band split in the early 70’s.
Critical respect was hard to come by for the group during their heyday (Jimi Hendrix, who once actually opened for them, described their work as “dishwater”), but The Monkees were a formidable commercial force: according to Rolling Stone the band actually managed to outsell the Beatles in 1967. What people now laud the band for is how they gambled with their fame and success in the name of artistic integrity, first by becoming an independent entity and next by introducing the world to some strange, and groundbreaking music. Their willingness to experiment artistically combined with their worldwide popularity helped shape the modern music landscape on an impressive scale.
For the electronic music connoisseur, the primary innovation of interest within the Monkees was their use of the Moog synthesizer on several of their songs in 1967. Though not technically the first group to use the instrument, The Monkees were decidedly the most popular outfit to explore it, and as such, were largely responsible for turning the world onto the novel, alien sounds of the groundbreaking machine.
The two synth-heavy songs of interest are “Daily Nightly” and “Star Collector”, both off The Monkees’ fourth album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones Ltd. “Daily Nightly” in particular demonstrates an impressive aesthetic understanding of the instrument; the Moog is used to its full potential as a generator of wild, atmospheric space-sounds, the perfect psychedelic coloring for a song with lines like “darkened, rolling figures move through prisms of no color”. Electronics had been used before in pop-rock music, but the electronic flourishes of groups like The Beatles were still produced by tape manipulation, not actual synthesizers. As such, the electro-rock of The Monkees was pure space in comparison to what had come before, totally untainted by any trace of organic noise. Post Pisces, the Moog would be everywhere and the synthesizer would take its place at the heart of pop music, usurping the electric guitar as the dominant emblem of sonic innovation. Without the early forward-thinking of The Monkees and their ushering of synthetic sounds into the mainstream, the astral textures of prog-rock and their eventual expansion into pure electronica might have been quite different.
Part of what makes The Monkees early relationship with synthesizers and electronic textures so interesting is that at the time of their most out-there work, they would have seemed like the least likely outfit to contribute to the greater evolution of music. Occasional critical intrigue aside, The Monkees weren’t seen as a legitimate act, damned as they were by their roots in television. “Serious” music fans saw The Monkees as the ultimate pop construction: borne of corporate cynicism for no greater purpose than making money. And in a sense, they were right, but right in the wrong way; The Monkees were fake, they weren’t “real musicians”, and that was made their music so great.
Micky Dolenz, the comic heart of the band, was the one who brought the Moog synthesizer to the studio (Dolenz was actually the third person to ever own one). Dolenz was ostensibly the “drummer”, but his lack of interest and proficiency in drumming led him to experiment with other instruments and musical avenues. His introduction to music through the fringes of constructed entertainment meant that staid technical rules were alien to him: genre-less and fueled more by the psychedelic anarchy of the times than by serious musicianship, Dolenz’s was the kind of open mind that naturally drifted towards the untried.
The Monkees as a unit functioned under such a spirit. Constrained as they were by corporate machinations, they were musically quite free, unchained to any specific sound. Considering that decades later, rock bands were still expressing an ethical aversion to electronics (in the mid-80’s, Charlie Benante of Anthrax claimed that using keyboards was “gay”), it’s impressive that The Monkees were able to be so explorative so early. Electronics have had a long journey to the center of pop music, and the most consistent obstacle preventing the EDM renaissance that we’re currently living in has been the idea that electronic music is “not real”. “Real” music is supposed to be played, not programmed, “real” music comes from simple tools, not machines, and “real” music is supposed to sound human, not alien. These clichés are durable, and persist even now. It’s a great display of poetic justice that it took an “unreal” band to bring “unreal” music into beautiful, bizarre reality. If there’s an unheralded band that truly helped instigate the shift in music from emphasizing formal technique to emphasizing textural experimentation, it’s these synthetic superstars.