The music on our records has nothing to do with us. It’s totally dishonest. We don’t record our own music. Tell the world we’re synthetic because, dammit, we are! We want to play our own.” – Mike Nesmith, the Monkees (TV Guide, September 23, 1967)
The Beverly Hills Hotel (9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills) might seem an unlikely venue for rock & roll rebellion. The esteemed hotel opened in 1912, boasting 210 opulently appointed rooms and 23 private bungalows; it rests atop a storied history as a plush playground for Hollywood elite, royalty, and well-heeled clientele from around the globe.
But in January 1967, a battle brewing between the four Monkees – primarily represented and encouraged by the group’s Mike Nesmith – and their musical supervisor, Don Kirshner, came to a head in a $150-a-day bungalow.
Several months later TV Guide called it “The Great Revolt of ’67”. It was the first time the story was told, but it wouldn’t be the last. Kirshner, who died in 2011 was still talking about what happened as recently as 2007 in the liner notes to Rhino Records’ 40th anniversary deluxe compact disc reissue of Headquarters, the third Monkees album, and the first recorded without Kirshner’s guidance. Nesmith addressed the matter in his 2017 memoir Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff. Neither party disputed something happened in the bungalow, though they both saw the event through significantly different lenses.
The meeting ended with Mike Nesmith punching a hole in the wall.
On September 8, 1965, Tinseltown trade papers Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter first ran eye-catching ads proclaiming “MADNESS!!” seeking “4 insane boys, age 17-21,” specifically “Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers” and “spirited Ben Frank’s-types” for a new TV series. “Must come down for interview” wasn’t the only subtle nod to the prevalent drug culture: Ben Frank’s Coffee Shop (8585 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood) was a 24-hour diner popular with musicians like the Rolling Stones and the Buffalo Springfield in the mid-‘60s due to its insomnia-friendly hours and close proximity to several recording studios.
As it happened, Nesmith was the only eventual Monkee who actually saw the ad placed by Raybert Productions, formed by filmmakers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. Micky Dolenz, a former child actor hustling for parts, was told about the auditions by his agent; Davy Jones was already signed to Colpix Records, a subsidiary label of Columbia Pictures and Screen Gems, and was in the producers’ orbit; Peter Tork was reportedly hipped by fellow folkie Stephen Stills, who after not being cast for the TV show, found solace in musical fame and fortune with the Buffalo Springfield, and later, the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
The four Monkees were cast following exhaustive rounds of screen tests, both as individuals and in groups with the other finalists for the show. Screen tests were shown in early 1966 to audiences at the 400-seat Preview House (7655 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles), with reactions recorded through the use of “LIKE” and “DON’T LIKE” buttons; Jones received the most favorable ratings. Later, the pilot episode was screened a Preview House, first to an indifferent audience, and then – after a Raybert recut – a wildly enthusiastic one. The series was later sold to NBC.
The four young men cast as the Monkees were very different, even on the surface: Nesmith grew up in Texas, and after some measure of musical success in San Antonio, moved with his wife and young son to Los Angeles in the early ‘60s, playing folk clubs and selling songs to make a buck. Tork, originally from Connecticut, was a folk musician on the Bohemian end of the spectrum, cutting his teeth in coffee houses and nightclubs in New York City before heading west. Dolenz had the most Hollywood acting experience, the son of actors George Dolenz and Janelle Johnson, and starring himself in Circus Boy for two seasons from 1958-60. Jones, who had aspirations of becoming a professional jockey, grew up in Manchester, England; though he had television experience, Jones was most at home in the theater, appearing as the Artful Dodger with the Broadway cast of Oliver! on the same February 9, 1964 episode of The Ed Sullivan Show that broadcast the Beatles into millions of homes across the United States. Mike, Peter, Micky and Davy were cast as a fictional band, the Monkees, and were then at least partly tasked with selling themselves as an actual band, also called the Monkees. Over fifty years later, Dolenz – who learned how to play the drums for the series and the group’s live appearances – was still trying to clear things up by claiming they never really were a band at all.
“I was happy being cast into a show. Not the member of a band, but the member of a cast in a television show about a band,” Dolenz said in an April 2018 issue of British tabloid weekly Closer. “That’s a fine distinction, but an important one. I was playing the role of the wacky drummer, and part of that job was they’d say, ‘Okay, on Tuesday night you’re going to record a lead vocal for a couple of songs,’ or sometimes two or three songs in one night. I approached it as an entertainer, an actor, and a singer. That was my job…The Monkees was much more like the Marx Brothers than the Beatles. And if you get that — if that makes sense to you and you get your arms around that — then everything else makes sense.”
Dolenz has riffed on this concept for many years, and at first, before the series ever aired, it appeared all four Monkees were on board. Starting in March 1966, the Pre-Fab Four were given a five-week crash course on improv and acting on Stage #3 at the Columbia Studios (1438 N Gower St., Hollywood) lot. Near the tail end of the intensive training, the four Monkees found themselves in a small space at the studio meant to get them acclimated to, if not actually playing like a band then at least looking like they did on television. The quality of these early jam sessions varies depending upon who tells the story. But even before then, before Mike, Peter, Micky and Davy were the Monkees, Don Kirshner was in charge of the music.
“The Man With the Golden Ear,” as Kirshner was once dubbed by Time Magazine, brought in tunes from a stable of Brill Building songwriters like Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and hired the duo of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart to write and produce other numbers to both fill out the eponymous debut album and air on weekly episodes of the television series. Nesmith picked up a pair of writing credits on the album, producing and singing on both songs – “Papa Gene’s Blues” and “Sweet Young Thing,” the latter co-written with Goffin and King.
Already, the musicians in the Monkees – Mike and Peter – were bristling at what they and the hip cognoscenti perceived as the corporate corniness of the music, and the release of More of the Monkees in January 1967 did little to change their tune. The Monkees weren’t even aware of the existence of their sophomore album until someone spotted it on a shelf during a tour stop in Cleveland on January 15. The sickly green sleeve was meant to evoke the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, with the Monkees’ guitar-shaped logo a semi-psychedelic nod to the oozing liquid-style lettering popular at that time; the photo of the group shot from below was also close enough to the Fab Four for the label, never mind that it was taken from a session for JC Penney and failed to represent what the four Monkees actually wore. Further investigation revealed liner notes penned by Kirshner which credited the songwriters he’d assembled, and dropped in the four Monkees almost as an afterthought. Also suspect was the selection of songs, which to Nesmith – who sang lead on just one of the twelve songs – felt personal.
The Monkees launched the next salvo, with Nesmith quickly seeking and receiving support from Rafelson and Schneider to be given permission to record their own music. Two days after the Cleveland date, the group entered Studio A at RCA Recording Studios (6363 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood); with Chip Douglas of the Turtles producing, the Monkees – Nesmith on 12-string guitar, Tork on bass, Dolenz on drums and Jones on maracas – ran through “She’s So Far Out, She’s In” by Thomas Baker Knight a couple of times before moving on to what they believed would be both sides of their next single: Nesmith’s “The Girl I Knew Somewhere,” with Tork shifting to acoustic guitar, Jones to tambourine, and John London playing bass; and Bill Martin’s “All Of Your Toys,” which saw Tork switch to harpsichord. The following month, Nesmith, Tork and Dolenz – with London on bass – returned to the studio to add overdubs to “The Girl I Knew Somewhere,” also taking a crack at another Nesmith number, “Sunny Girlfriend,” which would later be recut for the Monkees’ third album, Headquarters.
On January 21, 1967, the Monkees played a date at Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, Arizona, while sessions booked by Kirshner to produce tracks for the group were underway in New York City, with producer Jeff Barry at the helm; the backing tracks were meant to be shipped across the country to have vocals added by various Monkees. These New York sessions would continue through the end of January and into February.
Later in the month, they visited Kirshner in his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where they rejected the musical supervisor’s proposal that they allow him to continue making the musical calls while they just sit back and get rich; also there, according to Kirshner, were members of his family; and, according to TV Guide, label exec Lester Sill and Colgems lawyer Herb Moelis, who during a tense moment reportedly produced a signed contract, claiming it gave Kirshner ultimate authority over the Monkees’ music. Nesmith wrote about the incident in his memoir, Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff (Crown Archetype, April 2017).
“Kirshner’s lieutenant made the sad mistake of waving the contract in front of the four of us, saying it required us to do as we were told by the corporation and threatening that if we didn’t go along with Kirshner, who was the corporate officer in charge of the music, we would be in breach of that contract and liable for all the damage we were causing; we would be sued for violating terms and acting in bad faith,” Nesmith wrote.
And that’s when he put his fist through the wall.
“I was very impressed, because I thought the Beverly Hills had pretty strong walls,” said Kirshner in the 2007 liner notes to the 40th anniversary expanded edition of the Monkees’ third album, Headquarters. “Mike hit the wall in front of my wife, Sheila, and my mother-in-law, Joyce, which is embarrassing. It’s like going to a graduation, a bar mitzvah, or a confirmation. You figure it’s the happiest day of your life, right? They’d at least shake my hand, right? So, that’s what I experienced, and that’s when I said to myself, ‘That’s the end for me. I’m gonna do a group that doesn’t talk back.’”
“It was an absurd moment in so many ways,” Nesmith wrote in Infinite Tuesday. “My integrity was in tatters quite independently of the Monkees contract, although not when it came to any of the issues before us in the meeting. I was right, they were wrong – I felt solid about that.”
Largely recorded in Studio C (with some tracks cut in Studios A and B) at RCA between late-February and mid-March 1967, the Monkees’ third album Headquarters was released that May. Produced by Douglas, Headquarters would prove to be the sole album featuring the Monkees themselves playing on every track, occasionally augmented by their producer on bass guitar.
Ultimately, neither Kirshner nor the Monkees got what they wanted. Kirshner was fired from the project, moving on the following year to a group that doesn’t talk back: The Archies, an assemblage of New York studio pros who beat Gorillaz to the cartoon band concept by over three decades.
Meanwhile, the Monkees would lean more heavily on studio musicians in the future. Headquarters was their third straight album to top the Billboard 200, but it was displaced a week later by the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; the albums would remain #1 and #2 on the chart for months. Headquarters went double platinum in the U.S., fewer than half the sales of each of the group’s first two albums.
Mike Katz and Crispin Kott are the authors of the Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to New York City (Globe Pequot Press, June 2018), with a foreword by Legs McNeil; and the Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area (Globe Pequot Press, May 2021), with a foreword by Joel Gion of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Both books have been hailed as essential travel guides to rock and cultural history.
Though the authors still haven’t committed to a third book, Kott recently put together a rough sample chapter about the Monkees for a possible Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to Los Angeles. If that book ever materializes, this will likely appear in it. If not, please enjoy this as a one-off tribute to the pre-Fab Four, who let’s face it, should be in the fucking Rock and Roll Hall of Fame already.
Mike Nesmith, R.I.P.