So what if the Monkees didn't play on their first two albums? It
hasn't stopped their songs from becoming classic guitar-pop hits.
Time is the only true judge of authenticity
by Alan McGee
10 March 2009
On the occasions when I've let slip that I don't really mind the
Jonas Brothers, people tend to react with over-exaggerated shock and
horror. But if you think about it, they're just another example of
innocuous guitar pop. When discussing these manufactured bands the
concept of their authenticity looms like a dark shadow. But why
should some pop and rock stars be considered genuine and others
inauthentic, and what is the defining criteria? During Britney
Spears's Blackout era, the album, which dissected her breakdown to an
electro-pop soundtrack, was championed as an authentic classic. Even
the Guardian called it "brave" and "simmering". Yet, Blackout (and
the damning track Piece of Me) was never actually written by Britney.
Does a pop act have to willingly sabotage and then offer up their
career to the sacrificial altar to get the respect of the "real
police"? Would the Jonas Brothers be more interesting if they
renounced Christianity and joined a cult? What does it take to be
considered "4 real"?
For me, the only band able to combine pre-manufactured pop and
counterculture were the Monkees. Of course, they were the first group
to exploit television and have songs written for them by classic
Brill Building artists (Neil Diamond, Gerry Goffin and Carole King,
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Harry Nilsson, Tommy Boyce and Bobby
Hart, and Jeff Barry). Guided by Don Kirshner the band even won the
respect of significant musical peers, with John Lennon calling them
"America's answer to the Beatles". In essence, the Monkees were the
After the release of their second album, More of the Monkees, Michael
Nesmith, frustrated by the lack of control over his career, let the
bomb drop by revealing that the Monkees had not actually played on
any of their albums. Rock fans got their first taste of blood and the
band were held up for contempt and lambasted for presenting the 1960s
utopian dream for what it really was – pure cartoon culture.
Even though the Monkees wrote, produced, and played on subsequent
popular albums (Headquarters, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones
Ltd, and The Bird, the Bees and the Monkees) their lack of
authenticity hung over them until they sought cred in the rock world.
What followed ranks as one of the weirdest displays of self loathing
in the music world. A parodic anti-Monkees media campaign began with
the film Head, a humorous, psychedelic show written by Bob Rafelson
and Jack Nicholson witnessing the Monkees playing up to their
manufactured roots among a contemporary acid aesthetic backdrop.
Allegations of "fakeness" were even thrown at the band by their
producers, who played Electric Flag to them during a dispute stating
that "this was real music". Head saw the Monkees attempting to gain
recognition as valid countercultural heroes, but the now cult
classic, bombed on release and killed their career.
The self-sabotage didn't end there. Wanting to sever themselves from
their pop past, they starred in a TV special called 33 1/3
Revolutions Per Monkee. This was a desperate attempt to assuage their
almost Freudian guilt about being television's first pop stars. The
show was surreal car-crash television with the band, joined by Julie
Driscoll and Brian Auger, eagerly protesting their success, but only
highlighting the ridiculousness of wanting rock authenticity. The one
high-point was their noise version of Listen to the Band that
outweighed some terrible scenes: Davy Jones dressed as a toy, Mickey
Dolenz singing I'm a Believer out of key, and choreography in homage
to Pan's People.
Almost 40 years later the controversy of the Monkees continues, with
60s stalwart, Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine banning their
induction to the Rock'n'roll Hall of Fame. But so what if the Monkees
never played on their first two albums? It hasn't stopped their songs
from becoming classic guitar-pop hits. As time passes, the notion of
what was "real" in the 60s has faded and Steppin Stone, Last Train to
Clarksville, and Daydream Believer have entered the pop canon.
The notion of a band becoming popular through television and gaining
credibility is still an anathema today, with the lambasting of the
Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, X Factor and American Idol. What will it
take for the snobbish rock fan to respect such bands. Should they
seek out Ricardo Villalobos to produce their next album, or go on
tour with the Boredoms? What would it take for Radiohead to actually
want to meet Miley Cyrus? Hannah Montana recording a dubstep emo
opera? As the Monkees proved, the search for authenticity in pop is a
perilous road and the aftermath is sometimes great, sometimes
horrendous, with time being the only true judge of authenticity, and
hey if the Sex Pistols cover one of your hits, why bother worrying
about outdated notions of authenticity.