Much has been written about the Monkees over the years, but much of it has been ill-informed and based on rumor rather than fact. The biggest slight that has been repeatedly thrown at the band is that it isn’t really a band at all, just a group of actors plopped together for a TV show. It’s also often said that the guys could barely play at all.
As Peter Tork freely admitted onstage in Detroit Friday night, the Monkees were put together by big-wigs, fair enough. Maybe it’s also true that, initially, a couple of them only had rudimentary knowledge of their instruments. But, man, did they turn it around. Like many other pop bands, some of the Monkees' hits were written by outsiders. But the imaginary TV band really did bond, and they became a real band with real ups and downs. And they have songs by the barrel-full.
The most recent big downer was obviously the death of Davy Jones, arguably the most popular member of the band. Perversely, it kind of paved the way for the return of Mike Nesmith. In Detroit, the three men go out of their way to not mention Jones’ name, which leaves a slightly bitter taste. When Tork is speaking of the band’s beginnings, he says, “The three of us, and the dearly departed.” It seems very deliberate.
Speaking to us in a recent interview, Micky Dolenz said, “It was tough, especially when we did ‘Daydream Believer.’ Mike Nesmith actually came up with the wonderful idea of having the crowd sing it.” That idea must have been ditched, because the three band members take turns singing lines from the famous and beloved song in Detroit.
There are other minor complaints. There are three Monkees on stage, and seven other people. That’s ten in total. Sure, two of them are backing singers (one of which is Dolenz’s sister), but still, that’s five musicians in addition to Dolenz, Tork and Nesmith. Is that really necessary? Also, the band walks on stage to a recording of the “Theme From The Monkees”, but they don’t play it live at all. Is there a reason for this? When was the song dropped from the set? This writer just wanted to sing “We’re just trying to be friendly” at the top of his voice.
But all of that aside, the band put on a great show at the Fox, video clips and all. Opening with “Last Train to Clarksville (the debut single in ’66), the Monkees played a set that took in “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” “She,” “I’m a Believer,” an awesome Head segment that included “Can You Dig It,” and a closing “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” There were hits, albums cuts and a few obscure choices. The voices were strong and the musicianship tight (too many of them, but tight).
The Monkees 2014 is, as it always was, a production. Nesmith raises his eyes but can’t help but smile as Tork and Dolenz act goofy. It’s theater, and it’s kind of silly. Without Jones, there’s something missing, for sure. But taken at face value, these guys are doing a great job of performing some amazing songs. That’s really all you can ask for from them at this point.