The Monkees didn't form; the band was made - in this case for an American TV show inspired by The Beatles' film A Hard Day's Night. "Madness!!" is what the 1965 audition notice promised, and the hundreds who turned out included future rock heroes Stephen Stills and Three Dog Night's Danny Hutton. But the show's producers ultimately chose two seasoned actors—Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz—and two musicians—Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith—to portray their madcap rock 'n' roll band struggling to make it big.
"We were a television show first and then became a rock group. I was an actor playing a musician," says Dolenz, who had never played drums before being handed a pair of sticks that his Monkees character would use. But Jones notes, "The music from the show was such a hit that eventually we had to get out there and be the group we were pretending to be."
Saying The Monkees were successful during 1966-1969 is a dramatic understatement. There were points during that time when, despite the ire of rock 'n' roll hipsters, the so-called pre-fab four outsold their Liverpudlian predecessors—who, by the way, were always gracious towards Dolenz, Jones, Nesmith, and Tork, and even hosted a particularly raucous party for the quartet when they played in England during 1967. And with top-shelf songwriters (Neil Diamond, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, Lieber & Stoller, Paul Williams, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart) delivering a string of hits such as "Last Train to Clarksville," "Pleasant Valley Sunday," "I'm a Believer," "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone," "Daydream Believer" and more, The Monkees were as dominant a presence as any other band at the time.
The TV show ended in 1968, and The Monkees were finished by 1970, following the trippily entertaining but commercially disastrous film Head, which was co-written with Jack Nicholson. But Monkeemania would not lie dormant. Fueled by MTV's embrace of the old TV episodes, Dolenz, Jones and Tork regrouped during 1986 and became the hottest ticket of the summer; they've continued to tour and occasionally record ever since. And Nesmith, who's largely demurred from the reunions to concentrate on his film and video work, did rejoin his mates during 1996 for an album, Justus, TV movie and British tour.
UK punk legends the Sex Pistols once covered "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone," and in 2000 the Neil Diamond-penned "I'm a Believer" was delivered by Smash Mouth for one of the year's biggest films, Shrek. And it will all go on, because it seems that audiences are still finding plenty of fun in the barrels full of Monkees music. "We get six-and eight-year-old kids and grandparents coming to our shows," Tork says. "We're proud of that range. We feel it's not nostalgia so much as its longevity." The payoff, Jones says, is the reaction. "There are so many hits, and when you sing them you can see how much they mean to people. That's a gift that you can never, ever take lightly, or for granted.''