LOS ANGELES — Davy Jones, who died Wednesday of a heart attack at the age of 66, was, from 1965 and on and off for the rest of his life, a member of the Monkees, a pop group invented for a television show: “Davy, the little short English one,” as bandmate Mickey Dolenz described him in one episode of “The Monkees,” which ran from 1966 to 1968 on NBC.
Designed to channel the energy of the Beatles film “A Hard Day’s Night” into an American sitcom, it was at once a product of old-school show business and an emerging Hollywood counterculture, created by Bob Rafelson, who would direct “Five Easy Pieces,” “The King of Marvin Gardens” (and the revisionist Monkees movie, “Head,” co-written by Rafelson and Jack Nicholson) and Bert Schneider, who would produce those movies along with “Easy Rider” and “The Last Picture Show.” A human cartoon whose main attraction was the self-aware naturalism of its leads, the show was of two worlds, and, to a remarkable extent, successful in each.
The band was itself split between, as it were, the raw and the cooked.
Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork were Sunset Strip cowboys who came to the project as musicians looking for a break; Jones and Mickey Dolenz were actors. Dolenz had already starred in his own TV series, “Circus Boy,” and Jones had been in the business since the age of 11; he’d worked on British television before creating the role of the Artful Dodger in the musical “Oliver!” on the London stage. He coincidentally appeared with its Broadway cast on “The Ed Sullivan Show” the night the Beatles made their American television debut there, in February 1964.
When “The Monkees” went into pre-production, Jones was already signed to Screen Gems, the TV arm of Columbia Pictures, which produced the series, and recording for its record label, Colpix, a multimedia strategy that was not uncommon then and is standard practice now, in the post-Miley Cyrus world of tween television. Still, in the world the Beatles remade, it had become newly important for musicians to write the songs they sang, and to play the instruments on their records, and to be the people they seemed to say they were.
The question of whether the Monkees were a “real” band is a question — a false question, the history of pop repeatedly shows — that dogged them from the beginning; indeed, it was an issue between the group and their bosses, and within the group itself. (They came to actual blows at times over their meaning and direction; but such disunity is something they share with every band that ever was.) It has been enough to some to keep them out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and yet to the many more who watched their show, bought their records and, as late as last year, attended their concerts, it is entirely beside the point.
In Beatle terms, Jones was the Paul, the cute one, who sang the pretty melodies and let his music-hall roots show; he could dance, as well as sing. (“I Wanna Be Free,” “Daydream Believer,” “Valleri,” “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” and the Harry Nilsson-penned “Cuddly Toy” were among the songs on which he took the lead.) His Englishness, at a time when pop consciousness was dominated by the Fab Four — many young American musicians who would have considered themselves authentic to the core strove to sound as if they were just off the boat from the Britain — gave the Monkees a kind of Limey cred. That he was short — at five foot three, he had apprenticed as a jockey — just made him a more comfortable fit for the daydreams of the little girls who bought Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine and pasted his picture on their walls or in their scrapbooks; he was a pre-teen idol, and the series’ designated romantic lead. (If in Marx Brothers terms — the other great influence on “The Monkees” — this made him Zeppo, he also got his fair share of comedy to play.)
Still, becoming famous as a version of yourself is a hard legacy to escape. As a performer in subsequent years, Jones was often asked to play Jones: Once a Monkee, always a Monkee. Did this bother him? I don’t know. But when there was Monkee business to do, he always showed up smiling.
// Notes from the Road
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