RIP Davy Jones, Monkee Extraordinaire

Wednesday, 29 February 2012 03:48 PM Written by 

Davy Jones, the British-born singer-actor who was frontman for the Monkees from the show's beginning in 1966 and continued in that role, died in Florida at age 66.  Initial reports indicate Jones suffered a heart attack at his ranch. He, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz had still toured as the Monkees on occasion, having no trouble attracting audiences who remembered them from their heyday in the late 1960's.  Of the four, Jones was without question the Justin Bieber of that time.

Huge amounts of mythology have always surrounded the Monkees and their origins, and the passage of time has often blurred the historic record about the band. Controversies over whether or not they played their instruments on their records dogged them for a long time in an era when "serious" rock was taking center stage due to the rise of visionary albums like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. This was a time when Bob Dylan was going full-tilt into folk-rock and the early music from San Francisco getting noticed across the country.

In that context, the Monkees seemed out of place: light, lovable and perfect for teen girls and As the band's tambourine-playing front man with British accent to boot, Jones was perfect for that role.  But at 21, he was already an experienced stage actor and vocalist.

Born in Britain in 1945, he started performing at age eleven, and in his teens became an experienced performer on the British musical stage and television before he ever got involved with rock.  He'd also trained as a jockey. He ended up in New York in the 60's, portraying the Artful Dodger in the musical Oliver and had a Tony Nomination to his credit. 

Jones already had a contract with Screen Gems when he auditioned for the TV show, conceived to expand on the visual-musical comedy of the Beatles' A Hard Days' Night and Help, The other three came from more varied backgrounds. The producers wanted  four actors, preferably with some musical background, to portray a Beatles-like rock band who faced various zany situations. 

He landed the role, playing a character named "Davy" (the others would use their own names  as well). Tork and Nesmith were experienced folk performers. Dolenz was an experienced actor who'd starred in his own late 50's TV dramatic series, Circus Boy and did a few rock records in the 60's.

The Monkees were first conceived as a TV sitcom,  not as a working rock band. That changed when the series, seen on NBC, caught fire, and Jones's youthful good looks and charm had a lot to do with that.  His ability to work with the other three and create a Marx Brothers style ensemble earned them far greater notice than anyone expected. Of the four, Jones had looks and demeanor to assure instant appeal to pre-teen girls who couldn't give a crap about the Grateful Dead or Dylan.

On their earliest records, they were backed by members of the iconic cadre of LA studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew.  This was no big deal. The Crew played on countless Beach Boys and Sonny and Cher hits along with other classics like the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man."  No one  said a word. 

But "serious" rock fans weren't satisfied. They assailed the Monkees for using studio players, mocking them as frauds, as a band who couldn't even play their own instruments.  The term the "Pre-Fab Four" was bandied about. That situation was exacerbated by the fact the studio players got no credit on the Monkees' recordings.  

In recent years Dolenz suggested--correctly, I think--that had the musicians been acknowledged on the albums, nothing would have been said.  Dolenz also made the often-forgotten point that  "We weren't a band. We were a TV show."

Their images were franchised everywhere.  Teen magazines like 16 and Tiger Beat regularly featured the band in general, and Jones in particular on their covers.  On tour, they played to sellout crowds even as the controversy continued. I was was around then. In fact, I was one of their detractors.

And I can say, hindsight being 20/20, that stigma was totally unfair, on my part and on the part of many others. The Monkees did precisely what they were supposed to do.  In 1967 they toured with a new band known as the Jimi Hendrix Experience as their opening act. That didn't last. the guitarist's s onstage bump and grind, not to mention his music, was a bit much for the teen girls who packed the audiences and they were booted off the tour.

On records, Jones, who was also a capable drummer, was prominent on some of the band' later recordings including "Daydream Believer." The group put together (with help from a then-obscure actor named Jack Nicholson), a 1968 movie called Head that not only spoofed themselves, but reflected the psychedelic era in full swing at the time, far hipper than anything on the TV series. The series itself ended that year. Tork departed in 1969; Nesmith followed in 1970 and the group itself was history by 1971.

His own career, however, was secure. Jones performed with songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who'd written some of the Monkees' biggest hits. He also appeared in various movies and TV sitcoms over the years both in person and doing voiceovers up to the present day.  He'd continued raising and racing horses as well.

The Monkees' reunion tours began in the mid-1980s as the band's music underwent both a revival and a reassessment. After 20 years, many saw their 60's material as what it was: innocent, well-crafted pop. The reunited band of Jones, Dolenz and Tork (Nesmith briefly rejoined them in 1996-97) made new recordings and played occasional sell-out tours with audiences heavy on baby boomers seeking touchstones of their youth, often bringing along their kids (or grandkids).

Jones, Dolenz and Tork persevered with these occasional reunion tours, but not always with total success. Ongoing conflicts between the threesome led to some tours being canceled part way through. That included the 45th Anniversary tour featuring Jones, Dolenz and Tork that took place last year. Conflicts arose and petered out before completion.

Many onetime teen idols wind up in bad places, some in jail, dead of substance abuse or doing reality shows detailing their struggles to regain equilibrium.  Perhaps because of over half a century of experience on London and Broadway stages, Davy Jones never suffered those personal demons. He deserves special standing as a teen idol who kept his hand in the game on his terms, and left behind music that for many, will define a very special time in their lives.




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