With the death of Michael Nesmith earlier this year, only Micky Dolenz remains from the lineup of the legendary 1960s pop group The Monkees. Revered and reviled in seemingly equal measure for decades, the Monkees were the first true guinea pigs as to whether audiences wanted authenticity with their culture. Organised by outside producers for a television show, the Monkees were never intended to be a real band.
But the members, Nesmith in particular, began to push for their right to record and produce their own material. Even though they eventually won that control, the lingering attitude that the Monkees were not a genuine band would surround their entire career. Many viewed them as a cheap knockoff of The Beatles, organised only to capitalise on current trends.
That’s harsh, but not inaccurate, especially in the Monkees initial form. Producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, along with music producer Don Kirshner, had no idea that their actors would rebel and want to take up the roles they were playing on television in real life. They just wanted four young men who would read their lines and do as they were told. Sure, the Monkees toured and were made up of four actors with real musical ability, but that was supposed to be the extent of it.
Time would eventually be good to the Monkees: a profitable oldies circuit sprang up as early as the late 1970s, and wherever ’60s nostalgia lurked, the members of the Monkees were always close behind. In the modern day, there has even been talk of fully rehabilitating the band’s legacy: celebrating their classic songs and push for autonomy with tribute albums, famous testimonials, and attempts to get them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The narrative that the Monkees didn’t play their own instruments at first has given way to an appreciation of what they did do; sing, perform and entertain.
That entertainment factor can be seen from the very start. As actors, all four Monkees had to do screen tests for their roles in the television show. Davy Jones didn’t need to audition, but Nesmith, Dolenz, and Peter Tork did, with all four having to do their final round in front of a camera. The personalities that would come to define the members are easily seen in the initial screen tests.
Nesmith is witty and slightly serious, seeming to take a bit of offence when the interviewer doesn’t believe his statement that he was in the US Air Force (he was, although he probably didn’t flip a plane as he claims in the clip). Dolenz initially appears with a few other hopefuls, but the attention is clearly on him alone. Charming and affable, Dolenz speaks at a mile a minute without ever coming off as hyper or overbearing.
Jones is wide-eyed and at ease, having clearly done a number of tests before. He talks about his initial desire to be a horse jockey, getting his appendix out, and even partakes in some impromptu physical comedy, all the while coming off like a seasoned pro. Tork seems nervous, likely leading to his casting as the knucklehead of the group, but he gets some great lines in during his interrogation. When asked why he wants to be a Monkee, he deadpans that it’s his “natural inheritance”, and when asked what’s the most money he ever made, he claims he earned scale once without missing a beat.
Nesmith, Dolenz, Jones, and Tork never appear altogether, but each appears in different configurations with the others. Even then, it’s clear who the standouts on screen are. Check out the screen tests for the Monkees TV series down below.