Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Why Peter Tork is happy to keep monkeying around

Original Monkee Peter Tork talks to Russell Baillie about surviving the television-invented band and bringing it back with a reunion album and tour.
Original Monkee members Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz will tour NZ in November.
Original Monkee members Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz will tour NZ in November.

With a geezer-ish huskiness to his voice, Peter Tork now sounds, well, old enough to be a Monkee's uncle. Or maybe his granddad.

He's 74. The band's multi-instrumentalist and onetime resident goof is spending the year celebrating the 50th anniversary of the group that was invented for American television in 1964.

That revival includes a new album and touring, which brings Tork, fellow Monkee Micky Dolenz and a backing band to New Zealand this month.

"It is mind-boggling. I'm all agog. I didn't think I was going to live to be 50, much less celebrate the 50th anniversary of some fly-by-night explosive but temporary pop phenomenon - which is what everyone figured we were going to be.

"I mean people from other TV shows get to go to those autograph shows and I see them all the time. But they are not performing any more. They don't draw crowds like we do.

It is actually stunning."

As a television show, The Monkees lasted for 58 episodes over two seasons originally broadcast in the US between late 1966 and early 1968 before heading into perpetual reruns around the world.

Peter Tork says he has no regrets about life as a Monkee.
Peter Tork says he has no regrets about life as a Monkee.

As a band, they released nine albums between 1966 and their split in 1970/71. They were the US television answer to the Beatles - especially the wisecracking screen stars the Fab Four became in movies A Hard Day's Night and Help!

Buoyed by the show, the Monkees became the biggest-selling group in the world in 1967 all the while being dismissed as fakes - "the prefab four" - for not writing or playing on the songs.

As the show finished, the group carried on, playing live, writing and recording their own songs. They appeared in their own nonsensical psychedelic movie, Head, which was the antithesis of the zany sitcom.

Tork quit in 1969 and by 1971 the Monkees had run their course.

Mike Nesmith had a solo hit with Rio in 1977 before becoming a successful music video and film producer through the 80s.

Dolenz headed back into acting with a sideline in cartoon voiceovers and eventually became a television director. Jones went into a life of solo touring, stage musicals and horse-racing.

Tork struggled to establish himself as a solo artist, spent three months in prison for hashish possession, taught for a while before heading back east to New York to become a gigging musician, just as he had been before auditioning for the show.

"That was a lot of fun. Pick up a couple of guys and go do a show and come home with a little cash in my jeans and pay the rent and buy the groceries. That part was lovely. Nobody was saying: 'hey kid, you are going to be a star, come here and sign on the dotted line'."

When it all began, Tork was the lovable dork in a show which might have seemed like a Hollywood cash-in by its young producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider on the Beatles-led upheaval in American pop culture.

But Tork thinks the show itself hasn't been given its due.

"The thing that is least understood is the great contribution of The Monkees to pop culture besides just being a carry-on of the Beatles phenomenon.

"On the TV show we were the only situation comedy ever to that point and for decades afterwards featuring young adults with no senior adult figure.

"And that reflected the time in my world, and I am sure to some extent Downunder, when the people in charge were more interested in prosecuting their wars for the sake of their egos than they were in taking care of people in this country.

"It reflected the times ... the underlying story was: We can get by anyway with cheer and confidence. We don't need Daddy to be right. I think that was an enormous contribution.

"Here's the difference between The Monkees and any other project like The Monkees - the producers were not interested in standing back and doing something that they fabricated for people they thought might enjoy it. These guys wanted to be part of this. They were Beatles fans. They loved the 60s spirit."

The Monkees are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year.
The Monkees are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year.

But it was those songs that helped the Monkees endure through the decades.

Tork still enjoys getting up to play songs like Last Train to Clarksville, Steppin' Stone, I'm A Believer, and Pleasant Valley Sunday. Even if it's only him and Dolenz left and the show uses a recording of Jones' lead vocal on the likes of Daydream Believer.

"With just the two of us we manage to cover the ground. We invoke David and Michael we sing their songs and we even have Davy singing on tape with us playing live to his singing. That works out rather well."

Plus there are some new tunes. Tork's favourite new one is She Makes Me Laugh written by Cuomo of Weezer fame who says in the liner notes he felt a personal connection to the band because he went to the same small New England high school, E.O. Smith in Mansfield Connecticut, that Tork attended.

Cuomo: "It gave me the feeling that if an E.O. Smith kid made it to the top once, it can happen again. So let that be an inspiration to you E.O. Smith kids now, maybe 30 years into the future you'll be writing a song for a new Weezer album."

Yes, Tork knows most will be heading along to see them for the golden oldies and that's okay with him.

After all, the Monkees were only really a group in the eyes of the fans.

"This is not a band," Tork, told the Daily Telegraph recently. "It's an entertainment operation whose function is Monkee music. It took me a while to get to grips with that, but what great music it turned out to be!

"And what a wild and wonderful trip it has taken us on."

LOWDOWN:
Who: Peter Tork
What: The Monkees
When and where: Isaac Theatre Christchurch, November 29, ASB Theatre, Auckland November 30
Plus: The Monkees screens on JONES! weeknights, 6.30pm
Also: New album Good Times! Is out now.

- NZ Herald

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