Monkee Business

The Monkees were one of the most popular bands in the world, but weren’t
allowed to play on their own records–until they went on strike. Here’s the inside
story, from
Behind the Hits, by Bob Shannon and John Javna (out of print).

The Monkees in 1967. In one year they had leaped from semi–or total–obscurity to overnight superstardom. They had a hit TV series, two #1 singles (“Last Train to Clarksville,” and “I’m A Believer“), and two #1 albums (“The Monkees,” and “More of The Monkees“). The only problem was the Monkees weren’t allowed to play on their own records. Why not? Because Don Kirshner, the musical supervisor of The Monkees, said so. It was… well… embarassing. Here they were, pretending to be a real group, when in fact they had almost nothing to do with “their” music. Critics made fun of them. Even worse, teenyboppers idolized them for something they weren’t doing. And to add insult to injury, Kirshner made more money from their records than they did. They each got a 1.5% royalty, but Kirshner go 15%! They had their pride, after all.

Trouble had been brewing for some time between Kirshner and the group, particularly Mike Nesmith, who wasn’t even allowed to play guitar on the songs he wrote. That was Kirshner’s studio policy, The Monkees just sang vocals while studio musicians played on the tracks. But what the hell, Kirshner reasoned, he was getting results–hits–and that was his job. So what if Nesmith had to stand by and watch Glen Campbell put the guitar licks on his own song, “Mary Mary“? This was the only way management could be sure it was right. The bottom line was what counted, after all. Nesmith, a genuinely creative individual, just stewed.

“Essentially, the big collision I had with Don Kirshner was this,” said Nesmith; “he kept saying, ‘You can’t make the music; it would be no good, it won’t be a hit.’ And I was saying, ‘Hey, the music isn’t a hit because somebody wonderful is making it, the music is a hit because of the television show. So, at least let us put out music that is closer to our personas, closer to who we are artistically, so that we don’t have to walk around and have people throwing eggs at us,’ which they were.”

Eventually the feud came to a showdown in early ’67 at Kirshner’s suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Kirshner had just handed the four Monkees some new demos (including “Sugar, Sugar,” a bubblegum hit later for Kirshner’s Archies) that they would be putting vocals on. Nesmith stepped forward and demanded that musical control be given to The Monkees. When Kirshner refused, Nesmith angrily smashed his fist through the wall, declaring, “That could have been your face!” Then The Monkees went off to record some original material without Kirshner’s approval.

What happened next is a little unclear. While The Monkees were working out their own songs, Kirshner appears to have approached Davy Jones, one of the members of the group, and talking him into going into the studio without the rest of The Monkees. Jones put the vocals on several tunes, one of which was “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” But The Monkees weren’t doing the backing vocals. Who was it? Eric Lefcowitz, author of The Monkees Tale, speculates “Kirshner was quoted once as saying that Neil Diamond and Carole King had sung back-up vocals on some Monkees songs, and I think that if you listen closely to ‘A Little Bit Me,’ you can hear them. It sounds like Neil Diamond to me.” And why would Jones record without the rest of the group? “I don’t know, of course,” Lefcowitz says, “but Davy Jones hadn’t ever had the chance to sing lead before. This was his session. Maybe that had something to do with it.”

Maybe, maybe not. The important thing is that in a power play, Kirshner recorded and released “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” without even telling The Monkees he was doing it! That was the last straw. Monkees’ producers Bob Rafelson and Bart Schneider wanted hits, but they weren’t going to put up with that from anyone. They fired Kirshner, and yanked the single out of American record stores. Then they re-released it with a Monkees original–Nesmith’s “The Girl I Knew Somewhere“–on the B side. Finally The Monkees could smile. They were out from under Kirshner… and a song they’d actually played on made the Top 40–“The Girl I Knew Somewhere” reached #39 on the charts.



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