Last summer, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Monkees as a band by counting down our top 50 Monkees songs. Now, we’re celebrating The Monkees TV show by profiling each and every episode — exactly 50 years after it first premiered.
Tonight’s episode: “The Monkees on Tour” (Season 1, Episode 32)
Air date: April 24, 1967
“We’d like to thank everybody for making it a wonderful stay. We’d like to thank the Rolling Stones for being a great group. We’d like to thank the Mamas and Papas for making it good. We’d like to thank Lovin’ Spoonful for making it happy. But most of all, we’d like to thank the Beatles for starting it all up for us.”
I’m starting with the very last line of the very last episode of the first Monkees season because, within it, Michael Nesmith identifies the inspiration for the project pretty much the first time on screen: the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. (We’ve come a long way from the pilot and throwing darts at a Beatles poster, folks.)
It’s especially interesting for two reasons: one, this mini-documentary style episode stands as a testament and even a clap back to those naysayers at the time who were up in arms over the Monkees masquerading as a real band, and by acknowledging that the Beatles “started it all up,” he’s giving credence to their “pre-Fab Four” moniker. Two, it’s probably the closest to a literal interpretation of A Hard Day’s Night the Monkees ever got.
The episode, produced, directed, and written by series co-creator Robert Rafelson was a bit of a risk. Rafelson shot the entire “day in the life of the Monkees on tour” concept with zero approval from the studio heads or NBC. At first watch, it seems a rogue departure from the usual antics and zany romps, but as we’ve seen over the last few episodes of the season, those tropes were wearing out their welcome.
Though the episode was panned by critics as self-congratulatory in nature, it’s become a fan favorite because it’s a breath of fresh air — and won its time slot when it premiered. (So it was up against reruns on both ABC and CBS. Nitpicking.)
“The Monkees on Tour” begins with a brief, kind of awkward introduction shot not in the Monkees’ pad, but bizarrely on set of the Stephens’ living room on Bewitched. Three out of four Monkees are sporting real beards under fake ones; the intro was shot around the time they recorded Headquarters.
That one fleeting scene is the only one filmed on studio-quality 35mm; the rest is 16mm, giving it that grainy, rock ‘n’ roll quality that filmmakers of today use filters and apps to capture. The structure of the episode is set up to give a sun-up-to-sun-down glimpse of a “typical” day on the Monkees’ tour.
Though many of the quips and clearly staged activities (we’ll talk about Davy and the swan in a moment), there are enough glimmers of what life as a Monkee must have been like at the height of their popularity to make it totally plausible.
The band lands via private jet in Phoenix, Arizona, and is greeted with Beatlemania-like fervor by scores of excited fans. Several man-on-the-street interviews reveal that many of the youngsters learned about their arrival at the last moment.
One young girl says, “Is this [for] the Monkees? I thought it was the Rolling Stones” while a man who falls squarely into the “grown-up” category is asked if he’s waiting for the group and responds, “No, I’m waiting for the elephants.” Don’t trust anyone over 30, amirite?
Cut to the next morning and a bunch of pre-packaged shenanigans that are actually quite fun, probably because they seem more authentic to the actors themselves than to the characters they played on TV. That’s the interesting thing about this episode; it’s less about the TV Monkees than about the real Micky, Davy, Mike, and Peter. There’s no indication that these four guys are going to stroll off the stage and waltz back into 1334 Beachwood awaiting their next mission.
We also get lots of time with the individual Monkees. Aside from a couple of scenes where they pile into the Monkeemobile, go horseback riding, or take over a radio station, the majority are filmed individually. And this is where that bizarre bit with Davy fighting a swan comes up. Maybe this was a typical occurrence of any day on the Monkees tour, but…
Later in the episode, when asked by Rafelson why he chased the swan, Davy responds that it “looked lonely.”
Meanwhile, Micky robotically signs autographs for a group of kids, poking fun at the automated nature of greeting hungry fans who just want signatures. During “The Girl I Knew Somewhere,” making its last appearance in first-run Monkees episodes here, he straps on roller skates and leads those same kids around the hotel grounds like the Pied Piper. Mike takes the Monkeemobile out for a spin to a department store, and Davy, in the spirit of good ol’ American fun, rips up the desert on a dirt bike.
Next, it’s off to KRUX-AM 1360 to “take over” Bob Shannon’s (aka, RJ Adams, who’d become one of LA’s top radio DJs in the ’70s and ’80s) show. A few of these on-air gags have now become infamous, including Nesmith’s “farm report” and his asking “the prettiest little 18-year-old-girl” about their main albatross: the accusation that they don’t play their own instruments (or “can’t carry a tune in a bucket”). Her answer? “You’re putting people on pretty good if you don’t.”
Interestingly, several of the bits that appeared on “The Monkees on Tour” were altered or cut from the broadcast entirely, including Mike’s question to the girl. Even the quote I started this piece with is slightly different from its televised version. The whole segment with the three Monkees on air is worth a listen for what’s not included on the show and, of course, for the killer playlist, featuring tunes by the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Four Tops.
After that, it’s showtime! Pandemonium erupts as the Monkees arrive at Phoenix’s Memorial Coliseum for their January 21, 1967, performance. The entire show was recorded, but footage from the group’s performance at the Cow Palace in San Francisco was probably also spliced in.
Again, Mike is back with a little nugget of wisdom: “Peter stated it real well. Your life when you go out on the road turns into an endless tunnel of just limousines and airplanes and hotel rooms. And all of a sudden there’s one brief period of light, and that’s when you walk out there on the stage, you know. And it all seems worthwhile.”
Sounds vaguely similar to Grandfather’s complaint in A Hard Day’s Night that, “So far, I’ve been in a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room,” doesn’t it? Just sayin’.
This particular episode features more Monkees songs than any other; the tracks were switched out in various rebroadcasts, but there were no less than 10 included. Even though the vocals were later overdubbed, it’s still almost impossible to hear parts of the songs, which keeps the entire thing more authentic to the spirit of Monkeemania. During the performances, watch for Bobby Hart on organ — his Candy Store Prophets served as the Monkees’ backing band.
Onstage, each Monkee has his own little introspective soliloquy interspersed with an individual number in the show. Peter shows his folk roots and banjo-playing prowess on “Cripple Creek” and extolls the virtue of finding a little quiet and a “little green”; Mike covers Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” and waxes about the elusive “someday”; Davy performs “I Wanna Be Free,” already becoming his signature, and talks of losing track of time; and Micky “James Brown” Dolenz brings down the house with “I Got a Woman” and discusses his love of architecture and building things. “Someday, I’d like to make something that’ll last,” he says. “Something important. Something I can say is my own.”
By the time “The Monkees on Tour” aired, the cast was already a few episodes deep into filming the series’ second season. It would be a complete departure from what we’ve seen so far with mixed results, but this out-of-the-box episode heralded in a new era for The Monkees and greased the wheels for what was to come in September.