If there’s one thing Americans are good at, it’s reinventions. We reinvent ourselves, our politicians reinvent our history, and our pop culture is rife with examples of ideas turned inside out and created anew. The success of the Beatles movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help! inspired a couple of TV producers to create a series on the same template: photogenic rock band has wacky adventures and occasionally breaks into song. This, of course, was The Monkees. Their superb debut single “Last Train to Clarksville” hit the Hot 100 in the same week of September 1966 that the series premiered on NBC.
What followed was the uniquely American answer to Beatlemania. The Monkees came out in October and took almost exactly a month to reach #1, getting there on November 12, 1966, and staying for 13 weeks. It’s theoretically possible that every kid in America got something Monkee-related for Christmas in 1966—if not The Monkees then the band’s new single, “I’m a Believer,” which was released in November and hit #1 on December 31. (Or a Monkees lunch box, a board game, T-shirt, or toy guitar.) Days later, More of the Monkees was in record stores. It would hit #1 on February 11, 1967, and hold the top spot for 18 weeks—longer than any Beatles album. You’d have to go back to the West Side Story soundtrack in 1962 to find an album that stayed longer, and ahead to Rumours in 1977 to find anything that beats it. The Monkees’ streak of 31 straight weeks at #1 was unrivaled by anybody in the pre-Soundscan era.
Monkee mythology has the band clashing with record label executives as their fame grew, eventually gaining the right to play on their records and write their own songs. But Mike Nesmith got a song-and-a-part on each of the first two albums, including “Papa Gene’s Blues” and “Mary, Mary” credited to him alone. Many of the other songs were written by some of the best talent in the business: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Neil Sedaka (with Carole Bayer Sager), and Neil Diamond. The first two albums were largely played by the top Los Angeles session players known as the Wrecking Crew. Not until the Monkees’ third album, Headquarters, would the band members get the type of creative freedom they wanted. But that’s the subject of a future entry—the very near future, as it turns out.