British rocker and former member of The Monkees, Davy Jones, died last Wednesday at his home in Florida. He was 66.
Jones was once just another aspiring actor/singer. He first tasted success in 1964 after winning a Tony nomination as the Artful Dodger in the long running play Oliver! But all that changed when he was chosen for the rock group that became known to millions through their TV series The Monkees. Davy Jones, a known talent with a studio contract, was cast first as the lead singer. Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith were then brought aboard as the rest of a still-imaginary band. The show ran from 1966 to 1968, and its stylistic flash was successfully imitated and refined in shows such as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and even Sesame Street. Still later, the show’s influence could be seen on MTV, whose showing of The Monkees spawned a new generation of fans.
The Monkees didn’t begin by writing some songs and making demos like so many “real” bands do. They were not like The Beatles, who had played in obscurity for years in clubs and dives while still in their teens, doing auditions hoping to be discovered but instead being rejected. Yet in spite of its artificial roots, the studio-created Monkees sold millions of records to real fans who enjoyed their music and their show. This set the pattern for other media creations that start in one art form, like music, and then reinvent or expand themselves into another one, like acting. Justin Bieber’s career is the latest example, only for Davy Jones at the peak of his and his group’s popularity; it was many times more intense. The semi-imaginary world of four semi-fictional musicians living their semi-hallucinatory lives not only struck a chord with young viewers and listeners, but adult critics as well, who were impressed as observers, if not as fans.
In the ‘60s, when an act did catch on (if it could break into AM radio), it could become a monster like the kind never seen today and perhaps will never be seen again. If you lived through it, you remember that The Monkees posters and stickers were everywhere and sold by the millions, right along with The Monkees singles and albums, which played endlessly on the radio. For a brief period, their comet threatened to outshine the Beatles. The Monkees are the only artists to have four No. 1-selling albums in the same year, and sold 12 Billboard Top 40 singles, including I’m a Believer, I Wanna Be Free, Daydream Believer, Last Train to Clarksville, and Stepping Stone. The Monkees went on to earn two Emmys.
It’s not surprising that Davy Jones fans are buying up all the Monkees T-shirts. After all, it’s the perfect pop-culture homage to one of the most popular icons of pop culture, someone who grew up in it and wore it well.