Houston gets its first shot of Monkee-mania in at least a generation tonight, when surviving members Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz and Michael Nesmith visit the Arena Theatre. Judging by informal talk among friends, around the office and the social-media water-cooler, it's no exaggeration to say this might be one of this summer's most anticipated concerts. (According to the Arena's Web site, tickets are still available, starting at $75 plus fees.)
Perhaps more than even the Beatles, the fan frenzy surrounding the Monkees created the hyperventilating behavior pattern that greeted every crushworthy teen-targeted group ever since, from the Partridge Family to One Direction. And interest in the group is resurgent since Davy Jones, arguably the biggest heartthrob among the four Monkees, passed away in February 2012 at age 66.
Neither the 45th-anniversary tour before Jones died, minus native Texan Nesmith, nor last fall's trek visited the area, so excitement should be running especially high among Houston Monkee-lovers.
Rocks Off was curious about the enduring appeal of this made-for-TV band that became very real indeed and by some accounts wound up outselling the Beatles, so we decided to ask an expert. Allen Hill, ginger-topped leader of the Allen Oldies Band and promoter behind Allen Hill Entertainment, says the Monkees were "essential" in his development as a musician after he began watching the then-syndicated sitcom at around age 14.
"When I first started watching the TV show and getting the records it was all things '60s rock and roll, and I could visualize it," Hill says. "The theme song was just like, 'Man, good times are in front of us.' Anything that was rock and roll-related in that time in my life, I was just really scheduling my life around -- racing home to watch it on TV and hear some songs."
Laughing, Hill recalls wondering, "Is there a lick I can steal?"
Created by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, both of whom ran with the same Hollywood crowd as Jack Nicholson -- their production company Raybert bankrolled Easy Rider; Rafelson wrote Five Easy Pieces -- the series originally ran on NBC from September 1966 to March 1968. Artistically, it introduced elements of '60s New Wave filmmaking into slapstick situation comedy, but more importantly for Hill, at some point in every episode the Monkees would drop whatever else they were doing and play a few tunes. (The show still airs locally at 3 p.m. weekdays on Antenna TV, digital 39.2 and Comcast channel 318.)
"It showed that it's four distinct guys, but it builds to what a pure band is," says Hill. "A real band in my definition is that the sum is greater than the parts. They captured that magic and put across in a way with four distinct individuals that took on a greater meaning by looking at all four of them as a group."
By this point, the Monkees were a real band, too. They may have began as actors, but the four men soon enough began playing their own instruments and writing their own songs, learning straight from some of the top songwriters in showbiz.
To pick an album at random, the credits on the Monkees' November 1967 LP Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones include Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil ("Love Is Only Sleeping"), Harry Nilsson ("Cuddly Toy") and Gerry Goffin and Carole King ("Pleasant Valley Sunday," "Star Collector"), as well as Tork ("Percival Patterson's Pet Pig Porky"), Nesmith ("Daily Nightly") and Jones (who co-wrote Hard to Believe"). With Diane Hildebrand, all four Monkees collaborated on go-go workout "Goin' Down."
Songs like "What Am I Doing Hanging Round" (co-written by Michael Martin Murphey) were fundamental in the development of what became country-rock, while rougher cuts like "She" or "Randy Scouse Git," Hill contends, can stand with the era's leading garage-rock groups. With a laugh, he calls "Stepping Stone" "probably the first punk song ever."
"'She' is another great song," Hill says. "Very garage-rock, great harmonies, great vocals, a pretty aggressive tune for what supposed to be a lightweight band. The lyrics weren't super-groundbreaking on that, but musically it was a very tough song. I can see if the Who had gotten their hands on that, it would have been a staple of their set."
Hill admits he has no idea about how the Monkees might honor Davy Jones tonight, but says he's looking forward to that moment in the evening.
"I think seeing the way Mickey, Peter and Mike treat that is gonna be very, very special," he says. "Because it's an opportunity a lot of people thought they'd never get to hear the band live again. We won't hear it with Davy again, but I think it's important the way they're gonna acknowledge that. It's gonna be very, very powerful, because his memory is definitely gonna be there."
Hill even has some experience as a Monkee himself, sort of, as a member of Monkees-specific local band Monkey. Monkey gigs are sparse these days, because front man Jake Smith -- who can't be any older than Hill was when he began racing home after school to watch The Monkees -- has moved on to playing Sonics and Ramones covers in the group Thrill, who actually plays Natachee's tonight as part of Mid-Main's "First Thursday" block party. Hill says seeing Smith's enthusiasm for the Monkees' material just confirms for him how great their music really was.
"It really was an eye-opener about how timeless the music is," he says. "He was all over it."
As for Thrill, "I'm sure they still play 'Stepping Stone,' Hill says. "I sure hope they do."
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The Monkees perform tonight at Arena Theatre. Thrill, featuring former Monkey front man Jake Smith, plays at Natachee's Supper & Punch, 3622 Main, as part of Mid-Main Houston's "First Thursday" block party.