The Monkees subversive masterpiece ‘Head’ raises new questions


I was watching the colossal cult classic ‘Head’ starring the Monkees on Turner Classic Movies the other night, and found myself getting in one of my typical mega-funks over the current state of what passes for culture nowadays. Around the time ‘Head’ was made, the Monkees popularity had nosedived over the fact that they didn’t play their own instruments and the revelation that they’d essentially been a concept borne from the noggin of director Bob Rafelson in order to cash in on some that rock’n’roll action that the kids seemed to be digging so well.

Despite their pre-fabricated origins, the Monkees were pretty damned great. They were charming, bright, funny, and they could sing their asses off. They became an instant smash with TV audiences and sold millions of records. Funny thing was, they became dissatisfied with being forced to record other people’s songs and the cartoonish image that Rafelson and the network machinery had carefully constructed for them. Ultimately they rebelled against these constraints, and things began to fall apart. When it was finally leaked to the public that they were in fact merely a concept and not a ‘real band’ their fate was sealed.

As a response to all of this, they made ‘Head’; an abstract, trippy commentary on the nature of conceptual reality and their struggle to be taken seriously as real artists while fighting to break free of their scripted identities. Written by Bob Rafelson and a then unknown Jack Nicholson, ‘Head’ is filled with amazing music and strange surrealistic vignettes which utilized war imagery as metaphor for the crass commercialism of the day while cleverly busting through the 4th wall time and again – nearly a decade before Woody Allen was praised for it in ‘Annie Hall’. It’s a fantastic film, and it was the final nail in their coffin.

Unfortunately, they wound up totally alienating their core TV audience, and failed to pick up any of the ‘artsier’ crowd they were hoping to convert.

All I could think about while watching ‘Head’ was how something like it could never happen today. Could you imagine some pre-fabricated tweeny-bopper ‘band’ like One Direction rebelling against the constraints of their machinery and releasing a subversive art-house movie in order to smash their well-constructed and lucrative image to smithereens in the hope that they’d be taken seriously as artists? Sure, you often see transitioning tartlets like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez sex it up  in order to garner an older audience, but that’s about sex…not art.

Thing is, these machinations are something to be celebrated nowadays. No one gives a rat’s ass whether or not One Direction knows how to play their instruments, or whether they write or even sing their songs. Their meticulously crafted image is taken at face value and their commercial success is lauded. Try making a nasty remark about them – or any well-known celebrity of their ilk – on Twitter and the most likely response you’d receive from their fans would be something along the lines of, “You’re just a hater because they’re so popular and they sell so many albums, and you’re just a big fat loser and you’ll never be as rich and fabulous as they are.”

Pretty much guarantee you’ll never hear anything about art.

This leads to the question, “Where has the art gone in our art?”

Sad to say it’s nowhere to be found. Today’s starry-eyed tweeners aspire to become scripted. They dream to someday become unreal. They’d sell their souls to sell their souls.

Fortunately for me however, there’s more than enough art in the archives to keep me fortified until I croak. As long as there are stations like Turner Classic Movies for fogies like me, the sad state of what passes for culture nowadays will have absolutely no effect on me. I’ll just hunker down in my societal fallout shelter, with my vinyl records, old movies and a bottle of scotch, and keep the faintest glimmer of hope curling and dancing in the recesses of my mind that perhaps someday the paradigm will shift once again, and free will might once again rule the world.

24 Comments for “The Monkees subversive masterpiece ‘Head’ raises new questions”

  1. Karen

    Insightful and well stated. And I wholeheartedly agree with your point. Where is the art in today’s art? The risk and the heart? HEAD was daring and deeply honest. Almost too honest. I would like to add a few facts though. The Monkees did play their instruments on their tours and on all but their first two albums. Nesmith even played, wrote and produced, I believe, his songs on those first two albums. And the Monkees themselves participated in brainstorming ideas and the direction of the movie HEAD.

  2. constantly i used to read smaller articles or reviews which also clear their motive, and that is also happening with this article which I am reading at this place.

  3. Nathan

    Actually, they wrote quite a bit of their own music, starting with their third album, “Headquarters.” They were a phony band that became a real band. I would argue the Monkees are remembered more NOW for their music, than their TV show. BTW the show is still a riot.

  4. Lore

    What Karen said.

    “The Monkees did play their instruments on their tours and on all but their first two albums. Nesmith even played, wrote and produced, I believe, his songs on those first two albums. ”

    just thought i’d emphasize this part.

  5. Agreed. In fact it was Nesmith who leaked the news about not being allowed to play. Their album “Headquarters” (way before the movie) was entirely their own work, and released a week before Sgt. Pepper.

    The One Direction comparison is spot-on. But I am still confused as to why the Monkees seem to have been criminalized in music history as “inauthentic”. The culture has devolved to accept autotune and publicity in lieu of talent.

    Even the TV show is better than it needed to be. HEAD is so great because it is difficult to watch. It demands a lot of the audience and is anti-commercial. I can’t even imagine any group agreeing to do it or anything similar today.

  6. david

    I just saw HEAD last week. I loved it, and your article sums up exactly how I feel, especially the last paragraph.

  7. Mariko

    All I can say is AMEN!

  8. darcy

    The Monkees were thought of before A Hard Day’s Night came out. They sold more albums then the Beatles at the height of their popularity. I never understood what was the big deal about them not playing on their first two albums….everyone did it like then. Peter and Michael were/are wonderful musicians. Nesmith has pinned some of their best songs. Micky and Davy were hired because they were actors first. It’s about time The Monkees get the respect they deserved for the work they did and they way they wanted to shatter the mold they were in. It would have been nice for that moment to happen before we lost Jones.

  9. I used to think that the only real dirty earthy art was in the past too. Then I discovered Radiohead, Tool, Built to Spill, Tame Impala, Fleet Foxes, Surfer Blood, Death Cab for Cutie, Youth Lagoon, Passion Pit, and a billion other artists that are doing real art, right now. Plug in to the interwebs and get lost on Youtube for a while to rediscover the real in the entertainment!

  10. Nice piece. I agree 100% with your position on art in our culture. The media and marketers feed audiences, not artists. Unfortunately, today’s audience is asking for the transparent BS.

  11. Jeff

    Nice to see the guys get credit. However, as a fan since 1966, I was crushed when this movie came out. They really did flip their long time fans the finger on this one. We expected a cool version of their TV show. Insted, we get Viet Nam generals shooting prisoners in the head. While I appreciate the art, it’s not how I want to remember the Monkees.

  12. Randy

    The Monkees not only looked a gift horse in the mouth, they kicked it in its teeth. There’s a reason Timothy Leary called them “the most subversive act on television.” every week they would lampoon the “straight” media and turn the conventions of the sitcom world on their heads.

    There are plenty of acts out there concerned with “art.” From Mumford & Sons to Bruno Mars. Just not in groups aimed at tweens.

  13. Rich Buchko

    What I find interesting is that you use terms like “their fate was sealed” and “the final nail in their coffin” – when the Monkees had more success than most bands, were on top of the Beatles for a significant period of time, and are still recording and playing concerts. Their “death” was quite temporary. And do you think the same things you predict a Twitter-er would get in reply to an anti-Monkees comment in 1967 was really any different (minus the technology)? Not much has really changed except the venue. I’m not a One- Direction fan, and I find the analogy a bit flawed because they don’t compare to the Monkees in either quality of music OR popularity, but HEAD was not seen objectively for many years, and I suspect today’s music scene will not be viewed with any true objectivity for a long time, too. I disagree with a lot of this article, because it reaches conclusions not borne by the facts.

  14. Steve

    Great piece. It echoes points I’ve been making for years in defense of the Monkees.
    While “The Monkees” was originally created as only a t.v. show, once the realization that there were hit records on the horizon the producers pushed the boys to become an actual touring band. The touring and recording schedule was placed on top of the filming of the series (without any extra pay for the four stars, by the way) and The Monkees were a real band. It’s true that the first two albums featured music by the best session players in the business while the boys provided the vocals. Many big acts did the same thing, as pointed out in the article. The Beach Boys certainly come to mind. Yet no one argues against them being included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The stigma of not being a “real” band has stuck with the Monkees for nearly fifty years. And it’s a falsehood.

  15. Steve

    Yes, today, success is based on packaging, not talent. Head was a marvelous film and most definitely a product of it’s times. In regard to the breaking of the “fourth wall,” George Burns was doing just that on his “The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show,” as early as 1950. As for Monkee history – Nesmith produced and wrote songs on their first two albums but did not play. Peter Tork is the only Monkee to play an instrument on the first two albums, and those tracks were Nesmith songs.
    Like you, I am content to watch old TV shows (but in their original form with original commercials, not the truncated episodes seen on Nick At Nite and elsewhere), and classic movies, listen to vinyl as well as open reel tapes, and soak it all in with a bottle of scotch.

  16. Donna

    Great article! I also agree with your observation that artistry and even heart/soul is missing in a lot of what should be considered art. It has become the very commercialist clap trap the Monkees sought to get away from. Today’s tweeny bopper groups actually seek a manufactured image in order to become famous for a sake of celebrity. There’s no integrity in that.
    Another point I’d like to add to Karen’s great additions of fact is that it was actually Mike Nesmith who stated to the media that the Monkees weren’t a “real band”. This was in an effort for the Monkees to get some control over the music being produced. They fought hard to be able to do their own music, which finally happened in the making of their third album “Headquarters”. But they did play their own instruments from very early on as they started touring (as Karen stated). Nesmith and Tork were actually musicians in their own right, while Dolenz and Jones were established singers/actors. Jones had even been nominated for a Tony for his role in the musical Oliver! prior to the Monkees. The group’s musicianship as a band mightn’t have been great in the beginning, but it was real. Nowadays, all you hear about is who is lip syncing on tour because the technology today allows people to go undetected doing the exact thing the Monkees were accused of (and are still accused of today!). And no one is lambasted for not playing their own instruments.

  17. Dave

    The Monkees’ popularity had also nosedived because their show was cancelled after only two seasons. Having 30 minutes of national TV time per week really helped promote their songs, and themselves, and when that was gone it was only a matter of time before they were gone, too.

    And yes, the Monkees helped write the script for the movie. From what I’ve read and heard, the four Monkees plus Rafelson and Nicholson spent a weekend together smoking out. They turned on a tape recorder while they talked about their ideas, and there was their script.

    I am a Monkees fan, so I like the movie. However, I would never recommend it to anyone who doesn’t like or know about the Monkees. If you don’t get the Monkees, you don’t get this movie and would be wasting your time watching it.

    Rafelson died recently. Peter Tork has said that Rafelson wanted HEAD to be a box-office disaster because he wanted the Monkees project to end. That way, he could take his Monkees money and make movies with his buddy Nicholson. Can you say Easy Rider? Also read that there was a lot of tension on the HEAD set. Rafelson would play the progressive rock of the day while on the set and tease the Monkees, “Now that’s real music,” and things like that. Rafelson was done with the Monkees, and the Monkees were pretty much done with him, but they needed some kind of exposure now that the TV show was dead. Rafelson used HEAD to push the envelope, not giving a darn about commercial success or the Monkees’ fate.

    The Monkees dripped with irony, both in their heyday and in their demise. The Monkees became what they were on screen. They played a rock band on their TV show, and they actually become a real rock band. Then in HEAD, they portrayed a discarded cultural phenomenon, and again the screen became reality. The movie literally discarded the Monkees and any of their remaining popularity, and it did so very effectively.

    Fortunately, the music was too good to be discarded. If you can get past the “manufacturing” aspect of their music, you can appreciate that the Monkees’ hits are some of the best records ever made. In particular, “I’m A Believer” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday” are priceless pop.

    Oh … never lend money to a man with a sense of humor. ;-)

  18. jim smith

    overall, watching it as a kid when it first came out, it was so choppy , unformed and to be honest, a cheap attempt to combat the beatles as to be laughable. no one took it seriously at all. not anyone sober . that nicholson took his face and showed it kinda indicates how much the hollywood set didnt take it seriously. to me, only nicholsons first presence makes this movie any interest at all. and i like the monkees!

  19. mud718

    the monkees were stupid to not just do their job as hired hands, go along raking in the money, and go home at night… instead they wanted to be a real band, which led to infighting among the group and with the producers and subsequently to the demise of their television show…. the producers just wanted to sink the whole monkees concept so made the no story HEAD movie and the monkees stupidly went along with this….this movie was a so called “art movie”.but really was garbage intended to destroy the monkees..which it did…had the monkees made a movie with a story and plot,like the beatles HELP or HARD DAYS NIGHT…the monkees popularity could have soared,and HEAD could have been a classic like their tv show was…

  20. Chuck Ferreira

    They DID play their own instruments…
    Mike played on first two records, but as a band, they played on the third record, and from that point on, they had control over WHOM they wanted to play on their records. It’s such a dumb blanket statement to say “the Monkees didn’t play their own instruments”. I mean, c’mon. It’s just not an accurate statement.

  21. Hulka Maldonado

    “The Monkees popularity had nosedived over the fact that they didn’t play their own instruments and the revelation that they’d essentially been a concept borne from the noggin of director Bob Rafelson in order to cash in on some that rock’n’roll action that the kids seemed to be digging so well.”

    Whaa? No way. Everybody knew from the beginning that they were actors and not a real band. There was no “revelation”! Read the Wikipedia article, at least.

  22. Hulka Maldonado

    P.S. “Craven” means cowardly. Look that up, too. ;)

  23. “Didn’t play their own instruments” ??

    Then whose instruments DID they play on all those records they made and concerts they still perform
    (including the one in “Head”) ??! ;-)

  24. “Head” is one of those movies that makes more sense if you read a detailed synopsis first and then watch it. I’ve seen it several times and when I read what they were attempting to say, the movie made a lot more sense. The fact that watching the movie does not necessarily avail you of this makes it a flawed masterpiece.

    Daring? Yes, but during the time of Monkees’ existence, youth culture went from Beatlemania and Bob Dylan to the Summer of Love and by their fourth album , “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, LTD”, the Monkees were embracing Psychedelia. So by the time that “Head” came out, the subversion you are mentioning was certainly risky for the band, but it was “trendy” to do so. In the Monkees day, Jones, in his audition tape mentioned that his father gave him grief about his long hair. Could you imagine hair length causing a stir now?

    Why hasn’t a band like One Direction done something like this? Well, if they were, they would be following the paths of many that have gone before. A lot of bands/musicians have gone to independent labels, changed genres, updated their looks, etc. It’s hard to be novel nowadays. Perhaps if they were all transgender…

    Also, let’s be fair to OD. I am not a fan, but to write a history for a band that has two CD’s to its credit is a bit unfair, especially when in the 1960′s the amount of product that was expected was far greater (the Monkees recorded NINE albums in four years. Almost no one releases product at that rate today) and the Monkees’ story is done, as far as their heyday is concerned.

    Let us also not forget that the Monkees’ music was drubbed by critics for a LONG time before their 80′s re-examination, no matter who played it. To many older folks ALL rock and roll was noise. Now, there are folks with children and grandchildren that have always had Rock on the radio, unlike my parents who were alive during the inception of same.

    To put it another way: as Ray Davies said at the Kinks’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame speech: “Rock and Roll has finally become respectable. What a bummer.”

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