Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A USA pop group formed in 1966 when NBC-TV decided to create homegrown heroes in the wake of the British Invasion, especially Beatles' films A Hard Day's Night and Help; they auditioned the Lovin' Spoonful and decided that a manufactured group would be less trouble. Musical talent was an asset (though Stephen Stills was rejected: bad teeth) but members would not have to play on records. The lineup turned out to be vocalist Davy Jones (b 30 December 1945, Manchester, England; d 29 February 2012, Florida, of a heart attack), Mickey Dolenz (b 8 March 1946, Los Angeles) on drums, bassist Peter Tork (b Torkelson, 13 February 1945, Washington DC; d 21 February 2019 of cancer) and guitarist Mike Nesmith (b Robert MIchal Nesmith, 30 December 1942, Houston TX; d 10 December 2021, Carmel Valley CA), who denied he was the only real musician. They were the first manufactured band, but not the last; they appeared to be having fun together, and it worked for a while.

Dolenz and Jones had been child actors; the music was engineered by bubblegum king Don Kirshner of Screen-Gems Music, who relied on tested writers to come up with the goods; the pleasant pop got prime-time exposure to teens and sub-teens around the world: predictably, hits resulted. First single 'Last Train To Clarksville' (by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart) was no. 1 USA/23 UK; second 'I'm A Believer' (by Neil Diamond) a transatlantic no. 1. Other hits included 'A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You' (Diamond), 'Pleasant Valley Sunday', 'Alternate Title' (no. 2 UK), 'Daydream Believer' (by John Stewart, no. 1 USA/5 UK), 'Valleri' (Boyce and Hart), all '66-8. There were flops interspersed, and anyway it couldn't last as the group fought to control their own careers: they wanted to play on the records.

[Fans were outraged when they discovered that the boys were not playing on their own records, but it turns out that a lot of pop groups in that era were simply not good enough. See Hal Blaine and The wrecking Crew.]

In a famous incident, Nesmith punched a hole in a wall at Kirshner's bungalow. Kirshner was there with his attorney, Dolenz said in 2004, 'basically presenting us with this money and saying, in so many words, "Why don't you just cash the check?" And that's not the sort of thing you said to Mike Nesmith at the time. To be honest, I couldn't have cared less. I was 20 years old, making money. But Mike led this revolt, and out of camaraderie, we all went along.' Tork left after the disastrous reception of their film Head (since hailed as a cult classic, it was weird enough at the time that many of their fans weren't allowed to see it). The others split '69 when Nesmith formed First National Band.

Jones and Dolenz re-formed '75 with Boyce and Hart, but split after release of Jones, Dolenz, Boyce And Hart '76; Jones turned actor (London cast of Godspell '86 etc); as a London-based TV producer Dolenz had a hit with the charming Metal Mickey, a sitcom for kids with a robot; Nesmith pursued a country rock career (see his entry). They re-formed without Nesmith for a tour '86 (he joined them onstage in L.A.) but a full-blown reunion was dogged by contractual problems; they made Pool It '87 on Rhino without Nesmith. Nostalgia for them has a firm base; though reviled at the time by critics their close-harmony hits hold up well compared to other '60s stuff and to much that has happened since. More important was the audience they found for pop on TV, from Kirshner's cartoon Archies (who did not exist, yet had massive '69 hit 'Sugar Sugar') to the Jackson Five (with real talent), Osmonds, Partridge Family (see David Cassidy), etc. Nesmith was finally talked into a reunion, but Justus '96 on Rhino was judged disappointing.