THE BEGINNING

You probably think of The Monkees as nothing more than a manufactured puppet band, but in 1968 they made a truly weird film that was a banquet of the bizarre

monkees

THE MONKEES: HEAD (1968)
We live in an age obsessed with manufactured music. The Christmas number one is a Simon Cowell-controlled fort, pouring the boiling oil of X-Factor into our ears every year. Weekend TV is dominated by talent searches that excel only in their ability to unearth excrement. The last time anything good got played on Radio One was probably about eleven years ago before the death of John Peel. But what if a manufactured band actually turned out to be talented? What if the joke got serious?

There’s no what if about it – it already happened, almost 50 years ago when The Monkees took control in a Planet of the Apes-style turnaround. Starting out as a TV show for kids in which the band of actor-musicians (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith) spent twenty minutes each week being silly, it ended up with them writing and recording albums of their own music and even releasing an arthouse film: Head.

For those unfamiliar with The Monkees, the TV show followed a fairly chaotic formula in which each week they attempted to become a successful band like The Beatles only for something to go wrong. The humour might best be described as screwball, the tone cheerful. Clued up people like Frank Zappa appeared on a fairly regular basis, indicating that while The Monkees were fake, they were fake like the best kinds of fast food: trash that still tasted good.

The problem for the band was that they started writing and performing the songs themselves and were hoping for some degree of artistic recognition. These efforts were met with derision, leaving them frustrated and looking to find a way to free themselves.

Enter Head, their 1968 film. You might be expecting something akin to A Hard Days Night, where the band go on a musical adventure that showcases their pop and personalities. Or maybe you’re thinking more along the lines of Help! – less plot, more stoner montage scenes that let the kids know they’re cool.

Instead, Head is a non-narrative mash up of weird ideas, strange scenes and self-flagellation. From the opening you know something is different – that this isn’t the happy-go-lucky Monkees of TV – when they recite this self-mocking nursery rhyme: Hey, hey, we are The Monkees / You know we love to please / A manufactured image / With no philosophies.

This is followed by footage of someone being shot in the head (seriously) and a lot of crazy feedback, flashing lights and jump cuts. Given that their fan-base was made up mostly of children this choice can either be seen as a brave artistic statement or incredible negligence. I imagine there were quite a few walkouts during the film’s original release, with angry parents demanding their money back and the odd child requiring post-traumatic stress counselling.

How did this happen? Well, for one thing the band got Jack Nicholson (really) to help them write the screenplay. Nicholson, not quite satisfied with the result, re-ordered and re-wrote the script under the influence of LSD, squeezing any last semblance of sense from it. He appears in the film briefly, wandering about in a rather fetching hat and jumper combo that makes him look like he just came off a golf course.

As a result, the film doesn’t have a plot, but highlights include the entire band turning into dandruff and being vacuumed off someone’s head, and then later being chased through a desert while being shot at by a tank. Much of Head comes across as a vivisection of the whole concept of The Monkees, satirising their fakeness. However, it never gets too heavy, always remaining on the side of weird rather than ‘woe is me.’

I’ve managed to get this far without mentioning the music, which the band wrote about half of. The film is actually pretty music-light, an odd decision for a movie starring a pop band, although given the rest of the film I suppose it makes perfect sense. Of the music that is there, the best track is Nesmith’s roaring ‘Circle Sky’, while the chilled out folk-psyche of Tork’s ‘Can You Dig It’ is also worth repeated plays.

The Monkee’s have since denied that Head was an intentional suicide effort. Whether that’s true or not, the fact is that they wanted to be taken seriously and were fed up of having all the drawbacks of fame (people bothering them) without any of the upsides (critical recognition), and Head should sort out at least one of those problems.

Unfortunately the result was that existing fans didn’t get it, and the people who might have liked it never saw it. The Monkees TV show had already been cancelled, and Tork quit the group shortly after the film’s release. They finally finished as an ongoing act in 1970.

The Monkees may have started out as a fake, but they ended up making great pop music and, in Head, a film that is a banquet of the bizarre, proving that manufactured doesn’t always equal awful.

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