Hey, hey, we were the Monkees

They were rock's first manufactured band - and now they're making a comeback. Nicholas Barber remembers the Monkees

This is the age of the postmodern sitcom. Television overlaps with real life, and cultural commentators tot up the ironies ingrained in Roseanne (starring Roseanne), Ellen (starring Ellen), Larry Sanders (a fictional chat show with actual celebrity guests), and Seinfeld (in which a comedian called Jerry Seinfeld plays a comedian called Jerry Seinfeld who is writing a television show, in which he will play a comedian called Jerry Seinfeld). But the strange case of The Monkees beats them all - and the ironies are still piling up. Because three decades after they last played together, the Monkees reformed last year, and their world tour arrives in Britain next month.

After discovering the truth about Santa, the next significant loss of innocence for any child who watched the Monkees' Sixties TV series was learning that those wacky, world-saving teen idols in matching shirts weren't a proper pop group at all, but were assembled in order to imitate the Beatles' success in Help! and A Hard Day's Night. In 1965, a now famous advert had appeared in the Hollywood Reporter: "Madness!! Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17 to 21." A pre-Buffalo Springfield Stephen Stills was one of the 437 "folk & roll" singers - whatever that meant - who auditioned; according to one story, Charles Manson was another. But the parts were finally given to Micky Dolenz (the zany one), Davey Jones (the short, English one), Peter Tork (the goofy one) and Mike Nesmith (the one with the bobble hat).

The freewheeling comedy show hit the air in 1966. Soon the Monkees had two hit albums, and some sunny pop singles - "I'm a Believer", "Daydream Believer", "Last Train to Clarksville" - without which, 30 years later, no karaoke night would be complete. But their secret was soon out. Although the actors shared their names with their screen incarnations, and although on air it always looked as if they were playing their own instruments, in reality the boys had merely added their voices to songs written and performed by other people. The Monkees' roster of prestigious session musicians and songwriters - Neil Diamond, Mann & Weil and Goffin & King among them - is now considered to be a prestigious point in their favour. At the time, though, it quickly became an embarrassment. After hearing one "Prefab Four" jibe too many, the Monkees insisted that they make their own music.

In retrospect, this was more than a little cheeky. The Monkees had never been a real band, after all. Demanding that they write and play their own material was not too dissimilar from the cast of M*A*S*H wanting to carry out their own surgery. Still, when Nesmith announced at a press conference in February 1967 that he would quit unless the Monkees' terms were met, the studio capitulated. The insane boys had taken over the asylum.

Four increasingly experimental albums followed, and in 1968 the group made a cult movie, Head. If the TV show was inspired by Help!, Head was the Monkees' Magical Mystery Tour, a bitter, surreal, self-referential satire written by Jack Nicholson, and featuring Frank Zappa and Victor Mature in its cast. It was commercial suicide (there was even a scene in which the Monkees killed themselves) and it co-incided with the axeing of the TV show. Four months after that, Tork bought himself out of his contract, at a cost of $160,000. His bandmates stopped Monkeeing around soon after. They had fought to be independent of the TV show; but without it, they couldn't survive.

The next irony is that their battle for credibility and uncommercialism didn't stop Dolenz and Jones reviving the Monkees as a cabaret act. In 1975, they toured with the "Golden Great Hits of the Monkees Show". In 1986, Tork joined in. After another undignified semi-reunion jaunt in 1989, the three wise Monkees vowed never to work together again.

In the years when he wasn't making a Monkee out of himself, Dolenz went back to acting, as well as directing the British children's sitcom, Metal Mickey. More recently, he directed the video of "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone", a Monkees song covered by PJ and Duncan. Perhaps Dolenz felt that these were kindred spirits. PJ and Duncan had been characters in Byker Grove, and the actors, who now record under their real names, launched a pop career after singing in the series.

Jones also kept acting and singing, and put his height to his advantage as an amateur jockey. Tork surfaced from time to time as a school teacher and a waiter. And Nesmith? Until recently he was the only Monkee who always resisted reunions. He had earnt money and respect from his solo career, he ran a record label, he produced movies. Perhaps more importantly, his mother had invented Liquid Paper, and bequeathed him a fortune of $47m. He appeared to have little incentive to put his bobble hat back on.

His son Jason, however, auditioned for a proposed New Monkees (he is now in his own band with Donovan's son). There have been tabloid rumours of "Monkees-style" TV vehicles for Supergrass, Take That and the Spice Girls. And there are scenes in That Thing You Do! - the Wonders scurrying around a map of America, for instance - when Tom Hanks's vision of a clean- cut American Beatles admits its debt to The Monkees.

Two final ironies. Last year, Nesmith capitulated and all four Monkees reconvened to make Justus (Rhino Records). The album is, as its title boasts, written, performed and produced by Micky, Davey, Mike and Peter, with no requirement to obey their record company, and no reason to rebel against it. It's not a great album. The Monkees' voices have deteriorated over the decades, while their musicianship has hardly improved. And now, the four insane middle-aged men are touring again. What their fans will want to hear most are those early hits - which the Monkees never actually played.

The Monkees: Newcastle Arena (0191 401 8000), 7 Mar; then touring.

COMEBACK, ALL IS FORGIVEN

DON'T mourn the passing of your favourite band. The 1990s are the Reunion Decade in rock...

The Beatles, 1995. Documentaries, videos, books, out-take albums and magazine articles aside, the actual reunion consisted of just two sort- of new songs.

The Buzzcocks, 1989. Have now been together for longer than they were first time round. They haven't been as successful, though.

The Eagles, 1994. Glenn Frey said that "there will never be a greed- and-lost-youth tour". Don Henley said that the Eagles would reform "when hell freezes over". They named their reunion tour after Henley's phrase, not Frey's.

Television, 1992. The New Wave guitar gods made a new album, which was very good, and played some live shows, which weren't.

The Sex Pistols, 1996. At least they were honest enough to call it the "Filthy Lucre Tour".

The Velvet Underground, 1993. Lou Reed and John Cale stopped bickering long enough for a tour, but fell out again while mixing the subsequent live album. Traffic, 1994. After Paul Weller made a comeback by copying their rural R&B, Traffic returned with an album and a tour. They didn't play "Hole in My Shoe".

Steely Dan, 1993. The customary tour-and-live-album package. A new studio album seems forever in the pipeline. NB

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