It was 30 years ago today

Four middle-aged men have reformed their Sixties pop group and begun a nationwide tour. Why? And who will go to see The Monkees, anyway? Paul Mungo has the answers
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The Independent Culture
More than anything, The Monkees is a brand name. Like all good brand names, it combines name awareness with consumer loyalty. Unusually, it has remained under-exploited these past 30 years.

Not any more. Last Friday night, the reconstituted Monkees - Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz, Michael Nesmith - began their UK tour at the Newcastle Arena. They're promoting, among other things, a new album called Justus; the video release of the Sixties TV series; and a CD compilation of their greatest hits. In the States, there's been a Disney documentary and an ABC television special. We may yet see those here too.

The audience at Newcastle was a mix of ageing fortysomethings and their bemused offspring. In the foyer of the bunker-like Arena, the merchandise stands were offering souvenir Monkees T-shirts (pounds 15), souvenir Monkees sweat shirts (pounds 25) and souvenir Monkees cups embossed with the official Monkees logo (pounds 6). This was a careful crowd. The longest queues were for souvenir plastic glasses of lager (pounds 2.20) from the bar.

The audience was here for A Good Time. From the first notes of the Monkees anthem - "Hey, Hey, We're the Monkees" - the hard-core fans in the first six rows of the auditorium stood and swayed and cheered. With the stage tastefully back-lit, the four ageing actors who were hired in the Sixties to become the components of the world's first manufactured pop band don't seem quite as old as you might expect. Jones, the English one, was chirpy, and Dolenz, the funny one, made inaudible jokes. Jones and Dolenz were the core of the show, bouncing around the stage, addressing the audience, doing the rock star stuff. By contrast, Tork, the goofy one, and Nesmith, the intellectual one, mostly just played their instruments. Tork, at times, looked as though he was wondering what he was doing there.

This has been billed as the Monkees first tour for 30 years. But there have been other Monkees tours since 1967, with Jones, Dolenz and Tork; they even played Britain in 1989. Nesmith had always resisted the idea of re-forming the group until this year, when they recorded the new album. Quite why he agreed to the idea is unclear: he doesn't need the money - his mother invented Liquid Paper and on her death he sold the patent for $47m, and he doesn't need the exposure: his last solo album was nominated for a Grammy. He said he "just wanted to".

The other Monkees have not been quite as successful as Nesmith since the TV series ended. Tork spent some time in jail for drug possession; he later taught math and social studies before going back into music. Dolenz moved to England and became a TV and advertising producer. Jones continued his acting career with roles in Godspell and sitcoms. All have been married twice.

Back in the Sixties, when their TV series was first broadcast, the Monkees were viewed with disdain by many. This was the era of The Beatles, when bands were expected to be self-contained units, writing their own songs and, sometimes, producing their own albums. By contrast, the Monkees were four actors who had answered an ad in a trade paper for "four insane boys, age 17 to 21". They were chosen not for their musical ability, but for their characters. The producers knew what they wanted: an ersatz foursome that mimicked the quirks and personalities of John, Paul, George and Ringo - the "prefab four". Even their name was imitative. Monkees. Beatles. Get it?

To serious pop fans in the Sixties - largely adolescent boys - The Monkees were deeply uncool. Their fans were almost entirely teenage girls. The news that The Monkees didn't write their own songs - that they didn't even play their own instruments! - made them seriously suspect, a merchandising ploy by the nasty corporate interests that ran US television.

Their TV series, though quirky and funny, was clearly modelled on The Beatles' own Hard Day's Night and Help!. Even after the group learnt to play their own instruments and began writing their own songs, they would always be tainted by the "prefab four" jibe. No self-respecting male teenager could ever admit to liking them. Tapping your foot to "Daydream Believer" could mean social death.

These days, of course, we don't think twice about manufactured bands, and in the past three decades The Monkees brand has developed and evolved. To most of us, they now are a reminder of our youth, of better times, of Friday evenings watching television. Their old songs are the ones that get the audience in the Newcastle Arena dancing and swaying, singing along with the lyrics. We all know the words. The new numbers - from Justus, from other Monkees albums that few except the most die-hard fans have ever heard - are listened to politely. It's the songs from our childhood that really get the audience going: "Daydream Believer", "Steppin' Stone", "Pleasant Valley Sunday". The musicianship, the quality, is unimportant. "We're all alive, all of us," shouts Jones at one point. He means The Monkees; it could apply to the audience, too.

In the Corporate Club Lounge, backstage at the Newcastle Arena after the show, The Monkees are holding a "meet and greet". There are some 40 people gathered: family and friends, fan club members, others who have won a newspaper competition to meet the band. Most are in their late thirties to mid-forties, though there are one or two who may not even have been born when the TV series was first broadcast.

There is no great rush, no squeals, when The Monkees walk into the room. This isn't a gathering of teenage Spice Girls fans; this is a group of largely middle-aged people, sipping at halves of lager and glasses of white wine. Most look shyly at the entrance when the four men - definitely looking their age in the unfiltered light of the Corporate Club - slip into the room.

Sue has come from Wolverhampton to see the Monkees. She is clutching a 1967 Monkees annual that she bought, she says, for 10/6. "It's been sitting in me mum's shed for 30 years. I just wanted to meet Mike Nesmith and get him to autograph it. I have an 18-year-old daughter and she wouldn't dream of coming here. I told her, you don't understand, they're just like Take That.

"It was a worry, after idolising them for 30 years, whether they were going to flop. But they didn't. They did really, really well."

Sue plunges into the crowd to seek out Nesmith, who is standing at the side of the room with two or three fans, looking serious. Peter Tork is circulating and signing autographs: "Do you have mine? That's the important one." Davy Jones is talking about his throat; he's worried he might have bronchitis. Mickey Dolenz is clutching a glass of white wine and chatting amiably to a small group.

"Its repetitive," he says, about playing The Monkees' old hits. "It's tough to get it up every night. We decided to do the big hits first, because everyone has come to hear "Daydream Believer", "I'm a Believer", blah, blah, blah... After that we'll do what we want."

There are flashes going off all around the club. Karen, from Bristol (unusually for a Monkees fan, she's 27), has her programme autographed by all four. She will see them again. "I'm going to all their concerts, except the early one in Bournemouth because we can't get the train from Manchester. But now they're doing two shows in Belfast, so I may see the early one as well." The cost, she thinks, will be about pounds 1,000: "I'm using the money from my house deposit. I've put off buying a house. It's worth every penny.

Karen is an unusual Monkees fan, if only because of her age. "I got into them from the re-runs. I'm glad they're doing this for us. I missed them the first time around."

This, of course, may well be their last time around. All four of the group are now in their fifties, and even branded as The Monkees, there's no disguising the fact that punters are being asked to pay between pounds 18 and pounds 20 to see four ageing musicians pretending to be young ones. Some of the reviews of shows subsequent to Newcastle have been coruscating: one critic simply said it was the worst concert she had ever seen. Not that anyone in this room will care. Frances from Brecon is clutching her programme, which has been signed by Dolenz. "I had a kiss and he called me darling," she says ecstatically. "I waited 30 years for this. Now I'm happy"n

The Monkees 1997 UK Tour continues to 20 March. Warner Music Vision has released `The Monkees' video collection, volumes 1 and 2. `The Monkees Greatest Hits' is on Telstar