The Monkees started as an experiment in pop music and television, a musical outfit whose image was precisely controlled and whose music drew freely on formula. Davy Jones played a big role in the look, feel and sound of the 1960s musical act whose Saturday morning television would refine the marriage of two mediums. Jones's death today from a heart attack at the age of 66 not only represents the sad loss of a pop music forebear, but also the passing of a formative contributor to an act whose modern disciples include everyone from the Jonas Brothers to Miley Cyrus.
Jones's start in the music business had a lot to do with his image and his looks. In 1965, American filmmakers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider made a move to cash in on the success of the Beatles' black-and-white musical comedy A Hard Day's Night, and Screen Gems ran an ad in California trade mags looking for a screen-friendly boy band.
Jones, a Manchester, England native born in 1945 who'd appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and had bit roles on American TV shows, was on the short list for the act. Because his short stature made his face hard to capture behind a drum set, he was assigned the role of lead singer and backup guitarist.
From 1965 to 1971, Jones joined Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith (the only one who had legitimate musical training before the creation of the outfit) as a member of the Monkees. From 1966 to 1968, the act's syndicated TV show morphed slapstick comedy and antics with radio-friendly pop, music that didn't shy away from its debt to the Beatles' harmonics, melodies and song structures.
The Monkee's efforts weren't all commercial and poppy. The show featured cameos by contemporary artists like Frank Zappa; the band's psychedelic 1968 comedy head included creative input from a young Jack Nicholson.
As the heartthrob lead singer, Jones offered the ideal blend of syrupy vocals and good looks, taking the lead on tunes like "Daydream Believer" and "I Wanna Be Free." His British diction clear, Jones added a level of authenticity to the Monkees' act, an exoticism and foreign charm that made the act more than a cheap American Beatles knock-off.
While the cancelation of the TV show in 1968 took the steam out of the act's pop culture prominence, Jones stuck with a career in music. Various incarnations of the band persisted beyond the TV show, and eventually, tribute acts would endure decades later (Tork, Jones and Dolenz hit the Paramount Theatre in Denver last year for their 45th anniversary show). What's more, Jones took part in the short-lived Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart act of the late '60s, and kept busy with theater roles and film cameos well into the 2000s.
It's easy to write off the efforts of Jones and his fellow band members as vacuous pop, an easy knock-off of the significant artistic output of the Beatles. But Jones and his peers carved out a niche that's still vibrant and profitable. The countless pop acts churned out of Disney shows are direct descendants of the Monkees' successful formula. What's more, tunes like "Last Train to Clarksville" and "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone" penned by nameless studio musicians captured the sounds and contours of the time, and proved to be durable pop rock chestnuts.
More importantly, Jones's music served as a bridge for the young TV viewers of the 1960s, a gateway to the source material of the Beatles. Children of the '80s experienced a similar phenomenon when the Monkees reruns hit Nickelodeon. And even now, more than four decades after their initial introduction, the songs are still catchy, the production is still charming in its own 1960s, poppy way.
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