The Monkees ran on NBC for the first time in September of 1966. The brainchild of Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, the program was a canny attempt to mimic the playful hijinks of the Beatles movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help! in a way that would attract viewers in the American TV system. The experiment was successful, to say the least, leading to two lively seasons of programming, a succession of million-selling albums, the strange and mesmerizing feature release Head, and so on.
Every Monkees fan knows that the four young lads weren’t really allowed to play their own instruments or write their own material, but over time they struggled mightily to garner more creative control. As a “manufactured” band that was constantly attempting to transcend or leave behind the synthetic nature of their origins, the Pre-Fab Four relied to a great extent on hired songwriters—until, increasingly, they didn’t.
In 1966 RCA Records signed a bright young singer-songwriter named Harry Nilsson—who had been doing computer work in a bank on the night shift and hawking his songs around town during the day—and in early 1967 Nilsson submitted some material for use by the Monkees. The two acts were essentially label mates—the label that released the Monkees’ albums, Colgems, was a joint venture of RCA and Screen Gems, which was the television division of Columbia Pictures.
So on March 17, 1967, Harry Nilsson recorded several demos for the Monkees. Among them was “Cuddly Toy,” which would find its way onto Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., which was released in November 1967. A month later, Nilsson would release his own debut, Pandemonium Shadow Show.
Nilsson’s relationship with the Monkees grew over the years. Davy memorably sang and danced (with choreographer Toni Basil) to his “Daddy’s Song” in Head. Nilsson and Micky Dolenz became close enough that when Nilsson traveled to Ireland to meet his fiancee’s parents, Dolenz joined him for the trip. Dolenz occasionally used Nilsson’s London flat, a notorious residence in rock and roll history in that both Mama Cass and Keith Moon died there (er, not together, however).
Speaking of Moon, he plays a small part in another connection between Nilsson and the Monkees. Dolenz and Davy Jones starred in a 1977 production of Nilsson’s The Point that ran on London’s West End. On opening night, the production suffered from sound problems, and it was Moon, who happened to overhear Nilsson and Jones discussing the problem, who solved the problem by giving the production access to the sound equipment used on the Who’s tours.
In 2016 the Monkees released a new record called Good Times, which takes its title from one of Nilsson’s Monkees demos. The album features a reworking of Nilsson’s original “Good Times” demo, with added vocals by Dolenz to make a kind of virtual duet of the sort that Natalie Cole did with her dad some years ago.
“I Live in a World”:
“Counting” (with false start):
“Hey Little Girl”:
“This Could Be the Night” with false “Superman” start:
“The Story of Rock and Roll”:
Hat tip: Kliph Nesteroff
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Son of Dracula’: Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr’s cult comedy horror rock opera