Songs are miracles, but they’re also a science. Other people’s talents are always a mystery to me — I don’t know how anyone can paint or dance, so I’m always blown away when someone can do that — but the greatest bit of magic is being able to write a song. Where did that melody come from? How did they devise that hook? As far as I’m concerned, it’s witchcraft.
Michael Nesmith, one of the founding members of the Monkees, died on Friday. That band’s best-known song is probably “I’m a Believer.” It’s a perfect representation of mid-1960s pop-rock, partly because it was designed to be as such. Many music fans couldn’t stand “I’m a Believer” because the Monkees didn’t write it — it’s the same reason they didn’t like the Monkees in general.
Writing about them in their heyday in 1967, longtime music critic Robert Christgau noted dismissively, “The Monkees are four young men who star in an adolescent TV comedy of the same name and make records that rise to the top of the charts like jellyfish. They were chosen … not for musical ability but for exuberance and irreverence, qualities salient in the chaps who were in those very successful Richard Lester movies. … They’re not too handsome, not too pretentious and every week they do silly things for 30 minutes, not counting commercials.” The Monkees were meant to capitalize on the success of the Beatles, who were real musicians with real talent. By comparison, the Monkees were designed in a lab. All these decades later, we’re still fighting about that as we listen to “I’m a Believer.” It’s a miracle, but it’s so perfectly constructed you may loathe it.
When the Beatles arrived on the scene in the early 1960s, powered by a string of exuberant hit singles and those movies Lester directed, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, it was natural that others in the record business would try to find their own Beatles. Bands like the Knickerbockers aped the Fab Four’s sound, but no group was as conscious in its pillaging as the Monkees. They were the brainchild of Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, Hollywood producers who would go on to back some of the most important American films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show. But first, they had an idea to do a show that featured the wacky misadventures of a rock band. They put out ads for “4 insane boys” for “acting roles in new TV series.” Some soon-to-be big names, like Stephen Stills and Harry Nilsson, auditioned, but the producers settled on Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork. Just like that, they were dubbed the Monkees.
Some of Nesmith’s new bandmates had been child stars, but he was a songwriter, albeit a struggling one. “I arrived on this set as a student poet and singer, kind of a traditional troubadour with roots in the Middle Ages,” he wrote in his memoir Infinite Tuesday. “I would write a poem and set it to music, mostly so I could remember it and perform it for an audience live.” He assumed he’d help write the music for this band for their show, also called The Monkees. But he was quickly disabused of this notion. “When I asked Bob Rafelson when we were going to record the music, he said we didn’t need to, that it was part of the production process that would be handled by other people. … It seemed as odd as it was disappointing. I had seen the opportunity arise to make music in a band, but now it was quickly slipping away.”
The Monkees was on for two seasons, running from 1966 to 1968. This was a period when the Beatles had stopped touring to focus on making more sophisticated albums, most notably Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and so the Monkees filled the gap for cute, goofy musicians palling around and getting into trouble. The show won Emmys and made the members of the Monkees household names. “The Monkees was the single most commercial venture that they ever did together,” Rafelson’s ex-wife Toby said in 2019. “It was followed by millions of screaming teenagers.” In fact, the show’s financial success helped bankroll Easy Rider, launching Rafelson’s and Schneider’s film career.
While the show was taking off, the Monkees were put in the studio to record albums, although the tunes were chosen from professional songwriters whose job it was to crank out smashes. And they were shepherded by Don Kirshner, a music producer who oversaw the band’s sound. “I try to cut hit records,” he once said. “I’ve had 75 to a hundred records in the Top 10. … With the Monkees, everything they did was Top 10. … ‘I’m a Believer’ had good riff lines, good handles. I think it had a freshness to it, a happy young pulsating sound. It sold four million copies.”
“I’m a Believer” wasn’t on their first album, 1966’s The Monkees, which came out a month after the show debuted. The bulk of the album was written by the team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, with additional tracks composed by the then-married couple Gerry Goffin and Carole King. “(Theme From) The Monkees” — a.k.a. “Hey Hey, We’re the Monkees” — and “Last Train to Clarksville” tapped into the raucous, youthful verve of Help!-era Beatles, while Nesmith’s own contribution, “Papa Gene’s Blues,” was a catchy lark. Their appeal was obvious and immediate, emulating the sugary rush of the Beatles’ singles.
The band’s most popular song would appear on their next record, More of the Monkees, which debuted three months later. (The single actually dropped only a month after The Monkees.) “I’m a Believer” was hatched by Neil Diamond, a writer trying to sell his tunes to publishers. As Diamond later described it, those early days didn’t sound especially glamorous:
“I spent seven or eight years knocking around in the music district of New York City, which was filled with publishers and record companies — and, therefore, swarms of hungry young songwriters trying to make their way into the music world. I was going to New York University at that time, so I would take the subway into Manhattan and attend my classes. Then I’d hop back on the subway and take it up to 51st Street and make my rounds with the songs that I’d written during the previous week or two weeks. I’d wait my turn on audition days and play my songs. Sometimes they were accepted and I would get a small advance — about $50 or so — and go down into one of the tiny studios in those buildings and make a demo. It was an opportunity for me to familiarize myself with the recording world.”
Diamond had written a song called “Cherry, Cherry,” which attracted Kirshner’s notice. He asked the young man if he had any songs that might work for the Monkees. (“I knew I was making it because it was the first time I had ever been invited into this kingmaker’s office,” Diamond later recalled.) And Diamond played him “I’m a Believer.”
Appropriate for the upcoming Summer of Love, Diamond had written a song about falling for someone, sung from the perspective of a guy who didn’t quite believe love could happen for him.
I thought love was only true in fairy tales
Meant for someone else but not for me
Love was out to get me
That’s the way it seemed
Disappointment haunted all my dreams
Then I saw her face
Now I’m a believer
Not a trace of doubt in my mind
I’m in love
I’m a believer
I couldn’t leave her if I tried
Famously, the Monkees weren’t all that impressed with “I’m a Believer” initially. Jeff Berry, one of the producers on More of the Monkees, recalled Nesmith disparaging the song, convinced he could do a better job. “The problem is that some artists are not objective enough to step back and understand why they’re successful,” Berry later said. “The death of too many artists is when they want to do everything.” (As for Diamond, who was just starting out and later penned another Monkees hit, “A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You,” he was just grateful for the break. “For me, it meant I could eat for another couple of weeks!” he later said.)
“I don’t specifically remember recording this,” Dolenz, who sang the lead vocal, admitted later. “Filming [of The Monkees] took eight to 10 hours a day, and on the weekends we rehearsed for the tour. I would go in after filming and have to lay down these vocals. I remember sometimes doing two or three a night. They just needed so much material for the show. They wanted at least one new song in every episode.”
As was customary at the time, the Monkees didn’t play the instruments on “I’m a Believer” — that was handled by session players — but the groovy organ and likeably bouncy melody expertly captured the Flower Power aesthetic. It could have been written by the Beatles — especially that little guitar figure that pops up a few times, mimicking a similar riff from “Paperback Writer” — and its shiny breeziness sent the song to the top of the charts, staying at No. 1 for seven weeks. The previous single to stay there that long? “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
The Monkees were popular but not taken seriously, mocked as photogenic young men who could sing pretty well but couldn’t play their instruments. (Even on the show, they were performing along to other musicians.) But despite being controlled by Kirshner, there was no denying Dolenz’s joyful vocal performance on “I’m a Believer,” which delivered just the right mix of wistfulness and devotion. The song may have been lightweight, but it spoke to the optimism of the times — the belief that, truly, all you need is love — and Dolenz made no apologies for his band’s success. Years later in his memoir, he wrote about that early stardom: “I am very proud of my participation in all this. I still am. And to all of those who criticized, condemned, berated, lambasted, denounced, defamed, defiled or otherwise desecrated the Monkees … Go fuck yourselves.”
The Monkees soon said something similar to Kirshner, firing him and taking control of their musical direction. Much of the tension stemmed from the fact that More of the Monkees was released without the band’s knowledge or input — basically, the album was a rush job to profit off the group’s booming popularity. The split wasn’t easy, though: As Dolenz later recalled, things got contentious during a meeting near the end of their partnership: “Donny was there with his attorney, basically presenting us with this money and saying, in so many words, ‘Why don’t you shut up and cash the check?’ And that’s not the sort of thing you said to Mike Nesmith at the time. To be honest, I couldn’t have cared less. I was 20 years old, making money. But Mike led this revolt, and out of camaraderie, we all went along.”
Subsequently, the Monkees had more say over their albums, even though they still would tackle songs from their fellow writers, such as Kingston Trio’s John Stewart, who gave them “Daydream Believer,” another No. 1 smash. Subsequent albums, like Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., also did really well. But by the late 1960s, band members started dropping out: first Tork, then Nesmith. The Monkees were done by 1971. In his autobiography, Jones, who tried a solo career, wrote, “I didn’t know what I wanted. Part of the time I was trying to get everyone united, and the rest of the time I just wanted to go home and sleep for a few years.”
The 1970s were an age of hard rock, punk, disco and glam. There wasn’t much room for the Monkees, although individual members went off and did their own thing, including Nesmith, who formed the First National Band, one of the first country-rock outfits. He didn’t talk much about the Monkees in his memoir, saying in a subsequent interview, “It seemed the better part of wisdom to leave that story in the book where it was in my life — an important and pleasant chapter, but only a chapter, followed by many others that put the Monkees in their proper perspective. … The Monkees was first and last a television show and it is easy to see and understand the limits of that.”
But although they were often derided for being a manufactured group — dubbed the Prefab Four — the Monkees ended up having a second life. In the 1980s, as MTV was rising to prominence, the network aired old episodes of The Monkees, bringing the band’s zaniness to a new generation. When Rachel Maddow interviewed Tork in 2012, she proclaimed, “The teenagers of the ‘80s learned what it was like to be teenagers in the ‘60s in part due to watching Monkees reruns on MTV.”
And, of course, Nesmith had a small but crucial role in popularizing the notion of the music video. In the late 1970s, he’d written a song called “Rio,” and when he was asked to do a promotional film, he got ambitious. “I wrote a series of cinematic shots: me on a horse in a suit of light, me in a tux in front of a 1920s microphone, me in a Palm Beach suit dancing with a woman in a red dress, women with fruit on their head flying through the air with me,” he said in I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution.
As he was editing the clip, he realized something startling: “The grammar of film, where images drove the narrative, shifted over to where the song drove the narrative, and it didn’t make any difference that the images were discontinuous. It was hyper-real. Even people who didn’t understand film, including me, could see this was a profound conceptual shift.” Nesmith was hardly the first artist to make a music video, but he helped drive the idea that there could be a whole industry devoted to producing these kinds of clips.
At the same time, a new crop of songwriters grew up on the Monkees, including XTC’s Andy Partridge, whose first two records he bought were Sgt. Pepper’s and The Monkees. “I couldn’t play yet,” Partridge reminisced in the late 1980s. “My dad had an old guitar that he used in a Navy skiffle band stashed behind the couch. I’d drag it out and try to figure out chords by watching the Monkees on TV.”
While the Beatles were no doubt the superior band, the Monkees perhaps better personified the notion of Being Young. The Beatles evolved beyond that, finding a growing maturity in their songwriting, but the Monkees were the perfect teenagers who never grew up. Songs like “I’m a Believer” had an innocence to them that, even though they were prepackaged, seemed to understand something fundamental about what it’s like to experience certain things for the first time: love, rejection, wanderlust. The Monkees weren’t exactly a boy band, but they triggered a similar tension, making listeners question what was the most important element of a song. The person who wrote it? The people on the album cover? The guy who sang it? Or could the song transcend all that? Could “I’m a Believer” be a miracle even if it didn’t have a clear creator?
Everyone from the Four Tops to Smash Mouth have covered “I’m a Believer,” the former infusing it with an almost gospel-like passion, while the latter (on the Shrek soundtrack) turned it into a kids’ sing-along. But then again, maybe it always was. “I’m a Believer” has such a bosteriousness — it’s as if the singer has discovered he’s in love right that very moment — that it exudes a playful naivety. No wonder children are suckers for the song.
The Monkees are still not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is the kind of thing that angers people predisposed to be annoyed by such things. Do a Google search for “In defense of the Monkees” and you’ll find plenty of blog posts and essays. In her book, Why The Monkees Matter: Teenagers, Television and American Pop Culture, author Rosanne Welch argues that the band was far more radical than it was given credit for: “The fact that they became so popular with 12-year-olds in 1966 may have helped lead to the further participation of those same suburban students in the various protest movements of the early 1970s when those 12-year-olds became 18 — the protest for the vote for 18-year-olds; protests against the Vietnam War; protests for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.” And that sneaky edginess applied to their show as well, according to Welch, who writes, “The Monkees … introduced young audiences to new ideas of political ideology, a new anti-military discourse and new concepts of class and feminist theory.”
All of that may be a stretch, but who’s to say what influences us when we’re young? Even something as harmless and deeply hummable as “I’m a Believer” can spur a listener to see their world in a whole different way. It’s not just the Clash and Rage Against the Machine that can open up a person’s political consciousness. (And never forget that Nesmith was a vocal anti-Trumper, saying a few years ago, “I’m a peacenik and have been a peacenik ever since I figured that out in the Vietnam War. In terms of finding real substance in the lawmakers and their policies, I just can’t find it right now. I’m not chasing anybody around. I’m pretty sure Trump is immoral and wrong.”)
The surviving members of the Monkees would sometimes reunite for tours. (Jones died in 2012. Tork passed seven years later.) When Dolenz was out there on the road, he’d often close with “I’m a Believer.” “It’s probably my [signature] Monkees tune,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016, later adding, “I can’t explain why it’s proven to be so popular. You can’t reduce art like that, especially collaborative stuff. You can’t say it was Neil Diamond’s lyrics, or no, it was the melody. No wait, it was the background vocals. With anything collaborative, at some point the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.”
It’s much like describing one’s own youth. We remember bits and pieces, but they’re only fragments. It’s hard to form the entire picture. But the collected shards constitute something powerfully emotional for us. Maybe you didn’t grow up with “I’m a Believer,” but you probably had a song like it. To reject the song would be like rejecting your childhood self, when certain adolescent feelings were so all-encompassing you were convinced no one had ever experienced them before. Teenagers are like that, and whoever made “I’m a Believer” into “I’m a Believer” understood that, too.
“The challenge of writing a wonderful song is still enough to take up my mind, imagination and ambitions,” Neil Diamond said in 2012. “It is a wonderful challenge to start with nothing and come out with something beautiful, relatable or just plain entertaining. That has been with me from the beginning, and it remains. I haven’t been distracted by anything that interests me as much as the idea of writing a great song.”
That mystery is shared between the artist and the audience: Where did this thing come from? It’s as baffling as love itself.