After completing the second season of the Monkees TV shows, the band was getting tired of the generic sitcom scripts they were getting, so they and the network decided to do three specials instead of another season. 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee was the only one they ever did. It ran in spring 1969 against the Academy Awards, ensuring almost no one saw it. Those who did probably didn’t know what to make of it.
It’s similar to their movie Head, satirizing their plastic image and consumerism. As you’d guess, it’s trippy, goofily symbolic, and at times, downright unexplainable — a real time capsule of the late 1960s.
It opens with Brian Auger dressed up as some kind of futuristic guru/mad scientist capturing the four boys into plastic tubes while playing a Hammond organ painted in psychedelic colors sitting on a forklift driven by a gorilla. They’re brainwashed into being numbered Monkees so that he can use them to brainwash the world. (The set and costumes here reminded me of a Dr. Who episode combined with the video for the song “Pop Musik”.) Julie Driscoll plays Woman, painted orange with strange eye makeup, and chomps into an apple.
Each Monkee gets to do their own number as an indication of their fantasies. Micky wants to be James Brown, doing an R&B version of “I’m a Believer” as a duet with Julie. Peter is a guru in a vaguely mid-Eastern setting singing a song about … well, I’m not sure, but the message I got was that connections lead to love, which is an entanglement and shouldn’t be desired.
Mike’s song is the neatest, both musically and visually. Against the background of a poster saying “Wanted for Fraud”, two versions of him duet. One, dressed as a spangled country-western cowboy, strums an acoustic guitar and talks about how he just wants to sing. The other, in a modern suit, plays electric and spews invective against materialism and such, and the two swap off singing. It’s got a clear message, invitingly and involvingly executed, and a catchy tune. Typical of his writing of the time, although the chorus says “The Only Thing I Know Is True”, the title of the piece is actually “Naked Persimmon”.
Davy’s production number is unsurprising — it could have come off a Broadway stage, and it’s about reverting to childhood, featuring girls dressed as Cinderella, Goldilocks, and the like. The four are reunited to do a number about being clockwork men as Monkees, then Auger appears as Charles Darwin, to take them back to the beginning.
After an interpretive dance about the beginning of the world (booooring, although I started wondering about how this material would go over today, what with the Creationist fundies pounding their drums), there’s a number with the four dressed as monkeys singing something written by Neil Sedaka that has monkey noises as the chorus. This number is noticeable mostly because the dancers are costumed as pink and blue and green monkeys, and there’s lots of video tricks, stuttering the film and such.
Somewhere in there (the order is really fuzzy to me, trying to remember everything I saw), there’s an amazing arrangement with Brian Auger playing organ on top of a piano played by Jerry Lee Lewis, who’s on top of a piano being played by Little Richard, who’s on top of a piano played by Fats Domino. My first thought was “is that safe?” Then I thought it was really cool that they got those three to come on the show.
They later return for a showcase number about the roots of rock’n’roll, an extensive medley where each play individually, punctuated by the Monkees doing songs like “At the Hop” and “Shake a Tailfeather” and “Little Darlin'”. (This is another way the group were ahead of their time, by the way, since 50s nostalgia was just beginning to start around then, reaching its peak in the 70s with Happy Days and Grease.) It’s great music, enthusiastically performed, and unfortuately damaged by the awful sound quality. The production had to move at the last minute to another studio when technicians went on strike at NBC, and the playback was reportedly horrible. The lead vocals were recorded live during the show’s taping, and there are dropouts (usually when someone forgets and moves the mike away from their face) and odd mixes.
Let’s see, what else… oh, yes. The special ends with a lengthy live jam that debuts “Listen to the Band”, one of the best Monkees songs and an all-round great pop song. This special (and that number) was Peter’s last performance with the band, since he left afterwards and didn’t reunite with them until the 80s, although the three others continued on with two more albums. His version of “California Here It Comes” runs over the closing credits. Here’s a bunch of production notes on the special.
We’re finally finishing up our viewing of the Monkees DVD box sets, and this concludes the second. It was surprisingly entertaining viewing after a carb-loaden Italian feast out. I’d never seen it in its entirety before, and after doing so, I thought that it looked like the kind of thing I tried to create in high school video class, only I had the technology that they clearly didn’t yet. KC remembers it as the first show he ever recorded — by holding a tape recorder up to the TV so he could capture it in some form.
If you haven’t heard me talk about the Monkees before, I love them. My high school thesis was on their lasting effects on American culture, and it’s one of the two things that brought KC and I together (with the other being the Legion of Super-Heroes).