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  • Ben Province

Remembering The Monkees' Peter Tork

You could say that Peter Tork (pictured right), who has passed away at the age of 77, was the bassist for The Monkees, and you would be partially correct. That's how it appeared, but he was actually much more.

While the multi-instrumentalist was not the face of the band (that was Davy Jones), nor the most prolific songwriter (Michael Nesmith), nor the main voice (Mickey Dolenz), he may have been the most talented musician in the group. And it was a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who saw something special in him more than 50 years ago.

Tork's friend and former roommate Stephen Stills, who would later go on to join Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash, auditioned for a role with The Monkees. Consequence of Sound outlined this in a 2010 article.

"[Stills] failed to get cast mostly due to his appearance. He was only 21, but with his thinning hair and bad teeth, he simply looked too old," wrote Len Comaratta.

"Stills also had issues with Screen Gems [who filmed the program]. Part of the contract with the show required all music publishing rights to go to Screen Gems, something Stills was smartly unwilling to give up," the writer added.

But he left producers with a recommendation for Tork. And he was added to the lineup of the fictional band, The Monkees, starring in the NBC sitcom of the same name.

The cast used their real names for their characters in the show, blurring the lines between TV and reality. That theme continued when seven months after the first episode, in Oct. 1966, the band released its first studio album. But they weren't given the same treatment as a typical band -- not even by the people who hired them.

The first album is backed almost entirely by sessions musicians and written mostly by non-Monkees, despite the members' desire – not to mention their legitimate abilities – to be more involved.

Only two songs on "The Monkees" were written or co-written by a Monkee. Nesmith's composition "Papa Gene's Blues" and the Gerry Goffin-Carole King-Nesmith-penned track "Sweet Young Thing." The two songs were produced by Nesmith, and he picked Tork to play guitar on both, utilizing the small amount of creative control given to the band. That made Tork the only member to play an instrument on the self-titled debut.

But in fairness, they weren't hired to be a band. They were hired to play a band on TV. They were given an instrument to mime during the pseudo-music videos that would run during the show. This was not based on their abilities with that instrument, but how it looked aesthetically.

Dolenz, an excellent singer, was put behind the drum kit, but could not play the drums when the show began. Jones, however, could play the drums, but was typically positioned as the frontman. Nesmith said they should have been switched, and said that he should have been on bass and Tork on guitar. (This full arrangement did happen during the mimed clip for the song "Words," but never in-studio during recordings.)

It wouldn't be until their third album, "Headquarters," that the Monkees were allowed to play instruments throughout. (And, yes, Dolenz tracked his own drums -- even if they weren't perfect.)

The album opens with the Nesmith-penned "You Told Me," with Tork on banjo. He also played acoustic and electric guitars, bass guitar (on one song), electric piano organ, lent backing vocals and he also shared lead vocals on the quirky "Zilch." (Additionally, the only other notable studio recording from the '60s to feature Tork on bass was "Words.")

"For Pete's Sake," a song he co-wrote for "Headquarters," became the closing theme song for the TV show in season two. But while members were allowed to perform certain parts on future albums, "Headquarters" would be the closest thing to to a true band record until 1996's "Justus." As the name implies, it is just them playing, with Nesmith on guitar, Tork on bass, Jones adding percussion and Dolenz on drums.

Ultimately, Tork helped The Monkees legitimatize themselves as recording artists, because he could proficiently play multiple instruments. They told management they could play, and Tork was a big reason why they delivered on that promise. So, go ahead, listen to "Headquarters" today as a tribute to the two Monkees we've lost: Peter Tork, and also Davy Jones (pictured left) in 2012.


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