American television producers for NBC created the Monkees as an antidote for the Beatle-mania that had flooded the nation with records, live concerts, and a very successful feature film, Hard Days Night! (1964). They were designed to star in a free-form (one might dub it surrealism lite) weekly comedy that featured the fabricated four trying to extricate themselves from a variety of wacky situations. The show in some ways was a precursor to music videos in that it contained one or two creatively photographed musical interludes. After a series of rigorous auditions and screen tests, the producers weeded through 500 applicants, including musician Stephen Stills who was rejected for having improper hair and bad teeth, to cast Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, David Jones, and Michael Nesmith. All four had previous musical experience: Jones had recorded an album and sung with the cast of the Broadway show Oliver! on the Ed Sullivan Show -- ironically on the same night the Beatles appeared; Nesmith, using the name Michael Blessing, had recorded and written the hit single "Different Drum" for the Stone Ponies; Tork could play several instruments and was a member of the New York folk scene; and Dolenz had been a child star (billed as Mickey Braddock) on the television series Circus Boy (1956-1958) and was playing in a L.A. band at the time he became a Monkee. But though all were musicians, they did not mesh well in the studio sessions created before the show aired and producer Don Kirshner was brought in to produce their first couple of albums (many of their songs were penned by Boyce and Hart). Kirshner insisted on using session players for their first two albums. The Monkees however, gained control on the third, Headquarters, and on it played most of the instruments themselves. The Monkees' first single, "The Last Train to Clarksville," was released before the show first aired in 1966 and became the first of a series of hits.
The group attained almost instant star status and, within a year, the hot teen idols were touring and attempting to play their own music, something that caused initial embarrassment when they didn't sound nearly as good as they did on the record. However, the Monkees honed their skills, with Tork already knowing how to play several instruments, and became quite competent. By 1968, the foursome had grown tired of being clean-cut teen idols. Together with director Bob Rafelson, who wrote the script with actor Jack Nicholson, they created Head. Psychedelic, angry, surreal, and at times funny, it was simultaneously an attempt for the world to see them, not as teeny-bopper fodder, but as grown young men who were hip to the times and a symbolic biting of the hand that fed them. The film certainly achieved its goal. Head's low ratings resulted in the show's cancellation. As a group they recorded a couple more times, and then disbanded, only to again reunite, sans Mike Nesmith, who was busy making innovative music videos and working on his distinguished solo career. Each Monkee has appeared separately on different television shows and in feature films. Their group was the subject of a televised documentary, Hey! Hey! We're the Monkees, in 1996 and in 1997, the four appeared on a television special and reminisced about their old show in the same format as the previous venue. The Monkees continued recording and in 1997 completed Justus, which featured all their own material and no studio musicians.