I remember watching old episodes of the Monkees television show in reruns, usually on Saturday mornings, but I was a bit too young to see them when they originally aired in the 1960s. Even if you've never seen an actual episode, the music was ubiquitous and you can easily hear a Monkees song any day on an oldies station.
Peter Tork was generally the bassist for the group and would occasionally show up on keyboards. Tork died yesterday, at the age of 77. Tork and guitarist Mike Nesmith were both talented musicians on the L.A. scene; Tork hung out a lot with Stephen Stills and it wouldn't be difficult to construct an alternate history in which Stills passed his screen test and had been a Monkee instead, with Tork becoming a member of Buffalo Springfield.
The Monkees were, as a band, pretty good. They had some of the era's best songwriters at their disposal and often had the services of the Wrecking Crew, the great L.A. session musicians, to help fill out their sound. It's easy to bag on the Monkees for being the creation of television producers, but their music is really a triumph of craft. Consider one of their better songs, "Pleasant Valley Sunday," written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin:
After a while, the Monkees tired of being mostly actors and eventually started doing more of the actual performing. And they did some nice work later in this later period as well:
Was it brilliant? Not particularly, but it was always tuneful and fun. That's an element of 60s music that's often forgotten; even the schlock was often well-done. A contemporary of the Monkees who had a lot of hits in the era was Johnny Rivers. He did a lot of covers, including this cover of a Willie Dixon blues standard, which includes some fun musicianship and a weird milieu of beautiful California girls carrying odd cargo:
At least in my own mind, I tend to add another group of 60s hitmakers to this collection. That would be Tommy James and the Shondells, who came out of Michigan and hit the charts repeatedly, always pressing the fun button:
This music lives on, and will continue to live on, because craftsmanship has its virtues.