33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee (1969)

We have the knowledge—evil though it be—
To twist the mind to any lunacy
We wish. Through this Electro-Thought Machine,
I’ll demonstrate exactly what I mean.
We’ll take the means of mass communication,
Use them for commercial exploitation,
Create the new four-part phenomena:
Four simple minds with talent (little or none),
And through the latest fad of rock and roll,
Conduct experiments in mind control!
On an unsuspecting public they’ll be turned!
I’ll brainwash them, and they’ll brainwash...THE WORLD!!!

When we last left the blog, I had just reviewed the 1968 Monkees movie Head, a 98-minute stream-of-consciousness sketch film which contextually counter-argued accusations that the group was just four pretty faces with no musical talent while deconstructing their TV series and the Hollywood media machine.

I also mentioned that Head tanked in theaters, permanently severed ties between the band and the show’s production company, and signaled the beginning of the end for the Monkees.

Well, between Head and the group finally calling it quits in 1970, they had one last fling as a foursome on the idiot box.

33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee was meant to be one of three Monkees specials to be broadcast on NBC in 1969. With Bob Rafelson and Bert Schnieder no longer around, the band instead were left in the (questionably) capable hands of producer Jack Good, creator of the ABC show Shindig!, one of many mid-60s musical variety shows known for not lasting anywhere near as long as Soul Train or American Bandstand.

NBC was so displeased with the final cut of the special that they chose to air it on April 14, 1969…against ABC’s broadcast of the 41st Annual Academy Awards. On top of that, it was accidentally shown out of order thanks to an engineer who mixed up the tapes. Suffice to say, the ratings were not good.

The Monkees themselves had, and possibly still have, their own issues with the special.

They weren’t happy with Good and director Art Fisher’s sloppy script.

Micky Dolenz, in a commentary track on Rhino’s DVD version, stated that he has mixed feelings over the final product.

Peter Tork called it “the TV version of Head.”

Davy Jones thought it gave the guest stars too much screen time.

Also suffice to say, this special has not been rebroadcast since it premiered as far as I know, which makes it more obscure when combined with the fact that I only know the names of some of these people from Wikipedia and have not heard of a third of the special guests on it. I’m flying into this just as blindly as you are.

So the special opens up with—

Hoo boy.

“WHO ARE YOU?” bellows the disembodied mouth in the poorly chroma-keyed necklace. Pan up to Julie Driscoll’s head.

“IIIII-IIIIIIIII-IIIIIIIIIII AMMMMMMMMMMMMMM WOMAN!!!” she roars in a voice too big to ignore, and then she takes a very loud bite of an apple and hands it to Brian Auger.

Auger, sitting at an organ on a forklift driven by a man in an ape costume, describes in iambic pentameter to the audience his plan to create a manufactured pop music sensation and use whatever musical talents they have to control the minds of the unsuspecting public through their music. He conjures the Monkees, encases them in long glass tubes, saps them of their identities and with a bite of the apple, is…then not seen for a while.

As the boys pound on their little glass prisons, Julie Driscoll suggests that they use their minds to escape through their own worlds of fantasy. And the boys do just that.

Micky Dolenz duets with Driscoll on a soul music rendition of that old Monkees staple “I’m a Believer”.

Peter Tork dons Eastern attire and sits amongst Indian dancers and a fog machine to perform “I Prithee (Do Not Ask For Love)”.

Michael Nesmith duets with himself as a cowboy on acoustic guitar in “Naked Persimmon (The Only Thing I Believe is True”. (Why he says “rubulator” midway through I can’t honestly say.)

The perpetually typecast Davy Jones dresses as a schoolboy, dances with dollies and sings about dating storybook characters in “Goldilocks Sometime”.

Auger returns during Davy’s bit and announces that the psychoanalysis of his musical soldiers is complete.

Still not as animatronic as N'Sync.

In the next bit, all four Monkees sing “Wind Up Man” while walking around like robots with their batteries running out. This displeases Auger, so he decides to teach them a new song and starts playing a little rhythm on a piano. The camera zooms out to reveal that Auger is standing on another piano being played by the Jerry Lee Lewis…who is standing on another piano being played by the Little Richard…who is standing on yet another piano being played by the Fats Domino.

You still with us?

Suddenly Charles Darwin interrupts the proceedings and suggests that Auger go back to the very beginning, which serves as a segue to—

To answer the question you’ve just now asked yourself, that would be Paul Arnold and the Moon Express’ performance of “Only the Fittest Shall Survive”. I don’t understand it either, nor do I understand why they’ve painted what look like penises on the men’s unitards and vaginas on the women’s unitards.

Next the Monkees are back on stage dressed as monkeys (spelled with a Y here to avoid confusion) and perform Neil Sadaka’s “I Go Ape” while they and their backup dancers run around doing stuff and the film plays back and forth.

Darwin then throws a net over the Monkees and turns it back over to Auger and Driscoll, who perform a cover of the Young Rascals’ “Come On Up” with their band the Trinity before introducing their new “idolized, plasticized, psychoanalyzed and sterilized” Monkees at the Paramount Theater on December 7, 1956 (which looks exactly like the set used at the beginning of the special) which sets off a medley of 1950s rock music. Jerry, Richard and Fats return, and most of the rest of the special’s musical guest list are there as well for what amounts to an at least ten minutes of 50s rock, dancing and stock footage, for much of which the Monkees themselves don’t even appear. Doesn’t it sort of take the focus off of your new manufactured pop group by throwing guest star after guest star in their debut concert?

Objects on screen use more hair gel than it appears.

Well, anyway, the medley goes on for so long that the special loses track of time completely and starts wrapping things up as Auger and Driscoll break their characters (and accents) and say that the whole brainwashing thing has gotten entirely out of hand and what we really want is complete and total freedom.

So that’s the whole mind control plot resolved, basically. It doesn’t really end, it just…stops.

We end at a junkyard, where Davy sings “String For My Kite”, Peter plays Bach’s Solfeggietto on the organ, and then Mike and Micky appear and they all perform “Listen to the Band” as all the guest stars come back and the set fills with hippies. This concert eventually descends into frantic chaos, flagrant video effects and cacophonous noise before they finally quite literally close the book on the whole thing.

(Note the title on the book’s cover – “The Beginning of the End”. How accurate it was—right after production wrapped on this special, Peter Tork, who ironically was the only Monkee to turn up on the first day of shooting Head after the band learned they wouldn’t get writing credits, bought out his contract and left the group for reasons of exhaustion. As a matter of fact, the closing number would be the last time the Monkees were shown as a quartet until the reunion in 1986. Must have been a book of prophesy or something.)

Then Peter sings about California getting nuked during the end credits as we cut back to the interpretive dancers.

"So yeah, we've suddenly decided that brainwashing sucks and we're not going to do it anymore.
Sorry about trying to take over the world and everything."

Those of you who thought that Head didn’t make sense...well, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee makes even less than that.

The message is essentially the same, but the execution is nowhere near as fluid. We get that it’s supposed to be about the Monkees, but the producers choose instead to focus more on the musical guests. There are moments where the band aren’t even on screen for minutes at a time, Auger and Driscoll have the most prominent parts here, and the Paramount Theater concert gives too much attention to Jerry, Richard, Fats and the rest of its guest roster. In fact, the medley goes on for so long that it completely derails the plot. This feels less like the Monkees’ original vision as seen in Head and more like one of Jack Good’s music programs.

I’m also not certain why the scriptwriter thought turning the Monkees into archetypal 1950s rock singers was his idea of a manufactured music group. Maybe, again, it’s because of the guest stars, many of whom launched their careers in the 1950s, but it really could have been explained a little better. In my opinion, the Monkees’ performance of “Wind Up Man” better fits their message.

I will say this though: most of the music is pretty good, particularly the opening acts from the individual Monkees which gives us a hint as to each member’s musical influence. The end song wasn’t bad either, but I think they were trying too hard with the whole Sgt. Pepper’s-style big finish.

So in summary, come for the music and stay for the…err…well, come for the music.

As for the rest of it, I believe Julie Driscoll said it best—“utter bloody shambles.”

I heard this special was particularly unpopular in the state of Kansas. I can’t IMAGINE why...


Brittany said...

It's also a rare look at the beginning of the end of the psychedelic 60's. It's got a wild feel. It was probably a trip if you were on drugs or drunk!

Anonymous said...

I love Head, but I hate this special. They already protested against their "manufactured" image in Head, to much better effect. Doing again in this special made me think of them as whiny celebrities complaining about their careers while American soldiers suffered and died in VietNam.