PETER Tork was often credited with being the brainy one of the bunch.
And when it comes to discussing the cancer that he beat but has affected his speech it is clear he is also perhaps the most pragmatic of The Monkees
“I stopped for a second and realised that if my philosophy of life had been changed by cancer it wasn’t a strong philosophy in the first place,” he says midway through our chat.
It’s a stoical point among many made by a man who won over millions in the UK and the USA with his musical clowning in the ground-breaking TV musical comedy show.
The Monkees were put together in Los Angeles in 1966 for the series. It lasted just two years but became legendary.
Although multi-instrumentalist Peter, British-born heart-throb singer Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith were musically disrespected by some, including their own management, because of their manufacture, Tork was determined to have them taken seriously as a live and recording entity – something that continues as they undertake their 45th anniversary tour.
“I was not and am not driven to act,” says Peter at home in Connecticut ahead of their Sheffield City Hall show a week today.
“The more I go on, the longer I live, the more I see the music as important, however good I am at it. There’s things I’m good at and things I’m not good at.
“I have gotten off as an actor once or twice but it was rare – the stuff around it was too complicated and too heavy.
“As a musician in a band every night I get off, I go ‘Oh yeah, this is what I’m doing this for, God’s in heaven and all is right with the world’. Those fabulous moments of bliss...I get those every night we play. There was one night I didn’t out of hundreds and hundreds of shows I’ve done.”
And Peter includes both of his current bands, The Monkees and Shoe Suede Blues, which he leads when not on the road with the more famous combo.
“Once you learn how to say it you can never say the name of the song correctly,” he quips. “I have to stop doing Shoe Suede Blues to do The Monkees, but it’s fun. Every time I’ve done a Monkees tour I’ve enjoyed it more than I did the last time. And I’m looking forward to that continuing.”
Monday sees the timely release of MonkeeMania - The Very Best of The Monkees, a 57-track reminder of some often under-rated moments from a band devised as an answer to Beatlemania. In 1967 they actually outsold both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones on the way to shifting 50 million records.
The likes of Daydream Believer, Last Train To Clarksville, Pleasant Valley Sunday and I’m A Believer won them fans both sides of the Atlantic while the TV show won new fans when repeated throughout the 1980s. The Monkees 1968 Jack Nicholson co-produced psychedelic film Head continues to claim cult status.
Their creation may have been controversial but the band became embedded in the ’60s pop fraternity and drew respect from perhaps unlikely sources – John Lennon branded them “the Marx Brothers of rock” while the Sex Pistols played (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone in their shows and Run DMC covered Mary, Mary.
More importantly The Monkees provided a soundtrack to teenage lives beyond the crazy antics of their lives in a shared house.
It’s something that still resonates – Scottish newcomers Kassidy lived and wrote their album under one roof “just like The Monkees did”.
“The TV show, why it worked so well for the generations that watched, is it came at a time when political authority figures of the day didn’t seem to be interested in the welfare of the country as a whole,” reflects Peter, who was first to exit the original line-up in 1968, citing exhaustion.
“They were interested in their own egos and political careers and we saw something like the ‘W years’ when it as obvious the guys wouldn’t mind seeing the country go down the tubes in flames if they could line their pockets. There was an abdication of responsibility and back in the ’60s when this was going on with Linden Johnson and Dick Nixon we, the young of our day, saw we were on our own and The Monkees was the only show on the air about young adults with no senior adult figure.
“That reflected understanding of the way things worked and we didn’t have to get bitter about it, we just went about our business. There wasn’t anybody we could rely on. The authority figures were the landlord and con artists out to do something at our expense and we were defending ourselves against that but having a good time getting into one kind of situation or another.
“So many ‘kids’ have come up and said ‘for half an hour a day I watched The Monkees and life seemed to be good’ because we were happy with each other.”
The political climate may have evolved since, but the music has endured, partly because of Peter’s driving of their musical aspirations.
“I hope to have done some of that and I know I had some influence,” he concedes. “It’s hard for me to calculate it exactly. Mike had some ideas along these lines as well. I’m not sure they were entirely musical and I’m not sure mine were either but my ambition has always been to play in the band.
“We made a record called Headquarters and I was as happy as a clam. For a garage band, which is what we really were, that record seems to me to stand up very well. It was four funny, imaginative guys with a range of capacities and if you want to hear what a garage band sounds like when it grows up, listen to Justus, our (original line-up) record in 1997. I don’t know how good a CD it is but it doesn’t bother me to listen to it, I’ll give you that much.”
How much of that garage demeanour he hears in Sheffield’s own Monkey men Peter won’t say but he does acknowledge their impact on the current climate. He also says there is still a chance Nesmith may join The Monkees’ first tour in 12 years. “Mike has a different life from the rest of us,” he offers, diplomatically.
“The other three of us are entertainers and were knocking around and this thing came up pretty much in line with what we do. Michael has other ideas and plans for his life. He might step out on stage with us, out of the blue, but this is not his thing any more much.”
A glance down the history of The Monkees reveals a love/hate story littered with sniping and fall-outs among musicians who often misunderstood each other as much as their critics did. However, the public legacy is one of enduring rock pop and, for now at least, three of them back on the road.
“Davy Jones used to say ‘I can’t wait for tomorrow, I get better looking every day’,” adds Peter, now 69 and who has, in between tours, worked as a tutor and basketball coach. “It sort of feels like that.”
Win tickets and MonkeeMania CDs: See The Star tomorrow.