Allen Varney, writer and game designer


A "Blast From the Past" column from Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine:


by Allen Varney

[Published in Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine, September 1996.]

"A lot of pop music is about stealing pocket money from children." -- British rock musician Ian Anderson

I remember watching the Monkees on Saturday mornings in the late '60s, but their appeal eluded me. Today's tomb of mummified music, oldies radio, finally led me to examine this '60s made-for-TV phenomenon, which has parallels in the trading card field.

Musicians start bands, but "The Monkees" property was concocted by two TV producers, Bob Rafelson and Burt Schneider, in 1965 as a licensing property they pitched to the Columbia-Screen Gems corporation. Beatlemania had seized the nation then, which made it easy to sell a comedy series about a zany, mod California band. And it didn't hurt that Schneider's father, Abe, ran Columbia Pictures Television.

Once NBC "green-lighted" the show and acquired a sponsor (Kellogg's) for the 1966 fall season, Rafelson and Schneider recruited savvy scriptwriters, a production crew, music producer Don Kirshner, and two self-professed "short order cooks" of songwriting, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. The Columbia publicity machine stood ready. Choosing actual Monkees was almost an afterthought.

Contrary to myth, the four cast members -- George "Micky" Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork -- were indeed musicians. All had played in other bands except Jones, who had sung in musical theatre. But the four, assembled from a routine casting call (except for Jones, a Columbia contract player), did not gel well as a band -- or as a team. "There was never any camaraderie, except when the cameras were turned on," Jones said in a 1996 interview. "We were the best of friends on screen, and the best of enemies off screen." So on the early recordings Hart's band, the Candy Store Prophets, laid down the music tracks under the actors' vocals.

The Monkees' 1966 debut season stands as the clearest example to that time of television's colossal selling power. In weeks the group enjoyed a national fad, their single "I'm a Believer" (by Neil Diamond) started their line of huge pop hits, and the following year the show won an Emmy for best comedy series. Capitalizing on the fad, a numbered sepia-tone set of 44 Monkees trading cards appeared from Raybert Productions (aka Donruss) in 1966. Its success led to three more numbered 44-card color sets: "A" (white border) and "B" (yellow border) in 1966, "C" (pink border) in 1967. I like A's photo quality best, but B and C backs offer charming trivia questions ("Did Mike ever serve in the Armed Forces? Ans. See Card 42-B") and Monkees Facts ("MICKY: He wants to own a dragster"). None of these cards are scarce, but expect to pay around $100-125 to complete a set.

But in the meantime, stung by rumors that they couldn't play, the cast members ousted Kirshner and the Prophets in what Hart calls an "insurrection." From their third album on, the four played and wrote many of their songs, with indifferent results. The fad ran its course, the show died, and in 1969 the group broke up. In the next two decades only Nesmith had a noteworthy career, as a pioneering producer of music videos.

Yet nostalgia also has selling power. The show's 20th anniversary in 1986 revived interest, as did the recent 30th anniversary. Last year brought a nine-CD Monkees retrospective, a CD-ROM, and the reassembled band's first new album since 1969, Justus.

By then I'd belatedly hearkened to oldies radio and delighted in the early Kirshner bubblegum hits, which still loom large on that fossilized playlist. For all its relentlessly crass origins, "The Monkees" property did result in many engaging songs. I think the same phenomenon applies in trading cards: We see many sets released to capitalize cynically on the latest fad or exploit some popular license, yet the cards are often beautiful and informative. We collect and delight in them with a clear conscience. Avarice producing quality: I'm a believer.