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Before There Was Bieber, the Monkees’ ‘Daydream Believer’ Took the Teen World by Storm

Before Bieber, 'Daydream Believer' Took the Teen World by Storm
Rex Shutterstock

Released 50 years ago this week, the single “Daydream Believer” was the last No. 1 blast in the Monkees’ meteoric, TV-driven chart career. The quartet’s stick-to-your-brain hit, written by John Stewart and issued Oct. 25, 1967 by Colgems Records, was the band’s third chart-topping 45 and their fifth top-five release in 14 months.

During that time, the band logged four No. 1 albums; the first two of these, “The Monkees” and “More of the Monkees,” held the top slot in the U.S. for a staggering total of 31 consecutive weeks in 1966-67, selling a total of 10 million copies. To make a comparison of magnitude: “Meet the Beatles” and “The Beatles’ Second Album” had previously captured No. 1 back-to-back for a total of a mere 16 weeks in 1964.

During the sliver of time the Monkees reigned as America’s biggest band — for which “Daydream Believer” served as the exclamation point one of the most successful multi-media ventures in American pop history — they were, at least commercially, the stateside equivalent of their Liverpool rivals. But it’s hard to imagine a pair of more dissimilar acts.

After founding organically and slugging it out for years in dingy clubs in the U.K. and Europe, the Beatles finally rose to fame on the back of their own songs and their cheeky, distinctive personalities. On the other hand, the Monkees were formed quickly by a pair of canny independent TV producers in outright emulation of their English predecessors (prompting the dry sobriquet “the Prefab Four”), and were launched to the top by weekly network airtime and a brace of cannily penned tunes by diverse pro songwriters. For nearly two years, the Monkees’ formula worked spectacularly. Its major architects worked behind the cameras and away from the microphones.

In 1965, the neophyte TV producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider conceived an idea for a half-hour musical comedy series that would take its cues from the Beatles’ high-spirited features “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!”

The members of the struggling “band” to be featured on the show were recruited late that year. Englishman Davy Jones, who had secured a Tony nomination for his work as the Artful Dodger in “Oliver!” (and had shared the stage with the Beatles on the evening of their February 1964 debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show”), was already signed to a contract with Colpix Records.

Micky Dolenz was familiar to some TV viewers as the onetime star (under the name Mickey Braddock) of the ‘50s Saturday a.m. kids’ show “Circus Boy.” The other two performers, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork (né Thorkelson), were little-known vets of the New York folk music scene.

A pilot for the series, bankrolled by Screen Gems, Columbia Pictures’ TV arm, was shot in late 1965. The association with the company proved critical on the music side: It owned Aldon Music, a publishing company helmed by Don Kirshner, which sported many of the top hit-making Brill Building songwriters of the day.

Two of those cleffers, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, authored the theme song for “The Monkees,” which was picked up by NBC and debuted in September 1966. The series was launched with the simultaneous release, by Screen Gems’ record label Colgems, of a Boyce-Hart single, “Last Train to Clarksville,” which vaulted to No. 1.

The show was an instant success; its vibrant songs (featured weekly), visual energy, madcap humor and droll, self-referential style, pushed by its four stars’ winning personalities, captured teen audiences. For the network, Screen Gems and Colgems, it was a win-win: The music pushed the ratings, and the TV show pushed the records.

Through the fall of 1967, the Monkees prevailed at the upper reaches of the charts with crisply tailored material, for the most part played in the studio not by the band but by seasoned Hollywood session men.

While the Boyce-Hart team supplied many of the songs on the band’s albums, the biggest hits were crafted by members of Kirshner’s writing stable. Neil Diamond, then laboring anonymously in New York’s publishing labyrinth, authored both the band’s second No. 1 single, “I’m a Believer,” and its No. 2 follow-up “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” The subtle slice of social commentary “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” No. 3 in 1967, was penned by the veteran team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King.

However, the crowning No. 1 achievement by the Monkees came in over the transom, and from a somewhat unlikely source.

John Stewart had written “Daydream Believer” when he was still a member of the Kingston Trio, the popular urban folk group he had joined in 1961 as a replacement for co-founder Dave Guard. Like the Monkees, who took some shots as faux second-tier Beatles in some quarters, the Kingston Trio had been assailed as watered-down and inauthentic by ardent folk enthusiasts.

Stewart was beginning to explore a more personal side to his writing when the Kingston Trio disbanded in 1967. In a 2006 interview, he recalled that he envisioned “Daydream Believer” as “part of a suburbia trilogy” that focused on the growing distance in a couple’s marriage. Its comparatively serious subject matter and its setting echoed “Pleasant Valley Sunday.”

The song’s oblique lyrics focused on the endgame of a comfy but increasingly distant relationship. The narrator is caught in mid-gaze before the bathroom mirror, reflecting on the quiet dissolution of his materialistic marriage – a union between “a daydream believer and a homecoming queen,” now curdled and (as originally written) “funky,” driven more by money than by romance.

It was surprisingly mature subject matter for ‘60s pop consumption, but the tune’s blissfully melodic, irresistible chorus screamed “major hit potential,” and overrode the vaguely sketched darkness at its narrative he

The folk-pop groups We Five and Spanky & Our Gang had already passed on the song when Stewart was solicited for new material by the Monkees’ producer Chip Douglas during a party in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon. Douglas ultimately said the band would cut the song only if the lyrics were altered, with the word “funky” replaced with the nonsensical “happy.”

Stewart recalled that he replied, “‘Happy’ is looking real good to me right now.”

Sung by Davy Jones, “Daydream Believer” was cemented to the pinnacle of the U.S. chart for four weeks in late 1967 and early 1968. It was included on the Monkees’ last top-five album, the No. 3 entry “The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees,” alongside the band’s final top-five single, a remake of the TV show’s staple “Valleri.”

With two seasons of contracted production completed in 1968, “The Monkees” went off the air. The act’s swan song took place on the big screen with the dazzlingly post-modern feature film “Head”; though it failed at the box office, it launched the directorial career of its co-producer Bob Rafelson, who went on to helm such widely acclaimed dramas as “Five Easy Pieces” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

The Monkees and “Daydream Believer” both went on to enjoy a decades-long afterlife, thanks to repeat airings of the original TV series on CBS and Nickelodeon and the band’s sporadic reunions for new tours and recording, which continued, despite Jones’ 2012 death, through last year’s album “Good Times!”

For Stewart, who died in 2008 after a long and prolific solo career that included the No. 5 1979 hit “Gold,” “Daydream Believer” was the gift that kept on giving: In 1986, a remixed version of the song reached the Hot 100, peaking at No. 79.

Two years before his death, the songwriter said, “That song has paid the rent. That song has kept me alive.”