The Ballad of Dino, Jared, Larry, and Marty

When rampant nostalgia meets corporate greed, the results are often unpretty

The Ballad of Dino, Jared, Larry, and Marty
Ladies and gentlemen, your New Monkees

As full-time smartass and forever Friend of Jefitoblog David Lebovitz pointed out in the responses to yesterday's post, my list of single-season sitcoms of the '80s was less than comprehensive. This, of course, could and should have gone without saying, but David's complaint was hyper-specific — he wasn't demanding a post covering ALL single-season sitcoms of the '80s, but one that made room for one in particular.

That show? New Monkees, which aired as a syndicated series for 13 weeks in the fall of 1987. Remember: Everything that happens from here on out is David's fault.

Technically, I think I would categorize New Monkees as less of a sitcom than a sort of frantic, neon-laced fever dream. It's hard for me to describe what I'm talking about in a way that'll make perfect sense if you weren't there to experience it, but there was a certain type of late '80s mainstream entertainment that conveyed desperately insistent merriment in the sort of sweaty, clenched-jaw way reminiscent of cocaine users. Lots of bright colors, lots of non sequitur humor, lots of editing tricks like speeding up the video, and the end result was product that wasn't so much "fun" in the normal sense of the word as it was a loud demand that fun was being had, over and over again, in the hopes that eventually you'd just give up and submit.

New Monkees was this type of show. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

While New Monkees is barely remembered by most people today, pretty much everyone is familiar with The Monkees, a prefab pop group assembled to act in an NBC sitcom dreamed up to ride the coattails of Beatlemania. The members of the Monkees — Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork — started out as good little soldiers when the show debuted in 1966, but after the show took off and they started scoring hits with other people's songs and musical backing provided by session aces, they insisted on taking the reins; while they were successful in this creative coup, the show sputtered out shortly after, and the group disbanded in 1970.

For the next decade-plus, the Monkees were mostly thought of as a quaint cultural artifact if they were thought of at all, but when MTV and Nickelodeon started airing the series to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 1986, a tidal wave of nostalgia sent the band back on the road. Although Nesmith was generally not involved for the most part, the dates sold well, and produced new product in the form of a best-of set (Then & Now, featuring the new Top 20 hit "That Was Then, This Is Now") and the atrociously titled, Nesmith-free Pool It! album, released the following year.

I think it's important to note that the Monkees weren't the only act benefiting from '60s nostalgia at the time. You could fill a book (and I'm sure more than one person already has) with the torrent of songs, films, and TV series that got a green light because they were covers/revivals of old hits or because they were related to the era's intellectual property in some way. Leave It to Beaver was exhumed for the Still the Beaver TV movie in 1983, which led to the long-running New Leave It to Beaver series. There was a Twilight Zone movie, followed by a short-lived new series. Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987. Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon reunited for Back to the Beach. You had The New Gidget. The Munsters Today. And who can forget when CBS revived The Brady Bunch as an hourlong drama titled The Bradys in 1990? You know, the one in which young Bobby is left paraplegic after a racing accident in the second episode?

I digress. The point is that the mid-to-late '80s were a lot like our current era in terms of studios scouring their vaults for any and all old hits they could drag out of mothballs and reap the windfall. This is the environment that produced the New Monkees, and on paper, the whole thing looks pretty crass: It was spearheaded by Steve Blauner, one of the producers of the original Monkees, and as before, the plan was to assemble a "band" via casting call, with the group going on to star in a TV series and record an album, each of which would be used to promote the other. If the plan worked once, why not use it again, right?

Well, you probably already know why not, and the list of reasons is long, but the biggest issue with this kind of thing is usually that just because something was popular once upon a time, that doesn't mean people are going to respond to a recreated or updated version years later. The Monkees were a mercenary enterprise at their roots, but they were also musically talented in their own right and they had a chemistry that persisted through decades of personal and external conflicts; the show was also very much a product of its time. Making a "New Monkees" was never going to be as simple as tossing four guys together, handing them some scripts and some songs, and waiting for lightning to strike.

That's the fundamental creative issue. The New Monkees project was also dogged by a series of business problems, some of which were readily apparent — the Monkees sued Blauner, for starters — and others which became glaringly obvious as time wore on. One major flaw in the plan: The show was bankrolled and distributed by an unholy union between the short-lived Coca-Cola Telecommunications, which would soon be absorbed by Columbia Pictures, and the now-defunct syndicator LBS; the album, on the other hand, was a Warner Bros. release. The short version of all this is that, as New Monkee Larry Saltis put it in a 2017 oral history of the project, "Warner Bros. Records was depending on Columbia Pictures to make the TV show a hit first. Columbia Pictures was depending on Warner Bros. to make the album a hit. And that was the business philosophy that basically caused the entire thing to go under."

Anyone who's worked for a corporation knows it can be all but impossible for divisions within the company to work together; expecting separate corporate entities to coordinate with each other, even when the success of a shared venture is at stake, is always too much to ask. (Yes, yes, yes, I know Marvel and Sony have done it with multiple Spider-Man movies. Go away.) But a flawed business philosophy wasn't the only fundamental issue with the New Monkees — there was also the matter of the show, which was, to put it as nicely as possible, not very good.

This was not entirely the fault of the New Monkees themselves. Like their simeean forebears, the group was not without musical talent; they were all pretty young when they were plucked from obscurity into semi-obscurity, but they'd all done showbiz stuff. Youngest among the foursome, the aforementioned Saltis, who sang and played guitar, was only 18 when he was selected for the lineup, but he'd been kicking around in pursuit of a publishing deal or record contract for a couple of years at that point. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Marty Ross was a member of the Wigs, who'd released an LP through CBS earlier in the decade (and also appeared in/were a big part of the soundtrack for the 1986 flop film My Chauffeur). Drummer Dino Kovas, who handled lead vocals on the show's theme song, was delivering pizzas when he got the gig, but he'd also hosted a local TV show. Jared Chandler, who's only credited with background vocals on the album, seems like he was probably the least involved from a musical standpoint, but you get the idea.

But while Kovas and Ross had some camera experience, and Chandler had booked a couple of bit film parts pre-New Monkees, these guys weren't really actors per se, which was all the more apparent given that they were more or less thrown to the wolves after being handed scripts that had been commissioned on the cheap.

The premise, if you want to call it that, was this: Dino, Jared, Larry, and Marty played four guys (conveniently also named Dino, Jared, Larry, and Marty) who lived in a sort of magical mansion that included a '60s diner, a disheveled butler, and a disembodied mouth. Attempting to channel the madcap spirit of the original series, they got into all sorts of strange adventures from week to week and/or scene to scene, with nothing really having any bearing on anything that happened later on. Along the way, the guys performed a bunch; in essence, from an even less charitable perspective, the show was a delivery mechanism for New Monkees music videos. None of it made much sense, but not in a hip or subversive dada art way; it was really just a cheap, slapdash attempt to manufacture an '80s version of a '60s phenomenon while missing the point on both ends.

What's genuinely a shame about this is that while the New Monkees TV series was syndicated junk, the New Monkees album was actually the result of some genuine thought, care, and genuine effort. I'm not going to sit here and argue that this album will change your life, but if you actually take the time to listen to it, you'll hear something that's absolutely of a piece with the bigger-budget, higher-priority pop-rock albums of its era — which makes sense, given that the songwriting and performance credits are stuffed with a slew of ringers. Marvel along with me, fellow lifelong liner notes nerds: Paul Leim on drums! Joe Chemay on bass! Dann Huff, Dean Parks, and Mike Slamer on guitar! Fred Tackett on mandolin! The goddamn Tower of Power horn section! On the songwriting side, you've got names like Eddie Schwartz ("Hit Me with Your Best Shot"), John Parr (you don't need me to tell you), Tom Cochrane (c'mon), Rob Elvis (of the Elvis Brothers), Alan Roy Scott (a bunch of Motown stuff), and Arnie Roman (Pointer Sisters, Shannon, Stacy Lattisaw, etc.). The list of producers included Steve Barri, who was behind the boards for a long, long list of acts dating back to the '60s. I could go on; you get the point. Warners put some care into this record, and you can hear it.

Unfortunately, the label really faced an uphill battle when it came to promoting the band. To begin with, "New Monkees" sounds ridiculous, which is something the folks behind the project definitely thought about; according to that oral history, no one involved in putting this together even wanted to call it New Monkees until their hand was forced by the people who ultimately ended up signing the checks. Allegedly, the germ of the whole idea was simply to give younger audiences their own Monkees-type thing rather than explicitly attempting to piggyback on an older phenomenon, but you know studios — if they get to choose between building an audience for something new and offering people a variation on something they already know, they'll always choose the latter.

Or almost always, anyway. For an act that was assembled for decidedly non-artistic purposes, the Monkees have come to enjoy a somewhat perplexing level of purist cachet. This is definitely true in 2024, when you can find plenty of people who are willing to earnestly argue that the Monkees belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and it was also true in the '80s; from the moment the New Monkees were announced, the very idea of such a thing provoked sky-high spurts of lava-hot rage from Monkees fans who simply could not believe that anyone could do such a thing. To hear the New Monkees tell it (again, in that oral history), there was even a sort of cold war between the two groups.

This is all very silly. The Monkees were cobbled together by people who wanted to make money by capitalizing on a phenomenon; the New Monkees fit the same description. I can understand rolling your eyes at the idea, but getting angry about it? There are lots of hobbies people can choose to take up, and all of them are more productive than mailing death threats to four guys who were offered a job and agreed to take it. Yes, the New Monkees should have known on some level what they were in for when they signed their contracts, but still. Come on.

Here is where I will say that in 1987, I was a huge New Monkees fan. The show, dumb as it was, was appointment viewing for me. The album was the first compact disc I purchased — I was very anti-CD at the time, but I could only find the album on that format, so I bit the bullet. I was barely a teenager and just starting my music writing career at the time, and I felt like I was taking some sort of principled stand when I defended widely derided but generally competent acts like the New Monkees, and I definitely did so in print. (Bless the pre-internet era.) This really has nothing to do with the music itself or the show, but I am not lying when I say that one of the longest-lasting and most meaningful friendships of my life has its roots in an unkept promise, made by a third party who worked for LBS at the time, to mail me an inflatable New Monkees guitar.

That said, the stuff that sounds great to you when you're 13 may not hit you the same way when you're 30, and over time, I subconsciously applied several layers of callous to my youthful New Monkees fandom. I'm not going to weep over this; it's an easy thing to do with things you loved as a kid, especially when they were created for reasons having little to do with artistic expression. When I revisited the album years later at Popdose, I gave it a vaguely positive pass that triggered the wrath of Marty Ross, who I then accused of being an alcoholic. (It was a goof, but I'm not really proud of this. Marty, let's have lunch.) The thing I think about now that I didn't think about then is this: It's very, very easy to shit on something silly, but even the silliest things often represent the best efforts of talented and eminently well-meaning people. I'm not saying things don't deserve to be shit on, but they should be shit on from a more... holistic perspective than simply "Ha ha ha, this sucks."

What I'm trying to say is that the members of the New Monkees were all younger than 30 when they were tossed into this blender, and they deserved more support and guidance from the people who were nominally in charge of their fate. Given all of the above, there's no way this was going to turn out well, necessarily, but the New Monkees themselves didn't deserve the scorn and rage aimed at them; they were just guys who were offered what looked like it might be a brass ring and opted to grab it.

I am definitely not arguing that we're living in a kindler, gentler time now, but even the most toxic social media discourse contains enough dissenting voices to create the impression of more nuance than we were trained to consider in the '80s, and the internet in general has offered succor to fans of niche artists from all corners — all of which is prelude to the reveal that in more recent years, the New Monkees have come to be recognized as cult favorites of a fashion, with reunion gigs and fan pages and everything else that goes along with a group of people saying "well, actually" loud enough for media types to hear long after the fact. The guys all seem to be doing well for themselves in various corners of the entertainment industry, and the album is even streaming, which counts for the closest thing to a happy ending that I think any reasonable person could expect at the end of a story like this.

Here, check it out. Pretend it's 1987 and you're 13 years old. And think about the ballad of Dino, Jared, Larry, and Marty the next time some studio somewhere tries to grind fresh flesh into a slightly different flavor of old sausage.