Live shows are only as good as the sum of its parts. You could have a flawless, competent artist as the headliner, but if the backing band isn't good, or if the audience isn't feeling it, or if the opener doesn't fit the tone, the show won't come together properly. The latter scenario is the one we're focusing on today, and is possibly one of the trickier ones to navigate because openers tend to be young, eager upstarts looking for exposure. The majority of the audience doesn't know them, or care for that matter, so if the opening set isn't going well, it becomes painfully clear pretty quickly. That's more or less what happened in 1967, when American Beatles surrogates The Monkees
went on a 29-date tour with a then unknown British band called The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Hindsight is 20/20, so the pairing obviously sounds ridiculous now. Granted, it was also pretty ridiculous at the time, but the reasoning behind it makes a little bit of sense if we back up and look at the moment in context. The music landscape changed when the Beatles touched down in the US in 1964, as young, longhaired rock bands became all the rage and target album demographics shifted to a teenage audience on a mainstream scale. The "British Invasion" was unlike anything the music world had seen before, and for music biz figures with enough forethought, the new trend meant a new opportunity for profit.
Enter The Monkees, the "fictional" band created by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider to be the center of the music/comedy sitcom of the same name. From the very start, the band was intended to be the "American Beatles," a stateside band playing rock and pop that was just as good as the Brits' music, and whose image was tailor-made to check all the right boxes.
As intended, the band found massive success within the US, with the band's self-titled debut placing on top of the Billboard 200
for over three months and their show earning them an Emmy in 1966, the first time the award was given to a musical artist. With bubbly, boyish personalities and wavy, mop-top haircuts, the band easily carved a place in a UK-centric music market, topping the charts and attracting Beatlemania-type fervor at their shows.
Of course, this is exactly what Rafelson and Schneider designed, and what people didn't realize is that at first, the Monkees themselves had hardly any say in both their music and their image. While the show and albums credited the music to the band's four members– Micky Dolenz on drums/vocals, Davy Jones on vocals, Peter Tork on bass, and Michael Nesmith on guitar–none of them actually did anything on the first album aside from vocals. They were all accomplished musicians and singers, but their producer, Don Kirshner, ran a tight ship and ignored the band's wishes, which meant hiring Brill Building songwriters and session musicians to work behind the scenes and produce as many hits as possible.
Despite the success, the band was growing irritated about their situation, eager to play their own instruments and relinquish some control from Kirshner. They got that chance in February 1967, when Kirshner released music, including the entire second album More Of The Monkees
, unauthorized and without the band's approval, thus breaching his contract. He was dropped as supervisor, and for the first time in their careers, the Monkees had enough control to actually write and play their own music, which they did on 1967's Headquarters
, their third #1 album in a row.
The Monkees were at a highpoint in 1967, finding enough success to compete with the biggest artists at the time and even outselling their inspiration, The Beatles (though side-note: Headquarters
was only #1 on Billboard for a week– it was knocked off by none other than Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
). However, the band lacked one thing they so desperately wanted: Legitimacy. Throughout 1967, the band faced major controversy when people began to find out they didn't record their own music, despite the credits on all their records saying the opposite. It's incredibly common today for bands to be more of a "brand" created by business execs, i.e. every 1990's boy-band, but it was a big deal in the 60's because there had never been a "manufactured" rock band before (though one could
argue Elvis did it first...but that's a debate for another time). Even with their meteoric success, they simultaneously failed to gain any respect among musicians and artists because the majority of people in those crowds didn't consider them musicians in the first place.
The band was dying to be taken seriously now that they had greater creative control; it was now just a matter of writing good original music and hanging out with the right, influential people. So it probably seemed like a blessing in the spring of 1967 when Micky Dolenz caught a show in Greenwich Village to see a young guitarist his friends had recommended, a wild-man who could play behind his back and with his teeth. Dolenz was highly impressed, but he forgot the guitarist's name until he coincidentally saw him again a few months later at Monterey Pop Festival. This was the show where the Jimi Hendrix Experience made their official US debut, and where Hendrix famously burned his guitar onstage and left everyone watching in stunned silence.
Dolenz didn't forget Hendrix's name this time, and better yet, he had an idea: Though Hendrix was still widely unknown in the US, he was huge in the UK and within trendy artists' circles, and he was doing something completely unique that won him fans like The Beatles and Eric Clapton among others. If there was anyone that could legitimize their own music through association alone, it was an ambitious trailblazer like Hendrix, so why not bring him on tour as an opener? The Monkees' team reached out to The Experience's camp, and Hendrix himself was allegedly not for the idea at all, referring to the band's music as "dishwater" in a later interview. But Jimi's manager, Chas Chandler, ignored the musical differences and focused on the fact the Monkees were outselling the Beatles and the Stones combined
in the US. They would be idiots to turn down that level of publicity, so with enough convincing, Hendrix agreed to be the opener for the Monkees' summer tour.
So the Monkees and the Experience went on the road together in the summer of 1967 in what seemed like the best scenario either act could've hoped for. The Monkees had an amazing opening act that could put them in the good graces of their musical peers, and Hendrix was now on the first major American tour of his career. The two bands got along plenty well, with Peter Tork remembering that "It was really just a pleasure to have [Hendrix] around for company," so it seemed that it was shaping up to be a successful tour for everyone.
As you probably guessed by now, the endeavor was anything but successful. The Monkees' core audiences were generally young, innocent white girls aged 8-18, plus their parents. They simply had no idea what to make of, as Dolenz once put it, "This black guy in a psychedelic Day-Glo blouse playing music from hell, holding his guitar like he was fucking it, then lighting it on fire." The band personally loved watching Hendrix tear the stage apart every night, but it was no secret the audiences didn't enjoy it nearly as much. Even as The Experience blasted through now-classics like "Purple Haze" and "Hey Joe," the young, female audience mercilessly clamored for their beloved Monkees. Hendrix's acrobatic guitar work and famously provocative stage presence left the kids and parents confused, scared, unimpressed, or all of the above. A guitar solo with his teeth? "WE WANT THE MONKEES!!!" A high-octane rendition of "Foxy Lady?" "FOXY DAVY!!!"
Even with massive Marshall stacks, the unrelenting, pre-pubescent heckling drowned out the Experience night after night, so on July 17, 1967 at a show in Queens, NY, Hendrix gave the crowd the finger and walked off the stage, ending his set early. It was clear the pairing was not a great fit after all, so after only playing eight of the 29 shows they agreed to, the Monkees let Hendrix out of his contract, and the two camps mutually parted ways. The tour proved to neither benefit or hurt either band, as the Monkees released their fourth and final #1 album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd
, in November 1967. The band eventually went their separate ways by the 1970s, and though they never overcame the stigma of "faking it" during their time together, they're now favorably remembered as one of the most beloved acts of the 60's.
Hendrix, meanwhile, did pretty fine as well: Shortly after the tour, he released his debut album, Are You Experienced?
, which propelled him to the forefront of the psychedelic rock movement and cemented his place among the all-time great guitarists. Needless to say, he wasn't anybody's opening act after that.