To me, this 1968 clip from The Monkees television show encapsulates “the Sixties” in a few minutes better than almost any other. Here you have a skit featuring Monkee Mike Nesmith clowning it up with the formidable musician Frank Zappa. Or maybe I should also say the formidable Mike Nesmith, as he contributed much to developing both the country rock of the 1970s and the music video in the 1980s—of course these could be read as dubious accomplishments! But remember this clip was shot for mainstream US TV during a really insane period of popular culture (even leaving aside broader cultural factors and a little thing called the Vietnam War). Now why would musician Frank Zappa widely acknowledged as a very avant-garde figure of rock and roll be playing along with the Monkees, often derided as the pre-fab four? Well, lots of proper musicians of the time thought the Monkees were cool; and definitely Nesmith and fellow member Peter Tork were proper musicians also, and Davy Jones was a Broadway-skilled entertainer, and Mickey Dolenz could manage a charismatic and infectious lead vocal, as in I’m a Believer, (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone, Last Train to Clarksville, and Pleasant Valley Sunday. All of these were among the more memorable Karaoke-bound tunes of that era, and beloved also by the punk bands who consistently covered and praised the Monkees also. But back to the clip, Nesmith and Zappa poke fun at each other (“You’re a popular musician I’m dirty, gross, and ugly!”) but more importantly at a culture that valorizes simplicity and easy-to-read pop imagery, amidst a period of increasing, even nightmarish, complexity. Zappa, a composer and aficionado of modern music, then “plays a car,” thus turning the eroticized sixties automobile culture towards dysfunction, chaos, and Dada-like pranksterism. Have a look!
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