Q&A: Peter Tork of the Monkees

The three surviving Monkees—Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith—are on the road again! The band that was disparaged by the press back in 1965 strictly because it had been formed via a casting call in Variety has lasted a lot longer than many “conventional” groups from that era. Their back catalog has sold over 24 million albums in the U.S. alone, and many of their hits are still in regular rotation on classic rock stations. Peter Tork was kind enough to take time out prior to the band’s May 30th show in Detroit to chat with mental_floss about his life and some of the Monkees’ most iconic tunes.

mental_floss: Your family moved around quite a bit when you were growing up. Didn’t you live in Detroit for a short time?

Peter Tork: My brother was born in Detroit, in 1927 [laughs]—I think it was 1927— [Ed. note: He was born in 1947.]

I was like 2-1/2 years old [when my brother was born, in Detroit] and the next thing you knew, we were living in Germany, right after World War II. My father was in the Occupation Army. So we came back over and went to Madison [Wisconsin] where my father got his post-grad degrees, and finally moved to Connecticut, where he taught at the University of Connecticut for all of his career.

I spoke German well back then for a kid my age, but I’ve forgotten it all since. I don’t speak a word of it now. Actually, I do remember the numbers 1 through 10. I’ve picked up a couple dozen German words since those days, but that’s the only thing I really remember.

Speaking of your brother, did he by any chance play professional football at one time? I remember hearing Howard Cosell announce during a game once that Eric Thorkelson [of the Green Bay Packers] was the brother of Peter Tork.

No. He spells his name phonetically, without the H and pronounces it “TOR-kel-sun.” My name is spelled “Thorkelson,” but the H is silent! [laughs] Eric played at the University of Connecticut, actually, which adds to the confusion.

How is the set list shaping up for this tour? Tell us about the songs we can expect to hear.

Many of the songs we’re gonna be doing will be as close to the record as we can make them. “I’m a Believer,” I was noticing the other day, we really caught a wonderful quality from off the record that I hadn’t realized was there—a kind of a “lopey” groove—we’ve been catching it. It’s a nice version of that song. On the other hand, we do “Mary, Mary,” and Mike said “Listen, let’s pump this up a bit here” and we have Motown-style background singers coming in there. Michael said one tune he wrote, “The Kind of Girl I Could Love,” he was thinking Bo Diddley at the time, and then when we made the record, it didn’t come out that way at all. So we’ve reverted a little bit—we’ve brought it back to his original construction—more of the Bo Diddley beat.

Despite the flak The Monkees used to get for not being “real” musicians, you personally actually play a variety of different instruments—from guitar to French horn, if I recall correctly.

I won’t be playing French horn on this tour, but I will be playing guitar, bass, banjo, and keyboard. I took piano lessons for five or six years. And I’ve put my hands on a number of instruments to get sound out of ‘em. I can play the flute if you give me enough time. And I know some blues chords on the harmonica. Oh, and the recorder. We’ve had recorders around the house ever since I can remember.

The Monkees’ third album, Headquarters, was the first one where the group played all the instruments and also wrote most of the material. I’ve read that you originally lobbied for Stephen Stills to produce that album. How do you think the finished product would have differed from the Chip Douglas production?

I think it would have been much funkier. Chip Douglas is a very straight-ahead kind of musician. I don’t know whether Stephen would have been a better producer in terms of our success, but I know it would have been funkier, and the musicianship would have been a little more laid back. He was a pretty soulful guy, you know. I’m sorry that Stephen didn’t get the chance. I thought it was a great idea.

One of your compositions from Headquarters—“For Pete’s Sake”—was used as the closing theme for the TV show during the second season. How did the song end up with that title?

Mike named it. He’s fond of naming songs with utter disregard to the content, theme, or lyric of the song. He just thought it was funny to call it “For Pete’s Sake,” and I thought that was cool. I hadn’t thought about a title when I brought it in to the studio. They said “Sure, this is a good song, we’ll put it on the album,” and there you go. Bob Rafelson, one of the producers, decided to use it as the ending theme for the show.

I’m proud of it, sure. And also the fact that I wrote two songs in the movie Head—“Can You Dig It” and “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again.” We do both of those songs in the show. The band is very good—they can handle it! [laughs] We do a whole section on Head—we do “Porpoise Song” and even a video clip of Davy Jones doing his wonderful dancing on “Daddy’s Song.”

I have to ask you about one particular song from Headquarters—“Zilch.” What the heck was that all about?

We had what we called the “B-Team” that were around all the time: stands-ins, bodyguards, crew, good buddies… friends that we brought in to the action from before we were Monkees, and they collected ideas and things for us. One of the things someone came up with was “Mr. Dobolina, Mr. Bob Dobalina,” which he actually heard being paged in an airport. And then “China Clipper Calling Alameda” is from a Humphrey Bogart movie, and I don’t remember who came up with “Never mind the furthermore…”

That’s actually a line from the movie Oklahoma!

Is it? Okay. And “It is of my opinion that the people are intending…” I’m not sure.

The four of us, with Headquarters, the idea was to make an album we enjoyed making. There’s a song called “Band Six” which is a bit of a Warner Brothers cartoon theme. That’s just nuts. It’s crazy stuff. We said, "We’re not just making a generic, well-crafted pop record. This is our album." There are places we ran off the rails when the tape was running.

The group’s next album—Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd.—was unique for its pioneering use of the Moog synthesizer (Micky Dolenz purchased the third Moog commercially sold).

I was at a party at Micky’s house, he had the Moog synthesizer set up there, and I was telling everyone, “You know, Micky’s really a very good synthesizer player. He can really make it do what you need it to do.” He said, “Yeah, but it’s even better when you let it play itself.” So he turns three, four, five knobs, turned the thing on and it went “woo-woo-woo” indefinitely—never repeating. Not like it was on a loop, it was doing things within itself. I was so impressed.

We’re not doing “Daily Nightly” on this tour… I wanted to do “Salesman,” one of my favorite songs, but we’re not playing it, unfortunately. You’ll hear “Tapioca Tundra,” though, and “No Time,” which is what we have left for this interview.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.  And thanks for all the great music—the Monkees have put smiles on millions of faces over the years between the TV show and the albums!

That’s nice of you to say. I think that everybody makes the world better; some when they come in, some when they go out.

The Monkees tour schedule and ticket information can be found here.

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May 30, 2014 - 3:00am
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