The Monkees were an instant sensation when they made their debut in 1966 with the single “Last Train to Clarksville”—a boppy tune about a man urging the woman he loves to meet him for one last liaison:
’Cause I'm leavin’ in the morning
And I must see you again
We’ll have one more night together
’Til the morning brings my train
And I must go
Oh, no, no, no
Oh, no, no, no
And I don’t know if I’m ever comin’ home
Decades later, Micky Dolenz, the band’s vocalist and drummer, confirmed that the song was a subtle protest of the Vietnam War. This messaging may have been missed by record label officials (Dolenz said he was “surprised” they released the single), but the Monkees’ anti-war leanings did attract the attention of the FBI. Now, as Andy Greene reports for Rolling Stone, Dolenz is suing the agency in the hopes of gaining access to any records pertaining to the band.
A portion of an FBI file on the Monkees was released in 2011. Though heavily redacted, it describes observations an FBI informant made during a 1967 Monkees concert, including a screen behind the performers that depicted “subliminal messages … which, in the opinion of [redacted], constituted ‘left wing innovations of a political nature.’”
The document continues, “These messages and pictures were flashes of riots in Berkeley, anti-U.S. messages on the war in Vietnam, racial riots in Selma, Alabama, and similar messages which had unfavorable response from the audience.”
According to the FBI’s website, the Monkees are also referenced in “a second document redacted entirely.”
Dolenz, the last surviving member of the band, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in June, with the goal of accessing the Monkees files. The FBI is required to comply with FOIA requests within 20 working days, but “that rarely happens since the organization is swamped with similar requests and overwhelmed with more pressing matters due to Covid and the January 6 Capitol attack,” writes Rolling Stone. So Dolenz is pursuing legal action “to obtain any records the FBI created and/or possesses on the Monkees as well as its individual members,” according to the new lawsuit.
The Monkees were formed in 1965 by producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who cherry-picked four performers—Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork and Davy Jones—to star in a television series about a Beatles-esque group looking for its big break. Both on screen and musically, the Monkees were a smash hit; in a single year—1967—four Monkees albums climbed to the number-one spot on the Billboard charts, a record that remains unmatched today.
Despite the band’s clean-cut image and bubblegum-pop sound, the Monkees had a subversive edge. They poked fun at network censors, for instance, and starred in a satirical, art house rock movie written by Jack Nicholson, which included violent footage from Vietnam and a pointed recitation of the Monkees’ song “Ditty Diego-War Chant”:
Hey, hey, we are the Monkees
You know we love to please
A manufactured image
With no philosophies
This was a daring line to walk in the 1960s, when the FBI focused intense—and at times “extralegal”—scrutiny on individuals whom it perceived as threatening to political stability in the United States, among them civil rights leaders and opponents of the Vietnam war. Celebrities were not immune to surveillance; John Lennon, for example, came under the watchful eye of the FBI.
“We know the mid-to-late 1960s saw the FBI surveil Hollywood anti-war advocates, and the Monkees were in the thick of things,” Dolenz’s attorney, Mark Zaid, tells BBC News. “This lawsuit seeks to expose why the FBI was monitoring the Monkees and its individual members.”
Zaid acknowledges that the FBI’s files on the band could contain “almost nothing” by way of bombshell information. But the agency was clearly keeping tabs on the band.
“Theoretically,” Zaid tells Rolling Stone, “anything could be in those files.”