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How The Monkees ended up with an FBI file

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Marvin Gaye. Jimi Hendrix. The Beatles. John Denver. The Monkees. All successful musical acts… with FBI files. In this week’s episode of Late Edition: Crime Beat Chronicles, the Tulsa World’s Randy Krehbil joins show producer/editor Ambre Moton to take a look at how the city of Tulsa was central to The Monkees hitting the FBI’s radar as persons of interest.

Episode transcript

Note: The following transcript was created by Adobe Premiere and may contain misspellings and other inaccuracies as it was generated automatically:

Boy bands are pretty popular nowadays, and most people probably credit the Beatles for the creation of the phenomenon. But some people remember the Monkees, a group often referred to as the Pre-Fab Four, a U.S. pop band that was created in 1968 for a television show of the same name that originally aired for two seasons and then went on to become a legitimate pop band in its own right.

Welcome to Late Edition Crime Beat Chronicles, a Lee Enterprises Podcast. I'm Ambre Moton, the show's producer and editor. Back with another story that you may not think of as a traditional true crime case.

Okay. The band, it consisted of Micky Dolanz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork. The show played well to both fans and critics and performed well in its original run and through syndication and Saturday morning repeats.

The show is a scripted comedy, all about the four bandmates struggling to make it in the music business. And of course, the hijinks that ensued while a manufactured band. The music really did catch on, and they eventually toured to sold out crowds on a cool OC. But how did the creators of Daydream Believer and I'm a Believer, a song brought back into the lexicon by the band Smash Mouth for the Shrek soundtrack, Lend themselves the subject of a true crime podcast?

Well, would you be surprised to learn that the Monkees were the subject of an FBI investigation? The group's final surviving member, Micky Dolenz, sued the FBI in 2022 to obtain any files on him. The band and his bandmates, after submitting a Freedom of Information Act request in June of that year and failing to receive anything more than an automated response within the 20 days that federal agencies are obligated to respond.

Randy Krehbiel, you may remember from the series of episodes we did with the Tulsa World about the Osages during the Reign of Terror, joins me in this episode to explain how the pop band came to the attention of the FBI. And of course, the tie to Tulsa.

Randy, it is great to have you back on the podcast, so thank you so much for doing this.

It's with you!

You wrote an article about The Monkees, the band, and a tie to the FBI. But let's kind of start a little bit with who the Monkees were. I remember them... when I was little, I think around when I was four, MTV was airing reruns of their TV show, which was a sitcom, if I remember correctly, and I absolutely adored it. Can you just kind of talk about the history of The Monkees?

Sure. So I was kind of the Monkees target audience when they came out. But in the 1960s, when they you know, we had the British invasion then and sort of pop music and rock music was really exploding onto the scene. Some TV producers got the idea of creating a band and making a television series about the band.

And initially the band was not going to be performing their own music. I think the idea was they actually would do the singing but not play the instruments. And the show turned out to be like a lot of music in that era that the band became rapidly popular and almost as rapidly faded from the scene. But at any rate, they they became proficient enough, I guess you would say.

Basically, they just insisted that they were going to be the band, that they didn't need all these other people. So they went out on tour. They had at least a couple of them and well, actually they had more than that, I think. But they went out on tour and they were quite successful. Like I found that they they sold something like 75 million records in about a two or three year span.

So like they were pretty much a big deal. They because it was put together by these TV producers, they hired some some of the big, big name songwriters in the Brill Building in New York, which was, you know, the place where a lot of the fifties and sixties and on into the seventies. Big hits were written in the Brill Building in New York.

And so so they had and they had some very big hits. And so they and they and then you mentioned MTV. They had kind of a second life when MTV came out because they started playing those shows in reruns and they became popular again. And at least some of them started touring again. And then I guess it was in the eighties and even there's one of them still alive, Micky Dolenz And he still does some shows at 78.

Where didn't the show actually win an Emmy, I think. Yeah, I think one year the show won an Emmy for best comedy series. It beat out like Andy Griffith and some shows like that. So, I mean, it was legitimately entertaining, it sounds like, and critically acclaimed. So it was different because they as I recall, they they would come out and there were sort of plots, but it was almost kind of an absurdist comedy in that they were kind of goofy and they were just a lot of little series of scenes.

And some people have drawn a line from that show to music videos in the you know, in the MTV area, because the you know, it was set up to kind of sell this and sell the music. And and it all revolved around the music. I mean, the the plot such as they were were pretty simple and silly and really silly, I should say.

Right, Right. Okay. So let's set up the crime in air quotes here. So the Monkees were in Tulsa. You said they were touring. They were in Tulsa in 1967 to play a concert. Can you kind of set the scene with that? Yeah, they came. It was actually on January the second, 1967. They played at what was then called the Convention Center Arena.

It was a downtown venue that had not been open very long at that time. It would hold about 8500 people for a concert like this, and they sold out. It was mainly like young teens. I think you know, probably 11 or 12 to 16, 17, something like that. And their parents said mom would get roped into, bring in, you know, five or six kids from the neighborhood or whatever.

And, you know, we know there was no big controversy, I don't think, at the time, except this entertainment writer editor from the Tulsa Tribune, which was an afternoon paper here at the time. And he just he didn't like it. And and one of the criticisms in general of the Monkees was that it was a it was a back then.

Some people call them the pre-fab four because they they you know, they were created specifically for television. It wasn't a group of guys who just kind of came together and started making music together. They were they were created and some people didn't like that. And and and their music was not intended to be, for the most part, real, you know, deep and social meaning or anything like that.

And so anyway, he didn't like it. He and he wrote a letter to the FBI. Well, it's not clear to me in the in the report is not clear whether he wrote directly to the FBI. You know, apparently he maybe sent this to the television production or the television studio complaining that they were projecting subliminal messages onto a screen behind them during one of the songs, which is one of the things if you weren't around in the sixties, there was all kinds of stuff like that in the sixties and early seventies.

You know, if you play Beatles records backwards, they had some kind of acid or, you know, there was that big set, a lot of a lot of radio stations and so forth would be played. Louie, Louie by the Kingsmen, because no one could understand the lyrics, but they were pretty sure they were bad, so they didn't understand. It was just a very poor recording.

But so he anyway, he complained to the FBI. I don't know that the FBI really took it that seriously because as I wrote in the story, they had the guy, the guy who complained his name was Bill Donaldson. So they had his name wrong in their report. They had his newspaper wrong and their report and they had the date of the concert wrong and their report.

But what happened was they said someone. A few months later, I compiled all of that into a bigger report is like 80 pages long on the influence of communism and subversive groups on Hollywood. And so that that was included in there. And, you know, I don't think anything came out of it. But if I could, I mean, I this is all kind of fun.

But on the other hand, it does make people kind of stop and think it should make people kind of stop and think about, well, what does it take to get, you know, to have an FBI file? Apparently not very much writing. What was the political climate like back then? Yeah, it was it was very it was very is a lot of turmoil.

And so what? And in this particular case, what they had done, they had a song that did try and it was called I Want to Be Free. We did try and have a little bit of a social message and they were showing that there is nothing subliminal about this. They were showing images of riots and the war in Vietnam and peace marches.

And I think they had something on the maybe Well, I think there were scenes from the Selma, Alabama, march which would have actually taken place, you know, several years earlier. But at any rate, was still very much in the news. And so so it was it really subliminal? It was stuff they'd see on on the news every day.

But but the bigger picture was that, yes, there was a lot of turmoil. There's a lot of opposition to the war in Vietnam. There was you know, it was the sixties. It was approaching a protest era. There were quite a few violent demonstrations and there was a lot of concern about the communists taking over. So a lot of a lot of this file was there was a radio station in Los Angeles that would from time to time have members of the American Communist Party on the job and they would mention that so-and-so so-and-so, who is now a very well known personality or producer at dinner with so-and-so, and back in 1938, they attended a dinner and known communists, you know, things like that. And for some reason that this it mentioned Robert Vaughn quite a bit. And people may not remember Robert Vaughn, but he was a popular actor in the sixties. He was in he was one of the Magnificent Seven in the movie The Magnificent Seven. And then later he starred in a TV show called The Man from Uncle, which kind of had a cold following.

And, you know, he was always popping up at some kind of demonstration or something like that. So it was a very tumultuous time. Also, the FBI was run by J. Edgar Hoover, who liked to get as much dirt as he could on as many people as he could. So that may have had something to do with it. I don't know.

And we have to take a quick break, so don't go too far. You said that Donaldson had accused the band of a deliberate manipulation or a preconditioned, immature audience for propaganda dissemination. And you mentioned that it wasn't in any way subliminal like the message they were getting across in their one potentially political song was was pretty obvious. But do you think he was just reading into things because he didn't like the music or…

Well, so Bill Donaldson and I didn't know him. He well, he was still at that. So the Tribune closed in 1992 and I started a year before that. And I, I was at the World when he was at the Tribune, but I don't think our paths ever crossed. He was an older he was part of that older generation.

He was a World War Two veteran. You know, patriotism was very big. He also he had an English literature degree from Swarthmore. He just you know, he yeah, I think I think first of all, I don't think he cared that he didn't like the music that much. But second of all, he didn't like the idea of this sort of manufactured he called it manufactured hysteria or manufactured emotion.

He didn't like that. So I felt I think he he felt like, you know, these young people were being manipulated and, you know, probably to a certain extent they were. I'm not. But nobody after the concert was over, went out and started trying to burn the city down or anything like that. It was it was mostly just fun.

And so I think to a large extent it was I can remember my own dad when I was a kid and that show was on. We we were not supposed to watch it. It just because it didn't it wasn't that he was it made him mad or anything. He just it's a stupid show within the category of television program.

It's just a stupid show. And so we were we didn't watch it. And I think, you know, so there's that there's that category category. I wonder what Donaldson would think about, you know, like the Swifties and, you know, of course, the boy band fans, you know, like in I think maybe he'd be appalled. He had a background in the theater.

He had performed in the theater here in Run a theater in Tulsa for a while. And, you know, I mean, I just think there would be something, although, you know, I mean, he would have gone through the period when he would have gone through the Elvis Presley period, he would have gone through the Frank Sinatra period when, you know, for even someone my age, Frank Sinatra was always kind of the older guy.

But there was a period in the fifties and sixties when, you know, girls would swoon over Frank Sinatra. So anyway, you know, he he knew a little bit about that, and that got it. But he just thought this was too too fake, too phony, that these guys had. No they had done nothing to deserve the adoration and attention they were getting and that whoever had, you know, whoever had created this group was using this group to to warp the minds of Americans.

You bear enough may not be entirely wrong, but I think it was probably more to sell albums and TV shows and tickets as a party. It was. It was to make money. That's all I care about, you know. And and I have to say that, you know, there maybe was a little bit of anti anti-Semitism involved. The Monkees weren't the Jewish, but the producer.

So the one of the producers was the son of the head of one of the studios in in Los Angeles. And they and they seem to have been Jewish. And so, you know, I don't know. But there could have been some anti-Semitism involved in that, too. I mean, you saw that these guys were all all white, but, you know, with some of the black performers of the time, it was it was really evident, you know, and so, yeah, I mean, this is getting a little far afield, but some people think that President Nixon pushed for the criminalization of marijuana because he believed he associated it with black performers and music genres that he didn't understand or didn't approve of. And so he you know, he he wanted to put those guys in jail. Okay. So you said you didn't think that the FBI really gave it much attention. You mentioned like the misspellings and inaccuracies in the report. Did it give you any indication that they actually followed up and looked into it? Well, so I didn't see this report.

But the lawyer, Mr. Zaid, is a lawyer for Mickey Bones, said that there was another report where an FBI agent went to one of the concerts, and it's not clear whether he went because of this report or he went because he had a 12 year old daughter. But anyway, she he went in and said more or less the same thing that Bill Donaldson and I fully admit I really wanted to do this because any time I can talk about Daydream Believer, it makes me happy.

My mom said I would run around screaming the lyrics to that song when I was little. So that was always fun. But I mean, is the general consensus does not seem to be that the Monkees were some sort of big, subversive group, is that right? Correct. But but I will say and I, you know, I that again, it shows you how, you know, it's easy to get on some on someone's not on the FBI or whoever's list you know you think about we have these terrorism watch lists now where if your name is close enough to somebody else, you can be in trouble.

I mean, so the attorney is also representing the actor from Two and a Half Men, John McCain, I think compared with John. Yeah. Yeah. So he he man him and John Pryor and and Jon Cryer said, well, I don't think I've got anything. But my uncle was an anti-war activist and we kind of like to know if he has anything.

So the lawyer put in a request for, you know, this man's file. Well, it turned out it was like 3000 pages long. Holy cow. And I don't know that he was a particularly prominent. I mean, it's not like he was Abbie Hoffman or something, but. Right. Yeah. They've got 3000 pages on it. So and it can be kind of a long, protracted thing to get these because according to the lawyer, they will only process 500 pages a month on any one request.

Yeah, right. And so and then and then when you get it, it may be all redacted and you've got to go to court to have the redactions removed. So, I mean, I don't want people in a panic or anything like that, but I think they ought to be aware that, you know, there there is a lot of information out there.

And, you know, some people don't like that. Yeah, I don't have good answers. But obviously in this you know, in this case, it's it's difficult. It really is. And, you know, this didn't help the average person, but if they are interested in some of these, better known FBI files, they are they are available online. You can go look up.

I mentioned Abbie Hoffman. You can go read every file online if you want. That's pretty much everything I had. Is there anything I didn't ask you about that you really want to make sure we get in there? You know, this is kind of one of those deals where we got the email from the lawyer and when we first looked at it was, you know, what the heck is this?

And then the more we thought about it and the more we got into it, it was, you know, it's one of those things it's that's fun and people seem to be interested in it. But at the same time, it does sort of illustrate a bigger issue. Mm hmm. You could be on a list and you don't know it's or, you know, like, how easy is it to just suggest something and have it make it on to some FBI agents desk and then and now, with the digitization of everything, once you're in there, there's no telling where it's over.

Maybe it's it's not quite as bad as Twitter, but yeah, you know, I completely agree. Well, thank you. That's. That's all I've got. I was just talking to you. It should be noted that there were multiple musical artists in that era who were known to be tracked by the FBI artists that the group interacted with, including the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.

So the Monkees are far from the only musical act to catch the attention of the federal government. But this was still a pretty interesting story. That'll do it for this week's episode of Crime Beat Chronicles. Make sure you hit that subscribe button so you don't miss what we have coming up next. Thanks for listening.


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