RIP Mike Nesmith of The Monkees and the man who named The Tragically Hip

You’ll read all kinds of obituaries about Mike Nesmith, the brainiest of The Monkees, who died this week of natural causes at the age of 78. Yes, he was the guy who wrote many of the band’s songs, apparently while wearing a green toque the entire time. Even more important, he was the member who helped the band rise up against Don Kirshner in 1967 the guy who constructed this boy band in the first place. After that rebellion, The Monkees were in charge of their own destiny. (Fun fact: Mike was the only real musician in The Monkees–at least at the beginning. He wrote “Different Drum” for The Stone Poneys, a band that featured a young vocalist named Linda Ronstadt.)

You’ll also read that his mom invented Liquid Paper in her kitchen using a basic kitchen blender back in 1956. She sold the company to Gillette Corporation in 1979, earning US$47.5 million in royalties–and that was after it had been profitable for about a decade.

Other obits will cover Nesmith’s role in the rise of the music video. Long after The Monkees had expired, Mike created a series of experimental video clips for some of his songs, short films that he called “popclips.” One of them, a production called “Rio” (largely financed by his Liquid Paper inheritance) was shown to a group of European record executives. When it was over, they stood up and cheered. They’d just seen the future.

The first music video? No. The British had been making short clips like this for years. However, it did win the first-ever Grammy given for a music video. And it did attract the attention of John Lack, an executive at Warner Communications who had been placed in charge of a new entity called Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Corporation (yes, American Express and Warner were part of the same company at the time).

Lack was charged with doing something with the brand-new satellite technology of the day. And after mulling over things like channels that were all game shows, all shopping, and all talk shows, Nesmith’s “Rio” video, Lack became convinced that a channel showing nothing but music videos 24/7 was the way to go. Thus MTV was born.

But back to Mike’s collection of popclips. In 1981, did something crazy: He released a straight-to-consumer videotape (on VHS and Beta, an unheard-of thing at the time) called Elephant Parts, which featured a series of comedic skits and music videos. It was insanely popularly, becoming the third-best-selling LaserDisc of 1982 behind Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

One of them was a fake telethon-type thing urging viewers to send in money to help rich people maintain their extravagant lifestyles. You might even remember it being shown in Saturday Night Live as a pre-taped bit. The name of that skit was called “The Tragically Hip.” And yes, that’s where the band got their name.

Mike’s death was announced on Friday (December 11). He’d apparently been ill for some time, but because he was a Christian Scientist, he didn’t go to the doctor until he found it absolutely necessary. Hmm.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

3 thoughts on “RIP Mike Nesmith of The Monkees and the man who named The Tragically Hip

  • December 18, 2021 at 9:36 am
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    Mike wasn’t the only musician in the Monkees. Peter Tork (real surname Thorkelson) was actually an accomplished guitar and banjo player.

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  • December 18, 2021 at 9:59 pm
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    What critics didn’t recognize was each member brought to the Monkees their own favorite musical styles. Their records were varied in styles and always interesting. They were never boring to listen too. Badly underrated band due to a severe prejudice at the time.

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  • January 6, 2022 at 9:54 am
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    Peter Tork’s contributions to the band tend to get overlooked consistently. He played the NY Greenwich Folk circuit in the early 60s. He knew like half a dozen instruments fleuently prior to The Monkees. He teamed up with Stephen Stills in NY as a folk duo. His banjo work on Nesmith’s “You Told Me” on The Monkees “Headquarters” album is ground breaking. With that track alone they as a band should be recognized in the RNRHOF. The interplay with Nez’s 12 string & Tork’s banjo pre-dates a lot of the country rock movement that would follow.

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