Peter Tork, bassist for the Monkees, dies aged 77

Accomplished folk musician and teen star helped move the guitar-pop band beyond their manufactured image

Peter Tork, the bassist for the Monkees, has died aged 77.

Tork, who also sang on a number of the band’s songs and played keyboards, had been diagnosed with a rare form of tongue cancer in 2009, though the cause of his death, which was confirmed by his sister, has not been announced.

Born in Washington DC in 1942, Tork – whose real name was Peter Thorkelson – joined the Monkees when he was 24 after the quartet were brought together by US TV executives aiming to create a teenage guitar-pop sensation to match the Beatles. Tork was recommended to audition by Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and was already an accomplished musician in his own right, having played on the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s. He said he was “mortified” when he turned up to an early Monkees studio date to be told that their band’s album had already been recorded by session musicians.

The Monkees: Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, Davy Jones, and Micky Dolenz.
The Monkees: Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, Davy Jones, and Micky Dolenz. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Tork’s role in the band’s TV adventures was as a goofy, dopey comic foil. He was with the band for six albums, the first four of which all went to No 1 in the US and Top Five in the UK. From their third album, Headquarters, onwards, he and his bandmates performed themselves – a shift often credited to Tork’s influence – but he quit the band in 1968 following their their flop psychedelic opus Head.

Less successful solo projects and bands followed, along with a short jail term for hashish possession in 1972. He made occasional guest appearances with the Monkees before reforming the band with Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz for a 20th-anniversary tour in 1986, and recording new material for the album Pool It! Michael Nesmith later also rejoined, and the reunited quartet released the album Justus in 1996.

Tork, Jones and Dolenz reunited once more in 2011 for a 45th-anniversary tour. Nesmith rejoined following Jones’s death in 2012, with the remaining members recording two further albums together, including the acclaimed Good Times!, which featured songs written by Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo and Carole King, who tweeted: “RIP Peter Tork”.

Tork also took occasional acting roles in TV shows including Boy Meets World, Wings and The King of Queens.

Songwriter Dianne Warren was among others to pay tribute to Tork, tweeting: “Oh no RIP Peter Tork. Thank U for giving me your love beads (it was the 60s!) when I was a little girl.” Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys wrote: “I’m sad to hear about Peter Tork passing. I thought the Monkees were great and Peter will be missed. Love & mercy to Peter’s family, friends and fans.”

Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis on Peter Tork

Alexis Petridis.
Alexis Petridis. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Unlike former child stars Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork was a musician first and an actor second. He had a notably self-deprecating streak – the “dummy” character he played on The Monkees TV show was based on his old folk club act – but he was the first of the quartet to crack under the pressure of being a member of America’s biggest manufactured band.

Like Mike Nesmith, he had lobbied hard for the Monkees to write and play on their own records, but, when they finally attained a degree of artistic autonomy, had decided the four had little in common musically. He wrote the great Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again? for the Monkees film Head, but quit in 1968.

Nevertheless, Tork never quite escaped the Monkees’ shadow. His post-Monkees band Peter Tork And/Or Release couldn’t get a record deal. He started a production company, which signed Lowell George, later to find fame with Little Feat, but that too failed to get off the ground. By the mid-70s – when Stephen Stills, who had recommended Tork for the Monkees job after failing the audition, was one of the biggest stars in the world thanks to Crosby Stills and Nash – Tork was working as a high-school teacher. Punk and new wave seemed to offer him an artistic lifeline: he made demos for Sire Records in New York in the company of Chrissie Hynde and former Ramone Tommy Erdelyi, but they were ultimately rejected. Eventually, he rejoined a reformed Monkees in 1986, and worked with the band on and off until his death.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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