The problem with the narrative “the Monkees didn’t play their own instruments” is that it was never because they couldn’t play their own instruments. In point of fact, Peter Tork was the first of the group to actually get an instrumental credit of his own on one of the albums. They weren’t like those Robert Palmer music videos where models are standing around badly pretending to play instruments; these were genuine, and in fact talented, musicians who were made into teen heartthrobs instead of being allowed to be their musical selves.
In fact, the studio decided to stick Peter on bass even though he was the more talented guitarist (at least according to Mike Nesmith). They had him play on his lovable dope persona that he’d established as a folk singer in Greenwich Village, and that worked for him, but apparently he was actually the most gifted musician of the lot. As the four gained creative control, they inevitably split apart, as they weren’t musically similar, but I’ve never read anything that suggested they didn’t respect one another’s talent.
The Monkees had a revival when I was in fourth grade. That’s when I first got into them, to the amusement of the woman who lived next door, who’d been in fourth grade when they first hit it big. I’m not sure I knew anyone who liked Peter best, but I think he was important to the group dynamic. They needed someone easy-going, the way Peter seemed to be, to keep the peace in the group. He was also there to make dumb jokes, which was probably pretty important to the dynamic as well.
Despite the narrative, it is indisputable that the Monkees benefited from Tork’s skills as a musician. Yes, all right, most of their songs were written by other people. While it’s Davy sitting at the piano in the beginning of the “Daydream Believer” video, it’s Peter who actually wrote the piano introduction. (Even though the song itself was written by John Stewart of the Kingston Trio!) The song had apparently been rejected by a lot of people and stuck with the Monkees because the studio wanted someone to record the thing. I don’t say it’s exclusively Tork’s touch that made it a success, but I will say that it helped.
The most charming thing, though, is that his grandmother ran his fan club. Not because she had to; in the Monkees’ height, it would have been no difficult thing to find an actual fan to do that. But because she and Tork had a great relationship, and she genuinely was a huge fan. She’d personally write letters to other members of the club, and she’d go around to record stores to make sure that they stocked Monkees albums. I have no idea what his Gram looked like—I don’t even know for sure if it was his maternal or paternal grandmother—but I kind of picture a little old lady who looks like Peter Tork in drag and age makeup, shaking her fist with one hand and waving More of the Monkees with the other. I wish I had her to help me get a decent release of Head that wasn’t in a box set full of stuff I don’t care about.