Number one: George Michael’s “monkey”
In The Number Ones, I go through all of the number 1s in the history of Billboard Hot 100, starting at the beginning of the graph, in 1958, and working your way up to the present.
George Michael spent the whole of 1988 raising the score on everyone. “Monkey” was his end-of-run dance. With “Monkey”, Michael became only the third artist to release four # 1 hits from a single album. The previous two, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, both achieved the same feat in 1988 – a pretty clear sign that the music industry had reorganized around the idea of extended rollouts for hit albums by then. In 1988, no blockbuster was bigger than Michael’s Faith. Faith was the best-selling album of 1988. The LP’s title track was the # 1 single of the year. And with “Monkey,” Michael managed to get back to No. 1 with a deeply wacky song that he rushed to the end.
But there is a caveat here. When Michael came in first row with “Monkey” it was not the “Monkey” version of the Faith album. Instead, Michael brought in the two biggest pop producers of the moment to remix his song – or, more specifically, to rebuild it from scratch. “Monkey” came in at number one in part because Michael was still rolling over the accumulated success of his monster album. But it also happened because Michael asked Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to turn the song into an overwhelming maximalist club track.
George Michael was a pop writer. He wrote and produced every song on Faith, and he also played many instruments. (Michael co-wrote “Look At Your Hands” with his friend David Austin, but he got only writing credit on everything else.) But Michael didn’t have time to obsess over his album. as long as he wasn’t perfect quite satisfied with “Monkey”, a song that could easily have become a deep, half-forgotten track. In its original form, “Monkey” is an eye-catching and playful strutter. Michael built it on a rippling, strobe funk guitar, and he chopped up his own voice enough to make a stammering echo. But compared to some of the monsters pop on Faith, “Monkey” is a light song.
One of the strangest things about “Monkey” is the tonal clash between the music and the lyrics. As it is written, “Monkey” is a song about being in love with someone who has serious addiction issues. Michael’s narrator can’t stand being less important than a drug, and he fears his inability to communicate with this person: “Oh, I hate your friends / But I don’t know how and I don’t know when / To open your eyes. “At the end of the song, Michael’s narrator has had enough, and he gives up and leaves:” I did my best / But your head is so messy / So I guess I don’t want to more of you. ”It’s a sad song about a difficult decision that many people face.
But “Monkey” doesn’t ring like a sad song. It looks like a ridiculous, ridiculous dance floor. It samples real monkey calls, and it has a hook that sounds like a playground song. Michael’s voice has a bit of bite, but it also has a bouncy rhythmic quality, especially when he hits higher notes. . On “Monkey”, Michael looks like he’s having a good time. In a way, the song makes more sense if you assume Michael is singing about a real monkey. Like, maybe he’s dating Ross Friends and he wants Marcel to be out of the picture. I wonder how many people just assumed that was the subject of the song.
When Faith become an absolute commercial juggernaut, the type of album that would deserve a fifth single, Michael decided that the version of “Monkey” Faith was not good enough. So he turned to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who had just turned Janet Jackson into a superstar and brought the Human League back to number one. (Because Jam and Lewis had also been in time, they also had a connection with Prince, which likely intrigued a Prince admirer like George Michael.) In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Jimmy Jam explained that Michael specifically researched the duo because he liked the way they remixed “MeanA single from Janet Jackson that they produced:
He liked it because he likes the chords. But every time you put chords on something, it’s hard to make it funky. And he observed that on the version of “Nasty”, we had chords on it and kind of kept the funk. He said that “Monkey” was a song he always thought was a little more melodic and had chords, but when he recorded it there was a deadline, and he didn’t put it on. as long as he wanted. So he said to us, “If you were to produce ‘Monkey’, how would you do it?”
(The unmixed version of “Nasty” peaked at # 3. It’s an 8.)
Jam and Lewis didn’t just remix “Monkey”; they threw away the disk and rebuilt it from next to nothing. The duo even brought Michael into the studio to re-record his vocals while rehearsing for his major world tour. Jimmy Jam says Michael sang the second version “funkier”, and the duo also used samples of Michael’s voice from the first version, cutting between the two different George Michaels. They also sampled a few other Michael songs. They used drum machines and drum pads, and they made the song an overwhelming experience.
There are actually a bunch of different remixes of Jam & Lewis from “Monkey”; Columbia released several versions of the single in CD, cassette and vinyl versions. (I have to imagine the label helped push “Monkey” to # 1 rankings just by releasing so many different editions of the single, which is the same kind of trick that labels use so often these days.) ” Monkey ‘remixes is the extended 12 ″ version, which takes the track to eight minutes and gives all the electronic percussion waves some breathing room.
In its music video version, however, “Monkey” has so much going on that it’s almost hard to hear it as a song. At five minutes, the “Monkey” remix is just too much information. There is no construction in the song, and there is not a lot of funk. There’s only thing: Hiccuping samples, orchestral hit synths, Seinfeld-Theme of bass slaps, sighs, gasps, drum machines hitting from all directions. It looks like someone throwing a Fairlight down a staircase. There is precious little free space in the track, and you need open space to make something funky. This version of the remix is impressive in its own way, just like a pure sonic attack.
Using a remix to bring “Monkey” to number one, Michael was essentially repeating what Duran Duran had done with “The Reflex” four years earlier. Duran Duran asked Nile Rodgers to rework their song, and they got their first peak out of it, but the song is inconsistent enough that it isn’t one of the classics of the band. This is exactly what happened with “Monkey”. Jam and Lewis brought some cutting edge club sounds to “Monkey,” but they didn’t really beef up the track. Compared to everything George Michael was doing back then, “Monkey” is still a pretty fragile song.
It’s a cool video, though. Most of the “Monkey” music video consists of footage of George Michael on tour, sprinting all over the stage, and teeming with members of his support group. The video shows that George Michael’s arena show in 1988 was amazing, and I bet it was. Longtime Michael collaborator Andy Morahan cuts between this live footage and footage of Michael dancing in front of a solid white background. Paula Abdul, someone who will appear in this column soon, choreographed the clip, and she clearly knew what she was doing. Even swinging some deeply wacky suspenders and a giant black farmer’s hat, Michael looks like a bag of money.
“Monkey” reached number one in the Dance chart, and he also entered the top 10 in R&B. Michael followed this up with another Faith single, the gasping and clinking cabaret experience “Kiss an idiotWhich peaked in fifth place. (It’s a 5.) If you keep the score at home, it means Faith, a 10-track album, was made from six singles. Michael spent much of the following years on tour. He won the second Video Vanguard Award at the 1989 VMAs. He became a clown Saturday Night Live. And he got sick of his image and burned himself. When Michael returned to the limelight a few years later, he was no longer pursuing mass adulation in the same way.
George Michael will appear again in this column. (Just like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.) But “Monkey” always represents the end of the moment when America completely lost its shit on George Michael. It’s easy to see why Michael stopped getting all this attention, but it was a great time nonetheless.
TO NOTE: 6/10
BONUS BEATS: I didn’t really find any good Beats bonus for “Monkey”, so instead here is Joan Baez’s weird 1989 cover from the Faith deep hand-to-mouth cut:
(Joan Baez’s most successful single is his 1971 cover from the group “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. Baez’s version of the song peaked in third place. It’s a 6.)