In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Tommy James And The Shondells had a hell of a run in the second half of the ’60s. The band never gets mentioned as one of that decade’s iconic acts, and they’ve never even been nominated for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, but they made an impact. The Shondells had two #1 singles, “Hanky Panky” and “Crimson And Clover,” and both are great songs. They had seven top-10 hits, and most of those are great songs, too. They generated a whole lot of money for the mafia-controlled indie label Roulette Records. They can credibly claim that they invented bubblegum pop. Then, after five years, they broke up.
After the end of the Shondells, Tommy James only scored one top-10 hit as a solo artist. (1971’s “Draggin’ The Line” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.) The bubblegum pop that he’d helped pioneer lingered on the charts for a few more years, but it faded away, too — or, at least, it evolved into other forms of goofy pop music that didn’t market themselves explicitly as bubblegum. Tommy James kept working, and people eventually remembered how good those Shondells songs were. Kenny Laguna, a former Shondell, became Joan Jett’s creative partner, and Jett And The Blackhearts took a cover of “Crimson And Clover” to #7 in 1982. (The Joan Jett version is a 10.)
Then, in 1987, something incredibly strange happened. Two different covers of old Tommy James And The Shondells songs — versions of hits that the Shondells had released in 1967 and 1968 — became back-to-back #1 hits. Honestly, it makes no sense at all. Those two Shondells covers sounded nothing like one another. They were recorded by two vastly different artists, and neither had any idea what the other was doing. It wasn’t like some new wave of Shondellmania had gripped America; Tommy James didn’t start cranking out hit singles again. It’s just a fascinating cosmic pop-chart coincidence.
In a vacuum, it makes sense that Tiffany’s version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” and Billy Idol’s version of “Mony Mony” were both hits. Tommy James And The Shondells tended to record simple, insistent, earwormy singles, and songs like that have a way of sticking around. Also, nostalgia tends to move in 20-year cycles, and both of those songs were around 20 years old when the covers hit. Covers of old songs were big in 1987, a time when pop music was recalibrating in a lot of different ways; Club Nouveau’s “Lean On Me,” Kim Wilde’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” and Los Lobos’ “La Bamba” all reached #1 earlier that year.
Still, two Tommy James And The Shondells songs at #1? In 1987? In a row? It’s insane. We almost never see artists replacing themselves at #1; it’s the sort of thing usually only achieved by the Beatles and Bee Gees and Biebers of the world. The fact that two Tommy James covers went back-to-back, 17 years after that band’s breakup, is enough to send you into a numerological black hole. But it happened.
“Mony Mony” was a bit of an unlikely hit in the first place. Tommy James and his collaborators were trying to write a party-rock song, a style that wasn’t exactly in vogue in 1968. They were specifically trying to get a song to take off in the UK, even though the band had never been there. James’ co-writer Ritchie Cordell (also the sole credited songwriter on “I Think We’re Alone Now”) had an idea in mind: “They liked real sloppy stuff, real stuff from the gutter.” But James and Cordell couldn’t think of a title. They wanted something nonsensical, something a bit like “Hang On Sloopy,” but nothing they tried was working. Finally, one night, James and Cordell went out to smoke a cigarette on the roof of James’ apartment building in New York. James pointed out the flashing sign on the roof of the Mutual Of New York building: MONY. Suddenly, they had their title.
James and his collaborators tell a lot of fun stories about making “Mony Mony.” They say that they were all jacked up on speed when they recorded it. They say that they brought random strangers who were on their lunch breaks to do the crowd-noise call-and-response bits. They say that they didn’t have a real drummer at the session, so they used a tape-loop of a few bars of drums, just like Fleetwood Mac would later do on “Dreams” and the Bee Gees would do on “Stayin’ Alive.” I don’t know how many of those stories are true, but, you know, print the legend.
In any case, the Shondells made “Mony Mony” into a fun, messy piece of good-time gibberish. They accomplished their goal; “Mony Mony” came out in March of 1968 and became a chart-topping hit in the UK. In the US, “Mony Mony” also reached #3. (It’s a 7.) In the UK, the Shondells had the same publisher as the Beatles, and James has said that George Harrison liked “Mony Mony” so much that he and some collaborators wrote a bunch more party-rock songs for the Shondells. But Tommy James was trying to move onto different sounds, so the Shondells turned those songs down. The band also made a very early music video for “Mony Mony,” which James says mostly played in European cinemas between movies at double features.
Billy Idol was about 13 years old when “Mony Mony” hit the UK. He’s since said that the song was playing on a nearby transistor radio when he lost his virginity in a public park. William Broad grew up around the UK and also spent a few years of his childhood living on Long Island. As a young man, Broad dropped out of college and joined the Bromley Contingent, a group of punks who would follow the Sex Pistols around from show to show. Soon afterward, Broad started playing guitar in a punk band called Chelsea. He took the name Billy Idol as a sort of joke. A teacher had written on a report card that he was “idle”; Broad flipped it into Idol, at least in part, so that his stage name wouldn’t make anyone think of Monty Python’s Eric Idle.
Chelsea didn’t last long, and in 1976, Idol started singing for Generation X, a London punk band whose name has proven weirdly long-lasting. (Idol was born in 1955, so he’s part of Generation X the band but not Generation X the generation. Tiffany, meanwhile, is part of Generation X the generation but not Generation X the band.) Generation X were part of the crowded second wave of UK punk bands. They had a few hits in their homeland, and they played on Top Of The Pops a few times, but they never really got huge. In 1981, the band tried to go in more of a new-wave direction, enlisting Donna Summer collaborator Keith Forsey to produce their album Kiss Me Deadly, released under the name Gen X. The album bricked, and the band broke up shortly thereafter.
After Generation X split, Billy Idol moved to New York and had a go at pop stardom. Idol kept working with Keith Forsey, and he also teamed up with a flashy glam-rock guitarist named Steve Stevens. “Mony Mony” was actually the first song that Idol ever recorded as a solo artist. Idol thought that the original Shondells version of “Mony Mony” was already practically disco, so it would work just fine for the kind of club-friendly dance-rock that he wanted to make.
Idol was shameless enough to make his “Mony Mony” work. He and Forsey built it around a mechanistic drum-machine stomp and around some background-singer wailing that, in true American Idol fashion, threatens to overwhelm Idol’s own voice completely. In Billy Idol’s hands, a silly song somehow became even sillier. But as pure dumb-as-a-brick party music, Billy Idol’s “Mony Mony” does the trick. The part where the the song stops, you hear the sound of a plane taking off, and then Idol jumps back in screaming “come on”? That’s the good shit.
Idol released his version of “Mony Mony” on his 1981 debut EP Don’t Stop, and it just missed the Hot 100. That EP also included “Dancing With Myself,” a song that Generation X had included on their last album. Idol didn’t even re-record the song; Forsey just remixed the Generation X version, trimmed it down a bit, and threw it right on the EP under Billy Idol’s name. “Dancing With Myself” didn’t crack the Hot 100, either, but its extremely silly post-apocalyptic video got a lot of play on early MTV, and that’s probably what turned Idol into a star.
Billy Idol and MTV were made for one another. Idol wasn’t punk, he wasn’t metal, and he wasn’t new wave, though his music had echoes of all those things. More than anything else, he was a showman, an entertainer. He looked incredible, like a fifth-grader’s idea of how a cool rock star should look: the sneer, the cheekbones, the steely stare, the spiky blonde hair, the chains, the leather. More to the point, he was shameless. Idol was willing to be gallingly stupid, which was smart business. His gleefully silly attempts at rebellious rock ‘n’ roll poses were great television.
Idol’s self-titled 1982 debut went gold, and his 1983 follow-up Rebel Yell cruised to double platinum. Rebel Yell included Idol’s broody synth-ballad “Eyes Without A Face,” which became his first top-10 hit, peaking at #4. (It’s a 7.) In 1986, Idol made it back into the top 10, when his cover of the William Bell Southern-soul oldie “To Be A Lover” reached #6. (It’s a 4.) The truly iconic Billy Idol rockers, songs like “Rebel Yell” and “White Wedding,” typically didn’t do too well on the pop charts, but they stayed in heavy MTV rotation and established Idol as a theatrical air-humping avatar of rock hedonism. Ultimately, that’s probably a more valuable achievement.
In 1985, Idol’s collaborator Keith Forsey offered him “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” a song he’d written for the John Hughes movie The Breakfast Club. Idol turned the song down, and the Simple Minds took “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” to #1. Two years later, though, Idol landed a #1 hit of his own. Idol’s version of “Mony Mony” hadn’t been a hit, but he kept playing it live, and it still got good crowd responses. As Idol released the remix album Vital Idol — which, I promise you, is not vital — Chrysalis also released a live version of “Mony Mony” as a single. That live version isn’t even on the album, which has the “Downtown Mix” instead. The single still took off.
The live version of “Mony Mony,” recorded over two nights in Seattle, isn’t terribly different from the studio version. Anecdotally, I’ve never heard the live track on the radio; it’s always been one that Idol released in 1981. The 1987 live take on “Mony Mony” has some wheedly Steve Stevens guitar-noodling, which probably helped the song tap into the glam-metal zeitgeist, but it’s still a silly old song being sung by a silly young man. (Idol wasn’t that young. “Mony Mony” reached #1 a week before Idol turned 32 — exactly twice the age that Tiffany was when her own Shondells cover topped the Hot 100.)
In all of its incarnations — 1968, 1981, 1987 — “Mony Mony” is pure euphoric nonsense. Even when you’re just listening to the 1987 version, you can hear Idol strutting and preening and making extremely photogenic facial expressions. To sing a song like “Mony Mony” with the proper enthusiasm, you have to be utterly unafraid to look and sound ridiculous, and Billy Idol never had any compunctions about that. For Billy Idol, “Mony Mony” is simply a song about feeling so good. This is not an artistic misinterpretation. That’s all “Mony Mony” was ever about.
You could argue that Billy Idol’s version of “Mony Mony” is too thin and tinny and synthed-out. You could argue that “Mony Mony” is barely a song anyway — that it’s more of a witless, hooting vamp. You could argue that the screechy Steve Stevens guitar stuff is too much. In all cases, you would be right. But “Mony Mony” is still a good time. I prefer the 1981 studio version, but even on the live one, Billy Idol comes off as a man perfectly willing to stand as a symbol for all forms of hormonal excitement. That rules. I salute him for it.
Idol’s version of “Mony Mony” probably owed at least some of its success to the fact that people love yelling cuss words. At some point, Idol’s version of the song developed its own crowd-participation ritual. Whenever Idol played the song live, or whenever a DJ would play it at a school dance, crowds started chanting: “Hey! Say what! Hey! Get laid, get fucked!” (This is just good advice, honestly.) It’s hard to say how that chant caught on. In a pre-internet era, it must’ve just been a word-of-mouth oral-tradition thing. Schools started banning the song from dances, which probably just made it more popular. In live shows, Idol himself eventually started doing the “get laid, get fucked” bit.
Billy Idol maintained his thoroughly unserious version of MTV stardom for a few more years, and his single “Cradle Of Love” peaked at #2 in 1990. (It’s a 7.) But that same year, Idol got into a bad motorcycle wreck in Los Angeles, and he needed a steel rod put into his leg. Billy Idol had other problems, too — he overdosed on GHB in 1994 — but his career could’ve taken some extremely strange turns if not for that crash. Robert Patrick, the actor who played the villainous T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, once claimed that Idol had been the original choice to play the evil liquid-metal robot in 1991’s highest-grossing movie but that Idol’s injury forced James Cameron to change his plans. The next time you watch Terminator 2, try to imagine Billy Idol in the Robert Patrick role. It will be a far shittier movie, but it’ll probably be a lot funnier, too.
Instead of finding movie stardom — or even the solid character-actor status that Robert Patrick currently enjoys — Billy Idol made Cyberpunk, a supremely goofy 1993 concept album. He reunited with Generation X a few times. He had that great cameo in The Wedding Singer. Idol kept himself looking good — so good that he could convincingly play his 1985 self in a 1998 movie, even after the motorcycle crash and the overdose.
These days, Billy Idol is a reliable draw on the nostalgia circuit. Idol won’t appear in this column again, but compared to the other survivors of rock’s silliest era, he’s really aging gracefully. Even as a grandfather, Billy Idol makes sure he looks good.
BONUS BEATS: We’re going three-for-three on “Weird Al” Yankovic parodies this week! Here’s “Alimony,” the “Mony Mony” parody that Yankovic included on his 1988 album Even Worse:
(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7. I have copy-pasted those two sentences so many times now.)