The Number Ones

August 27, 1988

The Number Ones: George Michael’s “Monkey”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

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.

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George Michael spent all of 1988 running up the score on everyone else. “Monkey” was his end-zone dance. With “Monkey,” Michael became only the third artist ever to squeeze four #1 hits out of a single album. The previous two, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, both pulled off that same feat in 1988 — a pretty clear sign that the music industry had by then reorganized itself around the idea of extended rollouts for blockbuster albums. In 1988, no blockbuster was bigger than Michael’s Faith. Faith was 1988’s highest-selling album. The LP’s title track was the year’s #1 single. And with “Monkey,” Michael managed to return to #1 with a profoundly goofy song that he’d rushed to completion.

But there’s a caveat here. When Michael got to #1 with “Monkey,” it wasn’t the version of “Monkey” from the Faith album. Instead, Michael brought in the two biggest pop producers of the moment to remix his song — or, more accurately, to rebuild it from the ground up. “Monkey” got to #1 partly because Michael was still coasting on the accumulated success of his monster album. But it also got there because Michael got Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to transform the song into an overwhelming, maximalist club track.

George Michael was a pop auteur. He wrote and produced every song on Faith, and he played a lot of the instruments, too. (Michael co-wrote “Look At Your Hands” with his friend David Austin, but he got sole writing credit on everything else.) But Michael didn’t have time to obsess over his album until it was perfect, and he wasn’t quite satisfied with “Monkey,” a song that could’ve easily become a half-forgotten deep cut. In its original form, “Monkey” is a catchy, playful strutter. Michael built it on a rippling, strobing funk guitar, and he chopped up his own voice enough to make himself a stuttering echo. But compared to some of the pop monsters on Faith, “Monkey” is a slight song.

One of the weirdest things about “Monkey” is the tonal clash between the music and the lyrics. As written, “Monkey” is a song about being in love with someone who has serious addiction problems. Michael’s narrator can’t stand being less important than a drug, and he fumes about his inability to get through to this person: “Oh, I hate your friends/ But I don’t know how and I don’t know when/ To open your eyes.” As the song ends, Michael’s narrator has enough, and he gives up and leaves: “I tried my best/ But your head is such a mess/ So I guess that I don’t want you anymore.” It’s a sad song about a difficult decision that a whole lot of people have to face.

But “Monkey” doesn’t sound like a sad song. It sounds like a silly, ridiculous dance track. It samples actual monkey screeches, and it’s got a hook that sounds like a playground chant. Michael’s vocal has some bite, but it also has a skipping rhythmic quality, especially when he hits higher notes. On “Monkey,” Michael sounds like he’s having a good time. In a way, the song makes more sense if you assume that Michael is singing about an actual monkey. Like, maybe he’s dating Ross from Friends and he wants Marcel out of the picture. I wonder how many people just assumed that’s what the song was about.

When Faith turned into an absolute commercial juggernaut, the type of album that would warrant a fifth single, Michael decided that the version of “Monkey” on Faith wasn’t good enough. So he turned to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who’d just turned Janet Jackson into a superstar and brought the Human League back to #1. (Because Jam and Lewis had also been in the Time, they also had a Prince connection, which probably intrigued a Prince admirer like George Michael.) In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Jimmy Jam explained that Michael specifically sought out the duo because he liked the way that they’d remixed “Nasty,” a Janet Jackson single that they’d produced:

He liked it because he’s into chords. But whenever you put chords on something, it’s hard to make it funky. And he observed that on the version of “Nasty” that we had put chords on it and somehow kept the funk in. He said that “Monkey” was a song that he’d always envisioned as a little more melodic and had chords, but when he recorded it there was a deadline, and he didn’t put the time into it that he wanted. So he said to us, “If you were to produce ‘Monkey,’ how would you do it?”

(The non-remixed version of “Nasty” peaked at #3. It’s an 8.)

Jam and Lewis didn’t just remix “Monkey”; they threw the record out and rebuilt it from almost nothing. The duo even brought Michael into the studio to re-record his vocals while he was rehearsing for his big world tour. Jimmy Jam says that Michael sang the second version “more funky,” and the duo also used samples of Michael’s voice from the first version, cutting between the two different George Michaels. They sampled a couple of other Michael songs, too. They used drum machines and drum pads, and they turned the track into an overwhelming experience.

There are actually a bunch of different Jam & Lewis remixes of “Monkey”; Columbia released multiple versions of the single in CD, cassette, and vinyl versions. (I have to imagine that the label helped push “Monkey” to #1 just by releasing so many different editions of the single, which is the same kind of chart-juking trick that labels use so often these days.) The best of the “Monkey” remixes is the extended 12″ version, which takes the track to eight minutes and gives all of the waves of electronic percussion some room to breathe.

In its music-video version, though, “Monkey” has so many things 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’s no build to the song, and there’s not much funk. There’s just stuff: Hiccuping samples, orchestra-hit synths, Seinfeld-theme bass-slaps, sighs, gasps, drum machines hitting from all directions. It sounds like someone throwing a Fairlight down a flight of stairs. There’s precious little open space in the track, and you need open space to make something sound funky. That version of the remix is impressive in its own way, just as a sheer onslaught of sound.

By using a remix to bring “Monkey” to #1, Michael was essentially repeating what Duran Duran had done with “The Reflex” four years earlier. Duran Duran got Nile Rodgers to rework their song, and they got their first chart-topper out of it, but the song is incoherent enough that it doesn’t hold up as one of the group’s classics. That’s exactly what happened with “Monkey.” Jam and Lewis brought cutting-edge club sounds to “Monkey,” but they didn’t exactly strengthen the track. Compared to everything else George Michael was doing at the time, “Monkey” remains a pretty flimsy song.

It’s a cool video, though. Most of the “Monkey” clip is made up of footage of George Michael on tour, sprinting all over the stage and grinding with the members of his backing band. The video makes the case that George Michael’s 1988 arena show was amazing, and I bet it was. Andy Morahan, Michael’s longtime collaborator, cuts between that live footage and images of Michael dancing in front of a plain white background. Paula Abdul, someone who will soon appear in this column, choreographed the clip, and she clearly knew what she was doing. Even rocking some profoundly goofy suspenders and a giant black farmer hat, Michael looks like a bag of money.

“Monkey” hit #1 on the Dance chart, and it also went top-10 on R&B. Michael followed that up with another Faith single, the breathy and tinkly cabaret experiment “Kissing A Fool,” which peaked at #5. (It’s a 5.) If you’re keeping score at home, that means that Faith, an album with 10 tracks, spun off six singles. Michael spent much of the next few years on tour. He won the second Video Vanguard Award at the 1989 VMAs. He got clowned on Saturday Night Live. And he got sick of his image and burned himself out. When Michael returned to the spotlight a couple of years later, he was no longer chasing mass adulation the same way.

George Michael will appear in this column again. (So will Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.) But “Monkey” still represents the end of the moment when America utterly lost its shit for George Michael. It’s easy to see why Michael stopped enjoying all that attention, but that was still a pretty good moment.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: I couldn’t really find any good Bonus Beats for “Monkey,” so instead, here’s Joan Baez’s weird 1989 cover of the Faith deep cut “Hand To Mouth”:

(Joan Baez’s highest-charting single is her 1971 cover of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Baez’s version of the song peaked at #3. It’s a 6.)

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