George Michael
George Michael
Gie Knaeps/Getty Images; Design by Nicole Tereza

Did America Love 'Monkey,' Or Did It Just Love George Michael?

In honor of the 30th anniversary of George Michael's blockbuster solo debut LP Faith, celebrated this Oct. 30, Billboard asked six writers to pen essays about the album's six classic smash hits -- all of which peaked in the top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100, and all of which showcase a different shade of Michael's singular brilliance. Here, Alfred Soto takes on the album's fifth hit single, the cluttered and furious "Monkey."

Redundant but not unwelcome, fifth singles were created in the 1980s by record company marketers. Hell, before Fleetwood Mac's Rumours in '77, the fourth single didn’t even exist.

If it weren’t for Michael Jackson’s Thriller and its seven top 10 hits spanning three calendar years, George Michael might not have watched as “Monkey” ascended the Billboard Hot 100 with lightning speed. After debuting at No. 42 on the week of July 9, 1988, the latest from Michael’s unstoppable 1987 solo debut Faith reached the top ten in four weeks and No. 1 in its eighth. As usual in this era of impressive starts, the song fell out of the top forty just as quickly; its dominance lasted roughly a dozen weeks.

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The regnant medium in the pop and R&B markets until musicians copped to Sinatra, Sam Cooke, and Ray Charles’ jive and fiddled with concepts and such, the single devolved into a means to an end during the High Reagan era. Record companies weren’t quite ready to eliminate them, though -- not when they represented another income line, however meager -- and, critically, formed part of the, ah, “experience” of a superstar album.

“What we focused on in pretty rapidly [with Thriller] was trying to pull all of these elements together to try and create an extended mega-explosion,” the legendary Columbia Records general manager Al Teller told Fred Goodman about the promotion maelstrom for Bruce Springsteen's 1984 blockbuster Born in the U.S.A. “It wasn’t just a question of going many singles deep, but coming up with visual images to with those singles from a video perspective and keeping an act touring and touring and touring and touring. Just create a vibe and intensity and a desire for a particular record in as many ways as possible.”

Born in the U.S.A and Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down would create vibe and intensity too; at the end of the decade came Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 and Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl, which also went many singles deep. Faith was one more, with a distinction: Wham! had already made George Michael a multi-format threat, and thanks to Wham! he could get away with recording singles about screaming simians.

From a distance of thirty years, releasing “Monkey” at all represents the kind of addled hubris expected in a climate in which promoting an album meant flogging it. While the album version doesn’t bore us by skipping the chorus -- a phalanx of multi-tracked Michaels cries, “Why can’t you do it? Why can’t you set your monkey free?” by way of introduction -- the rest of the track sorta just sits there, a vaporous demo, its rhythm tethered to a perfunctory sequencer and chugging funk guitar.

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But the single mix... well. Anchored to a sample of a shrieking chimp, remixed by the scorching songwriting-production pair Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, this “Monkey” never gets off your back; it’s addled as hell. Jam & Lewis coaxed every aural possibility out of Michael’s version: bass runs, thundering programmed drums. And that was the abridged single version: The full eight-minute Jam & Lewis extended mix, included in the re-mastered two-disc Faith, opens with the chimp, a synth playing a variation on Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” hook and samples from the other Faith singles, and climaxes with a distorted Michael ordering “SOME SNARE.” Listening to this version is like sleeping while the city’s being nuked. Guilty feet got rhythm, turns out.

Fortunately, the video was a less, to borrow nifty jargon, totalizing experience. But it was a riotous one: shot in grainy black and white, with George gallivanting in suspenders, tight pants, and the silliest brimmed hat in a decade replete with silly hats. Best, the camera can’t stop leering at Michael’s butt, and who can’t? Unconfirmed rumors said “Monkey” was about a friend struggling with heroin addiction. I couldn’t have known this in my high school years; using the monkey as a stand-in for the unwanted corner of a love triangle sufficed. After all, this was a time when Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey” and Pixies’ “Monkey Gone to Heaven” rocked my Walkman, both of which were sung by crazy guys with a penchant for metaphoric hyperbole.

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“Monkey” proved a marker in George Michael’s career. Never again was his clout large enough to get a single this bonkers on the air. More importantly, “Monkey” marked the last time one of his uptempo singles topped the Hot 100. The sixth and last Faith single to receive a proper push, the sophisti-pop-courting “Kissing a Fool,” became his first A-side since “I Want Your Sex” in summer 1987 not to hit No. 1, stalling at No. 5. While the ominous “Praying For Time” sailed to No. 1 in autumn 1990, as the lead single from Faith's 1990 follow-up Listen Without Prejudice, Vol.1, assign the credit to pent-up demand: The beloved “Freedom ’90,” the second Listen single, stalled at No. 8. He would top the chart in America in '92, dueting with Elton John on a version of the latter's '70s smash “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me." And that was that.

You still don’t hear “Monkey” much on ‘80s recurrent stations, but I love the loony sinews of the Jam & Lewis remix – one of those instances where outsiders understood a song's essence as much as the songwriter. Froth of a meticulous kind, call it, studded with the extemporized wisdom in which pop songs traffic. “I tried my best/ But your head is such a mess” justifies a dozen ghosting occasions, no? Those shrieking chimps are the telltale hearts beating.