George Michael's Faith Revisited: "I Want Your Sex" | "Faith" | "Father Figure" | "One More Try" | "Kissing a Fool"
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.