1988 Countdown #63: George Michael, “Monkey”

(New to the countdown? Catch up here.)


In a crowded arena, a man stands on a stage, not moving. Fans frantically wave their hands, seeking his attention, or maybe trying to remind him to continue the show. The man is looking up, with his arms by his side. Lights flicker behind him and there’s a smoky haze on the stage. He is wearing a tank top and his hair appears to be dyed blond. We cut to a close-up: George Michael, eyebrows groomed, beard stubble perfectly trimmed, earring dangling from his left earlobe–and sporting a giant brimmed hat? Well, whatever works.


This is a straight-up performance video, our first clip in the countdown set at a live concert since Pat Benatar at #78. It’s interspersed with some studio clips of Michael, both color and black-and-white: those are all filmed against a stark white background, and feature the camera doing whip pans every few seconds to provide extra movement. It closely resembles the footage in the “I Want Your Sex” video (a 1987 single, not seen in this countdown): I always assumed they stuck a hat on Michael to differentiate it and stuck it in the can for a year. (In the interim, Debbie Gibson started sporting a very similar hat.) On the other hand, since this was the fifth single from Faith, that would be an unusual amount of advance planning; they could have gone back to the same director or replicated the setup.


One hint that nobody expected this song to be a single: it got remade before being released to radio (and MTV). I thought that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had remixed it, borrowing the playbook from Nile Rodgers for his remix of Duran Duran’s “The Reflex,” but it turns out they cut a new version of it. (Jam said they got hired based on a remix they did of “Nasty”: “George… 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 we had put chords on it [and] somehow kept the funk in.”) So Jam and Lewis recorded a new backing track, speeding up the tempo, filling out the sound with more bass, and adding a breakbeat intro–and monkey sound effects. Michael re-sang his vocals in Los Angeles, during breaks from his tour rehearsal. “We would have done it in Minneapolis,” remembered Jam (in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits), “but he had been on vacation in the islands, and he didn’t want to go from 90 degrees to 10 below zero.” (The final vocal track includes samples from the original version.)


The video rolls on, which means that George Michael dances. He doesn’t have a wide variety of moves. Basically, Michael has two options: he can do a spin, or he can do a side-to-side shimmy, which he garnishes with various arm movements, such as pumping his fists in front of his crotch. He executes his steps vigorously, and he’s got a strong enough sense of rhythm that it works out fine.

Lots of quick cuts. In the studio shots, Michael is working a white button-down shirt, suspenders, and that hat. He looks a bit like a rabbinical student who’s headed out for the disco. He stares into the camera and looks intense while he lipsyncs.


Onstage, he’s got a variety of outfits, all with blue jeans: a leather jacket covering a black tanktop, a denim jacket, and the white shirt/suspenders combo. He looks like that same rabbinical student three months later, after he’s figured out he’s never going back to school. He spins around and falls to his knees. He runs back and forth across the stage. He does so much running that I worry he’s missed a bus.

“I’ve had the rest / Now it’s time I had the best,” Michael sings, recapitulating the slogan found on 80% of all pizza boxes. This odd plug for a large pie with pepperoni and mushroom aside, “Monkey” remains an excellent song: a funky pop treatment of having a loved one with an addiction. Like all good pop songs about addiction, it makes the disease sound just as compelling as the cure.


Onstage, Michael claps his hands, swings his left arm around like he’s lassoing somebody, and bunny-hops backwards. It’s hard to remember that people at the time really thought he was straight. During an instrumental break, we get ten relatively uninterrupted seconds of Michael dancing: very simple moves, including some rudimentary mime and a lot of butt-wiggling. But he remains drenched in charisma–whoever choreographed him worked really well with his skill set.

Michael boogies with his bassist (black, long braids, blue Mao jacket) and they do a little follow-the-leader routine. He then pretends to lust after one of his female backup singers (black, extensions, miniskirt), motioning as if he’s running his hand up her leg. Thousands of people cheer. More running, more spinning. The cuts get quicker–no small feat, given how overcaffeinated the editing style was already.

The music has a key change. Lots more running. We get our first distinct shot of an audience member: a quick glimpse of a blonde girl clapping her hands. The video ends with a crane shot: the camera pulls back across the ocean of fans like a trawler that’s caught enough fish for one day and is heading back to shore.

“Monkey” topped the Billboard singles charts for two weeks. You can watch the video here.

posted 12 November 2009 in 1988 and tagged , , . 5 comments

5 Comments on 1988 Countdown #63: George Michael, “Monkey”

  1. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    I’m glad you mentioned that “Monkey” was an excellent single. Maybe it just benefited from the paucity of good pop music in the mid- to late 1980s, but that Faith album always sounded pretty doggone good on the radio.

  2. azul120 Says:

    I always found this one amusing on song title alone.

    Monkey actually did better on MTV than its chart position here suggests, hitting #1 on the top 20 countdown (supposedly bumped by Sweet Child O’ Mine), and being one of Michael’s more recurrently replayed videos throughout the next few years, even making an all-time list or two (only if it were top 200 or 300 or so). The thing here was that this is the first of 4 videos he has on the countdown, and MTV had a tendency of spacing out videos by the same artists, supposedly for the sake of flow, and perhaps even equal opportunity, even if the results are deceptive, for lack of better word.

  3. Chris M. Says:

    “I’ve had the rest / Now it’s time I had the best,” Michael sings, recapitulating the slogan found on 80% of all pizza boxes. This odd plug for a large pie with pepperoni and mushroom aside…

    This comment for the win — I LOL’d heartily.

    Two tidbits that come to mind:

    1. Good point about the difference between what Jam/Lewis did here and what Rodgers did on “Reflex”; I always think of these two songs as two peas in the (needing remixing) pod. In a way, given what you said, “Monkey” is a progenitor for the way rerecorded-remixes took off in the ’90s and ’00s: all of the hits from Jewel’s mid-’90s blockbuster Pieces of Me were redone before hitting radio, and especially the hits from Jennifer Lopez’s second album. So completely overhauled were the hits from J. Lo (“I’m Real,” “Ain’t It Funny”) that around 2002 Billboard had to come up with a new rule that if a so-called “remix” didn’t retain enough elements of the original recording, the label couldn’t aggregate chart points from the different mixes as it was climbing the singles charts. I now call it “the J.Lo rule.”

    2. Fun Hot 100 tidbit about this song: during the two weeks it was at No. 1, it held back Michael’s BFF Elton John, who got stuck at No. 2 with his comeback hit “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That.” George made it up to him: in 1991–92 their live duet remake of John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” recorded at a Michael concert, went to No. 1, giving Elton his first credited American chart-topper since the mid-’70s.

  4. Gavin Says:

    “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Elton John!” I always loved how Elton got introduced on his own single. That should happen on more songs, I think.

  5. Aldo Says:

    I think George had very nice dance skills, look at the “I’m your man video” and you will see…

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