Last year, I joined Popdose‘s Jeff Giles and Robert Cass for a column called “‘Face Time,” in which we discussed essential (and some non-essential) cuts in the catalog of Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, one of the most prolific singer/songwriters of the ’80s and ’90s. ‘Face and his partner Antonio “L.A.” Reid were one of the big 3 production teams that ruled pop and R&B during that era. There was also Teddy Riley and his New Jack Swing camp, and perhaps most notably, Minneapolis’s James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis. The former members of Prince offshoot band The Time turned out to be legends in their own right, composing and producing hits for a who’s-who of the music industry and proving to be as (if not more) influential than their purple-clad benefactor.
So in 2014, Jeff, Robert and I (along two new team members, fellow Popdose editor/Popblerd podcast co-host Michael Parr, along with badass co-conspirator Dr. Z) are back to talk all things Flyte Tyme.
George Michael “Monkey” (single remix) (from “Monkey” single, 1988)
Written by George Michael | Produced by George Michael, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis
MJ: In all its extended version, synthesized glory…
Michael Parr: Ah, “Monkey” … the least likely number one song—George Michael’s fourth off of Faith—about drug abuse, ever. If I recall correctly, Jam & Lewis were brought in to remix the original and get it ready for radio.
Jeff Giles: Drug abuse? I thought it was about my whore of an eighth grade girlfriend.
The basic gist is that in eighth grade, I had this really long, ridiculous relationship whose ups and downs were roughly mirrored by the singles from Faith, which I hated at the time, because my on-again, off-again girlfriend had given me that record as a Christmas present and I wasn’t even a George Michael fan. I spent most of 1988 hating George Michael, and much of the summer wishing “Monkey” would die in a fire.
I have since come around, of course.
MP: Ki Ki Ki Come on, Jeff.
Robert Cass: Even if he is a Brit, how awkward would it be as a white man to call two black producers and say, “‘Ello, guv’ners, would you fancy remixing me song ‘Monkey’?”
MJ: George was coming off a #1 R&B single. I can’t imagine it being very difficult.
Now if he’d asked to touch their monkey. Or spank their monkey. Or…
Dr. Z: My warped interpretation has nothing to do with drugs. Rather, the “monkey” is a straight woman with whom the protagonist’s male lover is having an affair.
I came up with this around the same time that I decided “Dress You Up” was about female ejaculation, so there’s your context.
MP: Whatever you do, do not go to songmeanings.com and read what folks think this song is about. Yikes.
RC: It’s impossible not to backtrack through George Michael’s catalog and think, Is this song really about a dude?
MJ: I ask this with no agenda at all: would it matter if they were?
Z: Nah. Any way you slice it, they’re songs about love, lust, and sex.
RC: No, but this goes back to a question that will probably never be resolved: when are singer-songwriters being autobiographical and when are they not, and why do I have trouble separating the singer-songwriter from the “character” that’s being portrayed?
MJ: Hearing this song makes me wonder…
When did it become common practice for songs to get remixed heavily for their single versions?
The first song I can think of where there was a marked difference between original and single versions was “The Reflex” by Duran Duran.
Worth mentioning, though, that right behind that were Wham!’s “Everything She Wants” and the last couple of singles from “Control” (“Let’s Wait Awhile” and “The Pleasure Principle.”)
Z: I can’t say, but this is one of the earliest that I can remember.
In hindsight, this song might not be the strongest of Faith’s singles, but I love it – particularly the Jam & Lewis mix. The lyrics might seem a bit hokey, but it’s a funky tune and one of my favorites.
MJ: This song just feels to me like Jimmy & Terry cued up all the sequencers and other machines they could find, went crazy, and had a fucking blast. There’s so much going on here, and none of it takes away from the song itself.
JG: I’d really love to have a chat with the person or persons responsible for charting out this album’s singles, because they were perfectly plotted. In terms of a solo debut being used as a calling card for an artist’s true intentions following their stint in a band (or “band,” in this case), it has to be one of the best ever.
MJ: I agree with you on that last point-the rollout of singles was impeccable. Seeing as George hasn’t continued to utilize the same high level of judgment, I don’t know that I’m inclined to give him too much of the credit here.
JG: Absolutely. This record is a pretty perfect synthesis of outsized artistic ambition and commercial savvy. I mean, even the existence of this “Monkey” remix speaks to how well George and Columbia understood how to play the game at this point. You can hear him working within confines while straining against boundaries, and that tension is part of what makes Faith such a terrific pop record. Most of what came after just proves that great art isn’t created in a vacuum, and that absolute creative freedom is often an artist’s worst enemy.
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