Gung hay fat choy! It’s the Year of the Monkey according to the Chinese zodiac, and to celebrate the Lunar New Year (February 8), I’ve put together a playlist of the greatest songs about apes, gorillas, monkeys and Monkees. There are so many primate-referencing songs, I had trouble winnowing the list down to ten. Monkeys! Who doesn’t love ’em?
10. “(Theme from) The Monkees,” The Monkees. Stupid and catchy in all the right ways and a formative part of my childhood. If you were a nine-year-old in 1966, hopped up on rock and roll, sugar and Davy Jones, this song would be on your monkey list too.
9. “Apeman,” The Kinks. Ray Davies at his droll best, stripping off the trappings of human sophistication and superiority to make the point that we’re the real beasts on this planet. “I don’t feel safe in this world no more/I don’t want to die in a nuclear war/I want to sail away to a distant shore/ And make like an apeman.”
8. “Monkey Man,” The Specials. It was a toss-up between the original by Toots and the Maytals and the Specials’ version, but I chose the latter because LOOK AT THIS AMAZING VIDEO!
7. “Too Much Monkey Business,” Chuck Berry. A motor-mouthed list of life’s botheration that inspired songs from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to Springsteen’s “Open All Night.” And when the guitar solo kicks in, it sounds like sweet freedom.
6. “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” Big Maybelle. The B-side of Big Maybelle’s 1955 recording of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” is a bawdy blues in which Maybelle washes her hands of a jerk who thinks he can just come and go. The verses are delivered in a sleepy drawl (“He left me at three in the morning/ I got me a man at four”), the choruses in a mighty roar. There are several songs with this title. Accept no substitute.
5. “The Monkey Time,” Major Lance. Most animals go through life never even inspiring one hit single based on a dance craze. In 1963, there were two primate-referencing dance songs on the charts, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Mickey’s Monkey” and Major Lance’s “The Monkey Time.” “The Monkey Time,” written by Curtis Mayfield (!), is a chugging, swinging joy to dance to. It’s one of my guaranteed mood elevators and you do not get between me and this song, understand? (I’m also partial to the version by Laura Nyro and Labelle from their Gonna Take a Miracle album, done as a medley with “Dancing in the Street.”)
4. “Mickey’s Monkey,” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ tune gave us the irresistible “lum de lum de la iiii” refrain and one of Smokey’s most infectious performances.
But when Martin Scorsese put “Mickey’s Monkey” on the astute, legendary Mean Streets soundtrack, the song gained a whole new level of cool. The name of the following clip is “Bobby D Dancing,” which is pretty much all you need to know.
3. “The Monkey,” Dave Bartholomew. Also known as “The Monkey Speaks His Mind.” New Orleans producer/bandleader/composer Bartholomew takes the perspective of a monkey surveying humankind with a critical eye in this satire that still cuts deep. Bartholomew talks the lyrics over a jumpy repeating guitar riff, his simian narrator distancing himself ever further from his murdering, debauched, money-hungry cousins. The punchline is a killer: “Yes, man descended, the worthless bum/But, brothers, from us he did not come.” The Kinks’ “Apeman” owes a debt to “The Monkey Speaks His Mind,” and Elvis Costello wrote a stinging sequel called “Monkey to Man” for his 2004 album The Delivery Man.
2. “Porcelain Monkey,” Warren Zevon. Fun fact: Zevon has four songs with simian titles, the others being “Leave My Monkey Alone,” “Monkey Wash, Donkey Rinse” and “Gorilla, You’re a Desperado.” But “Porcelain Monkey,” from Life’ll Kill Ya (2000), is one of the finest songs Zevon ever wrote. The titular figurine refers to the statue that sat on the coffee table in Elvis Presley’s TV room in Graceland. Zevon uses it here as a symbol of the excesses of fame and the tragedy of greatness squandered: “Hip-shakin’ shoutin’ in gold lame/That’s how he earned his regal sobriquet/Then he threw it all away/For a porcelain monkey.” The lyrics may read sarcastically, but Zevon sings them with a tender, sympathetic catch in his throat. He saves his bullets for the entourage that watched it all happen; “Left behind by the latest trends/Eating fried chicken with his regicidal friends” is surely one of the top five couplets Zevon ever wrote.
When I first heard “Porcelain Monkey,” without the lyrics in front of me and not knowing the story of Elvis’s porcelain monkey, I thought the song was about Jeff Koons’ unexpectedly moving and magnificent porcelain statue “Michael Jackson and Bubbles.” Once seen in person, it cannot be unseen.
1.”Brass Monkey,” The Beastie Boys. That funky Monkey. The swaggering, delinquent ode to a cheap cocktail in a can has become one of the Beasties’ most enduring tracks. In the future, when the apes inherit the human-free rubble that was once Earth, they’ll find a Licensed to Ill CD, a working Discman and a few 40s in the undecayed detritus of a landfill. And hip-hop will be reborn.
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016