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In our interview with Tommy James
, he explained: "Originally, we did the track without a song. And the idea was to create a party rock record; in 1968 that was pretty much of a throwback to the early '60s. Nobody was making party rock records really in 1968, those big-drum-California-sun-what-I-sing-money-type songs. And so I wanted to do a party rock record. And we went in the studio, and we pasted this thing together out of drums here, and a guitar riff here. It was called sound surgery, and we finally put it together in probably a month. We had most of the words to the song, but we still had no title. And it's just driving us nuts, because we're looking for like a 'Sloopy' or some crazy name – it had to be a two-syllable girl's name that was memorable and silly and kind of stupid sounding. So we knew what kind of a word we had, it's just that everything we came up with sounded so bad. So Ritchie Cordell, my songwriting partner and I, are up in my apartment up at 888 Eighth Avenue in New York. And finally we get disgusted, we throw our guitars down, we go out on the terrace, we light up a cigarette, and we look up into the sky. And the first thing our eyes fall on is the Mutual of New York Insurance Company. M-O-N-Y. True story. With a dollar sign in the middle of the O, and it gave you the time and the temperature. I had looked at this thing for years, and it was sitting there looking me right in the face. We saw this at the same time, and we both just started laughing. We said, 'That's perfect! What could be more perfect than that?' Mony, M-O-N-Y, Mutual of New York. And so we must have laughed for about ten minutes, and that became the title of the song. When we made the record, we had our usual studio band, but we also dragged in people off the street, we had secretaries come downstairs. This was in the 1650 Broadway Building, the basement of 1650 was a big music industry building. All the writers and publishers were there, so we invited them all downstairs, and it was really a party that got captured on tape."
Amphetamines and the Mafia played a surprising role in this Bubblegum classic. Roulette Records was run by The Mob, as James explains in our interview. As for the drugs, Kenny Laguna, a producer who played keyboards and sang with The Shondells, told us: "We used to do a lot of amphetamines, they were very popular with people trying to succeed, so we'd spend all day and night 'up' making records, and not worrying about getting paid. It was perfect for the record companies, who would supply us with amphetamines." James added: "The record company didn't have anything to do with that. That was probably us. That was our decision, that wasn't their decision."
Two versions were put together to form the song. The part that goes, 'I love you Mony, Mo Mo Mony...' was Bobby Bloom, who was also working for Roulette Records (Bloom sang "Montego Bay," which was a hit in 1970). The rest of it was written by James with producers Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell.
When they were recording this, it was considered a throwaway B-side. They had no idea it would become a huge hit.
Kenny Laguna told us more about the recording of this song. Says Laguna: "There was no drummer, so the recording engineer went out there, but he could only get through 2 bars. So before there were loops or anything else, we copied the 2 bars of drums 44 times and spliced them together, and that's the track of 'Mony Mony.' It was like an early loop before there was looping. If you listen carefully, you can hear just 2 bars of the drum track." He added: "When it came time to make it sound like it was a big party, it was lunch time. We went up to Broadway and talked all these strangers into coming down to the studio and going 'Mony, Mony!' There were all these serious guys out there having lunch, and we said, 'You want to sing on a Tommy James record?'"
Check out the video for this song. There weren't a lot of places to show music videos in 1968, but James thought it was important to have one. He told us: "We wanted to do videos. And 'Mony' was the very first video we had ever done. And to me it seemed very sensible to make a film of your hit record. And I couldn't figure out why nobody was doing it. You'd find things would run sometimes on television, there'd be like a movie with a song in it, and they'd take the film clip and run it. But nobody was really making videos. And so we hired a film company, went in and did a video of 'Mony.' We actually did a video of 'Ball of Fire,' and we did a video of 'She' as well. But we couldn't get them played anywhere. So 'Mony' was one of the first videos made. It was 13 years before MTV. And we couldn't get it played anywhere in the United States. TV would not play video made by musicians, they just wouldn't do it. So the only place we could get our video played was over in Europe in the movie theatres. In between double features, they played 'Mony Mony.' And the reason you see it in black-and-white is because it was shown on the Beat Club in England, and it was a film of a film. And it was shown in black-and-white. So when they shipped it back to the United States it was in black and white. But the original video was in color. And so it was me and Daffy Duck for a long time. (laughing) And Daffy wanted to close. So I had problems with Daffy."
There's a story floating around that The Beatles wrote a song for Tommy James & the Shondells, and they turned it down. Tommy clears this up: "What happened was 'Mony Mony' became the biggest selling single in Britain up to that point. And it was actually bigger in England than it was here. Apple (Records) originally started out as a publishing company and a production company before it was a record company. And their idea was that they were going to write songs for other acts, and publish them, and in some cases produce them. So George Harrison was working with a group called Grapefruit, and George and these fellas wrote a bunch of these songs for us that they sent over to my manager, Lenny Stogel. We were very flattered, but they all sounded like 'Mony Mony.' And we had by that time made the decision that we were gonna go with 'Crimson And Clover
,' and really change our style. So we never did these songs. Some of them were really good. There was a whole tape full of them. And we were very flattered and very honored. One of my great regrets is that I never got a chance to thank George for doing that, and I should have, I should have made a bigger fuss. But because we had changed our style with 'Crimson and Clover,' we never went back to the 'Mony Mony' style of party rock.
This was a #1 hit for Billy Idol in 1987. It brought the song to a new generation who had never heard the original. When Idol released his version, it became popular for kids to shout "hey, hey, what, get laid, get f--ked" during the instrumental break in the chorus. Anyone who went to a prom when this was popular can verify this, although the origin of the chant remains a mystery.
Idol first released his version as a single in 1981, his first as a solo artist after leaving the band Generation X, and included it on his 4-song EP Don't Stop the same year. He released a live version in 1987 which became his biggest hit, going to #1 US and #7 UK. When asked why recorded the song, Idol would often tell a story about how it was playing when he lost his virginity in a park. In later years, he implied that it had more to do with publishing rights and financial interests.
When Idol's version of "Mony Mony" hit #1 in the US, it knocked off another Tommy James cover - Tiffany's version of "I Think We're Alone Now
," which was a hit for James in 1967. Another James song that got new life as a cover was "Crimson And Clover," which Joan Jett recorded in 1982 as her follow-up to "I Love Rock And Roll." Jett's version was produced by Kenny Laguna, who has worked with her since she started as a solo artist.
Weird Al Yankovic wrote a parody based on Billy Idol's 1987 recording called "Alimony," about a guy who gets divorced and has to pay his ex alimony payments, but is broke from it. It is on his 1988 album Even Worse. (thanks, Steph - SoCal, CA)
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