Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Billy Idol’s “Mony Mony”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in November 1987.
For a week in 1987 the Billboard Hot 100 trembled with the knowledge of a new stat: for the first time, a songwriter enjoyed consecutive #1 singles as cover songs. First, Tiffany’s demo-plus-money version of “I Think We’re Alone,” the biggest chart success to date for the wave of teen superstars that dominated the late Reagan and Bush years. Still one of the best, too — it has the charm of enthusiasm. Tiffany sounds like a horny teen, and, lemme tell you, gang, hearing an adolescent unsteadily belt “put your arms around me and we tumble to the ground” with your parents in the car was as subversive as hearing Public Image Ltd in 1980; the rinky-dink organ preset helped. I’ll still take Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” and Beatles gender fuck over Debbie Gibson’s self-written material (“Only in My Dreams” and “Out of the Blue” excepted) and New Kids on the Block’s crapulous stuff (“Please Don’t Go Girl” and “Step by Step” excepted). So will Keith Harris. Anyway, Tommy James must have loved the royalties. While other boomers had to step into a recording studio and go through the motions of giving a shit, he could buy a Cadillac and book suites.
On the other hand, Billy Idol’s “Mony Mony” makes “Hangin’ Tough” sound like “Don’t Believe the Hype.” After humdrum bass chords, Billy enters at full throttle. There’s an unpleasant nasal drip harshness to his vocal; he shrieks, and working against his natural range he sounds like a pop metal singer imitating Ratt or something. It’s the least Idolatrous single in his catalog, and whatever else, his best singles insisted on Idol worship. A comp released in the early ’00s remains one of Western culture’s most fulsome gifts to young listeners: “White Wedding,” “Hot in the City,” “Dancing With Myself,” “Eyes Without a Face,” “Rebel Yell,” “Flesh for Fantasy,” “To Be a Lover,” “Cradle of Love.” I’ll add “Catch My Fall” if you take the lush mumbled garrulous doggerel called “Don’t Need a Gun” (Johnnie Ray and synths!). Whatever its merits as an album, I give thumbs up to Whiplash Smile for contributing the best adjective-noun description of the Idol sound. Although The Cars get credit for New Wave, it’s Idol who seized the liberty of punk, which in his hands meant loutish male rebellion, and gooped it up into aural thump-thump for meaningless videos replete with Fisher-Price rough trade posing. For a few years he was awesome.
On “Mony Mony,” though, the excesses caught up to him. Included on an El Cheapo remix comp called Vital Idol, this “live” version of “Mony Mony” plays like a karaoke version of itself: the backup vocalists, the tawdry yeah-yeah-yeahs, the thinness of the mix. By 1987 cocaine, pills, and horrible sex dominated what I will generously call his thinking, according to his memoir. Yet a year earlier he wrote and recorded “Sweet Sixteen,” whose video Idol filmed in Miami-Dade’s own Coral Castle, a spectacular piece of kitsch built by a classic Florida eccentric: a Latvian ex-pat whose 1100-ton grotesquerie on rural swampland honored his teenaged girlfriend. “Sweet Sixteen” deserves this backdrop; most of Idol’s songs sound as if he recorded them in the bowels of a coral castle anyway. “Mony Mony” was made for Vegas — the Vegas of Wayne Newton, fantasy for flesh.