Here’s how I got stranded in the pop jungle: a friend is doing an album of songs with lyrics by Yip Harburg, and she came across one show tune where a monkey refutes the theory of evolution (and makes a decent case, for a monkey), and noticed a thematic resemblance to a New Orleans R&B number by Dave Bartholomew. She asked me if there might be some common source for this simian commentary. So I started digging and found a few Jamaican records from the ‘50s, in a Calypsoish genre called Mento: “Monkey’s Opinion” by Alerth Bedasse & Chin’s Calypso Sextet, “Monkey Talk” by Hubert Porter with George Moxey & His Calypso Quintet. I’m still bopping around in the world of Mento, and don’t know why I never encountered all the original records that Harry Belafonte adapted for his breakthrough Calypso albums, but now I have, and all it took was abandoning all actual work for the good part of an afternoon, exploring the places where pop music and monkeys might have crossed paths in ways that might have inspired both Harburg and Bartholomew. I consider that a productive day. Others may differ.
The whole pop-monkey realm is one I’ve dabbled in before. Back when I was writing the precursor to this blog for the MOG website, I did a post called 10 Cool Songs About Monkeys, and I can’t locate it right now (MOG has wiped its blog-slate clean), but I’m pretty sure it included The Coasters’ “Run Red Run,” where a poker-playing monkey chases his owner with a gun; “Can Your Monkey Do The Dog?” by Rufus Thomas, posing a serious question regarding cross-species dancing; “Apeman” by The Kinks; “The Monkey’s Uncle” by Annette with The Beach Boys…things like that.
I didn’t include songs about the dance The Monkey (so if Rufus would have asked “Can Your Dog Do The Monkey?,” it wouldn’t have made the cut), so no Major Lance or The Miracles, and some songs seemed too metaphorical (not so much about monkeys themselves than about monkey-like behavior): Springsteen’s “Part Man, Part Monkey,” The Traveling Wilburys’ “Tweeter and The Monkey Man.” And nix to songs about “monkey business” or “monkeying around,” but there are a lot of really good ones in that kind-of-related genre (Chuck Berry, of course). I couldn’t reach a definitive opinion about The Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey” or The Stones’ “Monkey Man” (Mick shouts, “I’m a monkey!,” but is he really? Is he singing as a monkey?).
As you’ve noticed, there are a lot of songs about monkeys. Too many to fit this space, but special mention to “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” Monkey Hips and Rice” — the only one I know where monkeys are consumed* — and “I Wanna Be LIke You (The Monkey Song)” from The Jungle Book, by Louis Prima or Los Lobos. Some are instrumentals, like The Sherwood’s ‘Monkey See – Monkey Do” (YouTube description: Great Tittyshaker Beat, a genre for another post). There’s just something fascinating about the monkey-human relationship, suitable for so many metaphorical purposes Other animals have their place in popland — the new Katy Perry’s Jane-in-the-jungle video for “Roar” has a whole menagerie surrounding her, helping her survive and pretty herself up — but it’s the simians who rule (see also: gorillas in songs by The Rubinoos, Warren Zevon, The Kinks; chimps, etc.). And both The Monkees and The Arctic Monkeys have self-referential songs: “Monkees Theme” and “Who The Fuck Are The Arctic Monkeys?”
In my exploration, I found a few tunes I’d never heard before, and although they bend my cool-monkey-song rules, a couple are too cool not to acknowledge. One is a wailing piece of doo-wop on Federal Records by a group (previously unknown to me) called The King Pins, “I Got The Monkey Off My Back,” the other a record on Mercury that blends two then-hip cultural elements, 007 and a dance craze, Perry and the Harmonics’ “Do The Monkey With James.” This is something I can’t picture, Sean Connery doing the moves that Smokey and The Miracles did in The TAMI Show to “Mickey’s Monkey.” but it has an undeniable groove. As the reunited New York Dolls advised, “Dance Like A Monkey.”
*Nope: add The McCoys’ “Gator Tails and Monkey Ribs.”