(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through Oriole Records)
I’ve been anxiously noting this record’s approach on the horizon for about three months now. Everyone loves Mickey’s Monkey, don’t they? It’s a classic, one of the Miracles’ most beloved early singles. The first intersection between the two greatest creative forces in Motown history, William “Smokey” Robinson and the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting trio. And a great big Top Ten hit to boot, too.
I don’t really care for it.
I mean, I don’t hate it, I’m not even claiming it’s bad or anything. It’s just never quite hit the spot for me.
This was the first song to feature on either side of any Miracles 45 without a writing credit for Smokey Robinson. Following the surprising failure of the gorgeous, all-enveloping beauty of the Miracles’ previous single, A Love She Can Count On, Smokey went back to the drawing board; apparently, that drawing board was located next to a room where Lamont Dozier was rehearsing. Robinson happened to be passing when he heard Dozier messing around on the piano with the germ of a riff –
…Lum de lum de lai…
– and, knowing a killer hook when he heard one, Smokey asked Lamont if he could have it. Dozier readily agreed, and the resultant record was in the shops within a fortnight, steaming its way up the charts (it eventually made No.8 pop and the R&B Top Five, healthily restoring the Miracles’ commercial profile to the levels they’d enjoyed at the time of You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me).
I think my problem with this, really, is that I find it disappointing. This could have been incredible. Instead, it sounds rushed, half-finished, not quite realised. The first intersection of the two greatest creative forces in Motown history, and they’re both phoning it in – as if they just knew they were making a hit record (which was still a big deal for both camps in the summer of ’63, right on the cusp of Motown’s mid-Sixties Golden Age).
D’you know what’s just occurred to me? This would be SO much better without the intro.
The record begins with the sound of Smokey shouting “Alright, is everybody ready?!”, answered by the Miracles and some studio guests all cheering and hollering in agreement. We’re meant to believe we’re at a raucous, loose-limbed party, and the Miracles are going to get things rocking. Except that the crowd sounds tiny, and they don’t sound at all spontaneous or even happy; they sound like they’re murmuring agreement with a street-corner political speaker. Then Smokey counts off – “Alright, now, here we go. A one! A two! A one-two-three-four!” – and the song strikes up.
But Smokey’s count-off is wrong. The Brill-Building-meets-Bo-Diddley groove the drummer immediately locks into – bomp-de-bomp-de-bomp (PAUSE) bompbomp – doesn’t quite fit with what Smokey just did, as both the timing and rhythm are fractionally off, and the effect is jarring and weird. The song proper begins sparsely, almost acapella, Smokey and the Miracles trading off that great call-and-response jingle, Lum de lum de lai, accompanied only by drums and handclaps for the first few bars. No “crowd” noise, no other instruments, no atmosphere, and a new rhythm your brain can’t quite grasp in time. It’s disconcerting, and it always takes me a moment to readjust, by which time the song’s already underway and that opening momentum is all gone.
If that bit was clipped off, this would work better. The early Miracles’ “rock-outs” – their raw, “fun-loving” songs, regardless of tempo – have never been quite as affecting for me as their more contemplative numbers, mostly because (for me) Smokey always seems to have more lyrical and vocal fun when he’s giving the impression we’re meant to be taking in his words. This – the story of a guy named Mickey who invents a new dance, “the Monkey”, which the Miracles themselves worked into a routine for their stage shows when performing the song live – is probably the most banal lyric of any Miracles single so far, so all that’s left is the sound; switch your brain off and dance.
And you definitely can dance to it, discombobulating intro aside; the call-and-response hook is little more than a jingle, but it’s a very catchy jingle indeed, to the point it’s easy to see what Smokey saw drifting down the corridor. The record’s high point is a coruscating sax break in the instrumental middle eight, which is so much fun it’s worth an extra mark all by itself.
Oh, it’s stupid, of that there’s little doubt. It’s a scribble, a childish frippery with no real lasting value beyond that sax solo. But that’s no reason to be down on something, as sharp-eyed long-time readers (and I know there are a lot of you out there… hello!) will already be thinking to themselves.
“But hang on”, they’ll say, “you praised Stevie Wonder’s Fingertips precisely because it was a big, stupid record made solely for the dancefloor. How can you be in favour of pure dumb dance music like that, and then turn around and criticise Mickey’s Monkey for being pure dumb dance music?”
And I suppose I can’t, really. Not objectively, anyway. I maintain Fingertips (Part 2) is a better dancer than Mickey’s Monkey, but it’s not as though it’s giant seven-league strides ahead. As always, and I’ve been guilty of this time and again throughout the course of this project, I seem to hold Smokey Robinson to higher standards than lesser mortals.
So, what’s my apparent beef with this? I don’t mind that Smokey seemingly wanted a payday after his recent lovingly-crafted, self-penned Miracles records had flopped. That’s perfectly understandable; Mickey’s Monkey is undemanding, unsophisticated fare compared to Robinson’s recent songs, both for himself and others, but that’s not meant as a criticism (some of my favourite records are undemanding etc etc), and besides, perhaps he just fancied switching off for a bit.
I think it’s really that having enjoyed Lamont Dozier’s noodling at the piano, he saw an obvious potential hit in a tiny kernel of a song (shades of What Goes Up, Must Come Down) – but then failed to properly build on that, apparently not feeling the need to flesh it out into anything beyond a repeated hook and a bed of handclaps. The writing credits indicate he didn’t append his own lyrics to Dozier’s ad-libbed riff, either trusting the HDH trio to come up with the goods (and that’s quite a bit of trust, given Smokey had written or co-written every Miracles A- and B-side since 1958), or – and I think I’ve worked out what my problem is – just assuming that with a hook as good as that, it didn’t matter what else they did to the song. Just keep that lum de lum de lai bit, and the Top 20 beckons.
Hard to be too critical, though, since he and HDH were absolutely right. Commercially, this is bang on the money, and posterity has been kind to it – even if it’s completely out of character for both HDH and the Miracles, neither of whom would ever really venture close to this kind of territory again, giving the overriding feeling that everyone involved was on a sort of busman’s holiday. And the reason it sold so well then, and the reason it’s so well-liked now, is because it’s so undeniably catchy. You can’t keep that hook down, and it turns out it is enough to hang an entire hit single upon, however much my head keeps telling me it’s not.
So, having spent the entire review bashing this, I’m now involuntarily clicking my fingers and drumming on the desk in time with the beat. Oh yeah, they all knew this was some infectious junk alright. Damn it, Smokey, you know I can’t stay mad at you – you’ll always get me in the end.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
Motown Junkies has reviewed other Motown versions of this song:
- Choker Campbell’s Big Band (June 1965)
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