30 Years Ago: Billy Idol Rides ‘Mony Mony’ to the Top
“Mony Mony” means nothing – literally nothing. In the late ’60s, Tommy James and the Shondells crafted the tune as a party song, with an emphasis on the beat and little thought given to the shout-along nonsense lyrics. Was “Mony” a girl? Was “Mony” a command? Was this a secret reference? Actually, none of the above. It was an acronym for the Mutual of New York Insurance Company (M-O-N-Y), whose illuminated sign gave James the idea for the title of the 1968 hit.
But to William Michael Albert Broad – better known as Billy Idol – “Mony Mony” always meant sex. That’s because when young William was 14, he lost his virginity in a public park via a tumble with a more experienced partner. He recalled in his autobiography, Dancing With Myself: “As we went at it, ‘Mony Mony’ by Tommy James and the Shondells was playing on someone’s transistor radio nearby…”
Flash forward about a decade, to 1981, after Broad had become a member of the U.K. punk scene, co-founded a group of his own (Generation X) and taken his famous moniker. After his band split, Billy Idol moved to New York City with the aim of starting a solo career and hired Kiss manager Bill Aucoin. The singer, and his record label Chrysalis, decided that an EP would help introduce Idol as a stand-alone act.
A four-song release was hardly a tall order, especially since this one would nick two songs from the last Generation X album (a new recording of “Untouchables” and a version of “Dancing With Myself” that wasn’t even re-recorded, just remixed). Add to that one new original (“Baby Talk”) and a cover song. Although Idol also suggested “Shout,” his heart was in updating “Mony Mony.”
“That song has always had special significance to me. I love its repetitive, we would now say machinated, groove. It really grabs me,” he wrote in 2014. Idol wanted to do a version “that would keep them dancing on the floors of the late-night New York clubs I had been frequenting.”
Keith Forsey, who produced Idol’s debut EP Don’t Stop, also thought “Mony Mony” was worthy of an ’80s dance-rock re-do. The two worked with guitarist Asley Otten, bassist Mick Smiley and Quiet Riot drummer Frankie Banali to get it right – adding shades of soul with some female backing vocalists. Idol gave an on-the-fly interpretation of James’ original lyrics (not that the words mattered anyway), adding the “ride your pony” to rhyme with the title phrase in parts. Idol and friends recorded all of Don’t Stop in Los Angeles in one day.
When “Mony Mony” was released as Idol’s second single in ’81, the singer and everyone involved were disappointed by the lack of radio success (although it got within spitting distance of Billboard’s Hot 100). Chrysalis and Idol blamed some of the rejection on the placement of Idol’s spiky-haired, punk-rock image on the single’s sleeve.
But after Idol’s look (and sneer) were embraced by MTV and he scored big hits with “White Wedding,” “Rebel Yell” and “Eyes Without a Face,” it was decided that 1987 was the right time to re-introduce the star’s version of the Tommy James nugget to the masses. After all, Idol had continued to play “Mony Mony” in concert and some enterprising stations had been spinning the ’81 single as Idolmania hit fever pitch in the mid-’80s.
But instead of re-releasing a six-year-old recording of a song that had been released nearly two decades ago, Idol and company put out a new “live” version of “Mony Mony,” complete with longtime collaborator Steve Stevens on glam guitar. The single came out in October ’87, around the same time that the remixed hits collection Vital Idol hit U.S. stores (although it contained the “Downtown Mix” of the tune, and not the live reworking).
Between Idol’s career momentum, a glossy video featuring the charismatic singer tearing up the stage and the irresistible sing-along nature of the song, “Mony Mony” turned into Billy Idol’s first – and only – No. 1 hit. The live single topped the Billboard Hot 100 on November 21, 1987. Curiously, in doing so, “Mony Mony” pushed out another cover of an old Tommy James hit. Until then, Tiffany’s teenybopper version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” had spent a couple of weeks in the No. 1 spot.
Around the same time that his version of “Mony Mony” was blowing up, Idol noticed that a strange and – apparently – spontaneous practice had taken hold at his concerts. In between the verses of the song, crowd members would chant specific, lewd phrases. Although Idol enjoyed the bawdy bit of crowd participation, it wasn’t until later that he discovered how the chants began.
“I heard that it started out in those frat houses, back in the ’80s,” Idol told Canadian broadcaster Alan Cross, who became obsessed with the “intercontinental meme.” “It graduated to discos and then it went on from there. And then it graduated to our live shows. … It was kind of wild actually. It was nothing to do with us. It’s kind of fantastic, in a way.”
They not only became fixtures at Idol shows, but also when “Mony Mony” would be played by DJs at clubs or dances. The vulgar nature of the chants led “Mony Mony” to a wave of bans at high school dances in the late ’80s, in spite of the actual recording’s lack of explicit content.
These “other lyrics” have endured at Idol’s concerts. Not only does the crowd appear to know their parts, but soon after he landed a No. 1 hit, Idol began singing parts of them when he performs “Mony Mony.” Decades later, the chant continues. Perhaps, it still reminds Billy of that day in the park, the transistor radio and a particularly formative encounter when he was 14.