254. Tommy James and the Shondells – Mony Mony (1968)

TOMMY-JAMES-RM-3AUG68-Copy

The day this number 1 hit the top was a milestone in television comedy. 31 July saw the first ever episode of World War Two comedy series Dad’s Army transmitted on BBC One. Written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft, it ran for the next nine years and has been repeated eternally ever since. It’ll probably be the last programme on TV when Donald Trump or Boris Johnson press the big red button.

Mony Mony was the first time in a good few years that SEX raised its head in pole position of the singles chart. Psychedelia might have been a time for free love, but lust (by and large) seemed somewhat neutered on 7-inches (snigger).

Rock band Tommy James and the Shondells had an interesting history up to this point. Tommy James, real name Tommy Jackson was born in Dayton, Ohio in April 1947. He had his first taste of stardom while very young – he was a child model at the age of four. Jackson formed his first group in the new family hometown of Niles, Michigan aged 12. Originally called the Echoes in 1959, then Tom and the Tornadoes, they released a single, Long Pony Tail, in 1962. They settled on the Shondells in 1964 by way of tribute to singer Troy Shondell.

That year, while still at high school, they recorded the Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich song Hanky Panky, but although it garnered a good local following, it failed to break out, and the Shondells split the following year.

While Jackson tried and failed in new groups, Hanky Panky was discovered in a bargain bin by a local DJ and he helped the song gain a new following. Bootlegs were soon pressed up and Hanky Panky was more popular than ever. Jackson travelled to New York in search of a record deal. Unfortunately, he found one with Roulette Records. The label was owned by Morris Levy. A hard-nosed criminal who swindled his acts out of royalties, Levy managed to scare any other interested label away from Jackson, even much bigger ones than his own. Levy inspired the character Hesh in The Sopranos.

Of course, the Shondells as they were had long since split, so Jackson searched for a new band, and found them in a house band called the Raconteurs in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. He changed his name professionally to Tommy James and soon the most famous line-up of the Shondells settled on guitarist Eddie Gray, bassist Mike Vale, Ron Rosman on keyboards and Pete Lucia on drums. With the backing of Levy, Hanky Panky became number 1 on the Billboard chart in 1966.

The next few singles didn’t perform spectacularly, but eventually they found their groove, a bubblegum pop and rock sound, with songwriters and producers Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell. They wrote, among others, I Think We’re Alone Now, a UK number 1 for Tiffany in 1988.

By 1968, Tommy James and the Shondells were working on a promising new song, which was more or less complete, but James was struggling for a title. He had considered Sloopy or Bony Maroney, but thought they sounded stupid. They tried in vain, until James went outside, looked up and saw the Mututal of New York building. Its initials were illuminated in red at the top, and James had his ‘eureka!’ moment.

Also credited to singer-songwriter Bobby Bloom, Mony Mony was, as I said, the raunchiest UK number 1 for some time. Okay, we’re not talking Justify My Love levels of filth here, but we’re still a year off Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin topping the charts. It’s clear James is feeling like one horny bugger during the chorus. Unfortunately, as catchy as the ‘Mony Mony’ chant is, it’s a bit too bubblegum, and the backing vocals keep James in check. There’s an interesting tension there. I’ve always liked this tune, after first hearing punk rocker Billy Idol’s version as a child.

Mony Mony didn’t reach number 1 in the US, but enjoyed a fortnight in the UK over the summer. It was then briefly toppled by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, but after only a week, Fire was usurped by Mony Mony for a further week.

Tommy James and the Shondells were beginning to tire of the bubblegum element of their material, and decided on a mature, pyschedelic sound. It paid off, and Crimson and Clover (which was pretty much a Tommy James solo single in all but name) ended a great year for the group at number 1 in the US. One of their bestsellers in 1969 was the sublime Crystal Blue Persuasion, used to great effect in Breaking Bad many years later. They did make a big misstep that year though, laughing off an invitation to play at a festival called Woodstock.

James and the Shondells came to an abrupt halt in 1970 when an exhausted James came off stage and collapsed. He was initially pronounced dead due to drugs. Wisely, James took off for a quiet life in the country. The Shondells renamed themselves Hog Heaven but disbanded after two albums. James however remained in the business and along with a solo career he wrote and produced a US hit for Alive N Kickin in 1970.

60s nostalgia was everywhere in the 80s, and Tommy James and the Shondells did very well out of it. Idol’s Mony Mony was released in 1982, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts had a hit with Crimson and Clover, and then in 1987 Tiffany’s I Think We’re Alone Now and a live version of Mony Mony by Idol were back-to-back chart-toppers in the US.

Thanks to audiences at Idol gigs, Mony Mony became way filthier than the original version. In between every line in the verses, crowds began to chant either ‘Hey, say what… get laid get fucked!’ or ‘Hey, motherfucker… get laid get fucked!’. Then the chorus chant was changed to ‘Fucking horny!’. Dear me.

All this renewed interest in the band inevitably led to James and a new Shondells line-up joining the oldies circuit. Classic-era drummer Lucia died while playing golf in 1987, aged 39.

2010 saw the publication of James’s autobiography. Me, The Mob, and The Music. It detailed how he was left out of pocket by Roulette Records and how it was in fact cover for Levy’s money-laundering operation. He even had to leave New York at one point to avoid being the victim of a Mob hit. He still performs live with a version of the Shondells.

While Mony Mony was number 1, British Rail’s last steam train service ended. On 11 August, steam locomotives made the 314-mile return passenger journey from Liverpool to Carlisle. The trains were either sent to the scrapyard or kept for preservation.

Written by: Tommy James, Bo Gentry, Ritchie Cordell & Bobby Bloom

Producers: Bo Gentry & Ritchie Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 3 (31 July-13 August, 21-27 August)

Births:

Scottish race driver Colin McRae – 5 August
Footballer Julian Dicks – 8 August
Cyclist Chris Boardman – 26 August 

Deaths:

Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent – 27 August 

One thought on “254. Tommy James and the Shondells – Mony Mony (1968)

  1. Pingback: 255. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown – Fire (1968) | Every UK Number 1

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