Recently Nissan launched an ad promoting the sale of their Sentra model which featured the longtime party anthem “Mony Mony,” as its centerpiece. The ad is upbeat and catchy, which does a terrible disservice to those of us that will be paying for a wedding in the next decade or two. If in fact the song finds new life and DJ’s feel compelled to play the song (and its accompanying mystery, crowd-sung lyric) at gatherings nationwide, we as paying parents are doomed.
The commercial also made me wonder: what mad genius came up with the words that seem to fit so seamlessly into the song and are now considered a perfectly normal third stanza?
So we knew what kind of a word we had, it’s just that everything we came up with sounded so bad. So Ritchie Cordell, my songwriting partner and I, are up in my apartment up at 888 Eighth Avenue in New York. And finally we get disgusted, we throw our guitars down, we go out on the terrace, we light up a cigarette, and we look up into the sky. And the first thing our eyes fall on is the Mutual of New York Insurance Company. M-O-N-Y. True story. With a dollar sign in the middle of the O, and it gave you the time and the temperature. I had looked at this thing for years, and it was sitting there looking me right in the face. We saw this at the same time, and we both just started laughing. We said, ‘That’s perfect! What could be more perfect than that?’ Mony, M-O-N-Y, Mutual of New York. And so we must have laughed for about ten minutes, and that became the title of the song.
The song became the best selling single in Britain at the time and was covered often by various bands in the years that followed. The song was reborn again when British punk rocker Billy Idol recorded it in 1981, shortly after leaving the band Generation X, but the single stalled at #107 on the Billboard Top 100. Six years later Idol released a live version single of the song, changing wedding receptions and prom dances forever.
But by the time Idol re-released the song in a live version on October 2, 1987 (and coinciding with the North American release of his Vital Idol collection), an interesting and inexplicable phenomenon had taken root whenever the song was performed live or played in a club, at a dance or even a wedding reception: the obscene call-and-response audience chant between the lines of the verses.
How did this occur? It certainly wasn’t via the Internet because in 1987, no one except a few hardcore geeks knew what that was. It couldn’t have been through radio airplay because no radio version with the chanting bit was ever released. And it certainly wouldn’t have been through video play because neither MTV or MuchMusic would have dared play something with such vulgarities.
Furthermore, this seems to have largely been a North American phenomenon–or at least I haven’t been able to uncover any evidence of the chant originating (or even being used) in Britain, Europe or anywhere else in the world. The chants were essentially the same but with slight regional differences.
So, as with the legend of Bigfoot, this mysterious lyric that encourages all within earshot to copulate, seems to have no concrete place of origin. But if Bigfoot could be shot and killed in San Antonio after having been lured into a homeless campsite with a rack of ribs hanging from an oak tree and lathered with the hunter’s secret sauce, surely I could find the guy that dreamed up the gloriously vulgar words squeezed into Idol’s hit song. Words that are now sung by Idol himself when he performs it.
I started my search in the most obvious of ways: Google. When that path reached a quick dead-end I almost gave up. But then I remembered a conversation a few friends and I had with an older waitress during lunch at the 410 Diner a few weeks back. While eating his Sonora Casserole, my buddy mentioned an obscure documentary about former Pentagram lead man Bobby Liebling called Last Days Here. Re-filling our iced tea I noticed the waitress was listening intently, itching to join the conversation. “Have you seen it?” I asked. “Oh yeah,” she said, and pulled up a chair.
“Liz” was printed in white letters on her green name tag and she regaled us with tales of death metal acts she’d seen downtown at the White Rabbit over the years. She’d also been to every major concert in Central Texas for over thirty years, except for country concerts because country concerts suck ass (her words). She told of us interactions, drinks and deep conversations she’d had with rock ‘n rollers from Jack Russell to Rob Halford. The gleam in her eye made us forget our frustration over the lunch interruption, and we all tipped a little larger than usual before leaving.
I went back to the 410 Diner on Friday to see if Liz was working the lunch shift. Fortunately she was. I ordered my standard Chicken California with green beans and iced tea and waited for the lunch crowd to die down. When it finally did I called Liz over to chat. It was a bit awkward at first because with my forgettable face she didn’t remember it was me that was part of the previous conversation, but she lit up when I brought up the White Rabbit.
Short on time, I quickly got to the point. I steered the conversation toward Billy Idol and particularly Mony Mony. “How about when the crowd sings ‘hey mmmmffffrr get laaa get fuuu’?” I sorta hummed/mumbled, my face turning red from embarrassment. Liz nodded and smiled. “Have you ever thought about where that came from?” I asked. “What do you mean?” she replied. “I mean, who was the person that sang that for the first time?”
“Oh,” she said. “That’s easy. It was Curtis.”
“There is no way it could be this easy,” I thought, taking another sip of tea. “Curtis?” I said. “Who’s Curtis? Does he live here? Is he still alive? Where is he?” I machine-gunned her with questions but couldn’t help myself. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just so exciting to know that you know the person that started what has become a national phenomenon with an old 80’s song.”
“Oh, no worries, hon,” she said. “Curtis lives out in Castroville, retired there a few years ago. I can get you his number, he’d probably be glad to have the company.”
I couldn’t believe my luck but quickly handed her a pen and piece of paper to jot down a phone number. “Gotta git back to work,” she said. “Good luck and rock on, hon.”
I paid my tab and scurried out. As soon as I was safely inside my car I pulled the piece of paper from my coat pocket and stared at the phone number scribbled in blue ink. Briefly I allowed doubt to creep in. “No way, you’re wasting your time man,” I thought. I shook my head and dialed.
“Hawwo,” shouted the gruff, cockney accented voice on the other end of my iPhone.
“Curtis?” I asked. “Dis be’uh be impor’unt,” came the reply.
“I’ll keep it short,” I said. I understand you have some history with the song Mony Mony and I’d love to talk to you about it,” I stammered nervously. There was a long, painful pause, but Curtis finally replied.
“Mee me a da Alsa’ian in firty minu’es,” he said, his East-End London accent seeming to get thicker by the word.
“Done,” I replied, joyfully hanging up and starting the engine.
When I arrived at the old-fashioned German restaurant about 25 miles west of San Antonio in the small community of Castroville, I recognized who I assumed to be Curtis right away. In a booth on the left wall of the restaurant sat a weathered man in a black Ramones t-shirt. He was nursing a pork schnitzel and devouring a bloody mary.
“Curtis?” I said.
“La’e aren ya pow,” he said. “What?” I muttered. “La’e,” he said, impatiently pointing to his watch.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It took me a bit longer to get here than I thought.”
“Sih’ down ‘en,” He said, pointing to the empty booth seat across the table from him.” “Trus yull be payin pow,” he said. “Oh yes, it’s on me,” I said. He lifted his glass and shook it, getting the waiters attention while holding two fingers in the air. “Good,” he said.
“Did you spend a lot of time in London?” I asked. “London?” he said. “Neva bin.”
Confused I asked, “are you British?” “No, born n raised in San An’onio,” he muttered, taking another drink.
“What about the…never mind…” I said, shaking my head. I pulled out my iPhone, clicked record on the memo app, and set it on the table. “Tell me about Mony Mony,” I said.
Curtis had a two day stubble and the bottom of his chin seemed to form an edge that left a defined line of demarcation between the bottom of his face and the beginning of his neck. His eyes were tired and he had a small scar on his forehead that cut into his left eye-brow. His long, light brown hair had the disheveled look that many spend hours trying to replicate. Although I couldn’t tell from his seated position, I guessed he was a little over six feet tall and appeared to be in great shape for a man who presumably lived rather hard. Curtis smeared a forkful of schnitzel in the brown gravy on his plate and took it in a quick bite. He took a long drink from his tomato juice and vodka and began.
“I was ah a Bi’y Idow show in the summa of 1987 I guess i’ was. I wen’ up to dir’y, nas’y Lubbock to see a show since ‘e wasn’ tourin in San An’onio. Didn’ know what ‘oo expek, ya know wif all da farmers up ‘ere. I teww you wha’ dough, those big aired lay’ees up ‘ere really know ‘ow to par’y an were so nice to me. As soon as I got’oo’town I felt welcomed. I foun’ a frat ‘ouse at tha universi’ee an they invi’ed me in. “Ey kep’ makin’ me say “guvnah,” an feedin me dis fing called Purple Passion. I ‘ad abou’ free or four big boh’uls I guess den we lef’ for da show.
I was feewin pre’ee good by dis poin’ when Idow star’ed singin. Some big ol farmers pu’ me up on de shoulders an I was dancin an drinkin an ea’in mufrooms like a muhvah fukuh.
Ma ‘ead star’ed spinnin an I frew up all on da head of one of da farmers an we all laughed a bit.” He stopped and shook his glass again, grabbing the attention of our waiter. “Fiwwer up,” he barked.
“Idow star’ed to sing Mony Mony an I jumped on stage an star’ed dancin like a shaman an led the firs eva chan of ‘HEY MUHVAH FUKUH GIT ‘AID GIT FUK’D.’ Dos farmers an big ‘aired lay’ies looked a’ each o’er an didn’ know wha’oo’doo. So pre’ee soon dey star’ed singin along an we ‘ad a real par’y goin. An das it, pow.”
Curtis fidgeted with his german potato cakes in silence for a moment. “What about the claim that Billy Idol himself has made? He’s said that he believes the crowd lyrics started in the frat houses of London University.”
“I migh’uv cawed some buh’ees in London af’er tha show,” he said with a shrug.
“Wait,” I said. “I thought you’ve never been to London?” Curtis looked at me and smiled coyly.
I summoned the waiter over and asked for the tab. I tried desperately to get more details from Curtis but the bloody mary’s were taking their toll and he was no longer interested in coherent conversation. Instead he chose to mash-up old English sailor songs and “Waterloo Sunset” by The Kinks, quietly to himself with his eyes closed. I rose, grabbed my phone, patted him on the shoulder and thanked him before heading for the door. When I reached the exit I looked back at the booth and was surprised to see that it was empty.
Curtis wasn’t there. Just like Bigfoot, Curtis wasn’t there.