This is not a brown love song: misinterpreting Toni Basil’s Mickey

Seasoned observers will no doubt be aware that David Bowie’s legendary Diamond Dogs and slightly less legendary Glass Spider tours were choreographed by Toni Basil of Oh-Mickey-You’re-So-Fine fame. Appropriately, the Philadelphian was also the inspiration for Eric Stephen Jacobs’ cover art for The Dame’s Philly Soul album Young Americans. 

As well as her sporadic recording career, Basil had a distinguished career as a dancer, actress, choreographer and video director. He and Basil remained friends and it was she that was responsible for introducing Bowie to Tina Turner in the late 1970s. So if you don’t think fondly towards their mid-‘eighties dalliances look away now.

Of course, in between all this spurious Bowie activity, there was THAT song.

Admittedly, it’s a piece of earworm wax for some. So perhaps we should rename today’s selection Random Pukebox? Either way, I’ve always enjoyed it, though as a tribal twelve year-old on its release in 1982, Mickey has the distinction of being the first song that I heard performed live on Top Of The Pops and because it didn’t sound exactly like the record it put me off buying it. Kids, eh?

Mickey’s memorable opening, with its enormous, thumping drum sound and scratchy guitar, is pure glam rock. And that’s hardly surprising when its penned by bubblegum hitmakers Chin and Chapman, AKA Chinnichap, the songwriting and production partnership that powered the sillier side of glam and glitter through much of the previous decade. Indeed, not only is Mickey a throwback to their ’70s career but it actually started life as Kitty, a giddy 1979 stomper by Weston Super-Mare’s finest power pop purveyors Racey. 

Had Split Enz heard this when making I Got You, I wonder?

Pulling it out of the ‘70s forever, the cheesily retro Farfisa organ riff immediately shifted the song solidly into zippy new wave pop. Basil also switched its genders around; thus, Kitty became Mickey, with the singer also adding that cheesy cheerleader-chant refrain. Admit it, it‘s annoyingly great.

That “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine” refrain is the bit of the track that everyone remembers, and Toni really should’ve received a songwriting credit for her input, but, alas, she didn’t. That probably rankles and may explain why she’s been suing everyone for unpaid royalties left right and centre lately, not to mention attempsing to take on everybody who has ever used the song without her explicit approval. Pay Mickey indeed.

That a middle-aged choreographer could score huge hit with a chirpy, revved-up novelty was certainly a coup, and the 45 pom-pommed its way to the top of the US charts (for a solitary week, before being deposed by Hall & Oates’ Maneater) and runner up position across the pond, kept in its place by the even cornier The Lion Sleeps Tonight by Brit tack trio Tight Fit.

Talking of tight fits, thirty years after the song’s release Basil was at pains to point out that the veteran American music critic Robert Christgau had missed his target when he alleged there was brown love content in the lyric “So come on and give it to me / Any way you can / Any way you want to do it / I’ll take it like a man”.

Christgau wrote in a review at the time that Basil was “the only woman ever to offer to take it up the ass on Top 40 radio (close your eyes and really concentrate on Mickey if you don’t believe me). However, in a 2012 interview about the song on vulture.com TB adamantly refuted the arsey allegation:

“NO! That’s ridiculous. People read shit into everything. It’s not about anything dirty. You change the name from boy to girl and they read anything they want into it! When it’s a guy singing about a girl, it’s a sweet line. But when a girl sings it, it must mean butt-fucking! This is how the wrong foot gets cut off when the doc wheels you into the E.R. Then it’s Micky Dolenz and butt-fucking.”

For the record, Basil also choreographed and danced in the Monkees’ bugged-out 1968 psychedelic musical Head, which also led a whole lot of people to believe, wrongly, that Mickey was really about Micky Dolenz. With that background in the visual arts stretching back over three decades, the performer knew exactly what she wanted when she hired some healthy-looking cheerleaders from L.A.’s Dorsey High for the flashy, memorable music video that actually predated MTV itself. (Go here for an alt BBC version featuring future Glass Spider cohort Spaz Attack.)

This gal can sure throw some shapes.

Either way, which ever side of the fence you sit, it’s a once heard never forgotten record. Another vintage scribe Stewart Mason sums up the song’s success to a tee.

“One of the most gloriously gimmicky hits of the ’80s, there is nothing about Toni Basil’s Mickey that is not obnoxiously, almost gleefully irritating, as if producer Mike Chapman was deliberately trying to make the single the most annoying top ten hit ever. Of course, this is also exactly why Mickey is one of the most entertaining singles of the decade.”

Indeed, this is one infectious novelty record that crops up everywhere from RuPaul’s Drag Race to South Park. Its co-writer Nicky Chinn is, naturally, delighted, telling the Guardian in 2014 that Mickey was, “our only truly multi-generational song and one that has never gone away, cropping up in commercials and movies and odd things all over the place”.

A classic one-hit wonder sort then. Though I’d hazard a guess the seemingly ageless Toni Basil doesn’t occasionally find herself wondering if she hadn’t passed on an equally kooky offering from songwriter Liam Sternberg a couple of years later she might have made it two — the song would be eventually be accepted by The Bangles, who took Walk Like An Egyptian to No.1 in ten countries.

Big deal Salaam.

Steve Pafford

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