Dancing in the Street

Dancing in the Street (Jagger and Bowie).
Dancing in the Street (Jagger and (sorta) Bowie, live, 1986).

We should begin by noting that this record was made for charity and, as it sold well, it presumably made a decent sum of money, and perhaps a trace of that money, the remainder after the bankers, customs men, grifter politicians and local warlords had been sated, served to feed and clothe some indigent people. So that’s a good and noble thing, and should be commended.

And the record was only a bonus souvenir, a by-popular-demand single release. Today it would’ve just been a viral YouTube clip, a format for which its ludicrous video is still well suited. Recorded on the fly, in under five hours (it shows), its video was shot on the cheap, in under twelve hours (it shows). Calling such a ramshackle charity throwaway one of the worst rock & roll singles of all time seems like overkill.

That said, Bowie and Mick Jagger’s “Dancing in the Street” is a rotten record for which everyone involved should be embarrassed. Most likely are, perhaps even Jagger, the single’s main architect, in his fleeting moments of humility. The fact that it’s Bowie’s last UK #1 and his last Top 10 American hit is terrible, sure, but it’s not that shocking. Our careers often end in ridicule or disgrace. Chuck Berry went out with “My Ding a Ling.”

Jagger and Bowie originally had planned to sing a cross-continental duet during Live Aid—Bowie in London, Jagger in New York—but an insurmountable satellite issue (due to signal delays, they would be either a second behind or ahead of each other) made a hash of that plan. So instead Bowie and Jagger decided to make a video to air during the concert. Having first considered Bob Marley’s “One Love” (just imagine that for a moment), they instead decided to cover Martha and the Vandellas.

While the rhythm tracks and vocals of “Dancing in the Street” were cut one night during Bowie’s Absolute Beginners sessions at the end of June 1985, with the same band Bowie used for that soundtrack, Jagger soon took over the show, bringing the tapes back with him to New York in early July and larding them with horns, backing singers who sounded like they came from a karaoke machine and generic guitar contributions by G.E. Smith and Earl Slick.

It hadn’t been an inspired session, with the band slogging through takes of “Dancing” to get the feel of it, as they’d just learned the song, and sounding “fucking awful…like a cabaret band,” as producer Alan Winstanley recalled to David Buckley. (“I had my head in my hands, thinking, what the fuck is this?” he added.)  Jagger’s arrival got everyone down to business, with most of the lead vocals soon cut in a single take. However drummer Neil Conti recalled Jagger “on an ego trip,” strutting around the studio, establishing his alpha credentials even to the tea boys. Bowie, in a genial mood or perhaps just drunk, gave Jagger the reins (Conti recalled Bowie smiling “Sphinx-like…while Jagger sneered at the engineer“), an imbalance of power that continued in both the video, where Bowie plays Robin to Jagger’s louche Batman, and in the pair’s single live performance of “Dancing,” at the 1986 Prince’s Trust concert, where Jagger utterly dominates the song, thanks in part to either a wonky mike or poor sound mixing for Bowie.

In the summer of 1985 Jagger was trying to work himself up as a solo artist, with a mild hit debut record, She’s the Boss, to his credit. The Rolling Stones were a mess: Jagger and Keith Richards were barely speaking, Bill Wyman had his eye on the door, Ron Wood was in a genial orbit of celebrity parties and recording sessions, poor Charlie Watts was on heroin. The Stones hadn’t made a good record in years, and the band now seemed like a quarreling, aging touring company.*

While Richards never had much use for Bowie (see the bitchy aside in his recent autobiography), Jagger seemed to admire, or at least envy, Bowie’s craftiness and his newfound commercial sense. Like Bowie, Jagger was focused on keeping his sound current; unlike Bowie, Jagger tended to come upon trends a bit past their sell-by date (so pushing the Stones into reggae, disco, even rap (“Too Much Blood”)). He used Bowie’s recent work as a template for his own debut, to the point where you wonder if Jagger sent a copy of Let’s Dance to his producer with a note attached: “How do you go about getting one of these?” Jagger nabbed some of Bowie’s former collaborators to play on his album, including Nile Rodgers and Carlos Alomar (co-writer of the title track and the non-classic “Lucky In Love”).

And there’s some desperation to this junk version of “Dancing in the Street,” with both parties trying to affirm their A-1 celebrity status. One of the more pernicious effects of the whole Live Aid/Farm Aid/Band Aid spectacle was to cement the hierarchy of the “legend” rock acts and a smaller tier of anointed successors from the slightly-younger generation (Tom Petty, Sting, Dire Straits, U2). It was the height of the Boomer Counter-Reformation. The late Eighties would see the over-publicized returns of everyone from Steve Winwood to the Monkees to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, to a revamped George Harrison to a MOR version of Pink Floyd to Robbie Robertson pretending that he was Peter Gabriel (a version of Gabriel who couldn’t sing) to an all-star Yes and a Zeppelin-sampling Robert Plant, culminating in the return of the “revitalized” Stones in 1989, the touring company now reincorporated into a gleaming multinational. As Marcello Carlin said back when Popular covered this single: “Suddenly we were once again reminded who in pop and rock mattered and who didn’t…With their massacre of “Dancing In The Street,” Bowie and Jagger seemed to relish rubbing it in.

Worse, the song that Jagger and Bowie desecrated, “Dancing in the Street”, was originally a record that fulfilled every promise rock & roll ever made. It sounded as bright as the sun, with Martha Reeves as a beautiful embodiment of youth and revolution, built on a colossal double-thick beat (Marvin Gaye (allegedly) slamming on drums, in a frenetic language of fills and breakneck turnarounds, while the future free jazz drummer Steve Reid chases after him), with carnival horns and the Vandellas as a raucous second line. “Dancing” was global in its aspirations, local in its intentions—Reeves singles out Washington and Detroit—and its emotional tenor captured the sense of dance as collective liberation, a full commitment to the present (and the future). There are few records so public, in all the best senses of that word. Towards the fade, when Reeves sings let’s form a big strong line, its political reading becomes unmistakable—it’s not just doing the conga, but marching in Selma.

Sure, Van Halen had already turned “Dancing” into a slick piece of pop metal disco and The Big Chill already had masticated Motown into nostalgic pap. But there’s something especially cheap and grotesque in Bowie and Jagger’s pantomime reduction of “Dancing,” especially Jagger, who knew better (he’d sampled the lyric on his own “Street Fightin’ Man”). It’s just a charity show, yes, it’s just a laugh, yes, it’s just for fun, yes, but it’s also two sad men selling off their youth at cut rates.

Highlights of the video:

1) Jagger’s dancing, especially in the opening verse, reminds one of Truman Capote’s snark about Jagger’s stage act: “as sexy as a pissing frog.”

2) The choreography makes a bit more sense if you imagine that each of them are pretending to duet with Tina Turner.

3) A small charm is Bowie’s role as foil here—he’s often acting like a gawky fan who won an MTV contest to co-star in a video with Jagger. The dopey hand twirling movements, the half-assed judo kicks.

4) That said, when Bowie sways his hips and clasps himself as he lip-syncs “streets of Brazil!” is the absolute nadir of his performing life.

5) Jagger had been a fashion casualty for years, so his sherbet-green puffy shirt and purple caddy pants are just par for the course. But you’d expect better from Bowie than the camouflage pajamas and over-sized raincoat.

6) St. Vincent, on Twitter: “Bowie and Jagger “Dancing in the Street” video duet is the biggest anti-cocaine ad you ask for. #ihavethatjacket“. Sadly, I don’t think you can blame coke for this one.

7) After all the hard work Bowie did in 1983-1984 establishing his heterosexual bonafides, he releases a single whose sleeve could’ve doubled for a gay porn film advertisement and whose video ends with a freeze-frame of his and Jagger’s synchronized ass-waggle.

8) “That happened and we let it happen“: trenchant YouTube comment (actually “Family Guy” reference, see comments).

Recorded 29-30 June 1985, Abbey Road Studios (with overdubs in New York in early July). Premiered at Live Aid, 13 July 1985, and released on 19 August 1985 as EMI America 204 (#1 UK, #7 US).

* The record the Stones were making in the summer of 1985, Dirty Work, is like the final, chaotic days of a marriage, with Jagger singing about nuclear war, money-grubbers, cheaters and violent sex, with a reoccurring motif of wanting to beat the shit out of someone (“Fight,” “One Hit (to the Body)”). It should have been their last album. (Christgau: We should be thankful the old reprobate [Jagger] didn’t lavish much personal attention on it, that he just plugged into his Stones mode and spewed what he had to spew. Let him express himself elsewhere. The individual Rolling Stones can have their own disgusting lives and careers—I don’t care. What I want is the Rolling Stones as an entity, an idea—that’s mine and yours as much as theirs. And it’s the Rolling Stones as an idea that Dirty Work vindicates“).

** Best obscure cover of “Dancing in the Street”: the Carpenters’ freaky jazz-trio version from 1968.

Top: Lee Friedlander, “Boston, 1985,” from the series MIT (1985-1986) (LF: “The working project was named “Changing Technology.” I chose to photograph people working at computers as these ubiquitous machines seemed to be the vehicle for that change. The pictures were made in the environs of Route 128, a loop road around Boston, which at the time was considered a northeastern Silicon Valley.“) (It went bust five years later.)

69 Responses to Dancing in the Street

  1. you’ve done a very healthy hatchet job here..it’s good for the future archivists..it helps in filtering out the moments best ignored..awful record…awful year…awful mindset.

  2. jopasso says:

    No comments about the song. It speaks for itself.
    The video? Let me say that Jagger makes me laugh and Bowie makes me cry.

    Great write-up, and absolutely agree with your video highlights.

  3. algeriatouchshriek says:

    80’s Rock Legends teamed up to take the piss out of themselves for charity and play up to their supposed queerness by camping it up. And what did we do? We sneered and felt embarrassed. And bought the record.

    As a record its great; lively, spontaneous, strong vocals.

    As a video we all missed the point that it was Meant To Be Funny because both Bowie & Jagger had spent their entire careers telling us they were Serious Artistes.

    • Maj says:

      Yeah, I always took the whole thing as a joke but I think you have a point in them trying to be oh-so-serious abt their work so no surprise people don’t take it as a joke, still to this day.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Well done! Did you know the legendary “JaBo” video was voted Rock Crime of the Century?

    http://www.rocktownhall.com/blogs/index.php/rock-crimes/

  5. MC says:

    I knew a guy who said this is his favourite video of all time. Can’t say I agree, but I know what he meant – definitely a camp classic. The thing is, the track sounds even worse when you divorce it from the images. (DB really had a second career travestying the sixties canon, didn’t he?)

  6. diamond dog says:

    It should have stayed as a once shown video as the promo is awful. I remember watching it at the time on live aid and enjoying it as a bit of camp fun. It was like 2 old queens battling it out and was a bit of a laugh ,time has not been kind to it and it is dreadful and a bloated rock god piece of shite. How could Bowie ever appear in it though I suppose he is not beyond the odd faux pa (cher show ?). The good it did for the charity is cancelled out by it being so very very bad. I would go as far as to say the worst cov er ever. Its nice to hear Jagger was the major contributor stands to reason let’s face it he is long past his best and was beyond bad in the 80,s even worse than Bowie. I hate motown covers they never work and both these has beens had a nerve descrating what is an absute classic. Shame on em.

  7. Carl H says:

    Shit record. In my native country of Sweden it’s for some inexplicable reason often hailed as one of Bowie’s classics. It’s actually one thing he’s mostly remembered for. If I ask my dad about David Bowie it’s this one he will talk about (he really loved Live Aid).

    In Bowies defense though the most annoying moments in it is mostly Jagger’s work. Phrases like “SOUTH AMERICA” and “Don’t forget the MOTOR CITY” really makes me cringe.

  8. Carl H says:

    Also the Youutube comment “That happened and we let it happen“ is a punchline from the cartoon show Family Guy which actually broke off from the storyline, and showed the whole video as a joke, proclaiming it the “gayest music video ever”.

    This is in a2011 episode called “Foreign Affairs”

  9. I always think of the late George Melly on Jagger’s laughter lines & nothing being that funny quote.
    Well I have added to mine by watching the video again.

  10. Sofa Head says:

    Thanks. I enjoy a good hatchet-job, especially one which is so obviously deserved.

    The video is unhygienic in so many ways. Bowie’s one saving grace is Jagger being such an utter arse. He almost ends up looking cool by comparison. Almost.

  11. It wasn’t at all clear in 1985 that Jagger had entered the sunset of his life. I’m one of the few critics that thinks “Dirty Work” is an inspired work, one of the most savage collections of songs ever committed to vinyl, with a Jagger performance to match.

    I laughed out loud several times reading this review btw.

    • col1234 says:

      no, I really like “Dirty Work” too—that’s why I think it would’ve been a good last stones record…going out in violence and ugliness.

  12. Roger L says:

    All I can say is there must have been a moment when this worked and hindsight . . . , oh never mind.

    Best, R

  13. david says:

    I remember that for years before, everyone seemed willing for this duet to happen, there was even a mooted remake of ‘Some like it Hot’ starring the pair-how ghastly would that have been? It was definitely the in thing for two heavyweights to get together-a sort of musical equivalent of Eastwood and Reynolds, though in this case only moderately better than Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers.

    Dancing in the street was much beloved at the time I remember-though I’m tempted to quote something about Baudelaire and the ‘slobbering masses’, this just seems to be one more misstep by Bowie in that normalization, just another Phil Collins, kick he was on.

    Horrid stuff, but a symptom of its time.

  14. Was this really “much beloved at the time”? I was around and remember no such thing. People bought it because of the stars’ marquee value and some vague notion of helping out starving children in Africa. Its quality was beside the point.

    • david says:

      Not beloved by myself I hasten to add, but altruistically or not-and none of us can speak for the motives of the entire buying public,I do recall the less discerning critical ear (none Bowie fans possibly), celebrating it, and certainly enough to send it to number one.

      But then perhaps people were just swayed by the whole post Live Aid thing.

  15. Brian J says:

    The best part is when Jagger stops for a moment in the middle of the song and drinks some Coca-Cola.

  16. Diamond Duke says:

    Well…I honestly don’t know what I can add here. Everybody else has pretty much said it all! As much as I consider myself a fan of Bowie as well as – to a somewhat lesser extent – the Rolling Stones, I really don’t think that anyone can consider this to be a high point of either Bowie or Jagger’s career. The “camp factor” is definitely good for a giggle or two (and yeah, Bowie’s “streets of Brazil!” bit in particular is something I can only watch with an empty bladder), but even that dubious charm wears thin after one viewing.

    The actual recording itself is strictly so-so – hardly horrific, but hardly outstanding, either. I think the actual recording’s reputation has been overshadowed by that of the video. I must confess: I did include this as part of my 14-disc David Bowie mix series – and I followed it with the Aladdin Sane cover of Let’s Spend The Night Together! For the life of me, I just could not resist…

    BTW, has anyone heard The Mamas & The Papas’ version? Not up to par with the original, but not too shabby either.

    • Maj says:

      I quite love the Mamas & the Papas version…I’d actually known that one first, then Bowie’n’Jagger and only then the original, sadly. *cough*born in ’87*cough*

  17. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    As a song, I would never listen to this. It’s not on my iPod and never will be.
    As a video, it’s bliss. Awkward, goofy homoerotic fun between two icons, even if they do come off more than a bit desperate.

    All I’ll say is that it doesn’t do much to dispel rumors of Bowie and Jagger’s sexual history.

  18. [...] Chris O’Leary itemizes the awfulness of Bowie-Jagger’s”Dancing in the Streets”: 1) Jagger’s dancing, especially in the opening verse, reminds one of Truman Capote’s snark about Jagger’s stage act: “as sexy as a pissing frog.” 2) The choreography makes a bit more sense if you imagine that each of them are pretending to duet with Tina Turner. 3) A small charm is Bowie’s role as foil here—he’s often acting like a gawky fan who won an MTV contest to co-star in a video with Jagger. The dopey hand twirling movements, the half-assed judo kicks. 4) That said, when Bowie sways his hips and clasps himself as he lip-syncs “streets of Brazil!” is the absolute nadir of his performing life. 5) Jagger had been a fashion casualty for years, so his sherbet-green puffy shirt and purple caddy pants are just par for the course. But you’d expect better from Bowie than the camouflage pajamas and over-sized raincoat. 6) St. Vincent, on Twitter: “Bowie and Jagger “Dancing in the Street” video duet is the biggest anti-cocaine ad you ask for. #ihavethatjacket“. Sadly, I don’t think you can blame coke for this one. 7) After all the hard work Bowie did in 1983-1984 establishing his heterosexual bonafides, he releases a single whose sleeve could’ve doubled for a gay porn film advertisement and whose video ends with a freeze-frame of his and Jagger’s synchronized ass-waggle. [...]

  19. Quiet Wyatt says:

    Thank you, thank you, a thousand times I thank you for this astoundingly well-written and well-researched Bowie blog. I’ve been following it for the better part of a year, even going through withdrawal over the winter 2011/12 holidays.

    Somehow it seems fitting that my first comment will be about the Dame’s most (almost literally) phoned-in performance of the unkind ’80s. And without further ado, I type:

    Jesus jumped-up Christ in a sidecar, Bowie & Jagger’s “Dancing in the Streets” SUCKS.

    But the whole travesty was still worth it, I think, for the couldn’t-be-gayer-without-actual-penetration video, which will never stop being hilarious.

    I say this as a gay man born in ’71: the “Dancing in the Streets” video is even gayer than Bowie’s basket in Labyrinth. (Which made me gay.)

    • Maj says:

      LMAO hilarious comment. My mother calls it Bowie’s cauliflower.

      On another note cool to “meet” a fellow Bowie fan who’s also a librarian, from Chapel Hill, no less. I’m not even worthy. :)

  20. timspeaker says:

    One of the things I like best about this site (apart from the brilliant, insightful research and interpretation) is that if something needs to be taken to task, you are not afraid to do so. And boy, did this need to be taken to task!

    I especially enjoyed the paragraph placing Dancing in the context of the history fleecing being performed by Baby Boomers in the late-80’s. Spot on.

    • col1234 says:

      thanks. I was 16 years old in 1988, and the memory of the Boomer Reconquista is still galling. we’ll be getting into this a bit more with Never Let Me Down and the first Tin Machine record.

  21. sw says:

    I’m pretty new to this site and am working through it fairly methodically; I will only add that this is the best blog on the entire internet.

    That having been said, I feel like this analysis of Dancing in the Street is a bit like drowning the runt of a litter — possibly necessary, possibly even the humane thing to do, but it doesn’t quite feel right. And any analysis that hinges on a quote from The Family Guy is going to be insufficient (not because The Family Guy is a cartoon or because it’s funny, but IMHO because The Family Guy is never as definitive as it thinks it is).

    I felt a twinge of discomfort as I came across the contempt and the retrospective right-on critique of Live Aid’s failing: yes, on the one hand, Oscar Wilde long ago pointed out that charity and philanthropy are just distributions of the crumbs from the rich man’s table that serve to make his meal all the more palatable and David Rieff was not the first to come to the belated realisation that pumping money into warzones tends to inflate the bank accounts of gun-runners and warlords; but on the other hand, in the full blossoming of the Reagan and Thatcher counter-revolutions, there was suddenly a moment when the longstanding hope that rock music could effect social and political (and sexual) change on a global scale might be realized. It’s easy to join the passersby today who greet Bob Geldof with “Hey wankaaa”, but revisionism isn’t always clarity; there was a melange of naivete, optimism, exploitation, and righteousness in the whole Live Aid movement, but at least it was a political extension and the last attempted resurrection of everything that was so crisply promised (and only at best partly delivered upon) by earlier rock and pop consciousness. Half-hearted commendations are not quite generous enough; and the ultimate collapse of the Live Aid movement and our annual laughter at the blithely ignorant claim that there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas have not led to a better, more progressive, more equitable, or more effective fulfillment of rock’s social and political and sexual promises. So, give the boys their due: this performance, though perhaps quite awful, was forging a connection to a song and its global promises at a moment when there was some real hope. Perhaps that’s what makes the performance so unfunny now, except in an ironic, Family-Guyish way: in their goofiness, their own sense of their own silliness, they betray an innocent giddiness (that at last rock and pop were going to change the world) . . . and nothing is quite so ugly as rich white middle-aged men betraying innocent giddiness.

    And though I share any discomfort with the whole Big Chill shtick, remember: there was no model for aging rock stars . . . or aging rock fans. Except that they were supposed to die or disappear or wither into meaningless, vaporous, irrelevant old age, collapsing over shuffleboard. So, finding themselves alive, finding themselves still wanting to listen to music, what were the Boomers and their bands supposed to do? The Boomer Counter-Reformation (a brilliant formulation, which was even more true politically than it was musically) was not entirely an act of suffocating Boomercentricity; it was a strange and novel exploration of middle and late-middle age. And in that particular context, the Bowie-Jagger collaboration on this song was not just intended as a global clarion call, but as an intergenerational one as well, as a savvy nostalgic appeal to the increasingly powerful Boomers who had, by and large, failed to overturn their parents and, unlike Luke, were not only joining the Dark Side but were taking over with a violently compensatory enthusiasm. Bowie and Jagger may have been idealistic, naive, and crass, but they were making an effort.

    Of course, this song and this video are weird and flung-together, far from seamlessly, but they have surprising life as a melange of tribute and desecration, of roaring egos and frank self-parody (which are not necessarily exclusive, but which do temper one another), of queerness and cheeky straight camp. But then maybe watching this video tonight reminded me of being a 12 year old boy, who watched it on Top of the Pops with his Baby Boomer parents (pleased that a song from their youth was getting airplay), and who recorded it on a VHS tape to rewatch along with some other (far superior) songs from around the same time – Colonel Abrams “Trapped”, A-Ha “Take On Me”. I mean, come on, who really wants to drown the runt?

    • sw says:

      Christ, I didn’t mean it to be that long. Now. Back to Baal.

      • col1234 says:

        no, really good points. for what it’s worth, I dislike “Family Guy” and had really thought the “this happened” line was just from some anonymous internet wag.

    • algeriatouchshriek says:

      indeed

    • Carl H says:

      Do They Know It’s Christmas is so laughable stupid today! Just the title is a riot. So excuse me for laughing even more.

      Ethiopian Christmas (and Eritrean, as Eritrea was a part of Ethiopia and the famine struck areas back then) is celebrated the 7th of January, and half of the population is Muslim and wouldn’t care less. Do They Know It’s Eid-al-Fitr at all?

      • Maj says:

        This always pissed me off abt that song too. good intentions, OK. also I get that the Xmas/Christian message is meant for people all over the world but since it all eventually turned into violence & power-plays I just can’t help myself and be disgusted by the song. it just seems to be so patronising and pretty much shows that while goodwill is a great thing it can be a disaster if used without understanding…

  22. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I wasn’t around for this and have somehow escaped the video until now. (The song is on one the compilation CDs in the car. Fortunately, I’ve usually reached my destination by the time it comes round.)
    I like the last comment. Pop music really was naive back then. It’s easy to look back and be wise after the event, but I think it’s just two people having a bit of fun while hoping it may make some kind of worthwhile contribution. I don’t think it was meant to stand the test of time. And it hasn’t.

  23. Jeremy says:

    Wow – so many comments! i’ll have to read them later. Yes – totally camp video and yes, total crap! i’ve got the 12″ vinyl, somehow!

    The only good thing you can say is that it was for charity.

    So much work for such a bad song – you get my admiration!

  24. [...] The Annotated Jagger/Bowie “Dancing in the Street” [...]

  25. Anonymous says:

    So many excellent points raised…

    Amazed, though, that no-one seems to have mentioned the bit, at the beginning of the video, when Bowie jumps off the staircase in slow-mo, his face going, “Waaaaggghh!” – it’s up there with the “streets of Brazil” dance as one of his worst moments….

    Or best moments, after a few ales.

  26. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    Haha, nice caption on that last photo, Chris.

  27. Carl H says:

    I’m surprised there’s no mentioned in the post about Bowie’s own live aid performance? Not worth a mention?

  28. Maj says:

    Dancing…I don’t hate as much as Bowie’s cover of God Only Knows. For me the song and the video are in a “so bad it’s amusing” cathegory.
    Oh, and yes, very gay. I’d watch a porn vid with Bowie but please, oh please, no Jagger. :)
    I have to commend you for a great, humorous write-up! x

  29. diamond dog says:

    The only redeeming point about this recording is it may have saved lives by being such a big seller and its heart is in the right place and I cannot knock the sentiment of giving freetime to save lives. It was rush released to make cash so job done. Its a pity its such a piece of shit and not great art , would great art have made money ? Nah. So I,m gonna forgive those involved as if it did save one starving kid it was worth it. I know it sounds puke inducing but it is true.

  30. PH says:

    I don’t understand all this vitriol for what was basically a throwaway song for charity. Bowie at least seems to be having a laugh at himself, unlike the preening Jagger. Some of the more deserving targets of ridicule from infamous 80s do-gooders include:
    -Phil Collins (the man who divorced his wife by fax) acting all concerned about the plight of the homeless in “Another Day in Paradise”
    -Sting dragging that Amazonian chief with the plates in his lips around to all his press conferences to badger the music press about saving the rainforests.
    -And basically anything uttered by the most sanctimonious twat in rock’n’roll history Bono, who to this day is still performing cringe-worthy stunts like interrupting U2 concerts mid-song to ring up Nelson Mandella or the Pope.
    nickynova.blogspot.com

    • humanizingthevacuum says:

      I disagree strongly, nicky. Phil Collins is a much better pop songwriter and more adept pop producer than Bowie. Tonight and NLMD prove that Bowie has no talent for hackdom.

    • sw says:

      I disagree, PH: I think Jagger knows full well he’s being a complete preening plonker; in fact, I would go so far as to say that he is specifically mocking his own appropriation of 1950s and early 1960s dance styles in this video. But I certainly can’t prove it.
      And I’ll even double down on disagreeing! Not that Collins, Sting, Bono don’t deserve some ridicule; they do. But I prefer their ridiculous stances (even if their own lives aren’t saintly) to the shameful silence that has fallen across the cowed and craven pop universe in the 21st Century. Kanye West and The Dixie Chicks may have stated the obvious, but they were voices crying in the wilderness.

    • LondonLee says:

      I’m not sure Phil Collins treating his wife badly makes his ‘concern’ about the homeless somehow invalid or hypocritical. Unless he kicked her out into the street without any money.

  31. Marion Brent says:

    I very much do remember this Band Aid era as one of the revenge of the Boomers, but it’s interesting (from the perspective of my advanced years) to note that although Bowie was supposedly an “ageing rocker” at the time, he was still only in his thirties! That would be young, in today’s pop currency!

    • sw says:

      Right that’s it – he was younger then than, say, Thom Yorke or Dave Grohl is now, or a decade younger than Jarvis Cocker is now; he was about how old Cat Power or Eminem is.

    • col1234 says:

      oh, you’re right on there, Marion. Linking to the Big Chill for this post, I had the desolate realization that all the embarrassing Boomers in that clip were still younger than me.

      PS, for whatever reason, the Jagger/Bowie thing has been the most popular thing that this blog has ever published. Picked up by Metafilter (one dude there really hates this site—sorry!), etc. 10,000 hits in 2 days. A testament to something, I guess.

      • sw says:

        Possibly a testament to a song that is now evidently being recognized as the best Bowie track ever, the absolute pinnacle of his career, and everything your blog has been working towards?

        (Or, quite possibly, this is the track that everybody of a certain post-Boomer age was aware of, and even, dare I say it, where some of us first became interested in Bowie? Maybe for people of a certain age, everything – Ziggy, Low, Station – is just prelude.

  32. Marion Brent says:

    And yes, the song is crap, but the video is a masterpiece of camp send-up.

  33. Brendan O'Lear says:

    One of the interesting things about this site is how it is the bad stuff that attracts the comments. If my memory serves me rightly – and it rarely does these days – the first 50+ comment entry was Iggy Pop’s Tonight. While something as perfect as Word on a Wing barely registered anything.

    • Marion Brent says:

      I guess when something is perfect, there’s not much to say about it, you just have to open your ears. It’s when something goes horribly wrong that it has to be contextualised…

      • Brendan O'Lear says:

        I guess you’re right. I must be getting soft in my old age, but it seems such a pity to focus on the negative when there’s so much to celebrate.

      • Maj says:

        Brendan I agree with you, 100%. I was actually quite surprised when many brilliant early 70’s songs barely had any comment there. I undrestand a lot of people haven’t been onboard at that point (myself in cluded, I *think* I arrived in time for Heroes) but I can’t help myself I love commenting on good songs – just because they are good songs! :)
        Oh, and I’m 24, so it’s not an age thing. Unless 24 qualifies as old. ;)
        The thing with mankind is…they just love to moan (or contextualise ;) ) – I’m guilty of this as well. But I’m one of those people who need to focus on positive things a lot otherwise I’m afraid I’d get horribly depressed or completely mad…so unless you give me God Only Knows which just irks me I tend not to bitch abt 80’s Bowie as much as it probably would be appropriate. :)
        Well, this comment was a bit off-topic but I needed to get it out since we touched upon it.

  34. David L says:

    Another excellent post (and one, I might add, that caused me to buy “Dirty Work,” and for that, the Stones thank you). I’ll actually reach into this grab bag of crap and pull out something redeeming — Bowie’s vocal. It’s not bad. I quite like the part where he sings “It’s just an invitation, across the nation …” and as he continues alone, for a brief shining moment it seems like he might be able to pull the song out of the morass, but then Jagger’s rhino-crapping vocal promptly drops it back down into the muck. God Jagger really sucks on this, that snarl of his which is inimitable on the Stones’ best songs just doesn’t work on this Motown tune.

  35. PH says:

    I can’t believe that no-one has taken issue with humanizing the vacuums ridiculous claims that Phil Collins is a much better pop songwriter and adept pop producer than Bowie. Surely this is a wind-up??
    Fact: Bowie is the greatest pop genius of his generation.
    Fact: If Phil Collins lived to be 1,000 the most memorable thing he’ll ever have done is allegedly once feature as an extra in “A Hard Day’s Night”.
    nickynova.blogspot.com

    • col1234 says:

      i think HTV was talking about ’80s bowie vs collins, but i’ll let him/her speak for him/herself. and please, tone down the attitude a notch. we’re an amiable bunch here, no need to call anyone’s opinions ridiculous.

    • It was pretty obvious why I inserted the adjective “pop” twice. But even worthwhile artists have weaknesses; Bowie’s are a voice inadequate to pop music and an extremely limited range as generic verse-chorus-verse songwriter. That’s why Bowie was a terrible pop star when he wanted to be one in the eighties.

      Finally, while “Station to Station” and “Low” are albums beside which the entire careers of Collins and the other Genesis members can tremble, “No Jacket Required” is much better than “Tonight” or NLMD. Collins, who was often an excellent producer himself, knew how to arrange horns and use MIDI and Fairlights with greater sophistication than the Distracted White Duke.

      • LondonLee says:

        Phil Collins’ ‘Face Value’ is a pretty great album.

        And you do know that Collins played drums on several of Brian Eno’s 70s albums don’t you? He wasn’t always a twat.

  36. Frankie says:

    With all that competitive kicking and gyrating, as they vie for supremacy of camera, they should have done Kung-Fu Fighting instead. In fact, I bet you could dub that song onto the video and the choreography would perfectly match.

  37. PH says:

    The reason why most of Bowie’s output in the 80s was sub-par by his standards had nothing to do with a limited vocal range, or a generic songwriting technique. He posesses neither thing. It was simply because, in chasing a mass market audience, he’d turned his back on everything that had made his music and his image so interesting and unique in the 70s. In effect, he’d made himself into a pale photocopy of Phil Collins. And having run himself down a blind alley, he found it pretty hard to get out again. Particularly when there was so little around at the time to inspire him. Thankfully he re-discovered his mojo again in the 90s. It’s just a shame that the world had stopped listening by then.

    • I never said he had a “generic songwriting technique.” You didn’t read what I wrote. And as for your other points, it’s not as easy as Bowie “turning his back” on his unique qualitites. Apart from reaching an age when, after ten years of continuous innovation, slowing down is inevitable, I don’t think the eighties would have been his decade like the seventies were. Bowie depends on contexts and inserting himself into them, and what might have whetted his appetite as a late thirtysomething? It’s perfectly reasonable for him to say, “Let me try a mainstream record.” But as I argued already Phil Collins was a much better mainstream artist thatn Bowie — compare “Sussudio,” “Easy Lover,” or “I Don’t Wanna Know” to “Blue Jean” or “Dancing With the Big Boys,” and you see the difference between mastering a sound and flailing madly at trying to be a copy. Nothing wrong with copies, of course — being a slightly off photocopy was Bowie’s strength through 1980. But when the age demanded glitz and artifice of the kind Bowie had mastered he proved inept. In other words, Phil Collins’ strengths are not Bowie’s.

      (It should be clear that while I’m a Bowie fan I’m twenty years past the age when I excuse his flaws. The “classic period” has plenty of grisly moments)

      So we’re not that far apart!

  38. Mark G says:

    I’m surprised you missed the one true highlight of the video:

    Where Jagger spins around to join in on a “Dancing in the Street” line, and Bowie gives him an absolutely filthy nasty look.

    Apparently, a bit of Mick’s hair got into Dave’s eye.

  39. postpunkmonk says:

    This was an amazing post to read, because by that point in time, I had grown so completely used to Bowie’s then-meretricious output, that it barely registered any outrage on my Bowie-O-Meter® at all! Having grown used to Bowie being at the forward garde of Rock in the seventies, little did I know that he was actually the canary in the coal mine in presaging the horrifying Mid-to-late-Eighties. Virtually all of my favorite musicians fell prey to the lifeforce-sucking forces of the full-blown Thatcher era, but Bowie was [as per usual] there in 1983; a good two years ahead of the pack!

  40. This is great, funny, bitchy, vicious writing. I laughed out loud, literally. I don’t actuall believe the song DESERVES this venom any more than I agreed with Dorothy Parker regarding Katherine Hepburn’s acting range, but it WAS funny.

    That said, come on. When two rich guys overemote and do somber things they’re called self-serious. When they have a laugh at their own expense they’re not serious enough. They can’t win. The video and the song amuse me, just like your post does. Sometimes, like with the Laughing Gnome, it’s okay to lighten up.

  41. One other comment- watching the two of them makes me pine for their proposed remake of Some Like It Hot, which doubtless would have been hysterical and would also have made the average commentor here feel personally betrayed. ;D At the very least, 80’s Bowie would have been perfect as Frank in a Rocky Horror revival – in this video he seems to channel Tim Curry several times.

  42. s.t. says:

    A great “no music” version of the video (kind of like Shreds) is getting passed around. Pretty hilarious.

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