Magic Dance

Magic Dance (film).
Magic Dance (soundtrack).

In the summer of 1986, EMI’s vice president of A&R, Neil Portnow, spoke at an industry panel about the soundtrack album boom. Footloose, Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun—all had churned out #1 hits and had dominated the album charts. Portnow said it signaled a shift, that films and videos were replacing radio as the way people heard new music. But the strategy had its downsides—too many films, too many soundtracks, and an artist risked overexposure, becoming a parody of himself.

Portnow* singled out Bowie by name. “In the past he was an anonymous, mystical character, out of the public eye.” But with Bowie starring in Absolute Beginners and Labyrinth back-to-back (the films were released with months of each other) and being a heavy presence on each soundtrack LP, he made things “difficult from a record industry standpoint, because it conflicts with the mystical [persona].” Portnow slammed Labyrinth in particular: “The lyrics were about puppy dogs and goblins—not relevant to Bowie’s career from the mystical standpoint.

Cut to a castle room. A man with an enormous shock of hair and wearing ridiculously tight pants** dances a jig around two score gyrating puppets, occasionally grabbing a baby and hurling him high in the air. “DANCE—MAGIC DANCE! DANCE—MAGIC DANCE!

At the time, this was the end for many old fans. Already alienated by global populist Bowie and disappointed by his latest album, the old ravers and New Romantics now met Bowie’s latest incarnation: a dancing master Goblin King who looked like he was going to do an ice-skating routine later in the picture. So Bowie had fully lost the plot. And Portnow’s public grousing showed that EMI was also bewildered by what their marquee artist was doing. Where was the next record? What was this Dark Fraggle Rock nonsense?

Of course, this ignored the fact that Bowie was winning a new generation of fans by starring in Labyrinth, and that he was having a blast doing it, briefly free from the burden of following himself up.

The ridicule “Magic Dance” got (and still gets) reminds me of the knocks that “Laughing Gnome” took (and still takes). They’re both goofy songs designed for kids, they’re both pure products of their time (the woodwind-heavy “Gnome” is pure 1967, while “Magic Dance” is like an aural time capsule of a synthesizer-saturated 1985) and both have far more going on than at first appears.

For one thing, “Magic Dance” is full of self-parody and inside jokes. Take the opening “what babe? that babe” routine, which Bowie lifted almost verbatim from a gag between Cary Grant and Shirley Temple in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (which, like Labyrinth, is about a young girl attracted to a much older, charismatic artist figure). Or how the first lines of the verse seem to goof on the pathos of Iggy Pop finding his dead junkie girlfriend in “Tonight.” (A wry Nicholas Pegg suggestion.)

And the song itself, apart from the line about the goblin babe, has nothing to do with Labyrinth at all –it’s just Bowie playing on the classic rock & roll theme of using black magic for love (“Love Potion No. 9”, “Fortune Teller,” “I Put a Spell on You”). The singer’s girl is depressed or just doesn’t care for him anymore, so he runs through all the magic spells he wants to use to get her back. But as the chorus notes, all she wants to do is dance.

“Magic Dance” has one of Bowie’s strongest vocal melodies of the period, too, with the verse a run of delayed satisfactions until, midway through, there’s a slow, steady move up an octave, climaxing in Bowie’s “Bay-bee BLUE…NO-BO-DY KNEW”! It’s the most alive he’s sounded in years. Or the crafty call-and-response in the chorus, in which the backing singers take the lead, while Bowie waits until the third beat of each bar to counter them.

And the chorus’ closing line, “slap that baby—make him free!” continues the song’s mix of whimsy and wisdom—it’s a silly line, meant to be howled by goblin puppets, sure, but it’s also incisive. Because when would you slap a baby? To make it breathe just after it’s born. In a film that’s one long metaphor about leaving childhood behind, the line suggests that once a child comes into the world and is slapped into life, she’s already free from her mother; she’s starting off on a long journey of her own.

Problem is, “Magic Dance” worked fine as a three-minute scene in the film. For the official soundtrack recording, however, it was extended to over five minutes (there was even a seven-minute dance mix): after the upteenth repeat of the chorus, it starts to really drag. The extended mix is most notable for Dan Huff’s flashy eight-bar guitar solo. Hats off to him. Mick Ronson got “Width of a Circle,” Alan Parker got “Rebel Rebel,” Earl Slick got “Station to Station,” Robert Fripp got “Heroes.” Huff, drawing a pair of deuces, got “Magic Dance.” He does what he can.

For the studio version of “Dance,” Diva Gray, Fonzi Thornton and the bassist Will Lee were the backing singers, though Bowie (a la “Gnome”) did much of the voice work himself, including the baby gurgles: they had wanted to use Gray’s child, but the baby would keep quiet whenever the mike was on.

Recorded ca. July-September 1985, London. Released on the Labyrinth OST in June 1986. An extended dance mix was issued as a single in the US in January 1987 (EMI America 19217), but it went nowhere.

* Portnow has done well for himself—he’s currently head of NARAS and gives an address at the Grammys every year. His quotes are from the 2 August 1986 issue of Billboard.

** An endnote on the infamous pants. I saw Labyrinth when it came out in ’86, when I was 14, and all I took from it was a few odd jokes, a few nightmarish images (esp. the “helping hands”) and a honking crush on Ms. Connelly. The idea that there was anything prominent about Bowie’s outfit completely escaped me at the time. But throughout the past two decades, whenever Labyrinth has come up in conversation, the issue of Bowie’s pants is always raised. Apparently an entire generation now credits Bowie’s pants with kick-starting puberty, to the point where Bowie’s pants have become a cliche, a pop-cultural touchstone. There is a Facebook group dedicated to it, it’s a common Tumblr tag and a popular drinking game.

So yes, it’s there, it’s mighty and it’s apparently quite life-altering. And it was deliberate. Labyrinth‘s designer took Bowie’s conceit that Jareth was a failed rock star (“a young girl’s dream of a pop star”), who was stuck ruling a backwater goblin kingdom that no one ever visits, while all he wanted to do was hang out in a nightclub somewhere. So Bowie’s outfits are burlesques of a rock star’s garb: he’s a pantomime satyr. Consider Jareth a desperate would-be Ziggy Stardust, one who never got out of the provinces: “well hung, and snow-white tan.”

Top: “Jason Bell breakdancing in The Dell, Wellington [NZ], during Summer City, 4 January 1985.” Dominion Post staff photographer (Reference number: EP/1985/0078/8A-F). The Dominion Post Collection, Photographic Archive, Alexander Turnbull Library.

31 Responses to Magic Dance

  1. BGTNJeff says:

    The raucous joy of “Magic Dance” shouldn’t have come as a surprise from and artist who also narrated “Peter and the Wolf.” Beneath whichever veneer he chooses to use at whatever time frame he exists in, the child-heart of Bowie is always visible. Even in a “downer” song like (my personal favorite) “Ashes to Ashes,” the ending nursery rhyme shows the heart of a child, burdened by knowing too much, experiencing it too soon, feeling it too deeply.
    He is the essential Man-Child, and “Magic Dance” is one of the finest examples of that.

  2. Carl H says:

    I LOVE MAGIC DANCE! it’s one of the catchiest songs ever. It would’ve been one of my guilty pleasures of Bowie’s work (just wait til you come to Glass Spider – I love that one too), but I’m not really guilty About It.

    Actually I prefer the album version to the film version. I don’t think it drags and the vocal performances are much better timed in that one. Especially the non-Bowie vocals “slime and snails” “What babe” “Who do”. Also the solos are good and sound fresh on such a typical 80’s song.

  3. Carl H says:

    Citing Trivia on IMDB:

    “The sources of the characters can be seen in Sarah’s bedroom at the beginning of the movie…

    …there is a scrapbook shown. It shows newspaper clippings of Sarah’s famous actress mom with another man, David Bowie.”

    The movie can essentially be some girls hallucinations about the real David Bowie.

  4. david says:

    Yes it was pretty excruciating at the time, and this didn’t help one’s case at all when trying to defend Bowie against the sneers.

    Still, I always thought the intro was weird in that idiosyncratic Bowie kind of way, like the sounds of a traffic accident fading in, and your review certainly gives it more substance than I’d ventured to explore, but is it better than “Loving the Alien”?

  5. diamond dog says:

    I feel very guilty really as I actually quite like magic dance and quite like the vocal …I don,t know why ? I sat in the cinema loving this one and c,mon its for kids not serious daves having a great laugh at his own expense. The fun has been there since gnome and playfull stuff like please mr gravedigger …..I really like it !!!

  6. Pierce says:

    Alan Parker got 1984 rather than Rebel Rebel

  7. Quiet Wyatt says:

    What was this Dark Fraggle Rock nonsense?

    Of course, this ignored the fact that Bowie was winning a new generation of fans by starring in Labyrinth […]


    Apparently an entire generation now credits Bowie’s pants with kick-starting puberty[…]

    Again, guilty as charged! I was 15 when I saw Labyrinth in 1986, and to the present day, I still like to joke that Bowie’s Goblin King made me gay.

    As if anything can make a person gay… that’s nonsense. But Bowie’s, erm, “presence” in Labyrinth was certainly a key to open a door that I’d successfully kept bolted shut out of panic until then.

    But let’s not forget that Bowie came with a lot of, erm, “baggage” in the ’80s. He was publicly renouncing the “gay and always have been” statements in his pursuit of chart success in America, but even pre-Internet, such salacious information was forever. ALL the boys (and girls) knew Bowie was “bad news,” and this actually helped me, erm, “embrace” him and explore his older music.

    In 1983, aged 12, I hated that permed blond twerp who bounced around on MTV every 10 minutes singing “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance” with such a passion that — no joke — I remember sitting at the top of a carpeted stairwell in my friend’s suburban home, literally lobbing darts down at a picture of Dame Fop we’d stolen from his older sister’s bulletin board to use for target practice. I swear this is the truth; I got the hugest giggle when I finally heard “Station to Station” years later.

    In 1986, puberty was a-blazing, and Gareth’s silly songs opened up a whole new world for me. And pants (erm) aside, I think it helped that they were silly songs. He was a big (pseudo-ex-)gay goofball, not the sanctimonious pretty boy I’d previously hated.

    • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

      Just want to say I’ve been loving these stories from you. 🙂

      • Quiet Wyatt says:

        Cheers! I hope I’m adequately testifying that for kids like me whose homosexuality was dawning at the same time as AIDS in the ’80s, even bad Bowie was so much better than no Bowie at all.

    • s.t. says:

      And it wasn’t just the young men either! I once worked with someone who confided to me that her first “exploration” into womanhood was brought on while ogling Jareth’s tight pants, magic pants.

  8. Brian Busby says:

    “At the time, this was the end for many old fans.” This old fan, 23 at the time, didn’t make it even that far. Your links are the first I’ve ever seen of Labyrinth. Frankly, thus far everything reminds me of H.R. Pufnstuf.

  9. MWM says:

    Your analysis regarding “slap that baby” puts “left my baby blue” in a whole new light.

    I wasn’t born yet when Labyrinth came out; I became a Bowie fan due to a screening of Ziggy Stardust, the film, at age 13 (in terms of David Bowie’s effect on puberty, it’s all Ziggy for me). For me, Labyrinth is neither some awful betrayal nor an adolescent landmark; just a sort of minor, but pleasant and fun, anomaly in the context of his full career.

  10. Jeremy says:

    Yes – the pants. According to my girlfriend it was her first sexual experience and she asked her mother why she couldn’t stop looking at his crotch. Apparently her mother said – “Don’t worry, it’s natural dear.”

    Great music for kids – he wrote well for this movie.

    As an aside Bowie took Duncan with him to the set for days and weeks and he credits that for the beginning of his interest in making films.

    • diamond dog says:

      I get the feeling He made this for his son and kids everywhere, he made his other merry christmas mr lawrence for adults and art lovers who needed something with depth. Its a good fun film kids love it so the proof is in the pudding.

  11. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    I love it. I love it so much. It’s so dumb and I love it.

    The failed rock star thing is a fascinating insight, but I think the other dimension of the costume is to exaggerate Bowie’s archetypal “aged seducer role” – the black waistcoat, the tight pants, the disco-medallion. The whole film is centered on the chemistry between Bowie and Connely, the older man luring the young girl into a dark and scary but nonetheless enticing adult world.

    I doubt it would get released today, honestly.

  12. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    Oh, another story – when my younger sister and I watched this together, she loved it, and was singing along by the second chorus with her own lyrics: “Pants, magic pants! Junk, magic junk!”

  13. Maj says:

    Oh! I remember this one…just had no idea it was called Magic Dance. 🙂
    A good kids song…a lot of fun, actually. 🙂 A nice melody, inded.
    Jareth….I can’t help myself…it’s a good look for Bowie. The best of his post-Baal 80’s IMO (not a fan of the 80’s blond waves). I actually could do without the crotch…thing…distracting and not exactly appropriate for a kids film, but “it” certainly is part of the cult of the film, let’s be realistic.
    I seems to me Jareth’s look could have been an inspiration for Johnny Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow but of course Disney could not have a crotch situation in there. I digress.
    I’m gonna have to watch this frickin film ASAP…maybe this time I’ll be able to appreciate for what it is. I was a serious teenager back when I saw it. 🙂
    Good write-up…I’d never connect this to all those things mentioned.

    • Carl H says:

      It’s almost the same for me. I remembered this song from way back as having the lyric “Dance Baby Dance”.

  14. Marion Brent says:

    Never heard this before, I must have comprehensively given up on Bowie by the time this came out. It’s not objectively bad like most of Tonight, but with its synths, big drums and gospelly backing vocals it just sounds generic mid-Atlantic eighties mainstream to my ears, not a genre that interested me then or now. By this stage, he is about as far away from the Bowie who did Sense Of Doubt as it was possible to be. It’s really quite bizarre that they could be the same person.

  15. Jeremy says:

    “It’s really quite bizarre that they could be the same person.”

    But isn’t that the essence of Bowie?

  16. Pierre says:

    This song climbed to #4 on the top ten at Ten on CHOM FM in Montreal !!! alongside some heavy metal and U2 songs. It boggled me at the time.

    • Brian Busby says:

      Number 4 on CHOM,you say. Though a Montrealer, I had no idea; I’d given up on both the radio station and Bowie (in that order) years earlier. Strange to think that both played such important roles in my teenage years – and yet I can’t think of either now without feeling a mixture of sadness and betrayal. This is perhaps unfair in Bowie’s case.

  17. It is always useful to remember that the word “fan” is derived from the word “fanatic.” A fanatic is often described as “uncritical,” but like any obsessive, a fanatic will take a perceived betrayal much harder than a stable, objective person. Bowie fans are not unique but are intense. Some take the object of their devotion so seriously that, when Bowie doesn’t take HIMSELF seriously, they react as though they have been personally mocked. They simply can’t wrap their heads around silly stuff like gnomes, goblins, and Mick Jagger.

    It’s a shame that fans have a tendency to not want their idols to ever just have fun without it being Important. And yet, being Important and being ocasionally silly are not mutually exclusive. Richard Feynman did it. Einstein did it. I am told Buddha was also occasionally lighthearted. Personally, I like it when Bowie enjoys himself. And I’m certainly not going to be the guy who only semi-jokingly laments that he stopped using cocaine or that he should not make children’s movies. That would be more than fanatical, it would be selfish.

  18. prankster36 says:

    It is quite fascinating to read all the discussion of how this movie is seen as a wrong turn or a stupid move by Bowie, when it’s very definitely the thing that introduced me (and apparently, much of my generation) to him in the first place. I’m aware of Bowie’s…problems…in the mid-80s, and this must have seemed like part and parcel of it at the time, but taken on its own I don’t see how this is anything more than a particularly elaborate Muppet Show hosting gig, in spirit at least.

  19. Vinnie M says:

    Re-read this on GoRead today. Lovely entry as always. Thanks for the update!

%d bloggers like this: