Magic Dance

January 20, 2012

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.