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.)