Dancing in the Street

January 17, 2012

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.)

Let’s Spend The Night Together

June 28, 2010

Let’s Spend the Night Together.
Let’s Spend the Night Together (live, 1973).

The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is stranger and more complex than its reputation as one of the Stones’ most primal dance and sex songs. It’s a product of the Stones’ psychedelic era (the band was stuck in London, unable to perform live, and so spent their days throwing parties, taking drugs, getting busted and making Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request); so while written to be a single, it’s a murky and even experimental record. Keith Richards wrote most of it on piano (considering it a remake of “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby”), and his repeated piano line and a droning organ dominate the track, nearly swallowing up the guitars. As Richards pointed out years later, the backing singers are basically vocalizing piano chords. Charlie Watts seems to be slipping behind the beat, while the monotony of the track only breaks with its odd middle section, when there’s a swirl of vocals and, underneath, clattering sticks (allegedly by bobbies visiting the studio for a drug raid).

And Mick Jagger’s vocal isn’t as much a lecherous come-on as it is a desperate teenage boy’s plea, someone whose ambition far outweighs his experience. Take the way Jagger hems and haws in the opening verses, filling in spaces with “my my my my”s and other nervous tics, getting caught up on vowel sounds (“fooling around, and ’round and ’round…”), even admitting “this doesn’t happen to me everyday!!” As the song builds, the kid tries to psych himself up to ask the question, and when Jagger finally hits his mark after the final moment of doubt (the ominous bridge), he sings his last lines with delight, the backing singers cheering for him.

All this nuance went out the window when Bowie covered “Let’s Spend the Night Together” six years later. Bowie unfurled it as a show-opener for his return to Britain in late December 1972, then quickly cut a version for the Aladdin Sane LP. There’s a sense that the band is just tarting the song up—it’s moved up in key (from the original G (I believe) to A), sped up in pace, and filled with Mick Ronson and Mike Garson at their most indulgent: guitar sneers, spiky piano, synthesizer washes.

And where Jagger’s vocal can be hesitant and wry, with Jagger singing the title phrase by emphasizing “night” then falling off, slightly, on “together,” Bowie is manic and confident, as though he’s so sure of this conquest he’s already got his eye on another one. He delivers the chorus like a royal edict, keeping on the same note for most of it, and sprints through the verses as if someone’s got a stopwatch in the vocal booth. His breathy, spoken “our love comes from above…let’s make….lurve” bit is just irritating. Some have interpreted Bowie’s version as a gay liberation of the Stones’ heterosexual original, but if so, it was done at the expense of the original’s humanity—a bit of a cruel bargain.

As a cover song in a Ziggy Stardust show, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” worked well enough; as a filler track on an LP that’s already a bit padded (the second side of Aladdin Sane also has a remake of “The Prettiest Star”), it’s loud, tacky and pointless. Still, Bowie won the game at the end, as subsequent Rolling Stones performances of the song (they didn’t play it live again until the late ’70s) seemed to take his version as inspiration, with Jagger becoming a parody of a glam spoof of himself.

First performed by Bowie on 23 December 1972, opening his grand return to the Rainbow Theatre, and recorded around the same time. Performed throughout the last Ziggy Stardust tour in 1973, and issued as a single in the US and Europe (RCA 41125 c/w “Lady Grinning Soul”).

Top: Bobby Douglass in the field, Chicago, 1972.

Drive-In Saturday

June 17, 2010

Drive-In Saturday (first performance, live 1972).
Drive-In Saturday.
Drive-In Saturday (Russell Harty Plus Pop, 1973).
Drive-In Saturday (live, 1974).
Drive-In Saturday (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Drive-In Saturday (live, 1999).

The 1950s of 1970s pop wasn’t quite right and had a strange ambivalence…The style and content [of Glam] was rooted in an idea of pop musicians being mutants from the future who were trying to blend in with us by assembling “authentic” versions of period clothing and getting it wrong. They had ’50s shoulder pads and Elvis-like lamé suits, but also eyeliner and lipstick…the lyrics touched on clichés of ’30s gangster movies and Humphrey Bogart alongside spaceships, motorbikes, aliens and jukeboxes.

Tat Wood, About Time 3.

“The Fifties” were invented around 1972-1973. American Graffiti (which gave life to Happy Days) and its UK counterpart That’ll Be the Day were on screen; Elvis, Chuck Berry and Ricky Nelson topped the charts; The Rocky Horror Show opened on the West End and Grease on Broadway. The actual 1950s, in all their shadow, were converted into an Eden: a sparkling, innocent contrast to the weariness, grime and open sexuality of the early ’70s.

So “Drive-In Saturday” is Bowie’s ’50s pop pastiche, though as typical with Bowie there’s a twist: “Drive-In Saturday” is a ’50s song celebrating the freedoms of the subsequent decade, with Mick Jagger and Twiggy serving as erotic household gods. The premise is that a post-apocalyptic civilization, through fear or reactions from fallout, has forgotten how to have sex, so the kids watch Rolling Stones promos and old films to see how it was done.

It’s the first Bowie song to reflect the challenge of Roxy Music, whose first LP (and hit single “Virginia Plain”) had come out in the summer of ’72. The phased synthesizer lines owe something to Brian Eno’s squiggles and groans, while Bowie’s approach to the material—parodic, subversive, yet done entirely straight-faced—is similar to Bryan Ferry’s fractured takes on country-western (“If There Is Something”) and torch ballads (“Chance Meeting”).

Bowie wrote “Drive-In Saturday” during a train ride from Seattle to Phoenix in early November 1972. He was unable to sleep and, looking out the window at night while the train was somewhere in the desert, he saw a row of nearly 20 enormous silver domes off in the distance, moonlight dancing on their roofs. It intrigued him: what were they? Government post-nuclear-war prep facilities? Secret laboratories? (Most likely feed silos.)

As with “Oh! You Pretty Things,” Bowie’s SF narrative is a cover for a more basic human predicament—how kids, who typically have no idea about sex, have to improvise and fake their way through it, often using film stars and pop music as cues and instruction guides. The idea of groups of teenagers in cars, watching erotic films at a drive-in as though attending a church, is one of his sadder, more haunting images. Bowie also predicted that the Sixties would be enshrined, in the following decades, as the unsurpassed height of glamor and sexual freedom, and so used to belittle the kids who would grow up in the Sixties’ shadow. As much as the past can be warped to serve the present’s needs, the past is also toxic.

“Drive-In Saturday” opens with a pure period reconstruction: there’s a saxophone, swooning backing vocals, a basic chord structure in which the home key A steadily rises to the dominant (E), and it’s in 12/8 time (the standard meter for doo-wop, and used in other ’50s pastiches like The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling” and Madonna’s “True Blue”). The opening lines are a feint, too, offering timeless, banal romantic sentiments (“don’t forget to turn on the light/don’t laugh babe, it’ll be alright”).

Then things unsettle—a synthesizer splash in the verse’s seventh bar becomes a high, wailing note like an air-raid siren, while Bowie sings about “strange ones in the dome” and video-films. The second verse is entirely bizarre SF, with “Jung the foreman” gazing at the dried-up sea, worrying about fallout and guarding “the Bureau Supply for aging men” (Viagra?), The chorus, which changes key to G, is harmonically complex and time-shifting (so the two-bar “drive-in Sa-tur-day” alone is C/G-B/Am7/C-G/D-F#/D-E, with a move to 6/8 on “tur-day”).

The arrangement is typically intricate: take how the backing vocals often mirror Trevor Bolder’s bass (singing/playing three-note fills at the end of some verse bars, and making parallel downward steps in the long outro) or how Bowie’s vocal riffs off the saxophone, singing the same two-note pattern near the fadeout. The saxophone plays a sweet counter-melody to the vocal in the 4-bar bridges, while Mick Ronson’s guitar mainly serves as color: after his metronomic opening, he only rouses himself at the start of each chorus. It’s one of Bowie’s better vocals on Aladdin Sane, with Bowie first singing the title line softly, mainly keeping on one note, and then opening up in subsequent repeats, hitting a high G on “drive.”

Bowie introduced “Drive-In Saturday” days after he wrote it, playing it in several of his last ’72 American concerts. There are claims he debuted it in Phoenix, on 4 November, though the first surviving concert recording is from Bowie’s 17 November show at Pirate’s World, near Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. (Another recording, from Cleveland on 25 November, is on the 30th anniversary reissue of Aladdin Sane). He sang it alone on acoustic guitar, introducing it as “a song from the year 2033.” There are conflicting stories about whether he offered “Drive-In Saturday” to Mott the Hoople, with some claiming that Bowie soon rescinded the offer, others that Ian Hunter rejected it.

Recorded in New York on 9 December 1972, and issued as Aladdin Sane‘s second single (RCA 2352, c/w “Round and Round’). While it was one of Bowie’s highest-charting UK hits (#3), “Drive-In Saturday” was rejected as a single by RCA’s US division (which weirdly chose to issue “Time” instead). So “Drive-In Saturday” became something of a lost single for Bowie,  not included on any greatest-hits compilation until the ’90s. A shame, as it’s one of the finer songs he wrote in the period.

Top: Elvis Presley takes Mary Kathleen Selph for a ride, Memphis, 30 June 1972. (She was killed in an auto accident 18 days later.)