Category Archives: soul pop

An Apologia for One of My Secret Favorite Bowie Performances: “Dancing in the Street”

Tomorrow would have been the 70th birthday of David Bowie, whose passing last year just after turning 69 was among the first of many signs that 2016 would be one long, miserable slog. I knew I wanted to commemorate the occasion in some way, but  I wasn’t sure how. My initial idea was to write a bit about Bowie’s forays into funk- and soul-based music; that felt a bit disingenuous, though, as realistically the majority of the credit for his surprisingly great experiments in “plastic soul” needs to go to esteemed collaborators like Carlos Alomar, Luther Vandross, and Nile Rodgers. It’s also a solid time to look back at Bowie’s (excellent) final album, last year’s Blackstar, but I don’t think I have much to say about the record that either I haven’t already said or Andre didn’t cover in his post from yesterday.

It was while mulling over these options that I remembered a post I wrote soon after Bowie’s death last year, about a performance so infamous and unloved that I felt someone had to speak up on its behalf. I’m talking, of course, about his performance with Mick Jagger in their 1985 cover version of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street.”

To be fair, there’s a reason why nobody tends to mourn Bowie with “Dancing in the Street”–that reason being that it’s pretty much universally considered to be the nadir of Bowie’s (and, for that matter, Jagger’s) substantial oeuvre. Bowie scholar of the moment Chris O’Leary describes it as “a rotten record for which everyone involved should be embarrassed” on his blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame. I myself have been unkind to the song and its accompanying video in the past. I’ve frequently called it a waste of a Bowie/Jagger collaboration that, in some superior alternate reality, would have been a jointly-recorded version of 1974’s “Diamond Dogs.” Back in 2006, I described it as “easily a career low point for both artists, complete with campy and ill-choreographed dance routines, an utterly soulless musical arrangement, and a concept (Dave and Mick, you guessed it, ‘dancing in the streets!’) that was about as rock-bottom as the video’s budget.” Last year, I was more concise, and simply dubbed it “execrable.”

And yet. The fact of the matter is that there’s not another Bowie performance in all five-plus decades of his work that has given me as much joy as has “Dancing in the Street.” I mean real, belly-laughing, hysterical joy. Every time I see the video, I have to see it through to the end–often freeze-framing, rewinding, or just pausing to collect myself at my favorite moments.

© EMI, helpfully screencapped by Noisey

And oh, those favorite moments. I don’t even have to watch the video to name them. There’s the bizarre, unidentifiable accent Bowie adopts when he yells “South Americaaaaaaaa!” during the opening roll-call of countries and continents, foreshadowing the voice he would use the following year while singing as a Muppet in Labyrinth’s “Chilly Down.” There’s his actual first appearance in the video: doing some kind of weird back-and-forth skip (see the screenshots above), before leaping from a balcony and silently screaming like a feral, pouncing cat–presumably the same one he skinned for those pajamas he’s wearing under his khaki trenchcoat.

The list of highlights just goes on from there. The way he nonchalantly enters the frame behind Jagger, doing some kind of “walk like an Egyptian” move with his hands. The middle school talent show-grade choreography in which his legs suddenly emerge kicking into the frame from an open door in the foreground, followed by his whole body as he pops in and out to sing his lines. That inexplicable shot (see below) where he appears behind Jagger with his back to the wall, twirling his fingers roughly in time with the music before busting out the jazz hands and spinning around to join in on the chorus.

© EMI

There is also, of course, the “Dancing” video’s rampant homoeroticism–or rather, its absurd grotesque of homeroticism–which might seem like a coy nod to Angie Bowie‘s claim that she had once caught David and Mick “in bed together,” were it not for the fact that that salacious story wouldn’t enter the popular imagination for about five years. The pair mince about like a demented pair of cartoon queens, routinely placing their faces mere inches from one another’s and mugging for the camera; the video ends with a freeze frame of their wiggling butts, for Christ’s sake. As O’Leary points out, it’s a weird tack for Bowie to take after his own, controversial rejection of a carefully-cultivated queer identity in an interview with Rolling Stone just two years earlier. But it’s also in many ways the least remarkable part of the whole thing. After all, anyone even vaguely familiar with Bowie’s 1970s peak has already seen him play gay–and, frankly, do it a lot more convincingly than he does in “Dancing in the Street.”

Instead, what comes as a shock, and what I think explains the video’s unremittingly dire reputation, is how goofy he comes across. After all, the one link between the manifold Bowie moments being shared across social media in the wake of his death was that all of them were, in a word, cool: be he Ziggy or the Thin White Duke or even Jareth the Goblin King, we like our Bowie aloof, poised, and impeccable, hovering seemingly far above us mere mortals in the splendor of his otherworldly stylishness. In “Dancing in the Street,” however, Bowie is the opposite of cool; he’s the distant, middle-aged relative on the dance floor at your friend’s wedding reception. And, for me at least, that makes the video both endearing and weirdly affirming. It’s a disarmingly human moment, from a man who spent his best-remembered years trying doggedly to convince the world that he was something other than human; it’s the kind of thing that should never be allowed to happen, but did, and is thus precious and rare.

© EMI

So please, if you’re mourning David Bowie on the anniversary of his passing, I humbly request that you not forget this strange and wonderful footnote to his musical history. It’s only natural that when confronted by something like “Dancing in the Street,” one’s first reaction is to ask how and why it exists. But especially now, as we strive to make sense of a world without Bowie, perhaps the more poignant reaction is to reflect on how lucky we are to have lived in a time when two aging rock stars could unleash their poorly-made lip-syncing video on an unsuspecting fanbase, spawning 30+ years of unabated hilarity in the process.

This post was originally published on Dystopian Dance Party.

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Filed under 1985, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, pop rock, soul pop

Stevie Wonder’s ‘Up-Tight’ album turns 50!

Uptight

Stevie Wonder’s 1966 album Up-Tight is likely the most important album in his entire career. After a few years of releasing albums of standards,beach party pop and soul jazz with the moniker “little” attached to his name,the Motown record label wanted to drop Wonder from their roster. A lot of this had to do with his voice changing during puberty. Songwriter Sylvia Moy,also the label’s first female songwriter,saw 15 year old Wonder as being on the cusp of breaking through into someone musically enormous. So she got Berry Gordy to agree to keep Wonder on Motown if she could write a new hit for him.

One of the most important thing about Stevie Wonder in the mid 1960’s was bought up during a conservation between myself and friend Henrique Hopkins. And that is that unlike some child prodigies whose careers flow forward with age. Wonder had two separate careers. First was that of Little Stevie Wonder,a high voiced teen singer and harmonica virtuoso. Then came Stevie Wonder,a talented composer/musical/vocalist who was on the way to becoming a major musical icon of his generation. So on the album Up-Tight,Stevie Wonder was reborn as a maturing artist on the way to adulthood.

Sylvia of course came up with the classic Motown soul stomp of “Uptight (Everything Is Alright)”. Of course “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby” and “Ain’t That Asking For Trouble” both tell the story of that song,both musically and lyrically,ongoing. For the most part however this album finds Stevie forging ahead. My favorite here is actually “Love A Go Go” which,in Motown recycling song style,takes the opening horn charts of “Dancing In The Streets” and applies them to a breezy,catchy pop/soul number showcasing Stevie singing in his breathy falsetto we rarely hear from him.

“Blowing In The Wind” has this musicality similar to “A Place In The Sun” putting Bob Dylan’s rhetorical protest anthem into a rhythm & blues vocal and instrumental context. “Hold Me”,”I Want My Baby Back” and the poignant “With A Child’s Heart” are smooth,creamy numbers again anticipating his funky soul sound of his 70’s breakthrough by half a decade. “Teach Me Tonight” and the stomping “Music Talk” are hard edged,funky soul-the latter being one of Stevie’s strongest uptempo numbers of the 60’s. Only “Contract On Love”,recorded before Stevie’s voice had changed, represents the “Little Stevie Wonder” sound at all on this album.

One thing that really shines about this album was Stevie Wonder being presented once and for all as an uptempo based artist. His dance songs not only had an energetic stomp somewhat different than other Motown hits of the mid 60’s. But his thematic persona was starting to developing as well. On the title song,he speaks of being “a poor mans son”. And by covering Bob Dylan protest folk standards,it’s becoming clear that Wonder is already deeply connected to the social conscientiousness  that defined many of his generation. It not only reinvigorated his career,but started a new movement at Motown.

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Filed under 1960's, Berry Gordy, child stars, classic albums, message songs, Motown, Motown Sound, soul pop, Stevie Wonder, Sylvia Moy, Uncategorized

Andre’s Amazon Archive 4/11/2015: ‘So Excited (Expanded Edition)’ by Pointer Sisters

pointer-sisters---so-excited_-_expanded-edition__9025_0

I had this album for a long time on vinyl and while it was in excellent shape when I got,it wasn’t after a time. Reason being is because I used to play it from beginning to end over and over again because this happens to be one of those pop albums (honestly another in this style that comes to mind is Pet Sounds) where once you start it it’s likely you won’t want to skip cuts because these well crafted little pop-soul mini masterpieces just flow so well from one to the other your either dancing and/or singing along so much you just won’t want to be bothered shutting it off. And on CD this album is made even better (if Amazon allowed ten stars I’d give this eight to be honest) because you simply don’t have to switch sides. As with all albums some cuts are less perfect than others but when the weakest cuts are merely very good,one knows something greats going on.

Predating their major league success with Break Out by exactly one year this album expands on the sleek mixture of live musicianship,extremely rich vocal harmonies and dashes of synthesizers in just the right places. It is far,far from the heavy electronic production if the next album but up to this point qualifies as their slickest. The title track (the single version without of course the drum intro at the beginning)as well as “See How The Love Goes”,”Heart To Heart” and a very close to the original rendering of Prince’s “I Feel For You” two years before Chaka Khan’s famous hit version (the liners claim the Sisters considering Chaka’s the far superior version) all blend that 80’s pop/new wave sound of reverbed rhythm guitars and keyboard lines with some wonderfully soulful pop melodies. And those are actually the WEAKER cuts if you can imagine it.

“All Of You” is a sleek mixture of dreamy mid tempo Latin pop/funk and a modern country/pop type refrain-the combination works great and it’s easily one of the albums highlights. “Heart Beat”,a Ruth Pointer sung number and I find her voice one of the most husky and unique next to Mavis Staples and is definitely one of those “hits that never were” type of songs,again with that new wave/funk pop flavor. Now for SERIOUS GROOVES “If You Want To Get Back Your Lady” is a hefty naked funk gem,again with plenty of that country refrain on the vocal only and even a synthesized reference to “Purple Haze” towards the end I never noticed before. There’s also a remix as part of the bonuses that really extends the rhythmic aspect of the groove. Ditto for the title track. “American Music” is kind of a self homage to their own melting pot outlook on pop and has this retro soul/pop shuffle to it-sort of a slicker “Should I Do It”. Again I ask why this wonderful and highly consistent album hadn’t made it to CD before this. But I suppose the important thing is it’s here now and a strong reminder of just how high quality and consistent the Pointer Sisters were during this most successful time for them.

Originally Posted On May 16th,2011

Link to original review here*

Visit the BBR Records site here for more expanded and remastered funk and soul titles:

http://www.cherryred.co.uk/bigbreak.asp

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Filed under 1980's, Amazon.com, Anita Pointer, Big Break Records, Chaka Khan, Funk, June Pointer, Music Reviewing, naked funk, Pointer Sisters, pop funk, Prince, reissues, Richard Perry, Ruth Pointer, soul pop, Synth Pop