Oct 09


FT + Popular73 comments • 6,408 views

#556, 7th September 1985, video

One of the questions I asked myself as I got halfway through Popular is: have the charts got worse? The answer to that question remains “let’s wait and see” but one reason people who grew into pop before 1984 might think they have is that the nature of the charts seems to have changed. I’d guess that for most of those people the ideal of the charts is as a mirror to all of pop music: if something exciting is happening in pop, it should be reflected in the Top 40. If that doesn’t happen, either the charts are broken, or the thing wasn’t so exciting after all.

But there’s another way the charts work, which is as a mirror to anything in mass culture: cinema, TV, the news, gameshows, sport. Band Aid – and associated releases – weren’t the first example of that by any means, and of course they emerged from within a pop establishment that was showily flexing its muscles as such a thing. But the way in which the charts of 1985 seemed quite so full of post Band Aid releases sets the tone for future hijackings and interruptions of the story, which gradually became as normal as a record going straight in at number one. If you want a division between the first and second “halves” of Popular, there it is.

And for me in 1985, aged 12, this was really the final straw, the moment Band Aid and Live Aid lost me: these intolerable old ninnies capering about for four long weeks, roaring some old song I didn’t care about but could tell had been coarsened and worsened, bullying me into joining their party.

Now, as I approach the age Bowie was in 1985, my tolerance for the two of them acting the goat is much increased: “Dancing In The Street” is vastly improved on video, and watching the two stars flirt and battle is three minutes’ solid entertainment. On record, however, it’s still a stinker.

The obvious comparison is “Under Pressure”, but that was a battle of styles, whereas this is celebrity karaoke given a rocked-up Double Whopper production. Lots of fun to do, for sure, and that comes through to put it above Ali and Chrissie at least. Jagger has much the best of things – he knows the territory, and his bellowing at least stands up to the bombast. Bowie just flaps around, not sure whether to stick to his mannerisms or try and rock out. When I did finally hear the Martha and the Vandellas original, expecting not to think much of it, I was floored by how this boorish hustle was once so full of joy and conviction.



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  1. 51
    MikeMCSG on 8 Oct 2009 #

    #50 Billy, it depends on whether you count presence on charity ensembles in which case it’s the 27 years between “Mary’s Boy Child” and “We Are The World”.

  2. 52
    Elsa on 8 Oct 2009 #

    #25: “Harlem Shuffle” and “Dancing in the Street” were hits of 1964… or was it different in the UK?

  3. 53
    Erithian on 8 Oct 2009 #

    I’m going to have to go seriously off-kilter with most of the above comments. I’ve revised my opinion of other number ones in Popular upwards, partly due to the mellowing of hostility brought about by time, partly due to persuasive argument on these pages – but I’m not going to revise this one downwards. Sorry, but I really enjoyed it then and still do. It’s two megastars happily sending themselves and each other up – insofar as Jagger was ever deadly serious, he doesn’t look it here, and I find Bowie’s vocal stylings do work to the song’s benefit.

    I’m NOT saying it’s as good as the original, by any means, and the original played, if not at the time then certainly in retrospect, an important part in social change. Here’s what I said to Mike TD when it featured in Which Decade a few months ago: “a great pop song which, even if it wasn’t intended to be iconic, became so because of the social circumstances of the decade. It still staggers me how people who were among the most successful entertainers in 60s America (the Supremes hitting number one as regularly as the Beatles) were such third class citizens.”

    But in the context of Live Aid, given an 80s production that does different things to the song, I still think this is a lot of fun and some people on here could lighten up!

  4. 54
    Martin on 9 Oct 2009 #

    Erithian, you’ve got a point, it’s harmless enough. But in context, the people who were watching Live Aid at the time and generally paying attention afterward couldn’t escape the breathless and nauseating and repetitive MTV-style commentary to the effect that coming up now we have a “world premiere” of something “reallllly special and important” and … ugh, it was just this stupid, self-satisfied thing that didn’t resonate at all to the people who normally buy singles (young people). Out of context, it’s better, you’re probably right.

  5. 55
    swanstep on 9 Oct 2009 #

    Agreed, Erithian you do have a point. Reflecting a little more I guess for me this track runs together a couple of negatives: it’s an obnoxious, worse-than-redundant cover (a la say ‘i got you babe’ or ‘lady marmalade’ on the Moulin Rouge Soundtrack a few years ago), but it’s also a hugely disappointing outing for stellar, fondly-remembered figures (a la Stevie Wonder with ‘I just called to say…’). I guess the latter, legacy-betrayal idea is a little irrational: it amounts to holding past genius against present efforts in a way that can seem unfair. What would be an ok mediocrity for someone else is mocked as a scourge for the chosen ones. In effect, the same forces that are leading *other* people to overrate the stuff (and plant it at #1) are leading afficionados/egg-heads to want to throw themselves off a cliff. Or something. At any rate, although I can’t help the way I feel, trying harder to correct for my own biases, maybe Tom’s score of 3 is about right after all

  6. 56
    punctum on 13 Oct 2009 #

    I was at Wembley Stadium for Live Aid, and the atmosphere was akin to a magnified version of The Pyjama Game‘s Once-A-Year Day; picknicking families, the general air of a World Cup school sports day or a Brent Cross celebrity car boot sale. It was warm but not overwhelmingly hot, despite the size of the crowd – the summer of 1985 was something of a tepid washout in Britain – and when Status Quo arrived at the stroke of midday to rock us all over the world the words were “good sports.” The local bazaar environment continued through rest of the acts deemed unfamous enough for American TV coverage – Weller and his Council of Internationalists, the Boomtown Rats abruptly being reminded of their true place in this world. As the afternoon wore on Live Aid turned into an upmarket Chiswick restaurant, with the soothing suavity of the Sting/Phil Collins/Branford Marsalis trio (bass, drums and sax – if only they had seized the moment to pay tribute to Ornette at the Golden Circle), then Sade, then Bryan Ferry loping around as though he’d stepped into the Tooting branch of Primark by mistake, interspersed by Moyet and Paul Young acting soulful.

    The Philadelphia sets were largely used by the Wembley crowd as an excuse to queue for the toilets or order more lukewarm lager; the only one of those acts truly to connect with us were the Beach Boys, Mike Love cheerleading as ever, the Wellesian bulk of Brian immobile and unknowing behind his modest keyboard.

    Nearly everyone towards the front was there for U2, and theirs was by far the day’s best performance; some corny audience bits of business which both David Cassidy and David Essex had deployed a decade earlier, perhaps, but somehow it worked, and Bono and the girl became that pastel-coloured couple in the Yellow Submarine cartoon, waltzing forever. Queen were immaculate, Mercury the supreme master of timing and dealing with an audience – but what did their set have to do with the starving Ethiopians, and were we the only ones present who felt more than somewhat nauseous at the mass sieg-heiling in “Radio Ga Ga”?

    Perhaps the noblest performance that Saturday was Bowie’s; besuited, disciplined, ready to bend his art to make it relevant to the issue at hand (“We can be heroes just for one day”) and sufficiently generous to cut his set short to allow the screening of the CBC “Drive” montage. The silence thereafter lasted for some seconds, and neither Dire Straits nor Elton nor McCartney and his malfunctioning mike nor even the Who could banish the scar that left.

    That is, if it left any real scars; for what seemed to matter in Live Aid was that suddenly we were once again reminded who in pop and rock mattered and who didn’t. Compare the subsequent sales of the Queen, U2, Phil Collins and Dire Straits back catalogues (or even the renewed success of “Drive,” returning to the top five less than a year after its first visit there), and the promotion to the Luvvie League of George Michael, with the sharply contrasting fates of all the Culture Clubs and Frankies and ABCs who either couldn’t or wouldn’t participate, or weren’t even asked. Meanwhile, what was left of “indie” music was forced to retrench into a defensive tugboat of resistance – think of the Mary Chain’s “My Little Underground” or C86 passim.

    With their massacre of “Dancing In The Street,” Bowie and Jagger seemed to relish rubbing it in. Originally conceived as a video interlude for Live Aid and not intended for single release, public demand in those pre-YouTube days quickly reversed that decision. As performers old enough to have been affected by the original in 1964, their slaughter of the song is doubly unforgivable. Archie Shepp was neither wrong nor alone in detecting a subtext of black revolution in the subtly insistent rhythms of the song and in Martha Reeves’ super-confident lead vocal. Note that on the Motown original there are two sets of percussion at work; the tribal/slavery pounding on the main kit by co-writer Marvin Gaye, and the chains (freedom!) rattling and smashing half a beat behind (or ahead), wielded by Steve Reid, the future noted free jazz drummer who in his long and distinguished career has worked with just about all the major American post-Coleman improvisers – including a stint with Shepp. The message – as with the Impressions’ “We’re A Winner” – was inescapably clear.

    Bowie and Jagger jettison all those inconvenient political signifiers for a straightforward glossy run through the song; its hard-faced firmly-on-the-beat ’80s drums unforgiving in their meanness, the coarseness of its seamless production clashing uncomfortably with the singers’ schoolboy pranks. It ushers in the Jools Holland era of the cause being more important than the art, the style far superseding any worthwhile content; besuited, de-androgynised, de-sexualised Proper Music which sounds expensive from five rooms away but so, so cheap whenever you attempt to get close to it.

  7. 57
    wichita lineman on 13 Oct 2009 #

    And Proper Music is bad for pop. I know we’ve had long conversations on the political affiliations of Spandau or Wham!, but this record and Live Aid (musically) were as conservative as pop has ever got.

    Good call on My Little Underground – I’m also wondering if ’85 was the first time “indie” was used as a term, either positively or negatively. It certainly helped the industry to create a sub-genre for Live Aid refuseniks, blending all the delights of the ‘independent charts’ into one instantly identifiable ‘indie’ noise (ie The Wedding Present).

  8. 58
    anto on 13 Oct 2009 #

    Punctum an especially fascinating critique of the effect Live Aid had on music because of the eyewitness vantage point.

  9. 59
    grimley on 15 Oct 2009 #

    Interestingly Dancing in the Streets was one of the tracks Jon Anderson (Yes) listed as one of his favourites singles. I wonder if he revised his opinion after this version.
    The video preening is great though.

  10. 60
    thefatgit on 6 Mar 2010 #

    In The Times this week Peter Brookes’ cartoon of the Africa shaped guitar Live Aid logo was placed between 2 heavily armed african soldiers. A powerful image, highlighting what many had feared that Live Aid money had been misappropriated to buy arms. Geldof and all the stars involved in the project are blameless. The blame lies with the corrupt regimes that benefitted from the aid. Ploughshares and Swords cynically reversed by Central Africa’s powerbrokers. The tragedy is that the legacy of Live Aid, which undoubtedly saved countless lives may have led to countless lives being lost also.

  11. 61
    flahr on 20 May 2011 #

    The video for this is played in full in a recent episode of Family Guy*. Reaction from the corridor was bemusement (of course) but there seemed an acceptance that the video was, in its campness, amusing if not hilarious. “This happened, and we all let it happen.”

    *not sure if this is experimentalism or just laziness. OR BOTH?!?!?!?

  12. 62
    lonepilgrim on 17 Jan 2012 #

    This gets a well deserved and detailed kicking at the Bowie Blog here:


  13. 63
    stand for phil on 17 Jan 2012 #

    Phil Collins and his Motown cover are saintly by comparison.

  14. 64
    DanH on 3 Aug 2013 #

    61: Yes, this video has made a comeback in public consciousness thanks to Family Guy…seems to be a favorite at the bar I frequent for that ironic reason, and friends at work reference this video constantly.

    And actually, a 3 is darn generous for this version. Maybe it’s the Live Aid bump ;-)

  15. 65
    Tom on 21 Jan 2014 #

    A potentially important intervention.


  16. 66
    tm on 22 Jan 2014 #

    That is pure genius. The first 45 seconds are by far the best, loads of coincidental syncing! A thought occurs to me: was Mick Jagger ever cool? His preening and prancing haven’t actually changed since 1964 it’s just just that back then he’d have been modishly styled and filmed on stylish looking 60s film (B&W or that pleasingly rich Blow Up style ultra rich colourset). Maybe he was always a Berk but a) used to make enough good music that you’d overlook it and b) the fashions of his heyday are still widely well regarded whereas the fashions of 80s rock stars are not!

  17. 67
    wichitalineman on 23 Jan 2014 #

    Re 66: On the strength of the DitS video it’s hard to believe David Bowie has ever been cool. But as for Jagger, I recommend watching the Stones’ film Charlie Is My Darling: Brian is a posh bore who drones on and on, Keith is a mumbling muso, Bill is OK, Charlie is very low profile. Mick is clearly the star of the group – impressive, charismatic and (yes) very well dressed.

  18. 69
    Weej on 19 Jun 2014 #

    #68 – Quite an improvement, well done those people.

  19. 70
    Larry on 16 Dec 2014 #

    The most cringe-worthy (and memorable) moment is right at the beginning — “OOO-KAY!” A 1 if anything is.

  20. 71
    Rory on 28 Jan 2016 #

    Following #68: “I remember us watching this thing…somebody did a series of music videos without the music. Somebody did one of those for the video he did with Mick Jagger for “Dancing in the Streets.” But there’s no music, there’s just footsteps and grunts and burps and stuff like that. He thought that was hilarious and would just have us watch the whole thing.”

  21. 73
    Cumbrian on 5 Jul 2016 #

    Tous ces moments
    Perdus dans l’enchantement
    Qui ne reviendront
    Pas d´aujourd´hui pour nous
    Pour nous il n´y a rien
    A partager
    Sauf le pass

    Bryan Ferry on the nose re: Brexit.

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