(Released in the UK under license through Stateside Records)
Eagle-eyed regular readers may have noticed that for a long time now, I’ve been talking about an upcoming review that I felt was bound to cause some controversy. (It’s this one, obviously.) For many months, I’ve been dreading the approach of Dancing In The Street – not “Streets”, incidentally, though we’ll get to that later on – because I knew I’d have more to say about this than any other Motown record, and because it’s perhaps the most sacred of Motown sacred cows.
The fact was, while I liked this record and everything, I’d never even put it in my personal top five Vandellas favourites, and its status as a perennial beloved treasure always left me a bit bemused.
Compound it further: Martha and the Vandellas are my favourite of all Motown’s female groups, perhaps my favourite Motown group overall. If my son had been a daughter, he’d have been named Martha in Reeves’ honour. That this has somehow become their monument – “the Vandellas’ premier signature song” as the very first line of its Wikipedia article puts it – always felt unrepresentative and, frankly, a little unworthy. There are three more Vandellas records that are getting ten out of ten here on Motown Junkies, and this ain’t one of ’em.
So, a couple of weeks ago, I started to bring Dancing In The Street into my playlist, listening to it more and more as I put this review together (as I do with every record featured here), all prepared to say exactly how I felt about it and why, and then to lose lots of subscribers and be forced to turn in my Motown fan club membership card. To admit that a song which has been called Motown’s national anthem, the most socially important song Motown ever released, etc etc etc, wasn’t my favourite? The shame of it all.
But as it turns out, after a fortnight of Dancing In The Street at full volume, I’ve taken what I wrote, and I’ve thrown most of it away. Lo and behold, thanks to the joys of loud and repeated listening, this will instead be the story of how a record won me right back over.
* * *
The title of the blog is Motown Junkies, and to begin with, I hadn’t thought it through at all.
[A throwaway Manic Street Preachers joke, a wry smile at James Dean Bradfield’s expense, it turned out a tribute band in Illinois had the exact same idea at the exact same time, and we’re stuck with the same name. Luckily, they’re really nice people, as I mention on every single page here. Still, it’s doubly annoying, because only the flip of a coin stopped the site being called Everybody Say Yeah! (after the hook line in Stevie Wonder’s Fingertips) instead.]
But it’s a strangely appropriate title, the more I think of it. I wasn’t always a Motown junkie. In fact, I wasn’t always interested in pop music at all. Thirteen-year-old me was into Kraftwerk, T.Rex, the Electric Light Orchestra, and knew nothing of Motown beyond a handful of overplayed oldies on the radio. (I also knew nothing of the Beatles, Stones, Commodores, Coltrane, Cole, Beethoven or Bix Beiderbecke, for that matter. I knew nothing full stop, really.) I was unprotected and unprepared, and I made easy prey for pop music’s most insidious pushers of hooks and tunes. I spent my teens listening to all sorts of random stuff, in search of the ultimate hit (in every sense), eventually rummaging around in the equivalent of the music industry’s scrap bins – samplers from Finnish indie labels, unsigned Louisiana hip hop collectives, anything – to try and get another taste of something that ran through the veins of all my favourite records, something I couldn’t quite grasp or understand but always recognised as soon as I felt it. I didn’t know, of course, that what I was looking for was staring me right in the face the entire time. So when – thanks to a bunch of compilation CDs at a local shop’s closing-down sale – I eventually fell for Motown, I fell hard and I fell deep.
But that left the handful of overplayed oldies on the radio in a weird sort of place. Because those songs – including, of course, this song – had become part of the musical furniture long before I’d had a chance to appreciate them, it was difficult to appreciate them anew.
For a while, I’d feel a tinge of embarrassment when listening to a big hit single; at the time, I thought it was because I was enjoying something as a guilty pleasure, that I’d somehow be embarrassed if a college housemate walked in on me playing Smokey Robinson. Now, I realise I was embarrassed because I’d been such an idiot, somehow not seeing – and intentionally not seeing, I think – how good these things, these ubiquitous things I’d rejected out of hand before I was twelve, had always been.
Nowadays, of course, I don’t care who knows what I’m listening to. Mostly because I’ve developed a rather contrary mindset, I suppose: I know what’s good, I know I’m absolutely right, and I know that exact same thing is true for every single person on the planet. I’m proud that I never feel the urge, not even subconsciously as far as I can tell, to wish someone would turn their music down. The world needs more music in it, and passion for music, any music, is alright by me. Even if it’s Justin Bieber.
* * *
You’d think, then, that a song containing these lines:
All we need is music
There’ll be music everywhere
would be right up my, er, street. But it’s never been that way with me and Dancing In The Street. Quite aside from the fact that my age meant I (along with about five million others) was first introduced to, and thoroughly put off, this song thanks to this abomination:
…even once we get past that, Dancing… always presented me with two fundamental problems, neither of which went away after I’d had my road to Damascus moment.
* * *
So, er, I suppose this is where I write the sort of thing I was planning to write up until a couple of weeks ago. Just remember, outraged Vandellas fans, they’re my favourite group too.
So. Firstly, there’s always the nagging feeling that the song isn’t actually as great as you first think it is. Or, more accurately, parts of it are so great that the rest can’t keep up.
That intro, for instance. Lord, that intro. Motown’s best-ever intro? It’s got to be right up there, for sure. After a tumultuous quasi-tribal drum roll, we’re snagged right away by that killer horn hook, so catchy it’s almost a jingle – instantly whistleable, an earworm to end all earworms. But it’s beaten out a split-second earlier by another horn part, a growling, rumbling one-note bed of brass, an urgent, demented Morse Code message buzzed out right at the bottom of the register, as if to immediately anchor the whole thing, make sure we know this is going to have some balls.
While we’re still assimilating all this stuff (and cut us some slack, will you, it’s only been eight seconds), enter Martha Reeves, but a subtly different Martha Reeves to the one we’ve heard on stuff like Come And Get These Memories or Heat Wave. I don’t mean because she’s so clearly got louder and stronger since we last met her, or gone up a couple of octaves – she did that intentionally, incidentally, because she felt Marvin Gaye’s original demo vocal was too soft and plaintive – I mean because there’s the hint of a majestically pissy sneer in her vocal throughout this song, a hint of impatience that’s clear from the very first CALLING out… that opens the record. When she asks us “Are you ready for a brand new beat?”, it’s part request and part challenge.
(It’s since transpired that no acting was involved here – Martha was reportedly fuming because her first take had seen her singing her heart out onto a tape reel that turned out not to be recording anything. The second and final take, the one used here, was done right after that incident, and Martha’s irritation at having to do it all over again when she felt she’d already nailed it comes across at several points. This, as I’ll discuss soon, would have knock-on effects. But I digress – this is me waxing spasmodic about the intro.)
It would already be one of the great Motown openings, but then comes the coup de grace, a heavy set of snow chains that co-writer Ivy Jo Hunter beat so hard against a stack of wood it made his hands bleed. Sacrifice in the service of art – thank goodness the end result was worth the suffering! Many thanks, Ivy Jo.
It’s one of the best starts to any Motown record in history, and it’s magnificent. (And yes, I was going to write all this before.) But the problem I have, the problem I’ve always had, is that the rest of the song just can’t live up to that start. The whole thing seems to coast along on the momentum it’s built up, and that pseudo-chorus – the All we need is music bit – always felt like it was actually sapping some of the energy from the record. Marvin Gaye’s demo, which I’ve never heard (I don’t know if it’s out there?), apparently envisioned Dancing In The Street as a more low-key affair, a straightforward love song wishing everyone else in the world to join in with a couple’s happiness.
I’m no musicologist, but to me, the chorus feels like it’s been drafted in from another song – that early loved-up version, perhaps – as a late replacement for something else, something a bit tougher, a bit more in keeping with that blockbuster introduction. Going back to my teenage self, sifting through endless cutout bins and the munged-keyword backwaters of EIL, I may not be able to define the magic I’m seeking, but I know when I’m in its presence, and it’s never been present here.
That kind of leads me to the other thing which has always stopped me truly loving this. A love of Motown, the things to me that make Motown great – be it in the tunes, the words, the sound, the personalities – hasn’t always seemed wholly compatible with a love of Dancing In The Street. For a start, it’s a very atypical song for Motown, both musically – which we’ve looked at briefly already – and lyrically. I’ll get on to the social commentary stuff in a moment, but what I’m getting at here is that Dancing… is addressed to the entire world, an open invitation (and reflexively described as such) when almost every other big-ticket Motown single so far has been on a microcosmic scale. Up until now, most Motown lyrics have settled for making big general points on the basis of one relationship, two people, maybe a narrator making sweeping generalisations based on his or her own experience. This, on the other hand, is immediately all-inclusive, immediately trying to make a big statement. Maybe that’s why it feels different, feels out of place when it inevitably appears on “Classic Motown” compilations and playlists; I don’t know. But it does.
It’s not just what’s actually on the page, though. It’s more to do with the way this record has been received throughout its almost fifty-year lifespan. Some serious heavyweight thinkers and cultural commentators, black and white, have throughout that time seen Dancing In The Street as a rallying post, a call to action for an unspecified but supposedly clear cause (named candidates ranging from general happiness and harmony, racial equality, civil rights, through Black Power and right the way up to violent civil disobedience and rioting). Certainly it was born at a time when such a song was badly needed and largely justified, and certainly the instrumentation and production and that grab-you-by-the-throat intro and Martha’s highly annoyed vocal performance all add up to make it sound angry enough. But it isn’t an angry protest song.
It isn’t an angry protest song.
Angry protest songs are strong, born of strong convictions, made for strong purpose, and above all they’re meant to be angry protest songs. How successful they are is tied to whether they achieve their aims, which in turn is tied to whether they gain popular acceptance. Dancing In The Street certainly gained popular acceptance, but no matter what socioeconomic-historical gloss any one of a thousand commentators has seen fit to put on it – the most intriguing one I’ve seen saw the rhythm of the drumbeat and the use of chains explicitly cited as a direct reference to the slave trade – it’s just not in that class.
It’s a song about solving all the world’s problems by getting together and dancing – perhaps in the absence of government and police interference, but there’s not an explicitly negative word in the text. (Interesting that it’s so often misremembered (including by me) as being angrier than it actually is, and that it’s so often (including by me) mistitled with an extra “S”, as though its inclusionary nature expands the subject matter to cover all streets everywhere ever.) All of the violence, all of the supposed encouragement to get out there and smash things up, is subtext. A lot of it is self-referencing subtext, too – there’s little doubt that when this was banned from the airwaves three years later during the Detroit riots, some of the mystique became reality, and this became a protest anthem; not for nothing did the Stones directly riff on these lyrics in Street Fighting Man – but it’s still subtext, and no more than that.
I mean, anything can serve as a protest anthem in a pinch, especially if the general drift of the lyrics seems to fit – I’m thinking specifically of that Nineties revolution in Sierra Leone which supposedly used McFadden & Whitehead’s Ain’t No Stopping Us Now for the purpose. But to me, and I’m someone who feels he owes his life to music, in a number of senses, this is a song about the unifying power of music, the universal power of music, and it’s as deliberately open and non-exclusionary as it could possibly be.
I’ve always subtly and subconsciously reacted against this record, then, on two levels, apparently without noticing the inherent contradiction: firstly, I don’t like seeing a song I believe to be about something I believe in get co-opted as if it were obviously about something else (especially if the end result is for it to be used as some sort of moronic looters’ charter, with dancing a synonym for rioting – and Martha has made comments herself making it very clear she wasn’t exhorting anyone to riot.) Secondly, if it were an angry protest song, it would be a terrible angry protest song, veering perilously close to John Lennon hippy bullshit territory. Things need to change? Then change them. Do what you have to do. But if you don’t believe that everyone coming together and dancing and fucking and having an amazing time together is the solution, then choose a different song. Otherwise, you’re marching towards the rifles with petrol bombs, while simultaneously singing about trying to put flowers in the barrels. It just doesn’t work.
* * *
So, yeah, I’d been holding all of that stuff against this song, and it was going to get a middling mark as a result; can’t hold too much of a grudge against that intro, of course.
But then I realised I was being stupid too.
* * *
It took something like fifteen goes around with this to scrape off fifty years’ worth of cultural commentary, assumed motives, insistence upon the record’s inherent greatness (something I’ve always mistrusted!), plus my own worries – about whether this was the sort of thing I should be in favour of, about whether the reaction was something I should be in favour of, about whether I was being pointlessly iconoclastic, about whether I was trivialising the entire civil rights movement.
For some reason, putting this on repeat while I went about my daily business, having it playing back to back, over and over and over again, turned out to be something like one of those 90s detergent informercials where a salesman gets a shill to put an old penny in a bucket of their all-new cleaning product and all the grime and detritus just sort of fizzles off and floats away, and what you’re left with is a newly bright thing, gleaming like treasure. Something like that.
At the end of the day, I guess everyone takes away from this what they want, or need, to take away from it. But what I take away from it is that while I still don’t think it lives up to its full potential, it’s nonetheless a surprisingly happy, joyful record, something I’d not really picked up on before, not until I forced myself to hear it with fresh eyes. I don’t see it as the joy in wanton destruction, or a valedictory kiss as the oppressive structures of power come crashing down – rather, it’s a simpler kind of joy, I guess harking right back to whatever sentiments Marvin Gaye seems to have picked out of it when it was first being carved out.
Love is great and powerful, and music is great and powerful, and music is so great and powerful that it can convey the greatness and power of love – get up and dance, together, it doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter what you wear, just as long as you are there, and we can all feel the same way. And we can do it right now, right this second, even fifty years later, but only if we all do it at once. We can do anything, but only if we all do it at once. Of course, we won’t all do it at once – but the thing, the brilliant thing about this is the record’s so full of energy and crackle and wild-eyed, wide-eyed hope for a brighter future that, so long as it’s playing, there always feels like there’s a chance you might turn on the news or look out of the window and see people have indeed spontaneously started dancing in the street. That’s what I was missing all these years. That’s what makes it great.
I can finally accept this as being brilliant, then (if not in the way that’s generally accepted) rather than merely “good”; but it still isn’t the record Martha and the Vandellas deserve to be remembered for. That doesn’t stop it from being a classic, of course. Or a “Classic”. But that’s a whole new can of worms for another day.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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“If You Don’t Want My Love”
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