Cast your minds back to the shadowy depths of 1985. Banks are booming: profits are almost as high as cocaine use in the city. The Smiths are busy touring their latest funeral dirge/album. Dire Straits are playing yet more guitar solos upon solos. In the midst of this quagmire comes forth a collaboration of legendary tour de force. After immense success, Mick Jagger and David Bowie are finally working together on a charity single for Live Aid. Musical publications wait with bated breath as the long hours pass before the track’s release, pens at hand to proclaim the new musical messiah. And then their cover of motown staple ‘Dancing in the Street’ drops. Everyone’s jaws hit the floor.
It could have been a brilliant exploit. After all, these men had penned some of the most successful albums of the 1970s and 80s. But for some reason what we end up being presented with is a cover which lacks any originality. Originally recorded by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and co-written by Marvin Gaye in 1964, the toe-tapping track not only got people moving on dancefloors but brought people out into the streets in protest, becoming a civil rights anthem. The song is regarded by many as the precursor to disco. Mick Jagger even lifted a line to use in his own protest song, ‘Street Fighting Man’ (1968).
But that’s probably where Jagger’s interference with the song should have stopped. The performance isn’t offensive. The warbles and tones of both Bowie and Jagger that grace so many hit songs are all accounted for and in the track in trademark form. It just isn’t very original. Opposed to covering new ground, they merely tread upon the same territory, just without the soulful force of Martha Reeves’ lead vocals to power the track forward.
Van Halen’s 1982 cover at least drowned the original with lashings of excessive guitar licks. But what Jagger and Bowie add to the song is a beautiful visual montage. If you’re not hypnotised by Jagger’s swinging hips, you’re sure to swoon at Bowie’s jumpsuit which would probably look more at home on Bianca Jagger. The viewer is led by the hand through an intoxicating set comprising a disused industrial park, as the couple “dance in the street”: a pun which is lost if you don’t watch carefully or take a swig too much of the product-placed drinks can as Mick does.
But for some reason, the British public always seem to have loved the track and its video that defines what not to wear. The single reached number one in the UK, and continues to be popular: the Jagger/Bowie version was voted the most played song at street parties to celebrate the royal wedding in 2011. It appears there is little hope for popular musical taste in the UK, either past or present.