'The past is a foreign country' wrote L.P. Hartley, 'they do things differently there'. And they certainly do. Or did. Madonna for example. In 1985, Madonna sang 'Into The Groove' at the Philadelphia Live Aid concert and I can remember it more clearly than I can recall my drive to work this morning. As a rather cynical and musically pretentious teen, could I have possibly imagined Madonna would be still a major star and singing the same song (but in a more risqué outfit) at age 50? Not on your life.
Thanks to the wonders of You Tube, I have recently watched that 1985 performance again and then, immediately afterwards, compared it with some bootleg footage of her performing the same song in a red mini skirt while skipping a rope on her latest 'Sticky and Sweet' tour. The latter is technically solid, note perfect and choreographed to the nth degree. It's also one of the most ludicrously unsexy, contrived and tombstone stilted things I have ever seen. In fact, the complete antithesis of everything that made 'Into The Groove' such a great song in the first place.
And it is a great song; 'Into The Groove' distils the whole essence of the (then) vibrant contemporary New York club scene into four minutes of neon lit brilliance and beamed it direct into every two bit nightclub in the land. A breathless celebration of the simple pleasures of youth, the song sets its stall out early with Madonna's playful spoken 'you can dance', though as soon as it starts up it's obvious the invitation isn't necessary because there's no doubt as to what you're meant to be doing to this. And by dance, I mean dance. The deceptively simple tune masks a fiendishly twisting rhythm that needs more than a causal shuffle from side to side to do it justice and it's one best performed by young bones.
Which in turn is why when I say 'youth', I don't mean the young at heart - youth proper. When Madonna sings 'Boy you've got to prove your love to me' she means boy, not some middle age bloke sucking in his gut over his too tight Farah's down at the local club after closing time. Which is ironic considering Madonna herself was 26 when she recorded this though you'd never have guessed it. Not middle aged certainly, but not in the first flush of youth either, and yet her enthusiasm and kooky girl next door persona lets her get away with it; in 1985, Madonna was not so distant and removed that you could hear lines like:
"Live out your fantasy here with me
Just let the music set you free
Touch my body, and move in time"
and not feel you were in with a chance. And the basic honesty is an important element in the appeal of the song both lyrically and musically. There is nothing superfluous about 'Into The Groove'; there are no unnecessary samples or overdubs to clutter up the clean groove. Madonna's vocal throws a lasso around the house/dance/pop dance backing, turning a dance track into a dance song.
Madonna was never any great shakes in the vocal stakes and the high notes here crack like thin ice, but it's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job. Her girlish, lost in the music delivery never shuts up, never pauses for breath and it expresses a joy that's infectious, from the heart and genuine in a way that she could only manage before she started acting out the role of Madonna (TM).
With a self penned, self produced number one single that soundtracked a more than credible acting performance in a major movie, it seemed at this moment in time Madonna had the whole world at her feet. And it's a world that she would go on to conquer, but it would be a campaign that would lurch from disaster to triumph and back again via a series of ill advised projects that, because she always had one eye her PR rather than her muse, meant she dropped the ball far more often than she caught it.
The music would become a secondary concern to stage management, image and the constant need for re-invention - you only have to compare her loose and unselfconscious performance on that stage in Philadelphia with her later performances where she behaved in the way she though 'Madonna' should behave to appreciate what 'Into The Groove' had and how it was lost once an overegged dance routine was bolted on to every note in a 'look, I can still cut it' way but which only serves to make a mockery of the 'Only when I'm dancing can I feel this free' message.
And that's not to blame Madonna for getting older. To blame her for no longer sounding young and fresh would be like having a pop at Muhammad Ali for not being world champion anymore. It wouldn't be fair. But in truth the Madonna of 'Into The Groove' didn't stick around for long. She was gone by the next album and in her place came an amorphous figure who, in trying to build on what she had in the beginning, ended up instead knocking it flat and concreting over it. Never again would Madonna sound so effortless, so unforced and so like she was enjoying herself.