In February 2009, Mojo magazine put Martha and the Vandellas' version of 'Dancing In The Street' at number one in their '100 Greatest Motown Songs' list saying: "the song is a proud embracing of the in-the-moment experience carried forward on a surge of thrillingly emphatic playing by the Funk Brothers studio band and the exuberant singing of Martha Reeves". I can't argue with that, so I won't. And while it's not my favourite Motown song, it's top five. So with such a definitive version already in the can, what do Messer's Bowie and Jagger bring to the table? Well......
Opening with a harsh whistle, a frantic drum beat and Jagger's camp holler of the of various world city names, the casual listener is led to believe they are in for a radical deconstructive re-working of the song whereas it in fact only leads us up the garden path; after all, this was for charity, a sphere where it's never wise to take too many risks and it soon settles into the recognisable stomp of the Vandella's cut.
Recognisable maybe, but only in the way that a large, round, smiling face with four sticks coming out of it in a child's drawing is recognisable as a human being. A lot has to be inferred. The 'thrillingly emphatic playing by the Funk Brothers' that Mojo emphasised is replaced by a synthesiser led wooze of plastic soul that farts along in the background while the 'exuberant singing of Martha Reeves' is replaced by the nasally honks of Jagger and Bowie - Jagger honks the opening, Bowie honks back and then sometimes they honk in unison and all the while a gaggle of faceless harpies screech along in the background as the wailing counterpoint of the damned.
You see, 'Dancing In The Street' was never conceived as a duet, and the way each try to outdo the other in the alternate lines is comical: "There'll be swingin', swayin' and records playin' and dancin' in the streets'" moans Bowie with the sardonic delivery of a nightshift worker trying to get some sleep. Exuberant it is not. Bowie has never done exuberance. But that's the iceberg's tip I'm afraid - there are plenty of other things I could pick up on, but you kind of lose the will after a while. Yet despite all this aural pornography I'm still happy to cut the two lads some slack, albeit the kind of slack you would cut an Alzheimer's riddled pensioner who wets the bed.
For a start it's for charity; 1985 was the year of Live Aid so let's get that out of the way. Alvin Lucier could have re-released 'I Am Sitting In A Room' this month and as long as it had the African guitar logo on it then someone would have bought it. Secondly, whatever its faults, this has to be better than any version of song they originally wanted to cover - Bob Marley's 'One Love'. Try as I might, I simply cannot conjure up in my mind what this would have sounded like, but instinct screams it would have had to have been far, far worse.
But apart from all this, the 1985 incarnations of both Jagger and Bowie were drunk on a heady brew of their own egos, a burning desire to still appear down with the kids and fuelled by the abject terror of their own irrelevance. 'Dancing In The Street' is not some minor inkblot on their CVs - Bowie and Jagger, both solo and with the Rolling Stones and Tin Machine, produced enough crap during the eighties to clog a two foot diameter sewer pipe; 'Dancing In The Street' is a turd, but it's not the biggest turd that either of them produced that decade (think Jagger's 'Let's Work or 'Bowie's 'Glass Spider' for bigger, smellier examples).
The real villains here aren't even those who bought this wretched thing and took it home (it's for charity - remember? Though my goodwill on this argument has now reached the point of no return). No, my ire is aimed four square at the subset of this group who saw merit in the recording and actually listened to it for the sake of enjoyment whilst having no inkling a singer called Martha Reeves even existed. I know from experience that there were rather a lot of these in 1985. I was at school with most of them. Whether they still exist I do not know, but if they do then they should be lined up and shot. In the face. And I'd pull the trigger myself.