The Infinite Jukebox: Martha and The Vandellas’ ‘Dancing in the Street’


When Motown get it right, as they did on more than one occasion in the Sixties, they get it right to an extent where the mere idea of someone else covering a song feels almost like a blasphemy. How can anyone imagine, for the least instant, that they could improve upon some of the greatest music of our times?
But still they do. Sometimes, the motives are pure, the mere desire to touch the hem of immortality by echoing what is beyond your ability to exceed. Not a new version, but as close to an echo as you can make it, just to be part, for three minutes at a time, of something that so strongly has the life force in it.
Something like Martha and the Vandellas, and ‘Dancing in the Street’.
Let that horn riff rip, calling to arms, calling everyone to the dance in tones impossible to resist. The horns summon and the beat transfixes and Martha and her Vandellas make it plain that everyone, absolutely everyone, is called to the spell. Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat? Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street.
We here in Britain, the majority of us, even those whose ears were only just opening up to the sound of any beat at all, found ourselves answering to the call in 1969 when ‘Dancing in the Street’ was one of a run of reissues of Motown songs overlooked by us in mid-decade. We bought it back then, but only in enough numbers to scrape the Top Thirty at no. 28. In 1969, we gave it it’s due due and lifted it to no. 4.
The song hadn’t changed but it’s context had. Martha Reeves always stressed that it was only and ever a party song. Micky Stevenson came up with the idea whilst watching kids dancing in the water of breached fire hydrants, Marvin Gaye persuaded him from ballad to dance – a ballad? – and it became one of those songs indelibly connected with Motown and hot summer streets forever.
But in 1964, things were different. Kennedy was dead, Johnson was President, determined to pass his great Civil Rights legislation. Many people, organisers among them, coded the word ‘Dancing’ into ‘Rioting’. In Britain, some clown of a journalist asked Reeves to her outraged face if she were a militant leader.
And it’s there in the beat, there in the horns, there in the call to be out on the street. Berry Gordy and Motown and Martha Reeves meant nothing but dancing, losing yourself in the heat of the day, launching yourself into and out of the spouting, cold water, jumping and jigging and jiving because with a song like this there is nothing more right than losing yourself in the moment and letting that moment stretch until forever.
You cannot improve on perfection, not even if you’re Mick Jagger and David Bowie. You can only hope to look up to it, to share in a tiny corner of its perfection, to become, for a few minutes, a part of immortality. Because wherever two or more are gathered together in a club or a disco or a party with music, the first note of those horns will draw all of you together, and take you to a blazing hot Detroit street where everybody dances because it’s the most fun thing ever.

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