How David Bowie and Mick Jagger came to make the Dancing In The Street video
26 July 2021, 18:57
The daftest video of all time, or a harmless bit of fun for charity? Radio X looks at the evidence.
It's become one of the most ridiculed music videos of all time. In 2011, Family Guy ran the clip in full midway through an episode, with Peter Griffin commenting afterwards: "That happened, and we all let it happen."
It's either a high camp classic, millionaire rock stars' folly, or just plain poor judgement. Should we be embarrassed by it, or just sit back an enjoy two of the 1980s biggest superstars having a laugh for charity?
We're talking, of course, about Mick Jagger and David Bowie's video for Dancing In The Street, which was released as a single on 12 August 1985. By the time the world could purchase a copy of the record, everyone had already seen the video as part of the mammoth Live Aid benefit gig a month earlier.
So how did this clash of the rock titans come about?
In the summer of 1985, David Bowie was enjoying the biggest success of his career to date. After becoming the 1970s' most enigmatic star with the Ziggy Stardust album, his "Berlin Trilogy" in the latter part of the decade drew acclaim from critics and musicians, but left a lot of fans baffled. With the dawn of the 80s, Bowie decided to embrace commercial pop again and made the tactically brilliant choice of employing Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers as producer of his 1983 album Let's Dance. The record was a huge international success and while the follow-up, 1984's Tonight, was another hit, the reviews weren't as good.
Mick Jagger, meanwhile, was at something of a crossroads in his career. The Rolling Stones' 1983 album Undercover was a huge success, but his relationship with Keith Richards had begun to sour. The singer had recently signed a solo record deal and was focusing on what would become the album She's The Boss; the Stones were not his priority.
So, with Jagger nurturing visions of becoming a huge solo artist, it only seemed right that when a request came from Bob Geldof for both stars to contribute something to the Live Aid concert in the summer of 1985, something special was needed.
The original idea was that Bowie and Jagger - two of the biggest stars of the past decade - would perform together at different legs of the Live Aid marathon on Saturday 13 July. Bowie would be singing at Wembley Stadium in London, while Jagger would appear at the same time on stage at the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia.
However, combining the two performances proved to be too much of a nightmare for 1985 technology - a half second delay via the satellite link would mean that one or both of the performers would be thrown out by the timing. One solution was that one of them had to mime, and neither Jagger nor Bowie wanted that.
The compromise was to record a single together, make a video quickly and play the clip on the big screens at Wembley and JFK. Simple! The song chosen was the 1964 Motown classic from Martha And The Vandellas, Dancing In The Street. The opening line is "Calling out around the world", which linked nicely with the "Global Jukebox" idea of Live Aid
The song was recorded on 29 June 1985 at Westside studios in London, where Bowie was working on two songs for the soundtrack to the movie Absolute Beginners. Musicians included Steve Nieve, keyboard player with Elvis Costello And The Attractions and drummer Neil Conti of Prefab Sprout.
Conti remembered the difference between the two superstars in the studio: "Bowie was, as always, very polite, a real gentleman. Mick doesn’t bother with politeness, he’s more the like the mad leader of the gang, shouting out ideas to the troops."
A rough version of the track was completed in four hours, then it was time for Bowie and Jagger to make the infamous video. They were hurried to the Millennium Mills in London's Docklands to work swiftly with director David Mallett, who Bowie had collaborated with on the ground-breaking Ashes To Ashes video.
Mallett kept it simple: the performers improvised some moves, with Mick throwing out some of his best Jaggerisms. This prompted Bowie - dressed in a jumpsuit and long raincoat - to play up to the cameras too.
It's this playful irreverence that causes many people to cringe. Two hugely-successful musicians that influenced successive generations are captured looking like embarrassing dads. The video ends with Mallett's camera zooming in on Bowie and Jaggers' arses, waggling in unison. But, by the end of a thirteen hour period, the single was recorded and the video made.
On the day of Live Aid, comedian Chevy Chase introduced the video from Philadelphia following Queen's momentous set from London. The clip was taken in the spirit in which the song was created: to raise awareness, to create a moment that would hopefully people to donate to the Live Aid charity to help alleviate famine in Africa. However, the tone of the Dancing In The Street video jarred with Bowie's own live set, which he cut short to play the video of The Cars' Drive, which had been set to images of the Ethiopian famine.
Needless to say, when Dancing In the Street was issued as a single on 12 August, it went to Number 1 in the UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Spain and Canada. The US weren't so sure - it only made Number 7 in the Billboard Top 100. As Peter Grffin's opinion demonstrates, maybe the American audience were put off by the undignified capering of the video. It's an opinion shared around the world and through the years: Guardian readers voted it the Worst Music Video Of All Time, while the NME placed it at No 12 in their 50 Worst Videos list - only marginally worse than Nickelback's Rockstar. Ouch.
But we shouldn't be too harsh on Dancing In The Street. As John Regan, who played bass on the song, notes, Jagger's energy was driven by the power of the music. "As I was laying down the bass track I could see Mick dancing around the studio, just getting into the music as if he were onstage," he told Songfacts in 2016. "It hit home how much Jagger was moved by the power of the song, and how sincere his love of music must be."
When YouTube prankesters created a "silent" version of the Dancing In The Street video that removed all the music and vocals and just left in some fake squaks, shuffles and the odd grunt apparently coming from the performers, one of the clip's biggest fans was none other than David Bowie himself. Guitarist Ben Monder, who played on Bowie's final album, Blackstar, recalled: "He thought that was hilarious and would just have us watch the whole thing."
The one live performance of Dancing In The Street by Mick Jagger and David Bowie, at the Prince's Trust 10th anniversary gig in 1986: