Mark Kurlansky focuses on one song in ‘Ready for a Brand New Beat’


At this point, it’s no longer a brand-new beat. It has woven itself into the fabric of American culture, staking out a permanent position on oldies FM and at your cousin’s wedding reception.

Written by William “Mickey” Stevenson, Marvin Gaye and Ivy Jo Hunter and sung by Martha Reeves, Dancing in the Street is among the best-known tunes produced by the Detroit R&B label Motown. Released in 1964, it climbed to No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard Pop Singles Chart. If you missed Martha and the Vandellas’ version, then you heard it a decade later, performed by Van Halen or the Grateful Dead or as a duet between David Bowie and Mick Jagger.

In his new book, Mark Kurlansky argues that the song is more than just a catchy tune: It was the anthem of a nation in the grips of political and cultural upheaval.

The story behind the song is not particularly eventful. Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. viewed his label as a hit factory, and in many ways the song was just one more tune that rolled off the conveyor belt. In July of 1964, Reeves showed up at Motown’s Hittsville studio and was coaxed by Gaye, Hunter and Stevenson to sing a demo version of their new song. The producers liked and released it.

In fact, the parties involved in creating the song prove formidable foes to Kurlansky’s thesis that Dancing captures the early ’60s zeitgeist. In their opinion, it was just another song. Though Gordy supported the civil rights struggle, he sought to keep politics out of his label’s music. “He wanted to show white people that in the age of dangerous, angry black people, of black power, and ghetto rebellions, Motown blacks were neither angry nor dangerous,” Kurlansky writes.

Stevenson, according to Kurlansky, believed that the song’s only message was that “all kinds of people could get along together.” Gaye, who died in 1984, came closest to backing Kurlansky’s view. He is quoted in a passage taken from his autobiography, saying that the song “felt political.”

Kurlansky’s strongest argument comes from analyzing what separated the song from other Motown singles. “The new R&B of the mid-1960s was making the old Motown songs of requited or unrequited love, such as those by the Supremes or Smokey Robinson, seem slightly old-fashioned,” he writes. But Dancing in the Street was different because it was upbeat, positive and had lyrics that told a more general story. Played at a rally, it made sense.

A compelling case for Dancing in the Street as a generation-defining riff never quite emerges, though, and most of Kurlansky’s arguments could be applied to other songs, like Gaye’s What’s Going On, which addressed the times in a more direct manner.

Kurlansky spends much of Ready for a Brand New Beat explaining the cultural context of the mid-’60s music business, moving from the origins of rock ‘n’ roll and the racial tensions that it exposed, to the civil rights struggle and the rise and decline of Motown. In this environment, the purchase of a record could hold additional meaning, and, in a small but significant way, it promoted change in society. Dancing in the Street was one of those records, but one of many.

Aaron Leitko reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

 <span class="cutline_leadin">STONE MATTRESS: </span>Nine Tales. Margaret Atwood. Nan A. Talese. Doubleday. 288 pages. $25.95.


    Past looms large in new stories from Margaret Atwood

    In Margaret Atwood’s new collection, the past looms large for aging protagonists, but sympathy and regret abound, too.

  • What are you reading now?

    “I just finished Claire DeWitt and The City of the Dead by Sara Gran, which I love, love, loved. It’s a mystery set in New Orleans shortly after the storm and solved by girl detective, Claire DeWitt, who applies her special method of detection which is pretty much based on yoga and Buddhism combined with the altered mind states of drugs, drink, dreams and growing up in Brooklyn.”

 <span class="cutline_leadin">WHAT STAYS IN VEGAS:</span> The World of Personal Data — Lifeblood of Big Business C — and the End of Privacy as We Know It. Adam Tanner. PublicAffairs. 316 pages. $27.99.


    ‘What Stays in Vegas’ examines data packaging and the end of privacy

    Journalist explains how data packaging makes American companies the biggest threat to privacy.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category