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.