There are a few songs in the world that permeate every kind of culture. Whether you’re a black kid growing up on the south side of Detroit or a white girl living her life in the green fields of Derbyshire — some tunes can become so ubiquitous that they can touch our very souls from the first notes. Martha Reeves and The Vandellas classic ‘Dancing in the Street’ is one of those very songs.
Written by Marvin Gaye, William Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter, the track became hugely popular in 1964 when it was picked up by Martha and the Vandellas for the aforementioned trio’s Motown imprint. The song was perfectly balanced between the label’s usual style of shimmy and shake with a sprinkling of universal appeal thrown in for good measure. After all, who doesn’t want to listen to a song about dancing?
The track hit number two on the Billboard charts and has since become one of the signature tracks of the Motown label. It not only launched the career of Martha Reeves and her band but also became an anthem for the civil rights movement too. Proving that music can both make you want to shake your booty and rattle your fists.
Many suggested that Reeves’ call for people to come out of their homes and acne on the street was actually a veiled code for encouraging black people to riot against their oppressors. Reeve’s biographer, Smith, notes: “The British press aggravated Reeves when someone put a microphone in her face and asked her if she was a militant leader. The British journalist wanted to know if Reeves agreed, as many people had claimed, that ‘Dancing in the Street’ was a call to riot. To Reeves, the query was patently absurd. ‘My Lord, it was a party song,’ she remarked in retrospect.”
The truth is, any action that may have been latterly applied to the song is purely conjecture. The fact that the song became a civil rights anthem is because it promoted a message of unity, defeating evil. Of course, this wasn’t a message many wanted to be shared across the black community, but to suggest it was an intentional move is a little far-fetched. Although, we’d say that Reeves was wrong in her assessment too.
“A party song,” it may have been, but it is arguably the party song. A track that can raise every single type of person off their seat and onto the dancefloor for a little boogie deserves its title. Below, we have proof of the song’s appeal with five impeccable covers.
5 best covers of ‘Dancing in the Street’:
The Kinks (1965)
Never one to miss the opportunity to be hip, Ray and Dave Davies were captivated by the original swinging number when it was released and made sure to include a cover of the track on their forthcoming album Kinda Kinks. There’s a good argument to suggest that the band kind of missed the point on this cover.
The song has been routinely panned by critics who have suggested the sleepy rendition the band delivered is far away from the original’s main selling point — the bounce. However, as with every set of cover versions, this one has its place in history thanks to its unique reimagining of the original. Bringing down the tempo and changing tacts may not curry favour with critics, but it would have certainly pleased the fans.
The Mamas and The Papas (1966)
There really wasn’t much that The Mamas and The Papas couldn’t sing. Their cover of Reeves’ track was included on their self-titled second album, and saw the magnetic Cass Elliot absolutely belt out the lead vocal. There really isn’t much better than Elliot at this time, and the singer delivers a powerhouse performance.
As well as being a truly impressive cover, doing a great job at expertly balancing tribute and the band’s own artistic vision, the song has a bittersweet taste to it. It would be the final song the group performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, with Elliot ending the show by saying, “You’re on your own, ’cause we’re sure on ours.” It would be the final time the band ever performed together.
Grateful Dead (1971)
We can’t be quite sure, but we’d bet there’s a high chance that the Grateful Dead have covered the majority of songs released in the 1960s. The band, a serial jam band if ever there was one, have always brought in covers to their live shows and started performing this one in 1966. Though the group are noted as being the kind of group to lose your mind to, they always instilled a great deal of danceable rhythm to their performances.
In 1971, the band fully integrated the song into their sets and played the song over 40 times in that year alone. Bob Weir takes vocals for the performance usually and allows the track to lean heavily on the instrumentation at hand, moving the song from a simple pop ditty to something far more experimental. Eventually, the band released the cover as a single from their 1977 record Terrapin Station.
Van Halen (1982)
Perhaps not the most likely bedfellows, Van Halen, took on ‘Dancing in the Street’ in 1982 and brought the track into the new era. Speaking about the cover, David Lee Roth said: “It sounds like more than four people are playing when in actuality there are almost zero overdubs—that’s why it takes us such a short amount of time [to record].”
Using electric guitar and synthesisers, the track was brought kicking and screaming into the new decade. Eddie Van Halen said of the song: “It takes almost as much time to make a cover song sound original as it does writing a song. I spent a lot of time arranging and playing synthesizer on ‘Dancing in the Streets,’ and they [critics] just wrote it off as, ‘Oh, it’s just like the original.’ So forget the critics! These are good songs. Why shouldn’t we redo them for the new generation of people?”
David Bowie and Mick Jagger (1985)
Perhaps the most famous cover of the song comes from two of rock and roll’s greatest icons: David Bowie and Mick Jagger, who recorded and released their cover as part of the Live Aid relief benefit. The duo were originally scheduled to perform the track in tandem at the benefit shows, one from Philadelphia and one from London, but with a half-second delay between satellites and neither artist willing to mime, the idea was shelved.
Instead, the duo decided to release the song as a single and create arguably one of the most memorable music videos in history. However, its most memorable moment came when somebody removed the music for the video and overdubbed the sounds of the performance. It’s a joyful thing that marries nicely with the track.
A pop masterclass if ever we heard one.