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Music

The Motown hit that The Grateful Dead performed for 20 years

@TylerGolsen

It’s hard to find a song that spans the entire career of the Grateful Dead, only because the different eras of the band made them an almost completely different outfit each time. There’s the blues-inspired garage rock of the ‘Primal Dead’ era, the psychedelic turns of the late 1960s, the folkier tones of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, the jazzier territory of the ‘70s, the stadium rock of the early ‘80s, the pop revival of the late ‘80s, and the slower final days of the ‘90s. For every musical taste, there’s an era of the Dead well suited to it.

But there were songs that managed to stay within the band’s eclectic repertoire throughout their entire performing career. ‘Beat It On Down the Line’ was a favourite all throughout the band’s live career, as was the Buddy Holly tune ‘Not Fade Away’, which often ended the band’s sets and encores. But one song that had one of the most topsy-turvey histories with the legendary jam band was Martha and the Vandella’s ‘Dancing in the Street’.

Originally recorded within the Motown assembly line, ‘Dancing in the Street’ was an early party song picked up by the Dead when they were playing frat houses, pizza parlours, and occasionally when they literally found themselves on the streets of San Francisco. It was well known, had a relatively fluid structure that allowed the band to jam on it, and was always sure to get the party started. So it was no surprise that the band picked it up, first playing the song live in July of 1966 but likely having jammed on it since the group’s founding a year before.

The initial version played by the Dead conformed to their rough-edged garage rock mindset at the time. Pigpen’s organ was a prominent feature, and loose harmonies gave the song a communal, singalong feeling. When they were really working, the Dead would speed up the song to nearly twice the tempo of the original, more in line with tracks like ‘Cream Puff War’ and the version of ‘Cold Rain and Snow’ found on the band’s debut.

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Even as the 1960s faded away and the band became more adept at forging their signature style, ‘Dancing in the Street’ was still a crowd favourite. When the Dead moved beyond their home base of the Bay Area, ‘Dancing in the Street’ became an easy way to connect with the local crowds, seeing as most of them were already mentioned or could easily be shoehorned into the song’s lyrics. Their souped-up garage rock version soon yielded to a tempo and style more akin to the original recording, but the song kept evolving throughout the ‘70s.

By the time the band were recording 1977’s Terrapin Station, it was decided that ‘Dancing in the Street’ should finally be officially recorded. This version of the song gained a new arrangement that was reflective of the newest musical trend: disco. Mixing funk guitars with R&B grooves, the recorded version of ‘Dancing in the Street’ reflected the more deliberate turn towards disco music that the band would adopt in earnest for their next album, Shakedown Street.

The ‘80s still found ‘Dancing in the Street’ in the position of a fan favourite, but the band’s interest in the song began to wane. The final performance of the song by the original Grateful Dead came on April 6th at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, where the band opened the set with the song. After that, it was permanently dropped from the Dead’s setlists. Occasionally revivals by offshoots like Dead & Co. keep the spirit of the song alive, but through multiple styles and arrangements, ‘Dancing in the Street’ proved to be one of the most resilient covers in the Grateful Dead’s arsenal.

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