I know that there are many folks out there who aren’t at all happy that their candidate lost the Presidential election in November. But here at Hack’s Back Pages, we are overjoyed that a new President has been inaugurated and the former one has left town. Let there be dancing and merriment in the streets!
I’ve written so many blog posts over the past six years that I was stunned when I realized I haven’t covered one of the most obvious of all for a rock music blog: Songs about dancing.
Nearly all genres of rock music — from ’50s rockabilly roots through the British Invasion and soul music of the ’60s to the funk and disco eras of the ’70s to the New Wave and dance club vibes of the ’80s, and beyond — have shared the same mission: Get everybody out on the dance floor. It doesn’t take much research to come up with a list of many hundreds of records that compel us to get up and dance to them. What I’ve done for this week’s post is to center on dance songs from the ’50s through the ’80s that actually include “dance” or “dancing” in the title…and there are five or six dozen of them!
I’ve whittled that group down to 20 tunes to focus on here, with a Spotify playlist at the end that I encourage you to play loudly as you dance around your living room or back yard.
Shake your groove thing, people!
“Dance, Dance, Dance,” The Beach Boys, 1964
Many of the early Beach Boys hits featured session musicians, but this one has the quintet manning their own instruments and belting out those fabulous harmonies. That’s Carl Wilson on an electric 12-string guitar, and Brian Wilson and Mike Love collaborated on the music and lyrics, inserting a key change not where you’d expect it but in the middle of the verse. This infectious tune, which reached #8 in late 1964, was the seventh of 13 Top Ten hits they registered between 1963 and 1966.
“Let’s Dance,” David Bowie, 1983
The chameleon of rock had been through a half dozen ch-ch-ch-ch-changes in his musical styles and stage personas by the time he made a calculated turn toward his most commercial approach with his 1983 top seller, “Let’s Dance.” The title track, which overtly copies the “aahs” from The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” in the intro, may be Bowie’s most danceable song. The great Niles Rodgers held the producer’s reins, and you can hear then-newcomer Stevie Ray Vaughan doing fills and solos on the track’s second half.
“You Should Be Dancing,” The Bee Gees, 1976
If you haven’t yet seen The Bee Gees documentary, by all means do so. You’ll learn about their early career and how, after foundering for a few years, they came roaring back in 1975-76 with their “Main Course” and “Children of the World” albums, focusing on discofied rhythms and the strength of Barry Gibb’s newly discovered falsetto vocal. “You Should Be Dancing” shot to #1 on pop charts, and the song was #1 for seven weeks on the Dance Club charts. It also appeared on the hugely successful “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack LP two years later.
“Keep On Dancing,” The Gentrys, 1965
Producer/songwriter Allen Jones came up “Keep on Dancing” in 1963, and the R&B group The Avantis were the first to record it, although it didn’t chart. By 1965, a garage band from Memphis known as The Gentrys got a hold of it and gave their cover version a straight rock beat. The timing was right, and it reached #4 in the summer of ’65. The reason for the false fadeout is that’s all the Gentrys recorded, so producers repeated the opening 40 seconds at the end to bring it up to a minimum standard 2:00 running time.
“Come Dancing,” The Kinks, 1983
When The Kinks were signed by Arista Records in the late ’70s, they chose to abandon (for a while) their decidedly English tone and structure and serve up some hard pop rock for the American audiences that had just discovered them. They scored three Top 20 albums — “Low Budget,” “Give the People What They Want” and “State of Confusion,” which included “Come Dancing,” their highest-charting US single ever. Ray Davies thought it too inconsequential, but thanks to a popular music video, it peaked at #6.
“Dancing in the Street,” Martha and The Vandellas, 1964
One hot summer day, songwriter/producer Mickey Stevenson saw young people in Detroit dancing and playing in the water from open fire hydrants in Detroit and thought it would make a great song. Marvin Gaye helped him write it, and then Martha Reeves suggested putting the names of various cities in the lyrics. The finished product, recorded by Reeves and her band, The Vandellas, went all the way to #2 in 1964. It became an anthem for marches and protests, and was later covered by Mick Jagger and David Bowie in a duet.
“Dancing in the Dark,” Bruce Springsteen, 1984
Springsteen was ticked off when producer Jon Landau felt his almost-finished “Born in the USA” album needed one more song as a single. “I already wrote about 70 for this album,” he retorted, but he went home that night and wrote “Dancing in the Dark,” which reached #2 on US charts as the song that preceded the album’s release in 1984. It used synthesizers for the first time in Bruce’s music, and a music video of a concert performance in which he pulled a young Courtney Cox from the crowd to dance with.
“Save the Last Dance for Me,” The Drifters, 1960
The dynamic duo of Doc Pomus and Mort Shulman, who also wrote “A Teenager in Love,” “This Magic Moment” and “Viva Las Vegas,” wrote this dreamy slower-tempo tune about a guy who didn’t mind his girl dancing and mingling with others as long as her last dance was with him so he could take her home. The 1960 record by The Drifters, produced by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, was a #1 hit in the US, and #2 in the UK. It wound up being the last Drifters song featuring Ben E. King on lead vocals before he went solo.
“Dance Hall Days,” Wang Chung, 1984
Among the better New Wave bands to come out of England in the ’80s was known as Huang Zhong, meaning “yellow bell.” They Anglofied it to Wang Chung and, although they were reasonably popular in the UK, they were bigger in the US, Canada, Australia and Germany. Frontman Jack Hues wrote and sang “Dance Hall Days” for their ignored first LP in 1982, then re-recorded it for their second LP, “Points on a Curve,” in 1984. It reached #15 here and was the first of three Top 20 successes (along with “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” at #2 and “Let’s Go!” at #9).
“Dancing in the Moonlight,” King Harvest, 1973
A guy named Sherman Kelly wrote this song in 1969 in St. Croix while lying bleeding on the ground after a vicious gang attack. “I was in pain, trying to imagine a more pleasant alternate reality as I lay there looking at the moon,” he recalled. His band Boffalongo released it to no avail, but Kelly’s brother Wells, the drummer of a band called King Harvest, urged his band to give it a whirl. It took another year, but by early 1973, their version of “Dancing in the Moonlight” reached #13 in the US, and #5 in Canada.
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” Whitney Houston, 1987
George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, who had written the big hit “How Will I Know” for Houston to sing, wrote this monster single in 1987 for her second LP, and it became her fourth consecutive #1. Critics felt it was a rewrite of the first hit, while others felt it had “the giddy zest of Cyndi Lauper.” Rubicam said she wrote the lyrics about someone hoping to find that special someone. “It wasn’t ‘I wanna go down to the disco and dance’ but more of a ‘I wanna do that dance of life with somebody.'”
“And We Danced,” The Hooters, 1985
Eric Bazilian, who later wrote the big hit “One of Us” for Joan Osborne, was the lead songwriter and multi-instrumentalist for the Philadelphia-based group The Hooters in the 1980s. They scored on the charts here and elsewhere with “All You Zombies,” “Day By Day,” “Johnny B” and this fun track, “And We Danced,” a #21 hit in the US from their LP, “Nervous Nights.” The group utilized a Hohner Melodica, a keyboard/reed combination instrument that sounds vaguely like harmonica.
“Dance With Who Brung Ya,” Asleep at the Wheel, 1990
This durable group plays a sweet brand of country swing, melding country instruments with a Louis Jordan style (their first single was Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”). Emerging from West Virginia in 1973 and now based in Austin, Texas, Asleep at the Wheel continues to perform and record today, with frontman Ray Benson still at it on guitar and vocals. He wrote “Dance With Who Brung Ya” for the group’s 11th album, “Keeping Me Up Nights,” in 1990.
“Dance to the Music,” Sly and The Family Stone, 1967
Sylvester Stewart assembled a marvelously diverse group that played a combination of soul, funk and rock which served them well and influenced many who came afterward. For this commercial hit, he used it to introduce the group and its instruments: Greg Errico’s drums, Larry Graham’s funky bass line, Freddie Stone’s guitar, Sly’s gospel organ and the horns of Jerry Martini and Cynthia Robinson. It peaked at #8 in late 1967 and started the band’s successful chart run of great, danceable music.
“The Safety Dance,” Men Without Hats, 1983
Led by the multi-talented Ivan Dortoschuk, this quirky band got its name when he and his brother and friend, living in Montreal’s frigid winters, chose “style over comfort” by not wearing hats. They began as a punk band but then refashioned themselves with a synth-pop New Wave style that did well in the US and Canada, particularly in 1983 with “The Safety Dance,” which was a worldwide hit and reached #3 on the charts here. It was very popular in the dance clubs at the time, and it’s fun to hear it again now in the 2020s.
“Dancing Days,” Led Zeppelin, 1973
Led Zeppelin doing dance music? Sure, why not? Jimmy Page and Robert Plant wrote a range of musical styles, and this catchy track from their 1973 LP “Houses of the Holy” is certainly danceable. Page and Plant heard the basic musical bones of this track while in Bombay, which inspired several Led Zep tunes in the ensuing years. Some critics hated “Dancing Days, dismissing it as filler, but I dug it right away. It showed up as the B-side of the single featuring “Over the Hills and Far Away.”
“Let’s Dance,” Chris Montez, 1962
California-born Montez had a big smash hit with this obvious dance tune, reaching #4 in the US and #2 in the UK in 1962. Curiously, he struggled to come up with follow-up dance songs that matched the success of “Let’s Dance,” so he switched to more easy-listening choices, like “Call Me” and “The More I See You” in 1966. In 1978, the soundtrack to the popular film “Animal House” included “Let’s Dance,” breathing new life into Montez’s career.
“You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” Leo Sayer, 1976
Sayer began his career in the early ’70s as a songwriter with fellow Brit David Courtney (“Giving It All Away” was a minor hit for Roger Daltrey), and soon became a successful recording artist in the UK, with songs like “The Show Must Go On” and five Top Ten albums. His exposure in the US exploded in 1976 with his 4th LP, “Endless Flight,” which included the slow-tempo “When I Need You” and the disco-flavored “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” which both reached #1.
“Dancin’ Fool,” Frank Zappa, 1979
Leave it to rock music’s most notorious maverick to have a hit dance song during the disco years that mocks the disco culture, focusing especially on the inexorable desire to dance even if you’re awful at it. Zappa’s lyrics skewer his dancing skills as “social suicide,” saying, “The beat goes on and I’m so wrong.” In a way, he was sympathizing with those who never mastered dancing skills and look like fools out there (or think they do). Although it stalled at #45, it helped sales of his double album “Sheik Yerbouti” in 1979.
“Dancing Queen,” ABBA, 1976
Sweden’s most famous musical act enjoyed widespread critical praise and sales success with a string of singles in the mid-’70s (“Waterloo,” “SOS,” “Fernando”), but in the US, their albums failed to sell much. That changed with a Greatest Hits LP and their fourth album, 1976’s “Arrival,” which featured “Dancing Queen,” the Europop version of US disco that remains one of the top songs of that era. It was inspired by George MacRae’s “Rock Your Baby” from 1974, focusing on a teen girl who hopes to meet a dancing king.
“Dance Away,” Roxy Music, 1979; “After the Dance,” Marvin Gaye, 1976; “Dance With Me,” Orleans, 1975; “Dancin’ With Myself,” Billy Idol, 1981; “Dancing Machine,” The Jackson 5, 1974; “Moondance,” Van Morrison, 1970; “Dancing on the Ceiling,” Lionel Richie, 1986; “Do You Wanna Dance,” Bette Midler, 1972; “Last Dance,” Donna Summer, 1978; “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” Loggins and Messina, 1972; “Ballroom Dancing,” Paul McCartney, 1982; “Dance Sister Dance,” Santana, 1976; “Neutron Dance,” The Pointer Sisters, 1983; “Dancing With Mr. D,” The Rolling Stones, 1973; “Don’t Stop the Dance,” Bryan Ferry, 1985; “I Got Ants in My Pants (and I Want to Dance),” James Brown, 1973.