As you probably know, there are a multitude of songs that are also new dances, sometimes very successful: Gangnam Style was first and foremost a dance move, and so was The Oak Tree♾ by Morris Day – not as popular, but much more fun. The similar category, songs with popular dances in the title, is also pretty big: Tennessee Waltz, Mambo Diablo, Twist and Shout and so on. But I was after a very specific set: songs that talk about dance moves. There aren’t many, but I find them fascinating – plus I have personal reasons, explained below. This Issue of MOSS has a video introduction by James Brown.
Chris Kenner: Land Of A Thousand Dances (1963)
This is the very first tune I became obsessed with, and it keeps coming back in my life. 1967: I was 8 years old, and my favorite toy was the family’s portable record player, which I monopolized. My mum, who was a journalist, routinely received boxes of 45s from major labels (who were obviously very rich at the time), which she mostly ignored. So I got my pick of whatever came in: traditional italian pop music (which I despised), the new local Rock bands, some of which I liked, and random international music. I loved The House Of The Rising Sun (The Animals’ version) and Pepito by Los Machucambos. But when I heard Little Richard‘s version of Land Of A Thousand Dances☊, my life changed forever. I was transfixed, I couldn’t imagine anything more electrifying, and I played it in a loop for days ( the first time my family thought there was something odd about me). Only years later I discovered that the hook Na-na-na was introduced in 1965 by the otherwise forgettable teen band Cannibal and the Headhunters♾. And that Little Richard’s arrangement is a copy of Wilson Pickett’s 1966 huge hit☊*. But I prefer Richard’s version: faster, wilder and prophetic. The falsetto screams in the intro sound like – and maybe inspired – Joe Strummer. There are a million interesting covers of the Pickett/Richard rendition of Land Of A Thousand Dances: Sam & Dave☊, Tina Turner♾, and even a Hard Rock take by american fundamentalist Ted Nugent♾.
1975: much to my surprise (I was 16 at the time), a very strange cover of Land Of A Thousand Dances appeared on the first Patti Smith LP, Horses (a very influential album for me back then). It’s a complex, 9:25 version☊ entitled Land. The vocal melodies are different, and the lyrics (closer to the original version) are mixed with her own poetry. Still, it’s an interesting choice: it’s one of the only two covers (the other being Gloria by Van Morrison, 1964) in an otherwise incredibly personal album.
Then, not so long ago, thanks to the Internet, I came to know the full story of this song, written and first recorded by New Orleans singer and songwriter Chris Kenner in 1963. His single didn’t do very well, so Kenner asked local star Fats Domino to cover it, in exchange for half of the authorship. Domino’s version also didn’t sell, but in the meantime the original single picked up, thanks to radio play (an interesting cautionary tale for struggling musicians). Kenner’s version was produced and arranged by Allen Toussaint (recently passed, one of the fathers of the amazing New Orleans sound), who also played the piano. This is a fabulous track, with a short Gospel-like intro followed by two minutes of the same two-chord groove (the way it should be, when you’re dancing), with Kenner instructing the audience and backup singers punctuating his calls. The vocal performance is magnificent, and his melodies are perfect. The arrangement, unlike any other I’ve ever heard (and way ahead of its time), swings to death – with New Orleans style drums and piano propelling the whole thing. (Full disclosure: this version has also been on repeat in my studio for days, not long ago) The Gospel intro was edited out of all subsequent releases of this recording, and omitted in later covers. Too bad, because it’s the only part in which the song title appears: “Children, go where I send you. (Where will you send me?) I’m gonna send you to that land, the land of a thousand dances.” What follows is a catalog of historical, and more recent, African-american dances: the Pony, the Chicken, the Mashed Potato, the Alligator, the Watusi, the Twist, the Fly, the Jerk, the Yo-Yo, the Sweet Pea, the Hand jive, the Slop, the Bop, the Fish, the Popeye – plus the Tango (from the song’s Wikipedia page). We should be familiar with them: after all, this is where our little saturday night butt-shaking comes from.
*Recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the session was produced by Jerry Wexler for Atlantic, and was released both as a single and in the album The Exciting Wilson Pickett in ’66. But who arranged it? A dutch website lists five producers: Wexler (executive), Jim Stewart and Tom Dowd (also listed as engineers), Rick Hall (owner of FAME studios) and Steve Cropper. If this information is correct, he’s the most likely arranger, having written and produced In The Midnight Hour with Pickett the year before.
This tune, the way it was originally performed by the Five Du-Tones in ’63, only mentions dance steps in passing. The topic is a not so subtle sex/dance metaphor:
I heard about this fella you been dancin’ with all over the neighbourhood,
So why didn’t you ask me baby? Or didn’t you think I could?
Well I know that the Rock and Roll is not for shy, I seen the women bird all night,
Well if that was you and me out there baby, I would have shown you how to do, do it right.
Twistin’, Shake it, shake it, shake it, shake it baby
Here we go loop-de-loop, Shake it up, baby
Here we go loop-de-lie, Bend over let me see you shake your tail feather
The Five Du-Tones version wasn’t very successful, and the 1967 cover by James & Bobby Purify☊ fared only a little better. Then, in 1980, The Blues Brothers movie came out. Created in 1976 around comedians John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd for the tv show Saturday Night Live, the Blues Brothers band includes some seminal musicians, like Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, part of the Stax Records House Band. The movie, the funny back story of the criminal/musical duo, is partly narrated through performances by legendary Soul and Rhythm’n’Blues artists, including Ray Charles, who plays a music shop owner and performs Shake A Tail Feather. But his version is different: there are 24 extra bars at the end of the first chorus, where the song mutates into some kind of Land Of A Thousand Dances*:
Do the twist, Do the fly
Do the swim, And do the bird
Well do the duck, Aaah, and do the monkey
Hey hey, watusi, And a what about the food
Do the mashed potato, What about the boogaloo
Oh, the Bony Moronie**, Come on let’s do the twist
I don’t know who came up with the idea: Charles himself? Steve Cropper (a longtime Wilson Pickett sideman and arranger)? Paul Shaffer, musical director of the band? Or John Landis, the film director? Whoever it was, it’s a great solution: the extra lyrics fit perfectly with the original, and Landis has the opportunity to stage a street musical scene, with dancers performing the moves. Here’s another chance to learn a few steps, although I’ll never be able to do the Bird as convincingly as this guy.
**Both previous songs mention Bony Moronie – the character of a 1957 Larry Williams Rock’n’roll song☊: “I got a girl named Bony Moronie, she’s as skinny as a stick of macaroni. Ought to see her rock and roll with her blue jeans on, she’s not very fat, just skin and bone.” Since then, she’s been often referenced to in Pop music.
Bob & Earl: Harlem Shuffle☊ (1963)
At first, Harlem Shuffle wasn’t a big hit in the US. It fared better in the UK, where it was released in 1969 and made it to the top ten. But this tune became huge with The Rolling Stones chart-topping 1986 cover♾, featuring Bobby Womack on vocals. Their version has an updated arrangement (and fantastic guitar parts, plus Charlie Watts in top shape) but follows the original structure very closely: it’s almost an homage to Bob & Earl‘s unusual, but very effective, musical layout (a single chord change, used very sparingly, and no chorus). This song was also sampled by producer Dj Muggs in the Hip hop classic Jump Around☊ (by House of Pain, 1992), which also happens to have a (rather basic) dance move in the title/hook. Harlem Shuffle‘s lyrics are actually some sort of sexual/dancing instructions, delivered with plenty of funk (in the original meaning of the word).
You move it to the left, yeah, and you go for yourself. You move it to the right, yeah, if it takes all night. Now take it kinda slow, with a whole lot of soul. Don’t move it too fast. Just make it last. You know you scratch just like a monkey. Yeah you do, real cool.
(Full lyrics here)
It doesn’t sound like a 1963 teenage party (and this could explain why it didn’t quite work, back then). It’s a sort of demonic instructional song, that also names Shake A Tail Feather, the Limbo and the mysterious Monkey Shine (see also).
Claudio Cecchetto: Gioca Jouer (1981)
The 1980s were truly ugly times, and Gioca Jouer♾ is a great example. This little dumb italian tune features instructions for little dumb moves like sneezing, sleeping, the ok sign, spray deodorant or skiing. Obviously it was a big hit, and in 1983 an equally demented english version, entitled Superman, (and performed by Black Lace) was released. You can enjoy every bit of it, thanks to this magnificent instructional video.
Superman Dance routine steps from Emporium Parties Children entertainers in Kent & Sussex
The instructor forewarns us: “This is the Superman song, ideal for age 4 to 8 years old”. So, if you happen to like it and you’re not in that age bracket, go see a doctor. in 2007 an updated german version♾ was released, further evidence of that nation’s atrocious musical tastes☊. Some people miss the 1980s: they also should seek immediate medical help.
Sam Cooke: Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha☊ (1959) This pretty Sam Cooke hit single (with its own Wikipedia page) belongs to a very tiny but exquisite little family: teenage songs about dance related problems with a happy end (The Larks’ 1964 hit The Jerk♾, that also launched the eponymous dance, is another fine example). There’s a slower, breezy cover of Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha by James Taylor☊ in his 1991 New Moon Shine album.
Beyonce: 7/11♾ (2013) Here’s an interesting instructional dance song for the YouTube generation: shoulders sideways, legs movin’ side to side, wave your hands side to side, clap, clap, clap like you don’t care. For visual cues there’s the official clip, apparently shot with a smartphone. She tried it at home: why shouldn’t you?
The very informative Novelty and Fad dances Wikipedia page.
The way too slim (but full of links) African-American dance Wikipedia page.
Line Dance Song List: All you need to know about Line Dance, including all the steps (Cotton Eyed Joe, Watermelon Crawl, Swamp Thang and a million more) and musical suggestions for each dance. On YouTube there are hundreds of Line Dance Tutorials. In Square dance (the older version of Line dance), the singer/MC often sang dance instructions, as you can see in this lovely home video♾.
The website Flavorwire has a video compilation: Instructional dance crazes of the 2000s.