In the studio

David Bowie had asked EMI A&R man Hugh Stanley Clarke to recruit some top musicians to record the Absolute Beginners song ‘That’s Motivation’. They included guitarist Kevin Armstrong, bassist Matthew Seligman, and Elvis Costello’s keyboard player Steve Nieve.

They first worked together at a demo session at Abbey Road Studios. In the period between the first session and the final recording, Bowie contacted Armstrong and invited him to a planning meeting for ‘Dancing In The Street’.

In the week preceding the [Absolute Beginners] session he called me and said, ‘I’ve got this other idea for a spin-off thing for Live Aid. Will you come and meet me at this address in Wardour Street?’ So I went down there around 10 o’clock at night, just with an acoustic guitar, and got hustled into this little office. And David walked in with Mick Jagger. So he and Mick and I just worked through the song. David said, ‘Don’t tell the band that Mick is coming. It’s an extra piece that we’re going to do. Let’s teach it to the band after we’ve done everything else on the Saturday session.’ So I taught it to them. There were a lot of people there that day when it came time to do it, an awesome list of famous people there – Rick Wakeman, Gil Evans, Jerry Dammers. Lots of people were in and out that day, then Mick Jagger turned up with Jade Jagger. There were a number of people hanging out that day – it was definitely an event.
Kevin Armstrong
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

The first session for the song ‘Absolute Beginners’ was held at Abbey Road Studios on 29 June 1985. At the end of the session, Bowie, the musicians, and the production team relocated to Westside Studios in London’s Shepherds Bush to record ‘Dancing In The Street’ with Mick Jagger.

It was fantastic. David came in in the morning and said, “Look, can we work on this [‘Absolute Beginners’] until about six and then Mick wants to come in and we’re going to do this ‘Dancing In The Street’.” Because the original idea was they were going to sing it live, but they just realised the satellite delay wasn’t going to work between Philadelphia and Wembley so we thought we needed to do a video. So that was the idea. Just knock it out. Get the video filmed that night and that was it.

At about five o’clock we started rehearsing ‘Dancing In The Street’ and it sounded terrible. I mean, the band had been playing all day and they were pretty knackered and it just sounded tired and not very good at all. At 6pm, Jagger turned up and came into the control room and we said to him: “OK there’s a microphone set up for you out there next to David in the booth,” and directing him where to go. So he literally walked into the studio and did his, you know, Jagger kind of strut and I remember looking at him and I saw Neil Conti, the drummer, look up, and he just kicked into fifth gear and that was it. We covered it in one take. Well, it had to be quick to get it finished so that they could go and do the filming. So, yeah, that was quite an incredible day [laughs], getting those two songs. I mean, we didn’t get ‘Absolute Beginners’ all finished that day. It was mainly just getting the track down and overdubs.

Alan Winstanley, 2020

Although mostly complete by the end of the session, some minor overdubs were later recorded in New York City at Jagger’s behest, with additional production by Nile Rodgers, Steve Thompson, and Michael Barbiero. They included additional guitar by Earl Slick and GE Smith, and horns by Mac Gollehon, Stan Harrison, and Lenny Pickett.

‘Dancing In The Street’ was mixed by Bob Clearmountain and mastered by Bob Ludwig. The single mix contained a slightly shorter introduction and more prominent vocals and guitars, compared to versions on later Bowie compilations.

The video

After the initial session for ‘Dancing In The Street’ wrapped up, the outrageously camp and irreverent video was filmed that evening at Spillers Millennium Mills in Newham, London.

The director was David Mallet, who had previously worked with Bowie on promotional videos for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, ‘DJ’, ‘Look Back In Anger’, ‘Ashes To Ashes’, ‘Fashion’, ‘Under Pressure’, ‘Wild Is The Wind’, ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘China Girl’, and ‘Loving The Alien’.

You can see it [their rivalry] in that terribly camp video. It’s awful, absolutely awful. We all got taken over to see them do that. David and Mick had this kind of slightly camp banter between them. They talked about ringing up ‘Maureen’ at one point. ‘Shall we ring up Maureen?’ It turned out they meant Elton John.
Kevin Armstrong
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

The video for ‘Dancing In The Street’, with the music still lacking the guitar, trumpet and saxophone overdubs, was shown twice at Live Aid on 13 July 1985. It was also played prior to cinema screenings of Ruthless People, a 1986 black comedy for which Mick Jagger had recorded the theme tune.

An alternative version of the video, which included outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage from the shoot, appeared online in 2015.

Whenever I think about David I think of Gershwin. Once in the ’90s I was going to make a film about George Gershwin, and for whatever reasons we were never able to pull the film together. It just slipped away. Nevertheless one of the key characters was Fred Astaire, and once we got clearances from the Gershwin family, as to what was appropriate and what was not, they wanted some sort of consultation on actors. And once we got clearance from Mr Astaire, who was alive at the time, he said the only person he would have portray him in a film was David Bowie. It figures. The dancing. The movement. You look at the thing he did with Mick Jagger on ‘Dancing In The Street’. Also his face, his extraordinary charisma. And his figure, if you look at Fred Astaire, he had in his contract that you could only photograph him from head to toe. No close-ups of him dancing… he wanted to show how the whole body moved. So don’t come into a close-up, you know. And he admired David so much.
Martin Scorsese
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones
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