1. Iggy Pop, “Nightclubbing”
For a song about hitting hot spot after hot spot with David Bowie, learning new dances and meeting new people, Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” is surprisingly undanceable. Maybe it’s the slow, slogging rhythm, which suggests tired, drugged-out, vaguely blissy club-hoppers reaching the end of their energy but pushing on through the night anyway, trying to hit just one more venue before last call. Maybe it’s the basic drum-machine beat, which feels more like someone halfheartedly bopping in place at the bar than hitting the dance floor. Maybe it’s Pop’s weary voice, which sounds like he’s about to fall asleep propped up in a dark corner, drink still clutched in his hand. One way or another, the song is more energy-drainer than dance-floor mover and shaker, and the only conceivable dance that would fit it would be a limp rhythmic flopping, which hardly seems likely to get Pop’s seal of approval.
2. Neil Young, “Dance, Dance, Dance”
Lots of rock songwriters use dancing as a sexual metaphor, and Neil Young sometimes does too. But more often, he evokes dancing as a state of physical grace, as on the ballad “Dance, Dance, Dance,” which appeared on the self-titled 1971 album by his backing band, Crazy Horse, and became a live acoustic favorite for Young himself: “Mississippi mud never touched her fingers” doesn’t imply much getting down-and-dirty physically. Not to mention that Young’s (and, goodness knows, Crazy Horse’s) sense of rhythm is pretty stiff—and that in Neil’s acoustic versions, it’s too slow to move to anyway. Perhaps that’s why Young completely changed the lyrics and released the song as “Love Is A Rose” instead.
3. Roxy Music, “Do The Strand”
Roxy Music’s “Do The Strand,” one of the highlights of the band’s second album, For Your Pleasure, presents itself as a dance song for those weary of every other dance song out there. “Bored of the beguine? / The samba isn’t your scene?” singer Bryan Ferry asks. The answer to that problem is the Strand, which is nothing short of “a danceable solution to teenage revolution.” Two problems: Ferry doesn’t provide any instructions, leaving listeners to try and figure out on their own how the Strand is done. (Being told that everyone from Eskimos to Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky did the Strand doesn’t help clarify matters.) Furthermore, though the song is bracing, it’s tough to move to, with shifting rhythms that get interrupted by Andy Mackay’s squalling saxophone. Trying to dance to it probably left some wondering whether the samba was their scene after all.
4. Lou Reed, “Sally Can’t Dance”
Some people might be able to dance to Lou Reed’s “Sally Can’t Dance.” It has a steady beat, stinging horns, and insistent backup singers helping out on the chorus. But man, what a bummer of a tune to move your feet to once you start paying attention to the lyrics. Poor Sally: Sure, she was the first girl Reed knew who wore tie-dyed pants and flowers painted on her jeans, but what did it get her? Over the course of the song, she variably gets stuffed in a trunk, overdoses on meth, and is raped in Tompkins Square. “She has lots of fun,” Reed insists. But who believes him?
5. Bauhaus, “St. Vitus Dance”
During its brief initial existence, Bauhaus wrote some frighteningly danceable tunes—including the sax-slathered goth-funk oddity “Dancing.” But on 1980’s “St. Vitus Dance,” the band doesn’t exactly light up the disco floor. With a lurching pulse of atonal guitar-scraping and brittle, tribal beat, the song is more apt to tangle feet than move them. It doesn’t help that Peter Murphy’s opening line—“Back in the good old days when dancing meant exploding”—isn’t exactly a vote of choreographic confidence. The song’s namesake doesn’t inspire harmonious body movement, either; St. Vitus Dance is ages-old slang for Sydenham’s chorea, a disease caused by bacterial infection that inflicts the stricken with random, involuntary limb spasms. Which, granted, isn’t that far off from what you’d witness at your average retro-goth club night.
6. Leatherface, “The Bastards Can’t Dance”
When Leatherface’s second album, Fill Your Boots, was released in 1990, it was a fish out of water. The gruff English punk band was adrift in a sea of homegrown indie-dance music: the Madchester sounds of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, the acid-house of 808 State and The KLF, and the sample-heavy bubblegum of Jesus Jones and EMF. With those scenes came a recycling of ’70s fashion and groovy vibes—all of which Leatherface rails against in the Fill Your Boots anthem “The Bastards Can’t Dance.” “I thought it couldn’t happen in my time / A psychologist’s dream of regressive things / It’s flared up again, it’s flared up again,” grunts frontman Frankie Stubbs, taking to task retroactivity in general (and bellbottoms in particular) before concluding, “The bastards can’t dance, but no one seems to care.” Accordingly, the song is so raw and jittery, it won’t just clear a dance floor—it’ll scour it clean.
7. Violent Femmes, “Dance, Motherfucker, Dance!”
Even the most insistent dance hits make room for consent from the listener. After all, Little Eva never sang “Come on, baby, do The Locomotion—or else.” But if any band could turn a voluntary physical reaction into a life-or-death imperative, it’s Violent Femmes. The band makes its intent abundantly clear from the first line of “Dance, Motherfucker, Dance!”: “When I say dance, you best dance, motherfucker.” Originally recorded by cross-dressing Milwaukee punk oddity Voot Warnings, the song was a longtime live staple for the Femmes. However, the grooveless beat and art-damaged sax bleats could only inspire the kind of dancing that requires the prefix “slam”—even if the audience members’ lives depended on their ability to hoof it.
8. Modest Mouse, “Dance Hall”
Modest Mouse knows from slippery basslines and tightly wound grooves, but much of that knowledge is lost on “Dance Hall.” A product of the band at its most self-destructive—in a 2004 Rolling Stone profile, frontman Isaac Brock recalled an extended, band-wide bender during which “Dance Hall” was the only song rehearsed—the song sounds like it’s being broadcast live from the discotheque of the damned. As promising as that sounds, the hellish venue’s house band just can’t get its shit together: The guitar upstrokes and hollow snare pulse inch toward danceability, but Brock is too wrapped up in misanthropy to let anyone boogie. It matters not that he’s going to “Dance all dance hall every day,” because Brock’s stark, raving rant has scared off all but the most antisocial revelers.
9. Lykke Li, “Dance, Dance, Dance”
Swedish singer-songwriter Li Lykke Timotej Zachrisson (a.k.a. Lykke Li) adopts the persona of a shrinking violet for much of her debut LP, Youth Novels, and “Dance, Dance, Dance” acts as that persona’s statement of purpose. While establishing her introverted bona fides, Zachrisson also undercuts the assumed sincerity of busting a move. Set against a herky-jerky cha-cha-cha, “Dance, Dance, Dance” riffs on Shakira (“My hips, they lie / ’cause in reality / I’m shy, shy, shy”) while stumbling over its two left feet. Even if those hips fell in line with the song’s sparse, percussive clattering, they’d clumsily stumble out of sync a few measures later. With such a staccato beat, the only outcome are gyrations that are merely a sarcastic approximation of dancing, proof that Zachrisson’s joyous hoofing is only a cover.
10. Patti Smith, “Dancing Barefoot”
Most songs about dancing are really about sex, love, or in the case of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot,” the magical confluence of the two. As an image evoking the carefree feeling of being carried away by mad infatuation, the title is powerful, though the music itself doesn’t really implore people to take it literally. “Some strange music draws me in,” Smith sings in the chorus, but it’s taking her to a new place in her own heart, not the dance floor. Smith, after all, is more poet than groove-master, and she lays it on thick here with words like “benediction” and “sublimation,” which suggest that while love is both holy and a narcotic, perhaps it’s better if we meditate on it rather than shaking our moneymakers.
11. Pavement, “We Dance”
Most Pavement songs are too spiritually slack and rhythmically erratic to work as dance songs—“Stereo” comes closest—and Stephen Malkmus seems to recognize this on “We Dance.” Near the start of the song, he sings, “We’ll dance, but no one will dance with us in this zany town.” If by “zany town” Malkmus means “this Pavement song,” which is a typically shambolic lurch of undisciplined melody, he’s absolutely right. Not that anything is going to keep Malkmus from busting a move to his own peculiar beat.
12. King Harvest, “Dancing In The Moonlight”
Because of its distinctive Wurlitzer electric piano lick, King Harvest’s “Dancing In The Moonlight” will forever sound like a Holiday Inn cocktail lounge circa 1973. But the beat is bouncy enough that you could dance to it if not for the weird, irritating lyrics, which take a potentially awesome subject (partying with werewolves) and ruins it by repeating the words “moonlight,” “sight,” “bright,” and “delight” about 50 times in the span of three minutes. Next time, if you’re going to talk about “a supernatural delight,” don’t pussyfoot around the issue.
13. Pop Will Eat Itself, “Dance Of The Mad Bastards”
PWEI was one of those bands that most people probably heard in clubs, if they were inclined to visit such things in the late ’80s or early ’90s. But even though the British group had heavy industrial influences—Flood, which produced Nine Inch Nails, was involved in creating PWEI’s U.S. breakout albums on the RCA label—their songs had some pop catchiness. “Dance Of The Mad Bastards” is no exception, with its repeated refrains and silly lyrics. But its relentless drum-machine drone, coupled with extended stops and starts, only makes it danceable for those in warehouses in Jersey City at 4:30 a.m., peaking on a handful of ecstasy. For anyone who even close to sober, though, the best thing to do when listening to this song is bob in place.
14. Prince, “Batdance”
The 1980s were a good decade for Prince, who rose to superstardom on the heels of many danceable songs, including “1999,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and “Raspberry Beret.” But the Purple One’s last big hit of the decade, “Batdance,” was about as undanceable as you can get. Apparently a last-minute replacement on the Batman movie soundtrack, and an amalgam of songs Prince had half-finished, “Batdance” moves from a robotic, passionless beat to a writhing sex romp to a rock epic and back again, punctuated by sound clips from the movie that more or less took the place of the lyrics. It was a mishmash that was only danceable in places, and even though the double-’80s-whammy of Prince and Batman made the song into a huge hit in 1989, it’s one of Prince’s more forgettable songs today.
15. T. Rex, “Cosmic Dancer”
If sad, slow walking is dancing, then T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” is one of history’s greatest dance tracks. Unfortunately for Marc Bolan and crew, it isn’t, and while “Cosmic Dancer” is a totally excellent song about dancing right out of the womb and into a tomb, it isn’t particularly easy to dance to. Even a teen-style couples’ dance would be a little forced with this number, especially considering the track’s slightly morbid undertones and awkward tempo.
16. Dead Milkmen, “Instant Club Hit”
Technically, Dead Milkmen’s “Instant Club Hit,” a.k.a. “You’ll Dance to Anything,” has the sort of steady beat that allows for rhythmic movement, but Rodney Anonymous’ sneered vocals are designed to sap the life out of a dance-floor crowd. Name-checking a host of trendy mid-’80s bands, from Book Of Love to “Depeche Commode,” the song takes aim at the conformity of college-rock zombies, the “art fags” who’ll use any song, no matter how soulless or inapt, as a pretext for a mating dance. (At least, that’s the most plausible explanation for why the song includes such club-unfriendly acts as The Smiths and Public Image Ltd. in its roll call.) ”I came here to drink, not to get laid,” Anonymous scowls from a barstool at the back of the club, prefacing a discordant guitar solo with “Choke on this, you Danceteria types!” Because it was too good a joke not to follow through on, the band tricked out the song’s 12-inch single with a pair of club mixes, although whether the masses ever grooved to the “Boner Beats” remix remains a mystery.
17. Sebadoh, “Dance”
“Dance to my ditty like you fuck your wife,” advises this brief snippet from Sebadoh’s The Freed Man, which is better advice than doing either to the song’s herky-jerk sound collage. No sooner do the simple guitar and vocal settle into a steady groove then they’re sideswiped by a wash of noise that sounds like a cross between “Revolution No. 9” and a garbage truck in reverse. Good luck busting a move to that.
18. Pere Ubu, “The Modern Dance”
Appropriating a garbled slur from Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi as a warbled refrain, the title track to Pere Ubu’s 1977 debut describes a “poor boy” adrift in the modern world. Hopping the bus to meet a girl at a concert, he makes it at 8:55, presumably with five minutes to spare, but she’s already left, fulfilling a part in a drama he can’t understand. The song moves steadily enough until singer David Thomas caps the chorus with “And it goes like…,” when the backbeat gives way to the sound of a milling crowd and the ominous arpeggios of Tom Herman’s guitar. Just when you think you’ve got it sussed out, the song throws you a curveball, which makes it a neat microcosm of life itself.
19. Nik Kershaw, “Dancing Girls”
Somewhere in the midst of Nik Kershaw’s mid-’80s mullet may lie the explanation to why his first single after “Wouldn’t It Be Good” found him begging his brain to “bring on the dancing girls” when the girls in question had so little to work with on the dancing front. Although Kershaw sings about the spiritual strength one can find from watching these ladies, suggesting that they can imbue a sad man with the ability to “take off the cold night and the sad day” as they “dance his blues away,” the eccentric syncopation combined with a tune that’s all over the place suggest that the reason they’re so inspiring is that they can dance to the song at all.
20. Lindsey Buckingham, “Slow Dancing”
Once and future Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham kicked off the 1980s by taking the occasional foray into solo territory, starting with Law And Order in 1981, but on his ’83 follow-up, Go Insane, he missed a perfectly good opportunity to secure a slot on prom playlists for the remainder of the decade. After musing on a life filled with short days, long nights, and a constant inability to comprehend his place in the world, Buckingham turns around to find the would-be love of his life and begins to sing about “slow-dancing in the moonlight” and a desire to “slow-dance with you all night.” But in spite of lyrics seemingly designed to make high-school students swoon, “Slow Dancing” melds an ominous melody to a thudding drum beat, not only making slow dancing a near-impossibility, but also giving listeners the general sensation that a dance with Buckingham might well be their last.
21. The Clash, “Rebel Waltz”
The Clash’s three-LP epic Sandinista! is a fairly militant record. “Rebel Waltz” is no less conflict-obsessed than the rest of it, but it provides a relative musical and lyrical oasis after the ferocious, confrontational first six songs. It’s Joe Strummer’s romantic vision of one last dreamlike dance with a girl before the bombs resume bursting in air. But its languid, dissonant take on an intimate ballroom movement is too oddly timed for an earnest stroll with one’s lover onto the hardwood. And Topper Headon’s distant firecracker snares, along with the faintly sounding horns and brooding chimes, are an eerie reminder of “Rebel Waltz” as a fantasy about to be stirred. At least the song sets the tone for several sides of perfectly moody, hazily structured dub-punk-funk to come.
22. Sick Of It All, “G.I. Joe Head Stomp”
Blood, Sweat, And No Tears, the 1989 debut of New York hardcore legends Sick Of It All, remains both an anomaly and a cornerstone among its genre. The record announces itself with the following, surreal PSA from fellow NYC icon KRS-One: “Spreadin’ the hardcore reality in ’89. Sick Of It All, blast-master KRS-One. Fresh for ’89, you suckas.” From there, Lou Koller and his band of brothers (or at least one, in the form of Pete Koller on guitar) rip through nearly 20 macho circle-pit anthems in around 25 minutes, all with a strange knack for melody and robust tempo changes. “G.I. Joe Head Stomp” is the album’s most explicit call to arms. Flailing, windmilling arms that is. “Headstomp” is intended to get bodies moving on the floor. But unless slamdance-survival essentials like “pickin’ up change” and “the pizzamaker” are part of your hot-steppin’ vernacular (see SOIA’s 1994 video for “Step Down” for some handy tips), “Headstomp”’s chugging, thrashing rhythms probably won’t make it to your next loft-party mix.
23. Iron Maiden, “Dance Of Death”
Janick Gers and Steve Harris’ 2003 postmortem shuffle isn’t exactly suitable for a romantic swoon, or any kind of hip-shaking Step Up grinding, either. When Bruce Dickinson sings “And I danced and I pranced and I sang with them / All had death in their eyes / Lifeless figures they were undead, all of them / They had ascended from hell,” it’s more likely he’s trying to induce listeners into visuals of pagan chiefs circling feral beast-women in a heated, Satanic version of the hora. You know, like in Dragnet.
24. Death Cab For Cutie, “Stay Young, Go Dancing”
Death Cab For Cutie’s exhortation to “stay young, go dancing” on Codes And Keys swells and swoons, but its strings and piano could potentially inspire a waltz, but not much else. Maybe a little Postal Service beat would’ve helped…