The A.V. Club's Definitive Mixlist: The Land Of Way Too Many Dances
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1. Wilson Pickett, "Land Of 1000 Dances" (available on A Man And A Half: The Best Of Wilson Pickett)
Pickett provides our overture, name-checking a dozen or so popular rock dances, from The Twist to The Mashed Potato, and all but demanding that we learn them if we want to be in style. Then he tops it all off with an invitation to freestyle, singing "Na na na na na" while we fend for ourselves.
The how & who: Adding insult to exclusion, Pickett doesn't tell us how to do The Pony, The Jerk, or The Watusi. If we don't know, we're already lost.
2. Dee Dee Sharp, "Mashed Potato Time" (available on Cameo Parkway: 1957-1967)
As with almost all the rock era's classic novelty "dance" songs, "Mashed Potato Time" begins by insisting that the dance we're about to do is "the latest" and "the greatest"—though Sharp also tells us that The Mashed Potato "started a long time ago," so there seems to be a paradox. Anyway, it's hard to believe that the song is the latest, since it rips off "Please Mr. Postman" so blatantly that the Cameo-Parkway people had to pay Motown royalties.
The how & who: We aren't told how to do The Mashed Potato, or even who should do it, but Sharp does cite some records that we can "do it to," including "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and, yes, "Please Mr. Postman."
3. Van McCoy & The Soul City Symphony, "The Hustle" (available on The Hustle And The Best Of Van McCoy)
Ah, the genius of the song that took the coked-up anxiety of malaise-ridden '70s America and turned it into something giddy and glam, complete with a naggingly catchy flute melody and strings and horns ready-made for a Love Boat scoring session.
The how & who: A song that's all chorus doesn't drop many clues, but picture a red-eyed, toupeed U.S. congressman, days away from being indicted in Abscam, shaking his nylon suit in front of a braless call girl in a lower-Manhattan nightclub. That's more or less the vibe.
4. Candy & The Kisses, "The 81" (available on Cameo Parkway: 1957-1967)
A surprisingly funky guitar lick for 1964 gives way to handclaps, horns, and cooing Kisses, as Candy Nelson sings about a dance that's "better than The Cha Cha," and perfect for people who are "tired of doing The Monkey."
The how & who: Neither Candy nor The Kisses give any clue as to the steps involved in "The 81," but we're told that everyone's doing it "whether they're old or young." Especially old. "Mama's going to buy herself some dancing shoes," Nelson sings, implying that this is either a really classy dance, or a really lame one.
5. The Dovells, "Bristol Stomp" (available on Cameo Parkway: 1957-1967)
Another "latest" and "greatest" dance, held up as superior to The Pony and The Twist, though something about the name "The Bristol Stomp" makes it sound kind of old-fashioned and charming—a dance done by suburbanites in the same clean high-school gym where their folks once danced The Jitterbug.
The how & who: The Dovells make it plain who's doing this dance: "The kids in Bristol." And however they do it, when they do it, they look "sharp as a pistol." And just how sharp is that, anyway?
6. Jump 'N The Saddle Band, "The Curly Shuffle" (available on Jump 'N The Saddle Band)
How did this become a hit back in 1984? A Chicago bar band versed in western swing and big-band boogie stamps out a novelty single featuring a Three Stooges impersonation and a few lame lines about The Three Stooges—"Me and my friends / We all like to see / Comedy classics on late-night TV"—and that was apparently enough to capture the imagination of record-buyers in the thick of the Reagan era. Shouldn't those people have been watching MTV and dressing like The Thompson Twins?
The how & who: Presumably, all you have to do is say "nyuk-nyuk" a lot and smack your face repeatedly in a vertical motion.
7. Chubby Checker, "The Twist" (available on Cameo Parkway: 1957-1967)
More or less the dance song that started the '60s novelty-dance revolution (though not the current Dance Dance Revolution), Checker's midtempo grinder leans heavy on a low sax riff and some drum fills, evoking the sound of repetitive physical contortion.
The how & who: The visual component is missing from the record version ("It goes like this," Checker sings, vaguely), but archival documents indicate that you twist your body back and forth while lifting one foot at a time. As to who does the dance, Checker refers to "my little sis," and indicates that the dance is best done after the parents have gone to bed. Any wonder why teenagers liked this song so much?
8. Sam Cooke, "Tennessee Waltz" (available on Portrait Of A Legend 1951-1964)
There've been a lot of versions of "Tennessee Waltz," but we'll take Cooke's uptempo take, in part because it really swings, and in part because Cooke holds onto the pathos of the song's story, which is about a dude who loses his gal to his best friend, while dancing to this awesome tune.
The how & who: The who? Jilted lovers, who love the song so much that they apparently don't mind getting cuckolded. The how? Who knows? But somehow the characters in the song were able to dance to The Tennessee Waltz before the song had even been written.
9. Van Morrison, "Moondance" (available on Moondance)
British folkies had already been introducing elements of jazz into their mythic song-poems when Morrison came along with a stack of old soul records and showed how to rhyme the ancient with the modern, and pop out the lyrical—even with a flute and piano working jaunty improvisations around a central melody.
The how & who: Maybe it's because of Morrison's gnomish physique, but it's easy to imagine this dance being performed by elves and fairies, twirling around like "the leaves on the trees… falling to the sound of the breezes that blow."
10. Prince, "Batdance" (available on Batman)
Snatches of dialogue from the hit Tim Burton movie Batman play over a three-part, mostly instrumental dance-music suite, beginning with an uptempo new-wave soul track, then shifting to a slower, funkier break before ending in a pogo frenzy. It's one of Prince's more underrated songs, if only because it's so much fun to dance to.
The how & who: Prince lends his voice to the song only occasionally, singing lines like "Batdance," "Batman," "Ooh yeah, I want to bust that body," and "Do it." Those who wish to Batdance need to be versatile and energetic, and enjoy hearing Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, and Kim Basinger have their words cut together into sophomoric sex chat.
11. The Miracles, "Mickey's Monkey" (available on Smokey Robinson + The Miracles: The Ultimate Collection)
Not "The Monkey" per se, but a well-crafted Motown knockoff, helped along by a suave-sounding horn section and Smokey Robinson's inspired nonsense words, "lum-de-lum-de-lie-aye."
The how & who: Robinson tells us that it's "the new teenage craze," brought to town by some "cat named Mickey." Now do it! Do it! (It's amazing how many of these songs are just peer pressure on wax.)
12. The Johnny Otis Show, "Crazy Country Hop" (available on The Greatest Johnny Otis Show)
Over a Bo Diddley-style beat and some Chuck Berry-style guitar choogle, Johnny Otis spins a tale about a rock 'n' roll band gigging "way down in a country town" where characters like Old MacDonald and Snaggletooth Belinda get driven wild by that untamed rock sound.
The how & who: No actual steps—the "hop" in question is more of a barn dance—but the mayhem is reportedly triggered by "a beat-up saxophone" and that time when "the drummer rang a bell." That's when "all them country cats" started yelling, "Ooh la la, let's rock 'n' roll."
13. Dee Dee Sharp, "Do The Bird" (available on Cameo Parkway: 1957-1967)
If you've ever wanted to be "a crazy flier," and if you already know how to "Twist and Pony," then consider staying current by flapping your fool arms, you impressionable pop freak.
The how & who: According to Sharp, "you can even do it sitting down," though that may diminish the "shimmy-shimmy" effect you're reportedly supposed to achieve.
14. John Lennon, "Do The Oz" (available as a bonus track on John Lennon Anthology)
So, is it "Oz" as in Australia, or "Oz" as in L. Frank Baum? Lennon doesn't specify, though this droning, squealing, ear-damaging anti-dance song would probably be most welcome over the rainbow.
The how & who: Specific commands dot the song: "Put your left hand in," "your right hand out," "your right leg up," and "your left leg down," then, "shake it all about." The lawyers for famed dance creators John Hokey and Richard Pokey may need to give Apple Corp. a call.
15. Roxy Music, "Do The Strand" (available on For Your Pleasure)
A brilliant piece of postmodern pop—in that it both comments on dance songs and is an invigorating dance song itself—Roxy Music's deconstruction of novelty dances hits all the steps, claiming that The Strand is "a fabulous creation," and "a danceable solution to teenage revolution." Then lead singer Bryan Ferry runs down the other dance crazes, but aside from a dis of "Mashed Potato schmaltz," he mostly calls on those who are "tired of The Tango," "fed up with Fandango," "bored with The Beguine" and "weary of the waltz." All of which proves that there's really no such thing as a "a new sensation."
The how & who: Ferry claims that "The Sphinx and Mona Lisa" did The Strand, but listening to the song, it seems more like a dance to be done by emotionless Teutonic types, moving one body part at a time.
16. The Dismemberment Plan, "Do The Standing Still" (available on The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified)
One of The Dismemberment Plan's legendary spazz-out numbers, this jokey paean to yet another "sensation… across the nation" isn't wholly original—see the Martin Mull song coming up next—but bandleader Travis Morrison uses the idea of "a hundred million kids in suspended animation" to make a larger point.
The how & who: Morrison jabs at the affectless reactions of alt-rock crowds, calling out the audience at a "Plan show in Fargo" for showing their appreciation by being too cool to move. (Note: Several of those audience members reportedly went on to write for Pitchfork.)
17. Martin Mull, "Do The Nothin'" (available on Rockin' Memphis: 1960's-1970's, Vol. 1)
Just a smartass comedian and his electric guitar, recorded live in a comedy club in the early '70s, telling kids about the perfect dance for their drugged-out generation.
The how & who: Mull is specific about who can do The Nothin', mentioning "a friend who couldn't dance" (because he had "trouble somewhere down in his pants"), and insisting that "dead people can do it too / ever better now than me or you."
18. The Dovells, "Do The New Continental" (available on Cameo Parkway: 1957-1967)
The original Bristol Stompers make a return appearance with another classy-titled dance, undercut by an instrumental track that's heavy on clanging cowbell and boozy horns. Sounds like the suburbanites have hit the city, and found a club that doesn't card.
The how & who: See if you can follow these instructions: "Swim like a fish with the dear old-lady twist," then "slide to the right, but keep it nice and tight," then "go left, go right." What's next? Pass out?
1. Bruce Springsteen, "The E Street Shuffle" (available on The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle)
A typically sprawling street sketch from Springsteen's early days, this song also comes from the era when he had the most in common with the mainstream rock acts of the day, following the "boogie" sound of The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan (albeit freer and more organic). "The E Street Shuffle" is like the opening page of some beatnik novel, full of evocative descriptions of summer nights and kids on the corner. Then comes the coda, all bongo frenzy and pumping horns.
The how & who: You've got to be loose and lazy to do The E Street Shuffle, though at one point there is a call for everybody to "form a line." What are they queuing for? The grown-up responsibility that arrived on Darkness On The Edge Of Town and The River, perhaps.
2. Martha & The Vandellas, "Dancing In The Street" (available on Martha Reeves + The Vandellas: The Ultimate Collection)
An invitation to everyone, no matter what they wear or where they live, to dust off several years' worth of dance moves and come join the global block party just about to happen. This single was released well before the Summer Of Love, but its ecumenical spirit was prophetic, and a perfect end to the early-'60s dance-song cycle.
The how & who: "Every guy, grab a girl / Everywhere around the world."
3. The B-52s, "Dance This Mess Around" (available on The B-52's)
In the thick of the punk era, five fashion victims from Athens, Georgia took Patti Smith and the Ramones' fetish for pre-Beatles rock to its logical extreme, asking everyone to remember the heyday of novelty-dance songs, when we did "all 16 dances." The song itself is danceable in the abstract, starting with a skeletal groove and then picking up the pace halfway through, as the band changes gears from singing about heartache to singing about getting down.
The how & who: Leave it to The B-52's to tell us all about the dances people do, then make up a bunch of crazy names: The Shoogaloo, The Camel Walk, The Hypocrite, The Aqua Velva, The Dirty Dog, The Escalator, and so on.
4. The Marlins, "(Everybody Do) The Swim Pt. 1" (available on Cameo Parkway: 1957-1967)
A proto-disco bongo-and-piano rhythm gives an unusual timbre to this surprisingly haunting song, which is more about the counterpoint harmonies of the lead and background vocals than about learning new steps. But it isn't wholly unconventional. Predictably, The Swim is both "the latest dance" and "the greatest dance."
The how & who: We're more or less told that "a guy named Jim" created The Swim as a modified form of The Monkey, which presumably means that rather then jerking your arms up and down, you slide them in and out in a horizontal fashion. But there are regional variations: The Backstroke in Philadelphia, The Paddle in Boston, and so on. No wonder we had to call on Martha & The Vandellas to unify the novelty-dance schism.
5. Louis Prima, " Jump, Jive, An' Wail" (available on Capitol Collectors Series)
Thanks to Brian Setzer, The Gap, and the short-lived swing-music revival, this bopping favorite briefly re-entered the public consciousness a decade ago. But it's no mere novelty: Prima's live-wire hit—recorded with his then-wife Keely Smith and their crack Vegas backing band Sam Butera & The Witnessess—bridges boogie-woogie and rock 'n' roll, making sweaty dance music palatable to the drunken middle-aged gamblers of the late '50s.
The how & who: Like the Louis Jordan-style ravers that inspired Prima, this song uses passive-aggressive suggestions (hmm… looks like it's gonna hail) and hipster slang (see the title) to get around the fact that this is yet another song about sex.
6. The Johnny Otis Show, "Willie & The Hand Jive" (available on The Greatest Johnny Otis Show)
Another Bo Diddley/Chuck Berry mash-up from Otis, telling the story of Way-Out Willie, who mastered the "Rockin' Stroll" and "Suzie Q" and so decided to concoct his own dance sensation, full of crazy hand gestures. (These kinds of stories have so much more veracity when it emerges that they happened to actual people.)
The how & who: Fans of Grease learned the hand motions from the version of the song featured in the movie, and the handclaps that pepper "Willie & The Hand Jive" imply that this is all happy, kid-friendly fun. So why does Way-Out Willie's father warn him that all his hand-jiving will "ruin my home?" Is that a variation on "If you don't stop, you'll go blind?"
7. The Taffys, "Everybody South Street" (available on Cameo Parkway: 1957-1967)
Sort of the inverse of "The Bristol Stomp," this sax-fueled jumper emerges from the heart of the city, though it reaches the folks "in the concert hall" as well.
The how & who: Like a lot of songs about dances, "Everybody South Street" defines the title song by what it's not. It's "not like The Pony" and "not like The Mash." By process of elimination, we should be able to figure out how to dance this puppy by the time Wilson Pickett gets to the end of his thousand-dance list.
8. Ramones, "Blitzkrieg Bop" (available on Ramones)
Maybe the most familiar Ramones song to the average Joe—if only because the "Hey ho, let's go" refrain has become a Jock Jam—"Blitzkrieg Bop" also makes reference to some tribal rite of passage, not unlike the Twists and Watusis of yore.
The how & who: So is this a song about punk, or sex? The Ramones always seemed too nihilistic for the latter, but when Joey Ramone's yelping about kids "piling in the back seat" to "generate steam heat," it seems like this is less a new dance for a new generation than the same old bump and grind.
9. Versus, "Spastic Reaction" (available on Two Cents Plus Tax)
One of the more fluid songs from the under-the-radar indie-rock band Versus, this sweetly acidic midtempo rocker has guitarist Richard Baluyut and bassist Fontaine Toups trading verses like a latter-day Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, while telling a story about infidelity and its repercussions. Throughout, the duo pines for the happy days when people wore "bikinis in the movies" and did "the new dance craze."
The how & who: The spastic-ness of the reaction isn't detailed, but the dance apparently involves "sleeping on the sofa."
10. A Tribe Called Quest, "The Hop" (available on Beats, Rhymes And Life)
Bringing new meaning to the phrase "old school," TCQ's jazz-rap fusion calls out to "everyone" to participate in what may be a dance, or what may be just another invitation to get sexed up.
The how & who: Q-Tip lends credence to the sex theory by practically leering his way through his rhymes, while his partner Phife confuses the issue by using his part of a song to take on hip-hop copycats and boast about how he can "stab up the track like my name is O.J. Simpson." Uh-huh.
11. James Brown, "Get On The Good Foot" (available on Star Time)
A classic Afrobeat workout from the tail end of JB's most phenomenally productive period, this track isn't overly concerned with making literal sense. It's more about finding space for the drum breaks and horn solos that take up about two-thirds of a four-minute song.
The how & who: First, locate your good foot. Second, get on it. Third, "dance to the music of the James Brown band." (Note: It helps if you're actually James Brown.)
12. Bobby Marchan, "Shake Your Tambourine" (available on Cameo Parkway: 1957-1967)
Most people who come up with sexy metaphors for sexy activity try to disguise it a little better than Marchan does here, as he talks about the "new dance that's going around" and insists, "Don't worry about it being dirty, if you know what I mean." All he wants you to do—you, who've done The Jerk and The Duck—is "shake your moneymaker." After all, isn't that what you've been doing all along, you wanton teen?
The how & who: "Alls you got to do is get a tambourine / Hold it in your hand / From now on this will be called your moneymaker / And you shake it where you stand."
13. Chubby Checker, "Limbo Rock" (available on Cameo Parkway: 1957-1967)
You've heard this dance/game at every wedding, luau, and elementary-school gym class, but how many of you knew that Twist-master Chubby Checker recorded its most popular version?
The how & who: You know the drill. Lean back and get under that stick, boyo. But if you didn't already know how to limbo, what would you make of the lyrics "first you spread your limbo feet," then "lean back like a limbo tree"? Is this legal?
14. Men Without Hats, "Safety Dance" (available on Men Without Hats Collection)
Your friends don't dance, and if they don't dance, well, they're no friends of that floppy-haired dude from Men Without Hats. But we can dance if we want to.
The how & who: So how do you actually do this so-called "Safety Dance"? We're told that everybody should "look at their hands" and "act like we come from out of this world." Also, "act real rude… like an imbecile." What the hell? No wonder your friends have stopped dancing.
15. Pere Ubu, "The Modern Dance" (available on The Modern Dance)
Not just post-punk, but post-everything, Pere Ubu's messy dissection of the modern condition chugs along like a subway train, breaking at the chorus for random street noises and guitar skronk. It's the kind of modernist art-rock that Talking Heads was going for early on, only less clever and more sloppily human.
The how & who: The song's protagonist is called "our poor boy," and he's given no chance. "He'll never last," David Thomas trills, right before the sounds of the city overtake the music again.
16. Warren Zevon, "Werewolves Of London" (available on Excitable Boy)
Technically, this is more a comical '70s hipster character sketch than any kind of novelty-dance song, though Zevon knows what he's doing when he sings about Lon Chaney (and Lon Chaney Jr.) walking with the Queen, "doin' The Werewolves Of London." He's making his own update of The Monster Mash, only this time, the creatures of the night are drinking pina coladas at Trader Vic's.
The how & who: Grow out that chest hair, then unbutton the top 12 buttons on your shirt so you can show it off. Add a gold medallion. You're on your way to doing The Werewolves Of London.
17. Joni Mitchell, "The Boho Dance" (available on The Hissing Of Summer Lawns)
One of the lithest and most allusive songs on one of Mitchell's trickiest (but loveliest) albums, this wistful ode to bohemian pretension offers an inside look at the games we play when we decide to act cooler than we are.
The how & who: "Some steps inside The Boho Dance hold some fascination for me," Mitchell admits, while surveying "another hard-time band with negro affectations" and some sullen dude "in the parking lot, subterranean by [his] own design." Brutal, but loving.
18. Harry Nilsson, "Save The Last Dance For Me" (available on Pussy Cats)
Nilsson legendarily blew his voice out before embarking on Pussy Cats, his drunken collaboration with John Lennon (who was himself in the midst of remaking old rock songs in his own increasingly unkempt image on the LP Rock 'N' Roll). Here, Nilsson puts his ragged rasp to good use on an old standard that Lennon has arranged into a Caribbean death march. Nilsson sounds spent, but happily rides the pulsing string section into bed.
The how & who: Sweep up the peanuts and mop up the puke—our feet hurt, and it's time to stumble home.