August 16, 2018
What connects New York’s no wave scene, Salsoul remixer Shep Pettibone, ’80s pulp fiction flick Desperately Seeking Susan, and a UK dub producer’s childhood living room “danceteria”?
Wrongtom celebrates Madonna’s 60th birthday with a personal journey ‘Into The Groove’ of Madonna’s 1985 hit.
It’s the summer of 1985 and I’m stood in one of my favourite places on earth, the back room of my mum and dad’s house. (I was 10 and had hardly been anywhere else). I’m eagerly poised in front of the record player with a fresh new Madonna 7″ straight from WH Smith. It goes on the deck, the needle drops and in come the caustic electronic drums and chugging synth bassline. Madonna coos, “and you can dance… for inspiration” and within seconds I’m cutting ridiculous shapes across the carpet which is already buckled and chafed, much to my mum’s dismay, due to my brother and his gang learning to breakdance.
The track finishes, and I quickly whip the needle back to the start, repeating and elaborating on the routines with every play, until someone in the house gets sick of hearing it over and over, or I’m called out for dinner. This was a common routine with many a record, but for some reason, ‘Into The Groove’ stands out more than most.
Sometimes I’d take it over the road to play it on my grandad’s old stereogram. An old-fashioned and inappropriate piece of machinery for such new-fangled machine music. My grandad, a former rag-time pianist, was bemused yet not despondent. Undeterred, I continued to dance. When he tired of it, I’d head to my neighbour Jim’s house where he’d join me in my elastic movements across his parents’ living room.
I’m not sure when I got bored of it myself – if I did at all – but it was obviously good enough to include on my first ever mixtape which I put together in December that year, alongside the likes of Doug E Fresh, Grandmaster Flash, Phil *ahem* Collins, and ‘Think Of Me’ also by Madonna.
Skip forward to 1987 and my brother comes home with You Can Dance, an album of Madonna classics remixed and mixed together much like Morgan Khan’s Electro series, which were also firm favourites in our backroom danceteria. I’m listening through the album, sometimes dancing, but it all sounds slightly off, though not necessarily in a bad way. Suddenly there’s the cooing again, and then the drums, followed by hiccupping vocal stabs, “ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-c’mon!” before the full track eventually cuts through the anticipation. You guessed it, I’m dancing, through the verse, into the chorus and out of the bridge, when out of nowhere Madonna calls out “You Got To…” echoing into a percussion break. I stop dancing, initially out of shock and surprise, and then just to listen.
The You Can Dance version of ‘Into The Groove’ marks what was probably my first visceral experience with the art of the remix. I’d heard dub and hip-hop tracks which did this, but not with tracks I’d devoured to this extent. I was fascinated, especially after the breakdown, where remixer Shep Pettibone drops out whole sections, refocussing the bassline, or repurposing a vocal harmony so it’s now the lead. I revisited this technique myself when tackling recent Django Django tracks for my Marble Dubs mini album. It’s a track that’s stayed with me, shaped my career, still winds up in my DJ box, and even after I’d finished sitting and picking it apart that day in ’87, it continued to make me dance.
Despite dissecting it to within an inch of its life, exactly what makes me love this record so much still alludes me. Despite loving a fair few Madonna records, I wouldn’t call myself a huge fan. Sometimes I find her voice a little jarring. There’s even something clunky about the song, though I guess that’s its naive charm. Beyond all her bravado, flamboyant wardrobe, and shading Kevin Costner for using the word “swell”, she’s just a girl that wanted to dance.
I’m sure the film Desperately Seeking Susan, which featured the song, helped with the fascination. As a kid, Susan Seidelman’s paean to Downtown Manhattan, as seen through the confused eyes of a concussed Jersey girl, seemed ridiculously cool. By the ’90s, people would tell me it was ’80s pop-dross, but in hindsight it’s perhaps the glossy swan song of No-New York, the precocious little sister to the no-wave films which preceded it, by the likes of Amos Poe, Beth & Scott B, and Seidelman herself, whose debut feature Smithereens was largely overlooked.
Don’t believe me? Take a few minutes to wade through the cameos and walk-ons from some of no-wave’s key players: Richard Hell as Susan’s already dead one night stand, DNA’s Arto Lindsay as the classified ads guy giving the film its name, Konk trumpeter and original Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson shows his face, (Fishing With) John Lurie is Dez’s sax playing neighbour. No, this is more than just your average wacky ’80s romance; it’s peppered with satire and subtle jokes about gentrification and ’80s excess. I still chuckle when the nouveau-riche Gary Glass exclaims “you bought a used jacket? What, are we poor!?” then later finds himself completely out of his comfort zone following Madonna, as Susan, into a club and onto the dance floor, where she flails her limbs and gyrates to her own song, confusingly.
Perhaps it’s the confusion that appeals. On the surface, ‘Into The Groove’ is prime plastic pop, but is it a love song about dancing, or a dance song about loving? It’s a song Madonna admitted she feels “retarded singing, but everyone seems to like it.” But behind these simple monochrome lyrics is a more colourful backdrop, with writer/producer, and Madonna’s former Breakfast Club bandmate Stephen Bray tapping into NYC’s club scene, particularly the Nuyorican freestyle-electro sound. There’s a darkness to the track, its minor key reflecting dimly-lit dance floors, and a strange melancholy echoing the film’s desperate theme. It seems ridiculous now that Madonna could pine for a dance partner, but there she was, tired of dancing all by herself to frenetic Puerto Rican style electro funk.
As she says of the track’s composition: “When I was writing it, I was sitting in a fourth-floor walk-up on Avenue-B, and there was this gorgeous Puerto Rican boy sitting across me that I wanted to go out on a date with, and I just wanted to get the song over with. I ultimately did go out with him and the song was finished just before my last date with him, which I’m kinda happy that it did not continue… The dance floor was quite a magical place for me. I started off wanting to be a dancer, so that had a lot to do with the song. The freedom that I always feel when I’m dancing, that feeling of inhabiting your body, letting yourself go, expressing yourself through music. I always thought of it as a magical place – even if you’re not taking ecstasy. Hence that came to me as the primary inspiration for ‘Into the Groove’.”
Maybe it’s this magical place that caught my attention. My mum’s back room might have been a different world from those murky Manhattan dance floors, but within seconds of hearing that bassline I was there, with Madonna, flinging my limbs around in wild freedom. Anywhere I could dance was, and continues to be my magical place, and thanks in part to Madonna I keep dancing, for inspiration.