Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Neutron Dance": Where Molecular Chemistry And R-Rated '80s Cinema Collide

Dictionary.com definition of "neutron":
noun, Physics.
1. an elementary particle having no charge, mass slightly greater than that of a proton, and spin of ½: a constituent of the nuclei of all atoms except those of hydrogen. Symbol: n.
Quite what this word has to do with dancing is one of the great riddles of our time. I've heard of the square dance, the line dance, even the Riverdance, but I can't say I've ever seen anyone do the Neutron Dance. It may be so small that one can only witness it through a high-powered microscope. Nevertheless, on their contribution to the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack, the Pointer Sisters claim they have been doing it. So what exactly is this dance? For our answer, we turn to surprisingly prolific and eclectic songwriter Allee Willis, co-writer of everything from Earth, Wind & Fire's "September" to the Pet Shop Boys' "What Have I Done To Deserve This" to the Friends theme "I'll Be There For You" (!). It turns out the Neutron Dance isn't as harmless as it seems. From a Songfacts.com interview:
It was not written for Beverly Hills Cop. It was written for a movie called Streets of Fire. This was a movie that came and went. And we were told that there was a scene on a bus that was leaving town after there had been this nuclear holocaust, and that a '50s doo-wop black group was going to be at the back of the bus that the lead couple was escaping on. And so Danny Sembello and I just met that day, he was the younger brother of Michael Sembello who had a hit at that time called "Maniac." I was very disinterested in songwriting at that point, and I'm writing with this kid who's never had a record before, and I just wanted to get him in and out. He was a phenomenal keyboard player, and I just said, "Play the most common sounding old fashioned '50s black music bass line that you can think of." And he just started doing the (sings rhythm for "Neutron Dance"). And I'm someone who could write a melody to a spoon falling on the table. So I literally sang that melody down. First time down, he just kind of followed and went to the right places. And then I said, "Let's just write this quick lyric." Because I knew everyone in town was competing to be in this movie, so I didn't really have a lot of confidence we would get it. And it was a very autobiographical lyric for what was going on with me at the time. I was very dissatisfied with songwriting, really feeling like I wasn't able to fully express myself through it, because I'm writing for other people, ultimately you're saying what they want to say ... And it was all this stuff going on in my life: "I don't want to take it anymore, I'll just stay here locked behind the door. Just no time to stop and get away, because I work so hard to make it every day." Really a lyric about all these things falling apart in your life, and you know what, just get it together and change your life.
So, in a way, "Neutron Dance" is a mid-life crisis song a la "Pressure" or "Dancing In The Dark"? And according to Willis, not all of the crises were conceived via dramatic license:
I used to have a little pink 1962 Corvair, and as we were writing this song, I look out the window, and there's someone out in front of my house trying to jimmy open the door of the Corvair. So I race out of the studio, and as I'm running out - and I tape everything - everything - so I have this, and I'm "Hey!" You hear me racing out of the room and screaming back at him, "Someone stole my brand new Chevrolet!" and that was that line. And when I saw that movie - I went to a pre-screening of it - it was mind boggling to me for many, many reasons, but the first one of which, "Neutron Dance," which is the song that opens the movie, on that line, "someone stole my brand new Chevrolet," this cigarette truck that Eddie Murphy is locked up in the back of, screaming through the streets of Detroit, slams into this Chevrolet. And "I'm just burning, doing the Neutron Dance," which to me meant someone could push the button tomorrow and we could all go up in smoke, so make your change now. On that line, a car explodes. I mean, I couldn't have written a better song for a movie scene if my life depended on it.
Ummm ... I'm not sure that an action sequence featuring a truck crashing into a Chevrolet truly captures the apocalyptic tenor of the chorus, but if she's satisfied, I'm satisfied. So in addition to being a mid-life crisis song, it's also another Secret Cold War Allegory song a la "1999" or "I Melt With You"? And here we were, thinking all these '80s songs were completely vapid and apolitical. Apparently Willis even ended up on the Soviet "enemies" list:
The Russian government named me as one of the most dangerous people living in the United States, because they mis-translated it as "neutron bomb." The first verse they translated as "a powerful nuclear explosion is approaching, it will annihilate everyone; who cares if you have no car, no job, no money, just dance, dance, dance." And this was a huge article in Pravda, and I was supposed to be going to Russia with BMI, and I wasn't let in the country. I mean, it was nuts.
Look out Communist Bloc: that Pointer Sisters song is going to topple your regime!! But what the KGB seems to have missed is that "Neutron Dance" is really about fighting for survival in a world gone berserk. It's like the "Stayin' Alive" of the '80s, or the cheesy dance-pop version of "The Message." There's some fairly bleak imagery here:
Industry don't pay a price that's fair
All the common people breathing filthy air (Lord have mercy)
Roof caved in on all the simple dreams
And to get ahead your heart starts pumping schemes
Lord have mercy! It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how the Pointer Sisters keep from going under. When your heart starts pumping schemes instead of blood, you know you've got a problem. And all this time I thought it was a song about electrons and laser beams (which is, if I'm not mistaken, the source of the fluttery sound I'm hearing every time the title is uttered during the chorus). For years I thought the lyric "I know there's a pot of gold for me" was actually "I know there's a particle for me." Turns out doing the Neutron Dance is more like signing up for food stamps.

And yet, in the music video, clearly the Pointer Sisters haven't let the perils of modern society get them down. Dressed in short neon skirts and clutching glowing florescent dildos, they're having more fun as movie theater ushers than I ever did back in college. Bronson Pinchot makes an appearance as the exasperated and ultimately ineffectual theater manager: "I don't want you stopping ... to go fix your make-up, to go make phone calls, to buy Raisinettes. Do you know how that works?" This guy must have dealt with a lot of slacking off in his day. But sadly the sisters have other plans, as they gradually take over the theater and encourage the audience to dance directly in front of the screen. Hey, I paid good money for these seats! One of the sisters also appears to be frantically spooling the film in the projection booth. Here's a word of advice: if your film is about to screen, and you've left it up to a Pointer Sister to piece it together in time, you really haven't delegated responsibility properly.

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