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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Dancing in the Moonlight" is the sound of harmless joy and escape...

It's light, it's upbeat... and the context in which it was written definitely explains its sound.

Sometimes the simplest songs carry the most emotional affect.

Maybe it's because they're so easy to digest in their short forms and repeating melodies that we can so easily attach certain feelings to them. Maybe it's because we latch onto a certain aspect of said repeating form. Maybe it's just that the simple structure they picked fits the mood they want convey.

Regardless of the "why," there's the simple fact that these songs are beloved by many for one reason or another. King Harvest's "Dancing in the Moonlight" has long received love for its lightness and dance-friendly sound. Its carefree talk of dancing seems a world away from the stresses of daily life, and in that way the song receives further love for being a much-needed escape for many.

King Harvest had initially formed in Ithaca, New York in the late 1960s, but disbanded and then reformed in Paris before recording and releasing "Dancing in the Moonlight" in 1972. The song was the brainchild of Sherman Kelly, who wrote the song for his previous band, the amazingly named Boffalongo, before his brother Wells Kelly brought the track to King Harvest. I had never heard Boffalongo's version of the song until tonight, and in that regard I'm surprised. The original version is slower, more guitar-based, and with a more intense beat — qualities also seen in the song's 2001 cover by British band Toploader. It makes me wonder if Toploader's lead singer, Joseph Washbourn, had heard the Boffalongo version.

The King Harvest version's lightness is audible right away, thanks to Ron Altbach's Wurlitzer electric piano line. Altbach outline's the song's unchanging four-chord progression (a cycle of fifths) through figure in the keyboard's high register which somehow sound both very delicate and mighty danceable. Producer Jack Robinson's call to play the introduction higher up was a brilliant stroke, given the effect it lent the track. It's incredibly hard for me to sit still whenever I hear that intro, let alone the rest of the song. Drummer Steve Cutler and frontman Dave "Doc" Robinson's bass keep the opening's delicate nature as they enter. Both instruments contribute to later sections' comparative intensity, but their holding back in terms of volume and dynamic in the introduction helps the song keeps its lightness.

Along with a later bluesy guitar solo, Cutler and Robinson also contribute the song's jazz-influenced sound, with Cutler's brushstroke-like playing in the opening especially giving off that feeling. I say brushstroke-like because I found out during my research that Cutler didn't actually use typical drum brush sticks; rather, he took the... less traditional (and less sanitary?) approach of using a toilet brush. Listening again, it definitely sounds a bit more abrasive than brushes, so I guess the effect works...? It just strikes me as odd, but if that's what they had, that's what they had. Let's hope he gave his drums a deep cleaning afterward.

With the chords not changing at all throughout the song, interest is kept by small changes in the arrangement. Cutler's drum fills (with normal sticks, thankfully) lead up to and punctuate the beginning of a few verse, momentarily increasing the energy before going right back to the status quo. A fuller drum beat and some cymbal work gives some energy to the choruses, but I've always felt that the three-part vocal harmony is what carries the refrains. As big a change as two-part harmony can be, three-part harmony brings about a dramatic change in a piece's fullness, especially when going straight from a solo vocalist. The direct switch right at the chorus highlights both its syncopation and its dance-celebrating lyrics.

When I first decided on writing this article, I didn't expect to find out much about "Dancing in the Moonlight" — it all sounds pretty straightforward to me, and with a pretty clear theme in a celebration of life through communal dance. For me, it's been an anthem of escapism and enjoying the simple things in life. Sherman Kelly also found escape through the song he wrote, but his escape was much more warranted and therapeutic. As written on his website, Kelly wrote "Dancing in the Moonlight" after nearly being killed by a gang on St. Croix, in the US Virgin Islands — a gang which later killed eight fellow Americans. Through the song, Kelly found a momentary release from his trauma and recovery as he dreamed about a more peaceful existence.

It's hard to hear a song the same way once you uncover such a harrowing truth about it. In my case, now knowing the story behind "Dancing in the Moonlight," I find it all the more remarkable that such a creative burst and such a timeless tune could emerge from the pain and darkness Sherman Kelly experienced. In that respect, the song can also be a testament to the power of songwriting: not only can it so easily elicit and share emotions with the masses, but it can also be powerfully therapeutic. Kelly's story makes it all the more incredible that the song endures in multiple versions to this day.


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