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‘Let’s Dance’: How David Bowie Came Out Fighting With A Pure Pop Album
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‘Let’s Dance’: How David Bowie Came Out Fighting With A Pure Pop Album

Looking to the mainstream with ‘Let’s Dance’, David Bowie scored his biggest-selling album while unleashing some of his most-loved songs.

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Following the recording sessions for 1980’s art-rock landmark, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), David Bowie entered a period of artistic exploration away from the glare of pop stardom. Pursuing his interest in acting, he starred in the Broadway play The Elephant Man from July 1980 to January 1981, and played himself in the German film Christiane F, for which he also provided the soundtrack. He’d intended to promote Scary Monsters, which had been released in September 1980, with a tour, but the murder of John Lennon, his close friend and collaborator, that December affected Bowie a great deal. But though he stepped away from the limelight, retreating to his home in Switzerland in January 1981, Bowie continued to work, finding his way towards the new sound he would unveil on his 15th album, Let’s Dance.

Listen to ‘Let’s Dance’ here.

Scoring an enormous hit with his Queen collaboration, Under Pressure, released in October 1981, and recoding with electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder for the title track of the 1982 film Cat People, Bowie kept his hand in on the charts with a new, mainstream-minded approach to his music. Meanwhile, he continued to build his acting résumé. Taking the lead role in a BBC adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal resulted in an accompanying soundtrack EP, while parts in the movies The Hunger and Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence saw him play a vampire and a prisoner of war, respectively. All the while, his musical stock was as high as ever – the leading lights of the New Romantic and post-punk movements owed a huge debt to Bowie, both in terms of sound and style, and with the gaps between albums growing, his next record was hugely anticipated.

“I’d been mandated to make hits”

Typically, Bowie looked to shake things up again, choosing to work with one of the hottest hitmakers of the day, Chic’s Nile Rodgers, after a chance meeting at Continental, an after-hours bar in Manhattan. “We wound up talking all night about all sorts of music,” Rodgers recounted in his 2011 autobiography, Le Freak. “I don’t remember anyone ever bothering us; we were like old friends sitting on a couch in someone’s living room. The wide-ranging, reference-heavy, autodidactic rap made me feel like I was back in the mix of the beatniks, hippies, and jazzers of my youth. At some point I must have given him my phone number, but I don’t remember doing so.”

Bowie contacted Rodgers to arrange a meeting in New York City, and the two musicians quickly bonded over a shared love of jazz and museum visits. In a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone, Rodgers remembered the moment Bowie felt he’d found the aesthetic of the new record: “He came to my apartment one day and he had a picture of Little Richard in a red suit getting into a red Cadillac. And he said to me, ‘Nile, darling, the record should sound like this!’ And he showed me the picture. And I knew exactly – think of how crazy this was – what he meant. He didn’t mean he wanted his record to sound like a Little Richard record. He said, ‘This visual thing is what we want to achieve aurally in every sense of the word.’ Even though the picture was obviously from the 50s or the early 60s, it looked modern. The Cadillac looked like a spaceship, and Little Richard was in this monochromatic outfit which then later on became David Bowie in the yellow monochromatic outfit with the yellow hair.”

Rodgers may as well have been describing the dancefloor-filling song that would become the new album’s title track – a thrilling, souped-up update on classic 50s rock’n’roll.

“I wanted people that I’d never worked with before”

It didn’t start off quite that way, though. In the sleevenotes to the 2018 box set Loving The Alien (1983-1988), Rodgers recalled the embryonic state the Let’s Dance song was in when they began demo sessions in Switzerland: “Not long after I arrived, Bowie strolled into my bedroom with a guitar. ‘Hey, Nile, listen to this,’ he said, his skinny frame silhouetted just inside the doorway. ‘I think it could be a hit.’ He started strumming a 12-string acoustic guitar that had only six strings. What followed was a folksy sketch of a composition with a solid melody: the only problem was it sounded to me like ‘Donovan meets Anthony Newley’. And I don’t mean that as a compliment. It wasn’t bad by artistic standards, but I’d been mandated to make hits, and could only hear what was missing.”

Once they set to work on a full arrangement, a pop blockbuster was born. The rest of the Let’s Dance album was then demoed in just a few days with assistance from Erdal Kızılçay, a talented multi-instrumentalist from Turkey who would go on to work with Bowie on Never Let Me Down, The Buddha Of Suburbia and 1. Outside.

Bowie’s wish for a fresh start extended beyond his choice of producer. By the time recording sessions for the album began at New York’s Power Station studios in early December 1982, he had recruited an all-new backing band. “I wanted to have a little relief from the guys that I usually work with. I wanted to try people that I’d never worked with before, so that I couldn’t predict how they were going to play,” he told Musician magazine the following May. “They didn’t have much idea of how I worked in the studio. And as I hadn’t recorded in two years, it seemed perfectly natural ’round about now to try new people. Nile picked up most of the rest of the band for me: Omar Hakim from Weather Report; Carmine Rojas from Nona Hendryx’s band; Stevie [Ray Vaughan] and Nile played guitar, and that was the nucleus.”

The meticulous demos paid off. Let’s Dance was recorded remarkably quickly, in just 17 days, with vocal and instrumental overdubs added in January.

A tough act to follow

While Bowie had hired Rodgers to give him hits, even he may have been taken aback at the chart-busting success of the album’s first single and title track. Let’s Dance was released in March 1983 and became a worldwide smash, hitting No.1 on both sides of the Atlantic. Bowie and Rodgers had created an irresistible pop cocktail: the exhilarating nod to Twist And Shout of the introduction; the tough, snappy groove of the verses; and the soaring romance of the chorus.

It was a tough act to follow, but China Girl and Modern Love very nearly managed it when the Let’s Dance album was released the following month, on 14 April. China Girl was a remake of a song that Bowie wrote with Iggy Pop for the ex-Stooge’s 1977 debut album, The Idiot, but where Iggy’s version was a raw, ramshackle rocker, Bowie and Rodgers’ arrangement gave the song a pumped-up makeover, revealing a pop gem in the process. Modern Love, meanwhile, was such an effervescent and peppy homage to rock’n’roll that the cynical lyric got lost on many of the listeners who sent it to No.6 in the US and No.2 in the UK.

Elsewhere, Without You was a Chic soul ballad in all but name, featuring both bassist Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson, with a beautifully delicate vocal from Bowie; the angular and unsettling Ricochet was the closest Bowie would come to emulating the art-rock of his late 70s albums; Criminal World saw him covering the little-known UK band Metro (and was especially notable for a searing guitar solo from Stevie Ray Vaughan); Cat People (Putting Out Fire) gave his Moroder collaboration a stomping rock makeover; and Shake It ended things on a Talking Heads-lite bit of funk-pop.

Let’s Dance topped charts worldwide and went on to sell over ten million copies, making it David Bowie’s biggest-selling album of all time. While his music had been winning countless hearts and minds for over a decade, now he’d gone mainstream – a change in direction that would have a major effect on his music over the coming years.

David Bowie wanted a hit, and he certainly got one.

‘Let’s Dance’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

Modern Love

Built on a Motown beat, rollicking piano and jazzy horn stabs indebted to Little Richard, Let’s Dance’s opening cut sets out the album’s stall from the off: throwback R&B super-charged with Nile Rodgers’ bombastic production and finished with lyrics which explore life’s dichotomies. Precision-tooled for chart success, it immediately took its place among the best David Bowie songs when it went to No.2 in the UK and No.6 on Billboard’s Rock Albums & Top Tracks chart. “When we did Modern Love, I felt that it had to have some kind of interesting intro to hook you right at the top,” Rodgers wrote in the book that accompanied the Loving The Alien (1983-1989) box set. Job done, Modern Love’s intro was almost immediately lifted wholesale by Kenny Loggins for the hit theme to Footloose. Modern Love itself would go on to enjoy its own cinematic moment, soundtracking Greta Gerwig’s joyous dance through the New York City streets in the beloved indie flick Frances Ha.

China Girl

Originally written in collaboration with Iggy Pop, for The Stooges frontman’s debut album, The Idiot, China Girl was tidied up for inclusion on Let’s Dance. The churning guitars and grizzled stance of the original version are eschewed in favour of an Eastern-tinged guitar riff doubled on keyboard, and a Bowie vocal that sways between dramatic and desirous. The doomy lyrics, however, are all Pop’s: “An extraordinary lyric, and it was really sort of thrown out as he was writing it,” Bowie would recall. If Modern Love pits “God and man” against each other, here Bowie places cultural opposites in the frame, the perfect primer for the collision of musical styles that follows.

Let’s Dance

The first song recorded for Bowie’s brand-new project, Let’s Dance’s title track “became the blueprint for… the entire album”, according to Rodgers. What Bowie described as a “postmodern homage to The Isley Brothers’ Twist And Shout” borrowed all that and more from Black music history, as he and Rodgers transformed a tentative folk tune into a smash’n’grab through R&B, jazz, slick Chic funk and, courtesy of Stevie Ray Vaughan, virtuoso blues guitar. Released as the album’s lead single, Let’s Dance served notice of a new era in Bowie’s career: one of gargantuan sales and a mainstream pop appeal the likes of which he’d never experienced before.

Without You

Nile Rodgers’ long-time Chic bandmate Bernard Edwards was drafted in to add bass to Without You, and he laid down his busy fretwork in just one take. If Young Americans had been Bowie’s “plastic soul” homage to the Philadelphia soul scene of the 70s, Without You sees him try out some blue-eyed soul stylings on what is the Let’s Dance album’s most laidback cut. Closing out Side One of the original vinyl, the song acts as a palette cleanser for the more demanding moment that opens Side Two.

Ricochet

With little in the way of melody or chorus, Ricochet seemed like a deliberate challenge to the hordes that flocked to Let’s Dance on the strength of its singles. Having more in common with the looping art-rock of Lodger or, in its spoken-word intonations, the later avant-garde leanings of 1. Outside, the song offers snapshots of a world in turmoil: “Turn the holy pictures so they face the wall”, “Sound of the devil breaking parole”, “Teaching life in a violent new way”. Nile Rodgers would confirm that Ricochet, originally titled Shame Shame (It’s Not The End Of The World), consciously revisited the Afrobeat influences that Bowie and Brian Eno had incorporated into Lodger, and “which David and I were inspired by at the time… We had a saxophone choir with trumpets for punch, and I made it all hip and swingy since David loved jazz,” he wrote. “I had to fight the drums, so that was my orchestration on that.”

Criminal World

Bowie didn’t so much smuggle LGBTQ+ identity politics into the mainstream as he did plaster them across every surface he could find. From his “I’m gay” Melody Maker interview of 1972 onwards, he made gender fluidity a crucial part of his presentation, but with this cover of Criminal World, the debut single by short-lived late-70s outfit Metro, things went the other way: subsuming their new-wave slow burn into the Let’s Dance sound, he made the original’s suggestively queer lyrics – the cause of a BBC ban on the original – a less threatening prospect to the masses, softening much of the gender play with a few re-writes and an altogether more muscular arrangement.

Cat People (Putting Out Fire)

Like China Girl, Cat People (Putting Out Fire) was another reworking of a song Bowie had previously released, this time the theme tune to Paul Schrader’s 1982 horror film, Cat People. After writing lyrics to layers of brooding synthscapes composed by Italian electro pioneer Giorgio Moroder, Bowie delivered a Grammy-nominated vocal performance in just two takes – what Moroder would later describe as “one of my easiest, fastest and greatest recordings ever”. Revisiting the song during the Let’s Dance sessions, Bowie recreated the drama of his original vocal performance, but let his sidemen loose on a thumping full-band arrangement in keeping with the rest of the album.

Shake It

If Let’s Dance’s title track is a complex mix of decades’ worth of Black music history, the album’s closing song, Shake It, pares everything back to basics: a swinging rhythm, squiggly synths, gospel-hued backing vocals and boy-girl lyrics given just the slightest twist (“Sitting on a flagstone, talking to a faceless girl”). Ultimately believing in the curative powers of dance (“We’re the kind of people who can shake it if we’re feeling blue”), Shake It offers a no-fuss end to a meticulously crafted record that delivered on Nile Rodgers’ mandate to make hits.

Buy David Bowie vinyl box sets and more, at the Dig! store.

Original article: 14 April 2021

Updated: 11 April 2023. Extra words: Jason Draper

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