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Let’s Dance: The Story Behind David Bowie’s Floor-Filling Hit Song
In Depth

Let’s Dance: The Story Behind David Bowie’s Floor-Filling Hit Song

A genre-spanning tribute to Black-music history, Let’s Dance was the song that made David Bowie a pop giant.


Having released an album almost every year throughout the 70s, David Bowie fell unusually quiet at the start of the 80s. When a new song, Let’s Dance, emerged in March 1983 as the lead single from the album of the same name, it suggested that things would be business as usual for the creative maverick who could bend a range of musical styles to his will – only this time, in league with co-conspirator Nile Rodgers, Bowie let loose a genre-melding song that was also calibrated for success in the pop realm. More than a call to the dancefloor, Let’s Dance knowingly winked at its title’s meaning in vintage slang: an invitation to fight, with Bowie silhouetted in a boxer’s pose on the single’s artwork, the song saw its creator come out swinging as he took on the mainstream. Here is the story of how Let’s Dance turned David Bowie into a global pop icon.

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The backstory: “That night changed his life and my life forever”

It had been three years since the release of Bowie’s previous album, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), but while a movie theme (Cat People (Putting Out Fire), with Giorgio Moroder), a Christmas duet (Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy, with Bing Crosby) and a Queen co-write, Under Pressure, maintained his presence on the singles charts, there seemed to be little to suggest that Bowie was ready to make the fully fledged artistic statement of a brand new album. Such was EMI’s faith in him, however, that a collection of backing tracks allegedly convinced the record label to part with $17 million to sign Bowie to their roster.

Certainly, the smell of hits was in the air, thanks to a fortuitous meeting months earlier, in a New York City hotspot, The Continental – a club frequented by Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers. “I knew the owners and would be there every night, and David was only there that one night,” Rodgers later told Yahoo! Music. “But that night changed his life and my life forever.”

Meeting Nile Rodgers: “That is David Bowie! Next time he calls, give me the phone!”

Though Rodgers felt he was “persona non grata” in the early 80s, caught in the backlash of the “Disco Sucks” movement of 1979, he introduced himself to Bowie, noting that longtime friends of his such as Carlos Alomar and Luther Vandross had appeared on Bowie’s Young Americans album – the 1975 record which had been fashioned as a “plastic soul” homage to the Philadelphia soul scene. As the conversation wound its way from soul and funk music through a shared love of jazz, R&B and beyond, Bowie began to see in Rodgers not only a kindred spirit, but the hitmaker who could help him update his Young Americans approach for the 80s.

“I don’t remember giving him my number, but I must have, because he called my house,” Rodgers later said. Thinking that the calls were a prank, contractors that Rodgers had hired to renovate his place dismissively hung up on “some jerk” who “keeps calling up and saying he’s David Bowie”. “To them, David Bowie – it was like the Pope calling,” Rodgers noted. An impossibility. “I said, ‘That is David Bowie! Next time he calls, give me the phone!’”

Writing Let’s Dance: “I think it could be a hit”

Flying out to Bowie’s home in Blonay, near Montreux, Switzerland, for preliminary writing sessions, Bowie and Rodgers continued their musical conversation over Bowie’s record collection: like an audio scrapbook, Bowie pulled out original copies of R&B hits by The Isley Brothers (Twist And Shout) and jazz-tinged soundtrack work by Henry Mancini (the Peter Gunn TV theme), alerting Rodgers to the kind of influences he was aiming to synthesise on his next record. So the producer was surprised when Bowie entered his bedroom one morning, brandishing a 12-string guitar the likes of which Roger McGuinn had made famous with The Byrds’ jangly folk-rock, albeit one outfitted with just six strings on which Bowie played a nascent idea for a song, telling Rodgers, “I think it could be a hit.”

“What followed was a folksy stretch of a composition with a solid melody,” Rodgers recounted three decades later, writing in his autobiography, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story Of Family, Disco And Destiny. “The only problem was it sounded to me like ‘Donovan meets Anthony Newley’… I’d been mandated to make hits, and could only hear what was missing.” Later admitting to Bowie biographer Paul Trynka that he thought Bowie might have been testing him (“Is he playing me this song he says is going to be a hit to see if I’m some sort of sycophant?” Rodgers asked a friend during an emergency phone call), the Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) and I Want Your Love hitmaker set to work creating a new arrangement that retained Bowie’s melody while bringing in elements of the music they had been discussing.

The demo: “This recording was the first indication of what we could do together”

While Rodgers fleshed the song out, Bowie made arrangements for a recording session at Mountain Studios, just a short drive away, where local musicians, including bassist and future collaborator Erdal Kızılçay (Never Let Me Down, The Buddha Of Suburbia, 1. Outside), gathered to demo Let’s Dance for the first time. “This recording was the first indication of what we could do together as I took his ‘folk song’ and arranged it into something that the entire world would soon be dancing to,” Rodgers said in 2018, when the Let’s Dance demo was given its first official release. “It became the blueprint not only for Let’s Dance the song, but for the entire album as well.”

“On the first version I did of Let’s Dance, I was playing a lot of fast and fancy stuff on the bass,” Kızılçay later said of the session. But while his self-confessed attempts at emulating jazz bassist Jaco Pastorious left Bowie with “a little smile on his face”, Rodgers “came to me and said, ‘Erdal, that’s great the way you play, but don’t play that shit. I love it, but, it’s not your solo album, it’s David Bowie’s!’” Together, the pair worked out a more streamlined bass part that would anchor the recording.

Joking that he’d be upholding a James Brown-like policy during the session, serving bandmembers with a “100-franc fine every time you go wrong”, Bowie and his pickup group ran the song down. Over seven minutes, Rodgers’ wiry chicken-scratch guitar wove the funk backing that would support the finished version of Let’s Dance, while Bowie threw himself into his vocals with all the confidence of a man knowing he had a hit in the making, laughing at the end of the take: “That’s – that’s it. That’s it. Got it! Got it!”

“The musicians were jazz cats and they did a pretty solid version of the charts I’d written,” Rodgers observed in Le Freak. But he was confident that Let’s Dance would go to another level during recording sessions proper. “If you really like that,” he told Bowie, “then you’ll love it when we get back to New York and you hear my guys play it.”

The recording: “I wanted to try people that I’d never worked with before”

Rodgers’ guys gathered at The Power Plant, in New York City, in early December 1982, to record Let’s Dance. Among them was keyboardist Robert Sabino and percussionist Sammy Figueroa, both on loan from Chic. Filling out the ranks were Nona Hendryx bassist Carmine Rojas; Weather Report drummer Omar Hakim; and a four-piece horn section. Explaining his decision to move away from his longtime core group (the pathfinding trio of guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis, who had helped shape such landmark albums as Station To Station, Low and “Heroes”) in favour of largely jazz-schooled musicians who “didn’t have much idea of how I worked in the studio”, Bowie told Musician magazine that he “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”.

In the event, the musicians gelled almost immediately, recording Let’s Dance with all the intuition of a group that had been playing together their entire lives. “We cut the song in one or two takes and it set the tone for the rest of the project,” Rodgers would later write. “The song was going to be a major hit, and we all knew it.”

In its full seven-and-a-half-minute album version, Let’s Dance seamlessly brought together a plethora of Black-music history, rearranging it in Bowie’s whiteboy-funk vision: the wordless “ahh” vocals at the start nodded to The Isley Brothers’ Twist And Shout, via The Beatles’ throat-shredding overhaul; the bassline was pure Bernard Edwards Chic, channelling the vibe of their disco-defining hit Good Times; the skronking trumpet that anticipated Bowie’s entrance was straight out of the free-jazz playbook – even as Bowie rewrote the rules in real time. “The moment we finished off that trumpet solo, I knew we were in new territory and could play by different rules – rules that applied only to white rockers and maybe Miles [Davis], Prince, or Michael Jackson,” Rodgers wrote in Le Freak. “Now I had the freedom to venture beyond pop into jazz territory. I was free to allow cats to improvise – on a pop single! It was heaven…”

Telling Rolling Stone magazine that he made a “drastic move” and “reharmonised” the song to a jazz key, putting “it in B-flat minor 13-chord – which I defy you to find in any pop song”, Rodgers also cheerfully lifted a horn motif from the Peter Gunn TV theme, a regular spin back at Blonay, and used it to punctuate Bowie’s early verse lyrics. Speaking to music critic David Buckley, for the Bowie biography Strange Fascination, he also recounted the “depth and perspective” that Bowie brought to the arrangement: “Having that synth bass with the Fender bass, David threw in little elements like that and gave it that edge and excitement that I probably wouldn’t have thought of.” The “most important part” of the song, he continued, was the breakdown early in the fifth minute, when the instruments dropped out one by one, only to build back up to a point where, as Rodgers had found with the best Chic songs, “the audience would scream”.

The meaning: “It’s a very direct statement about integration of one culture with another”

During overdubs, Bowie added one more defining element, inviting into the studio newcomer bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan. Having discovered the virtuoso guitarist at Montreux Jazz Festival earlier in the year, Bowie knew he could bring to the genre-shuffling Let’s Dance some of Albert King’s atmospheric blues as a contrast to Rodgers’ patented funk.

Understated yet full of intent, Vaughan’s simple first touch landed as “the most perfect B-flat” note Rodgers had “ever heard in my life”. By the end of the song, the relatively unknown hotshot had delivered a career-launching statement. “Stevie strolled into the Power Station and proceeded to rip-up everything one thought about dance records,” Bowie later wrote, praising Vaughan in the sleevenotes for a collection of his Montreux Jazz Festival performances. “In a ridiculously short time he had become midwife to the sound that I had running in my ears all year. A dance form that had its melody rooted in a European sensibility that owed its impact to the blues.”

It was this that ultimately most impressed Rodgers, who told David Buckley, “I believe David Bowie is an absolute genius because he was able to see the great fusion of styles between my background, his background and Stevie Ray.”

In Bowie’s estimation, his “postmodern homage to The Isley Brothers’ Twist and Shout” was “a lot more straightforward than anything I’ve done in a long time”. While its music may have been complex, the song’s lyrics moved away from the symbolic imagery Bowie had often employed in his career, his vocal alternating between commanding and yearning through maudlin lyrics that seemed to tell of doomed romance (“Because my love for you/Would break my heart in two/If you should fall into my arms/And tremble like a flower”). With Let’s Dance, Bowie said, he was “not so concerned with juxtaposing surreal images together. It’s a very direct statement about integration of one culture with another.”

The video: “The Let’s Dance clip showed the rest of the world that there are modern Aboriginals”

Bowie’s statement took on a more critical hue with Let’s Dance’s promo video, as cultural integration made way for a comment on the relationship between Western capitalism and racism in Australia. Filmed in February 1983 at several Australian locations, among them Warrumbungle National Park and a hotel bar in Carinda, with director David Mallet once again behind the camera (Mallet had previously shot the Lodger album’s promo videos and Bowie’s groundbreaking Ashes To Ashes clip), it presented a jump-cut narrative that would resonate strongly with the country’s indigenous population.

Featuring Terry Roberts and Joelene King, two students from the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre, in Sydney, the clip takes its cue from the song’s “put on your red shoes and dance the blues” lyric. After King puts on a pair of high-heeled red shoes found in the Australian Outback, she and Roberts witness an explosion in the distance – what ABC radio broadcaster Daniel Browning called a “very important four seconds” that boldly alluded to the British nuclear-weapons tests of the 50s and 60s which destroyed Aboriginal land. Watching the Let’s Dance video while growing up as a young Black kid in New South Wales, Browning also saw on TV for the first time “faces that I could recognise… that were like me”.

Having lit the touchpaper for Bowie’s own commentary, the video then places Roberts and King in a series of inner-city scenes, from buying jewellery and eating dinner in a high-end restaurant, to scrubbing a wealthy white homeowner’s porch. The shoes themselves make another appearance, this time on the feet of a management-level staffer at a factory, who looks on as a suited, disapproving Bowie takes Roberts to task over his work. “He’s talking about stolen generations, by implication; economic disempowerment; domestic slavery; and the British nuclear tests in four minutes,” Browning noted in 2019. By the clip’s end, Roberts and King have returned to the Outback, stomping on the shoes before dancing freely on a cliff edge.

Assumed to be a reference to the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Red Shoes, in which a pair of cursed red shoes forces their wearer to dance continually, until she amputates her feet in a desperate attempt to escape their power, the shoes in Let’s Dance were, Bowie said, “a found symbol” that “seemed a propos for this particular video. They are the simplicity of the capitalist society – the pair of luxury goods – red leather shoes. Also, they’re the striving for success – Black music is all about ‘put on your red shoes, baby’. Those two qualities were right for the song and video.”

The narrative may not have been linear, but for Bowie the message was clear. “As much as I love this country, it’s probably one of the most racially intolerant in the world,” he told Rolling Stone. “The Aborigines can’t even buy their own drinks in the same bars – they have to go round the back and get them through what’s called a ‘dog hatch’…

“I know this is very cliché,” he continued, but I feel that now that I’m 36 years old, and I’ve got a certain position, I want to start utilising that position to the benefit of my… brotherhood and sisterhood… There’s a lot of injustice. So let’s, you know, say something about it.” Three decades on, Joelene King reflected on her involvement in the video, telling the Sydney Morning Herald, “The Let’s Dance clip showed the rest of the world that there are indigenous people here in Australia, and that we’re not this textbook, carbon copy of someone standing there with a spear, that there are modern Aboriginals.”

The release: “A jittery, bopping single as vital as anything on the radio”

Bowie had also filmed the promo clip for China Girl in Australia, initially thinking he would release that song as the first single from the Let’s Dance album, but Nile Rodgers insisted the title track should lead the way. “The truth is, I told Nile, ‘Why on earth you think that’s a single, I have no idea.’ I had serious doubts,” Bowie admitted to Blender in 2002. “But he said to me, ‘No, you’re wrong. Let’s Dance is the one.’ And he was absolutely right.” Released on 14 March 1983, Let’s Dance topped the charts around the world, becoming Bowie’s second-best-selling single, after his breakthrough song, Space Oddity.

As Bowie embarked on what he described as a period of “concentrating on a lot more basic, earthier kind of material”, Let’s Dance’s success propelled him to stadium venues and mainstream pop-icon status. Its parent album went multi-platinum in the process, setting the pace for sales of the follow-up records Tonight and Never Let Me Down. Praised by Rolling Stone as “a jittery, bopping single as vital as anything on the radio”, Let’s Dance was also, in Billboard’s estimation, a challenge to “the assumptions of the dance-funk genre. Rodgers’ predictable arrangement sets up the rules, while Bowie’s melodic structure and delivery methodically break them.”

The legacy: “Something that felt like the future… but morphed and evergreen”

“It’s got a hard cut, very high on treble – it sears through,” Bowie said of the song, highlighting the mix as part of the reason for its impact on radio. Though he would come to feel conflicted about the era that Let’s Dance ushered in, he always acknowledged the song’s importance in his career. After retiring it from his live set during the return to experimentation that characterised Bowie’s 90s output, he began to revisit Let’s Dance on stage, in an arrangement that seemed to merge his original folk treatment of the song with its final incarnation, as flamenco-like guitars and Bowie’s gentle croon gradually gave way to the powerhouse dance-pop version fans had come to hear.

“This particular song seemed to have everything artistically you want in a song… but something that felt like you had never heard it before,” Nile Rodgers told Rolling Stone in the wake of Bowie’s death, explaining how the man he called “the Picasso of rock’n’roll” created a song with such across-the-board appeal. To Pitchfork, Rodgers furthered: “He wanted something that felt like the future but was rooted in rock’n’roll, something soulful, Black, and R&B, but morphed and evergreen. And that’s what Let’s Dance is.”

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