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Modern Love: The Story Behind David Bowie’s Affair With The Pop Song
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In Depth

Modern Love: The Story Behind David Bowie’s Affair With The Pop Song

Modern Love may sound like a straightforward pop song, but it smuggled David Bowie’s ‘elegant cliché-twisting’ into the mainstream.

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When Modern Love was released as the third single from David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album, its parent record had already flown up the charts, hitting No.4 in the US and going to the top spot around the UK, Europe and Australasia. Following the Let’s Dance song itself and the album’s second single, China Girl, into the upper echelons of the singles charts, Modern Love quickly found its place among the best David Bowie songs of all time. Yet beneath its radio-ready production and singalong chorus lay Bowie’s deep distrust of the twin pillars of religion and romance which society had built itself on. The former outsider artist may have reinvented himself as a mainstream pop star during the early 80s, but he was still committed to using his art to interrogate life as he saw it.

Here is the story of how, with Modern Love, Bowie put “God and man” on trial, in a subversive smash hit that questioned his faith in both.

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The backstory: “I wanted to come in touch with the common factor”

With his first album of the 80s, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Bowie affirmed his art-rock credentials at a time when the UK’s burgeoning New Romantic bands had begun to look to his pioneering 70s work for their own redrawing of pop music’s rules. However, after his Queen collaboration, Under Pressure, became a huge hit in 1981, Bowie sought to strengthen his connection with a broader audience. “I wanted to come in touch with the common factor and not seem to be some sort of alien freak on the outside, which I am not,” he said around the time of the Let’s Dance album’s release. “I feel more a part of everything and I want to express that feeling. I don’t want to seem detached and cold, because I’m not.”

Seeking the best way to realise this, Bowie enlisted Nile Rodgers to co-produce Let’s Dance. Along with bassist Bernard Edwards, Rodgers had turned Chic into a disco behemoth at the end of the 70s, and Bowie saw in the guitarist the perfect collaborator for updating the “plastic soul” stylings of his mid-70s Young Americans phase.

“To be honest, when I first got involved, I wanted to do a very non-commercial, avant-garde album,” Rodgers later recalled to Rolling Stone magazine. But Bowie delivered an entirely different mandate: “Nile, I want you to do what you do best – make great commercial records.”

The recording: “He wanted the record to sound modern and timeless and be rock’n’roll based”

“When we did Let’s Dance, the pre-production was so clear,” Rodgers told music critic Paul Trynka, for the Bowie biography Starman. Talking to Rolling Stone, he detailed record-hunting sessions and trawls through collections of vintage photographs, as Bowie relayed to his new collaborator the sonic and visual touchstones he had in mind for a project fans now regard as one of the best 80s albums.

“He came to my apartment one day and he had a picture of Little Richard in a red suit getting into a red Cadillac,” Rodgers said. “And he said to me, ‘Nile, darling, the record should sound like this!… When he showed me that picture, I knew that he wanted the record to sound modern and timeless and be rock’n’roll based. And what he called rock’n’roll was the original definition of rock’n’roll, was race music, was Black music; it was that music that was taboo.”

Setting up in New York City’s Power Station studios in early December 1982, Bowie, Rodgers and a handpicked ensemble, including jazz fusion drummer Omar Hakim, Chic percussionist Sammy Figueroa and breakout blues star Stevie Ray Vaughan, began work on Let’s Dance. The second song to be recorded during the sessions, right after Let’s Dance itself, Modern Love found Bowie and Rodgers entering new territory together, welding a post-disco 6/8 guitar part to a Motown beat, swing-styled horns and a barroom piano courtesy of Robert Sabino, whose ability to turn his hand to any style of music would earn him spots on many of the best Chic songs (Dance, Dance, Dance, (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) and I Want Your Love among them), plus classic records by Sister Sledge (We Are Family), Madonna (Like A Virgin) and Carly Simon.

“I felt that it had to have some kind of interesting intro to hook you right at the top,” Rodgers wrote in the liner notes to the Bowie box set Loving The Alien (1983-1989). The end result was, he noted elsewhere, “an old barrelhouse rocker with a real pounding Little Richard-type piano, while on top it has a very sophisticated jazz horn sound”.

The lyrics: “Some of the most daring songwriting of Bowie’s career”

Bowie acknowledged the influence of the flamboyant 50s rocker on Modern Love, telling Guitar World magazine, “When I do my little call-and-response things on songs like Modern Love, it all comes from Little Richard.” But though the song’s chorus was set to an upbeat rhythm and a cheery melody, Bowie’s back and forth with backing singers David Spinner and George and Frank Simms found him agitating over his feelings towards romance – something he alternately claims he’s “never going to fall for” and which “gets me to the church on time”, en route to his final denunciation of the constructs of “God and man”: “No confessions/No religion/Don’t believe in modern love.”

Throughout the song’s verses, Bowie places images of disillusionment (“I catch the paper boy/But things don’t really change”) alongside lines that can be read as an ambivalent commentary on his own creative gifts (“It’s not really work/It’s just the power to charm”). In his opening assertion, “I know when to go out/I know when to stay in/Get things done,” he even makes an oblique nod to his famed Space Oddity and Ashes To Ashes character Major Tom, of whom listeners to the latter song had been cautioned “not to mess with” if they wanted to “get things done”.

Calling Modern Love “a rock statement about growing up and facing commitments”, Rolling Stone’s Ken Tucker made his own reference to Bowie’s famous space song, declaring, “I’d give a hundred Space Odditys for the elegant cliché-twisting at the climax of Modern Love,” and praising the lyrics as “some of the most daring songwriting of Bowie’s career”.

The release: “He wanted the whole thing to be great”

When Modern Love was released as a single, on 12 September 1983, the Let’s Dance album had already been out for five months, and Bowie was well into his worldwide Serious Moonlight Tour, a recording from which, taken from a 13 July performance at the Montreal Forum, provided the live performance of Modern Love issued as the single’s B-side. Placed at the start of the album, the song kicked off a three-track run which also included China Girl and Let’s Dance, the trio making good on Bowie’s intentions to unleash his most pop-minded statement yet. “He wanted the whole thing to be great,” Nile Rodgers told Uncut magazine decades later. “And that’s why we had not only Let’s Dance, but also Modern Love, which was groundbreaking.”

In the promo video for Modern Love – another live performance, filmed at Philadelphia’s Spectrum Theater on 20 July – Bowie appeared in his Let’s Dance-era canary-yellow suit and blond pompadour hair, in an update of the Little Richard photo that had anchored the whole album project. Looking back at the video in the year of Bowie’s death, The A.V. Club’s Kyle Ryan wrote, “The look of Bowie and band presages the swing revival that would follow a decade later,” before suggesting that it was also “a winking allusion to the Bowie-influenced New Romantics – Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, etc” that had drawn so freely from his work. Bolstered by heavy radio play and MTV support, Modern Love went to No.2 in the UK and No.14 in the US, on its way to racking up over half a million sales at home and earning gold status across the Atlantic.

The legacy: “He could sling straightforward rave-ups with the best of ’em”

Hailed variously as “a perfect pop song about his cynicism at the world” (NME) and a tune whose wide appeal “plays as well on a wedding dancefloor as it does at a hipster dive bar” (Uncut), Modern Love was treated with fondness by its creator throughout his career. Often closing his Serious Moonlight shows, the song also provided a highlight of Bowie’s Live Aid performance and would go on to make regular setlist appearances in later tours, including what would become his final full concert, at Hurricane Festival, in Germany, on 24 June 2004.

Re-recorded with new lyrics in 1987, for a Pepsi advert Bowie filmed with Tina Turner, Modern Love was also later given an atmospheric remix for Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream documentary. Other artists, too, have had their way with the song, with Nile Rodgers revealing that Kenny Loggins had lifted from Modern Love in order to score a smash hit of his own: “I stole the guitar riff from the intro to Modern Love for the beginning of the song Footloose,” Rodgers recalled the soundtracks hitmaker saying. “It’s exactly the same!”

Unlikely covers have come from US alt-rockers Matchbox Twenty and Scottish rock trio Biffy Clyro, the latter of whom gave the song a howling makeover during a Bowie tribute show hosted by radio DJ Howard Stern. The most joyous tribute to Modern Love may, however, have been in the cult indie movie Frances Ha, in which future Barbie director and co-writer Greta Gerwig captures the euphoria of the song’s intro as she dances through the New York City streets.

Reflecting on the song’s infectious nature, Kyle Ryan wrote, “Few pop songs can pull off singalongs to the lyrics ‘God and man, no religion’,” while pinpointing just how Bowie “obscures the anxiety about faith – in both the almighty and relationships” that makes for the heart of the song: “As art-damaged as Bowie liked to be,” Ryan wrote, “he could sling straightforward rave-ups with the best of ’em, and Modern Love is basically one long hook.”

Lodged firmly in the public’s consciousness, the success of Modern Love as one of the best 80s songs, and of Let’s Dance as a whole, even challenged Bowie’s belief in himself – if only for a moment. “David might not want me to say this,” Nile Rodgers revealed, “but for the first few weeks, even he was surprised. He’s a big artist and a rock’n’roll demigod, but there was still a garage-band guy in there who couldn’t believe his record was selling. I’d be lying in bed, and the phone would ring: ‘Hello, Nile? This is David. Look what’s happening, did you see Billboard this week? Wow, unbelievable!’”

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