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Looking back at David Bowie's pop dalliance 'Let's Dance'

Even when you are as creatively prolific as someone like David Bowie, there are always new territories that seem more alluring than what you have already explored. 

Although Bowie’s 1983, Let’s Dance defined the height of his commercial success, Bowie still considers it his lowest creative period and often referred to the time as his ‘Phil Collins’ years. The reason for this is because, although there are some magnificent songs found on Let’s Dance, the production quality felt skin deep — there was something very plastic about it, and one couldn’t help but think that it was somewhat shallow. For someone as deep as Bowie, many see the record is a bit of a rip-off.

Those listeners who discovered Bowie for the first time with his record Let’s Dance may think that he merely got lucky, trying to ride the wave of ’80s pop kitsch, endlessly wanting to be producer Nile Rodgers. Those who had been following Bowie for years knew that while Let’s Dance is important, it is just a splash in an ocean compared to his entire catalogue. 

Up until 1983, whether at this point it had become intentional or just a force of habit, Bowie used different locations as his source of inspiration and would absorb the ongoing trends and synthesise them with other off-beat types of art. Those who were very familiar with Bowie knew not to take this further metamorphosis of his ‘plastic soul’ into ‘plastic disco king’, too seriously, as he would be changing as soon as he got it out of his system. 

Bowie started his career as an R&B mod, who would eventually, for a very short time, embrace flower power. From there, he moved into a brief psychedelic phase, exploring mental illness, largely due to his half-brother Terry, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic. This phase saw him produce 1969’s second self-titled album, more popularly known as Space Oddity. This was followed by The Man Who Sold The World. By 1972, he was a fully-fledged space rock alien and prophet who foresaw the world’s end in five years, namely Ziggy Stardust. Later came his Berlin years who he collaborated with Brian Eno, producing the Berlin trilogy. 

While not every album saw Bowie create a wholly new character, he did, however, create a new synthesis of sound and style with each new record. This is all relevant because I believe it helps to know this when listening to Let’s Dance — it adds to the experience of it.

To the untrained Bowie listener, the experience of Let’s Dance could go wrong. In its worst aspects, the 1983 album is fake, overly produced, and an imitation of pop that is simply trying too hard. On the flip side, the best aspects entail a new perspective on Chic’s disco of the ’80s; an ironic look at the over-zealous, the self-righteous and the coked-up. After all, Bowie willingly put himself into this position in the first place. It’s not like he was a sorry victim of a trend, like Phil Collins — Bowie was always ahead of the game. 

The way that the original Starman always approached this process of manufacturing new sounds, was that he was very careful and deliberate in who he chose to work with as a producer. Although David Bowie’s name always appears to be on its own on the front cover of an album, the importance of who he works within the studio cannot be overstated. 

After his 1980 record, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)nobody could have guessed his follow up would be anything like Let’s Dance. Bowie didn’t want to be so dark and nihilistic anymore, so perhaps a brighter record was always in the offing: “I tried to produce something that was warmer and more humanistic than anything I’ve done for a long time. Less emphasis on the nihilistic kind of statement,” Bowie said. Bowie approached Nile Rodgers, the guitar player of the heavenly disco band, Chic, and expressed a clear interest to make hits with him. Rodgers accepted: “I was like the Terminator, I was unstoppable, I just wanted to make hits with David,” he commented years later.

Let’s Dance began taking shape when Bowie brought the hit title song to Rodgers, saying, “‘Nile, darling, I think this is a hit,’ and he proceeds to play what sounds like a folk song to me, with a twelve-string guitar,” Rodgers recalls. This sheds a lot of insight into Bowie’s process as a songwriter and artist. He began the majority of his songs on the twelve-string guitar, and how you dress it up after that is an artform of another kind. 

Blues guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughn would end up playing lead guitar on the title song. Before this and for the remainder of his life, Vaughn strictly dealt in the blues. When he heard the demo of ‘Let’s Dance’, he felt completely out of place with it. This was part of Bowie’s creative plan, however. He had a knack for getting out-of-place musicians into one room which did a lot in synthesising new sounds. 

Rodgers remembers: “He knew it was so important that the first thing he played was one single note – a Bb – to stay out of the way of the groove. He then ripped as he got more comfortable with the band and everyone in the room. We became lifelong friends and I produced The Vaughan Brothers and gave the eulogy at his funeral.”

The second track on the record, ‘China Girl’, was initially written in collaboration between Bowie and Iggy Pop in Berlin. Iggy Pop included his version of the track on his debut solo record, The Idiot. The track, ‘Criminal World’ was a cover of a Metro song from their debut self-titled album and was originally banned on the BBC for its sexual content. Bowie’s cover of the song steered a lot of attention towards Metro, who were somewhat hidden in the shadows beforehand. Bowie initially wrote ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ for the 1982 erotic film Cat People. The song was written by Bowie in collaboration with Italian disco producer Giorgio Moroder.

Let’s Dance was largely an album of hits; it spawned the singles: the title song, ‘Modern Love’, and ‘China Girl’, which all proved to be big commercial hits. Let’s Dance reached number one in many countries at the time, and remains to this day, a significant record for the chameleonic artist.

Listen to the title track of Let’s Dance below.