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Music

The Story Behind The Song: David Bowie shows his pop credentials with 'Let's Dance'

The 1970s was an adventurous decade for David Bowie, and at his most perilous and daring, he created some of the most inventive albums of the decade. But he was never the most lucrative of artists, and it must have been galling for him to see his peers in Queen and 10cc enjoy the hit singles that were nowhere to be found in his trajectory. 

So, it came as no surprise that he elected to turn to Chic frontman Nile Rodgers in the hope of changing his fortunes for the better. Make no mistake about the Let’s Dance album; this is a pop album with a capital ‘P’. From the jangly ‘China Girl’ to the jitterbug groove of ‘Modern Love’, the tracks scream commercial recognition, and it deservedly proved a multi-album seller in both the United Kingdom and the United States. 

Describing Bowie as the “Picasso” of rock, the guitarist could sense in Bowie a desire to write, record and sing in a more popular manner to the cerebral postures he issued in the past. “When Bowie and I got together to do ‘Let’s Dance’,” Rodgers recalled. “We spent two weeks researching music and styles and Bowie suddenly said: ‘I got it!’ He held up a Little Richard album cover where he’s wearing a red suit, getting into a red Cadillac, with a pompadour haircut, and said: ‘That’s rock’n’roll.’ After doing all that research with him, I got it too. I knew instantly what he wanted. We switched the suit for a yellow one when we released our record”.

The song is notable for its barrelling drum design, culminating in a dedicated performance that sees the singer in strangely yearning form. He sings from the heart, as well as the gut, offering an aphorism that prides honesty over disguised emotions. In one way he was criticising his younger self, considering that many of his best albums (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane) were written under the guise and perspective of a completely different person. He regularly dressed himself up as an alien during the 1970s but now felt it was time to show himself as the human he always was. 

The singer was discarding the “blues” for a new rhythm based on the virtues of life, and the single espouses the treasures that await us, as long as we are willing to put ourselves out there. Lushly produced and pushed along by the weight of a trembling bass line, the song was also a keen example of Bowie cloaking himself in the times of the era, meaning that the finished product was shimmering, superlative and sublime. 

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Stevie Ray Vaughan played lead guitar on the song, having wowed Bowie with his set at Montreux Festival. In the middle of recording Texas Flood, the guitarist met up with Bowie to create one of his sparkiest solos, and Vaughan’s guitar soaks through the piece, channelling the dance-oriented textures of the tune almost perfectly. 

“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,” Rodgers revealed. “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.”

Weirdly, Rodgers didn’t regard the song as a dance number when he first heard it. Bowie presented the song to him on an acoustic guitar, and the producer knew that the song needed to be seriously re-worked if it was going to make an impact on the US charts. Ultimately, Rodgers conceded that although the finished result wasn’t a dance record per se, it did hold a danceable quality to it. 

It’s hard to argue with Rodgers: The drums are bouncy, the guitars are punchy, and the bass floats high above the other instruments in the final mix. As it happens, the tune boasted an Englishness to it that was important to the single’s trans-Atlantic appeal. This wasn’t the sound of an Englishman aping American music, but the sound of an American genre allowing a quintessentially English man to showcase his perspective of the world. 

The track proved to be Bowie’s signature number, and although ‘Under Pressure’ is his finest work as a singles artist, it was done in close collaboration with Queen. ‘Let’s Dance’ is Bowie’s personal triumph, and still lingers on in the public zeitgeist, more than half a decade after his death. Many of you will recognise ‘Let’s Dance’ from the Craig David number ‘Hot Stuff’, but unlike the dignity and duty of the original, this was a garish production number that held little of the beauty of the Bowie original. Like any great dance, you have to get the tempo just right, or everything is spoiled. 

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