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Music

Nile Rodgers on the drug references in a classic David Bowie song

David Bowie released countless classics over his long and celebrated career, and one of the best-loved is, without a doubt, the brilliant ‘China Girl’. Famously, the song was written in tandem with Iggy Pop for his 1977 debut solo album The Idiot, a time before Bowie re-recorded and released it himself as the second single from his most commercially successful album 1983’s Let’s Dance

The song was re-recorded with Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers whose character colours Let’s Dance, and in the years following its release, he’s shed light on the song’s provenance. 

Discussing the song, Rodgers said: “When you listen to ‘China Girl’ the way he did it originally with Iggy Pop, or even ‘Cat People’, which he did with Giorgio Moroder, they’re both geniuses, and now I have to reinterpret this. My reinterpretations of those songs were so drastic in a strange way, ‘China Girl’ especially. I’d come up with this lick and I’m ready to get fired on the spot. And he goes, ‘That’s fantastic!’ My god, Bowie, you say that’s good, watch this”.

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In the book Loving The Alien (1983-1988), Rodgers shed more light on ‘China Girl’, and how this was one of the songs where Bowie made his non-conformist attitude very clear: “He made ‘China Girl’ with Iggy Pop. Based on my experiences with my own album, I recognised he needed trailers. In my opinion, ‘China Girl’ didn’t have a real hook. I didn’t think it was going to connect with audiences. I told him it was wacky and wouldn’t be easy for folks to get. I thought I was going to be fired, but we ended up having a fabulous discussion about all this abstract stuff and how he never felt the need to conform to anything”.

However, the most compelling revelation Rodgers made about the song concerns the subject matter, and it transpires that even though it has long been regarded as a love song, following lines such as “I feel a wreck without my little China girl” and “I feel tragic like I’m Marlon Brando in what is potentially more of a thinly veiled nod to drugs and not a human love interest. 

In the BBC documentary, Lost in Music: The Nile Rodgers Story, Rodgers explained how he viewed the song when he and Bowie were remaking it for Let’s Dance. He recalled: “I figured China Girl was about doing drugs… because China is china white, which is heroin; girl is cocaine. I thought it was a song about speedballing. I thought, in the drug community in New York, coke is girl, and heroin is boy. So then I proceeded to do this arrangement which was ultra pop. Because I thought that, being David Bowie, he would appreciate the irony of doing something so pop about something so taboo. And what was really cool was that he said ‘I love that!'” 

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