Let's Dance

Released:

  • EMI America AML 3029 - April 1983

  • EMI America AMLP 3029 - October 1983 (Picture Disc)

  • VIRGIN CD VUS 96 - November 1995

  • EMI 493 0942 - 1998

  • EMI 7243 5218960 - September 1999

  • EMI 7243 5433192 - September 2003 (SACD)

Personnel:

  • David Bowie: Vocals

  • Carmine Rojas: Bass

  • Omar Hakim: Drums

  • Tony Thompson: Drums

  • Nile Rodgers: Guitar

  • Stevie Ray Vaughan: Guitar

  • Rob Sabino: Keyboards

  • Mac Gollehon: Trumpet

  • Robert Arron: Tenor Sax, Flute

  • Stan Harrison: Tenor Sax, Flute

  • Steve Elson: Baritone Sax, Flute

  • Sammy Figueroa: Percussion

  • Bernard Edwards: Bass on 'Without You'

  • Frank Simms/George Simms/David Spinner: Backing Vocals

Recorded:

  • Power Station Studios, New York

Producers:

  • David Bowie, Nile Rodgers

Let's Dance
  1. Modern Love  [4.46]

  2. China Girl  [5.32]

  3. Let's Dance  [7.38]

  4. Without You  [3.08]

  5. Ricochet  [5.14]

  6. Criminal World  [4.25]

  7. Cat People (Putting Out Fire)  [5.09]

  8. Shake It  [3.49]

Bonus tracks on 1995 reissue:

  • Under Pressure  [4.01]

Before the filming of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence in mid-1982, Bowie spent a sabbatical in the South Pacific in the company of a collection of home-made compilation tapes. "I wanted something to listen to and I found that my natural inclination was to choose mainly rhythm and blues from the fifties and sixties," he said later. "I wanted to find stuff that I could play over and over again because in the South Pacific it can get very boring. I really was doing my Desert Island Discs in a way, and I found it was interesting to see what in fact I did choose - everything from James Brown to the Alan Freed Rock & Roll Orchestra, Elmore James, Albert King, Red Prysock, Johnny Otis, Buddy Guy, Stan Kenton...there was just about nothing representing the last fifteen or twenty years. I asked myself, why have I chosen this music?...it was very non-uptight music and it comes from a sense of pleasure and happiness. There is enthusiasm and optimism on those recordings."

 

David's renewed acquaintance with the artists who had inspired his earliest recordings would profoundly influence the new album - his first in over two years. Having returned to New York after the film shoot, he discovered that RCA's policy of milking his back catalogue had now extended as far as releasing his five-year-old duet with Bing Crosby, alongside a heavily promoted and beautifully packaged picture-disc set of vintage singles under the title Fashions. Apparently concluding that this was part of an attempt to butter him up ahead of the impending expiry of his RCA contract, he was heard to comment that it would have been nice if he could have had similar advertising budgets for Low and "Heroes". Despite David's increasingly unhappy relationship with RCA during the preceding few years, the label was eager to sign him again. He, however, had other ideas, and entered into negotiations with several record companies: in late 1982 an unofficial bidding war began between RCA, Geffen, Columbia and EMI.

 

Bowie's dissatisfaction with RCA was not the only reason for the long delay since Scary Monsters: he had also been awaiting the expiry of his severance agreement with Tony Defries. As of September 30th 1982, David would assume full rights to his new songs; royalties from anything he wrote before that date would be due to his former manager. Having bided his time, Bowie now prepared to begin work on his new album which, he told one reporter with tongue firmly in cheek, had the provisional title Vampires And Human Flesh.

 

Originally Tony Visconti was to have produced the sessions. "I was hurt," he said later, "because I was booked to do Let's Dance and he blew me out two weeks before...for three months he kept saying, 'Keep December free, we're going to go in and record them.' Getting close to that month, I phoned up Coco, and she said, 'Well, you might as well know - he's been in the studio for the past two weeks with someone else. It's working out well and we won't be needing you, he's very sorry.'"

 

The 'someone else' was Nile Rodgers, whose phenomenally successful group Chic had put him at the cutting edge of New York's club scene in the late 1970s with massive international hits like "Le Freak" and "Good Times". His writing and production work for other artists had spawned dance classics like Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" and Diana Ross's "Upside Down". Rodgers, who was putting the finishing touches to his solo debut Adventures In The Land Of The Good Groove, chanced to meet Bowie at a bar in New York's Carlisle Hotel. The two apparently sat next to each other for twenty minutes before Rodgers introduced himself. "I was expecting Ziggy Stardust," he later admitted and had failed to recognise the "average-looking guy" sitting quietly at the bar. David later recalled that "We started talking about old blues and rhythm & blues stuff and found we'd both had the same artists as strong influences. I guess that triggered me off thinking it might be fun working with him."

 

"David could have had any producer - white or black - he wanted," Rodgers told Musician in 1983. "He could have gone with Quincy Jones and a more sure-fire chance at a hit. But he called me up, and for that, I feel honoured." Keen to secure a healthy advance from a new label and on the point of recovering his royalty entitlement from MainMan, Bowie was acutely conscious of the need to deliver a commercial hit. Rodgers would later confirm on Radio 2's Golden Years that this was what Bowie asked of him when he arrived in Montreux to cut pre-production demos: "When I got to Switzerland, he told me that he wanted me to do what I did best - 'Nile, I really want you to make hits.' And I was sort of taken aback, because I'd always assumed that David Bowie did art first, and then if it happened to become a hit, so be it!"

 

In Montreux Bowie played Rodgers his new songs on a twelve-string guitar. "If I was going to make hits, I could only use the formula I knew," Rodgers explains in Strange Fascination, "Which was, you call a song "China Girl", it better sound Asian. You call a song "Let's Dance", you damn well better make sure people dance to it." Assisting on the three-day demo session was a young Turkish expatriate called Erdal Kizilcay, whose multi-instrumental reputation had reached Bowie's ears in 1982. Kizilcay would later become a full-time member of the Bowie retinue, but on this occasion, his contribution extended no further than pre-production.

 

Rodgers described the demos as "merely a template, little maps to say okay, great, well, we have a song now, big deal! Now let's go back to America and make a hit!" Bowie had booked four weeks at New York's Power Station, previously the venue for Scary Monsters, and in December he and Rodgers began recording what Bowie declared would be a warm, optimistic and funky album. "I felt I was becoming a little static with the kind of synthesizer-techno stuff I'd been doing," he told the press at the time. "I wanted to break away from that. Every few years I have to redefine what I'm writing. I had to do it when I moved to Berlin and I had to do it again just recently."

 

In keeping with the spirit of renewal, Let's Dance saw the recruitment of all-new personnel: for the first time since Space Oddity there was no continuity with the previous album's musicians. "I wanted to have a little relief from the guys that I usually work with," he explained. "I wanted to try people that I'd never worked with before so that I couldn't predict how they were going to play." David had already booked Stevie Ray Vaughan, an unknown 28-year-old blues guitarist from Austin, Texas, whom he had heard playing at the 1982 Montreux Jaz Festival. "Stevie is just dynamite," said David at the time. "He thinks Jimmy Page is a modernist! Stevie's back there with Albert King. He's the whiz kid."

 

The remaining musicians were chosen by Rodgers who, having taken over the producer's chair, also stepped into Carlos Alomar's accustomed place on rhythm guitar (Alomar was originally asked to play on the album, but Bowie's new hirers-and-firers refused his customary request for a rise, instead offering worse terms than before; he declined). Chic's drummer Tony Thompson and bassist Bernard Edwards were drafted in, as were regular Chic sessioners Rob Sabino and Sammy Figueroa. Brothers George and Frank Simms had provided backing vocals for Rodgers on several projects. The rest of the band were top New York session men, including Omar Hakim from Weather Report ("a fascinating drummer with impeccable timing", David later remarked) and Puerto Rican Carmine Rojas, who had played bass for Stevie Wonder and Nona Hendryx. The trumpeter and three-man saxophone section came from the jazz outfit Asbury Jukes, and between them boasted experience with the likes of Diana Ross, Dave Edmunds, Klaus Nomi and Boz Scaggs.

 

For the first time, David himself didn't play a single instrument. "This is a singer's album," he declared. Nile Rodgers described the production as "modern big band rock", and David agreed, telling Musician magazine that "I really wanted that same positive optimistic rock 'n' roll big band sound that was very impressionistic for me back when. It's got a hard cut, very high on treble - it sears through."

 

The sessions were completed in twenty days during December 1982, under a civilised 10.30am - 6.00pm schedule. "This is the fastest I've ever worked in my life," Rodgers said afterwards. "Bowie said he likes to work this way and I plan to do the same for the rest of my career. It's just the most energetic way to make records. The musicians were really pumped up because of the fast pace, and as a result, we got some great performances." He later recalled that "Almost everything was one take. Stevie Ray Vaughan played everything in a matter of a couple of days. David sang all of his vocals on the entire album in a matter of two days." At the time Bowie declared that he had seldom enjoyed recording so much, although the band's attempts to turn him into a fan of American football were apparently a failure. He was particularly effusive in his praise of Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose lead guitar overdubs were laid down towards the end of the sessions. "In the third week of December Stevie strolled into the Power Station and proceeded to rip up everything one thought about dance records," David later wrote. "In a ridiculously short time, he had become midwife to a sound that I had had ringing in my ears all year. A dance form that had its melody rooted in a European sensibility but owed its impact to the blues."Let's Dance was to be Vaughan's big break, and with his group Double Trouble, he signed to the Epic label in the wake of the album's success.

 

"Unlike some of the groups I've worked with in the past, where Bernard and I had to take charge in the studio, David has a deep understanding of music," said Nile Rodgers in 1983. "He knows a lot more than he gets credit for." After the demo stage, however, the creative responsibility was left largely to the producer. "I wrote the arrangements based on the demos," Rodgers explained. "When they were played against the tracks, David and I would make some alterations, but nothing very radical. We heard the music the same way and didn't have a major disagreement over any musical point, as happened when we produced Diana Ross."

 

After a Christmas holiday in Acapulco (during which he filmed his cameo in Yellowbeard), David returned to New York to finish post-production and close a deal with his chosen label, who had originally taken his fancy during the Queen collaboration in 1981. Bowie signed a five-year contract with EMI America on January 27th 1983, for an undisclosed sum variously reported as between $10 and $20 million. He delivered the masters of Let's Dance and promptly set off for Australia to film the videos for the first two singles. They, like the fashionable album packaging (Greg Gorman's sleeve photo depicts Bowie shadow-boxing against a city skyline, while Derek Boshier's accompanying artwork apes the cartoon graffiti of street artist Keith Haring), would provide the heavy ammunition for a well-oiled, all-out commercial assault.

 

It worked. Preceded by the smash-hit title single that topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, Let's Dance was released on April 14th 1983 to unprecedented commercial success. In Britain, it entered at number 1, and although it spent only three weeks there - a feat surpassed by Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups and Diamond Dogs - it remained in the chart for over a year. Crucially, it was also a US number 1: having largely ignored Bowie since the mid-1970s, the American market exploded. Billboard hailed the album as "Bowie's most accessible music in years...bracing, state-of-the-art urban dance rock", while Commonweal called it "some of the most exciting R&B-based dance music in years". Delighted with its latest investment, EMI declared Let's Dance its fastest-selling album since Sgt. Pepper. Six million copies were sold as the album spawned two more hit singles and trailed the massive Serious Moonlight tour which ran from May to December. EMI issued a picture disc version to tempt collectors, while the jilted RCA got in on the act by re-releasing Bowie's back catalogue at a budget price, meaning that by July he had no fewer than ten albums in the UK top 100. This feat, unique for a living artist, contributed to Bowie's record for the highest number of individual album-weeks on the chart in 1983 - a staggering 198. In the all-time stakes, this is second only to the 217 weeks clocked up three years later by Dire Straits.

 

"It was an album he had to make," said Tony Visconti a year later. "He told me when I last saw him, 'I'm sorry I didn't use you, but I wanted one of those economical New York type of albums. It was very important, a new record label.'" Visconti admitted that he "liked 'Ricochet' and 'Modern Love' very, very much", but was less impressed with the remainder of the album. The first signs of dissent among the British music press came from Michael Watts, who had conducted the famous "I'm gay" interview back in 1972. "His new album seems to be a step sideways," Watts wrote. "He's not doing anything particularly new and I suspect for the first time ever his fans are up there with him and he's not ahead of the game."

 

Success came at a price. Let's Dance rocketed Bowie into the premiere league of wealth and global super-stardom, but it had an immediate and detrimental effect on him as an artist. It is a classy, beautiful, precision-tooled pop record, but its solid professionalism is its defining feature, and artistically it remains perhaps Bowie's least challenging album of all. More even than his later 1980s offerings, Let's Dance is an album on which anything remotely resembling a rough edge has been sanded down and polished up until the glare is dazzling. At least during his much-derided Glass Spider and Tin Machine periods, Bowie was willing to stick his neck out and risk ridicule; on Let's Dance he plays it safe in every department, projecting a sun-tanned, hair-bleached revision of himself for the MTV generation. There are worrying signs, too, that his creative well is running dry; of the eight tracks, three are covers or reworkings, heralding the descent into cover version hell that was to follow on the next album. Nothing on Let's Dance is truly awful but seldom had a previous Bowie album included anything as nugatory as "Without You" or "Shake It".

 

Within three years Bowie had begun distancing himself from the album, glad of its success but admitting that it had hemmed him in as an artist. "Let's Dance, I think really, was more Nile's album than mine," he told one interviewer. "It was Nile's version of what my music should sound like, and I provided the songs." Nile Rodgers is not about to disagree: "[Bowie] spent the entire record sitting on the sofa while I made his record," he said in 1998. "Then he walked in the studio and he sang. It was the perfect marriage."

 

But on closer inspection Let's Dance is not without its surprises. There is little doubt that the healthy, drug-free family figure Bowie presented in 1983 concealed a more complex set of truths, and there are signs that he is smuggling some surprisingly controversial material in beneath the shiny dance-floor veneer. Even the ostentatious heterosexuality, rammed home by the famously explicit "China Girl" video, is counterpointed by the ambiguities of Metro's "Criminal World". The themes seem to be the fear of surrendering selfhood and the death of spirituality - hardly the sort of ideas you'd expect to find on a party album. Iggy Pop's threat of destructive love in "China Girl" ("I'll ruin everything you are") is developed through the anxious title track ("Because my love for you/would break my heart in two/if you should fall into my arms..."), and the notion of cultural invasion is highlighted by the videos of both songs. "Modern Love" posits a world of "no confession" and "no religion", while "Ricochet" suggests that we "turn the holy pictures so they face the wall" against the "sound of the Devil breaking parole".

 

Bowie's only solution is the one he had previously adopted in "Because You're Young" - to "dance my life away", or in this case to "put on your red shoes and dance the blues". In "Modern Love" the concept that "terrifies me" also "makes me party" so that, far from being an exuberant slice of optimism, the album's title seems like a cry of desperation. The sense of fiddling while Rome burns is made explicit on the final track, "Shake It": "I could take you to heaven, I could spin you to hell/But I'll take you to New York, it's the place that I know well." Out of context, the themes are every bit as dark as those on Scary Monsters; married with the upbeat, funky shimmer of Nile Rodgers's production, they are entirely submerged. Whether this is the album's downfall or its subversive triumph is a matter of opinion. Few would disagree that the title track is one of Bowie's great songs, setting a bellowing delivery of an angst-ridden lyric against a monumental dance backing; but otherwise, only "Ricochet" escapes being buried beneath the high-gloss finish.

 

But then, 1983 was like that. It was the year of Spandau Ballet's True, Paul Young's No Parlez, Culture Club's Colour By Numbers, and Michael Jackson's all-conquering Thriller which, incidentally, beat Let's Dance to win the Album Of The Year Grammy. The chill theatrics, gender-meltdowns and fashion experiments of Bowie's 1970s career had been repackaged with huge success by acts as diverse as Eurythmics, The Human League, Yazoo, Heaven 17, Kajagoogoo, Howard Jones, Thompson Twins and Duran Duran. It was a year of shiny, trivial pop in pastel suits and peroxide hair. Bowie was a common ancestor to many of 1983's big hitters and, as godfather to the rising "Goth" phenomenon, he was also revered on the fringes of the mainstream, as Bauhaus had demonstrated by taking "Ziggy Stardust" into the top 20 the previous October. The club kids who had championed Scary Monsters three years earlier were now topping the charts with their own bands, and perhaps we shouldn't begrudge Bowie gatecrashing the party with such a suitable record. From its foot-tapping back-beats to its scribble-chic sleeve design Let's Dance is, ultimately, 1983 in a bottle.