May 09

DAVID BOWIE – “Let’s Dance”

FT + Popular144 comments • 8,077 views

#519, 9th April 1983

One of the odd things about Bowie is how panicky he seems to get when he’s in fashion. The image of him as a “pop chameleon” is surely at least partly cover for a flight-reflex that kicks in when one of his stylistic changes really takes off. In the mid 70s, tasting superstardom on the back of his deviant glam image, he sidestepped into black US pop, making Young Americans and baffling his fans with “plastic soul”. Close to a decade on, and again the fountainhead of art-pop influence, he made exactly the same move, borrowing sounds and musicians from black pop to make a record that’s an exercise in knowing glossiness.

But something unexpected happened. Let’s Dance was massive: its smooth post-disco gestures fitting a current mood in pop, a retreat from frippery towards self-conscious sophistication, from pose to poise. It was to be the last time he matched pop’s moment so completely.

For all that “Let’s Dance” is an odd record. For a song about dancefloor erotics it’s harsh and heavy and everything about it seems half-petrified, the music a succession of freeze-frames. Bowie’s voice has an ancient, lizardly glide: there’s something as much vampiric as romantic about his invitations to dance and sway. I’ve often reached on Popular for the (rather hackneyed) idea that a record is easy to admire but difficult to love. “Let’s Dance” seems to be trying for this effect quite intentionally: it’s an impressively cold-blooded piece of work.



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  1. 1
    Tom on 27 May 2009 #

    This will probably be the last Popular entry for a couple of weeks, as on Friday Tom’s Baby II: Electric Boogaloo will arrive, and I’ll be kept rather busy. See you in June (sometime)!

  2. 2
    Mark M on 27 May 2009 #

    Confession: for some weird reason I always thought the video was in Brazil, and then I saw it recently and realised it was all about the Australianess, it’s even got the Sydney Opera House and all. Go figure. Anyway, spot-on write-up and spot-on score.

  3. 3
    David Belbin on 27 May 2009 #

    The album ‘Let’s Dance’ pretty much leaves me cold and Bowie isn’t worth listening to again until ‘Outside’ in 1995 (and from then on, only sporadically). I still did a bit of djing when this was a hit and it worked on the dancefloor (and on subsequent party tapes for the next decade or two, although I wouldn’t use it now). I’d just been to Australia for the first time, which made me like the video, too. As a single, I preferred his cover of Iggy’s ‘China Girl’ from the same album, which only just missed the top spot, partly because I wasn’t at the time familiar with Iggy’s version. Anyway, good write up and a worthy final number one from the godlike genius that is David Bowie (abominations or future surprises aside). And good luck with no. 2, Tom!

  4. 4
    Tom on 27 May 2009 #

    Yes we’ve not quite seen the last of the Dame yet!

  5. 5
    Kat but logged out innit on 27 May 2009 #

    I’d have given this at least an 8 – there’s something about Bowie’s delivery of “Put ON your RED shoes and DANCE the blues” that punches me in the gut each time. And the way he leaves so much space for the stark beat + guitar combo to fill up: it’s so lonely and defiant that you can only conclude that Bowie is talking to himself in the chorus, plucking up the courage to go and talk to the object of his affection he mentions in the verse but chickening out when he imagines what’ll happen once the girl *does* fall into his arms. Bowie is the one trembling like a flower.

    OK for the trembling like a flower line it might get a 9.

  6. 6
    SteveM on 27 May 2009 #

    Always loved the intro – taking ‘Twist And Shout’s (or whatever it nicked that from) harmonius anticipatory build-up bit and monsterising it into one of the best starts to any pop song ever. I suppose it’s effectively downhill from then on but still a 7 is fair but maybe more for the yay Nile Rodgers than yay DB effect.

  7. 7
    alanconnor on 27 May 2009 #

    Interestingly polite pointing out by Nile Rodgers on Radio 2 that the demo Bowie played to him was a strummy slight little number, devoid of the groove that was there after Nile’s involvement. Resurrection Watch, if there were one, would include M Ward’s lovely reading that is assiduously not in the “aha, see, this is a dancey song rendered acoustic – bet you didn’t expect that” category and the Kleptones’ meld-up with Papa Was A Rolling Stone.

  8. 8
    Rory on 27 May 2009 #

    Untangling my response to this one is tricky. It may well be the only of these early 1980s number ones that I’ve heard consistently through the years, thanks to its inclusion on Changesbowie. Back in the day I remember liking it well enough but not to the point of buying the single – a 5 or 6 response, say – but nowadays I’d agree that it’s a seven. I like how it keeps threatening to climax and then pulls back at the last moment, evoking the promise and disappointment of many a high-school dance.

    Its video was another sign of growing international interest in things Australian in 1983, on the heels of Men at Work’s success, but at the time I remember it feeling natural to this young Aussie viewer – of course Bowie would film a clip in the outback, why wouldn’t you? Although there was a little more to it than that.

    My interest in Bowie didn’t really take off until I shared a flat with a big fan in 1991 and fell in love with Hunky Dory – which was fortunate, as purchasing a sale copy of Tin Machine the previous year had almost turned me off for life. Haven’t really followed his later output closely, but Heathen recaptures the 70s-Bowie spirit for me, even if not the heights.

  9. 9
    o sobek! on 27 May 2009 #

    7 seems fair, I might go 8 (love the build-up intro and this is almost definitely the best that 80s nile rodgers production ever sounded). curious that what were moves away from superstardom in the uk for bowie were moves toward it in the usa; ‘fame’ and ‘golden years’ being his hugest hits of the seventies stateside by far and ‘let’s dance’ being his ‘comeback’. i’d never noticed the pattern either, but it carries on even into irrelevance with tin machine yielding to al b. sure (at a stretch outside -> earthling could be worked in here also).

  10. 10
    Conrad on 27 May 2009 #

    “aha, see, this is a dancey song rendered acoustic – bet you didn’t expect that” category

    – I can think of nothing more nauseating than the whole nouvelle vague look at me we’re so twee, aren’t we clever doing acoustic bossa nova covers of Joy Division? shtick. No you aren’t – Fuck off!

    As for Bowie, this is a terrific comeback, although the parent album is superfluous if you own the singles.

    I think part of the success of “Let’s Dance” was that suddenly Bowie wasn’t presenting himself in any number of alien/outsider guises. Instead, he was Mr newly-whitened teeth, shiny blue suit, coiffured, slick pop star.

    The sound of “Let’s Dance” is muscular, strong, confident. Perhaps what Duran were going for on “Is There Something…” but without the sophistication and grasp of dynamics to pull it off. They certainly paid attention to Nile Rodgers’ production – later roping him in for “Notorious” and in the meantime copping its spacious, drum heavy chassis for next single “Union of the Snake”.

    I’m with Kat – Bowie is on top form and his delivery is more than good enough to compete with Rodgers’ juddering production. An 8 from me.

  11. 11
    lonepilgrim on 27 May 2009 #

    ‘Let’s Dance’ was the last Bowie album that I bought apart from the greatest hits package a few years later. Looking at a track listing online I can only recall the hits now and, like ♯3, I prefer China Girl – as a performance and for it’s inclusion as a financial lifeline for Iggy. I still like this and have fond memories of it being played at a lot of parties in ’83.
    Following on from the video thread this was one of the first songs that I can remember where the video premiere was flagged up as an ‘event’ – linked to The Tube IIRC. I think Bowie had always appeared to be positioned as slightly left-field on TOTP whereas he was a perfect fit for The Tube’s desire to appear edgier and cool. He was also practically the patron saint of The Face which had emerged in the three years since his last album of new material so his success with this song was almost assured. That success may have been his undoing – he no longer seemed cutting edge and a portal to less commercial acts such as Neu or VU – he was the mainstream.
    Without that aura of innovation and credibility his subsequent work (much of which was poor anyway) ceased to ‘matter’ in the same way.

  12. 12
    Tom on 27 May 2009 #

    The LD album was what got me into Bowie – tho once I’d dug a bit further into his back catalogue I dismissed it (a learned reaction almost certainly). At the time the track which really grabbed me was “Cat People” – now I prefer the goofier “Modern Love”. I’ve completely forgotten what the ones that aren’t this, those, or China Girl sound like.

  13. 13
    lonepilgrim on 27 May 2009 #

    I’m finding some interesting parallels between what I wrote in my last para at #11 with Frank Kogan’s article linked by Tom in his Twitter feed. The article is at: http://bit.ly/YzxGk

  14. 14
    misschillydisco on 27 May 2009 #

    #6 i have to agree – this *is* a yay nile rodgers moment. his production is just wow…i loved this song when i was a kid but looking back on his body of work, i think this is when things start to get poo. however – i recently listened to this song on a flight to california and it seemed to make sense: a glittering and essentially empty piece of work.

  15. 15
    rosie on 27 May 2009 #

    So, another Rosie milestone. This time marking the moment when she really did hit rock bottom.

    After a few weeks mostly holed out in my mother’s back bedroom, something had to give. I suspect that the trigger was paying a visit to my sister in her birthday and getting a chilly reception. Soon after that I part-thumbed, part bused, my way to Great Yarmouth. I don’t remember a great deal about that journey, except for kicking my heels in Newmarket for a while. I was travelling light but in Newmarket I acquired a half bottle of Famous Grouse. The idea being to drink the whisky on the beach in Yarmouth and then walk into the North Sea in the small hours of the morning. But, the best-laid schemes o’ mice and men, etc, and instead of walking into the sea I found myself in St Nicholas’s Hospital in Yarmouth, under observation. (I had a long interview with a female doctor who was hell-bent on concluding that I was suffering from psychosis brought on by the consumption of herbal substance. We sparred for some considerable time before she gave in and concluded that I was suffering from severe emotional exhaustion.) Two days later I was given the bus fare back to Hitchin and sent on my way. Obviously, there was nowhere for me to go but up, from here. And things did work out fairly well in the end.

    As for the song, well, obviously it carries a lot of baggage. All the same, I like it a lot, and its resonances are more optimistic than otherwise because it marks the beginning of my fightback. And it’s pretty good for dancing to, whether as a bop at a conference/office party disco or as the basis for a slow Leroc. I’d give it an 8.

  16. 16
    Magic Fly on 27 May 2009 #

    10 – I remember this incarnation of the Dame being sold to the press as “The Real David Bowie – At Last!” but the passing of the decades reveals it as just another mask. This is Bowie playing The Man Who Sold Himself To The World, just as much of a construct as Ziggy or Aladdin or the Ashes pierrot. Yes, it’s outwardly aspirational and superficially more credible, trading in a kind of matey, internationalist sophistication, but it’s such an avatar of pure fame that it’s almost as alien (and as alienating) as any of his more obviously SF poses. The downright oddity of this Bowie-phase is more pronounced in hindsight – just how strange does that canary-coloured Serious Moonlight suit and Vegas magic act perm look now?

  17. 17
    JonnyB on 27 May 2009 #

    This was the Bowie I was first aware of – the slightly sinister, polished one, who did songs that were full of tunes, but that weren’t straightforward. I seem to remember my 12 year-old self being slightly intimidated by him, or certainly by the videos.

    I also prefer China Girl, but this track has grown on me over the years. “The SERIOUS MOONLIGHT” – a seven from me.

  18. 18
    Magic Fly on 27 May 2009 #

    Another thought – did this song’s instant, all-conquering nature (and subsequent wedding disco ubiquity) alter forever the way we’re able to hear it? It always feels slightly outside the Bowie canon to me, as if there’s not even a hint of cultiness in its DNA. Would I hear a different song if had been a fraction less successful? It always sounds slightly flattened by its own popularity, in a way that truly deathless pop songs never do.

  19. 19
    Steve Mannion on 27 May 2009 #

    Was he ever tempted to go for “under the moonlight, hilarious moonlight” when performing it live.

  20. 20
    wildheartedoutsider on 27 May 2009 #

    Ah, April 1983… which means we have also reached the month when Dexys Midnight Runners landed a support slot on David Bowie’s live show in Paris! I have to say, I didn’t have anything against Bowie personally but when I heard about the incident involving Dexys at one of his gigs I thought it was one of the funniest things ever at the time. As I recall, Kevin Rowland was in typically confrontational mood towards the audience and, realising that most of the audience were waiting impatiently to see Bowie (and therefore not paying much attention to the Dexys set), said something along the lines of “I don’t know what you’re all waiting for… David Bowie is a f**king W**ker” (and was subsequently evicted from the stage!) – now THAT is how to alienate an audience!

  21. 21
    LondonLee on 27 May 2009 #

    I don’t think this song being massive was unexpected at all. It sounds like he was deliberately going for major mainstream success by dropping all the old weirdness for big beats and a Mr. Sheen production. He had a new record label and a decade of excess to pay for.

    People were prepared for a lot of things from Bowie but not him being “normal”, it was a bit of a shock at the time and as much of a head-scratcher as the second side of ‘Low’ had been. It took a while to assimilate.

    The intro is so brash it makes me laugh but generally I find it hits me over the head too much. Nice to see David happy though (and making lots of money), I saw him on this tour and it was like a Greatest Hits show, he did everything you’d want him to.

  22. 22
    Rory on 27 May 2009 #

    #10 – Wow, Conrad, that’s an impressively gratuitous dig at Nouvelle Vague you’ve brought in there! I loved their first album (the second was a slight case of diminishing returns), but then I was coming at it off the back of a lengthy obsession with Bebel Gilberto, Koop, Mo’ Horizons and lounge music compilations of old Bossa Nova. From that angle it made perfect sense, and it sounded great. If French and Brazilian chanteuses are twee, sign me up for Garden Gnome Monthly. Still, your mention has led me to learn that they have a new album out in three weeks, so cheers!

  23. 23
    Tom on 27 May 2009 #

    Yes, I wouldn’t say I was a huge Nouvelle Vague fan – their “A Forest” is the only time the treatment really works – but they’re harmless at worst: their attention to stylistic detail puts them well aside from the “acoustic = sensitive” squad.

  24. 24
    Tom on 27 May 2009 #

    My Bowie epiphany came when I heard Ashes to Ashes on a (ahem) tranny in the school library. I kind of went Bowie crazy after that and so Let’s Dance (the album and the single) was a big event for me. I tried to go along with it but I’m afraid I disliked it then and I dislike it now.

    So, as a bowiebore whose cut-off is after Scary Monsters, this is my take: LD comes after a point in time where DB has made a conscious decision to stop being alienated and unhappy. It’s supposed to be commercial sounding (even if it sounds weird to you) and as such it’s a deliberate step outside his entire music history up to that point. You could hear him kissing off his youth on songs like Teenage Wildlife and he went to some lengths to parody Angsty Bowie on the Blue Jean film.

    So, great for him but extremely, extremely disappointing for young obsessives like me, who weren’t in that place, where they could take a young model to New York, just cos “it’s the place that I know best”.

    And don’t get me started on the Serious Moonlight tour.

  25. 25
    Conrad on 27 May 2009 #

    You know I listened to Blue Jean the other day, and it’s a seriously good single. I dismissed it almost out of hand at the time, but its taut, punchy and a pleasingly old-fashioned 3:10. It must be the most understated single he’s ever put out.

    Rory – maybe my ire would be better aimed at the sort of coffee table ‘classiness’ of that whole scene, rather than the NV protagonists (who I accept prob brought their own slant to it). Though I think part of the annoyance at it stems from the whole plunder and over-reinterpret everything culture typified by those Verve Remixed albums (lets put Nina Simone and tasteful unobtrusive beats together! why?). Enough ‘eclectic tastefulness’ but ultimately soulless and meaningless reinvention already…

  26. 26
    Weej on 28 May 2009 #

    A 7 or possibly an 8 for me too, but sadly the last one I would give to anything from Bowie, even perhaps up to today. And I’d consider myself a big fan of his. The absolute nadir for me would be China Girl, the chorus of which I cannot even listen to – none of the abominations of Tonight and Never Let You Down can produce such a violent reaction from the pleasure centres of my brain. The fact that it’s the most readily recognisable Bowie song to Americans is one of the most depressing things I can think of.

    As for Nouvelle Vague, harmless fun, not trying to be particularly clever, just playful and easy to listen to. They’ll never be an important band, but I find it hard to understand an extreme reaction to them either way. I realise people might say the same about my reaction to China Girl, but never mind.

  27. 27
    Jonathan Bogart on 28 May 2009 #

    I’d hardly call China Girl the most readily recognizable Bowie song to Americans; sitting here now, I can’t even think how it goes.

    If anything, Bowie’s 70s material has become more representative in hindsight, as he gets more play on classic rock stations than on eighties stations in (my corner of) the US: Space Oddity, Changes, most of Ziggy, Jean Genie, Rebel Rebel, and the Young Americans/Fame/Golden Years triptych are far more familiar to people who weren’t there in the 80s than China Girl or Modern Love.

  28. 28
    Rory on 28 May 2009 #

    #25 – Fair enough re the “classy” scene; I’ve never considered myself particularly classy or cool, and using musical choices to achieve either has never been a personal aim, so that side of the NV phenomenon tended to pass me by. I accept that they’re never going to be anyone’s favourite band from any angle, but their combination of angles did appeal to me as a latterday bossa fan who grew up on new wave. That said, my favourite NV tracks were the ones I didn’t previously know, like “Marian” and “Too Drunk to Fuck”, so I can see how the whole project might be less appealing if you knew all the source material well. (Although I loved their take on “A Forest” as well.)

    Bringing it back to Bowie, I imagine Seu Jorge’s Bowie covers for The Life Aquatic in Brazilian acoustic style could be similarly annoying. I, erm, liked those a lot too.

    This does all relate to “Let’s Dance” if one considers its commercial sheen and “Bowie goes straight” overtones to be a calculated bid for the mainstream (not that I’m saying anyone here does), but can we truly call someone with so many previous hits a chart outsider who was in a position to “sell out”? He’d already shown many times that he could sell on his own terms. I’m more inclined to see LD as a reflection of where his personal life had taken him, which just happened to chime with an emerging glossy ’80s mood. LD (and all that went with it: the other singles, the new Bowie look) feels like a blueprint for the mid-80s: clean and neat shirts and hair, graphics full of straight lines, angles and pastel colours. And yet the music, like so much of his best, seems to go off on its own tangent; I can’t think of any other song of the time that sounds quite like it.

  29. 29
    Stevie T on 28 May 2009 #

    Also the Bowie goes straight line seems to disregard the fact that he previously had a bash as a superstraight Tony Newley light entertainer!

  30. 30
    Stevie T on 28 May 2009 #

    Also the Bowie goes straight line seems to disregard the fact that he previously had a bash as a superstraight Tony Newley-style light entertainer!

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