Without You

Without You.

Every single Chic record is exactly the same, so to speak. The concept of a Chic album is that we’re the opening act for a really big star, and we’re unknown. No one has ever heard of us, we’re brand new, and we’re a live band coming out on stage to tell everybody who we are.

Nile Rodgers, 2005.

Let’s Dance is a front-loaded record, with the hit singles back-to-back-to-back on the A side, leaving the rest of the album a bit weightless by comparison (it works to consider the flip side a Bowie sampler EP, with a (relatively) “avant-garde” track, a punk cover, a dance track and the “Cat People” remake). Still, the non-hits aren’t all filler by any means, but sometimes odd genre twists and seeming parodies.

“Without You,” which closes out the A side, is Bowie guest-starring on a Chic ballad, with both Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson* assisting Nile Rodgers here. As Rodgers said in a recent interview, Chic had always portrayed themselves as “the backing band,” with Chic’s singers Norma Jean Wright, Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin as faceless as the musicians. The idea was that the “star” the band was supporting never appeared, so Chic had to command the stage themselves: theirs was a music of absences (the formula didn’t work when Edwards and Rodgers produced an actual star, Diana Ross, with Rodgers’ mix for Diana eventually scrapped).

Bowie was more amenable to the idea than Ross, turning in an unreadable, almost blank performance for “Without You,” a mid-tempo soul ballad that’s both heartfelt-sounding and a seeming mockery of Bowie contemporaries like Bryan Ferry (the track seems like Rodgers’ and Bowie’s dead-on mimicry of Avalon) and would-be inheritors like Martin Fry.

Lyrically it’s barely there—a pair of three-line non-rhyming verses and a four-line refrain that includes the deathless “there’s no smoke without fire” and shamelessly mates “without you” with “what would I do.” The lyric seems a deliberate throw-away, a tiny set of place-fillers, in keeping with the singer’s theatrical exhaustion with life. Bowie’s falsetto is also fragile, as he often slides down midway through a phrase, as though he can barely keep standing at the mike (the last refrain line falls a sixth as it expires).

Edwards’ bass, assuredly moving from root note to root note, provides the swing that Thompson’s tricky, dancer-thwarting three-against-two beat (usually two snare hits against three bass drum beats per bar (sometimes w/a 16th note 4th beat on the bass drum)) seems bent on undermining. (Thompson’s one-bar fill, after “take another chance,” (1:54) is his one brief moment of liberation). Thompson’s aided in his task by Bowie’s disjointed phrasing—none of Bowie’s lines ever start on the first beat of a bar, and he’s often singing “through” bars, as with the title line. A sedated Stevie Ray Vaughan, in keeping with the track’s sense of restraint, offers only a few tasteful fills (mainly high B notes) throughout the verse/refrains as well as the minute-long outro.

Recorded ca. 1-20 December 1982 at the Power Station, NYC. In the US, EMI went back to the well once too often, releasing “Without You” as Let’s Dance‘s fourth, flop single in February 1984 (EMI America 8190 c/w “Criminal World,” #73) .

* Rodgers deliberately didn’t list on which Let’s Dance tracks Omar Hakim and Tony Thompson drummed (Rodgers’ theory was that it helped session players to have a communal credit, so each could take credit for the whole record). Rodgers has only publicly confirmed that Thompson was on “Modern Love.” Conjecture is that Thompson did most of the drumming with the exception of the title track and “China Girl” (which he may still be on anyhow), but as Hakim was Thompson’s disciple, their styles are fairly similar and it’s hard to tell the two apart on this record.

Top: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Madonna Louise Ciccone, Crosby St., NYC, fall-winter 1982 (Stephen Torton).

25 Responses to Without You

  1. ian says:

    Bomb-Drop: this is my favorite Let’s Dance song! Part of it is the restraint. It’s like a concept song about loving someone in the 8th grade. Lack of language to express the feeling.

    That ‘faltering’ vocal that never hits the right beat is what makes it exciting. If it wasn’t for that, if Bowie’d tried a more conventional delivery, then this song would be total schlock. As it is, it’s Let’s Dance Side A in miniature: extreme commercial pop undercut by a slyly disinterested vocal.

  2. Jeremy Earl says:

    Hey Ian – great points. You have company. I really have a soft spot for this song. It’s really tasteful and does what it’s meant to do extremely well. Because of the vocal delivery it has real feeling. It kind of reminds me of the feeling that former songs like An Occasional Dream and Letter to Hermonie evoke ( both favourites of mine). Fans of Bowie’s avant guard side will run for cover but this is a great song, not genius, but simply great.

  3. giospurs says:

    So (aside from the oddity of Baal) this is the first Bowie song I didn’t know (I’ve only heard the title song from Let’s Dance) and I am pleasantly surprised! It probably helps that I listened to C’est Chic after you mentioned Nile Rodgers last week. And although it was outside of my comfort zone I liked plenty of the songs (although I had to turn off Le Freak… too much).
    So yeah, quietly looking forward to the rest of Let’s Dance – I only ever listen to the whole record after you’ve finished the current album’s entries (does anyone else have such strict self-enforced rules about reading the blog or am I being strange…?)

  4. Brian Busby says:

    I echo Ian: my favourite song on Let’s Dance. Listening to this track for the first time in a quarter century, I was at first struck by how much it resembled Roxy Music’s sound at that time… and then you note the same.

    Avalon, a mere eleven months earlier, features those same detached vocals (“To Turn You On”, “More Than This” – everything, really) – and one cannot ignore the similarities in percussion and Manzanera’s restrained guitar. That said, I don’t know that I would agree with the link to Martin Fry. A Ferry inheritor, yes, but more in terms of style and “romance” – and even then, these things went into abeyance after The Lexicon of Love. In 1982, Fry’s vocals conveyed a passion not heard with Ferry since – I think – Siren.

  5. Maj says:

    You know what, this isn’t as blad as I remember it being. I might even consider adding it in my iPod. :)
    The lyrics are really not important, Bowie’s not at his best vocally but it’s fun, short and up to the point.
    I honestly didn’t remember which song you were writing about here until I was able to listen to it and…it’s a nice surprise. :)

  6. David L says:

    I think it’s just as strong as the other tracks on side one — as someone pointed out, another great example of a front-loaded Bowie album — and a great way to segue from the high energy of the first three tracks on side one.

    I’m really enjoying these Let’s Dance write-ups. Like a lot of people, this was my ‘gateway” album into Bowie. ChangesOne and Two soon followed, and then the avalanche of his entire RCA catalog, etc.

    By the way, what the heck is Madonna doing in that photo?

  7. Frankie says:

    I remember an interview at the time where Bowie paraphrases Lennon’s songwriting dictum ‘Make it simple, make it rhyme” Evidently he was serious.

    I was thinking that Without You was the closest thing to a genuine love song since Be My Wife (if you can call that a love song) or Scary Monsters and Super Creeps (as an inverted love song.) And so a straight-forward love song without tinge of irony or alienation must have been a perverse challenge for the darker side of his super-brain.

    I remember the novelty striking me as oddly out-of-character in the exact same way Mr. Spock was out of his gourd on that episode where alien flower spores transform him into a tree-climbing sentimental fool, madly in love with a blond. Thankfully it was a momentary lapse of coldness! It was a little bit frightening and I remember the strange discovery, “Oh… So he is almost human, after all”

  8. Joe the Lion says:

    I’ve only started to give the Let’s Dance album the time of day in the last couple of years, and it’s definitely repaying my interest. The title track is wonderful, and as was picked up in your write-up, not the straightforward floor-filler it’s been portrayed as (the portrayal I swallowed before I really listened to it). Without You popped up on my iPod on Shuffle a few weeks ago, and I enjoyed it so much I repeated it.

    These tracks, plus Baal, the original Cat People (which I only downloaded after reading the entry here for it – and wow, what a great song the original version is!), Absolute Beginners, When the Wind Blows and (sorry) some of the Labyrinth stuff is really making me re-evaluate Bowie in the 80s.

    Oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

  9. Remco says:

    I never noticed how much the backing track sounds like late Roxy Music. In this case however I think I prefer Ferry to Bowie.
    Perhaps Ferry takes his pop more seriously, I don’t know, it certainly sounds like he puts in more effort than Bowie does here.
    Having said that, ‘Without You’ is a a nice little song, I can’t really find anything to dislike about it. On the other hand there isn’t much to love about it either. Not something I put on my turntable on a regular basis.

  10. Jeremy Earl says:

    Could this be the beginning of an eighties revaluation?

  11. mike says:

    What, exactly, is Madonna DOING in that pic?

  12. Gnomemansland says:

    Love the attempts to reappraise this LP – a good try I must say but it is pants (aside from Modern Love) even Bowie has said as much on occasion.

    • David L says:

      You can’t really trust the artist on choosing what’s best from their own stuff. Hitchcock thought “Shadow of a Doubt” was his best. I wouldn’t even put that in his top 20.

      Though Bowie may have been right when he said NLMD was his “nadir”.

  13. diamond dog says:

    Seems the barrage of power pop before this side closer put it in some shadow. It is a very slight song delivered superbly. The band are driving and the solo very sweet. I must find the single as I’m just used to hearing after the almighty title track. I’m a big fan of roxy and can see the sacharine similarity but tis a bit better in delivery. Glad to hear its being re evaluted as it deserves it.

  14. diamond dog says:

    Cheeky!!!!!

  15. Not terribly memorable (I didn’t recognize it by title, and I’m one of the resident semi-defenders of this album), but a sweet, delicate little song.

    (Also: Madonna dated Basquiat?!? Why isn’t THAT in the Basquiat movie?!?)

  16. Jasper says:

    I am wondering why the Without You single has a cover with a drawing by Keith Haring, the rest of the singles from the album have covers relating to the Let’s Dance album design, all repeating the way Bowie is written on the album, does anyone know?

    In the Basquiat movie Madonna is played by Courtney Love, I don’t think they say it’s Madonna, they call her Big Pink or something like that as far as i recall.

  17. James says:

    Such a simple and evocative song;, the vocals again.

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