Shake It

Shake It.
Shake It (12″ mix).

The Man Who Sold the World and Let’s Dance seem to have been recorded on different planets, but their creations were similar, with Bowie in a passive role. While Bowie has denied that Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson did most of the work on MWSTW, he’s admitted to ceding much of Let’s Dance to Nile Rodgers. Bowie didn’t play a single note on the record (“this was a singer’s album,” he said at the time) and was often in the Power Station lounge while Rodgers worked up the backing tracks.

So “Shake It,” far more than the rest of Let’s Dance, seems like the product of an out-to-lunch composer whose producer was gamely trying to guess what he wanted. It’s a troubling precedent of Bowie’s worst moments in Eighties: the genial indifference to quality, the sense of broadly playing to a generic public of his imagination. A filler track that closes out Let’s Dance, “Shake It”‘s not knowing enough to be a parody, not compelling enough to be a good dance song.

With its lyric occasionally attempting a cool ennui (“talking to a faceless girl,” “you’re better than money“), “Shake It” seems like a cheerful vandalism of a half-remembered Sixties, with the spiritualism of an earlier era reduced to catch phrases and pick-up lines; it’s a song for former hippies dancing awkwardly at some corporate function. So Bowie’s lyric calls back to the Beach Boys’ “‘Til I Die” (the Brian Wilson tributes would only get worse), “Twist and Shout” again and even John Lennon’s “Mind Games.” (The dreadful “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” is pure Bowie, though.)

Rodgers does what he can with a dull composition (the six-bar bridge starts out promisingly, with Bowie sinking into his lower register, but it’s soon dispatched with another “shake it!”) and the track’s pleasant enough. Sure, the twirpy synthesizer ostinato is irritating and the backing singers should be shot, but Carmine Rojas’ bass offers a solid groove in compensation (he’s often starting each bar with an octave drop), while Rodgers’ two-bar rhythm guitar fills and Sammy Figueroa’s percussion add some welcome distractions. Brightly mixed and fairly shameless, “Shake It” shines like plastic.

Recorded ca. 1-20 December 1982, Power Station, NYC. An extended mix was issued as the B-side of the “China Girl” 12″ single in May 1983.

Top: Andrew McDonald, “Drunk Man with Cast and Cigarette,” Perth, Australia, 1983.

30 Responses to Shake It

  1. Maj says:

    Quite literally tune-less. Not sure if I ever listened to this properly coz I suspect that by the end of Let’s Dance I’d have already tuned out or stopped it before the song even started.
    Even now I didn’t finish Shake It, after 2.5 mins it felt too long.
    Guess its placement at the end of the record was a sign of what was to come…a sort of a trailer, so to speak.

    • David L says:

      ha — yes, a trailer.

      Weakest track on LD, for sure, though I liked it when I was 18 for the bass groove and the beat. But now, it’s not even on my ipod.

  2. DietMondrian says:

    Compare that keyboard sound with Calvin Harris’s “Acceptable in the 80s”…

  3. diamond dog says:

    Well just listened to the remix for the first time , did not purchase the single at the time. Its a very weak finish to the album but a good b side its also an awkward dance track though the driving beat is very catchy almost making it seem you could dance away to it. It reminds me of roxy’s angel eyes that smooth disco sung by middle aged blokes who should know better. I agree with the review its more producer than writer. Its a pity the album did not finish on a stronger note .

  4. Anonymous says:

    C’mon. It’s rubbish isn’t it? The beginning of the end.

  5. Jeremy Earl says:

    Total through-away and a sad way to end a pretty good album.
    Also yes, a trailer for Tonight – a good way to look at it. I really don’t have anything else to say about this track – it was all summed up in the write-up.

    Very impressed though – the picture is from my home town – Perth. I was 13 in 1983, so don’t worry – the drunk is not me!
    It is sad, however, that the venue of Bowie’s gigs in 1978 and 1983 (3 shows) – the Perth entertainment centre, that held 8000 Bowie fans is in the process of being demolished. I go past its diminishing ruins on the train to work and remember the night I saw Bowie there. Another monument lost to time….

  6. diamond dog says:

    Sad story …same over here in the uk , venues shutting ,pubs closing high streets ghost towns.

  7. giospurs says:

    Wow, this is bad.
    The most inexcusable thing is that, not only is it a terrible composition, it completely fails as a dance track too. At least it’s at the end so you can turn off your sound system before it starts.

  8. vangogh says:

    I always thought the lines…”so whats my line?” , whilst referencing the popular UK TV show of the same name, was very telling of Bowie’s directionless at the time.

  9. swanstep says:

    Yep, pretty bad. You can sort of hear in the track the potential for a sonically huge, ‘I feel for you’ (which was 12 months away IIRC) style monster jam, but the actual results here are just horrible (this is worse than anything on Tonight I’d say).

  10. Remco says:

    I always listen to the whole album before you start posting about it so I played Let’s Dance in its entirety when you did the post on ‘Cat People’ a couple of weeks ago. I’ve had these ladies singing “Shake it shake it what’s my line?” in my head ever since. Shooting’s to good for them.

  11. David L says:

    It really is fascinating that a guy who produced the mostly brilliant Scary Monsters could put out “Shake It” just three years later. Almost makes a case for body snatching. Wanting to go commercial is one thing, this seems like an entirely different person.

  12. diamond dog says:

    Listening nowadays it is quite a stinker but at the time it was not that bad or perhaps I was kidding myself…

    • David L says:

      Agreed, DD. At the time I kinda dug it, perhaps I was just caught up in the Bowie fervor of the time. Heck I even thought I liked Tonight and Never Let me Down at the time.

      [shakes his head, shivers]

  13. Frankie says:

    The chorus “Shake it” reminds me of the chant of the ever-circling skeletal family’s, “Shake it up, shake it up. Move it up, move it up”. Is it yet another Bowie song about wanking?

    Whatever the case, it’s a song about a faceless girl and that only makes sense in a Mark Kostabi faceless world…

  14. jopasso says:

    Weren’t the embarrassing Sims brothers who sang the chorus “shake it shake it what’s my line”?

  15. Marion Brent says:

    What makes this track so egregious is that Bowie had such a strong record for creating amazing album closers: Bewlay Brothers, Rock N Roll Suicide, Lady Grinning Soul, Wild Is the Wind, Subterraneans… Shake It?

    I think one of the central tensions in Bowie’s career is the desire to be an entertainer and the desire to be an artist. When he can combine the two properly is when he is at his best. But when the entertainer side gets the upper hand…

  16. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Great points, Marion. I’ve always thought of Bowie’s great albums as being founded on a strong opener-closer pair. I think he really understood the vinyl, 20-25 minute/side album format.
    There have been a few false steps when the artistic side got too much of an upper hand as well , don’t you think ?

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      You are both right, and really it’s a facet that helps make Bowie as fascinating as he is. how many artists have done something like the Laughing Gnome and say, Station to Station? – not many. I’ll forgive the times it doesn’t work out…

      • This comment may never be seen by you, as I’m late to the party, but: thanks, Marion, Brendan, and Jeremy, for pointing out one of the things I most love about Bowie, even if I hadn’t quite been able to articulate it before. Many of the artists I most enjoy have a kind of contradiction in their work, whether it’s the sacred and profane in Scorsese and Bergman’s films, or the tough/sensitive push-pull in Hemingway, Zevon, and Peckinpah… Bowie has that art/entertainment (or however you want to say it) schism in his best work. His best-known record, after all, is an experimental rock concept album about a rock star from Mars…

        This song… urg. Even though I generally like this album, I’m usually done with the record by this point. My favorite track is the one preceding it, “Cat People,” which makes the poor quality of “Shake It” stand out even more. I usually skip this song and move on to the next album I’m listening to when “Shake It” starts.

        I hadn’t realized Bowie didn’t play any instruments on this entire album. That’s a shame (but not surprising, given how impersonal a record it is).

  17. diamond dog says:

    Its simply amazing that this is the same man who made low !! Seems he was going backwards into tommy steele entertainer mode.

    • James says:

      He needed Money that’s all. No one but himself could have pulled it off. I still wonder why longtime fans can’t even see today behind the make-up of this album.

  18. David Bowie brings back many drunken memories for me!! Wow those where the days.

    Casey Mahoney Brad P

  19. “Bowie didn’t play a single note on the record”

    Strangely, he’s credited with “lead vocals, saxophone, guitar, keyboards” on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let%27s_Dance_%28David_Bowie_album%29#Personnel), but my Let’s Dance CD has no credit for him aside from his co-credit for horn arrangements. I wonder why there’s a discrepancy there. I mean, sure, Wikipedia is wrong sometimes, but where’d someone get the idea that he played saxophone, guitar, and keyboards if he didn’t play anything on the album?

  20. Gretta says:

    I am so glad to see that there are people who also like to tear apart crap music. It’s like he died but left a note to his producer that said “please complete this track for me, I am dead.” and his producer then tried to make the track sound like it was written by a dead bloke.

  21. For all my defense of eightiesBowie, it’s really hard to say anything about this. The only thing worth noting is that it is a bit of an earworm. I haven’t played Let’s Dance in months (all my music is packed up in storage at the moment) but all I had to do was see the title and now I can’t get the backing vocals out of my head.

  22. James says:

    The vocals are great and they were warming up to the rest since this was the first track they worked on.

  23. Ramzi says:

    …am I the only one who likes this song (unironically, may I add)?

    • KenHR says:

      I honestly think, like many other individual songs examined on this blog that are weak when looked at in isolation (e.g. “Because You’re Young” off SM), that this track makes perfect sense in the context of the album. It’s certainly not the strongest closer, but it’s not crap.

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