Let’s Dance (single edit, video).
Let’s Dance (LP).
Let’s Dance (rehearsal w/Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1983).
Let’s Dance (live, 1983).
Let’s Dance (live w/Tina Turner, 1985).
Let’s Dance (live, 1987).
Let’s Dance (live, 1990).
Let’s Dance (live, 1996).
Let’s Dance (live, 2002).
Let’s Dance (Live By Request, 2002).
Let’s Dance (live, 2003).
It begins in hysteria. A mass of singers urge each other upward, moving in thirds, pursued by a brittle-sounding guitar; the drums, bass and horns convulse in eighth notes. It’s a collective explosion, one you’ve heard before—it’s the climax of the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” a rave-up to drive audiences mad. For “Let’s Dance,” it’s just the intro.
“Let’s Dance” is a mutant hybrid of a pop song, one bred to conquer. Bowie and his producer Nile Rodgers crafted the track to “pop” when heard on the radio (“It’s got a hard cut, very high on treble—it sears through,” Bowie said at the time) but also made the beat heavy enough to command the dance floor. The seven-minutes-plus version (on the LP and the 12″ single) is expansive: as it goes on, it becomes a series of set pieces (percussion solo, brass solo, guitar solo), as if a DJ is shuffling through dance instruction records. The single edit is remorseless, all economy and punch—Stevie Ray Vaughan’s early appearance is truncated to a single note, his later solo kept within bounds and faded out quickly.
Even in its long version “Let’s Dance” seems streamlined—it starts mid-leap, stays in the air. The verse and refrain are fused together (the falling “let’s dance!” phrase alternates with every verse line), while the hook-filled bridge could double for the chorus, and it ends with the track’s dramatic peak: Bowie, singing over the “Twist and Shout” buildup, makes two aborted attempts to move up (“if you should fall“…”into my arms…”)—he’s just baiting the listener now—until finally breaking out with the fifth-spanning “trem-ble like a FLOW-ER!”
A still-reliable way to get a hit is to write a song that calls people out to dance, sets them spinning, the song celebrating its own power. “Let’s Dance” follows that script, but it’s still weird, in a Bowie way: it’s not quite comfortable as an emcee. The refrain chorus vocals sound hectoring; Bowie croaks out the second verse like he’s still in character from his vampire movie The Hunger; there are odd phrases in the lyric that read like poor translations (“serious moonlight,”1 “for fear your grace should fall“); the mainly “acoustic” instruments sound like synthesizers. There’s a severity to “Let’s Dance,” from the imperative mood of the refrain (a set of commands from one lover to another) to how the instruments are recorded (sharply, massively) and mixed: often separated, kept in their own worlds, each threatening to dominate the track. Listening to the final mix is like spinning past row after row of iron sculptures.
That said, “Let’s Dance” still works on the dance floor (I saw it first-hand the other weekend) and it fit the key of its time: few songs scream “1983” like it does. It’s arguably the most popular Bowie song, more than “Changes,” more than “Young Americans” or “Life On Mars” or “Rebel Rebel” or “Space Oddity.” A few bars of it herald Bowie’s cameo appearance in Zoolander; it could stand for Bowie’s entire canon, easily reduced to a ringtone. The biggest single of Bowie’s life, “Let’s Dance” hit #1 in the UK, #1 in the US, #1 in Canada, Ireland, Holland, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway. It made him, at last, the colossal celebrity that he had always intended, had always pretended, to be.
“Let’s Dance” was also coronation music for Bowie’s latest incarnation, the hipster CEO figure seen on stage throughout 1983 and starring in Let’s Dance‘s run of hit videos—the blond bouffant, the lockjaw, the designer suits with the dangling, unknotted neckties, the golf gloves, the modest dancing. As one of Tom Ewing’s commenters said, this was Bowie as “an avatar of pure fame,” becoming an international trademark of his own music, like the Apple logo or the Nike swish. The Man Who Sold Himself to the World, which bought him.
Bromley’s Billy Idol was an inadvertent parent. Late one night in the autumn of 1982, in the drafty VIP section of a New York club called The Continental, an inebriated Idol was babbling to Nile Rodgers until he nearly vomited on him. Dodging Idol’s spew, Rodgers escaped from the table and spied Bowie sitting alone in a corner of the room.2 The two began to chat and spent hours talking about everyone from Henry Mancini to Louis Jordan, swapping Iggy Pop stories (one of Rodgers’ early bands had opened for the Stooges in the late Sixties). Soon afterward, Bowie asked Rodgers to produce his next record, dumping Tony Visconti, who had already booked time to work with Bowie in December—an irked Visconti wouldn’t produce Bowie again for nearly 20 years.
Visconti’s ouster wasn’t a surprise. Bowie, looking for a new record contract and wanting hits, wanted to work with an entirely new cast. He already had broken up his classic rhythm section. Now even Carlos Alomar was gone (temporarily), with Bowie’s people refusing Alomar’s customary request for a raise and instead just offering him scale: Alomar, insulted, walked.
In Rodgers, Bowie saw a proven hitmaker and also a hidden classicist: someone who had kept black popular music traditions alive within a contemporary sound, first with the coiled precision of Chic (whose records seem like a jazz trio’s interpretation of disco, with Bernard Edwards’ bass as the saxophone) and then with a harsher, “post disco” minimalist sound that Rodgers had developed on Debbie Harry’s Koo Koo, Material’s “Come Down,” and his own Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove (recorded just before Let’s Dance). The latter records, however, hadn’t sold: Rodgers was coming off a string of flops before Bowie enlisted him. And Rodgers was at first disappointed to learn Bowie wanted him to make hits, because Rodgers thought he’d have the chance to make an avant-garde rock LP, a “Scary Monsters 2,” as he later said.
Bowie, spending much of 1982 making The Hunger and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, had brought along on his travels mix tapes of Sixties soul records: Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Marvin Gaye, Etta James. The immediacy of these records, their collective insistence, their open air of simplicity masking stark emotional depths, appealed to Bowie, who had spent the past half-decade writing gnomic parables, prying apart his old songs, trying to erase himself. Bowie wanted a public again, so he set about writing public songs—exhortations, common causes—keeping his lines (relatively) simple, writing words meant to be sung back at him.
Bowie being inspired by black music wasn’t anything new, of course. He began by slavishly imitating R&B (“Liza Jane,” “I Pity the Fool,” “And I Say to Myself“) and again a decade later with the Philly Soul Young Americans. And apart from his folk-plagued late Sixties, soul had been the continual undercurrent of Bowie’s music. The core of the Berlin records is the doings of a mysterious funk band; Station to Station is apocalypse disco; Bowie sang James Brown songs onstage as Ziggy Stardust; Diamond Dogs owed as much to Isaac Hayes as it did George Orwell. Let’s Dance was just exposing the foundation again.
In late 1982, Rodgers flew to Switzerland to hear Bowie’s new material. Bowie played him “Let’s Dance” on acoustic guitar: it was a folk ballad, a Byrds-like piece, which it remains. When stripped down to its melody and chords, “Let’s Dance” is a somber song, one tinged with melancholy. Its verse/refrain is mainly built on the dark, ominous sound of B-flat minor,3 with only a few fleeting escapes to Gb major (by contrast, the bridge is centered on the steadier Db major). Pried out of the metallic casing that Rodgers devised for it, “Let’s Dance” can seem fragile, prematurely regretful. The singer hopes that the dance he’s asking for, the moment that he’s devising, will cause his lover to finally commit to him, to give him the life he’s always wanted, but he fears that even if his plan works, it will only be for a moment. There’s a jittery impermanence in “Let’s Dance,” a desperation beneath its imperious tone; it’s the song of a man trying to cheat fate, to make his own luck. Bowie returned to this original vision of the song in his later years, turning “Let’s Dance” into a mood piece.
At the time, though, Bowie told Rodgers he thought “Dance” was a potential hit. Rodgers just shook his head. How could you have a song called “Let’s Dance” that you couldn’t dance to? For Rodgers, this paradox was a sign of white privilege. Black artists, Rodgers later contended, are usually forced to work far more literally—if a black band has a song called “Let’s Dance,” it has to be a dance song, he said. “It’s not because there isn’t interesting intellectual subject matter for black artists to delve into, it’s the fact that you won’t get played,” he told David Buckley.
So Rodgers got to work in Switzerland, making a studio demo of “Let’s Dance” with Erdal Kizilcay, who first played a florid, Jaco Pastorius-inspired bassline. Rodgers, trying to beat the song into a single, reportedly told Kizilcay “don’t play that shit—it’s not your solo album, it’s David Bowie’s.” The two worked out a more restrained bassline, a set of alternating hooks: a four-note stepwise descent, and a more static five-note pattern that either fell a step or stayed on the same note (first heard at 0:15 and 0:11, respectively, on the LP). On the studio “Let’s Dance,” the line’s played by Carmine Rojas, whose Fender bass is mixed with a synthesized one (an old Bowie trick—Visconti’s bass on The Man Who Sold the World is often echoed by a synth bass.)
While Rodgers was in Switzerland, Bowie kept showing him things: jazz album sleeves, Little Richard photographs, Bowie’s enormous LP collection that dated back to his teenage days in Bromley. Rodgers later told Paul Trynka that it was like being offered “a snapshot of Bowie’s brain” at the time; it was Bowie, subtly, getting Rodgers into the state of mind that Bowie required, leavening Rodgers’ contemporary music knowledge with a revisionist’s deliberate perspective.
“Let’s Dance” is the fruit of this approach: it’s an Eighties pop song that “organically” samples Fifties and Sixties hits (even the title calls back to the old Chris Montez hit Bowie had played with the Kon-Rads). There’s not only the “Twist and Shout” raveup, but the main horn riffs are inspired by (almost taken wholesale from, actually) Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn soundtrack. And Stevie Ray Vaughan, after taping his guitar solo, admitted he was straight-out playing Albert King licks. Rodgers thought Bowie’s hiring of Vaughan was a mistake, but Bowie, who had seen Vaughan weather a poor reception at the Montreux Jazz Festival in the summer of ’82, had a veteran stock-picker’s sense of a future winner. Vaughan’s blues guitar solo is in keeping with “Let’s Dance”‘s sense of being a sampler of American musics, a catalog in jumps: electric blues, funk, Hollywood jazz, rock & roll, Latin (the highly-mixed presence of Sammy Figueroa‘s woodblocks).
“Let’s Dance,” the first song recorded for the album that it named, was crafted in the Power Station. Bowie already had recorded Scary Monsters there, but by 1982, the Station had developed its trademark drum sound: gated snare reverb. It was the crushing beat of Let’s Dance, as well of the Eighties. While Visconti’s Harmonizer-altered drums on Low was a predecessor of the sound,4 the “classic” Eighties gated snare was developed concurrently at the Power Station by engineers like Bob Clearmountain, and at London’s Townhouse, where in 1980, on Peter Gabriel’s third album, Hugh Padham developed the sound for Phil Collins’ drum tracks.5
Engineers were always trying to better record the “snap” of a snare drum being hit. It’s an endless task, as a recording never quite captures the exact sound when heard live. Attempts at miking the snare in a reverb-heavy room like the Power Station wound up with the mike also picking up all of the echoes of the snare hit, and so muddying/dissipating its power. Power Station and Townhouse engineers hit upon the same solution: place a close mike (to capture the actual hit) and then a pair of stereo “ambiance” mikes above the kit, the latter using high compression and equipped with noise gates (so the mikes would capture the reverb of a stick hitting the snare for a half second or so, then snap off). This way engineers could get the hard “snap” of the hit with a dose of explosive reverb, yet without any secondary echoes.
So the snare hit became abstracted—it became a block of pure force, as precise and as alien-sounding as a drum machine but with more power. This sort of inhuman precision, an acoustic instrument turned into a synthetic giant of itself, defines “Let’s Dance”—not just Omar Hakim’s drums but even Figueroa’s percussion sounds like a mechanical rattlesnake. That’s not to downplay the brilliant workings of Rodgers’ arrangement: the way the horns and the bass play off each other, Hakim’s intricate bass drum pattern, which only repeats every eight bars (Duran Duran later admitted stealing it for “Union of the Snake”), the wide use of space in the mix, so that every instrument’s appearance seems like an event.
The single mix boiled all of this down to an ultimatum; the extended take allowed some room to breathe, letting Rodgers do a Chic-style “breakdown,” gave Vaughan his first moment in the spotlight, and a few oddities slipped in, like the cacophonous 22-bar brass solo that sounds more like the World Saxophone Quartet than any contemporary R&B horn section.
The producer Tony Bongiovi had wanted his Power Station to replace the intimacy of the Seventies “dry” sound (which he compared to that of a doctor’s office) with a hotter, more “live,” more communal sound. (It didn’t really turn out that way—many Eighties records sound far less “live” today than their Seventies counterparts.) “Let’s Dance” is metaphorically Bowie attempting a similar move, exchanging mystery for mass connection. Bowie songs tend to be from fractured individual perspectives: even “Changes” or “Rebel Rebel,” songs that audiences have taken for themselves, are at their core weirdly personal songs, still unknowable. “Let’s Dance,” is Bowie trying to be communal: it seems intended to be shared, with its lyric’s emphasis on the plural (even “they” are playing music on the radio), how its chorus is like a pep cheer. It’s open, expansive, a song meant to be flung out to a crowd.
But go back to that day in Switzerland, when Bowie played his sad, fragile song to Rodgers. Was he sacrificing it? Bowie knew that Rodgers, a brilliant arranger, could make a wallflower ballad into a shining dance anthem, could case its insecurities in a dazzling set of mirrors. He gave the song away to be corrupted: wonderfully, as it turned out. “Let’s Dance” finally made Bowie. But what had it made of him?
Recorded ca. 1-20 December 1982, The Power Station, NYC. Released 17 March 1983 (EA 152, c/w “Cat People,” #1 US/UK). David Mallet and Bowie made another iconic video, with the “red shoes” of the lyric serving as a corrupting symbol of modern capitalism. It’s best remembered for a few random images: an Aboriginal boy dragging a machine down a Sydney street, the boy and his girlfriend painting a snake on the wall of an art gallery, an immaculate Bowie playing his song in an outback bar.
1: “Serious moonlight,” according to Rodgers, was Bowie referencing Rodgers’ habit of calling a particularly good groove or track “serious.” Bowie once called the phrase as his attempt at an “Americanism.” However, Nicholas Pegg offered the mad and quite possibly accurate theory that Bowie was referencing an Aleister Crowley poem, “Lyric of Love to Leah,” whose lines include “let us dance beneath the palm/moving in the moonlight” and later “come my love, let us dance/to the moon and Sirius!” I.e., the Sirius Moonlight.
2: This is the most colorful and hence my favorite version of the meeting at the Continental (Rodgers told it to Buckley). The reality may have been more prosaic: there are other stories where Bowie and Rodgers sit side by side, silently, for hours until Rodgers gets the courage to say hello, or where a less-drunk Idol graciously introduces Rodgers to Bowie.
3: According to the official sheet music, it’s A minor/F major for the verses, G/C/D for the bridge. However, a Japanese full band score puts the song more accurately (IMO) in the key of D-flat, with Bb minor/Gb for the verse/refrain, and Ab/Db/Eb for the bridge.
4: In 1983, Bowie described the Low drum sound as “that “mash” drum sound, that depressive, gorilla effect set down the studio drum fever fad for the next few years. It was something I wish we’d never created, having had to live through four years of it with other English bands, until it started changing into the “clap” sound we’ve got now.”
5 Collins fell in love with the gated snare. Besotted, he dedicated his work in the Eighties to its worship: cf. the Collins-produced “I Know There Something Going On” by Frida, in which the former ABBA singer fights for her life against a set of all-devouring drums.
Greg Milner’s excellent Perfecting Sound Forever was key to understanding the development of the gated snare. Thanks to Lance Hoskins for sending me the Let’s Dance full band score some time ago.
Top: Martin Scorsese, The King of Comedy (1983); Aboriginals witness the nuking of Sydney in the “Let’s Dance” video; Nile Rodgers at the Power Station, ca. 1984; Let’s Dance, LP, 12″ single front and back (the latter illustration either predicting or ripping off Keith Haring).