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.