Modern Love (single edit, video).
Modern Love (live, 1983).
Modern Love (Live Aid, 1985).
Modern Love (live, 1987).
Modern Love (live, 1990).
Modern Love (broadcast, 2004).
Modern Love (live, 2004).
Here comes my Chinese rug!
Iggy Pop, “Success.”
EMI’s (reported) $17 million contract with Bowie was one of the last good bets that recently-dismembered label ever made, as Let’s Dance repaid EMI’s advance within the year. It moved some six million copies (reportedly EMI’s fastest seller since Sgt. Pepper), hitting #1 in the UK and #4 in the US, and spawned three global hit singles.
Then Bowie went on tour for eight months. On a single night in San Bernardino, for his appearance at the US Festival, he made $1.5 million; he made nearly another million for four concerts in Chicago, $1.2 million for a single Edmonton concert. Bowie reportedly netted between $25 million to $35 million for the entire tour. He commissioned a private Boeing 707 for transport (so much for the old fear of flying). Every night, according to his backing singer Frank Simms, the crew and musicians drank and dined like emperors. By the end of 1983, Bowie had likely earned at least $50 million in a single year (inflation-adjusted, $108 million).1
So the former Beckenham oddball now had a net worth comparable to some of the Windsors. (Charles Shaar Murray: “I saw the footage of Bowie in Singapore [’83]. And I suddenly thought, he’s turned into Prince Charles. In a suit, with an old-fashioned haircut like a lemon meringue on his head, talking in this posh accent.” As per Paul Trynka’s bio.)
“Modern Love,” released in September 1983, was Let’s Dance‘s clean-up hit.2 And in its video form, “Modern Love” was a recapitulation of recent triumphs, the promo consisting of shots of Bowie working an adoring audience (in Philadelphia, Bowie’s go-to city for live recordings/footage). It was a rock video as tour commercial—don’t miss the giant inflated crescent moon! the horn section wearing pith helmets! Coming to your town next month!
But the actual song was more compromised. The ebullient lead-off track of Let’s Dance, “Modern Love” is a Bowie cultural doom-piece like “Five Years” recast as a boogie, nihilism in the high key of Little Richard. Bowie said the track’s call-and-response vocal arrangement “all comes from Little Richard,” Tony Thompson’s drumming seems like a gated update of Charles Connor’s barrage on “Keep a Knockin‘,” and Rob Sabino’s piano, though unfortunately sunk in the mix, is indebted to both Little Richard and Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry’s pianist.
“Modern Love” is a brightly-mixed pastiche of retired genres, with its early rock & roll kick beat and its soul-inspired vocal harmonies, while its instrumental verse, a tenor sax solo by Robert Aaron, owes more to a Fifties R&B honker like Earl Bostic than anyone post-Coltrane.3
The Kinks’ “Come Dancing,” released a month before Let’s Dance was recorded, has some affinities with “Modern Love,” not just in its throwback sound. “Come Dancing” recounts how rock & roll killed off the light pop jazz of postwar Britain—how the liberated Sixties buried the Forties, for good or ill. In “Modern Love,” now rock and roll is the old, endangered music, coasting on past glories, recreating itself in lesser forms. Whatever transcendence the music once offered is gone, leaving just fading colors and noise, the false consolations of memory, revivalists shining up the relics of an emptied kingdom.
Lyrically, “Modern Love” seems a revisit of “Soul Love.” In the earlier song, Bowie considered “love” as an abstract force (in his wonderful line “sweeping over cross and baby“), one that consumes lovers, priests and mothers, a force as delusive as it is powerful. “Love” in “Modern Love” has an even more astringent quality—there’s something sharp and cold in Bowie’s use of it here.
In “Modern Love”‘s circular 24-bar chorus (repeated three times in all), with its equally cyclical chord progression of the first four degrees of C major (C, D, Em, Fmaj7), Bowie starts out trying out “modern love,”4 finds it wanting, and takes solace in traditional marriage (“church on time”). But tradition’s just as empty, so he puts his trust in humanist religion (‘God and man!”) and finds that equally barren. (These moves are echoed harmonically by the fall back to the tonic, C major, with each new disappointment). The chorus closes with an echo of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and “God,” Bowie checking off everything that’s failed him—no religion, no confessions, no love. Nothing means anything, nothing works anymore. So the chorus ends back where it started, on “modern love,” because it’s the most appealing of the false gods.
Yet while the first verse opens with another image of empty circularity, Bowie buying a newspaper that only tells him there’s no real news, there’s also a weak sense of effort, of pushing back, if passively: standing in the wind, lying in the rain. But I try. I try. Bowie’s spoken opening lines are the only real counter-force: I know when to go out. I know when to stay in: get things done. It’s like a condensed shareholder’s letter. This was Bowie recasting himself, yet again: here as a dedicated counterfeiter for a debased time (“it’s not really work, it’s just the power to charm,” he smiles—how others must see the faker), as a man bled clean of his former vices and now ready to go to work.
“Modern Love” opens (in 6/8 time) with Nile Rodgers’ stuttering guitar riff, like someone trying to tug a motor into life, and it’s soon echoed on Tony Thompson’s drums. Thompson’s excellent on this track, with his subtly alternating patterns on every other bar. Carmine Rojas’ bass mainly holds the low end, with a few murmured commentaries at the end of verses, while the horns, as if they’ve been penned up, start chugging to go as the second verse ends.
Bowie’s vocal is one of his strongest on the record—he never doubts himself, despite what he encounters; he’s determined to sell you through it. And for once the Simms brothers and David Spinner, who sound like a demented glee club on most of Let’s Dance, are put to good use, here serving as audience surrogates, chanting back whatever words Bowie feeds them, being driven along before him.
“Modern Love” soon became Bowie’s encore set piece, with Bowie using the “never wave bye-bye” line literally, and he began to sing the entire piece in an excited, agitated manner. But the studio version slowly builds, with Bowie holding back until, having gone through his circle of disappointment yet again, he finally accepts the inevitable—that when there’s nothing of value left, one must accept nothing, and work at it. “MODERN LOVE!” he starts yelling, fully caught up in it at last. “WALKS BESIDE ME! WALKS ON BY!” (yet another old song churned up in the mix). Everyone’s borne along: the manic singers, the frantic horns, Tony Thompson crashing his cymbals. The fade comes while everyone’s still dancing in the circle. The bright communal joy of “Modern Love” masks a spiritually empty view of life, in which work is the last religion standing. As such, it was a song made for its times.
Recorded ca. 1-20 December 1982, The Power Station, NYC. Released as a single (EA 158, #2 UK, #14 US) in September 1983.
1 These estimates are from George Tremlett, the Bowie biographer most keen on the money angle. Tremlett noted that since Bowie was a Swiss resident at the time, he likely paid a mere $10,000 in taxes on his alleged $50 million haul.
2 Pop albums once had quickly diminishing returns: the first or second single was the big hit, while the third, if one was even released, was usually a chart-placer at best. Then it was time for a new record. But around 1983, labels realized that they could just milk one album for years, Epic leading the way with Thriller (seven charting singles from a nine-track LP, over a 16-month period). Recall how many mid-Eighties hits were third or fourth singles: “Borderline,” “Beat It,” “Delirious,” “Hello,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Walk of Life,” “She Bop,” “Born in the USA,” etc. This practice reached its peak in the Nineties, when labels harvested albums so relentlessly that no one ever wanted to hear anything else the artist did again (Alanis Morissette, the Spin Doctors, Hootie and the Blowfish, etc.)
3 In Bowie’s later live versions of the song, especially the Earl Slick guitar-heavy incarnation from the last tour, the “Lust for Life”/”You Can’t Hurry Love” beat is pretty obviously there too.
4 The concept of “Modern Love” itself is a bit of a joke, as it’s as old as “modernity” itself (see George Meredith’s 50-canto poem of the same title, from 1862).
Top: “ChuckP,” “Toga, 1983.”