Imagine

November 22, 2011

Imagine (live, 8 December 1983).

A few days after John Lennon was murdered, the battle for his afterlife began. Charles M. Young, Rolling Stone‘s ambassador to the punk scene, walked into the RS office complaining about the tribute vigils in Central Park. The songs that everyone kept singing—“Imagine,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Give Peace a Chance”—were Lennon at his most maudlin and sappy, Young said. (Lester Bangs made the same point around the same time.) The real Lennon, the scabrous rocker, the cutting observer of human folly, was nowhere to be found in his own tributes. That “wouldn’t have been appropriate,” his boss Jann Wenner allegedly replied. (From Robert Draper’s Rolling Stone: the Uncensored History).

“Inappropriate” Lennon, unsurprisingly, soon packed off. In his place was a myth-gone-man, John Lennon as the greatest (and last) of the Sixties martyrs. Sure, every five years or so, some new book or film appears to show Lennon as he could be: pissy, ridiculous, righteous, delusive, outrageous and self-deflating. And those discordant notes fade soon enough, while remaining, unblemished, is the peace-sign flashing Lennon of dorm room posters and T-shirts, the glasses-and-hair caricature on coffee mugs.

On the third anniversary of Lennon’s murder, at the end of the last show of his triumphant world tour, Bowie sang “Imagine” to a Hong Kong audience. It was an apt tribute, as “Imagine” was becoming myth-Lennon’s greatest hit, another way that the Sixties were being reduced to a collectible set of soundbites and slogans.

Lennon’s killing had horrified Bowie, and Bowie’s presence in the Eighties—the sense of immaculate distance, his cultivating of a bland commercial sound, his apparent determination to mean less to people, to defang his cult—seems in part a reaction to that December night. Lennon had been vulnerable, walking the streets without bodyguards, his home address common knowledge to fans. He had spent the latter half of the Seventies quietly humanizing himself, living in exile in plain sight, surfacing in 1980 to promote his and Yoko’s new record by reminding his fans that the memory cheats, that the past is dead.

We were the hip ones of the Sixties, he said in one of his last interviews. But the world is not like the Sixties. The whole world has changed…Produce your own dream. It’s quite possible to do anything…the unknown is what it is. And to be frightened of it is what sends everybody scurrying around chasing dreams, illusions.” The cruelest legacy of his murder was that Lennon’s open commitment to the future was overshadowed as he became a mythic trademark of the lost, glorious past.

And considering the vicious rocker Lennon to be the “true” Lennon was just another type of myth, conveniently ignoring Lennon’s sappy side (he wrote “Good Night,” remember). Lennon was a sentimentalist as much as he was an iconoclast, filling his last records with odes to his wife and son. He had intended “Imagine” to be schlocky, calling the song his sugar-coated bit of poison, a little nihilist-utopian message fit for Andy Williams or Robert Goulet to sing; it would have delighted him that the artless naif David Archuleta sang “Imagine” on “American Idol” a few years ago (even with the atheist lyrics carefully omitted).

So Bowie’s version of “Imagine,” which comes close to Vegas schmaltz—the saxophone fanfare, the Simms brothers emoting, Bowie doing such an uncanny Lennon imitation that it sounds like he’s auditioning for “Beatlemania”—is true enough to Lennon’s intentions. In its broad, tasteless way, it’s as fitting an elegy as Lennon ever received.

Recorded 8 December 1983 at the Hong Kong Colosseum. Though “Imagine” appears to have been recorded professionally (Bowie was considering releasing a live album of the tour, and “Imagine” could have been a sales hook), it’s still only found on bootlegs.

That’s all until after Thanksgiving. Have a great holiday: for those who don’t celebrate it, have a great Thursday.

Top: The World Trade Center, NYC, 1983. “The towers didn’t seem permanent. They remained concepts, no less transient for all their bulk than some routine distortion of light,” Don DeLillo, Players, 1977.


Criminal World

November 10, 2011

Criminal World (Metro, 1976.)
Criminal World (Bowie.)

I’m gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones.

David Bowie, Melody Maker, 22 January 1972.

The biggest mistake I ever made [was saying] that I was bisexual. Christ, I was so young then. I was experimenting.

David Bowie, Rolling Stone, 12 May 1983.

In the early Eighties, there was a collective denial of bisexuality/homosexuality among a generation of rock musicians. Lou Reed put out a few occasionally uxorious records, one of which had a song whose chorus was “I love women.” Freddie Mercury and Rob Halford kept to their closets. Elton John even married a woman.

Then there was Bowie, who, in the notorious Rolling Stone “David Bowie Straight” interview in May 1983 (coinciding with the release of Let’s Dance), denied that he had ever been gay. He said much the same to Time two months later, calling his admission in 1972 “a major miscalculation.” It was the end of Bowie’s “gay” years. Never mind “John I’m Only Dancing” or “Rebel Rebel”: the new Bowie was pure hetero, a ladies’ man.

This betrayal, if one could call it that, came at a cruel time. By 1983, AIDS, wreaking hell through gay communities, had become the source of lurid speculations and lunatic theories. I was an 11-year-old boy in the South at the time, and I recall what was said, by adults, not just kids: that you could get AIDS from doorknobs and toilet seats, that angry gay waiters were spitting their AIDS-tainted sputum into your food, that homosexuality was inseparable from filth and disease. Kushner’s Angels in America comes out of this period, as does James McCourt’s wonderful Time Remaining, an elegy for a culture annihilated.

So Bowie, a man who once worn dresses on his LP covers, who once sang to a cross-dressing kid “hey babe, your hair’s alright,” now seemed to repudiate a culture that had once revered him, and at its bleakest hour. As I’ve written before (see the “John” entry), Bowie apparently wasn’t gay, rather being a mild bisexual who exclusively chose women for long-term relationships. As early as the Young Americans era, he had stopped playing, as the Melody Maker described him in 1972, a gorgeously effeminate boy…camp as a row of tents, with his limp hand and trolling vocabulary. And as I’ve said before, I don’t care to delve into the gossip of who he slept with.

But what did Bowie owe to gay men? He had trafficked in their culture, had pretended (even claimed) to be one for several years, and gays had been some of his oldest and most loyal fans. Had he just always been an opportunist—and, to bluntly put it, being gay in 1983 was no longer “cool,” but rather something to be avoided?

For Bowie, it was a cold, commercial decision. He felt that he had been defined in America for his entire career as a bisexual first, artist second. In 2002, he told Blender: “America is a very puritanical place, and I think [being known as a bisexual] stood in the way of what I wanted to do…I had no inclination to hold any banners or to be a representative of any type of people.” Camille Paglia, interviewed by Marc Spitz for his Bowie bio, agreed: “Bowie, in my view, had no obligation to say “I’m gay.” His obligation is only to his imagination. It’s the extreme view but I think, quite frankly, it’s the authentically gay view.”

But go back to Let’s Dance. Tucked away on the B side was cover of a gay (or at least bi)-themed song from 1976, “Criminal World.” Was this a communique of sorts, a “psst–I’m still here” note from a converso? Or just one last twist of the knife?

I was really turned off by [Bowie]. I didn’t like him at all. Because of that bullshit. “Experimentation.”…I didn’t feel betrayed. I just felt like he was a product. But then he lost his touch, didn’t he? For many people it was a betrayal. You can’t take that back. “Oh, no, I really am cool. I really am on your side.” At a time when Reagan was in office and AIDS was rearing its head he decided he was going to cash in on his white, male privilege and put a distance between him and his stigmatized fans and by doing that, he basically said, “Okay, I am the dick that you love hating. I am Rod Stewart.”

Justin Bond, to Marc Spitz.

Metro was a band formed in 1976 by two journeyman British musicians, Duncan Browne and Peter Godwin (the guitarist Sean Lyons soon joined them). Inspired by the first generation of glam acts like Bowie and Roxy Music, Metro’s debut album is a forgotten transition piece, fusing early Seventies glam into new shapes, and creating the sound of much early Eighties pop in the process (Browne and Godwin really sound like Tears for Fears in places). The timing was nearly right (Metro almost had Stewart Copeland as their drummer) but not right enough: their records didn’t sell and Browne soon left.*

A half-decade later, Bowie reclaimed “Criminal World,” which the BBC had banned at the time for its bisexual overtones, and on the surface its inclusion on Let’s Dance seems like a typical bit of subversion, Bowie sneaking a transgressive song into a platinum record that grandmothers bought. But it wasn’t quite the same song. Bowie excised half of the first verse, which originally went:

I’m not the queen so there’s no need to bow,
I think I see beneath your mink coat.
I’ll take your dress and we can truck on out…

and replaced the lines with some weak phrases, apparently his own. Then, in the second verse, Bowie changed “I saw you kneeling at my brother’s door” to  “you caught me kneeling at your sister’s door.” He turned a gay-themed line into one that Vince Neil could’ve written.

There was no excuse for this. A decade before, Bowie had written “Sweet Head” and “Velvet Goldmine,” had put out “John I’m Only Dancing” as a single. Now he’s bowdlerizing a mild, vaguely-bi obscurity, cutting out any language that could possibly upset some square in Dubuque?

The “Criminal World” remake is a pretty solid track. Nile Rodgers did a variation of his “China Girl” riff, a little bouncing movement on the the high strings of his guitar, and after the chorus the stomping riff of the Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” sneaks in. Tony Thompson is solid as always, while Carmine Rojas’ bass, with its low, drooping slides, is the lead instrument whenever Stevie Ray Vaughan is absent. Vaughan gets two typically exuberant solos (though they seem staid compared with the wild, abrasive guitar on the original Metro track). It’s the best track on a mediocre side.

But why is it even there? As with “Ricochet,” there’s a sense that Bowie is including some domesticated versions of his past work in his new all-ages record. It’s subversion turned to mummery, it’s a formerly fearless man bluntly hedging his bets. It’s a mistake, an insult, one of his least noble moments.

Recorded ca. 1-20 December 1982, at the Power Station NYC.

* Both Browne and Godwin had bigger hits as solo acts in the Eighties: Godwin’s “Images of Heaven” and Browne’s “The Wild Places.” Browne died of cancer in 1993.

Photos: Helga Paris, “Pauer” and “Gabi,” from the series “Berlin Youth,” 1982.


Ricochet

November 7, 2011

Ricochet.
Ricochet (portion of tour film).

As Genesis evolved from a progressive rock theatrical troupe into Phil Collins’ off-year backing band, the remaining trio of Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks offered a meager recompense: each new Genesis record, no matter how much schlock it contained, still had at least one “prog” track for old times’ sake. These mainly served to irritate new fans and disappoint old ones.

“Ricochet” has a similar sense of obligation, as it’s the only song on Let’s Dance to suggest Bowie’s art rock past. If “Shake It” is a trailer for Tonight (thanks Maj), “Ricochet” seems like a “previously on” recap reminding you of characters last seen five years before. (“Hi, I’m David Bowie. Do you remember me? I wrote “Joe the Lion” and “Subterraneans.“) The portentous”Ricochet” was one of Bowie’s favorite tracks on the record, though he later regretted turning over some of its creation to Nile Rodgers. “The beat wasn’t quite right. It didn’t roll the way it should have, the syncopation was wrong. It had an ungainly gait; it should have flowed,” Bowie said in 1987.*

That Rodgers, a man who likely blows his nose in perfect time, was flummoxed by “Ricochet” shows how awkward a composition it is. As no demos or outtakes from the Let’s Dance sessions have surfaced, it’s hard to guess at how the track developed in the studio (it seems like it was a struggle—the singer Frank Simms recalled “Ricochet” having the most difficult vocals to master). The final track’s bass and drums are locked in place, as if cast in iron. The drum pattern, nearly unchanging throughout the track’s five-minute-plus length, is a snare hit on the first beat (+ a crash cymbal on every other bar), two bass drum hits on the third beat and four triplets played on the hi-hat. The bassist generally plays four quarter notes per bar: low root, octave jump, two more low roots.

Yet there’s no weight or presence in this repetition. The beats quickly dissipate in the mix: the bass drum, altered and probably gated, is nearly interchangeable with the gated snare and the combination of the two sounds more like arcade game incidental music than any grim “march of time” that Bowie may have envisioned. (Only later in the track, with the appearance of Sammy Figueroa’s bongos and an occasional needling Rodgers guitar part, is there any variation). The rest of the musicians are colliding or turning up at odd moments: the saxophones seem to have wandered in from a jazz fusion session in an adjacent studio, Stevie Ray Vaughan ducks in only at the fade and the Simms brothers (and David Spinner) on backing vocals repeatedly go over the top, from the choral harmonies in the last refrains to the Manhattan Transfer-esque “RI-co-chet it’s-not-the-end-of-the-WURRLD” free-time tag.

Its title a possible play off Marc Bolan’s “Spaceball Ricochet,” the lyric is Bowie’s most ambitious on the record, though leaden and awkward in parts, especially the spoken lines (“Modern Love” is far more disturbing and cutting). A take on unemployment, the callousness of late capitalism or some jumble of the same, it offers either surrender or a vague humanist hope as a resolution. The title suggests that Bowie’s main theme is collateral cultural damage—a ricochet, after all, is what happens when someone misses a target, and there’s the sense that the beaten-down men in the song are just drive-by casualties of some broader game.

Bleak enough sentiments for 1983. But as with “Repetition” and some other upcoming “topical” songs of the Eighties, Bowie seems to have no clue as to how ordinary working people live, and so draws on plays, novels or newspaper articles for stock footage (“dreaming of tramlines, factories, pieces of machinery, mine shafts, things like that”). There’s more at stake in Bowie’s songs about aliens and supermen, more heart in the lines that Bowie pasted together via cut-ups. An artist whose primary muse and subject was himself, Bowie often went missing when attempting to plumb the common world, though this growing (and at times desperate) need for connection would drive much of his later work.

A fairly standard composition that travels through the basic stops of D major, its long bridge/refrain muddies things slightly with a suggested move to A minor. But “Ricochet” plods more than it develops, not helped by the identical chord progressions of the 8-bar bridge and the refrain and a two-minute draggy coda stalled in A minor. The nursery rhyme-like refrain (“march of flowers, march of dimes,” etc) is a simple three-note descending phrase, while Bowie’s vocal on the verses mainly keeps to his lower register.

I’ve no clue who did the Scottish [edit: Welsh?]-sounding muttered vocal cycling through the track—it’s possibly Bowie’s voice altered beyond recognition, but it’s more likely a backing singer. The closing line “who can bear to be forgotten” is a near-steal from WH Auden’s “Night Mail,” as are a few others (compare Bowie’s “Men wait for news while thousands are still asleep” to Auden’s “men long for news“). “Night Mail” seems key to the whole track, as “Richochet”‘s refrain’s meter is the same as Auden’s verses, and the former’s ungainly rhythm seems an attempt to imitate the sound of a juddering train.

Recorded at the Power Station, NYC, ca. 1-20 December 1982. Fitting  for its outsider status, it was the only Let’s Dance track not to be released on a single. “Ricochet” also inspired a series of sculptures by the artist Ray Rapp in the mid-Eighties and it titled an odd promotional short film, directed by Gerry Troyna, that documented Bowie’s Asian tour in late 1983 (in which he never performed “Ricochet” live—in fact, he’s never done it on stage). A highlight of the film was Bowie being ritually spit on in Bangkok (see here.)

* Bowie, throughout the Eighties, would promote a new record by first admitting the previous few had been crap. This 1987 interview in Musician, where Bowie tore apart Tonight and didn’t have much good to say about Let’s Dance, was done to promote Never Let Me Down, a record that Bowie subsequently disowned. See also: Mick Jagger.

Top: Alan Denney, “Stoke Newington High Street,” 1983.


Without You

October 25, 2011

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).


Let’s Dance

October 20, 2011

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,”1for 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).