Miracle Goodnight

October 22, 2012

Miracle Goodnight.
Miracle Goodnight (video).
Miracle Goodnight (2 Chord Philly Mix).
Miracle Goodnight (Make Believe Mix).

A happy contrast to the leaden “Black Tie White Noise,” the follow-up single “Miracle Goodnight” is the cleverest and most moving of Bowie’s wedding songs, a minimalist production on an often dense and cluttered record.

Built on a dual-synthesizer riff (allegedly inspired by a frog chorus Bowie had once heard in Bali) that provides the scaffolding for the verses/choruses and the two spoken asides,1 “Miracle” never extends too far outward in sound, with its accompaniment reduced to the synthesizer hook, a few secondary synthesizer colors (like the long-held notes that sing overhead in the second verse), sets of electronic and live bass/drums and a few low-mixed traces of saxophone. “Miracle” is the closest that Rodgers came on Black Tie White Noise to the stripped-down precision of his Chic masterpieces (including his marvelous guitar solo, see below), while other influences ranged from Prince’s Parade to the synth-hook-strewn McCartney II, with Bowie’s frog chorus riff in line with the relentless earworms of “Coming Up.”

McCartney offers a good perspective to view “Miracle Goodnight.” While Bowie’s song isn’t melodically (a near-conversational, & at times actual conversational, vocal that keeps to a three-note range until the choruses) close to McCartney territory, it shares some thematic parallels with the latter’s work. McCartney was one of the few rockers to celebrate domesticity and monogamy, which earned him his share of critical abuse. “Miracle,” a besotted groom’s ode to his wife, is working in the same line, and at times suggests that Bowie’s channeling a distorted memory of McCartney’s public wife-worship.

But as usual with Bowie, there’s an undercurrent of doubt, building on the fatalism of “The Wedding Song.” The singer is in love, but in the choruses he keeps interrogating his senses to reassure himself that she’s real (or is there actually “nobody dancing”?), while occasional hints of doom crop up in the lyric (“haven’t got a death wish,” “burning up our lives,” “ragged, lame and hungry“). The second spoken break is a blunt compromise: let’s agree that we never talk about who we used to sleep with. Even his images of contentment have double meanings: “Iman” is a “morning star,”2 the planet Venus as well as the angel Lucifer, the once light-bringer (she’s also an “evening flower” standing alone3) while the title line is both a man bidding goodnight to a woman he can’t believe he’s with, and the man fearing that the good times will end (don’t want to say goodnight,” Bowie sings towards the fade).

A harmonically spare song in G major (with a climactic E-flat seventh chord swapped in from the parallel minor), “Miracle” has a lightness of touch throughout, whether in its easy transitions between verses and choruses or its occasional musical joke, like an eight-bar keyboard solo in slight hock to Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.”4

And just as the song seems about to close, there’s suddenly a dazzling four-bar guitar solo, a last burst of pure elation. Bowie told Nile Rodgers to play “as though the Fifties had never existed,” Rodgers recalled to Dave Thompson. That is, as if white pop music had never been infused with the sound of black electric blues guitarists. “I don’t want to hear a single blue note,” Bowie told Rodgers. (It’s evidence that Bowie was running variants on Eno’s Oblique Strategies on poor Rodgers throughout these sessions, with Bowie taking the role Eno had played on Lodger). So Rodgers came up with a twangy, spiraling line that suggested early Les Paul (especially in the third bar) and also, defying Bowie’s edict by offering an alternate set of black musical influence, the “dry” guitar style of African highlife and soukous. The solo kicks off with a three-chord phrase that had opened the song (it’s the start of the synth hook), then dances in the air, weightless, as though Rodgers is finally able to indulge a set of roaming thoughts. It’s one of his finest guitar solos on record, and by far his best moment on an album for which he was often a frustrated presence.

Recorded ca. summer-autumn 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. Issued in October 1993 as the third UK/European single from BTWN (Arista/BMG 74321 16226 7, c/w “Looking for Lester,” #40 UK). It was given a Matthew Rolston video in which Bowie revived Pierrot, performed aerobics with himself and finally got a chance to play his old influence Buster Keaton (albeit a Keaton who’s apparently wandered into a Calvin Klein “Obsession” ad.) (There’s an alternate video by David Mallett, on the BTWN DVD, with Bowie miming to the song alone on a studio set.) Remixes included the 2 Chord Philly Mix and Maserati Blunted Dub (on the CD single), and the Blunted 2, Make Believe Mix and Dance Dub (on the 12″ single). The Make Believe Mix later appeared on the BTWN 2-CD reissue. There’s a surprisingly decent mashup of Thom Yorke’s “Black Swan” with the Maserati Dub version of “Miracle.”

1: The riff (three dyads, or two-note chords: G-B, A-C, A#-C#; a falling phrase (a B-D chord) answered by a G note; and tight runs of three G notes) is an intricate thing. It’s opened on Rodgers’ guitar, but it’s mainly played by two synthesizers parked in the left and right channels of the mix. They begin each reiteration in sync, but as the left-mixed synth gets an additional repeat of the tail-end hook (three repeats of the three G notes to the other synth’s two), this creates a constant echoing effect. There are also two basses parked on the ends of the spectrum, both of which hit on the downbeat then trail off across each bar. The riff is constant throughout the song except for the two solos.

2: There’s also a little play on words here, with Bowie calling her a “yellow dime,” or a sun that’s a “perfect 10.”

3: This line is followed by what sounds like “puzzling capiche,” which only makes sense if worded “puzzling, capiche?”

4: More in mood than melody, as Bowie’s sets of 16th notes are jumping upward where Handel’s were regally descending. (The patterns reappears in the coda).

Top: “Espino Family,”  “Moscow Subway Music,” August 1992.


Looking For Lester

October 12, 2012

Looking For Lester.

Arguments as to its quality aside, Black Tie White Noise is one of Bowie’s most thematically coherent records. It’s sequenced as a set of pairings, all framed within the union of Bowie and Iman (which opens and closes the record): a political reading of his marriage (the title track, again a duet), reckonings with his past (his half-brother Terry Burns, his surrogate brother Mick Ronson, his secret sharer Scott Walker) and with his would-be successors (Morrissey, Madonna). The interlude “Looking for Lester,” Bowie’s duet with the trumpeter Lester Bowie, is another past visitation, if a happy, light-footed one: it’s a boyhood dream of David Jones indulged by David Bowie.

Bowie had met the trombonist Joseph Bowie in London and through Joseph had discovered his brother Lester’s music. Throughout the Eighties, Bowie had wanted to work with Lester in some manner, and finally, crafting a jazz-flavored R&B record in New York, he had an opportunity, hiring Lester to play the trumpet solo on “Don’t Let Me Down and Down.” Lester hung around the sessions at the Power Station for weeks afterward, winding up playing on four other tracks, and his presence inspired Nile Rodgers to gin up a rhythm track for Lester to use as a springboard. This eventually became a full-out improvisatory performance, with lengthy trumpet, saxophone and piano solos, riffing on a theme carried by a set of trumpeters arranged by the bandleader Chico O’Farrill.1

Bowie had been a jazz fan before he’d been a Mod (and recall how much British pop in the Sixties was played by frustrated and diverted jazzmen like Charlie Watts, Alan Price, John Paul Jones and John Entwistle)2 and some of his first singles offer a glimpse of yet another alternate Bowie past, here a light jazz-pop figure in the vein of Georgie Fame (see the Fame-inspired “Take My Tip,” whose vocal melody seems like a transposed saxophone line, or “Good Morning Girl,” which Rosemary Clooney could’ve sung).

Lester Bowie (see here for my look at pieces of LB’s recorded legacy) embodied one branch of late 20th Century jazz. With his satyr’s goatee and his lab coat, Bowie was jazz’s mad scientist, emblematic of jazz’s freewheeling faction that imbibed R&B, rock, funk and pop music in all its mutations, a faction that favored noise, commotion, activism, makeup and spectacle instead of serving as the weary caretakers of “America’s Classical Music.” The likes of Lester were the collective retort to jazz’s New Traditionalists, like Wynton Marsalis, for whom jazz was an orthodoxy with a pedigree (New Orleans-originated blues), a canon3 and a narrow aesthetic, both instrumental (“analog” instruments, no synthesizers or electric guitars) and sartorial (suits on stage, no dashikis or glitter).

Whenever the Traditionalist strand of jazz deigned to recognize contemporary pop, it often produced gassy, self-serious works (Sting’s use of Branford Marsalis comes immediately to mind) in which jazz was the elder in the dance, providing “class” and sophistication to its uncouth partner: it was a boring Henry Higgins. This was an appalling thought for Lester, a musical catholic, who consumed and covered country music, the Notorious BIG and Sade, “The Great Pretender” and “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and who happily traded choruses with the man who’d sung “Fame” and “Let’s Dance.” For Lester, jazz was an omnivorous music, a music that fed the past with scraps of the future: he refused to accept that jazz wasn’t a popular music, despite it having lost its mass popularity decades before.

So “Looking For Lester” (the title was Bowie’s, a play on “Chasin’ the Trane”) is New Jazz Swing, a set of solos over a hammering (and rather harshly-mixed) 4/4 dance beat, with a synth bass and electric bassline and an impasto of synthesizer colors (Mike Garson’s piano crops up from time to time, offering little asides, preparing you for his late-in-the-day appearance). The track breaks down like so:

Intro/Theme 1: (0:01-0:36). Lester enters with a pair of phrases, descending triplets which land on a long-held F# note that he eventually yanks down a tone. The song’s main theme, played by massed trumpets over a constant shift between D and C chords (with an E bass throughout), is fairly simple, vaguely similar to the “Peter Gunn Theme”: an opening seesaw (F#-C#-G) that Lester quickly echoes, and a descending answering phrase.

Chorus 1 (0:37-1:20), (20 bars, Lester). The solo choruses shift to B minor, the relative minor of the theme’s D major (the pattern is Em-D-Bm-A).4 Lester mainly plays riffs and variations on the main theme, finding little pockets of melody and digging into them, closing with a sweet soaring phrase.

Theme 2 (1:21-1:39), 8 bars. An aggressively-played return of the theme, with Lester now doodling in the margins.

Chorus 2 (1:40-2:15), (16 bars, Lester). Lester is freer, casting off allegiance to the theme, sounding like a French horn (1:51) and building to a run of short, punchy phrases that are abruptly choked off by a massed trumpet retort.

Theme 3 (2:16-2:23), 4 bars. Just a tiny rest before the next solo, with the main theme harried by the massed trumpet line that had finished off Lester.

Chorus 3 (2:24-4:00), 44 bars, Bowie). It’s Bowie’s album, so he gets the longest solo, natch. He starts with two long, moaning phrases on his sax (the second one goes a bit astray), changes his tone to make it harmonica-like (3:00) and after a brief time in the wilderness, he finds a sweet spot and digs into a melody he likes, just grooving into it again and again. He closes with a nice bit of skronk.

Theme 4, (4:01-4:18), 8 bars. Stage clearing.

Chorus 4 (4:19 to fade), (30+ bars, Garson): And suddenly Mike Garson returns, back in the Bowie fold after nearly 20 years and acting as though no time had passed at all—he’s the same New York oddball, a fallen Scientologist and joker (if only he’d played with Lester more), who seems on the verge of playing a fresh variation on his “Aladdin Sane” solo just for kicks. Garson spikes out a set of dancing runs up and down the keyboard, rumbling on the bass keys and musing on the treble, and keeps on through the fadeout.

Sure, “Looking for Lester” isn’t entirely removed from those rock fantasy camps at which Baby Boomers spend $10,000 for a weekend spent jamming on guitar with Peter Frampton. It’s a mediocre-at-best saxophone player getting to duet with a master trumpeter and having his producer and record company shine up and sell the results. But if “Lester” is an indulgence, it’s not an embarrassment: Lester’s joie de vivre in turn inspired Bowie to forsake his occasional forays into avant-gardisms and just concentrate on honking out a meaty solo as though he was on a bandstand. With Garson as an added spice, “Lester” transcends its role as album filler, instead testifying to Bowie’s reviving senses of texture and melodicism. It’s a preview of what Bowie would accomplish on Buddha of Suburbia.

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, the Power Station, NYC. Released on Black Tie White Noise and as the B-side of “Miracle Goodnight” in October 1993.

1 The trumpeters oddly aren’t credited on the album, though there’s a photograph of Bowie and three of them in the studio in the sheet music book. There’s no evidence as to who wrote what on “Lester” (which was co-credited to Rodgers and Bowie, after the former raised a stink—he wasn’t credited on the first issue of the LP), but my guess is that Rodgers was responsible for much of the song—the chords, the rhythm tracks and perhaps the main horn theme—while Bowie likely provided his solo ideas, though of course it’s possible the theme was his.

2 Entwistle, for example, played in a variety of Dixieland bands in the early Sixties, while Jones played with John McLaughlin in a jazz collective, Jett Blacks. Bowie’s old bandmates in the Buzz, John Eager and Derek Fearnley, were also former jazzbos.

3 This canon essentially included any type of jazz pre-1960 and allowed a few stringent admissions of free jazz (basically the first Ornette Coleman records and the late Coltrane ones) but drew the dividing line at Miles Davis going electric in 1969. So much of the fantastic jazz of the Seventies was placed outside the pale thanks to this argument, which was voiced and generally unchallenged in Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary, for which Marsalis and his mentors Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray were primary voices and Lester Bowie was a footnote.

4: The choruses generally close with a transition progression meant to ready the listener to return to D major (Gmaj7-F#m7-Cmaj7-Bm7).

Top: Harry Benson, “Bill and Hillary Clinton,” Little Rock, Ark., 1992; Lester Bowie as off-kilter center of gravity, 1992.


Lucy Can’t Dance

September 25, 2012

Lucy Can’t Dance.

Do you accept–or disclaim–any credit for Madonna’s shape-shifting career?

I have to leave that to you guys. But I would get behind it [her career] a lot more if I really felt anything for her music. It’s conventional in the extreme. I guess I’ve seen too much, because I don’t really find her provocative, either.

David Bowie, interview, 1992.

While Nile Rodgers gamely talked up Black Tie White Noise during its release, he later said he’d been frustrated and disappointed with the record. In a long, hilarious rant to David Buckley, Rodgers groused that his hands had been tied throughout the sessions, that Bowie was running away from making the radio-friendly smash that the world expected from a Rodgers/Bowie collaboration (“Star Wars 2,” as Rodgers called it). Instead, Bowie seemingly wanted to make a private album on a platinum budget (“This record is about my wedding,” he said, to which Rodgers replied: “But David, no one cares about your wedding! Let’ s make a hit!“) and kept rejecting the guitar licks that Rodgers played him (“maybe the licks I thought of stank…but I knew they couldn’t all suck!“). Rodgers tried to use Iman, a friend of his, as an intermediary, but she backed her husband.

The problem was that a decade had passed since Let’s Dance, and Bowie had been through the crucible of the Never Let Me Down debacle and the Tin Machine years. He couldn’t make himself commit to a record that pretended the past 10 years hadn’t happened: he couldn’t make Star Wars 2. Compromising his songs, guessing at a sound that a mass audience would find palatable, had only gotten Bowie Tonight. So the intentions of producer and singer had reversed. In 1982, Rodgers, trying to make a name for himself outside of disco, had wanted to make an art-rock record like Scary Monsters: it was Bowie who pushed for a more marketable sound. Now Rodgers, a long-established hitmaker, wanted to have another #1 album to his name, while Bowie wanted a stranger, jazz-influenced, club-oriented record.

Nothing baffled Rodgers more than the fate of “Lucy Can’t Dance” (“a guaranteed number 1 record,” he later said. “Imagine Nile Rodgers and David Bowie come out with a song called ‘Lucy Can’t Dance’? I was already accepting my Grammy“). An easy choice for a lead-off single, “Lucy” instead was nearly shelved, Bowie only relenting by including it as a CD bonus track. Bowie’s never said why he did this. Perhaps the song’s cheery, trebly sound clashed with the rest of the album; perhaps he thought “Lucy” was such an earworm, such a piece of candyfloss, that it offered too easy a pleasure, that he would look ridiculous miming it on Top of the Pops.

Like “You’ve Been Around,” “Lucy” was a half-decade-old composition. Originally called “Lucille Can’t Dance,” it dated to the 1988 Los Angeles session where Bowie had demoed “Pretty Pink Rose.” While the original demo isn’t circulating, so it’s unknown how much the lyric changed in four years, the final “Lucy Can’t Dance”* is Bowie’s vicious take-down of an artist that many at the time considered to be his successor: Madonna.

As with Gary Numan, Bowie lacked his typical generosity of spirit towards his contemporaries with Madonna, to whom he could be cutting, even cruel (making a joke about Madonna getting beaten up by Sean Penn on “Pretty Thing”). Whether it was paranoia, that a younger, hungrier artist was taking some of his best bits, or just an old con artist deprecating an up-and-coming one, as he could easily see the seams and wires that the audience was missing, Bowie’s general dismissal of Madonna is understandable, if petty and regrettable (imagine the music the two could have made together).

So “Lucy Can’t Dance” is a piece of well-aimed snark, targeting Madonna at a time when her cultural presence was inescapable (it was the era of the Sex book, one of the most tedious and expensive pieces of pornography ever released). “Lucy, I know what you’re going to do” (because he’s already done it)…now you’re looking for God in exciting new ways” (as if predicting Madonna’s Kabbalist period). Who died and made you material girl? (a sharply clever line, making the typical play on “material girl” but also suggesting that Madonna only took form when someone else (cough) had left the stage). And the chorus refrain, Lucy can’t dance but she knows what the noise can do, is a pitiless indictment of an artist who has no soul but who approximates the music of those who do.

Of course, all of this could have been said about Bowie as well, and he knew it: Bowie’s lines in the bridge (“So I’ll spin while my lunatic lyric goes wrong“) mock his own penchant for word-salad lyricism and his own cracked ambitions. But all the best put-downs have a taste of self-mockery in them (“Like a Rolling Stone” is arguably about Dylan himself as much as Edie Sedgwick, or whoever the intended target was): it just adds sting to the venom.

A rather shapeless song, “Lucy” was built of long sets of verse/refrains that alternate between A major and G major, and a D major-based chorus, linked by a harmonically-chaotic bridge (rambling up from B minor (“pursuing your frenzy“) to a G major (“sexual noise”)/G minor (“you live and you die“) switch-up to close on a diminished E chord (“eye“)). Its vocal phrases keep to a few patterns: a fourth-descending line in Bowie’s lower register (the opening lines of the verse; the chorus hook), a double-tracked rising-and-dipping line that’s up an octave (“did the world just explode...”) and the nagging “da da da da-da da-DA-da-da” hook.

Rodgers shaped the track to pop on the radio, loading it with hooks: showers of clacking percussion (the opening burst sounds like pencils being rattled in a metal can), his low-mixed, underwater- sounding guitar fills, trumpet blasts, a unyielding synth bass. All for naught: the song slipped out, barely noticed, offering only a suggestion of an alternate 1993 in which “Lucy” fought it out with Madonna singles on the radio.

Recorded ca. summer-autumn 1992 at Mountain Studios, Montreux and the Power Station, NYC. Released as a CD bonus track on Black Tie White Noise, though it was issued as a promo single in the Philippines in 1993.

* “Lucille” suggests Bowie was considering an early rock & roll reference at first (either/both the Little Richard song and BB King’s guitar). “Lucy,” in addition to being easier to sing, may also be a nod to The Linguini Incident, as it was the name of Bowie’s co-star Rosanna Arquette’s character (& in another Madonna tie, Arquette had co-starred with Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan). And of course, Nile Rodgers had produced Madonna’s Like a Virgin soon after he’d made Let’s Dance.

Top: Madonna, still from the “Erotica” video, 1992.


Real Cool World

September 17, 2012

Real Cool World (single mix, video).
Real Cool World (soundtrack LP).
Real Cool World (Cool Dub Overture).
Real Cool World (Cool Dub Thing #2).

Prologue: Three Scenes From a Public Life in the Early Nineties

11 November 1991: Tin Machine are en route to the Brixton Academy for their last UK gig. Bowie has asked the bus driver to take a “scenic” way to get there, so that he can see what’s become of the neighborhood of his early childhood. The bus goes along Stansfield Road. Eric Schermerhorn, the Machine’s rhythm guitarist, notices Bowie quietly weeping. “It’s a miracle,” Bowie says. “I probably should have been an accountant. I don’t know how this all happened.”

20 April 1992: Bowie plays the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. He sings “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox, who’s dressed as a mingle of his discarded selves. He plays saxophone on “All the Young Dudes.” As Ian Hunter lurches into the song, Bowie sings along with him, not into the mike but absently, murmuring into the air, as though he’s only now recalling the words that he’d written for Hunter, the words which are the only reason Hunter’s on stage this evening. Later in the performance, Bowie pulls Mick Ronson over to him, in a slight echo of the Top of the Pops “Starman” moment. But they’re only sharing a private joke here.

Bowie plays “Heroes” with Ronson, who uses an E-bow to mimic Robert Fripp’s keening lines, and for a moment you can imagine some alternate 1977 where Bowie and Ronson had made “Heroes.” Ronson will be dead in a year. Bowie thanks the crowd, sinks to his knees and recites the Lord’s Prayer. Some guy yells “whoo-hoo” after Bowie intones “who art in heaven,” then Wembley seemingly holds its breath until he finishes. Bowie’s friend, a playwright named Craig, had slipped into an AIDS-related coma the day before—he would die two days after the show. Bowie had the bad taste to remind a stadium that the concert they’ve been screaming at is supposed to be a requiem. He later said offering the prayer was a spontaneous decision (Brian May: “I remember thinking that it would have been nice if he’d warned me about that”) and called it the most “rock and roll” episode of his latter-day career. Call it a humble moment of submission or galling pantomime, it’s one of the last moments that the general public will recall from Bowie’s life.

6 June 1992: Bowie marries Iman for a second time, in Florence (they had been married by a magistrate in Lausanne in April). He grants Hello! magazine exclusive rights to the coverage, which results in a 23-page spread. The second wedding is a public art installation: two celebrities, the groom’s teeth newly capped, pledging their troth to flashing cameras and to the sound of screaming fans, massed outside the St. James Episcopal Church.* In the Hello! photographs, the couple are stunningly beautiful mannequins; the wedding party is a taxidermist’s masterpiece.

Brian Eno attends. “It was a lovely wedding,” he said later. “And I was totally confused.” During his stay, Bowie plays Eno a tape of what he calls his “wedding songs.”

We used to laugh about Nile Rodgers and then it’s funny he goes back and works with him…Nile Rodgers is a very talented guy. [Bowie’s] idea to work with him was to recapture what they had, but that’s bullshit. You can never go home again.

Hunt Sales.

We’d put all this effort into trying to get rid of the stuff that followed Let’s Dance to change expectations and allow David to be an artist again. So I was irritated by the notion, but, for whatever reason, they decided to do it.

Reeves Gabrels.

These quotes can seem like grumblings of a pair of discarded suitors. But let’s grant them the argument: what had been the point of the abrasive Tin Machine records and tours, of the grand public funeral of “Sound + Vision,” if the next move was just to make Let’s Dance II?

Bowie’s decision to reunite with Nile Rodgers to make a “mainstream” pop album was in some part financial. Bowie no longer had an EMI contract, he’d funded the “It’s My Life” tour out of his own pocket, and he was a married man now, buying houses around the world for the setting of his new domestic life. And he admitted to friends that he missed it sometimes, regretted he was no longer part of the pop conversation, missed hearing himself on the radio. He got a new contract with Savage Records that was predicated on delivering a radio-ready album.

But Black Tie White Noise, though it briefly hit #1 in the UK and produced Bowie’s last Top 10 UK hit, was a global dud, much to Rodgers’ and Savage’s frustration (though the latter was in great part to blame, as we’ll see). Bowie had steeled himself to become a mainstream entertainer again, then had seemed to balk in the process, sabotaging his own compromises. He consigned the best pop song of the sessions to a CD bonus track and left another possible hit on the shelf, not to revive it for a decade; he filled half the record with instrumentals and covers.

So BTWN is one of the stranger albums of Bowie’s life: a pop record that seems intent on denying itself; an album jammed full of ghosts and memories, with a restless creative spirit running through it, along with a seeming indifference to quality at times; it’s a funeral album as much as a wedding album, its moods ranging from glossy pap to uxoriousness on a global scale to ham-handed public commentary to a studied alienation. Bowie would alter his voice beyond recognition, sing on some tracks as a seeming parody of his public self, sing on others as though he’s desperately answering a question someone had posed years before. He seemed to have trawled through his past and picked up whatever came to hand: it’s an album on which not only Mick Ronson and Mike Garson reappear but also the Tonight-era Frank Simms and Phillipe Saisse. While making BTWN Bowie seemed incredibly happy, a man sunk into domestic bliss, and one who also was vaguely disgusted with having to recompose himself, yet again, as a public figure.

Bowie had been writing the BTWN material throughout late 1991 and 1992. The first track that emerged from a desultory series of sessions (Rodgers later groaned that where Let’s Dance took three weeks to make, BTWN “took a year”) was “Real Cool World,” a song written for Cool World, Ralph Bakshi’s disastrous animated film, a crass rip-off of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, complete with a cartoon temptress (Kim Basinger’s “Holli Wood”) and human-toon interactions (a bewildered Gabriel Byrne and a sadly game Brad Pitt). While the title obviously came from the movie’s title, there’s a chance Bowie was also referencing the Greatest Show on Earth hit of the same name from 1970.

“Real Cool World” was a try-out session to see if Rodgers and Bowie could work together again (Rodgers had just finished a new Chic record, Chic-ism, and was in the mood for reunions), and the result was enough to convince Bowie to have Rodgers run the album sessions, which would stretch into late 1992, alternating between Bowie’s home base in Switzerland and Rodgers’ at the Power Station in New York.

The appearance of “Real Cool World” was well received at the time by the likes of Billboard, as it showed that the “real” Bowie (there’s always a “real” Bowie who’s gone missing) was back, not the scowling man who had been hiding out in some rock band. Along with Bowie’s sudden return to celebrity A-list status with his wedding, “Cool World” was a sign that Bowie intended to be a commercial force again, although the single charted modestly.

And “Cool World” did sound as though Bowie had gone to sleep around 1985 and had woken up seven years later at the Power Station, lying on a stack of R&B and house promo CDs. There was a crispness and a buoyancy to the track, a vibrancy that Bowie’s music had lacked for ages: if he was playing Rip Van Winkle, he was a sprightly one at least. Rodgers’ intro alone, with its mesh of percussive synthesizers (a hi-hat pattern in the left channel that’s soon drowned out by snares), two syncopated sequencer lines and a third synthesizer keeping on a high root note, and a staggered introduction of bass and Bowie’s saxophone, was the sharpest production that Bowie’d had in a decade. There were instrumental callbacks in the mix—a truncated version of the stepwise descending “Laughing Gnome” line on synthesizer, and another synth fill suggestive of “Speed of Life” (the former appearing towards the close of each verse, the latter midway through).

The track’s B minor verses are hooked to a lower-register Bowie vocal (doubled and tripled in some phrases, with what sounds like a synth bass effect applied to the lowest harmony) that’s a series of progressively sinking phrases, with Bowie plummeting to a low B on the last “world” of the verse, while the chorus, even with a cheery “do-Do-do-do-do” refrain, remains muted in sentiment. Only in the bridge/refrains, which shift to a bright C major, does Bowie seem to rouse himself, but even then he hardly ventures above a middle C. It suits the tentativeness of the lyric, in which the singer finds himself in love but can’t bring himself to fully accept it, trying to verify that what he’s feeling is real. “Color me doubtful,” he murmurs towards the end, still listening for footsteps: it’s a sentiment that could apply to the album that he was about to make.

Recorded ca. spring-June 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or Power Station, NYC. Released in August 1992 as Warner W0127 (#53, UK) and on Songs From the Cool World OST (the latter is an impressively hip soundtrack for DB to be associated with in this era, including the Future Sound of London’s “Papua New Guinea,” My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult’s “Sex on Wheelz”, and some early Moby tracks.)

The BTWN tracks have a bewildering set of remixes and edits. So for “Cool World” there is: a) the single edit (4:14), used for the video; b) the album cut, used for the closing credits of Cool World and found on the OST—this version later appeared on the 2-CD reissue of BTWN; c) Satoshi Tomiie’s five remixes, including “Cool Dub Thing” Nos. 1 and 2, the “Cool Thing” 12″ club mix and “Cool Dub Overture,” which were on the CD single; d) an instrumental version used for the B-side of a few 7″ singles.

* Commonly known as “the American Church” in Florence. It’s a colorful place. The church’s first rector was Pierce Connelly, who abandoned his wife and children to become a Catholic priest, only later to change his mind, becoming an Episcopalian, and then suing his wife (who’d become a nun in the meantime) for “restitution of conjugal rights.” (from Alta Macadam’s Americans in Florence.) Sinclair Lewis described weekly services there in World So Wide as a hour when assembled US expats “are betrayed into being American again…[though with] their flippant unfaith to their lean and bitter mother, America, there is yet more faith than in their zest for Europe, their opulent mistress.”

Sources: first anecdote is from Trynka’s Starman. The Sales quote is from Spitz’s biography, the Gabrels from Trynka’s.

Top: Shimon and Lindemann, “Hutch With His Bowling Ball,” Manitowoc, Wisconsin, 1992; Bowie and Lennox at Wembley, April 1992.


Shake It

October 28, 2011

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.


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).