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).


China Girl

January 26, 2011

China Girl (Iggy Pop, 1976).
China Girl (Pop and Bowie, live, 1977).
China Girl (Bowie, 1983).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 1983).
China Girl (Pop, live, 1986).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 1987).
China Girl (Pop, live, 1991).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 1996).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 1999).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 2000).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 2002).

It began when Iggy Pop and David Bowie were drunk one summer night. “Politely drunk, after-dinner drunk,” Pop recalled. One glass of wine too many. The two stumbled into a room at the Château d’Hérouville, the haunted Val-d’Oise castle in which they were making Pop’s record. Pop sat down behind a child’s drum kit and Bowie at a toy piano. They started playing, hit upon a groove, got it on tape; they called the piece—barely a riff—“Borderline.”

Pop kept the tape, tried to craft a lyric. He was having an affair at the time with another guest at the castle, Kuelan Nguyen, the girlfriend of a French actor/singer, Jacques Higelin. Nguyen spoke no English, Pop no French, so the two communicated in gestures, expressions and pidgin reductions of each other’s language. Pop would grow frustrated trying to get through to Nguyen in sign language and brutalized French; she once put a finger to her lips and shushed him.

Pop spent days working out the vocal (he would improvise much of the final lyric while standing at the mike, Bowie recalled). As with “Dum Dum Boys,” Pop was working in a pop tradition: here, a song with language as an obstacle hindering lovers, like the Beatles’ “Michelle” or Chuck Berry’s “La Juanda,” where Berry asks a Mexican girl to dance, but neither understands the other (or pretend not to—she may be a prostitute, he may be negotiating).

Yet in “China Girl” broken communication is besides the point; it’s what happens when the two manage to connect that ruins the singer. Pop was using stereotypes older than Victoria, casting “Nguyen” as the mysterious, sensual Orient and himself (“Jimmy”) as an unwilling agent of the corrupt West. In the song, there’s a decline from natural elements—the falling stars, or heartbeats as “loud as thunder,” which Pop sings softly and slowly, letting space in between each note—in the first verses to the modern effluence in the bridge and final verses: Marlon Brando1, swastikas (another Eastern symbol perverted by the West), television, cosmetics, even juice boxes (see Bowie’s video).

“I’ll ruin everything you are,” Pop sings. Yet he can’t avoid doing so—his passion’s too addicting and consuming—and it’s not clear what’s he ruining. He’s more in love with his own depiction of her than whatever reality she offers; he’s the man who fears he’s poisoning his dreams, and spends his days raking through half-memories of them for impurities. The wordplay of the title line—with “china” also being pure heroin, as well as being a reference to the girl’s fragility (though she seems far more together than Iggy is)—muddies things further, and a widening of the lens finds Pop playing on the West’s views of China itself (a stand-in for “the East,” as Nguyen was Vietnamese): a mirror reflecting its own flaws, a canvas on which it can project its own fantasies2.

As with many of The Idiot‘s tracks, “China Girl”‘s vocal, a twisted nerve of a performance, is set against a dense, distortion-filled musical backdrop, and it’s the variable element in a circular, minimal song structure—the song’s mainly built on a trio of repeating 4-bar chord progressions, and sometimes the chords (G6, E minor and Em7) are the same set of notes, just arranged in different sequences. The track erupts more than it starts, with Pop suddenly lurching into view a beat into the song, his singing drenched in distortion and submerged in the mix as if it was one of Phil Palmer’s guitar overdubs. Pop’s voice finally becomes distinct at the moment he goes mad: I stumble into town, just like a sacred cow (yet another Eastern holy object debased), building to the scream on “it’s in the whites of my eyes!” which blows out the mike preamp.

Over Laurent Thibault and Michel Santangeli’s bass and drums tracks, Bowie and Pop overlaid stabs of Palmer’s guitar buttressed by Bowie’s distorted Baldwin piano, while synthesizers, serving as a string section, drone through the final minutes, while at least two dubs of Bowie’s saxophone appear in the last verses (at times, it sounds like Andy Mackay’s work on early Roxy Music records). The chirping riff that Bowie had played on toy piano (owned by Thibault’s 8-year-old daughter) is prominent in the final mix.

Of course, “China Girl,” for most of the world, is a David Bowie song. The Bowie single’s popularity has made the original “China Girl” into a successor: Pop’s recording now sounds like a bizarre sequel to Bowie’s, a piece of sonic vandalism done to an ’80s classic.

Bowie’s “China Girl” was one of his trio of MTV-fueled hit singles in 1983, the glossy new testament appended to his knottier early work. And where “Let’s Dance” was a rousing call to the floor and “Modern Love” cloaked its paranoiac sentiments with a call-and-response chorus, “China Girl” was slick anomie. The track’s sonic perfection, a feeling that all impurities had been refined away, furthered its cold sense of irony, its deliberate invocation of stereotypes, from Nile Rodgers’ “Chinese” guitar riff that opens the song, to the way Bowie mocks how the girl says “mouth,” to its high-end video, where Bowie, dressed like an Old Etonian, pats the head of his pyjama-clad “Chinese” girl as if he had bagged her on safari (while also making a disturbing visual play on Eddie Adams’ “Execution of a Vietcong Guerrilla” photograph); the girl has dragon lady fingernails, Bowie courts her by slanting his eyes, and it culminates in a scene shot in Sydney’s Chinatown district, where Bowie hurls a bowl of rice into the air.

Bowie cut “China Girl” in part to help Pop, who was broke and barely recording in the early ’80s, and he’d record a half-dozen more Pop compositions or co-compositions over the next five years. It wasn’t just altruism: Bowie’s frequent recycling of Pop collaborations, and increased use of covers in general, suggested a vicious decline in the pace and quality of Bowie’s songwriting in the ’80s, a decade Bowie spent in comfortable indifference, shot through with occasional bursts of midlife anxiety.

In 1982 Bowie, with a newly-signed EMI contract, recognized in “China Girl” a potential smash that he and Pop had obscured in the studio. Even the live versions of the song the two had played in 1977 sounded far more commercial, driven by Hunt Sales’ frenetic drumming and Bowie’s organ playing, more “96 Tears” than Krautrock drone. (Bowie had intended “China Girl” to be the lead-off single of Let’s Dance until Rodgers convinced him to go with the title track).

Where Pop sings the original in a building frenzy, Bowie’s vocal in the remake is cool, assured, even playful (the lilting run of high notes on “wake up in the mor-ning,” the repetition of “she says…” ), while the build to the “whites of my eyes” bridge is more a demonstration of power. Everything fits, everything has its place, from the way Carmine Rojas’ bass lags the beat (and moves to a staccato sequence in the last verses), to the precise drum fills (either Tony Thompson or Omar Hakim) imbued with the Power Station’s trademark ambient sound, to the placid wash of synthesizers and keyboards that suffuse the track. Bowie and Rodgers layered the track with a string of hooks (the new ‘oh-oh-oh-OH-oh-oh” intro, Rodgers’ “Chinese” guitar riff, echoed on keyboards3, and two Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar solos to close it out).

Was Bowie’s remake was a desecration of Pop’s desperate original? Did it turn Pop’s self-evisceration into “a cheesy pop song” (as Hugo Wilcken wrote)? Or was it somehow closer, via its mandarin disco sound, to what Pop had been trying to get at? Bowie, talking about the song at the end of the last century, said “China Girl” was about “invasion and exploitation,” and if so, Bowie was by far the more adept exploiter. His perspective was wider, his sense of self-loathing, though far more cloaked than Pop’s, was possibly greater. Pop was too much in his own shadow; Bowie saw the rot, the sense of love as corruption, as being just a lesser form of cultural toxin, far more clearly—he shone it up, he sold it well.

Pop’s “China Girl” was recorded in July-August 1976, in Château d’Hérouville and Musicland, Munich, and was released as a single in the UK in May 1977 (RCA PB  9093). The Bowie remake was cut at the Power Station in autumn 1982 and was issued as a single in May 1983 (EA 157, #2 UK, #10 US), its performance helped by the David Mallett-directed video, featuring the New Zealand model Geeling Ng (who Bowie briefly dated) and an often-censored shot of Bowie’s ass. Bowie and Pop would both play the song regularly on tour, with Bowie performing it alone on acoustic guitar for the Bridge benefit concert in 1996.

1 Neil Young’s “Pocahontas,” which is a lost cousin to “China Girl,” was written around the same time, and also features a cameo appearance by Marlon Brando.

2 This entry appears at the peak of the “Tiger Mother” mania, which is the latest incarnation of “the Chinese will bury us” national death-crisis storyline that’s been a regular feature in the U.S. over the past decade. Oliver Wang’s twopart response is worth a read.

3 Nile Rodgers, interviewed by David Buckley, said he wrote his “Chinese” guitar riff in part because he was flummoxed by the song’s ambiguities. “In black music, if you have a song called ‘China Girl’ it had damn better convey some message about a girl you met in China or something…You call a song ‘Let’s Dance’ you damn well better make sure people dance to it.” While Rodgers feared he was “putting some bubblegum over some great artistic heavy record,” Bowie said he loved the riff.

Thanks to SEP for kicking up some ideas, and to Lance Hoskins for the Japanese band score to the Bowie “China Girl.”

Top: The first meeting of Ambassador Duke and his translator, Honey Huan, in China; Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, 22 January 1976.