When people call Bowie a master of reinvention, they’re usually referring to a moment in his 1970’s purple patch when he flitted between literate singer/songwriter, multiple alter egos (Ziggy, Aladdin Sane) and musical styles (blue eyed soul, electronic pioneer). They don’t normally use the term to indicate the time when, after more than a decade of being in the public eye, he released one of his biggest singles ever, ‘Let’s Dance’, and leapt into the mainstream like never before (it hit number one on this day, April 23, 1983).
1980’s ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ was in its own way another change. After the ‘Berlin trilogy’ with Brian Eno, Bowie welcomed the new decade with an album which referenced the New Romantic scene but also which referenced his own past. Most obviously on Number One single ‘Ashes To Ashes’, but also on tracks like ‘Teenage Wildlife’ which seemed to be a pivotal moment in itself (this was the sound of Bowie admitting he was getting older).
‘Let’s Dance’ however, was significant in an entirely different way. Bowie had signed a new record deal, dyed his hair blonde and was ready to embrace the mainstream in a way he’d never done before. In Nile Rodgers (check out our recent interview with the great man) he chose a producer who’d made his name with Chic’s game-changing disco funk numbers and then gone onto service the likes of Diana Ross and Carly Simon with massive pop hits.
Despite the relative failure of Chic’s 1981 album with Debbie Harry (‘Koo Koo’), Rodgers was a Sure Thing in terms of hit songs. ‘Let’s Dance’ was the title track of the new album he was recording at New York’s Power Station studios and it was a stunner.
The sculpted funk of the verses was accented by horns and a meaty bass line, while Stevie Ray Vaughan was flown in to attach a guitar part to the track. As much as any other Bowie song, it struck a chord universally. It was his first Number One on both sides of the Atlantic. Rodgers, for his part, would be called on two years later to producer Madonna’s breakthrough album ‘Like A Virgin’.
The plot line of Bowie’s career places ‘Let’s Dance’ as the point where he began his decade long descent into an artistic wasteland where musical aspirations would play second fiddle to commercial ones. But ‘Let’s Dance’ can be viewed another way; as one of Bowie’s finest, most beautifully realised singles, a moment where his eccentricity collided with the mainstream to create a 80s pop classic.
Did you know?
- Craig David samples the track on ‘Hot Stuff’
- It was also covered by The Smashing Pumpkins along with Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’ in a 25 minute mash-up.
- Rodgers and Bowie teamed up a decade later for Bowie’s ‘Black Tie, White Noise’ album in 1993.