Howdy Pop Pickers
And so another month, another edition of Random Bowie for you. Before I start I’d like to say thank you. Whilst how many people read all this stuff isn’t that much of an issue, I had feared that people were getting bored with this, look you see. I’ve had messages to the contrary, requesting or if you like asking that I go on. I press on, then, and as you will be aware from the title this month it’s the turn of Let’s Dance.
It would be fair to say that this, with three uber pop heavy singles, is just about the closest thing there is to a “David Bowie summer album”, meaning it is supposed to be played on a boss tape deck down the beach, or in the car as you drive in the sun. As we north of the equator bid farewell to summer and those to the south of the equator look forward to that season heading their way, now seems the time to tackle this one.
For this edition I am going to use an even more different way of presenting my musings than the different ways I have done with the previous editions. But first, the usual starting section of quick and easy fantastic facts.
Let’s Dance is the 15th studio album by David Bowie as per the commonly accepted method of counting his records. It was released in 1983, some three years after the last record – the frequently cited masterpiece Scary Monsters. Considering from 1970 – 1980 he was releasing stuff at a Beatles like rate of more than a record a year that was some gap. This was also his first record after signing for EMI, a deal which it was believed to be worth somewhere significantly north of ₤10million to Bowie – significant money then, and it’s almost impossible to think a musician would be offered as much in this free and easy age of streaming music.
The album spawned four singles, three of which were massive, massive hits. A huge tour – Serious Moonlight – was undertaken to support the record. It would be fair to say that the album sales and tour success added together took Bowie from reasonably popular, admired artist to being a huge musical mega star. For many, at time Bowie included, it was the start of the end of Bowie as a creative force; redemption coming only either 6 or 10 years later depending on how you like Tin Machine.
OK, let’s go. Some nice headers for you, then, so you only need to read what you want.
A Note To Lazy Journalists And Writers Who Got Here Via Google to “Borrow” For Their Own Article
Thanks, I am flattered. But please note that this one record, Let’s Dance, is the only record which can be described as “his best and most important since Scary Monsters”. That’s because it was the very next album he did after that.
Martin Scorsese, pre The Departed, was asked about his lack of an Oscar. He said that the trick or secret of making movies was not winning awards, but making money. You have to make money with the film, he said, otherwise they will not let you make another. The same is true of music. With the money this album made Bowie was effectively free, for better or worse, to do whatever it so pleased him with the rest of his career.
On The Way To Let’s Dance
It’s inaccurate to say that Bowie didn’t do any music for the first quarter (give or take) of the 80s. He was just mostly doing other stuff. Musically, between Scary Monsters and Let’s Dance there was some stuff. The highlight, and this we will come to later, was undoubtedly the original version of the theme song for Cat People, an absolutely horrendous film which tried to make incest a good plot idea long before Game Of Thrones had a stab, so to speak, at making it fashionable. One other musical highlight was of course 1981’s Under Pressure, with Queen, apparently recorded amidst one of the most awesome piles of cocaine ever seen in a recording studio, post Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, at least. And then there was the Baal EP, which is not so bad.
Otherwise, Bowie kept himself somewhat busy with the ramifications of his divorce from Angie Bowie and doing some acting. In respect of the latter, by all accounts his stage performance in The Elephant Man was brilliant. For brilliant you can see, the harrowing, haunting film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence sees Bowie deliver what I would argue is, or sadly was, his greatest ever acting performance. If not, admittedly, as iconic as The Goblin King.
But, with distractions aside, it was time for David Bowie to go back to what David Bowie did, which was make music.
Deciding The Sound Of Let’s Dance
This you probably know, but for the sake of a complete article the sound of Let’s Dance is flat out 80s pop. Or, if you like, what became the 80s pop sound in the wake of this album. Although if you like that I am not sure you are correct.
Legend has it that David Bowie called Nile Rodgers and said “Nile, I want hits, lots and lots of hits”. And so Nile Rodgers took the songs and crafted them in his exceptional way into great pop songs. As years went by, Bowie from time to time dismissed this. He suggested that it was not, as point of fact, made as a “commercial hit record” as such, and that people only say that in retrospect when they are aware of the huge sales. On that note, at over 10 million copies sold it remains, so far as I am aware, his biggest selling album ever.
I suspect the truth lies somewhere between the two. For a pop album the lyrics have some remarkable depth, suggesting that yes, maybe this was not exactly all set up to be a simplistic, successful pop record. But then again surely Bowie was aware of the New Romantics, in particular the most blatant acolytes, Duran Duran.
As far as I am concerned it is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that Bowie saw the videos for Hungry Like The Wolf and Rio. He would have said, to himself or one of his inner circle, “now hang on. I influenced them, and yet they are surrounded by money, ladies, cocaine and more money. I want some aspects of that for myself, thank you”. And so it came to be, although the cocaine is an official no, as we shall get to later.
Let me make something clear. There is nothing at all wrong with a musician trying to make lots and lots of money. I would be quite suspicious of any musician that said actually no, I don’t want to make piles of cash. Someone like Noel Gallagher, or more recently Ed Sheeran, might be a complete dick, but at heart he was right – if you’re not going to go out and try to be the biggest selling and most successful, why bother? Whether you make it or not is a different matter, but don’t limit yourself.
The Let’s Dance Album
OK, this, right, might well be the least interesting part of this post. The record consists of eight songs One of these, Criminal World, is a cover of a song by an obscure (ish) band called Metro, themselves heavily influenced by Bowie. Another, China Girl, is an inspired reworking of a song Bowie had previously done with Iggy Pop. Then another is the highly contentious re-recording of Cat People.
Whilst there’s an indisputable groove to it, the album is, alas, not very good as an album. This is to say there are some splendid, splendid moments on it, but the record as a whole lacks any sense of flow to make it a coherent, engaging experience entire.
Highlights are almost the three big singles – Modern Love, China Girl and Let’s Dance. The latter is a let down. On the full on album version, running somewhere north of six minutes, you get a bit of “jazz odyssey”, with the musicians all allowed to just do their thing with no discernable limits. A rare instance of the single edit version of a song being the superior.
Away from them three I would highlight what was in some places the fourth single, Without You. If you’ve not heard it before and play it now you would not be wrong to think it’s familiar. The sound of it, to me, seems to have inspired just about every piece of incidental music you’ve ever heard during any 80s movie made from 84 onwards. I would humbly suggest Mr Jan Hammer and Mr Harold Faltermeyer were fans.
Lyrically this album is as strong as anything Bowie has done, even if the words tend to get buried under pop production. There is evidence that when he speak, sorry spoke, of the record not being started as a pop album intentionally there is truth in the words. And it is not like the lyrics I speak of are hidden in the album tracks. The soul searching inner conflict of Modern Love is as strong an example as you could want.
Two fails on the record. With the first I risk expulsion from Bowie’s good books forever. For some reason he always seemed to hold Ricochet dear, even naming a documentary film after it. Oddly, this is the only song from the record not to appear as either the a or b side of a single. Anyway, sorry, but it is dull and monotonous.
The other is the re-recording of Cat People, or if you wish to be pedantic Cat People (Putting Out Fire). If you heard the Let’s Dance album version first you would be forgiven for thinking it was amazing. Should you then, however, hear the original film soundtrack version, you would equally be forgiven for saying “but, but, but this original version is absolute perfection and one of the greatest things ever recorded. Why would you ruin it with some silly synth pop and a far too loud Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar?”.
Would I recommend that anyone looking at getting Bowie records get Let’s Dance? You might guess this, and it seems rather ludicrous to say of a record which has already sold so many copies, but no. Rather seek out the proper version of Cat People. After that, the majority of Bowie compilations – in particular Changesbowie and The David Bowie Singles Collection – tend to feature the three main singles, and with mercy it is the single edit of Let’s Dance that appears. In truth that is all you need to know of the record.
Overall, and this is no doubt going to be disagreed with, I would say that the one which came next, Tonight, is the better album experience.
The Let’s Dance Videos
Considering he started off as an actor, it must have been with some delight that Bowie saw the rise of MTV during his off years. Oh sure, music videos had been around, but by the time of his return to the stage in 1983 music videos were coming to be accepted as an art. One that you could throw ideas and budget at.
So far as I am aware no official video was made for Without You. The other three did, and in their own way proved to be either influential and/or groundbreaking.
Modern Love – When you look at it now, you go “oh, it’s just a pretty standard staged thing, supposedly showing the song being performed in concert”. Correct, except or only that such videos did not really exist before this one. Videos were fancy, or showed a standing performance. I wouldn’t say that Bowie “invented” the “let’s do a video that looks like it is an intimate in concert thing”, but he surely made it popular with this.
Let’s Dance – The Australian video, the one which perhaps made Neil out of The Young Ones believe that David Bowie was Australian.
Not before and seldom since has such a subtle political statement been made in quite a direct, in your face way. The video passes comment on the divisions within Australian society, between the wealthy and predominantly white citizens and the indigenous Aborigine people. You are very welcome to try, but I doubt in any other pop video you will find such a simple yet effective statement being made like the scene where the Aborigine lad is seemingly forced to drag the machinery through the streets of (I think) Sydney.Or, for that matter, the aboriginal lady, in a similar forced way, scrubbing the streets clean for those of western descent to walk and drive on.
Some have raised an eyebrow over the ending. By accepting the red shoes to dance the blues the Aboriginal lady, apparently, risks a downward spiral that shall finish with a nuclear explosion wiping out her culture. I would have thought dancing, in particular in fancy shoes, was surely a universal. Anyway, nuclear bombs were all the rage for mid-80s video. Let us not forget that Frankie Goes To Hollywood's tribute to Mad Max 2, Two Tribes, got turned into some Cold War nuclear threat thing.
Also, yes I have been to Australia - oddly around the time Bowie made this video there - and yes, the gentlemen really do dance the way they are shown to in that outback cafe.
China Girl – Ooooh, David’s bum. Although most versions available on DVD these days, alas, edit this, a la the nosebleed scene from Loving The Alien.
Sex in music videos was not new at this time. Yes, this was before it went all out, which happened when Frankie Goes To Hollywood unleashed Relax later in 1983. But before this we’d had, say, Girls On Film by Duran Duran, which featured full frontal female nudity. This video, however, showed intimate, passionate interracial sex. At a time when interracial relationships were relatively rare and widely tut tutted at. Yes, in some circles they still are, but ever decreasing circles.
If nothing else, then, Let’s Dance allowed Bowie to really go all out with his passion for being as much of a visual artist as he was musical. Three great videos, three videos which are decidedly important to the whole evolution of music video as art form.
And of course, yes, with the 80s being what they were, the importance of all three to the development of the music video were forgotten when, in late 1983, arguably the greatest music video of all time – Michael Jackson’s Thriller – came along. Man, thinking on 1983 was some time to be alive with the gift of sound and vision.
A big, big tour, then. From May to December 1983 David Bowie played north of 90 shows to north of 2,500,000 people. It was at the time the biggest tour any musician had undertaken, and was perhaps as a consequence the biggest money maker. Not bad for the time at all, considering in the 70s and 80s tours were considered as things where you would lose money in order to make money from record sales on the back of them. My, how times have changed with those roles reversed.
The main controversy of the tour was the then young and promising guitarist who had played on the Let’s Dance album, Stevie Ray Vaughan, being axed close to the start. Various stories exist, but the most plausible and most widely accepted is that Bowie was dubious of Vaughan’s cocaine habit. It had not been all that long since Bowie had broken his addiction. He was then fearful of temptation, and fearful of losing a guitarist to the constabulary mid-tour. No behaviour agreement could be brokered, so he was out, and back into the fold came Earl Slick, a regular Bowie player.
It is very much worth getting the Serious Moonlight DVD. Yes, the impossible yellow coiffure hair is a distraction. There is frustration ahead in watching, too, as songs that do not need an 80s pop reworking – Life On Mars? and Station To Station in particular – are given an 80s reworking. But then again, the pop songs that are meant to sound like 80s pop sounds sound simply superb here. In terms of live recordings, the Serious Moonlight DVD represents one of the finest vocal performances Bowie ever delivered.
A big plus with the DVD is the inclusion of the otherwise rarely seen Ricochet documentary. In effect this documentary is Bowie wandering around Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand during the last stages of the tour. You get some wonderful snippets and insights into the man via doing so. There’s also some performances from those dates on the tour which seem to surpass the main concert film.
The Let’s Dance Legacy
Bowie famously, or perhaps infamously, referred to the success of Let’s Dance and the Serious Moonlight tour as the start of his “Phil Collins” period. I take this as to assume he means that he was now a global star with a huge audience, considering the significant success Phil commanded in the 80s The trick was Bowie, by his own admission, had absolutely no clue as to what this new, frankly f*****g massive audience wanted or expected from him.
And so he sought, perhaps rather like Phil, to give them more of the same. Tonight was certainly an outright attempt at Let’s Dance 2, whereas 3 years later Never Let Me Down was an attempt at a huge pop album with an even bigger stage show to go along with it, the genuine low point that was The Glass Spider Tour.
When you read, or better listen, to the lyrics across Let’s Dance and Tonight it’s rough to say he “gave up” on being creative. The fairer translation might be that he toned it down, or perhaps paused it, so as to bask in worldwide fame and adulation. Long term fans may well have baulked at the change in direction, citing Spinal Tap. In truth, though, this period gave him the stature and more importantly perhaps the financial clout to do whatever he so chose from them on.
I think I listened to Let’s Dance less than half the times than I did Tonight when that featured as a Random Bowie episode. To be perfectly honest I suspect that never again shall I play this record from end to end ever again. As mentioned above, all that I need from this record going forward can be found on compilations.
Phew. That is somewhere north of 3,000 words on the album. It probably takes longer to read this than it does to just listen to the album. With that being the case, thank you so much indeed for taking the time to read it all. Or some of it.
Yes, by the way. Indeed I am aware of a recently published "new" Bowie biography. It sounds rather like a hatchet job off someone from GQ magazine, written with the knowledge that the dead cannot sue. From what I gather it makes the shocking revelation that David Bowie "quite liked" sex. All I can really say is to remind you of what Bowie said about why he didn't write an autobiography - "just go and find the already written biography that amuses or entertains you the most, assume it is true, and get on with your own life".
Next? It shall take some doing but I may well tackle “the big one”. Not my favourite album, but all the same the one that most would say is “the big one” when it comes to Bowie. Although that could be said of a few, I think you might know which one. For me it just seems like an October record.
Until then, then…..
be excellent to each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!