Old dog keeps up with the new wave and more
After more than a decade of both artistic and commercial success, 1983 would turn out to be Bowie’s biggest ever. Having walked away from RCA, and signing with EMI America, a deal purportedly worth 17 million dollars, he released Let’s Dance, an album which reached number 1 in the UK, and number 4 in the US. Not only that, in the same year Bowie had a staggering ten albums in the UK Top 100 chart, thanks to a new generation of fans and RCA’s ‘quick, get them out there’ budget reissue of his back catalogue, meaning that the man was hardly in a financial funk to begin with.
True to form, Bowie remodelled himself as a Sinatra for the 80’s, albeit one with a serious pop-rock edge. At the time, crooners wearing tailored suits were extremely in vogue; just ask David Sylvian, Bryan Ferry, and that bloke from ABC. And while Mick Jagger was jumping around like some aerobics instructor (with an outfit to match), Bowie went the other way, presenting a more sophisticated image, and one that seemed more in tune with the times.
His last album, Scary Monsters, despite its virtues, had proved somewhat too difficult for the masses to digest, and so Tony Visconti was usurped at the eleventh hour in favour of Nile Rodgers, a producer who seemed to have his finger on the pulse of every latest trend. So with Visconti out, and Rodgers in, David’s road to profitable re-birth began, no doubt inspired (partly) by the New Romantic movement (many of whom were little more than a bunch of neo-narcissistic sissies anyway).
Opening with “Modern Love,” Bowie asserts his credentials as one of the finest craftsmen of pop who ever lived. Throughout, Bowie puts his faith in “God and man,” and where he always gets to “The church on time.” The song is a classic example of his ability to borrow and adapt old traditions and update them for a more modern audience. Doo Wop, Gospel, 50’s rock, you name it, Bowie’s mind was like a musical blender.
“China Girl” is another superb pop tune, and a wonderful interpretation of Iggy Pop (the original can be heard on Pop’s 1977 album The Idiot). Nile Rodgers delivers the oriental riff, one which is key to the song’s appeal, while Bowie deliciously croons about “swastikas in my head” and “plans for everyone.” Yet there’s a surprise, and it comes in the form of blues giant Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose moody guitar licks cut through all the pop pretence like a knife through polyunsaturated margarine.
The quality keeps on coming with the funky title track, where Bowie’s genius for catchy pop songs is at its best. Arrangement-wise the tune is pretty simple, although the overall big band effect is one which the listener won’t forget anytime soon. Amongst a wailing avant-garde sax, David’s voice had never sounded better, while once again Vaughan plays some subtle though stinging guitar notes throughout. The ballad “Without You” is essentially filler, despite Bowie’s excellent vocals. Not so “Ricochet,” a song which harkens back to some of his Seventies explorations, albeit with a strong 80’s bent. Certainly it’s the most experimental number of the album, and one which has Bowie imploring us “To turn the holy pictures so they face the wall.”
“Criminal World” is a cover of post-punk band The Metros, proving that Bowie’s ear was never locked into one particular era of music. And despite the entire electronic ambience, once again, Vaughan manages to splice his way through all the instrumental murk. Stevie Ray also lets it rip on “Cat Power,” before Bowie ends the album with the most dance-oriented track of the whole LP, in the form of the funky though heavily synth-oriented “Shake It,” a song on which David’s high falsetto is put to fine effect. Disposable yes – but enjoyable all the same.
Obviously Bowie knew a formula when he saw one, and Let’s Dance is perfect proof of an artist who understood how to exploit current trends while sustaining many of his older fans more adult expectations. His Serious Moonlight tour would break box-office records the world over, establishing Bowie as a major musical force against an army of new wave wannabes and pop poseurs. Even the album cover showed a healthy, reinvigorated David ready to take on his mantle as one of the most innovative pop-rock artists on the planet.
Let’s Dance is a pugilistic, yet subtly cerebral document of its age, and an album which would see him become increasingly irrelevant in an ever increasingly superficial epoch. Bowie had a genius for blending the old and the new, transmogrifying the obvious as well as the obscure into an unexpected experience. Let’s Dance may not be on the same level as some of his previous work, but it was sure as hell superior to whatever else was masquerading as quality pop music one often heard on the radio. To this day, it remains a pinnacle statement by an artist whose achievements against which anyone would be hard pressed to find an equal.