DAVID Bowie waltzed into the 80s with a word on the wing. After the cocaine blizzard of Station to Station and the groundbreaking Krautrock meditation of the Berlin Trilogy, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) was a blistering record full of risks and rage. Hissing with venom on tracks like ‘Teenage Wildlife’, he laid down the gauntlet for his contemporaries in the pop world: Step to me and I will tear you apart.
It worked. Scary Monsters… was a new benchmark for Bowie’s career, landing him both critical and commercial acclaim on par with his glam days. Bowie once again found himself heralded as a commercial darling with new hits like ‘Ashes to Ashes’, itself a revolution in the world of music videos. Despite the album’s fury, the public lapped it up. The critics loved it. The world was Bowie’s to take.
Let’s Dance was the fist that smashed the globe. Signing on to EMI for a $17 million figure, he took what he’d learned from the jazzy soul of Young Americans and married it with more brass, more backbeats and more Nile Rodgers. These days, Let’s Dance is often maligned for the experimentation that came before – gone were the moody synths of Low and “Heroes” – but it’s a magnificent record in its own right, full of catchy hooks and foot-tapping production.
There’s a warmth to the album that had long eluded his previous work. The only jagged edges here are the muted stabs from plucky blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, lead string-twanger on every track. Bowie himself had never looked healthier, positively glowing in photos, brown-skinned and blonde-haired, always wearing a crooner’s smile. Let’s Dance was a musical shift, certainly, but it was also a rehabilitation of image.
This amicability was integral, since the album’s message was right there in the title: Let’s dance. The songs reflect this simplicity. The title track, condensed to a svelte four minutes as a single, balloons to seven and a half on the album with only a little variation in the additional time. ‘Let’s Dance’ is the album in miniature: A natural 12” floor-filler with wide swathes of aural space.
Its intro is a frenzy in itself, building to a pitch that plateaus for the rest of the track, even as solos and setpieces abound in the final third. “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues,” Bowie implores. There’s little to stop us listening; judging by the track’s airplay and enduring fame, we all did. Like the album, it reached No.1 in both the U.S. and the U.K., cementing Bowie’s new worldwide mega-stardom.
‘China Girl’, the second single and second track, incorporates standard motifs of its titular nation amidst a roving bassline and Bowie’s playful, even patronising singing. A reworking of a collaboration with Iggy Pop, Bowie is smoother than liquid silk, seductive and growling. It also allows Vaughan a moment of restraint, his interludes glistening with bends and hammers.
‘Modern Love’, the album opener and third big single, is possibly Bowie’s most perfect pop song. He “tries”, but the prospect “terrifies” him, so he turns to the church; no good. It’s an act: “It’s not really work,” he sneers, “It’s just the power to charm.” Robert Aaron’s bright saxophone, again, provides a happy veneer to lyrics that speak as an act of harrowed desperation. It’s the closest thing to an admission on Bowie’s part of kowtowing to his commercial instincts; even so, his artistic credibility is untouched, because ‘Modern Love’ is a fucking masterpiece and the highlight of the album.
After the onslaught of these back-to-back A-sides, the album is less filler-centric than one might expect. ‘Without You’ is a whispered ballad that would anticipate the spindly synths of his work on Labyrinth while Vaughan, for all his shredding on other tracks, is tastefully anonymous. This is one of the more obvious examples of Let’s Dance as “a singer’s album” – Bowie brought no real ideas, music or even instruments to recording sessions, opening up the floor to other contributors.
‘Criminal World’ is similar. Driven by a stop-start Rodgers riff in the verse and glistening power chords in the chorus, Bowie’s hushed delivery of “criminal girls” and “criminal boys” is buffeted on the low slides of Carmine Rojas’ bass, backed by Thompson’s reliable drumming. ‘Ricochet’, on the other hand, is Bowie at his Bowie-est. Sung in his lowest register, he returns to the ecclesiastical, commanding the “holy pictures” be turned to “face the wall”, amidst a Welsh-accented spoken-word segment and apocalyptic backing vocals.
The horns ram against each other in the two-minute coda, but it diminishes into a fade-out that robs the track of the climax it needed. This is a problem on every track; everything ends on a fade-out, as if no-one quite knew how – or when – to end the damn song.
‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ suffers for this as well. A remake of a track Bowie wrote for the Giorgio Moroder-scored, Paul Schrader-directed Cat People, it boasts an aggressive beat and one of Bowie’s most athletic vocal deliveries on the album. Vaughan gets another chance to shred before the track descends into a gloomy “it’s been so long” drone into the fade-out.
The closer, ‘Shake It’, perhaps, should never have gotten started. Buoyed by a Bee Gees-pitch backing refrain and an insistent synth “bwuuurm” ostinato, it’s the clearest indicator of Bowie’s hands-off approach to the recording process. ‘Shake It’ is a pleasant enough throwaway that bubbles at the end of the record and blurps into the fade-out. Bowie sounds a little embarrassed to be singing lines like, “I feel like a sailboat,” but ‘Shake It’ is harmless fluff.
Its real sin lies in its foreshadowing of Let’s Dance’s critically-maligned successors, Tonight and Never Let Me Down. Bowie would later disown both, but there’s no doubt he was, at the time, doing exactly what he wanted to do: Capturing the commercial attention he had always desired, by catering to an audience he’d conjured up himself.
The world was listening. Let’s Dance was a multi-million seller and catapulted him into the mainstream of the industry he had always lurked on the peripheries of. The outsider was the man in the spotlight, lapping up the plaudits with a beach-boy haircut and shoulder pads. Though the 80s heralded an era of creative bankruptcy for Bowie – like so many of his 70s contemporaries, desperate to avoid irrelevance – Let’s Dance remains a crackling record, bursting with life and immediacy. For a while – before the Glass Spider, before Labyrinth – David Bowie sold himself to the world.
For a while, he believed in it.