David Bowie: “Let’s Dance” (1983)

On the one hand, this album represents a period — along with “Tonight” and “Never Let Me Down” — that Bowie calls his “Phil Collins years”, a creative low-point in which he felt a slave to his success, trying to pump out hit after hit. Compared to his previous five albums, “Let’s Dance” is neither challenging nor particularly exploratory.

On the other hand, it’s a collection of great songs, some of which are the most popular of Bowie’s entire career. The sound of the album may seem cliché bow, but as Bowie states: “There wasn’t anything else that really quite sounded like that at the time. So it only seems commercial in hindsight because it sold so many [copies].” It captured the pop-cultural zeitgeist and served as a sonic template for many artists of the ’80s who followed. (E.g., I’d put Sting’s “Dream of the Blue Turtles” in the same sonic space as this album.)

And let’s not forget the powerhouses at work on this album. Producer Nile Rogers lends not only his own legendary rhythm guitar chops, but also most of the rest of Chic, namely drummer Tony Thompson and bassist Bernard Edwards. Then there’s the debut — as far as most of the world was concerned — of motherfucking Stevie Ray Vaughn on lead guitar; Bowie once again proving that he has a near-unparalleled talent for discovering amazing guitarists.

So, is it Bowie’s greatest triumph, or is it Bowie pimping pop schlock for phat cash?

I’m not sure. I hadn’t really listened to this album since I was a teen, but I remembered loving it, and so was chomping at the bit to get to it while making my way through “Scary Monsters”. Reacquainted with it now, I’m admittedly a little disappointed, despite loving the songs.

Bowie calls this a “singer’s album”, referencing the fact that, for the first time, he played no instruments himself during the recording. The focus here is very obviously on the vocal melodies and communicating the song. The beats are bombastic, the arrangements simple, the production crisp, and the atmosphere a solid-state sheen that glistens from every pore. It’s one of the most clearly “Eighties” albums I’ve ever heard. 

And in doing so, it reminds me why I tend to hate ’80s production so much. The engineering on this album is so polished it’s almost sterile. The drums are heavily gated, the mic’ing close and isolated, and all of the “environment” seems to be produced by then-new digital reverb. Combined with the fairly sparse arrangements, it makes for a sound that I find aurally very uninteresting. It could be that this simplicity — whether a new sound as Bowie claims or not — is part of why the singles from this album were so successful. But compared to the dense sonic landscapes of albums like ” ‘Heroes’ ” or “Scary Monsters”, “Let’s Dance” sounds nearly dead.

And this, I think, is what gives SRV’s contributions so much power. In the midst of all this antiseptic tone, SRV blazes in with glorious, dirty, Hendrix-like tone and sweaty Albert-King-inspired licks. I don’t think we can overemphasize how much SRV has to do with the success of this album. He lends what I can only think to call “authenticity” to the songs that would otherwise be absent, IMO. (It’s so nice to hear the full 7:38 length version of the song “Let’s Dance” again; normally I only hear the radio edit, which removes way too much of SRV’s solo. The full song is maybe a little too padded overall, but I still prefer it to the edit.)

Now, none of this takes away from all of the good songwriting and performances. In addition to the big hits, I’ve always loved “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” — written by Giorgio Moroder, but lyrics by Bowie. “Without You” is wonderfully intimate, and “Shake It” is funky fun. (I also didn’t know that “China Girl” was written by Bowie and Iggy Pop and appeared on Pop’s “The Idiot” back in ’77. Nick Cave even covered it live back in ’78.)

“Ricochet” I’m not so nuts about, and Bowie himself feels they never really got the rhythm right. Strangely, it’s the most complex song production-wise, yet it feels the most bland to me.

Now that I’ve familiarized myself with more of Bowie’s catalog, I can see why many Bowie fans (and even Bowie himself) consider this album a disappointment. The artfulness and daring of all his previous work is decidedly absent on “Let’s Dance”. There are moments where Bowie seems about to verge into unexplored territory, but Rodger’s production always reigns him back in — which was likely Bowie’s hope in choosing Nile in the first place.

And in an ironic twist, now I’m not really looking forward to the next two albums. I remember loving “Tonight” back in the day, but I have a feeling I’m not going to see it the same way as I did then.

BONUS: Take a listen to the original version of “Criminal World”, which was originally released by a band called Metro — which I’d never heard of until yesterday — in 1976. What I find so interesting about the track is that a good chunk of it sounds like it shouldn’t have existed until a few years later, i.e., for a track from the mid-’70s, it sounds incredibly ’80s.

Metro, “Criminal World” (1976)
METRO Criminal world (1976)



David Bowie: “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” (1980)

Wikipedia says that this is considered Bowie’s “last great album”, and that virtually every album released since that receives positive reviews from critics gets tagged “the best album since Scary Monsters”. 

It’s also the last album that Bowie will do with Carlos Alomar, Dennis David, and George Murray, the rhythm section that’s been with him since 1975’s “Station to Station”, not to mention the last album Tony Visconti will produce for Bowie for quite some time.

I’ve listened to this album three times now, and I just can’t connect wit it. Mind you, “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion” are fucking phenomenal; Bowie calls the former an “epitaph” to his Seventies self, and I can’t imagine a better bookend to that phase of his career. Still, I feel like this album is about as far as the continuum started with “Station to Station” is going to go, namely the avant-garde, sand-in-the-vaseline sound Bowie perfected in Berlin. But this time around, there’s too much sand for me, and it just gets abrasive (“It’s No game (Part 1)”, his take on Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come”). Alternately, when there’s less sand, there’s too much, well, Springsteen for me (“Because You’re Young”). If anything, this feels like the album most “of” its time — as opposed to “ahead of”, where Bowie was before — reeking of early ’80s synth pop and rock. Even the wonderful, serrated guitar of Robert Fripp seems sorts of “been there, done that” to me. (Let’s not even mention the Japanese woman who speaks on “It’s No Game (Part 1)”; can’t get much more ’80s than that.)

I know that many people bemoan the “Let’s Dance” phase of Bowie’s career, considering it when he “went commercial” and become just another big pop star. But, honestly, I’m not sure I can imagine Bowie continuing down the path we see on “Scary Monsters”. I imagine him turning into a sort of Laurie Anderson sort of character, relegated to an oddity in the pop curio cabinet, his appeal dwindling to a hardcore, and ever-dwindling, fan-base. It’s in a chameleon’s nature to change his colors, and I definitely feel like the time had come. Call me crazy, but this album — barring the two moments of utter brilliance mentioned above — screams stagnation to me.

So, while I can appreciate the album to a certain extent, mostly I was just looking forward to “Let’s Dance”.




David Bowie: “Lodger” (1979)

“Lodger”, the last of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, was actually recorded in Switzerland and NYC. I read an article that claims  Bowie himself coined the “Berlin Trilogy” moniker to tie these three albums together, possibly to insure that this incredibly  experimental album was given its due.

And by experimental, this is meant literally. This is the first of the three albums with Eno where he and Bowie worked  together on all of the compositions, often using Eno’s various “oblique strategies” to arrive at happy accidents. “Move On”  was created by playing Bowie’s “All The Young Dudes” backwards and then following along. “Fantastic Voyage” and “Boys  Keep Swinging” are the same chord progression. And, as he would later do with U2, on one number Eno told the band to  “play something funky” and then, like a college instructor, would point to chord changes written on a blackboard when he wanted the band to switch.

Adrian Belew also makes his debut with Bowie on this album. Eno would often have him record without any prior knowledge  of the song, and then splice and edit his parts, sometimes using parts recorded for one song on another. (Regardless,  Belew is fucking on fire on this album. The sounds he gets out of his Roland JC-120 are totally nuts.)

The end result is interesting, but an album I’m only about 50% satisfied with. The first four songs feel very scattered to me;  it’s not until “Red Sails” that a) I start to get into it and b) I realize that Belew is on this album. From that point on until  “Red Sails”, I think we’re absolutely in Bowie-is-a-genius territory, but then we get to the closer, “Red Money”, and I lose  interest again.

I’ve seen a few articles that claim that “Lodger” is an unfairly dismissed album, and that subsequent listenings — and a few  decades of perspective — have shown that it’s some of Bowie most interesting and challenging work. I can sympathize with  this, as it improves with each listening. Still, it’s a bit of a slog to get to the real meat of the album — “D.J.”, “Look Bak In  Anger”, and “Boys Keep Swinging” — and then things sort of peter out from there. Still, it’s really good while it lasts.

Also, I found this interesting anecdote that reveals how fucking homophobic the US can be:

“Bowie’s deep voice satirised machismo, while the lyrics juxtaposed depictions of male privilege and homoeroticism (“When  you’re a boy, other boys check you out”). When this was combined with David Mallet’s video, which featured a suited Bowie  backed by three “female” vocalists who were revealed to be the singer in drag, RCA decided against releasing the single in  the US, choosing “Look Back in Anger” instead. Bowie performed the track with a puppet body special effect on Saturday  Night Live on 15 December 1979, joined by Klaus Nomi as backing singer. During the broadcast NBC censors muted the  “other boys check you out” line, but failed to notice the puppet’s bouncing phallus at the close of the song.”


BONUS! Bowie and Belew in ’78 on German TV. Seriously, fucking watch this shit.


David Bowie: ” ‘Heroes’ ” (1977)

The Berlin Trilogy continues with “‘Heroes'”, which some consider Bowie’s finest album. It’s hard for me to disagree, as I’d argue that the title track is not only Bowie’s finest moment, but possibly one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded.

This little tidbit about recording the vocals for that track — which I think I’d read about in the past — is also pretty amazing:

Tony Visconti rigged up a system, a creative misuse of gating that may be termed “multi-latch gating”,[11] of three microphones to capture the epic vocal, with one microphone nine inches from Bowie, one 20 feet away and one 50 feet away. Only the first was opened for the quieter vocals at the start of the song, with the first and second opening on the louder passages, and all three on the loudest parts, creating progressively more reverb and ambience the louder the vocals became.[12] Each microphone is muted as the next one is triggered. “Bowie’s performance thus grows in intensity precisely as ever more ambience infuses his delivery until, by the final verse, he has to shout just to be heard….The more Bowie shouts just to be heard, in fact, the further back in the mix Visconti’s multi-latch system pushes his vocal tracks, creating a stark metaphor for the situation of Bowie’s doomed lovers”.

There are similar moments of engineering wizardry on the rest of the album, what with Eno continuing to add “treatments” to various songs, as well as Robert Fripp working his avant-magic on many tracks — all of which he did in a single day, having flown in from LA, not to mention also having been in semi-retirement, and thus not playing regularly.

While to album continues the melancholic tone of “Low”, side one is full of fairly energetic — perhaps even frenetic — rock: “Beauty and the Beast”, “Joe the Lion”, and the spastic “Blackout”. It’s not until side two that we encounter moody instrumentals akin to those on “Low”, but even these seem more exploratory than despairing.

Vocals return on the last track, “The Secret Life of Arabia”, as well as the upbeat tone of side one. Wikipedia says that many people think placing this song last was an error, ruining the overall mood of side two. I can sort of see their point, as it is fairly jarring. Still, I think it bookends the album pretty well, slapping us out of the reverie instilled by the preceding tracks.

Much like “Low”, I can hear a lot of Eno influences that remind me of U2’s Achtung/Zooropa era. And, again, for 1977 this album sounds ahead of its time. Advertising for the record used the term “New Wave”, which I didn’t even realize was a thing as far back as 1977. It’ll take pop music another three to four years to catch up with what Bowie, Visconti, and Eno are doing here.



David Bowie: “Low” (1977)

It’s 1976. Having explored America on his immediately previous albums and drained from working on a film that received critically mixed reviews, David Bowie decamps to Hansa Studios in Berlin with Brian Eno to reinvent himself once again, as well as kick his massive cocaine habit. “It was time for me to get more European.”

It’s 1990. Having explored America on their immediately previous albums and drained from working on a film that received critically mixed reviews, U2 decamps to Hansa Studios in Berlin with Brian Eno to reinvent themselves, as well as kick their massive habit of being painfully earnest all the time. “It was time for us to get more European.”

It’s hard for me not to draw parallels between these two artists, not to mention the similar end result of these near-identical circumstances helping to produce some of the best music of their careers. (Let’ leave aside the fact that U2 actually ended up hating Hansa, and returned to Dublin to finish their album.)

But let’s get back to Bowie.

Low is largely an instrumental album. Side one is comprised of what we might call “song fragments”, only one of which — “Sound and Vision” — ended up being a successful single. Side two has virtually no singing from Bowie and is largely moody synth pieces composed, in large part, by Brian Eno. (Though Bowie actually plays all instruments on “Weeping Wall”.)

This is a really impenetrable album, yet I thoroughly enjoy it. It’s very textural, full of synth work and processed drums — including some bloops and bleeps that sound exactly like Pac-Man, which won’t arrive for three more years. Carlos Alomar’s guitar work is also wonderfully minimalist (as is Ricky Gardiner’s, who handles some leads); in some ways, he’s channeling future Bowie collaborator Robert Fripp.

This is definitely a Bowie album, but the Eno signature is pretty unmistakable. I’m not as familiar with his solo work as I’d like to be, but what I’ve heard on Music For Airports, On Land, and the U2 collaboration Passengers sounds a lot like what I was hearing here. Wikipedia claims that some of the instrumental songs were created solely by Eno while Bowie was off in France suing his management. Upon his return, he added vocals.

Overall, though, I think we’re now really seeing Bowie present the sound that will define his work from here on. He’s getting a head start on the ’80s, not to mention inspiring a host of artists from that decade who will point to this album as a pivotal influence (e.g., Gary Numan). Not to mention, this album kicks off the “Berlin Trilogy” (along with Heroes and Lodger) which many consider to be the highpoint in Bowie’s career.

Interesting side fact: the Red Hot Chili Peppers have apparently covered a good swath of this album in concert. Was not expecting that.



David Bowie: “Station to Station” (1976) 

The best line about this album in the Wikipedia entry is: “During the sessions Bowie was heavily dependent on drugs, especially cocaine, and recalls almost nothing of the production.” Guitarists Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar also confirm both their own cocaine use and foggy memories of the sessions.

Which is pretty amazing, given that this is considered one of Bowie’s greatest albums. A heady mix of cabaret, Crowley occultism, “Young Americans” style funk, Kabbalah, Christianity, Nietzsche, and a hint of krautrock, this album brings us Bowie’s new persona of the aristocratic and impeccably-dressed Thin White Duke, and we get a glimpse of both where he has been and where he’ll be going once the Berlin Trilogy begins.

“Golden Years” is probably the stand-out track on this album, not to mention one of Bowie’s best singles. I love the title track as well, which despite clocking in at ten minutes is not even long enough for me. “Stay” is also fantastic, and “TVC-15” rocks along nicely. “Word on a Wing” and the one cover, “Wild is the Wind” (a tune made popular by Johnny Mathis in 1957, but which Nina Simone recorded on the late ’60s and inspired Bowie to take on the song) are a bit more melodramatic, which I’m not always nuts about. Still, they’re wonderfully done, and Bowie’s vocals are incredible.

It’s sort of amazing to think that this album was recorded mostly in 1975. There are so many moments that presage the “art rock” we’re going to see once 1977 hits and the ’70s really start dying. Bowie is constantly ahead of his time. I mean, in 1976, the rest of the world is listening to “Silly Love Songs” by Wings or Elton John and Kikki Dee’s “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart”.

Bonus: A drunk Bowie lip-syncs “Golden Years” on Soul Train (Bowie is one of the few white artists to ever appear on the show)
David Bowie – Golden Years (Soul Train)