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)