“Let’s Dance” is David Bowie’s 15th studio album and was originally released on 14 April 1983.
Let me just start by saying that this is a significantly better album than “Never Let Me Down”. Way better. I know a few friends though who will likely never talk to me again, how on earth can I place the massive hit that was “Let’s Dance” so bloody low in my rankings !!
The relatively low ranking of “Let’s Dance” is due just as much to the outstanding quality of his other albums, than by any dire weakness in this. This is a fine album don’t get me wrong, I just prefer most of his other stuff.
Let me explain.
In 1983, David Bowie was in an interesting place. He had just left his long term label RCA and signed a HUGE deal with EMI. By HUGE, I mean HUGE, no more butter and bread for dinner. He had also escaped the financial clutches of previous manager, Tony Defries, who basically received much of the revenues Bowie made from record sales. This explained why he hadn’t made an album since 1980’s “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps”, determined to hang on until his legal contract with Tony Defries ended.
So he had lots of money and he had the opportunity to make lots more. He also would have felt somewhat obligated to produce a few hit albums and singles to help EMI justify their considerable investment in him. Bowie therefore wasn’t interested so much in artistic freedom and experimentation. He was now primarily interested in simply making a hit album.
After a chance meeting at a night club, Bowie met up with Nile Rodgers, famed for producing lots of hit records both for his band Chic and other artists such as Sister Sledge and Dianna Ross. Bowie felt he met just the guy to help him produce the hit record he was after, so out went his long time producer Tony Visconti and in came Rodgers.
Gone also were his long term rhythm section of Dennis Davis, George Murray and Carlos Alomar (although Alomar was retained for the subsequent “Serious Moonlight” world tour) replaced with musicians Rodgers was used to working with. In also was the acclaimed guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who would add a touch of real class to the whole album (although I feel he’s criminally under-utilised throughout). Finally, Bowie and Rodgers brought in a horn section to give the album that jazzy, bouncy vibe that runs throughout the whole album.
So Bowie had his new team and together they succeeded, indeed exceeded, in producing the most commercially successful album of Bowie’s entire career. “Let’s Dance” was an absolutely smash, selling records globally by the literal truck load. It was even nominated for a Grammy (for the first time ever in his career). Only Michael Jackson’s Thriller stop the album being THE album of 1983. It also spawned 3 massive hit singles and perhaps most impressive of all, the spectacularly successful “Serious Moonlight” tour that sold out massive stadiums throughout the world. As Bowie himself mentioned at the time, finally the masses who were previously buying Phil Collins albums were now buying his.
Bowie had finally absolutely and truly MADE IT !!
So how can such a successful album, THE biggest seller in the entire Bowie cannon, one that was even nominated for a Grammy (Bowie just doesn’t get nominated for a Grammy for God’s sake), be ranked so low?
Well, it’s just not as good as most of his other albums and despite the massive hits, the overall Bowie-level quality isn’t there. For a start, the album actually only contains 5 new Bowie compositions, 2 of which are of pretty below-average standard. The album’s overall sound and vibe is of course dance and pop, perhaps with “Young Americans” being its closest musical relative. And to be honest, I simply prefer Bowie’s many other musical styles and genres, the lyrical simplicity and the catchy bass lines here are bettered elsewhere with better material in his amazing catalog.
But like I said before, this is still a fine album and has a number of classic Bowie tracks. But the tracks I prefer aren’t necessarily the big hits.
The album opens with “Modern Love“, the third single from the album and it’s a lovely, catchy track. It has a sense of fun and it’s hard not to dance along to the song. It was also a great closing number for the “Serious Moonlight” shows. It perfectly encapsulates the general sound of “Let’s Dance” with it’s catchy, bouncy hooks, horn section and singalong lyrics. It’s good, but it’s not anywhere near his best work. Music Video.
“China Girl” is an interesting pick. Co-written and produced by Bowie for Iggy Pop’s brilliant 1977 “Idiot” album, if it sounded anything like the (far superior) original, this song would have been hopelessly out of place. But the song is totally transformed, first by adding that hooky bass line that just feels like it’s always belonged, by dropping the excellent lengthy guitar based outro (which would likely have sounded amazing at the hands of Steve Ray Vaughan, but his much shorter solo is sublime and an album highlight) and by taking the edge off the menacing vocal delivery. It transforms a song with lyrics that include “Visions of swastikas in my head” into a pop classic. The second single off the album, the excellent video filmed here in Australia didn’t hurt as this became a huge hit and the name Iggy Pop suddenly found itself in the homes of Phil Collins fans everywhere. Music Video.
The title track “Let’s Dance” comes next and (gulp) as I know this might offend, is one of the weakest offerings on the album. It’s a song that has never grabbed me and while I get it’s catchy and when it first came out as the leading single was fresh and new sounding from Bowie, there are soooooooooo many better songs and singles in the Bowie cannon. That this is THE biggest selling single of his career just highlights to me that just because something sells a lot, it doesn’t necessarily make it better. Just ask McDonald’s. The much longer album version just delays things from getting on to the rest of the album. The video that was also filmed in Australia is rather good, depicting the clash of cultures between aboriginals and Westernised Australia. Music Video.
Side one closes with the soft ballad “Without You“. Bowie is at his crooning best here and there are some nice guitar flourishes, but it’s again one of the weaker moments of the album. EMI pushed things somewhat by releasing this as a fourth single from the album. By then, everyone had it anyway having bought the album and so flopped.
Side two starts with “Ricochet” and is one of my favourite tracks on the album as it does remind me of a more adventurous Bowie. It seems a little out of place here and is Bowie just stretching the boundaries somewhat with a disjointed track with what is as close to “art-rock” as there is on the album. But he doesn’t have the personnel on board to make such a track quite work and suffers for it. Interestingly, this is the only track on the album to NOT have made it on a single somewhere and has never been performed live.
“Criminal World” is the only cover on the album (except the co-written China Girl), a song originally recorded by a band called Metro (who?). It’s a great song and my favourite track on the album. The “Let’s Dance” formula works best here, with the band sounding great, especially Stevie Ray Vaughan and it really comes across as a “Bowie” song, especially with lyrics such as “The boys are like baby-faced girls”. Not sure if there’s another Bowie album where I would rate the cover as the best track (perhaps “Wild Is The Wind” where it’s on par with the rest of the glorious “Station to Station”). One can only imagine the reaction of Metro when they got their first royalty check…
“Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” is a bit of a lazy choice. Having only recently been released as a single in 1982, the previous version produced by Giorgio Moroder for the movie “Cat People” is infinitely superior. This version lacks all the atmosphere and suspense that made the original so brilliant and is positively stale by comparison. It drags the overall album down as a result. Music Video Of Original Version.
As does the final track “Shake It“, which is as weak a closer as you’ll ever get on a Bowie album. It’s a nothing kind of a song, more a little keyboard jingle with somewhat annoying backup vocals, but it does tie up the overall mood that Bowie was trying to get from it all. As far as I know, it’s never been performed live, often a good indicator of a weak song. It leaves you thinking “hmmm, is that it, time for a cup of tea then”.
For me, the sum of the parts results in a disappointing album that has always left me unimpressed overall, especially when you compare it to say “Scary Monsters” its brilliant predecessor. I’m being tough I know, but I’m raking “Let’s Dance” within the standard of a typical Bowie album, which is an extraordinarily high standard.
I’m also saying this in the context of seeing Bowie live in concert for the very first time on the accompanying “Serious Moonlight” tour at the Sydney Showgrounds in late 1983. It was one of the BEST days on life, standing in the second row just metres away from the great man. I loved every second of the show and some of the “Let’s dance” tracks did sound better live. To re-live the tour, Bowie released the “Serious Moonlight” film and live album, filmed/recorded in Vancouver.
But if you’re like so many out there who have a Bowie collection that consists of just “Let’s Dance” and a greatest hits package, stay tuned. Bowie has made so many more albums better than this, but that’s a story for another day.
Best tracks: Criminal World, China Girl, Ricochet