27. Let’s Dance

lets dance album

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.

modern love

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.

china girl

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.

LetsDance

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.

withoutyou

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

bowie series moonlight

Advertisements

28. Never Let Me Down

Never Let Me Down

Never Let Me Down is David Bowie’s 17th studio album and was originally released on 20 April 1987.

It had been three relatively long years since his last album, “Tonight“, which while commercially successful and a No 1, left the critics generally unimpressed. In between, he had released a number of singles and contributed on a number of soundtracks, most notably “Absolute Beginners” (with the title song arguably his best work throughout the entire 1983-1987 period) and “Labyrinth“.

However by 1987, David Bowie was in a difficult place artistically. He’s last two albums “Let’s Dance” and “Tonight” were both commercially very successful and all the middle-aged Phil Collins fans with their bulging wallets were really getting into this version of David Bowie. EMI, his record label, were also loving the revenues coming from albums that were enjoying high chart positions on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, enjoying commercial success in almost (but not quite) equal measure to Michael Jackson was just not a position that David Bowie was used to or had really coveted previously. But in this post Tony Defries era where the majority of the money he earned actually went into his bank account, meant Bowie for the first time was torn between creating music he enjoyed and excited him creatively, versus writing music he felt his growing fan base would enjoy, would buy in huge quantities and would help to increase his ever impressive fortune.

This conflict resulted in an artistic “writers block” where Bowie struggled in self-doubt and concerns he would potentially fail both commercially and artistically. And in the end, his fears were kinda realised when the resultant album “Never Let Me Down” only reaching No. 6 in the UK charts, 34 on the US Billboard and enjoyed only mixed, generally lukewarm reviews by music critics.

Things had seemed so optimistic beforehand.  He had just produced and co-wrote the criminally underrated “Blah Blah Blah” album for Iggy Pop, his mate who had featured so predominately in his previous EMI albums.  An album if true be told, was superior to everything he had recorded since the Scary Monsters album.

His also featured heavily on the credits of “Never Let Me Down”, writing or co-writing all the material bar the obligatory Iggy Pop cover “Bang Bang“, a level of output he hadn’t managed in his previous two albums. He also played instruments on the new album in the form of “guitar, keyboards, Mellotron, Moog synthesizer, harmonica and tambourine”, something he had left to his impressive array of session musicians on the previous two albums. The collection of session musicians on this album is impressive, based mainly of those who worked on his previous EMI albums, with the notable inclusion of multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay and the famed Peter Frampton on guitar.

So it looked initially liked he really cared about this album and perhaps a new masterpiece was on its way.

But the end result was entirely mediocre with a collection of songs that were simply substandard to the Bowie we had come to expect and with an 80’s era production that has not aged particularly well. The music can be labelled “Soft Rock” or “Pop”, so if you like Phil Collins, Hall & Oakes, Huey Lewis and the News, etc. you might think this album positively rocks. But those with fond memories of Scary Monsters being recorded in the same decade, the comparison couldn’t be more stark or disappointing.

The opening track and lead-off single from the album “Day In Day Out” forebodes what’s to come. A plodding, drum overdose song that lacks any of the hooks associated with classic Bowie. Even Molly Meldrum gave the song and associated video (which featured the plight of homelessness in the US with some controversial “R” rated scenes) a negative review on Countdown, unheard of previously. Molly saying bad things about Bowie, WTF !! Music Video.

day in day out

The next track “Time Will Crawl” and second single is the clear highlight of the album. With imaginous lyrics around the theme of the recent Chernobyl nuclear disaster, it’s a great song that the heavy production doesn’t quite bury. Bowie also sounds great on this, with an eerie performance that captures the mood of the song perfectly. As a indication of how much this song stands out from the rest of the album, Bowie even selected a version of this track on his “iSelectBowie” compilation album. Music Video.

time will crawl

Next comes “Beat Of Your Drum“, a nice little song with catchy verse and chorus, with just a hint of uneasiness, but again spoilt somewhat by the overall ploddy production. The potential of this being a much better album is there, but that magical element so typical of Bowie’s better work is simply missing here.

About his long time personal assistant Coco Schwab, the title track and third single “Never Let Me Down” comes next and is again a rather nice song, with perhaps his best, tinder vocal performance on the album. But it’s not exciting, original, confronting, atmospheric or spine-tingling, which is what we usually expect from Bowie. Bowie doesn’t usually just do nice, you get the point. Music Video.

never let me down single

Zeroes” continues the trend of having some promise as a song and has that hint of nostalgia that Bowie was after but it just doesn’t get there. The tune has the usual plodding drum back beat, the guitar solo is uninspiring and the vocal mix just doesn’t do Bowie justice.

The last track on side one (yes, I originally got this as a record, my last Bowie record for many a year with CDs being the media of choice from here on in) is “Glass Spider” and is my second favourite track on the album, if only for the opening. The spoken opening sequence reminds me a tad of the start to the “Diamond Dogs” album and manages to take you to that other place. But yet again the final product doesn’t quite deliver and the mythological imaginary of spidery webs is broken by the unadventurous Frampton guitar and that damn thumping 80’s era drum sound.

Although the first side can only be best described as somewhat mediocre by Bowie standards, it’s unfortunately the better of the two sides. Things only go downhill once you flip the album over…

Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)” can be politely described as not being very good or more accurately, bloody awful. A crunchy, repetitive beat with annoyingly high pitched instrumentation and lame lyrics is broken by a so-called “rap” sequence by Mickey Rouke (yes, that Mickey Rouke). It doesn’t work.

New York’s In Love” is a forgettable track with a tune I couldn’t hum even if I was offered a large some of money. It’s about…, I have no idea and sadly with this album, I really have not interest in finding out. It’s a nothing song.

87 and Cry” has a heavy drum beat and squealing guitar that makes it sound just like other songs on the album. That’s not a complement by the way. It’s again a nothing sort of song that just doesn’t have much to hold your interest. It’s aged as much as the title of the song would suggest. But we haven’t got to the low point yet…

Too Dizzy” is so bad that Bowie himself insistent that the song be removed from all subsequent re-issues of the album. In that respect, it’s a bit of a rarity these days but I wouldn’t recommend spending too much time looking for it. It has all the key elements (boring drum beat, messy instrumentation and bland lyrics) that characterises this album. An instantly forgettable song.

Bang Bang” closes off the album and is the clear best track on this forgettable second side of the album. A cover of the Iggy Pop song from his equally forgettable “Party” album, it at least has a structure and vibe that will have you tapping your feet. But when you compare it to other closing tracks on Bowie albums such as “The Bewlay Brothers”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and “Lady Grinning Soul”, well you get my point. Things just don’t really compare here.

Over the years, I’ve really really tried to “get into” this album as it holds a lot of nostalgia for me. For a start, my parents bought me the limited “blue” coloured vinyl version of the album as a surprise present, which remains unplayed but treasured to this day.

I also enjoyed one of the best weeks of my life when I spent a week commuting from Canberra to Sydney to see all 8 of Bowie’s “Glass Spider” shows at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. I couldn’t get time off work as I didn’t have the leave, so left work at 4pm each day, drove to Sydney, watched the show and then drove back to be in bed by 3am to do it all again the next day. Although the “Glass Spider” tour was critically panned, I loved it. It was David Bowie live for crying out loud and he was amazing !! Best of all, some of the shows were recorded for the video release, so what a perfect souvenir of the time. Video of Sydney Glass Spider shows.

But alas, I have never enjoyed this album anything like most of his others and in my humble opinion, remains the nadir of his creative output. If you were to graph the quality of Bowie’s albums, you would plot “Never Let Me Down” humbly on Planet Earth and many of his masterpieces in the stratosphere or indeed in outer space and beyond.

Bowie himself has been quite disparaging of the album over the years and once stated “Never Let Me Down had good songs that I mistreated. I didn’t really apply myself. I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be doing. I wish there had been someone around who could have told me”.

Interestingly and perhaps most telling of all, I don’t believe Bowie ever performed any of the songs from the album again after the accompanying “Glass Spiders” tour.

After the tour and after spectacularly burning the whole Glass Spider live set following the last show in New Zealand, Bowie recognised the need for a drastic change in direction. If he was to keep his legacy and keep his artistic integrity, he had to say goodbye to his current commercial considerations, say goodbye to his Phil Collins fan base and start creating records that again said up yours to the music establishment.

And boy, did Tin Machine achieve all that and a lot more. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: Time Will Crawl.

 

glass spider tour