519. ‘Let’s Dance’, by David Bowie

Ah…. Ah…. Ah…. Ah….! Bowie’s back. His 4th number one might not be his very best – it would take something to outdo ‘Space Oddity’ – but it’s definitely his biggest, brightest, catchiest moment on top of the pop charts.

Let’s Dance, by David Bowie (his 4th of five #1s)

3 weeks, 3rd – 24th April 1983

I love the mix of sixties pop – the intro ripped from ‘Twist and Shout’, the background harmonising, and the woozy horns – with hard-edged eighties funk. Let’s dance! the Duke commands… Put on your red shoes and dance the blues… And you are powerless to resist. Like ‘Billie Jean’, when a DJ launches this one down your local disco then they know what they are doing.

But as with ‘Billie Jean’, this record isn’t just a simple dance number. It’s David Bowie, and there’s an edge to it, a hidden strain of weirdness. Not so much in the lyrics, more in the way he delivers them. The yelped: Tremble like a flow-er! for example, stands out, as does the Under the moonlight, The serious moonlight! There’s a gravel in Bowie’s voice here, a soulful edge that wasn’t present in any of this three earlier #1s. He sounds like he’s enjoying belting this out, reborn after the lost years of the late-seventies, but there’s also an edge to his voice you don’t often get in dance music.

There’s also some weirdness in the video, which features two Aboriginal Australians trying on the red shoes in the song, and being transported to a capitalist wonderland of jewellery shops and posh restaurants. In the end they smash the shoes, and dance their way back into the outback. I’m not sure the song needs such a statement video, and it perhaps stems from Bowie’s discomfort at releasing such a commercial record.

I fully admit to sometimes not getting David Bowie. I love his glam hits, and two of his three previous chart-toppers, ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Under Pressure’. (‘Ashes to Ashes’ was less of a smash with me.) But I get this one. What’s not to get? If anything, I’m properly realising just how great ‘Let’s Dance’ is, in all its funky glory. The funk here is brought by the song’s producer, Nile Rodgers. His influence is all over it, and not just in the fact he plays guitar on the recording. (The solo at the end, meanwhile, is performed by Stevie Ray Vaughan.) Bowie had written it as folk number, until Rodgers came along.

As great as it is, the success of ‘Let’s Dance’ sent David Bowie off course for the rest of the decade. He confessed that the MTV success of this single and the subsequent album, and the newer, younger fans that it brought him, left him unsure of his direction. But let’s not worry about that for now. In this moment, we can celebrate what is perhaps his ultimate singles chart moment, a good fifteen years into his career as a chart star.

That’s an interesting point. We’re right in the middle of a run of era-defining singles, that are launching the 1980s as we know it. But only really Duran Duran could be described as an ‘eighties’ act, and even they were several years into their career. Bowie, Michael Jackson and Bonnie Tyler were all seventies, if not sixties, veterans. But it is they who are at the forefront of this bright new era.

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15 thoughts on “519. ‘Let’s Dance’, by David Bowie

  1. I still find it very difficult to ‘get’ Bowie, and it never ceases to surprise me that sometimes when I discuss him with people who regard him as a veritable musical icon, most of them still seem to think that nearly all of what he did from ‘Young Americans’ onwards was pretty poor. I always thought ‘Fame’ appallingly overrated (for a record with John Lennon taking such a prominent role, I found it totally boring and a dismal waste of talent – give me Lennon’s duet with Elton on ‘Whatever Gets You Thru’ The Night’ any day). ‘Let’s Dance’ to me was disco with leaden boots on. Where’s the sparkle in it that lit up much of the Bee Gees’ best ‘Saturday Night Fever’-era work? When I started doing discos regularly around spring 1984 after having been out of them for about three years, I occasionally used to try and entice punters on the dance floor with this one but soon gave up – it didn’t float their boat at all. Michael Jackson yes, but when it came to Bowie, about the only one that ever got them up was ‘Jean Genie’, even if it was well over a decade old.

    • I don’t think I’m as down on him as you are… But I do get what you mean to an extent. I do think you can dance to this record, though. Maybe not at a wedding disco. Maybe more as a classic thrown on at an indie night in a student union…

  2. Its stompingly rock Chic, and brilliant, as is the album. Bowie felt ashamed to go so commercial – but he was the one who left RCA for a better financial deal, what was he expected to do – Tin Machine and commercial suicide! That was for later after EMI got at least some of the cash back. Plus Iggy Pop got a welcome China Girl co write dollop of cash after years of not selling. And Moroders Cat People got a revamp.

    The genius of Bowie is in his ability to reinvent, and not pander to expectations – Sparks have done the same over the course of a fab varied career. MTV was perfect for Bowie, he had always been a visual artist as much as a musical chameleon. Boys Keep Swinging start the video ball rolling nicely. Having dipped his toes in with space oddity, john im only dancing, life on mars.

    Me, i love most phases of Bowie, bar Tin Machine, happily rated Plastic soul and beyond as much as Ziggy. Re above comment Fame wasnt as good as Young Americans or Golden Years but it was still a good single. Not as good as 9 dream or stand by me if we are talking lennon 1975, but as a bit of funky fun its fine. Re dance music, lets dance doesnt really have the bpms to be a big club tune, its a rock stomp thudding thumping pop dance monster. A comparison to SNF is not really fair, dance music in 1983 was more underground than on fire, Boystown or IOU Freez or Eurodance, even Prince probably eould have cleared a dancefloor as he hadnt btoken through big yet, and jam and lewis were 3 years in the future, in 1978 disco was central to pop music and Bee Gees were the golden geese.

  3. My senior year. Great song. Danced to it many times. I always knew, though, that Bowie was not really doing the solo. My first time seeing the video, I thought “He plays guitar?” I knew about Space Oddity and some of his other stuff but, this song made me really take notice. The China Girl follow up was great, too.

    He is an odd, odd man but, talented.

    And, it’s a shame that Peter Schilling’s answer to Bowie didn’t chart well in the UK or the US. It was #1 in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the English version was #1 in Canada.

  4. Have you ever noticed in the 80s (all joking aside) that a lot of singers adopted a low baritone and monotone voice? I didn’t like that at all…one of the many strikes against the decade. On this one Bowie pulls it off here. Listen to a lot of 80s stuff and you will hear that.

    I did like this song but I liked the follow up song much more…Modern Love.
    But saying this…just to me…nothing he did lived up to Life On Mars and that era…but that is just my choice.

    • Yeah, I think I mentioned it in the Duran Duran post, that New Romantic way of phrasing everything… Though Bowie had always kind of had a clipped, upper-class delivery in his singing. He copied Anthony Newley as a kid, who had a couple of #1s way back in the early sixties.

      • It took hold with many bands… especially new wave British bands it seems.
        But this one I liked.

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  6. This is a fun classic with Nile Rodgers’ production and guitar playing from blues rock great Stevie Ray Vaughn alongside David Bowie. In the US, the Let’s Dance album is probably the biggest he ever was commercially with “Let’s Dance” being his only other #1 here after “Fame” in 1975 which shows that if he wanted to have hits in America, he needed to adapt to our dance music. “Let’s Dance” was also a hit again in the US around ’97/’98 when Puff Daddy used it for his #2 hit song “Been Around The World” with Mase and the Notorious B.I.G. (Not the only major hit from 1983 Puff Daddy would use for one of his big hits.)

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