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.