The Epic Track: “Let’s Dance”

David Bowie circa 1987 Courtesy of Getty Images

Editor’s Note: There are certain tracks that are, well, “epic” — memorable, larger than life, carved into music history. In this series, we look at one of them.


Saying that one of David Bowie’s albums doesn’t sound like another is like observing that their running times are different. It’s an accurate statement but misses the larger point. The notion of Bowie as an ever-changing musical chameleon was always somewhat overstated, but his creative restlessness ensured that even records from the same period made with the same core group of musicians still sound distinct from each other. However, even by that standard, 1983’s Let’s Dance
- both the album and its title track – represented a major break with his past work, with only the shift from Diamond Dogs’ Orwell-inspired glam rock to the “plastic soul” of Young Americans coming close.

The record began with a chance meeting. Following an incredible string of late-70s hits with Chic, in the early 80s Nile Rodgers turned his attention to producing other artists and his own solo album. Rodgers also enjoyed New York City’s nightlife, and while partying with Billy Idol, he saw David Bowie in a nightclub and introduced himself. 
A conversation about shared musical touchstones opened the door to a more formal meeting, which led to Bowie inviting him to work together.

The invitation meant a lot to Rodgers, who, despite his commercial success, felt creatively stifled by his association with disco. “I had been marginalized in the industry because of my participation in [the disco] genre,” he recalled in the liner notes to a 2018 re-release of Let’s Dance. “But David Bowie, this rock and roll superstar, not only treated me like an equal but created situations for me to expand my knowledge.”

Nevertheless, Rodgers was still surprised by the kind of collaboration Bowie had in mind. “I was thinking something along the lines of avant garde jazz. Then he says, ‘I want you to make a hit’.” The producer continued, “I told him the hitmaker Nile was a disco producer and begged him to just let me make a “cool” David Bowie record but he wanted a hit.”

Despite his star status, David Bowie’s commercial stature, at least outside of the UK, had been mixed. Before Let’s Dance, only three of his albums and two singles reached the US Top 10 (albeit one of those, “Fame,” hit #1). On a certain level, Let’s Dance seems a conscious effort to redress a balance that many fans might not have realized the existence of.

“Diehard Bowie fans act like these records of the ‘70s – Ziggy Stardust, Pin Ups, and the others – were these massive records, but they weren’t,” commented Rodgers in a 2018 article in Uncut. “The numbers tell the story. I know people who’d never heard of David Bowie, but when they heard the song “Let’s Dance” – boom! they went out and bought the record.”

Bowie approached Let’s Dance in a very deliberate fashion. which included keeping record companies out of the process. The fanfare that surrounded signing a $17m multi-album deal with EMI in 1983 obscures how much that windfall resulted from betting on himself by paying for the record’s production out of his own pocket when he was between contracts.

By rock star standards, the recording sessions at The Power Station in New York were remarkably efficient. Lead vocals for five of the eight songs were completed in a single day, and the majority of the instrumental solos were done on another. This focus enabled the album to be finished in just 17 days spanning December 1982 to January 1983. This was all the more impressive because it wasn’t just a new producer for Bowie but also a new band.

The work that truly defined the album, though, started well before those sessions, when Bowie was still writing songs for the record. David Bowie recorded demos throughout his career, but on Let’s Dance these early iterations were critical to defining its identity, especially the title track. The composition Bowie first shared with Nile Rodgers while they were working at his home in Montreux, Switzerland was a folky piece, played on a 12-string guitar with only six strings. Despite the singer’s assurance that he thought the song could be a hit, Rodgers was unsure how to proceed.

Wondering whether Bowie might be testing him to see if he was willing to take an artistic stand, the producer talked to some of the singer’s friends. After they assured him that Bowie’s conviction about the song’s potential was genuine, Rodgers pondered the next step. The answer came from considering the musical possibilities. “I thought about how much David loved jazz, so I totally changed the inversion and replaced the
chords he had done, which were very Guitar 101 to me, with jazzier ones,” he wrote in 2018.

From there, Rodgers recruited musicians to record a demo based on his charts. This included multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay, who went on to work with Bowie on several projects through the mid-90s. In a novel twist, the producer had Bowie sing the lyrics in the same style he initially played them, reasoning that, “He thought they were a hit, so I wanted him to sing them that way.”

In this respect, Rodgers may have tapped into Bowie’s own mindset about the lyrics. In an interview from this period, excerpted in the 2013 BBC documentary Five Years, the singer commented, “In terms of lyric, I’ve tried to keep it simple as anything that I’ve written before. I’m trying to write in a more obvious and positive manner than I’ve written in a long time.”

“If you listen to the [demo] recording of the first time we played it through, you can hear it working,” commented Rodgers. “David Richards, Queen’s engineer, reminded me we recorded the demos of the entire album in two days, but I only remember making ‘Let’s Dance’ because that was my big experiment.”

Beyond being a massive hit – topping the singles charts in more than 
a dozen countries – the song encapsulated the fusion of Bowie’s and Rodgers’ approaches, sharing the same wavelength on musical elements such as horn parts inspired by the theme to the TV series Peter Gunn and especially the lead guitar.

While most of the musicians on “Let’s Dance” were brought in by Nile Rodgers, guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan reflected David Bowie’s eye for talent. Bowie asked Vaughan to play on the record after seeing the guitarist perform at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival. “At Montreux, he said something about being in touch then tracked me down in California, months and months later,” said the guitarist in Musician magazine. “It was the most fun I’ve had in my life. David works quickly because he knows exactly what he wants.” Though plans for Vaughan to play on the subsequent Serious Moonlight Tour fell apart, his playing on the record remains a highlight, with his blues-oriented contributions perfectly complementing its funk elements.

Let’s Dance – both the song and album – reflected a different mindset from David Bowie than the more experimental albums that preceded it, but this didn’t mean he saw it as ephemeral. In an interview with Bowie biographer Dylan Jones, Nile Rodgers recounted the singer’s novel way of conveying this.

“He showed me a picture of Little Richard wearing a red suit and getting into a red Cadillac. And he said, ‘Nile darling, I want the album to sound like this.’ I saw the picture and I thought to myself, I get it. This picture looked like it could be from the future, but I knew it was from the past. I realized as soon as I saw the photo that he wanted a record that was evergreen, that would sound like a band could come out with it now and it still sound contemporary.”

Reviews of Let’s Dance were mixed, but its popular success arguably validated Bowie’s approach. As a reviewer for Trouser Press noted. “‘Let’s Dance,’ ‘Modern Love,’ and ‘China Girl’ may not be the Thin White Duke’s finest creations, but they do hit a solid compromise between art and commerce, and don’t harm his reputation meanly as much as expand his audience (and bank balance).”

The mixed reviews found an analog in the artist’s own mixed feelings about what he later referred to as his “Phil Collins years.” “Let’s Dance was way bigger than he expected it to be,” Carlos Alomar recalled in a 2018 article about this period. “And then there’s this sort of success remorse that goes on when you are accustomed to being eclectic and cool and underground.”

Whatever his reservations about that part of his career, David Bowie clearly retained some fondness for “Let’s Dance.” Though he didn’t play the song live for a decade after the 1990 Sound + Vision Tour, the singer resurrected it for the 2000 Glastonbury Festival and periodically played it on the tours that followed, including one of the last US shows of his final tour in June 2004.

-Don Klees

Photo: Getty Images

3 comments on “The Epic Track: “Let’s Dance”

  1. Eoghan Lyng

    Nice work, Don.

  2. Thank you.

  3. Ellen Fagan

    Stellar piece, Don! Fascinating backstory to one of those albums that instantly conjures up my to vibe-y college years.

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