Stan Deely on Lets Dance
April 1983. A new contract with EMI and his first album in nearly 3 years. I am quite well informed about this album, having read various books (Buckley, Doggett, Trynka and others) as well as the Uncut, Mojo Bowie album magazine specials and know half the songs quite well due to their ubiquity at the time and their continued presence on generic dull format radio stations.
However, I haven’t actually listened the album in full more than on a couple of occasions and certainly not in the last 35 years. I am attempting a ‘blind’ review and to review track by track. I will try to be objective and not too opinionated at this stage, although it may be a struggle to stop prejudices from 40 years ago coming in. Hopefully the review will invite some comment and debate. I might then follow up by doing a bit of research, throwing in a few facts, theories and comments – or not. Not sure what my method will be on future releases but that’s the plan for Lets Dance.
Welcome to the new decade and a new Bowie, powder blue and coiffured with a blowy Blonde hairdo that puts me in mind of a Yorkshire terrrier. The productions is very 1980’s featuring the loud gated synthetic drum sound that arguable Bowie set the template for on Low. An up-beat pop song for an opener. Lots of keyboards, a horn section and doo wop style backing vocals. It brings me in mind of those latter day rock’n’roll tunes on the American Graffiti soundtrack updated with an 80’s production. Its what we now call a ‘ banger.’ Simple, hooky, memorable and catchy. As a statement of intent its quite impressive but as a song I find it a bit formulaic and a bit characterless.
Second single from the album and a Number 2 chart hit, propelled there by a ‘controversial’ video. The Iggy Pop version is for me a standout track on one of the best albums ever so I need to try to transcend the slight horror I felt on first hearing this.
Its another pop song replacing Iggy’s swampy reverby sound with a clean production and well enunciated almost operatic vocals. Whilst Iggy’s version is murky and plodding (in a good way) Bowie’s is quite sprightly which doesn’t quite suit the doomed, nihilistic lyrics. It features a guitar solo – the first appearance of blues wunderkind Stevie Ray Vaughn in an ‘Eric Clapton goes a little bit Hendrix’ style which gives a sense of Oblique Strategies/kitchen sink/shit at a wall approach. I don’t mind hearing this on the radio but when actually giving it my attention I remain baffled by his approach and what he was trying to achieve.
Bowie’s best known song? Number one for about a month in the spring of 1983. Its another weird combination of disparate elements. The verse with its almost turgid late period Chic rhythm and jazzy funk chords overlaid by the now familiar Bowie croon, then switching into a more straightforward pre chorus second verse and the uplifting Twist and Shout homage/steal. The backing vocals are a bit cheesy but for me Bowies vocal makes the song, giving it his best histrionic/tender Heroes croon. The album version carries on for a full seven minutes and has a bit of an Aladdin Sane on horns wig out feel. A kind of glorious mess. One of the weirdest number one hit singles ever? Or was Ashes to Ashes weirder?
After three belters in a row he dials it down. It puts me in mind of the souly, understated torch songs of Station to Station. Nice keyboards and relatively understated guitar. I’m liking this. Almost like a gentler Depeche Mode, 3 minutes and it’s over. I think it’s rather lovely in an unassuming way and dare, I say it, possibly my favourite track on the album. The vocal works well, managing the trick he seemed to pull off quite often of being both understated and showy.
Opening like something off of Heroes using the patented operatic Cockney declamatory croon he developed around that time. This comes on like a total mish mash of three or four totally disconnected songs, jumping from one to another in a kind of crazy cut up style. Its a bit like all the styles of Lodger showcased in five minutes. Is it art rock or a ‘Will this do?’ mash up of various offcuts and riffs. I’m reminded of his imitators and successors. I’m hearing 1981 Brit Funk and the Clash amongst others there. Ends with a bit of a horn and guitar work out. I’m still a bit confused by this one, nice bits and catchy but doesn’t really hang together. I wonder what the casual record buyer of 1983 made of this? I’m guessing side two didn’t get played half as much as side one.
An obscure cover of the band Metro (No, me, neither!) from 1978. With its pretty generic 80’s production it comes on like those American rock bands that were trying to stay hip to the modern new wave music at the time. I’m thinking of the Cars or Foreigner produced by Thomas Dolby (Yes it happened). Like an anaemic update of the Motown sound it’s not unpleasant but a little bland and non-descript. Once again the word polite comes to mind with Bowie giving a more restrained vocal delivery than usual. To me, it sounds like a prototype for the sound and production style that Nile Rodgers would use to conquer the world with Madonna’s Like a Virgin album.
Arguably a cover as its Bowie’s words to Giorgio Moroder’s music. I reckon the melody is Bowies as it features some of his tropes but its quite rocky or for him, more so than the single version released the year before. I’m in mind of Foreigner again and its also got Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar all over it. Starting off with another Motownesque intro it then becomes a generic rock song tamed by a pop production. It aims for epic but to me feels empty. I can’t say the guitar does anything much for me. I don’t really get ‘tasteful’ blues guitar having always preferred Andy Gill to Eric Clapton.
On a sidebar, it makes you wonder what Bowie could have come up had he hooked up with some of the younger more edgy bands around at the time. Human League? Gang of Four? After all he was a fan of the Mekons! And on this subject can I point you in the direction of Mick Ronson’s cover of the Johnny Moped song ‘Darling Let’s Have Another Baby’ and no I’m not hallucinating – check it out on YouTube.
This comes on as Lets Dance part two. Mid paced rhythm,jazz funk chording and what sounds like female backing vocals although as far as I can make out, only male vocalists are credited on the sleeve. It appears to be a song about chatting up girls to make oneself feel alive and banish the blues. Pretty throwaway, quite oddball and ending the album on a “Will this do?” “WTF” “Is that it?” kind of vibe. Which I find quite endearing.
For me at the time, familiar with Bowie’s singles and most of the albums up to Low, this album or at least the singles and the image that went with it seemed like a massive sell-out and it pained me that Bowie who was my hero 1972 – 1975 (when he started changing a bit fast for this 11 year old to keep up with) had found his largest audience with lesser quality music ie ‘I prefer the early work’ syndrome.
Nowadays with hindsight and trying to be objective, it strikes me as an unevenly paced album with all the banger/singles on side one and side two relatively subdued. If he had put Cat People on side one and moved Without You to side two we could have had an extrovert/introvert split album in the style of Low and Heroes.
Hindsight and now being familiar with the 1976 – 1980 albums also makes me to realise just what an experimental and revolutionary genius he was at this time and there could be an argument made for this record as an almost logical next step on that trajectory.
I could say more about my history with Bowie, pop theories etc but I’ve got the next 12 months for all that so I invite your thoughts on the album. Selling out big time or sneaking art rock/pop into the mainstream?