The Number Ones

The Number Ones: David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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David Bowie – “Let’s Dance”

HIT #1: May 21, 1983

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

In the ’80s, most of the baby boomer rock stars who’d come up in past decades were still trying to make versions of the bluesy rock that came naturally to them. They were doing what they could to keep up, feathering their hair and piling on the synths, but most of them were fundamentally unwilling to change the basic contours of their styles. David Bowie was different. There’s something beautifully perverse about Bowie coming back from a long period in the chart wilderness, hitting #1 with a single where he asks us to “dance the blues” to a song that — even with Stevie Ray Vaughan soloing all over it — sounds absolutely nothing like any conventional notion of “the blues.” But then, willful perversity was the David Bowie brand.

David Bowie’s second American #1 single came nearly eight years after his first, but it’s strikingly similar in both form and content. In 1975, Bowie shook off the glam-rock trappings of his immediate past and dove into American soul and club music, scoring a smash with the funky, sidelong banger “Fame.” In 1983, Bowie shook off the zonked-out ambient art-rock trappings of his immediate past and dove into American soul and club music, hitting #1 with another funky, sidelong banger. America, it seems, was only really into David Bowie when he was offering up his own takes on Black American dance music.

In the years between “Fame” and “Let’s Dance,” David Bowie only managed to get one single into the American top 10: 1975’s similarly funky “Golden Years,” the immediate follow-up to “Fame.” (“Golden Years” peaked at #10; it’s a 10.) But then, Bowie didn’t seem especially invested in the American pop charts. He had other things in mind. Over the next few years, Bowie starred in films: The Man Who Fell To Earth, The Hunger, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. He played the Elephant Man on Broadway. He produced the best Iggy Pop album. (He’d already produced the third-best Stooges album.) He sang a Christmas song with Bing Crosby on TV, and that song became a UK hit. He publicly flirted with fascism, and then he apologized for publicly flirting with fascism. He snorted vast, dangerous quantities of cocaine, and then he managed to kick that habit without dying.

More importantly, Bowie went on an aesthetic journey that had very little to do with pop music. First on 1976’s Station To Station and then on the triptych of Berlin albums that followed, Bowie got into noise and ambience and texture. Those albums are all justly revered as classics today, but they’re not pop music — or, if they are, they’re warped and distressed and thoroughly personal forms of pop music. While Bowie was off on this vision quest, things were happening. Bowie’s music never stopped selling in the UK, and during the twin earthquakes of punk and new wave, Bowie remained a kind of mass cult hero — the one idol that the younger generations were determined not to kill.

When Bowie turned his attention toward new wave on the 1980 album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), the UK responded enthusiastically, sending his “Space Oddity” sequel “Ashes To Ashes” to #1. In the US, things were tougher. Even with the mighty 1981 Queen collaboration “Under Pressure,” another UK chart-topper, Bowie only got as high as #29 in the US. (“Under Pressure” will eventually appear in this column in sampled form.) But when Bowie figured out how to update the plastic soul of his Young Americans days, young Americans listened.

It was a perfect convergence. Bowie met Chic’s Nile Rodgers at a New York after-hours nightclub in 1982. At the time, Chic were still going, but they were no longer a commercially relevant enterprise. Rodgers, however, had reinvented himself as a songwriter and producer, and he’d helped give Diana Ross a grand comeback with “Upside Down.” Just as Bowie’s new-romantic descendants were taking over MTV and attempting to discover funk, Bowie himself got together with a master of the form and made an album of spidery new-wave dance music that remains one of his finest pop statements.

Bowie invited Rodgers to his house in Switzerland, and the first song that they worked on together was “Let’s Dance,” the title track from Bowie’s 1983 album. Bowie played an early version of the song for Rodgers on an acoustic guitar and told Rodgers that he thought it was a hit. Rodgers was baffled; he later called that early attempt a “folk song.” So Rodgers reworked the song completely, switching up its key and transforming it into a high-stepping club music.

Working together with a group of musicians in New York at the end of 1982, Bowie and Rodgers put together a demo version that, heard today, sounds a whole lot like Chic. (Bowie didn’t tell Tony Visconti, his regular producer, that he was working with Rodgers; Visconti only found out after Bowie and Rodgers been in the studio together for weeks. Visconti didn’t work with Bowie again for decades afterwards.)

Rodgers didn’t want Bowie to get sucked into the anti-disco backlash, so he reworked that demo again, making it chunkier and simpler. Bowie, meanwhile, got in touch with Stevie Ray Vaughan, a Texan blues guitarist who’d blown him away at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982. Vaughan didn’t know anything about Bowie’s music, but he liked the guy, so he came in to play solos over a bunch of the songs on Let’s Dance. On the title track, Vaughan impressed Rodgers by mostly staying out of the way of the groove, keeping his solo firmly on-beat. Rodgers put his massive drum sound all over the final version of “Let’s Dance,” and Robert Aaron, a member of James Chance’s contortions, added discordant saxophone blats. I don’t know how the end result hangs together so well, but it really does.

“Let’s Dance” is some kind of miracle. The groove is slightly off-kilter, but it’s massive, too. Rodgers plays his echoing guitar upstrokes while a gigantic and goofy bassline murmurs beneath him. Bowie’s lyrics are an invitation to dance, but he declaims them in his most stentorian baritone. He make sure to hit his silliest, most overwritten lyrics hard — “the serious moonlight,” “tremble like a floowwwaaaah” — so that they sound meaningful. In the middle of it all, there are sudden moments — the “if you say run, I’ll run with you” parts — where the beat drops away to make room for triumphant heart-bursting melody. The song expertly walks the line between tension and release, between groove and transcendence.

The full eight-minute album version is spectacular, with its digital breakdown and its nattering congas and its screaming horns and its total dedication to the groove. But even in its trimmed-down single version, “Let’s Dance” takes all the things that Bowie’s younger peers were doing and blows them all the way out. Bowie and Rogers were an odd-couple combination in the best way, and they came together to make a slick, unlikely little epic.

Rodgers has said that Bowie’s lyrics are bittersweet — a metaphorical picture of people weaving lies together and trying to will away sadness. The video certainly seems more complicated than what the lyrics might suggest on paper. Director David Mallet shot the clip in the Australian outback, telling a story about a young Aboriginal couple who find a pair of red shoes, learn to dance suddenly, and find themselves sucked into a shallow capitalistic system. (The couple in the film came from an Australian dance company, and the other locals in that bar were making fun of them when they tried to dance. Mallet edited the locals’ mock dancing into the video.)

Bowie was trying to make a statement with that video — about racism, about capitalism, about the ways that cultures interact with each other. It’s a weird and messy video, and it’s probably mostly remembered for Bowie looking extremely sweaty and sexy in close-up and for Bowie miming out Vaughan’s guitar solo at the end. (Vaughan was justifiably furious about this.)

If Bowie was trying to make a larger point with “Let’s Dance,” the single or the video, then he may not have been entirely successful. But if “Let’s Dance” is just David Bowie singing about dancing, it’s still David Bowie singing about dancing — emerging from the aesthete zone of his Berlin era and making something just as weird that still successfully goes for the American pop jugular. Decades later, I’m still so happy it exists.

After Let’s Dance, Bowie tried to hang onto global pop stardom for a few more years, making increasingly dodgy ’80s records that didn’t hold a candle to “Let’s Dance.” Bowie scored a few more American top-10 hits, but he ended that run in 1985, when he and Mick Jagger came out with their famously maligned version of Martha And The Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street.” (Bowie and Jagger’s version of “Dancing In The Street” peaked at #7; it’s a 3. Martha And The Vandellas’ 1964 original peaked at #2; it’s a 9.)

Bowie came to detest the pop music that he made after Let’s Dance; he later said that it was his nadir. In the ’90s, Bowie went through a few resets, and he emerged as a globally beloved artistic hero, a position that he held for the rest of his life. When Bowie died of liver cancer early in 2016, a few days after his 69th birthday, he wasn’t remembered as someone who’d had a few big American hits in the ’70s and the ’80s. He was known as a titan, as one of the most pivotal figures in pop-music history. “Fame” and “Let’s Dance,” Bowie’s two big moments on the American charts, were brief, and they almost count as footnotes in a legendary career. But like so many other things that Bowie did, those two moments were transcendent.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s a really, really good video of Tina Turner and David Bowie singing Chris Montez’s 1962 single “Let’s Dance” and Bowie’s own “Let’s Dance” together at a Turner show in Birmingham in 1985:

(Chris Montez’s “Let’s Dance” peaked at #4. It’s a 7. Tina Turner will appear in this column before long.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: On Puff Daddy’s 1997 single “Been Around The World,” Puff, Mase, and the Notorious B.I.G. rapped over a sample of “Let’s Dance.” Here’s the song’s maximalist and ridiculous 10-minute action-movie video:

(“Been Around The World” peaked at #2. It’s a 5. Puff and Biggie will eventually appear in this column. Mase will be in the column, too, but only as a guest rapper. As lead artist, Mase’s highest-charting single is 1997’s “Feel So Good,” which peaked at #5. It’s an 8. Jennifer Lopez and Wyclef Jean, both of whom are in the “Been Around The World” video, will also appear in this column — though Wyclef, like Mase, will only appear as a guest rapper.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Let’s Dance” cover that jittery British post-punkers the Futureheads released in 2006:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Craig David sang over a “Let’s Dance” sample on his 2007 single “Hot Stuff (Let’s Dance),” a top-10 hit in the UK. Here’s the video:

(In the UK, Craig David has multiple #1 hits. In the US, though, David’s highest-charting single is 2000’s “7 Days,” which peaked at #10. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a grainy video of Prince and Nile Rodgers playing “Let’s Dance” together at the Essence Festival in 2014:

(Prince’s first moment in this column is coming up pretty soon.)

THE 10S: Prince’s eternally slinky lust-crisis anthem “Little Red Corvette” — the man’s first top-10 single — peaked at #6 behind “Let’s Dance.” A song like that should be in jail ’cause it’s on verge of being obscene. It’s a 10.