Let's Dance is the fifteenth studio album by David Bowie. It was originally released in April 1983, three years after his previous album, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Co-produced by Chic's Nile Rodgers, the album contains three of his most successful singles; the title track, "Let's Dance", which reached No. 1 in the UK, US and various other countries, as well as "Modern Love" and "China Girl", which both reached No. 2 in the UK. "China Girl" was a new version of a song which Bowie had co-written with Iggy Pop for the latter's 1977 album The Idiot. It also contains a re-recorded version of the song "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)", which had been a minor hit for Bowie a year earlier.
Let's Dance was nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy Award in 1984 but lost to Michael Jackson's Thriller. It has sold 10.7 million copies worldwide, making it Bowie's best-selling album. It is Bowie's eighteenth official album release since his debut in 1967, including two live albums, one covers album (Pin Ups, 1973), and a collaboration with the Philadelphia Orchestra (1977). At one point Bowie described the album as "a rediscovery of white-English-ex-art-school-student-meets-black-American-funk, a refocusing of Young Americans". Let's Dance was also a stepping stone for the career of the Texas blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who played on it. The album was released as a limited edition picture disc in 1983.
Critical reviews for Let's Dance as an album have been mixed, although Rolling Stone later described it as "the conclusion of arguably the greatest 14-year run in rock history". Bowie felt he had to continue to pander to the new mass audience he acquired with the album, which led to him releasing two further solo albums in 1984 and 1987 which, despite their relative commercial success, did not sell as well as Let's Dance, were poorly received by critics at the time and subsequently dismissed by Bowie himself as his "Phil Collins years". Bowie would form the hard rock and grunge-predecessor band Tin Machine in 1989 in an effort to rejuvenate himself artistically.
David Bowie had planned to use producer Tony Visconti on the album, as the two had worked together on Bowie's previous four studio albums. However, he chose Nile Rodgers for the project, a move that came as a surprise to Visconti, who had set time aside to work on Let's Dance. Visconti called [Bowie's personal assistant] Coco and she said: "Well, you might as well know – he's been in the studio for the past two weeks with someone else. It's working out well and we won't be needing you. He's very sorry." The move damaged the two men's relationship and Visconti did not work with Bowie again for nearly 20 years (until 2002's Heathen). Rodgers later recalled that Bowie approached him to produce his album so that Bowie could have hit singles. Rodgers reported that Bowie came into his apartment one day and showed him a photograph of Little Richard in a red suit getting into a bright red Cadillac, saying "Nile, darling, that's what I want my album to sound like."
Bowie, having left RCA Records, had just signed with EMI Records for a reported $17.5 million and was working with Rodgers to release a "commercially buoyant" album that was described as "original party-funk cum big bass drum sound greater than the sum of its influences." The album's influences were described as Louis Jordan, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Bill Doggett, Earl Bostic and James Brown. Bowie spent three days making demos for the album in New York before cutting the album, a rarity for Bowie who, for the previous few albums, usually showed up with little more than "a few ideas." Despite this, the album "was recorded, start to finish, including mixing, in 17 days," according to Rodgers.
Stevie Ray Vaughan met Bowie at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. After Vaughan's performance, Bowie was so impressed with the guitarist he later said "[he] completely floored me. I probably hadn't been so gung-ho about a guitar player since seeing Jeff Beck with his band the Tridents." Of Bowie, Vaughan said, "to tell you the truth, I was not very familiar with David's music when he asked me to play on the sessions. ... David and I talked for hours and hours about our (Double Trouble's) music, about funky Texas blues and its roots – I was amazed at how interested he was. At Montreux, he said something about being in touch and then tracked me down in California, months and months later." In a contemporary interview, Vaughan described the recording sessions for the album:
David Bowie is real easy to work with. He knows what he's doing in the studio and he doesn't mess around. He comes right in and goes to work. Most of the time, David did the vocals and then I played my parts. A lot of the time, he just wanted me to cut loose. He'd give his opinion on the stuff he liked and the stuff that needed work. Almost everything was cut in one or two takes. I think there was only one thing that needed three takes.
Unusually, Bowie played no instruments on the album. "I don't play a damned thing. This was a singer's album."
A few years later, Bowie discussed his feelings on the track "Ricochet" (which Musician magazine called an "incendiary ballroom raveup") from this album:
I thought it was a great song, and the beat wasn't quite right. It didn't roll the way it should have, the syncopation was wrong. It had an ungainly gait; it should have flowed. ... Nile [Rodgers] did his own thing to it, but it wasn't quite what I'd had in mind when I wrote the thing.
Bowie later described the title track the same way: the original demo was "totally different" from the way that Nile arranged it. Bowie played an early demo of the song for Nile Rodgers on a 12-string guitar with only 6 strings strung, and said to Nile, "Nile darling, I think I have a song which feels like it's a hit." Nile then took the chords (which he said "felt folksy") and helped craft them into the version used in the final production of the song.
Long-time collaborator Carlos Alomar, who had worked with Bowie since the mid-1970s and would continue to work with Bowie into the mid-1990s, has claimed was offered an "embarrassing" fee to play on the album and refused to do so. He also said (when working on Bowie's follow-up album, Tonight) that he did not play on Let's Dance because Bowie only gave him two weeks' notice and he was already booked with other work; however, Alomar did play on the accompanying tour.
The album was seen as a commercial and critical success by professional critics, though opinions varied on the artistic content; while one reviewer called it "Bowie at his best", another felt it "perfunctory" and "pointless". In a piece on Bowie for Time in July 1983, Jay Cocks described the album as "unabashedly commercial, melodically alliterative and lyrically smart at the same time". Robert Christgau felt that it had a "perfunctory professional surface", and that other than "Modern Love", which was "interesting", the album was "pleasantly pointless". Ken Tucker, in a review for Rolling Stone, felt the album sounded great, with an intelligent simplicity and a "surface beauty", but that the album as a whole was "thin and niggling", other than "Modern Love," "Without You" and "Shake It", which offered "some of the most daring songwriting of Bowie's career".
In a retrospective review for AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine felt that the album's three hit singles were catchy yet distinctive pop songs, while the rest of the album was "unremarkable plastic soul" indicative of Bowie "entering a songwriting slump". Ed Power of the Irish Examiner wrote that Bowie "pleaded shamelessly for the love of the mass market" with the album. He continued "... the title track was a decent chunk of funk-rock and Bowie did not embarrass himself on the single 'China Girl'. Otherwise, the record had a great deal in common with Wham! and Phil Collins." The BBC's David Quantick praised the "perfect" combination of Bowie and Rodgers on the title track, the "sweet, romantic" rendition of "China Girl" and highlighted "Criminal World" as "one of the best songs". He stated "Let's Dance may have had a ground-breaking sound and a popularity that Bowie clearly ached for, but it's often a mundane album, as songs like 'Ricochet' and 'Shake It' mark time". He said the album was "literally the template for 80s Bowie – blonde, suited and smiling".
Writing for The Guardian in 2014, Jeremy Allen stated that Let's Dance had "spent time in the wilderness, rejected by many because of its 80s production values", but he added that "a reappraisal was all but inevitable and has coincided with a renaissance in Rodgers' career and an outpouring of love for the unprecedentedly successful producer/guitarist." The chief rock and pop critic of The Guardian, Alexis Petridis, acknowledged in his retrospective review of Bowie's career in 2016 that Let's Dance "had its moments", unlike its successor, Tonight.
In 1989, the album was ranked number 83 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "100 Best Albums of the Eighties". In 2013, NME ranked Let's Dance at number 296 in its list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Although Bowie had charged producer Nile Rodgers with making hits for him, Bowie would later say "at the time, Let's Dance was not mainstream. It was virtually a new kind of hybrid, using blues-rock guitar against a dance format. There wasn't anything else that really quite sounded like that at the time. So it only seems commercial in hindsight because it sold so many [copies]. It was great in its way, but it put me in a real corner in that it fucked with my integrity." Bowie recalled, "[It] was a good record, but it was only meant as a one-off project. I had every intention of continuing to do some unusual material after that. But the success of that record really forced me, in a way, to continue the beast. It was my own doing, of course, but I felt, after a few years, that I had gotten stuck."
Bowie would later state that the success of the album caused him to hit a creative low point in his career which lasted the next few years. "I remember looking out over these waves of people [who were coming to hear this record played live] and thinking, 'I wonder how many Velvet Underground albums these people have in their record collections?' I suddenly felt very apart from my audience. And it was depressing, because I didn't know what they wanted." After his follow-up albums Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987) were critically dismissed, Bowie formed the grunge-precursor band Tin Machine in an effort to regain his artistic vision.
All songs written by David Bowie, except where noted.
In 1995 Virgin Records re-released the album on CD with "Under Pressure" as a bonus track. EMI did the second re-release in 1999 (featuring 24-bit digitally remastered sound and no bonus tracks).
In 1998 there was a reissue in the UK which was similar to the 1995 re-release but did not include the bonus track.
The Canadian version of the 1999 EMI release includes a data track, so that when the CD is loaded on a Windows PC, the user is presented with a promotion of internet access services and other premium content from the davidbowie.com website. This marks one of the earliest attempts by a mainstream artist to combine internet and normal promotion and distribution methods.
There was a further reissue in 2003 when EMI released the album as a hybrid stereo SACD/PCM CD.
Credits are adapted from the album's liner notes.David Bowie – lead vocals; horn arrangements
Nile Rodgers – guitar; horn arrangements
Stevie Ray Vaughan – lead guitar
Carmine Rojas – bass guitar
Omar Hakim – drums
Tony Thompson – drums
Rob Sabino – keyboards
Stan Harrison – tenor saxophone; flute
Robert Aaron – tenor saxophone
Steve Elson – baritone saxophone; flute
Mac Gollehon – trumpet
Sammy Figueroa – percussion
Frank Simms – backing vocals
George Simms – backing vocals
David Spinner – backing vocals
Bernard Edwards – bass guitar on "Without You"
David Bowie – producer; engineer; mixing
Nile Rodgers – producer; engineer; mixing
Bob Clearmountain – engineer; mixing
Bob Ludwig – mastering