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David Bowie - Let's Dance (1983)

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  • 80's score: 3.1

“Let’s Dance” is a song recorded by English singer-songwriter David Bowie, released as the title track of his 1983 album Let’s Dance. Written by Bowie and produced by Nile Rodgers of the band Chic, it was ...

“Let’s Dance” is a song recorded by English singer-songwriter David Bowie, released as the title track of his 1983 album Let’s Dance. Written by Bowie and produced by Nile Rodgers of the band Chic, it was released as the lead single from the album in March 1983 and went on to become one of his biggest-selling tracks. It was recorded in late 1982 at the Power Station in Manhattan and was the first song recorded for the album. The end of the song features a guitar solo by then-rising blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan.

The single was one of Bowie’s fastest-selling, entering the UK Singles Chart at No. 5 on its first week of release, staying at the top of the charts for three weeks. Soon afterwards, the single topped the Billboard Hot 100, becoming Bowie’s first (and only) single to top the charts in both the US and the UK. It was also his second and last single to reach No. 1 in the US. In Oceania, it narrowly missed topping the Australian charts, peaking at No. 2 for three weeks but topped the chart for 4 consecutive weeks in New Zealand. The single became one of the best selling of the year across North America, Central Europe and Oceania. It is one of the 300 best-selling UK singles of all time.

Music video

The music video (which uses the shorter single version) was made in March 1983 by David Mallet on location in Australia including a bar in Carinda in New South Wales and the Warrumbungle National Park near Coonabarabran. In the beginning, it featured Bowie with a double bass player inside the one-room pub at the Carinda Hotel and an Aboriginal couple ‘naturally’ dancing “to the song they’re playin’ on the radio”. The couple in this scene and in the whole video is played by Terry Roberts and Joelene King, two students from Sydney’s Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre. As Bowie opted for real people, some residents of the 194-souls village of Carinda are in the pub too, watching and mocking the couple. They do not understand who David is nor what the take is all about, hence their behaviour towards the couple as seen in the video is real.

The red shoes mentioned in the song’s lyrics appear in several contexts. The couple wanders solemnly through the outback with some other Aboriginal people, when the young woman finds a pair of mystical red pumps on a desert mountain and instantly learns to dance. Bowie’s calling ‘put on your red shoes’ recalls Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Red Shoes”, in which the little girl was vainly tempted to wear the shoes only to find they could not be removed, separating her from God’s grace – “let’s dance for fear your grace should fall” “The red shoes are a found symbol. They are the simplicity of the capitalist society and sort of striving for success – black music is all about ‘Put on your red shoes'”, as Bowie confirmed.

Soon, the couple is visiting museums, enjoying candlelit dinners and casually dropping credit cards, drunk on modernity and consumerism. During a stroll through an arcade of shops, the couple spots the same pair of red pumps for sale in a window display, their personal key to joy and freedom. They toss away the magic kicks in revulsion, stomping them into the dust and return to the mountains, taking one final look at the city they’ve left behind.

Bowie described this video (and the video for his subsequent single, “China Girl”) as “very simple, very direct” statements against racism and oppression, but also a very direct statement about integration of one culture with another.

Reception

“Let’s Dance” was described by Ed Power in the Irish Examiner as “a decent chunk of funk-rock”. Writing for the BBC, David Quantick said “the combination of Bowie and Rodgers on the title track was perfect – Bowie’s epic lyric about dancing under ‘serious moonlight’ and the brilliant filching of the crescendo ‘ahh!’s from the Beatles’ version of the Isley Brothers’ ‘Twist and Shout’ were masterstrokes, each welded to a loud, stadium-ised drum and bass sound”. In his retrospective review of the Let’s Dance album, Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic called the song, along with “Modern Love” and “China Girl”, a “catchy, accessible song that has just enough of an alien edge to make distinctive”. In his AllMusic review of the song, Dave Thompson writes, “[the song] is one of Bowie’s most overtly commercial compositions, further blessed by one of his most simplistic lyrics – the sociological content with which the song has historically been credited derives entirely from the accompanying video, as opposed to a lyric which does little more than repeat the title around scattered invocations of “serious moonlight” and scarlet footwear.”

The song introduced Bowie to a new, younger audience unaware of his 1970s work. Although the track was his most popular to date, its very success had the incongruous effect of distancing Bowie from his new fans, with Bowie saying he did not know who they were or what they wanted. His next two albums, made as an attempt to cater to his new-found audience, suffered creatively as a result and Bowie cited them as the albums he was least satisfied with in his career.