Saturday 11 January 2014

David BOWIE: Let's Dance

(#280: 23 April 1983, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Modern Love/China Girl/Let’s Dance/Without You/Ricochet/Criminal World/Cat People (Putting Out Fire)/Shake It

“That's what the kid standing behind us in line was saying as the rioters who got a fin apiece from manager Tony De Fries came storming across the street at the door for the third time: 'I like Bowie's music, but I don't like his personality. He's too weird.' He went on to say that he wanted to buy a copy of The New York Dolls album but didn't because he was afraid somebody would see the cover lying around the house and get the wrong idea. He, like most of this audience, leaned much farther to denims than glitter. In fact, they were downright shabby. In the traditional sense.”
(Lester Bangs, “Johnny Ray’s Better Whirlpool,” Creem, January 1975)

“I want something now that makes a statement in a more universal, international field.”
(David Bowie, interviewed by David Thomas, The FACE No 37, May 1983)

It was Friday 1 July 1983, it was the Milton Keynes Bowl, and it was bloody, stuffily hot. Towards the end of my second year at university many of my peers, who even at that age should really have known better, spoke with excited worshipfulness of attending this concert, seeing this man. I paid for two tickets so knew no better myself. The support acts were, in order of appearance, The Beat (nearing the end of their life) and Icehouse, and nobody really paid either any attention.

Then, after an interval, a man calling himself David Bowie bounded on stage, though looked more like Beckenham’s Young Businessman Of The Year David Jones (36), in a ludicrous carrot-top bouffant, smart suit and no tie (he reminded me of a glam Alexander Walker). He launched into “The Jean Genie” and things were all right, even if it didn’t really sound like the “Jean Genie” of ten years previous, and all that that had implied. He was playing to the smugly happy Thatcher generation – all right, it was my generation, although there were still a few stalwart hippies and bikers to be found amongst the suffocating crowd, people who just about remembered what a “free festival” had been – and it did its work; the hero of their younger years, but without all that problematic weirdness, cleaned up, efficient and ready for the enterprising eighties (there was no “Sound And Vision,” although he did do both “Breaking Glass” and “What In The World”). I should have known from the accompanying album and not risked the searing disappointment.

Everybody knows that “Bowie” self-destructed with Scary Monsters, or rather Lennon got shot, which for Bowie amounted to much the same thing; he surrounded himself with high-level security and largely retreated to Switzerland for the best part of two years, in great part to look after his son (the young Duncan Jones, who in 1983 would have been twelve). While there he proceeded to disengage himself messily from RCA and MainMan management, eventually signing a contract with EMI which some said awarded him $17.5 million.

But he continued to travel, not quite as much as he sometimes claimed, but enough to place him in a New York nightclub somewhere in the second half of 1982 where Billy Idol, who may or may not have been drunk, may or may not have introduced him to Nile Rodgers. The days of Chic domination were already a couple of years in the past; Rodgers was not quite the force that he had been (although Chic themselves continued to release excellent, if unsold, albums until they split in 1983) and was no doubt flattered by Bowie’s expressed wish to work with him, even if he was to be disappointed that Bowie did not want him to produce something darkly experimental, but rather give him hits, get him back on the radio in America where he was largely regarded as a seventies one-hit disco wonder. Do something for the Kansas farmers.

The generation of Let’s Dance itself was swift if no less messy. The entire album, according to Rodgers, was recorded and mixed in something like seventeen days, during December 1982. People who had known Bowie before were also to be let down. Tony Visconti had cleared time in his diary to work on the album, only to be told that Rodgers had already been at work in the Power Station for a fortnight; affronted, he did not speak to or work with Bowie again for almost twenty years. Carlos Alomar was asked to provide guitar but offered only a scale fee; Alomar told Bowie’s people what they could do with his scale fee and consequently does not appear on the record (though was certainly onstage, along with old sparring partner Earl Slick, at Milton Keynes). Instead Stevie Ray Vaughan, who had chatted with Bowie at that summer’s Montreux Jazz Festival, was brought in, and almost immediately boxed in; kept on a leash for much of the album, he did seem to have as deep and instinctive an understanding of Bowie’s music as any guitarist since Mick Ronson when given the opportunity to prove it (as on both “China Girl” and the title track; Lena describes his work on the album as being “like homemade icing on a boxed cake”). This was more than could be said for a largely bemused Rodgers, who spent hours at a time in the studio working up grooves in an effort to approximate what he thought Bowie wanted. It was therefore not surprising that the end result sounded rushed, hasty and a lot shorter than its allotted thirty-nine minutes; in his review of the album in The FACE, Paul Rambali remarked that “this is music in a hurry, bustling, eager, not caring to be definitive.”

But the record did the job that Bowie had intended it to do; the title track was the biggest single of his career, the album restored him to the upper reaches of the Billboard Top 200 and overall sold some seven million worldwide. The man without whom, it was felt, neither New Romanticism or New Pop would have existed – “the granddaddy of them all,” as a rather dejected Dave Rimmer observed in Like Punk Never Happened – was back to prove who was boss, even if it was hard for him to demonstrate how he had got to be boss in the first place.

For I suspect Bowie viewed, and for all I know continues to view, pop music as something curled up in the corner of the living room, or squatting by a fire hydrant – a snake or a sedative. I think that in 1983 he was much more interested in acting than he was in being a musician or a pop star; whether it’s as a vampire, or Brecht’s Baal silently dining on vulture soup, or a prisoner of war in a Japanese WW2 camp, there is a commitment in his work – even if the acting itself isn’t very good – which contrasts sharply with his early eighties attitude to music.

What I am working up to here is that Let’s Dance, the album, is a disgrace, one of the laziest and most contemptuous records ever released by a major rock performer. Its eight songs whizz by in an uninteresting and uninvolving blur and commit to nothing except Bowie’s need to be David Bowie for another year. Never mind Elvis squatting in the dark – “Aw shit, I might as well sing sittin’ down as standin’ up” – or Dylan at the Free Trade Hall; it’s a surprise that nobody in the crowd at Milton Keynes shouted out “JUDAS!,” and unutterably depressing that nobody in the crowd at Milton Keynes felt the remotest need to do so.

Why this pallid sketchbook of half-baked songs and winsome cover versions, or recyclings? Did Bowie, like Elvis, think that his talent was wasted on the public, that Joe Kansas Farmer would lap up any old shit by him if it sounded good on his rollerskate Walkman? It was almost enough to make one question whether he had meant anything he’d written or done or sung or played in the seventies. I have to say that I did and do not think much of the whole Ziggy Stardust thing (and Let’s Dance was easily Bowie’s worst album since 1972); whereas Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane are exciting, inventive and genuinely disturbing pieces of work, it may well be that I was four or five years too young, or too old, to appreciate the alleged opening of floodgates that Ziggy was said to represent. All I hear in its grooves are undercooked rockers and bathetic, hammy ballads with an overall air of a secondary school rock opera. Even at eight I had no time for the flaccid nursery rhyme that was “Starman,” despite the 250 million people said to have watched him perform it on Top Of The Pops on 6 July 1972. I myself watched that show in a boarding house in Blackpool, where we were on holiday – it was a lousy summer that year – and don’t remember much about it other than laughing nervously at a film clip of Dr Hook performing “Sylvia’s Mother.” The song had entered the Top 30 at #29, and if everyone who said they had watched the performance and it changed their lives had actually gone out and bought the single as a result of watching it, it would have rocketed to number one the following week. In actual fact it climbed nine places to #20 and continued to climb unspectacularly for another couple of weeks, peaking at #10. The number one song at the time was “Puppy Love” by Donny Osmond.

The song and TOTP performance from that month which I do remember vividly, and which caused a much greater controversy than Bowie putting his arm around Ronson’s shoulder – and which may even have appeared on the following week’s episode – was Alice Cooper, with children’s choir and fish-eye camera lens, doing “School’s Out,” and that shot to number one within the month and provoked questions in Parliament. So I am sceptical of the “phenomenon” status of Ziggy Stardust, but have to admit that even in things like “Five Years,” Bowie is playing his role with detail and economy. I can see why some people might have been affected by the record.

Move forward a decade, however, and that detail and economy have gone, to be replaced by roughly nailed carbon-copied sketches; Bowie is simply not paying attention to the mechanics of his music any longer. Like Peter Sellers, the closely observed portraits, the detailed character studies, even the inhabitation of characters of which Bowie was once capable were superseded by one-size-fits-all blandness; Let’s Dance is the beginning of Bowie’s Pink Panther phase, the start of his descent into the pop equivalent of international cops n’ robbers capers.

If that sounds overstated, consider the ludicrous arrangement of “China Girl”; originally recorded by Iggy Pop (with Bowie both playing and producing) in 1977, it is a tortured, fuzzy portrait of exploitation and ruination (“I’ll ruin everything you are”) by a man clearly at the end of his tether. We hear the rinky-dink chopsticks guitar intro and asinine backing vocals which begin Bowie’s reading and half expect a gong to sound and Burt Kwouk to emerge. There is pain and discontent – Bowie is not entirely unaware of the degradation which he is causing as the song progresses, and Robert Sabino’s icy one-note descending synthesiser figures suggest imminent apocalypse. And yet Bowie cannot decide whether he wants to be Iggy or Billy MacKenzie or even Mick Jagger (“She says: shhhhhh”) and so offers us fragmentary reminders of all three. Meanwhile, the Chic rhythm section (almost: one Carmine Rojas plays bass on seven of the album’s eight songs) strut warily as though getting ready for “Material Girl.” As a single, it was kept off number one in the UK only by “Every Breath You Take.”

And despite Bowie’s avowed intention behind the cover – mainly to raise some much-needed funds for the near-broke and wrecked Iggy Pop of the first half of the eighties – it is true that the success of Let’s Dance signalled to a lot of other pre-New Pop, and for that matter pre-punk, figures that it was possible to return with a modern-sounding sheen and sound up to the minute. Yet the title track does little other than hark back to the past, with its title (Chris Montez), its introduction (“Twist And Shout”), its middle eight (with its intimations of “Tired Of Waiting For You”), its horn charts (“Peter Gunn”), its guitar solos (Vaughan unconsciously echoing memories of Blues Incorporated and the early days of Mod) and even  its hesitant nods to free jazz (Mac Gollehon’s modulated trumpet, the tenor/baritone sax duel between, I assume, Stan Harrison and Steve Elson, both of which hark back to late sixties/early seventies practices in European jazz and improvised music). It is said that originally the song took the form of a folksy acoustic lament, and that makes a lot of sense – done that way, it might have proved a soliloquy or lament worthy to stand beside “Wild Is The Wind,” something of which the Bowie of 1983 was certainly still capable.

As a statement of intent or declaration of principles, Let’s Dance resembled Penthouse And Pavement with scant evidence of pavement. Its mission was to Make It Big at all costs, including those of art; Bob Clearmountain’s mix allows no subtlety to pollute its affluent 25-lane highway of enterprise – all potential detouring elements, from Stan Harrison’s free-jazz saxes to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s gamma rays of blues guitar, are cut and pasted onto the template, are neutralised.

The “Twist And Shout” quotes at the beginning and the nod to “Tired Of Waiting For You” in the title track’s middle eight also suggest a ceremonial burial of all that the sixties stood for (if anything), this particular sixties survivor having matured, grown up and prospered, putting away childish things like subversion or adventure. There are those hushed sighs of dread in the second verse – “for fear your grace should fall,” “for fear tonight is all” – which do put the song several leagues above drivel like “Is There Something I Should Know?” even if one senses a dread of Billy MacKenzie in Bowie’s trembling tenor (Fourth Drawer Down and Sulk are the kind of “pop” records a hungrier Bowie and sterner Eno might have gone on to make, though Eno arguably transplanted the Berlin heart of Bowie into the Lower East Side soul of David Byrne – Remain In Light and Bush Of Ghosts really are everything that post-1980 Bowie isn’t, or couldn’t be). It’s still five years until the end of the world (“Because my love for you/Would break my heart in two,” the controlled shriek on the “flower” of “tremble like a flower”) but now, unlike Ziggy, the lease is renewable (and as for the video, what do Australia, or upright basses, or Aborigines observing far-off nuclear explosions, mean at all in this context?).

And that seems to sum up the problem of eighties Bowie for me; the magnification of his less attractive factors which had always been present, even at his seventies peak, notably the avoidance of direct engagement and the smouldering contempt for Other People. That is why Low is his masterpiece; he can disappear into the music completely and yet still summon up all his demons of emptiness in the still shocking (because so rarely revealed) open vulnerability of “Be My Wife,” a song as central to any understanding of Bowie as “Madame George” is to Van Morrison, since the rest of his career could be said to consist of running as far away from that vulnerability as his accountants can manage – its equivalent on this record is “Without You,” the only song to feature Bernard Edwards on bass (and you can instantly feel the difference), an earnest enough ballad with lyrics that would embarrass Boyzone.

But the album cover screamed what Bowie hilariously and inexplicably called “Serious Moonlight”; there he is, stripped to the waist in half-darknesss, throwing boxing shadow punches like a reborn Daniel Mendoza (of whom Peter Sellers was a direct descendant); ready to shed the weirdness, go back out into the world and mean business. Its opening track, “Modern Love,” showed that Beckenham’s Young Businessman Of The Year was ready to spar with the best, and worst, of them.  Opening with Rodgers’ guitar coughing into life, like the engine of a Delorean car, the drummer  - both Tony Thompson and Omar Hakim are credited with drums on the album but I think it’s Thompson, although with the now obligatory gated sound the difference is made minimal – starts up and Bowie begins his speech to the Beckenham Young Conservatives: “I know when to go out/I know when to stay in/Get things done,” he announces, his voice midway between Michael Caine and Ricky Gervais – and it’s a warning; don’t expect any avant-gardey weirdouts on this record.

He then proceeds to recite a lyric which makes no sense at all, even as it paraphrases “Walk On By,” My Fair Lady and “Imagine,” other than a generalised disillusionment with This Shallow Eighties World. What better way to fight that world than to sound as much like it as possible? And so we get the stupidest backing vocals in pop since Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” (“Sci-ENCE book,” “French I took,” “Church on time”), a baritone sax solo so wooden  I thought Bowie played it (he only sings on this record; Robert Aaron’s closing tenor solo is much better) and an overall feeling of…what? It is akin to Sellers’ no-good pirate in Ghosts In The Noonday Sun rapidly turning in his cabin to pray to four different holy shrines – whatever the option, Bowie doesn’t go for it, and so is he offering a scalding indictment of the hollowness of Thatcher/Reagan culture? And if he is, how would, or could, you really tell? As a single, it was only kept off number one in the UK by “Karma Chameleon.” No wonder Bowie felt, despite his repeated reassurances of “But I try,” he didn’t really need to try. Not in the eighties.

Foreshadowing a future cardinal rule of big-selling albums, Let’s Dance gives you the hits up front at the front – but there’s still the rest of the album to consider. Side two really is nothing (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there’s no “there” there). “Ricochet” is a disastrous attempt at seventies David Bowie which ends up in an eighties nowhereland with Peter Gabriel-esque polyrhythms, would-be Laurie Anderson cut-ups and a song which would have been far better suited to Bryan Ferry, except that Ferry would have been too smart to write the song in the first place (although Jim Kerr might also have done it better justice). Its worst factor is perhaps its lyric, a would-be indictment of brutal modern society which sounds as though taken from cut-and-pasted Daily Mail headlines; set against Roger Waters’ songs on The Final Cut, which stay acutely close to their targets and name names, Bowie’s yawning laxity here verges on the offensive.

Whereas his sanitised reading of Metro’s “Criminal World” is just wrong on too many levels. Remember what so many people claim to have felt with “Starman” and how comprehensively the businessman Bowie of 1983 rubbishes their hopes and ideals. Metro were the sort of act now routinely referred to as “proto-eighties electronic duo,” which doesn’t do them any sort of justice; they were Peter Godwin and Duncan “Journey” Browne (and later also Sean Lyons) and the melancholia of their work put them about halfway between Gabriel’s Genesis and post-1983 Tears For Fears. “Criminal World,” a much-lauded single which sold very sparsely, was an undisguised song about bisexuality. What tribute did Bowie, a man who had once spectacularly described himself as bisexual, mean to pay the song?

He paid tribute by reworking the song entirely and surgically removing anything in its lyric liable to upset the farmers of Kansas. This coincided with an interview with Rolling Stone in May 1983 in which he cheerfully denied that he had ever been anything except heterosexual; the interview was trailed by a characteristically sensitive cover headline of “DAVID BOWIE STRAIGHT!” At a time when the Aids nightmare was making itself known, and in the context of a decade where attitudes to Aids and HIV seemed to suggest that humanity had not advanced a jot since the Middle Ages, this was seen as a terrible betrayal – in wanting to get on the radio and into record stores, he had turned his back on his heartland. His version of “Criminal World” is also musically tame compared with the original’s fiery ambiguity (the rhythm section now sound as though rehearsing for “Like A Virgin”). Overall the unpleasant experience made a lot of people wonder whether Bowie had ever meant or believed in anything, whether in fact he was nothing more than pop’s Anthony Burgess, a vaudeville charlatan, a chancer two crucial points ahead of his followers who agreed with every question an interviewer asked him (in his FACE interview he speaks movingly of his attempts to overcome his fear of flying; this was somewhat undermined by the later revelation that he and his entourage had a private jet booked for the entirety of the Serious Moonlight Tour, in which they reportedly wined and dined like royalty), someone with lots of ideas, even if they weren’t his own and he tended to forget them a couple of minutes later (the running gag in early eighties NME of Bowie expressing enthusiasm for such-and-such a band or artist: “I’ve got all their records at home – sorry, who is it we’re talking about again?”).

I never thought much of the original, Moroder-produced 1982 reading of “Cat People,” but it is like Diamanda Galas’ “Wild Women With Steak Knives” compared with the pub rock re-recording essayed here; Bowie misses the initial “gasoline” run entirely – in fact, dives to avoid it – and his palpable disinterest is so manifest that when we get to the “been so long” section it is (as Lena said) rather as if Bowie is waiting for his club sandwich. The crass skinny-tie organ makes it sound like Racey, and it’s a tragedy that this is the same keyboard player who once closed “At Last I Am Free” with such bruised elegance. The record ends poorly with “Shake It,” a nondescript downsizing of “Let’s Dance” with some appalling lyrics, or juxtaposition of the words of others: “We’re the kind of people who can make it if we’re feeling blue…When I’m feeling disconnected, well I sure know what to do.” Which in Bowie’s case means quoting the ancient television game show What’s My Line? His closing rendition of “Bring Me Sunshine” is awaited in vain. And, amazingly, this was not Bowie’s last number one album of the eighties, nor his worst. From New Pop he appeared to have learned nothing other than the need to “get ahead,” and as the decade wore on he did wonder where and how he had ended up.  Looking back in 1997, in an interview with Steve Pond for Live! magazine, he said: “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. It was great in its way, but it put me in a real corner in that it fucked with my integrity.”

Myself, I think Let’s Dance couldn’t have been more mainstream; it more or less defined the mainstream of its time. “So it only seems commercial in hindsight”; but he had told Nile Rodgers in 1982 that he specifically wanted hits. The melancholic conclusion here has to be that to fuck with someone’s integrity, one has to have some integrity in the first place.

Next: Cabaret Futura.