Of all David Bowie’s albums, Let’s Dance is one that’s had very little airplay in my headphones. Which might be a shame. I’ve been listening to it lately and trying to place myself in the shoes of someone giving it an honest listen in 1983. Fans had waited three years for a follow-up to Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, his last album for RCA which had spawned minor US hits in Fashion and Ashes to Ashes. In the meantime, MTV had launched and given some airtime to videos from his previous albums. I recall seeing the videos for those two songs and DJ from 1979’s Lodger. That said, the title track from Let’s Dance landed like a bomb on MTV, followed by Modern Love and China Girl. Those three songs and a reworked version of Cat People (Putting Out Fire), originally recorded for the closing credits of Paul Schrader’s film of the same name and released in March 1982, comprise half of the album’s eight tracks. A fourth single from the album, Without You, didn’t get much airplay and didn’t chart.

db-ldThe problem, for me, is that by the time I listened the album in its entirety a few years after its release, those first three tracks had turned into background noise. Modern Love barely sounds like a Bowie song at all – the piano and horns driving the sound instead of the guitar, and lyrics that don’t seem to be about anything at all. The live video didn’t give a story to it. Mind you, that’s what was expected of 80s videos and even 35 years later, when I listen to the songs that did have story videos – China Girl and the title track – I still see the videos in my head. And by the time Modern Love was released as the third single in September, we’d spent the summer being bombarded with tracks two and three.

China Girl is a reworking of a song Bowie had written and produced with Iggy Pop seven years earlier and released on Pop’s The Idiot.

And then there’s the title track. I’ve heard those opening snares and Ah Ah Ahs hundreds of times and tried to feel that moaning ‘tremble like a floooow-ah’. But the album version is a different beast. Clocking in at seven and a half minutes (as opposed to the single/video at just over four), it takes the listener on a different journey. Dub elements which at the time were used to create club mixes sit right in the middle of the album mix and pull it into the fade out.

Without You relies on Bowie’s falsetto, and what sounds like plinking keyboards but is either Stevie Ray Vaughan or producer Nile Rodgers who shared guitar duties throughout. It doesn’t have the drive of the other songs on side A, but as a simple declaration of love it’s not without its merits.

Whereas side one has one song that’s not so well known to me, side two’s Ricochet, Criminal World, and Shake It are all tracks I’ve never listened to much.

Ricochet is proper weird Bowie. Sometimes, its underlying sax lines sound lifted from Low; elsewhere the song is much funkier. Lyrically, it seems to be addressing industrialization and fascism, some of those big themes that he’d explore in songs like Loving the Alien and Time Will Crawl later in the 80s. Moving on, Criminal World is a cover of a 1977 song by Peter Godwin’s band Metro – musically it fits with the rest of the album because Rodgers has arranged it (and the whole album, for that matter) to flow.

And then the album concludes with a throwaway piece of disco/funk called Shake It. Lyrically it doesn’t have much to say – the most interesting lines are ‘We’re the kind of people who can shake it if we’re feeling blue / When I’m feeling disconnected well I sure know what to do.’ In his catalogue, it seems most connected to the discofied John I’m Only Dancing (Again) released around the time of Young Americans. That’s not to say that it’s bad, just that it’s not worthwhile as a Bowie song.

My overall assessment is that it holds together or hold up not as a David Bowie album, but as a Nile Rogers or Chic album that just happens to have Bowie doing the singing and most of the words. Lyrically the album is half-baked and musically, it’s mostly disposable. According to interviews in a recent issue of Mojo, this is, on a certain level, what Bowie was after. At the height of New Romanticism, Bowie heard his own influence on new music and felt the current crop had drained the life from pop. Having not had a serious hit stateside in almost eight years (Fame), he made the leap, and spent the next six years barely involved, by his own admission, in his own music making at all.