Rediscovered #16

by Will Cafferky

I’ve been watching a lot of David Bowie interviews recently. I imagine quite a few of you have seen the same ones I have. It’s the way of things now – to share is to mourn. It’s easy to see why: death amplifies personality – signifies actions and words that previously seemed somewhat insignificant.

One short clip in particular stood out: A 1973 interview with Russell Harty. A 26-year-old Bowie is asked for his opinion of himself: “What would David Bowie think about David Bowie.” The response is timid, and initially uncertain:

“I’ve always found that I collect – I’m a collector. And I’ve always just seemed to collect personalities, and ideas…”

At this point in his career Bowie had released five studio albums, two of which had gone platinum. He would eventually go on to release a further twenty-three albums, experimenting with jazz, disco, electronica, techno, and art-rock. He would develop various personas: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, and The Man Who Fell To Earth. By the time David Bowie finished collecting in 2016, his legacy stood as a flawless and entirely unmatchable homage to musical multiplicity.

Bowie’s work was unparalleled in its idiosyncratic variety. I’d argue that with most artists, it’s possible to highlight one album that best distils, and communicates the essence of that act – the seminal work, the flagship piece. Bowie wasn’t most artists – he was defined by his eclecticism.

Having said all of this, how can I then go on to justify the focus of this instalment of Rediscovered – Let’s Dance? In truth, I can’t. Let’s Dance wasn’t Bowie’s best album; it probably wasn’t even in the Top 10. For a man accustomed to being several steps ahead of the curb, it dragged him kicking and screaming into the milieu of contemporary 80s pop culture. It represented a significant departure from his persona-driven glam-rock of the 60s and 70s, and heralded the commercial success that Bowie spent the rest of his career recoiling from. Success and fame bought weight and expectation; Bowie had produced something so accessible that he became afraid to shut the door. In the years that followed, he battled with his output – it had become tailored to his audience rather than his taste, and it arguably took him over a decade to recover.

But Let’s Dance is a brilliant record. Admittedly, this seems a bit of a non sequitur: after all, wasn’t this the album that prefaced Bowie’s prolonged creative nadir? In many ways, Let’s Dance has fallen victim to the heavy burden of hindsight. Whilst some of Bowie’s earlier work remains elevated, and removed from the vast majority of its contemporaries, Let’s Dance was absorbed by the pop-rock that dominated the mid-late 80s.

It’s a problem that Bowie himself highlighted when reflecting on the commercial success of Let’s Dance:

“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…”

He was right, of course – Let’s Dance is all too readily dismissed as an album that pandered to its musical environment. On the surface, it has all the sweet disco and funk sensibilities one would expect from an album co-produced by Nile Rodgers. But to then take that ground work, and build upon it with Bowie’s unmistakable creative stamp, and lyrical mystique, creates an album that is as deceptively unique as it is infectiously pop-y.

Bowie will be rightly remembered as an artist who challenged the assumptions of the world around him, both artistically and socially. As a result, his early work from the 60s and 70s will be rightly celebrated as the pinnacle of innovation in musical creativity. But if Bowie’s reflections on Let’s Dance tell us anything, it’s that this album was an important part of his collection. If we are to truly celebrate a career as magnificently multifaceted as Bowie’s was, then we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace and uncover those albums we’d previously shelved.