"I wanted to come in touch with the common factor and not seem to be some sort of alien freak," David Bowie told writer Lisa Robinson shortly after the release of Let's Dance, his most accessible — and commercially successful — album. "I don't want to seem detached and cold, because I'm not."
A warmer, more open Bowie was evident at every turn on Let's Dance, whose bright, upbeat exterior and approachable lyrics celebrate "modern love" and sensual romance beneath "serious moonlight."
Coming off of four hermitic, experimental and disillusioned albums — from Low to Scary Monsters — Bowie pulled an about-face. His newly found extroversion, complete with a haystack-yellow British-schoolboy haircut, netted him three Top Twenty singles — "Modern Love," "China Girl" and the chart-topping title track. Let's Dance was a determined move to recapture the spotlight by a musician who five years earlier had told Melody Maker, "I feel incredibly divorced from rock, and it's a genuine striving to be that way."
Let's Dance grafts brassy, big-band swing onto a solid, contemporary R&B foundation. Bowie tapped Nile Rodgers, guitarist for the stylish New York dance band Chic, to produce Let's Dance. Excluding Texas blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was Bowie's suggestion, the musicians were drawn from Rodgers's circle. "Except for Bernard Edwards, no person had influenced me more," Rodgers says of Bowie. Yet the collaboration was nothing like what he had had in mind.
"To be honest, when I first got involved, I wanted to do a very noncommercial, avant-garde album," says Rodgers. "I thought I was finally getting a chance to show that black people can do records about things other than dancing, making love and stuff like that. I was quite surprised when I got to Europe and we were working on songs called 'Let's Dance' and 'Modern Love.'" After some discussion, Bowie said, "Nile, I want you to do what you do best — make great commercial records." He trusted Rodgers's instincts, and the album was finished in nineteen days.
Its swift popularity caught the normally unflappable Bowie off guard. "David might not want me to say this," says Rodgers with a chuckle, "but for the first few weeks, even he was surprised. He's a big artist and a rock & roll demigod, but there was still a garage-band guy in there who couldn't believe his record was selling. I'd be lying in bed, and the phone would ring: 'Hello, Nile? This is David. Look what's happening, did you see Billboard this week? Wow, unbelievable!'"