In 1982, David Bowie went on vacation in the South Pacific, a rare respite for the tireless workaholic. “It can get very boring,” he recalled later of taking time off. To cure his boredom, he brought along some of his favorite blues and R&B records from the Fifties and Sixties: James Brown, Buddy Guy, Albert King, Elmore James. “I asked myself, ‘Why have I chosen this music?’ It was very non-uptight music, and it comes from a sense of pleasure and happiness,” he recalled. “There is enthusiasm and optimism on those recordings.” It’s a mood he’d emulate when he got back in the studio.
The man who helped him transition to a more upbeat sound was of pioneering disco duo Chic. Bowie met Rodgers around this time at the bar in New York’s Carlyle Hotel. Upon realizing how much they had in common, Bowie informed his usual producer, Tony Visconti, that he wanted to make a change for his new project. “Nile, I really want you to make hits,” Bowie told Rodgers. The pair retreated to Bowie’s home in Switzerland, and Bowie showed Rodgers some folky chord changes to a song he was calling “Let’s Dance.” Rodgers was not impressed. “I come from dance music,” the Chic guitarist remembers saying. “You can’t call that thing you just played ‘Let’s Dance.'”
Rodgers tightened up the chords, engineer Bob Clearmountain added some delay, and, as Rodgers recalls, “It was a smash.” The producer set about rearranging the other demos Bowie had been working on, including “Modern Love,” a song inspired by Little Richard. They cut an album in 17 days at New York studio the Power Station. Also on hand for these sessions was young unknown Texas blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who Bowie had recently seen at the Montreux Jazz Festival. (“He thinks Jimmy Page is a modernist,” Bowie observed with delight.) According to Bowie, Vaughan had “become midwife” to his vision of music with a “European sensibility, but owed its impact to the blues.”
Thanks to clever videos for “Let’s Dance” and Bowie’s version of Iggy Pop’s “China Girl,” both made in Australia with director David Mallet, the album was an instant hit. Later that year, Bowie embarked on a tour named after a lyric from “Let’s Dance,” the Serious Moonlight Tour (“In the disco, everything is ‘serious,'” Bowie said, explaining the slang in the title). Meanwhile, Let’s Dance became his first platinum studio album in the U.S., solidifying his return to full-on pop stardom.
But for Bowie, the album had deep personal urgency beyond its commercial success: “I really wanted that same positive optimistic rock & roll, big-band sound that was very impressionistic for me back when,” he said. “It’s got a hard cut … It sears through.”