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STADIUM TO STADIUM

An art-rock superstar hiring a disco producer could have been the end of David Bowie’s career. Instead, he went global. With a new boxset chronicling his stadium years, John Earls speaks to five key collaborators to get the inside story of his most turbulent decade

COVER STORY

Let’s Dance should never have been the album to turn David Bowie into a global superstar. It’s a disco album made at the height of the fallout from the ‘Disco Sucks’ campaign which, barbaric as it was in hindsight, succeeded in turning the public from dance music to the synthetic delights of New Romanticism instead. That was a movement Bowie had been at the forefront of with 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), so the notion of hiring Chic mainman Nile Rodgers as co-producer seemed retrograde.

Rodgers was a hire that Bowie was having to fund himself. Having reached the end of his deal with RCA, he wanted to shop around for a record label – he was determined to offer any new home a finished album made with no interference. He also wanted an album full of hits – his reason for dispensing with Tony Visconti, seen as too purely artistic to go fully commercial. Which was fine, but Nile Rodgers was surely past his best by 1982.

“From 1980 to 1982, my records did nothing”, Rodgers tells Long Live Vinyl. “After the Disco Sucks movement happened in ‘79, I thank God I’d signed a deal with Diana Ross and managed to get one more hit, thanks to her album Diana in 1980. It took meeting David Bowie to rescue me.”

The reason Bowie succeeded in placing himself in the mainstream was that, unusually, he had fully developed Let’s Dance’s eight songs – usually, he began an album with just sketches of ideas. Determination to have hit singles focused his mind, but initially Rodgers couldn’t see what Bowie was aiming for. “David told me: ‘I want to make a hit album, and I want you to make it’”, Rodgers recalls. “We went to his house in Switzerland, and he said he wanted my interpretation of songs he’d released earlier – China Girl, Cat People. That was fine, but I remember when he wrote Let’s Dance that he was so excited, going: ‘I got this great song!’ But I didn’t get it – he’d told me we were going to do a hits album, yet Let’s Dance sounded like a folk-rock song.” Rodgers assembled a team of musicians to work on the album at Bowie’s Swiss base, focusing mainly on its title track. “We played it once, and that’s the arrangement you hear on the finished song”, says Rodgers. “David wasn’t sure at first, but then he was: ‘You’re right, it’s a hit!’”

POWERING THROUGH

The team duly went to Rodgers’ favoured studio, The Power Station in New York, to record the full album, knowing now the template of how it should sound. Bowie was known throughout his career for working quickly, taking just one or two takes to record his vocals. Once the songs were demoed, work on Let’s Dance was even quicker than usual – for once, Bowie didn’t play any instruments, wanting to concentrate solely on his voice. This was fine with Rodgers, who was accustomed to stealing studio time on the cheap at night. “David didn’t have the money to lock down a studio for full days”, he explains. “David paying for the recording of Let’s Dance was part of its beauty. We were done making it in 17 days of eight-hour shifts, the easiest and most rewarding record of my career.”

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