How success spoiled—and saved—David Bowie

How success spoiled—and saved—David Bowie

In 1983, David Bowie slinked onto movie screens in The Hunger, a stylish (though, if we’re being honest, not that great) spin on the vampire mythos that found him playing a nightclub prowler who’s shocked to discover he’s suddenly growing older. Gazing upon his encroaching liver spots and wrinkles, no longer able to keep up with his mistress as she stalks younger and sexier prey, Bowie’s John Blaylock feels cheated. He got into this lifestyle because of the promise of eternal youth. Vampires couldn’t—and shouldn’t—be allowed to age. 

Coincidentally, Bowie was facing the same conundrum offscreen. He’d spent the past two decades stalking the nightlife with his mistress rock ’n’ roll, living under various assumed guises, and enjoying his own version of immortality—one achieved through constant change. And yet, like so many rock stars before him, he’d committed the cardinal sin of not dying. Fulfilling his own words of warning, time had been waiting in the wings to say, “Goddamn, you’re looking old”—even at the age of 36, a senior citizen by pop music standards. With every passing day, his rock mistress was dancing with younger, prettier things. It seems safe to assume the irony wasn’t lost on Bowie that The Hunger begins with him watching Bauhaus—a band that enjoyed its greatest success covering “Ziggy Stardust” the year before.

But whereas Bowie’s doomed Hunger vampire can do nothing but fall apart, until he’s stowed away with all the other “immortals” whose time has passed and whose charms have dissipated, the real-life Bowie managed to find a temporary cure by feeding on the young. In “Teenage Wildlife,” from 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), he made what could be considered a warning shot to this coming onslaught, taking a snide swipe at “the new wave boys / Same old thing in brand new drag” who were slowly usurping his style—and in some cases, enjoying even greater commercial success. “Often Copied, Never Equalled,” that record’s promo copy sneered, in an even more direct targeting of all the Gary Numans whose audiences he would soon snatch back, and then some.

Scary Monsters had marked a turning away from the revered, though rarely purchased, experimental phase of his vaunted “Berlin Trilogy.” And while hardly a commercial album, MTV-ready singles like “Ashes To Ashes” suggested Bowie was increasingly intent on reclaiming what was rightfully his. To borrow another doppelgänger from Bowie’s movie career, his Thomas Newton character in 1976’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, one imagines Bowie spending the two years after Scary Monsters studying multiple televisions broadcasting the videos of his acolytes, before deciding it was time for him—pop music’s most beloved alien—to assimilate, and use his otherworldly omniscience to amass his fortune. 

Bowie had played the “alien superstar” game before, of course. As Ziggy Stardust, he pretended to be an extraterrestrial channeling a rock star in order to preach love (and maybe some freaky sex). But Ziggy was a “rock star.” What David Bowie wanted in 1983 was to be a genuine rock star, no quotes. Whereas Ziggy had cheekily proclaimed in “Star,” “I could do with the money,” Bowie really meant it; he’d left RCA and signed a lucrative $17.5 million contract with EMI. Then, as the song goes, he began to set about making the sort of album that would “make it all worthwhile.”

To accomplish that, the ever-mercurial Bowie once more cut ties with his past, ditching producer Tony Visconti—who’d already guided Bowie through so many stylistic shifts—and instead taking up with Chic’s Nile Rodgers. Bowie likewise (briefly) parted ways with guitarist Carlos Alomar, recruiting then-little-known guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn to marry his bluesy, Texas twang to the dance songs he was envisioning. Even Rodgers was surprised at these sudden changes, later saying he took the gig under the assumption they’d be making a Bowie album, and that it was he who’d be getting some of Bowie’s avant-garde cred in the deal. Instead, it was Bowie who wanted Rodgers’ way with a hit, asking him for help making a “commercially buoyant” album that would mine funk and disco. Its straightforward mission statement was right there in the title: Let’s Dance.

In the 30 years since its release, it’s become fashionable to deride Let’s Dance as disposable—inessential for the diehards, and likely the only Bowie album to be found in the collections of casual listeners, probably slotted between Bananarama and Culture Club. (Certainly its ubiquity in record-store used bins makes it seem that way.) Even more so than his previous commercial attempt, Young Americans—an album that saw Bowie trading the “give me your hands” messiah of Ziggy Stardust for a mocking, cocaine-deadened, cabaret creep—Let’s Dance has long proved divisive. With no Thin White Duke guise to explain it away as just another act, to many it represented an artistic betrayal, a trading of the otherness that had made Bowie—and by extension, his fans—uniquely beautiful, all for wider adulation and a lot more cash. 

But far removed from hurt feelings, musically Let’s Dance remains one of Bowie’s strongest albums. Both “Modern Love” and its title track rank as two of his most perfectly realized pop songs (and definitely his most successful, with “Let’s Dance” landing Bowie his first and only No. 1 hit in both the U.S. and U.K.). The reworking of his Iggy Pop collaboration “China Girl” is similarly pure confectionery bliss. And beyond those singles, and especially their profile-boosting videos, Let’s Dance is far more challenging and diverse than it’s usually given credit. 

“Without You” is built on shimmering tones that reveal what a delicate guitarist Vaughn could sometimes be. Bowie’s reworking of the Giorgio Moroder-aided “Cat People” (from the film of the same name) is as scorching as the gasoline-spiked fire he sings about. His cover of Metro’s “Criminal World,” an obscurity of one of his earliest New Romantic disciples, has a slinky sensuality that provides the late-night comedown to the album’s early party-starters. And certainly no one trying to make pure commercial pabulum would put a song like “Ricochet” in the middle of an album, in the era before the CD skip button. (Case in point: “Shake It” is fucking awful, and thankfully buried at the very end.)

Still, the fact remains that David Bowie—the messiah of druggy outcasts—had made an album for discos and treadmills. If one were tempted to force an intellectual analysis upon it, as critics and Bowie fanatics are wont to do, it could possibly be read as Bowie’s knowing indictment of burgeoning yuppie culture. Certainly the dryly spoken-word intro of “Modern Love” (“I know when to go out / When to stay in / Get things done”) seems like some sort of sarcastic manifesto for the Bright Lights, Big City era.

But for all the retroactive contextualizing, by Bowie’s own admission, Let’s Dance wasn’t a sly indictment of emptiness. It was knowingly manufactured emptiness, calculated to get the riches and fame that emptiness afforded. And it worked: With his album topping the charts and his face on the cover of Time magazine, Bowie succeeded in making 1983 his best year ever—and the worst thing that ever happened to his career.

As biographer David Buckley notes in Strange Fascination, the beginning of the dark times was evident immediately, the day Bowie emerged to announce that year’s enormous, enormously profitable Serious Moonlight Tour: “Bowie walked into the press conference immaculately besuited, his hair washed blond after six months in warm climes, his preternatural white color of the ’70s transformed by a moderate suntan,” he writes. “The new corporate skin made Bowie look businesslike and harsh. For the first time he looked aristocratic, a member of the jet set. It was a difficult image for his fans to even like, let alone want to copy.”

Not that they could afford to: Both Let’s Dance and the Serious Moonlight shows made Bowie wealthy beyond compare, the newly adopted, carefully choreographed, Frank Sinatra-esque swagger of his performances hinting at the champagne parties and tastefully appointed villas that awaited off stage. By all accounts from his bandmates and associates, Bowie, the man of so many guises, had slipped into his biggest, most unfortunate put-on yet—that of the wealthy, out-of-touch celebrity. He was playing the unimaginative character of “David Bowie,” and the toll it took was greater than any identity crisis he’d suffered before. The Thin White Duke was nothing compared to the Rich Tan Asshole.

Bowie would later say he was well aware of this growing detachment from his new audience in the moment, offering the now-famous quote about looking out at his Serious Moonlight shows and wondering to himself “how many Velvet Underground albums these people have in their record collections.” With the same benefit of years of hindsight, he now safely blames Let’s Dance as an artistic nadir, the weight of the expectation to replicate its success and hang on to those new, far less discerning fans pushing him to quickly record the half-baked Tonight and Never Let Me Down, two albums he would later all but disown.

It bears repeating, however, that he did all of these things willingly, even gladly. Rather than immersing himself in the studio experimentation that had characterized all of his earlier work, Bowie surprised everyone by bringing in fully formed demos, then turning them over to others to arrange—offering minimal input and contributing only vocals. (“I really shouldn’t have even bothered going into the studio to record it. In fact, when I play it, I wonder if I did sometimes,” Bowie would later say of Never Let Me Down.) He gave interviews about the new responsibilities of parenthood and wrote songs about the homeless, a reflection of his (professedly) cleaned-up public image. 

Tellingly, he even backpedaled on the famed declaration of bisexuality that had once so comforted an ostracized generation, calling it “the biggest mistake I ever made.” And as Buckley notes, Bowie did this at a time when he was most seriously pursuing his film career—clearly kowtowing to the studios by distancing himself from anything that might smack of perversion. (Though ironically, his crotch-bulging role in Labyrinth is pretty damn perverse.) Then, if anyone needed any further evidence that David Bowie was just about through being cool, he went and made this thing with Mick Jagger: 

By the time Bowie embarked on 1987’s Glass Spider Tour, his concerts had become a giant, visual metaphor for everything that had gone awry. Bowie was lowered in from the ceiling while seated in a chair—a lazy emperor lording over a circus of pretension, where the songs were secondary to elaborately choreographed dances and vaudevillian interludes. So far removed was he from his audience, and who he used to be, he performed his encore of “Time” from atop a 60-foot neon spider, an appropriately gaudy, overblown symbol of his past image. That is, when strong winds didn’t force him to scrap the number entirely, buffeted and knocked back down to Earth like a rock ’n’ roll Icarus. To afford all this needless excess, Bowie even took on Pepsi as a corporate sponsor, recording an embarrassing commercial with Tina Turner, then defending his own “choice of a new generation” by saying, well, he could think of worse things to be advertising. (Like, for example, maybe the mountain of cocaine that was its real spark of creation.)

For all of his later equivocation, the fact remains that David Bowie sold out. But fittingly for an artist who was always predicting the next trend, selling out was just another example of his being ahead of the curve. Bowie had reentered the industry at a time when music was a bigger commodity than ever, an era when stadium tours ruled the world and videos turned artists into brands overnight. And the landscape was soon to be littered with punk and new wave’s former fringe-dwellers who—like their messiah—would suddenly became the pop mainstream. 

Around the same time that Let’s Dance emerged, to name just a few examples, New Order broke away from the gloomy bedsit sound of Joy Division and released its massive club hit “Blue Monday.” Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, panicked over the poor reception for Dazzle Ships, scurried off to begin recording ever-more-lightweight singles like “Locomotion.” Eurythmics, fronted by the obviously Bowie-inspired androgyny of Annie Lennox, scrapped their entire sound and remade themselves with the synth-pop soul of “Sweet Dreams.” Genesis, a group that had formerly rivaled Bowie in avant-garde kabuki weirdness, released a self-titled album that was heavy on the same radio-ready ballads that characterized Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel’s solo careers. Even Lou Reed lightened up to the point where he started shilling for Honda

Bowie had long anticipated the art-rock and new-wave generation’s seismic shift from outsiders to stars in the ’80s—first ironically, then purposefully. And with the success and aftermath of Let’s Dance, he showed his disciples the highs and devil’s-bargain lows they could and would experience for themselves—a “look out, you rock ’n’ rollers” cautionary example that created an entire generation of younger musicians hyper-aware of the dangers of selling out like Bowie did.

In a way, Bowie was just playing out the inevitability of being a messiah: Hung on the cross of commerce, he became a martyr for the sins of the musical world, dying of embarrassment so that indie-rock could be born. It’s perhaps telling that his every musical attempt thereafter, right up through this year’s The Next Day, has been dubbed a “resurrection,” each anticipated with religious fervor among the faithful. Like all martyrs, death only made him more powerful; having experienced the hell of fame, paid his penance for them, and crawled back toward his art, he cemented his reputation as the revered figure he is now. To continue our earlier analogy, 1983’s David Bowie was a vampire, and he achieved immortality through the sacrifice of his soul.

Filed Under: Music, 1983 Week

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