After the experimental sounds of the 'Scary Monsters' album, 'Let's Dance' (the album and single) was a 'comeback' of sorts for Bowie after a spell of acting and soundtrack work that wasn't as well received as it could have been. 'Let's Dance' the single saw him following a cleaner, harder sound than previous, a sound that although far removed from disco, did embrace disparate strands of contemporary dance music.
After opening with a sly nod to Chris Montez's song of the same name, 'Let's Dance' explodes with a rimshot drumcrack that ricochets over a thick, squelchy bass run that sounds like Chic on half speed with some nagging Cuban horn interludes that broaden the palette of the basic funk package. Over the top of this, Stevie Ray Vaughan provides some metal-like guitar lines that jolt the song along like sonic injections of neat electricity and add a layer of unpredictability to the foreground.
With Nile Rodgers producing at New York's Power Station and Tony Thompson on drums, the Chic comparisons are apt. But in place of the dense and interlocking dance-musique concrete of that band, Rodgers removes a lot of the reverb from the instruments to keep the notes sharp and direct, and this technique by itself leaves acres of space between the instruments, giving each room to breathe and separate rather than syncopating furiously. And this wide space between the tracks is needed to make way for Bowie's laid back and behind the beat vocal performance: "Let's dance, put on your red shoes and dance the blues" he groans, though far from being a rhythmical and energetic call to arms, Bowie sounds like he can barely be arsed to get up out of his chair and is content just to sit back and watch the band playing up a storm around him.
None of the above should work in theory, not in a dance/funk track anyway, but just like the common bumble bee who should not scientifically be capable of flight, Bowie ropes the disparate elements together and pulls arguably his last great song out of the bag. 'Let's Dance' is twitchy enough to avoid being lazily derivative, yet of sufficient structure and cohesion to play to the mainstream and appeal to not only his older fans who kept the faith since the seventies, but also the new generation raised on New Wave/No Wave experimentation. It's no fluke that this was also the Billboard number one in America.
In terms of his musical output, Bowie would have a truly wretched decade from here on in. But while all the promotional images from this era show him bleached with big hair and bigger shirts, 'Let's Dance' still sounds fresh and vibrant and shorn of any of the eighties hangovers that would dog most of his other recordings from the decade, a miserable period that saw his credibility nosedive and from which he never fully recovered and now probably never will.