David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ at 40: Producer Nile Rodgers and Engineer Bob Clearmountain on the Making of the Singer’s Multiplatinum Breakthrough
David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ at 40: Producer Nile Rodgers and Engineer Bob Clearmountain on the Making of the Singer’s First Superstar Album
“Bowie had this wonderful saying,” Nile Rodgers recalls. “He’d say, ‘Nile, darling, it’s all the same, but different.’”
It’s a remarkably simple way of summing up a musical career that has become the go-to reference for artists who are continually changing and challenging themselves. And one of the biggest in his long string of shocking sound-and-vision pivots is the one that brought him true superstardom and his first platinum album: “Let’s Dance,” which was released 40 years ago today. Rodgers, who spoke with Variety about the album in 2018, was already a multiplatinum hitmaker via his work with Chic and Diana Ross. But “Let’s Dance,” which he co-produced with Bowie, was the album that vaulted him into the mainstream — and within a year he’d be helming Madonna’s smash breakthrough album, “Like a Virgin,” and overhauling Duran Duran’s original muddled mix of “The Reflex” into a global smash single.
“David opened a door for me that never closed, and for that I’m grateful,” Rodgers says.
Yet the album was hardly an obvious move: A combination of vintage rock and roll, big band jazz and chunky R&B that he and Bowie chose for “Let’s Dance.” It has Rodgers’ chunky rhythm guitar, the slick drum sound of the era — courtesy session ace Omar Hakim and Chic drummer Tony Thompson — but also the bluesy guitar of the then-largely-unknown Texas axe-slinger Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Also, Bowie himself was launching a new chapter. Finally free of a burdensome contract with RCA Records, he was taking greater charge of his own career — striking a deal with EMI Manhattan Records to license his recordings, with Bowie retaining ownership of his masters. He’d also moved from Manhattan to Switzerland — devastated and wary after the 1980 murder of his friend John Lennon.
Yet he was back in New York late in 1982 to record the album, inspired by a daily listening regimen of Albert King, James Brown and Little Richard. In his usual elliptical way of saying what he wanted musically, he showed Rodgers a photo of Little Richard getting into a red Cadillac: “That’s what I want my album to sound like,” Rodgers recalls Bowie saying.
The pair had collaborated on many of the album’s songs in furiously fast writing sessions at Bowie’s home in Switzerland, the two decamped to New York’s Power Station with engineer Bob Clearmountain and blasted out the album in “17 days — all of it, like four songs a day,” said Rodgers.
The veteran engineer Clearmountain, who produced or co-produced albums for Hall & Oates, Bryan Adams, the Pretenders and mixed Bruce Springsteen’s sprawling “The River,” had worked as the Power Station’s chief engineer since its 1977 opening.
“I used to see Bowie around the Power Station as he did some of ‘Scary Monsters’ there,” Clearmountain tells Variety, referencing the singer’s 1980 final album for RCA, which contained a hint of “Let’s Dance” in its angular yet dancefloor-oriented single “Fashion.”
“I was a huge fan of “Scary Monsters” and expected him to come in with that. Instead, he came with something closer to ‘Young Americans’ — which is so Bowie, to do something no one expected of him.”
Clearmountain was Rodgers’ engineer of choice for “Let’s Dance,” as he had worked with Chic since day one. “We had just built the Power Station, and Chic was our first client,” Clearmountain says. “I was thrilled as I had done lots of R&B records at my previous job at Media Sound. Chic, however, was unusual as they had an approach I’d never heard – Rodger’s arrangements were open and airy, at a point where disco was cluttered and tight.”
Noting that Chic featured musicians with more experience at jazz than dance music, Rodgers and Chic co-founder Bernard Edwards relied on Clearmountain to get a heavy bottom end. “They let me do whatever I felt would sound right,” said the engineer. “Chic let me shape their sound, and I came up with ideas for effects and tweaks all of which carried onto Bowie’s record.” To this list, Clearmountain included everything from tuning the Power Station’s Ludwig drum kit to his specifications to using the room’s ambience as part of the vocal recording process. “If you listen to the opening of ‘Good Times,’ there is this piano gliss and a tape flanging sound, which was me experimenting – and Rodgers flipped for it.”
Though most of Chic’s Power Station’s recordings were executed in Studio A, Rodgers booked Studio C and its new SSL console for December 1982. “That room was crisp and they worked fast – they didn’t need the full four weeks,” said Clearmountain. “Day one, we recorded ‘Modern Love’ with Omar Hakim, and they used the first take. Usually, I would run out to fix the tuning after any first take, listen back and do another. But Bowie and Nile loved it. Oddly enough, the drums weren’t tuned exactly how I would normally, so after they loved that first take, I had to do an additional bit of processing to maintain that sound.”
An even happier accident came with the recording of the Nile Rodgers’ guitar line on the title track. Talking about the album’s heavy use of gated reverb for the snare drums to give it an epic crack, Clearmountain mentioned how Rodgers’ wanted to spruce up his guitar line. “Nile thought it was boring and basic,” the engineer remembered. “So I had this tape delay thing – long before digital – where you could never exactly tell what its timing would be. An eighth-note delay … a quarter-note delay. I just put it up quickly, but the faders up too high. Suddenly it was this crazy sound – the intro you hear on ‘Let’s Dance.’ DAHAHHAHDHHAH — too loud and distorted. I jumped up to fix it and David and Nile yelled “No! That is exactly right!” That sound blew their minds, but me, I thought I made some terrible mistake. Nile told people that I had innovated some amazing effect, but really it was just wacky static, an accident made in fixing a boring guitar part. He has told people that did crafted this incredible delay effect that turned it into a hit record.”
Clearmountain also got a crash course in Bowie’s famously lightning-fast recording process. “I was setting up microphones in the studio on that morning, and Bowie showed up early, like an hour before, following me around, asking me questions about the musicians on the session, as he had not met them yet,” says the engineer. “Bowie was nervous. Still, they managed to cut three basic tracks on that first day before 6 p.m. It went really well. David then was a real first-take guy. When we worked with Stevie Ray Vaughn, he stopped by to do his solos – came in with a Strat, his guitar chord and his Super Reverb amp – ran through ‘China Girl’ once, and said, ‘Now that I know the song, let me try it again.’ Bowie stopped him, said it was perfect, even if there was a note that wasn’t exactly right. Bowie was into spontaneity!”
Bowie also waited until all of the instrumentals were finished before recording his near-peerless vocals. Contrary to common belief, however, it wasn’t Rodgers who recorded Bowie, but Clearmountain.
“Bowie recorded his vocals after all of the tracks were done, but it was me who recorded him,” said Clearmountain. “When it was time to do his vocals, Bowie really and truly wanted to do it on his own, so it was just him and me. First off, without insulting anyone, he is the most amazing, most incredible singer that I ever worked with. On ‘Modern Love,’ he came in, started singing, but began an octave lower than what it wound up being, in that deep Anthony Newley-type voice of his. So, he sings a verse and chorus, stops, asks to hear it back, listens in the studio with his headphones without coming into the control room – gets to the end of the first chorus, rubs his forehead, and says, ‘Let’s do it again.’
“This time,” he continues, “he sings what you hear now, that high, shouty vocal. Then he gets to the end of the chorus, holds his hand up, hears that back. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Let’s punch in from there.’ He did the rest of the song, went back, doubled it – and that was it. Bang. Ridiculous.
“It was as if one guy walked in to the studio – stops – and another whole person, a character, came in,” he concludes. “It was as if it was a play where one guy didn’t like what the other guy was doing, and rewrote the script.”