Once David Bowie and Nile Rodgers had settled on a direction of travel, they then had to navigate a path. The journey, however, was not initially a smooth one.
Not long after I arrived in Switzerland, Bowie strolled into my bedroom with a guitar.
‘Hey, Nile, listen to this,’ he said, his skinny frame silhouetted just inside the doorway. ‘I think it could be a hit.’
He started strumming a twelve-string acoustic guitar that had only six strings. What followed was a folksy sketch of a composition with a solid melody: the only problem was it sounded to me like ‘Donovan meets Anthony Newley’. And I don’t mean that as a compliment. It wasn’t bad by artistic standards, but I’d been mandated to make hits, and could only hear what was missing.
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book
Rodgers was unsure how seriously to take Bowie, and even called a mutual friend in New York to see whether he was being tricked. Assured that Bowie would not be playing games, Rodgers began learning the song and working up an arrangement. The song was ‘Let’s Dance’, and became the blueprint for their new sound.
Bowie and Rodgers called Claude Nobs, the CEO of the Montreux Jazz Festival, who sent over three musicians to Mountain Studios in Switzerland. The demos for Let’s Dance were recorded in just two days, and were engineered by David Richards.
There’s just one take of each song. David took those demos home to get the lyrics exactly right, so if you listen to them now, you won’t recognize everything. David spoke to me in cinematic language that I totally understood. He could describe an orange or a grapefruit in a way I would absolutely never think to, but I could always tell he was talking about an orange or a grapefruit. The Let’s Dance experience was about learning how to take someone’s idea and reinterpret it for them. That’s not easy to do when the person is David Bowie – for God’s sake!
David gave me the chance to do what I set out to do at the very beginning, but on a much grander scale. He let me arrange and rewrite everything. He never told me to do it one way or another, he just let me do it and let me know whether he liked it or not. I wasn’t just doing this with demos, but with songs that were previously released. These were songs he made with people like Iggy Pop and Giorgio Moroder who was, and is, a hero to me.
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book
Working with Bowie and Rodgers on the demo recordings was Erdal Kızılçay, a talented multi-instrumentalist from Turkey who later worked on ‘When The Wind Blows’, Never Let Me Down, The Buddha Of Suburbia, and 1.Outside.
I was very good friends with Jaco Pastorius and I loved the way he played the bass. I always tried to play like him, and on the first version I did of ‘Let’s Dance’, I was playing a lot of fast and fancy stuff on the bass. David had a little smile on his face, and Nile came to me and said, ‘Erdal, that’s great the way you play, but don’t play that shit. I love it, but it’s not your solo album, it’s David Bowie’s!’ So we sat down and we found that great bass lick for ‘Let’s Dance’ together, which I played on the demo.
Strange Fascination, David Buckley
The demos were recorded on 19 and 20 December 1982. Rodgers then took the tapes and created arrangements for the Let’s Dance session musicians.
It was through jazz and arranging that I originally got into music. I studied orchestration books, big bands, harmony… I mean, I’ve got a library on orchestration at home that’s up to the ceiling. That’s what I really love. I wrote the arrangements based on the demos. When they were played against the tracks, David and I would make some alterations, but nothing very radical. We heard the music the same way and didn’t have a major disagreement over any musical point.
Musician magazine, May 1983