Released: 14 March 1983
David Bowie: vocals
Stevie Ray Vaughan: lead guitar
Nile Rodgers: rhythm guitar
Carmine Rojas: bass guitar
Rob Sabino: keyboards, piano
Omar Hakim: drums
The second single released from David Bowie’s 1983 album Let’s Dance, ‘China Girl’ was co-written with Iggy Pop and first recorded by him for the 1977 album The Idiot.
When you listen to ‘China Girl’ the way he did it originally with Iggy Pop, or even ‘Cat People’, which he did with Giorgio Moroder, they’re both geniuses, and now I have to reinterpret this.
My reinterpretations of those songs were so drastic in a strange way, ‘China Girl’ especially. I’d come up with this lick and I’m ready to get fired on the spot. And he goes, ‘That’s fantastic!’ My god, Bowie, you say that’s good, watch this…
Despite being one of Bowie’s best-known songs, ‘China Girl’ owes much of its success to two other musicians. Iggy Pop wrote the lyrics to Bowie’s music in 1977, while Nile Rodgers turned it into a modern pop classic at the end of 1982.
He made ‘China Girl’ with Iggy Pop. Based on my experiences with my own album, I recognized he needed trailers. In my opinion, ‘China Girl’ didn’t have a real hook. I didn’t think it was going to connect with audiences. I told him it was wacky and wouldn’t be easy for folks to get. I thought I was going to be fired, but we ended up having a fabulous discussion about all this abstract stuff and how he never felt the need to conform to anything.
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book
The song was written during the sessions for The Idiot at Château d’Hérouville near Paris, which took place in June and July 1977. The song’s working title was ‘Borderline’, before Pop wrote a new set of lyrics and retitled it ‘China Girl’.
An extraordinary lyric, and it was really sort of thrown out as he was writing it. It was literally thrown out on the recording session, almost verbatim. He changed maybe three or four lines. But it is an extraordinary talent that he has for spontaneous free thought.
Low, Hugo Wilcken
Château d’Hérouville’s owner, composer Michel Magne, had invited a musician friend, Jacques Higelin, to stay in one of the building’s wings, along with Higelin’s Vietnamese girlfriend Kuelan Nguyen and her three-year-old son Ken.
Pop and Nguyen had a brief affair, which was immortalised in the lyrics of the new song, her nationality transposed to China.
I only said to Iggy ‘Shhh…’ because I worried he was too ‘speed’ and could hurt himself. It’s Iggy who created the words ‘shut your mouth’ to make it rock ‘n’ rolling in the song. I would never say ‘shut up’ to one of the most beautiful voices in rock ‘n’ roll.
David Bowie: The Golden Years, Roger Griffin
Although ostensibly a love song, there is a dark undercurrent at the heart of the song. Pop finds strength (“I feel a wreck without my little China girl”), grandiosity (“I feel tragic like I’m Marlon Brando”), and even megalomania (“Visions of swastikas in my head, plans for everyone”) through his paramour. Indeed, a convincing case can be made that the girl in question is more narcotic than human, which would certainly tally with Pop’s habits in 1977.
I figured China Girl was about doing drugs… because China is china white, which is heroin; girl is cocaine. I thought it was a song about speedballing. I thought, in the drug community in New York, coke is girl, and heroin is boy. So then I proceeded to do this arrangement which was ultra pop. Because I thought that, being David Bowie, he would appreciate the irony of doing something so pop about something so taboo. And what was really cool was that he said ‘I love that!’.