In the studio

David Bowie put forward ‘China Girl’ as a contender for the Let’s Dance album once sessions had got underway at the Power Station in New York City.

David played another song for me he said he thought was a hit – Iggy Pop’s version of ‘China Girl’. I didn’t think it was a radio hit. I liked it, but it was clearly an album cut. We had recorded other smashes earlier that day, and I thought we’d reached a pretty clear understanding on the direction I was trying to steer the project toward. His insistence on this song being a smash was a little discomforting. The original ‘China Girl’ was way overproduced to my tight, minimalist ears, but David insisted that the song was a hit. Confused, I again called the same mutual friend and asked, ‘Are you sure he isn’t trying to play a trick on me?’ And again the friend told me, just as he’d said in Switzerland after David performed ‘Let’s Dance’ solo in my bedroom, ‘If David said he thinks it’s a hit, he really thinks it’s a hit.
Nile Rodgers
Le Freak

Rodgers let the session musicians leave the studio early that day, and went in search of the DHM in ‘China Girl’ – its Deep Hidden Meaning, the spirit or hook in a song which would transform it into a hit record.

At home, I played the song’s verse chords and soon discovered that if I changed the held power chord triad to a major chord that moved down to a major seventh and then to the sixth, it sounded sweeter and more Asian. I did a little more fiddling until – checkmate – aI had a catchy Asian-sounding riff I was very pleased with. This was going to work after all!
Nile Rodgers
Le Freak

The following day, Rodgers fleshed out his new arrangement and wrote musical charts for the session players to work from. To his delight, Bowie responded positively, and ‘China Girl’ was recorded in a single take.

The other musicians got to the studio early and I told them, ‘This might be the end of the record for right now, because what I’ve just written may really piss him off.’ He may think it’s crazy or racist. I had just made his artsy song with Iggy Pop into a pop thing.

I gave them the chart and we played it once before he got there. Instead of shocking him when he arrived, I pulled him to the side and played a few licks and told him I wanted them to be the beginning of ‘China Girl’. Again, I was ready to be fired, but he just went, ‘Fantastic!’ I was like, ‘If you think that’s good, watch this!’ and played my version of the song full-out with the band. David was like, ‘Woah’ and we recut ‘China Girl’ in one take. Done. End of story.

Nile Rodgers
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book

Playing lead guitar on ‘China Girl’ was Stevie Ray Vaughan, the blues guitarist who also appeared on ‘Let’s Dance’.

Stevie strolled into the Power Station and proceeded to rip-up everything one thought about dance records. After his blistering solo on the title song he ambled into the control room and with a cheeky smile on his face, shyly quipped, ‘That one’s for Albert,’ knowing full well that I would understand that King’s own playing was the genesis for that solo. One after another he knocked down solo upon solo, song upon song. In a ridiculously short time he had become midwife to the sound that I had had ringing in my ears all year. A dance form that had its melody rooted in a European sensibility but owed its impact to the blues.
David Bowie, August 2001
Stevie Ray Vaughan – Live At Montreux 1982 & 1985 liner notes

Vaughan’s lead guitar on ‘China Girl’ and ‘Let’s Dance’ was recorded in the second week of January 1983.

When the quality of the music is so good, you get to feel all of the love that was in that room. You get to feel these relationships growing through the music. When I listen to it, I think of Stevie Ray Vaughan showing up from Texas and walking into a room full of people he hadn’t met before – remember he was pretty much a complete unknown up to the day the album was released. There was so much love, awe and wonder. After Let’s Dance the entire world knew who he was and his wonderful career as an artist was able to flourish.
Nile Rodgers, June 2017
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book