Released today in 1983: China Girl

EMI America EA157

EMI America EA157

A Broadway run in ‘The Elephant Man’, appearances on the small screen in the Bertolt Brecht play ‘Baal’ and on the big screen in cult German movie ‘Christiane F.’, much-hyped British film ‘Absolute Beginners’ and alongside Jim Henson puppets in ‘Labyrinth’: what a strange decade David Bowie had in the 1980s.

Well, it was no more strange than the two previous ones or those that followed, I suppose. It began with the resurrection of the character Major Tom from the 1969 album Space Oddity, who was name-checked in both Bowie’s first #1 single in the UK (the title track of the 1969 album, re-issued in 1975) and his second, Ashes To Ashes, which, complete with an innovative promo video clip, topped the chart in the summer of 1980. By the middle of the 1980s Bowie had had three further UK #1s, including a collaboration with Queen (Under Pressure) and one with his 60s contemporary Mick Jagger (Dancing In The Street, recorded to tie in with Live Aid). Nothing strange about any of that, but some of the other collaborations were surprising to say the least, Bing Crosby and Pat Metheny Group among them. Strangest of all, this was also the decade in which Bowie would temporarily abandon his solo recording career, there being nothing further from him in the 80s under that name after 1987. Instead, he formed a group called Tin Machine.

The creation of Tin Machine followed the poor critical reception for his albums Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987), the latter of which Bowie himself described as “an awful album”. The over-indulgent and elaborate Glass Spider tour also failed to win the critics over, with accusations that Bowie was out of ideas. 1989 marked 25 years since the release of his first single so he could be forgiven for that if it were true. In fact the ideas were still there, but he was stretched thin with dual careers in music and film making demands on his time and talent. When he concentrated on the day job, the results were excellent. His most successful album of the 1980s, Let’s Dance, was released in 1983 with the title track being one of the aforementioned UK #1s and also a US #1. Co-produced with Nile Rodgers, it also included Modern Move (#2 UK and #14 US) and Bowie’s own version of the song he wrote for Iggy Pop in 1977, China Girl (#2 UK and #10 US). Another minor hit in the US was Without You, but this was not issued in the UK. The album also contained amongst its remaining four tracks a re-recording of Bowie’s earlier single Cat People, from the 1982 film of the same name.

Despite the strong singles, opinion of the album as a whole was mixed in the British music press. The review in New Musical Express was particularly enthusiastic. Referring to the three-year gap between its release and that of previous LP Scary Monsters, it stated the album was “utterly worth the wait” and offered this challenge to the naysayers: “You should be ashamed to say you do not love it.” It went on: “Despite the expectation that the combination of Bowie and Rodgers would result in the kind of immaculately tortured but immaculately daft angst-funk that seems in vogue in certain quarters, the actual result is something quite different – some of the strongest, simplest and least complicated music Bowie has ever made.” Melody Maker was more reserved, saying that “like most of Bowie’s records, this one says absolutely nothing while recognizing precisely the time, date and circumstances of its creation.” At times, it seemed like the papers had been listening to different records. NME, for example, thought Bowie’s interpretation of China Girl was the antidote to the rage and pain of Iggy Pop’s version, making the focus of the song “relief from pain”. Melody Maker: “It’s hard to deny the pained (melo)drama of Bowie’s voice”.

Although it had its reservations, Melody Maker concluded that Let’s Dance was “frequently persuasive…and would make a good soundtrack for some fairly expensive thrills.” The voice of greatest dissent came, unusually, from Smash Hits: “WOWWWW!!! The new Bowie album! Quick, put it on! Listen to that title track … brilliant! And Modern Love – great! Corny title, though. Never mind, China Girl is good … well, pleasant anyway. Mmmmmmmm. Richochet – really quite … um … interesting. And the other four tracks, well they’re … er … very … um … oh, alright then, they’re dull. Dull, dull, dull! So what? Everyone makes the odd dull album.”

NEW SINGLES on sale from May. 31
1983
David BOWIE China Girl (EMI America EA157)
1985
ABC Vanity Kills (Neutron NT109)
1988
IMAGINATION (Leee John) Hold Me In Your Arms (RCA PB42057)
EURYTHMICS You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart (RCA DA16)
MORRISSEY Every Day Is Like Sunday (HMV POP1619)

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