The singer re-emerged in one of his most ebullient incarnations, while another star unveiled his own signature move. SOPHIA DEBOICK reports
That the international hit of 1983 was Culture Club’s Karma Chameleon proved that Britain still outstripped the rest of the world for boundary-pushing music. Pleasant pop it was, but its lyrical undercurrent of anguished psychodrama (‘Every day is like survival/ You’re my lover, not my rival’), and the fact that Boy George was the most androgynous pop star to ever grace the cover of Rolling Stone (its November issue pictured him and declared ‘England swings. Great Britain invades America’s music and style. Again’) suggested something of greater significance. By the following February the single was US No.1 and the band were scooping Best New Artist at the Grammys.
As British synthpop also permeated the US charts and British alternative rock spawned new bands of enduring significance, it was a strange irony that the biggest British act of the year – David Bowie, the man who had inspired so many of the emerging artists of that year in the first place – had swapped confrontational art rock for a slick cool that calculatedly chased sales. But his Let’s Dance and its three singles became international smashes, Bowie proved the depth of his creativity in other media and demonstrated that he could do not just the edgy but the epic.
It was perhaps his most jaw-dropping incarnation to date – David Jones from Bromley with the bad teeth became a glossy international pop star, selling out his marathon seven-month Serious Moonlight world tour with ease as Let’s Dance sold nearly half a million copies in the UK alone, topped album charts across Europe and reached US No.4.
Just six years before he had fled to Berlin to escape cocaine psychosis and a loosening grip on reality, holing up with king of chaos Iggy Pop. But by June 1983 he had made Pop’s China Girl – a song about Chinese heroin – into an international smash hit single, turning the dirty, distorted and delirious original into a funky, deeply saleable pop song.
Nile Rodgers’ production and Chic’s rhythm section supplied danceability and an effortless, radio-friendly sheen to the whole of Let’s Dance, and MTV, only two years old that summer, put the videos for the title single, China Girl and Modern Love on heavy rotation. Little wonder this became the comeback to end them all.
Bowie celebrated his 36th birthday that January and had never looked better, as proved by the recently-published Ricochet: David Bowie 1983 (Particular Books), documenting the work of official Serious Moonlight tour photographer, Denis O’Regan.
The perpetually-grinning, tanned Bowie with neon-bleached hair that populates the pages is a world away from the milky-skinned, trench coat-wearing severity of the Thin White Duke photographed by the Berlin Wall in 1976. He is positively radiant, apparently wholly at ease with fame, and the piquancy of these photographs is in the contrast between Bowie, the man, in the most ordinary of situations – waiting at a baggage carousel, or eating airline food – and Bowie, the international star.
His transformation into a coiffed idol recognisable by silhouette alone, like Elvis, is writ large. As he strikes a pose against a breathtaking sea of humanity in stadium venues all over the world, commanding the rapt attention of thousands, it’s obvious how keen an observation it was when Todd Haynes’ cinematic love letter to glam rock, Velvet Goldmine (1998), rendered 1980s Bowie as a singer who was more bombastic evangelical preacher than pop star.
Yet, whatever appearances might have suggested, Bowie had not lost his unsettling edge. The air of menace and lyrics about ‘visions of swastikas in my head’ remained on his version of China Girl, and album track Ricochet – the most interesting, although not necessarily the most musically successful song on Let’s Dance – harked back to the dystopia of Diamond Dogs and that album’s spoken opener Future Legend as it conjured up a nightmare landscape and whispered of ‘secret fearful places’.
In prominent big screen roles that year, Bowie proved he wasn’t shying away from the visceral and the disturbing. April saw the release of the vampire legend updated for the AIDS generation, The Hunger, but its aching cool, lashings of sex, and iconic opening performance of Bela Lugosi’s Dead by Bauhaus only masked a lack of depth, and August’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence was a far more interesting proposition. Nagisa Oshima’s prisoner of war camp-set tale of the clash of cultures (doing a rather better job with that theme than the crass imagery of the China Girl video) showcased Bowie’s impressive ability as a physical actor.
While the film’s themes of honour and betrayal, empathy and attraction hardly promised a blockbuster, the vocal version of co-star Ryuichi Sakamoto’s painfully beautifully theme for the film, Forbidden Colours sung by Japan’s David Sylvian, gained traction and was a top 20 hit.
If Bowie was one of the fathers of British alternative music, his progeny were doing him proud this year, with future giants The Smiths and The Cure both going top 20 for the first time. This Charming Man peaked at number 25 in early December, The Smiths having made their first Top of the Pops appearance the previous month, debuting Morrissey’s imposing presence and rhythmic gladioli-swinging. The Cure would perform both the coldly electronic The Walk and whimsical ditty The Love Cats on the show during the course of the year. From the brutalised disco of New Order’s Blue Monday, which slowly crept up the charts from March to become a hit by October, to Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Gals and Double Dutch, top 10 singles from his ground-breaking work of sonic bricolage, Duck Rock, British acts were continually breaking the mould.
While the iconic look Bowie established for himself in 1983 has endured as his default image for many, it was in fact soon replaced, but the persona that crystallised for Michael Jackson in 1983 stuck for good. Thriller hit No.1 in the US album charts in February, Billie Jean was just one of the six mega-hit singles it contained. But it was Jackson’s performance of that song on March’s Motown 25 TV special, taking place halfway through the single’s seven-week run at the top of the Billboard chart, that marked a key turning point in his career.
Having performed a medley with the Jackson 5, he took the stage alone and for the first time Michael Jackson stood before the world in full King of Pop guise – the fedora, the single glove, the jacked-up trousers and white socks, and the signature dance moves.
His debuting of the moonwalk during this performance was a key moment in the establishment of his legend, and when his Thriller video debuted on MTV in December his status as a pop star of the zeitgeist, shaking off the weight of his career as a child star, was confirmed. For all the contributions made to music by Britain in this year, the birth of Jackson’s solo image in 1983 would have the most long-term implications for mainstream pop.
The future beckoned for the music industry in 1983, as CDs went on sale outside Japan for the first time and the UK chart system went electronic as it was taken over by Gallup. Bowie too was looking towards the future. The final spread of Ricochet shows the star on his private jet, having just cancelled his next date to head straight to California for a last-minute headline slot at Steve Wozniak’s US Festival in front of a crowd of 300,000.
Only nine dates into the 96-night tour, Bowie looks decidedly haggard as he stares directly down the camera. He is perhaps feeling daunted by the months of touring before him, but is he also having a presentiment of the rest of the 1980s? While the latest in the series of career retrospective box sets, David Bowie Loving The Alien (1983-1988), tried to revive this most critically-mauled era of Bowie’s career (even Bowie himself referred to it as his ‘Phil Collins period’), the singer’s run from there to 1988 via two critical flop albums remains a hard sell.
But as Bowie groped his way towards a creative rebirth in the early 1990s, his influence remained ever-detectable in the music coming out of Britain throughout the rest of decade, which never failed to thrill the world.