David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album was released 40 years ago, in April 1983. The title track became Bowie’s only single to go no.1 in the US and UK, and the album went on to sell 11 million copies and turned Bowie into an international star.
It was everything Bowie had hoped for. The '80s had started with uncertainty and big changes in the world of David Bowie. His relationship with manager Tony DeFries ended in 1982 after a protracted split. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) had been his last album for RCA. A new multi-million dollar deal with EMI America offered a fresh start and he wanted to repay their faith in him. He reached out to Nile Rodgers as producer and musical director.
His band Chic had become one of the most influential bands of the late 70s and early 80s, inspiring everyone from Queen to The Clash. Duran Duran were dominating the singles charts – the blueprint for their band was "the Sex Pistols meets Chic". Rodgers himself was fresh from producing and co-writing Diana Ross’s biggest album, Diana. “I want you to do what you do best,” Bowie told him. “I want you to make hits.”
But for all of its success – or maybe because of it – Let’s Dance divided Bowie fans. It was short, with just eight songs, several of which had already been released (a different version of Cat People had been released in 1981, and China Girl was a song he'd written with Iggy Pop in 1977). Tucked away on the B-side was another cover version: Criminal World, a 1977 song by a little-known British band called Metro.
It seemed like a clever choice. Metro was a British art-rock band formed in the early 70s by Peter Godwin and Duncan Browne. Influenced by Bowie, Queen and Roxy Music, they pre-dated the New Romantic scene by a few years but had much in common with it: a modernist European sensibility that was a reaction against blues rock.
Even more Bowie-like, they were no strangers to controversy. When it was released as a single in 1977, Metro’s Criminal World was been banned by the BBC for its ‘sexual content’: its apparent allusions to cross-dressing and gay sex.
“It was considered too dark and sensual by Doreen Davis [executive producer at Radio One at the time],” says Metro’s singer and songwriter Peter Godwin (Duncan Browne died in 1993). Written in 1974, just five years after England and Wales legalised homosexual sex between men over the age of 21, Criminal World raised a playful eyebrow at a world where “the boys are like baby-faced girls” and “the girls are like baby-faced boys”. There is a suggestion of cross-dressing (“I'll take your dress and we can truck on out”) and euphemisms for blow jobs (“I know about your special kisses… I saw you kneeling at my brother's door/That was no ordinary stick-up”). All-in-all: very David Bowie.
“It was a satire on androgyny, sexual ambivalence, posturing, pretending to be gay or whatever,” says Godwin. “It was just a light-hearted sort of fun exploration of what Bowie had launched when he came out as bisexual.
“I'm straight but I have a lot of gay friends and I'm very comfortable in a gay, or cross-gender milieu, always have been. It's always fascinated me. I grew up in the 60s and the first thing that happened when people grew their hair was that somebody said, ‘You look like a girl.’ So Criminal World was playing with that.”
The song’s original title, says Godwin, was Punk News. “I was listening to things like the New York Dolls,” he says, “and I was interested in the New York punk scene. It was just before Patti Smith and Television.” By 1977, however, ‘punk’ was the latest craze. Metro changed the title to avoid being seen as bandwagon-jumpers.
“I said, 'No way can we call this Punk News. People will just say 'This song has nothing to do with punk! They’re just trying to act like they're relevant'.”
An accidental meeting with David Bowie may well have changed everything. In 1977, with Metro’s first album on the verge of being released, Godwin bumped into Bowie at the Embassy Club in London’s Mayfair. “Bowie was there, dancing with Bianca Jagger,” he says, “and I happened to know Bianca Jagger.” Bianca introduced them and Bowie said he’d look out for the Metro album.
Bowie’s influence was being felt across London. At the same time, a mile across town in Soho, Rusty Egan was DJing at a club called Billy’s at 69 Dean Street. The upper floors of 69 Dean Street would later become known as a club called The Batcave: the ground zero of goth, a movement inspired by Bowie, Alice Cooper and punk.
Egan’s Tuesday night slot wasn’t upstairs but down in the basement of Billy’s and called simply “Bowie Night”. The crowd – wearing outrageous outfits and dancing to the likes of Kraftwerk, the Normal, Roxy Music, Giorgio Moroder and Bowie – included Boy George, Marilyn, Siobhan Fahey, Steve Strange, Martin Degville, Jeremy Healy and future members of Spandau Ballet. They would soon follow Egan to the Blitz Club in Covent Garden, a club that became known as the breeding ground for some of the most successful artists in 80s pop music. Bowie would come to the Blitz club in 1980 to handpick some of the regulars to appear in the video for Ashes To Ashes, including Visage frontman Steve Strange.
Six years after meeting Bowie in that club, Peter Godwin bumped into a friend: “I'm walking down the street in Earl's Court and I bumped into my neighbour Rusty Egan. Rusty says, 'Oh, well done about Bowie doing your track'. I said, 'What are you talking about?' And he said, 'He's done Criminal World – it's in the Melody Maker'. That's how I found out.”
It was the first Godwin had heard about it (“If you write a song, you have control of what they call the first mechanical license. You get to choose whether you sing it first, if you're a singer, or if you want to let someone else sing it first. So I didn't have any choice over whether Bowie covered it or not, as long as I got paid my royalties. So he didn't ask my permission, because he didn't have to”). Excited to hear what Bowie had done with his track, he called his old record company, EMI, to see if they had an advance copy. EMI did. They said he should just drop by next time he was in town.
But when Godwin dropped by EMI, the guy he’d spoken to was just finishing up a meeting with legendary folk star Roy Harper. Not a big deal to many people, it was a very big deal to Godwin. “For me, Roy Harper is God,” he says. “His songs are amazing, his voice is amazing, he's an extraordinary character. Such depth. He's just this great singing poet. I consider my work a joke compared to Roy Harper's.
“So I'm there at this most exciting moment of my life, to hear Bowie sing a song that I co-wrote, and there's Roy Harper! The guy from EMI says, 'Roy, we're just gonna listen to Bowie's cover of Peter's song – do you wanna stay and have a listen?’ He says: ‘Yeah, sure.’ So I'm sitting there, and on the one hand I've got God – this guy who writes sublime songs, political songs, the greatest love songs; a genius – and [on the stereo] they're going ‘Oh! What a crim-in-al-’
“The song is so crap compared to Roy's. All I could think of was how embarrassed I was for my little song compared to the genius's songs, y’know? It kind of ruined it for me. But in another way, it made it very memorable.”
Equally memorable was what Bowie and Nile Rodgers had done with his song: “I liked it. I thought it was unusual in that he kept the breakdown in the middle. I would have gotten rid of that in '83. He didn't do the 6/8 time thing at the end, the sort of Beatles-esque I Want You moment. But he kept a lot of the arrangement and made it more major key, more tonic, more up, more pop. Brighter: more daytime, less nighttime, you know, all of that. He gave it his flavour and I thought it was great.
“He probably brought the riff out more – it’s more subliminal on the 12 string in the Metro version. So I clocked all of that and I loved it."
What did Roy Harper think? "He said, 'Yeah, that's great'. But he would do, because he's a nice guy."
With the whole Roy Harper thing, Godwin missed what Bowie had done with the words: “I didn't notice immediately the lyric thing because I had so many emotions going on.”
Bowie had changed Godwin’s original lyrics. “I’m not the queen so there’s no need to bow/I think I see beneath your make-up/I’ll take your dress and we can truck on out” was changed to “I guess I recognize your destination/I think I see beneath your make-up/What you want is sort of separation”. Metro’s later reference: “I saw you kneeling at my brother’s door/That was no ordinary stick up” was changed to “You caught me kneeling at your sister’s door.”
“He obviously thought that there was something in the metaphor of ‘kneeling in my brother's door' that was too… sleazy, y’know, or transgressive," says Godwin. "Suggestively gay.”
Bowie had chosen this subversive song with gay innuendos – and then he’d cleaned it up: made it safe and heterosexual. It didn't seem like a very David Bowie thing to do, but then the David Bowie of Let’s Dance was unlike the gender-bending space alien of Ziggy Stardust. Clean-cut, healthy, handsome, he seemed unambiguously hetero.
Having announced in 1972 that he was bisexual, in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1983, to the disappointment of many, he disavowed his past. “The biggest mistake I ever made [was saying] that I was bisexual,” said Bowie. “Christ, I was so young then. I was experimenting.” It felt like a bit of revisionism: image management for a more conservative age. “He is not gay, whatever he may have blurted out in 1972,” wrote interviewer Kurt Loder, “nor was he ever a transvestite, thank you.”
A generation of gay fans had felt liberated by Bowie’s claim to be bisexual a decade earlier. Now, with AIDS panic in the media and a new strain of conservatism dominating politics on both sides of the Atlantic, it started to look like it had all been a PR stunt, or like he was moving back into the closet to appease middle America. Nowhere was that more obvious than in his changes to the lyrics of Criminal World.
“But ‘kneeling at your brother's door’,” says Godwin, “that could have just been voyeurism. It's all in the interpretation: you could be kneeling watching your older brother having sex. It could be anything and that's what I intended it to be. I wanted it to have more than one meaning.”
It looks like Bowie didn’t. “That's exactly what it is, isn't it?” says Godwin. “That's it.”
In 1980, Bowie borrowed some Blitz Kids to add some colour to his Ashes To Ashes video. By 1983, with Blitz Kid Boy George in the charts, it looked like he was distancing himself as far as possible from the scenes he’d inspired. In 2002, Bowie admitted as much to Blender magazine: “America is a very puritanical place, and I think [being known as a bisexual] stood in the way of what I wanted to do,” he said. “I had no inclination to hold any banners or to be a representative of any type of people.”
It seemed to work. With all those sexual ambiguities out of the way, the mainstream welcomed him with open arms. It gave Godwin a boost too. There was the money that comes with having a song on a hit album (“It's not as much as people think. It didn't set me up for life, but I still make a little bit of money out of it”).
“It changed my life in a much more important way,” he says. “It gave me enormous credibility with all my fellow musicians.”
Godown is still producing music today and is about to release a solo album as Re/Generation with US singer/songwriter Leah Lane of Rosegarden Funeral Party, a band heavily influenced the alternative 80s scenes created in the Blitz Club and The Batcave. The album is preceded by a single, Beautiful Boy and the B-Side is a tribute to Bowie: a cover of his 1986 song Absolute Beginners.
“It's two things: one, it's a belated thank you,” says Godwin. “Because I thank that guy eternally for the fact that he did a beautiful version of my song. And it's an homage to a guy who's gone but has left an extraordinary legacy of music. As soon as the idea was out there I thought, 'Wow, this is perfect. Yes, we have to do this'.”