David Bowie co-wrote ‘China Girl’ with Iggy Pop while the two were living in Berlin, with the track featuring on the former Stooges frontman’s debut album The Idiot (1977). Bowie’s reinterpretation appeared some six years later on Let’s Dance, featuring a host of top-flight session players and production duties handled by Chic’s Nile Rodgers. The big-budget makeover proved to be more commercially successful than the song’s first recorded incarnation, reaching No.2 in the UK charts and No.10 in the US. Bass duties for Bowie’s recording of ‘China Girl’ were handled by Carmine Rojas, whose part on ‘Let’s Dance’ can be found here (David Bowie – ‘Let’s Dance’ bass transcription).
‘China Girl’ begins with Nile Rodgers’ classic guitar line (note the rather clichéd use of parallel 4ths to impart a ‘far Eastern’ flavour to the melody), with the band joining in four bars later. Carmine Rojas’ line here uses a combination of chord tones and scalar approaches to outline a chord progression of G major and A minor, which also forms the harmonic base for the verse section.
If you listen closely to the recording while taking a look at bars 9-16 of the transcription, you’ll notice the huge impact that articulation and note length have on the feel of a bass line; Rojas plays root notes on beats one and three of every bar, but the way he plays them changes – sometimes he uses full quarter notes, filling up the space until Omar Hakim’s snare takes the next beat, while on other occasions he opts for a more staccato approach.
Structurally speaking, ‘China Girl’ doesn’t conform to the typical pop song form of verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge – the names of each section on the transcription are my best attempt to capture how each part of the song feels and functions. The theme that enters at bar 49 and is used throughout the rest of the song is my personal favourite, showcasing how to use scale-based melodies as a means to craft a memorable bass hook.
The eight-bar pattern is also a masterclass in balancing repetition (make it memorable!) with variation (keep the listener interested!): after hearing the ascending E minor scale figure repeated once, it’s easy to think that you know what’s coming. However, instead of copying and pasting the idea onto every single chord change, Carmine Rojas opts to play driving quarter notes under the D major chord, adapts the initial pattern to outline C major and then inverts the pattern for the last two bars, ending on a descending scale run that leads back to the E minor chord on each repetition.
This section also showcases the tone of the bass – you can hear how the attack of the pick on the strings brings out the bright, metallic character of the bass, allowing every note to cut through the mix.