One of David Bowie’s most impressive attributes was his ability to combine musicians from seemingly disparate styles to create an end product – David’s Dream Team – that was somehow greater than the sum of its parts. On paper, the combination of disco impresario Nile Rodgers, blues heavyweight Stevie Ray Vaughan and ex-Weather Report drummer Omar Hakim seems like a line-up that shouldn’t ever really happen, but ‘Let’s Dance’ goes to show that the Thin White Duke had a keen sense of what was required for his music to stay innovative.
‘Let’s Dance’ kicks off with an introduction lifted straight from The Beatles’ ‘Twist and Shout’; layered vocals and horns build up the Eb7 harmony over the course of four bars, supported by a steady stream of 8th notes from the bass. Rather than resolving as expected to the I chord (Ab), the song’s main groove is built around Bbm, with Nile Rodgers’ staccato chords floating over the descending bassline. It’s worth noting at this point that ‘Let’s Dance’ has both electric bass and synth bass parts, with the bass guitar handling the intro and bridge sections and the synth covering everything else.
Back to the main groove: there are elements of the classic ‘question and answer’ compositional technique here – notice the contrast between the driving quarter note descending lines (greater pitch variation, less rhythmic activity) and the syncopated phrases that follow them (greater rhythmic activity, smaller pitch range). Bowie’s preference for non-diatonic harmony that shows up in so many of his songs is present here in the Gb major chord (‘flat 7 major’ in the key of Ab).
The bridge section finally treats us to the I chord, with the electric bass playing long, sustained root notes interspersed with brief 16th note fills at the end of each four-bar section. Notice how the bass creates a suspension by playing an Eb in bars 35-36, rather than following the Db to Eb chord progression as it did four bars earlier.