Why David Bowie Remade His Comeback Hit “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”

In a career defined by its many transitions, David Bowie’s 1983 album Let’s Dance marked perhaps his biggest musical departure. It was the moment when Bowie fully embraced pop and appealed to a even broader audience. It was also his first album to reach the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 since Station to Station went to No. 3 in 1976. The title track was Bowie’s first Top-10 single on the Billboard Hot 100 since “Golden Years” from Station to Station went to No. 10.

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However, Bowie’s return to the upper reaches of the charts did not come completely out of nowhere. He all but disappeared from the singles charts during his Berlin period of the late ‘70s, but his 1980 videos for “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion” gave Bowie a presence on MTV during its first few months in 1981. A pair of singles recorded in 1981—Bowie’s collaboration with Queen, “Under Pressure,” and the movie soundtrack hit “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”—extended Bowie’s bridge from rock stardom to pop phenomenon. The former has gone on to become possibly the most recognizable song featuring Bowie, while the latter has been largely forgotten, even though it was his highest charting solo hit in six years.

Bowie himself took a step to potentially make his original recording of “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” obsolete. Just nine months after it was released as a single, Bowie recorded a new version of the song. Here’s why Bowie felt the need to give it another try.

Representing Cat People‘s “Weirdness”

Bowie was recruited to record the theme song to the 1982 erotic thriller Cat People, which was a remake of the original 1942 film. Director Paul Schrader and composer Giorgio Moroder, who wrote the score for the film, agreed Bowie was the right person to record the theme song. In Dylan Jones’ 2017 biography David Bowie: A Life, Moroder recalled saying to Schrader, “Who shall we take for the single? Who represents that weirdness of the movie?” Bowie was the obvious answer to that question. He agreed to record the track, and he wrote the lyrics.

Moroder and Bowie created a song that effectively conveyed the otherworldly mood of Cat People. Their version of “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” begins slowly, with atmospheric synths and percussion. Drums and guitars don’t make their entrance until nearly two minutes have elapsed, when Bowie’s cool and controlled vocals suddenly explode with energy. Synths and percussion remain as important elements of the song’s sound throughout, but the presence of studio whizzes like guitarist Michael Landau, bassist Leland Sklar, and drummer Keith Forsey gives it a rock edge.

“Cat People,” Take Two

As was his wont, Bowie decided he wanted his follow-up album to Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) to have a different sound. Towards that end, he worked with Nile Rodgers as his co-producer for Let’s Dance. In Chris O’Leary’s 2019 book Ashes to Ashes: The Songs of David Bowie 1976-2016, Rodgers is noted as having said, “The way ‘Cat People’ came out on the soundtrack really bothered him. He didn’t like it at all.”

In addition to wanting to record a version that was more in line with his original demo, Bowie wanted to have a rendition of “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” that would fit in with the brighter, jauntier sound of Let’s Dance. The contrast between the remake and the original is apparent right from the start, as Rodgers introduces the newer version with a dirty guitar riff. Bowie explained his more straightforward approach to his second attempt at the song in a 1983 interview, saying, “I took the instruments away. They’re not quite so integrally important to the music on this album. It’s far more just a very simple base to put the lyrics and the melody on. They don’t weave quite such a magic spell over the construction of the lyrics, or lend an ambience to the lyrics. They get the chords right and that’s about all I wanted to do.”

One instrumental feature Bowie added to the remake was a blistering Stevie Ray Vaughn guitar solo. Vaughn was featured on all but two of the eight tracks from Let’s Dance, and the album helped to elevate the previously little-known guitarist to superstardom.

The Impact of “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”

Some may think of “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” as the song that led to Bowie making “Under Pressure” with Queen. Bowie recorded “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” at Mountain Studios in Montreaux, Switzerland, and Queen were at the same facility putting down tracks for their Hot Space album. “Under Pressure” was the result of a joint Bowie/Queen jam session.

Though “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” has come to be overshadowed by “Under Pressure,” it was an important single for Bowie at the time of its release. Its Billboard Hot 100 peak position of No. 67  was his highest for a solo single since “TVC 15” went to No. 64 in 1976. Despite its relatively low peak, it became just his sixth solo single to spend at least 10 weeks on the Hot 100. It also went to No. 9 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart, and of Bowie’s songs, only “Modern Love” has equalled or topped its 20-week stay.

The version of “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” that appeared on Let’s Dance was not released as a single, but was nominated for the 1984 Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. It ultimately lost out to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”

It would be an enormous overstatement to say “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” had the same sort of impact that “Let’s Dance” or “China Girl” had on Bowie’s career and the culture. The song did play an important role in getting Bowie back in regular rotation on album-oriented rock stations. Even more significantly, the two versions provide a before-and-after set of snapshots of Bowie in his pre- and post-pop star incarnations.

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Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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