There seems to be a consensus here that David Bowie's worst period was '81-'89. As much as I'm inclined to agree, some of the messages I read seem to disown those years entirely, as if the music David made at the time were truly worthless and his career would have been better without it. That's what I can't agree with. I don't want to sound boastful whenever I mention that I'm a long-time fan, but having been a fan long before "Let's Dance", I was able to witness the importance that album had in giving David's popularity a much needed boost. And the albums that followed it, as well as the singles and soundtracks, were more or less in a similar vein, even if, for better or for worse, they lacked the Nile Rodgers touch.
Before 1983, being a Bowie fan was a lonely business, at least in Brazil. But I had the chance to talk to an American guy in 1981 and when I asked about David Bowie, he said: "Well, he's good, but he had his day." So I don't think it was much different elsewhere. Maybe just a little worse here. There wasn't even a song that I could sing or mention that people would remember or recognize. "Ashes to Ashes" was a minor hit in 1980. "Under Pressure" did slightly better in 1981, but mostly because of Queen (some Brazilian radio stations wouldn't even mention Bowie). The name David Bowie did ring a bell, but people would remember him as "that androgynous guy" and that was it.
Then came "Let's Dance". The title track got A LOT of airplay over here! Then "China Girl" and "Modern Love" followed! All of a sudden, there were "Bowie fans" all around! I wrote it in quotes because it would take some time for those kids to really discover the wealth of material David had recorded in the 70's. They were too busy dancing to those songs, then to "Blue Jean", watching the "Labyrinth" movie and so on. Even a renowned fan like Dara admits to having discovered Bowie through "Let's Dance" and thinking it was his debut album. And he was not the only one. I've heard the same story from other fans. Not to mention the girls who became fans because of "Labyrinth". So the 80's were definitely a breath of fresh air for David in terms of popularity. Initially I had mixed feelings about it, but ultimately I felt proud that my long-time idol was hotter than ever, playing to sold out stadiums in the Serious Moonlight Tour. The Time cover story titled "David Bowie Rockets Onwards" gives a clear idea of how hot David was at the time.
I know 21 years have gone by and many of you discovered David Bowie much later. Still, I don't think David would have as many fans as he does today if he hadn't recorded those popular songs in the 80's. He would probably be like Lou Reed, Iggy Pop or Brian Ferry, with a cult but restricted following. So my opinion is that the 80's were very important in his career and whenever you put that period down, you are disowning the very music that made you aware of Bowie in the first place. As for those who discovered him later on, maybe you would have become fans, maybe you wouldn't, but you can't deny David had a solid basis to build on when he returned to more adventurous albums in the 90's. And his newly discovered popularity certainly helped sell his back catalog when it was reissued.
Oh, and his music in the 80's wasn't that bad. Really. Even "Never Let Me Down" had its moments.