Tuesday, February 14, 2012

shit that doesn't fit: Black Tie White Noise - David Bowie - 1993

Trying something not too new for this one. I've thrown in the random Prince review here and there but am too distracted from the rest of my shelves to keep avoiding those CDs that don't fall into the hard rock and metal categories that this blog has leaned toward for most of its existence. I don't know how often I'll try this type of post as it's bound to alienate the approximately half-dozen readers I draw but feel like someone has to write about two-decades old Bowie debacles and similar ilk.

So, to start the healing, I'm going to jump right in with the record that damn near devastated my faith in one of rock and roll's icons. In 1993 I was in college and carting around a crate of relatively fresh Rykodisc reissues of the classic David Bowie catalogue that I had cobbled together one at a time over the previous year or two. For those who may not recall (or who were never interested in the first place), CDs were dominant at the time yet still fairly new and Rykodisc was the first label to tackle David Bowie's work in the format and had done an exceptional job with everything from Space Oddity through Scary Monsters, showcasing phenomenal artwork, remastered sound and bonus tracks. Bowie had been playing rock band with Tin Machine since '91 and those records combined with his heavy history made this young music fan very, very happy. I bought these albums one at a time as meager paychecks came in and pretty well immersed myself in Bowie. Once in college, disposable cash was harder to come by and when the first new post-Tin Machine record hit the shelves I had to scrape together whatever I could to get it. This was pre-internet, pre-sampling and, magazine-less, I had no preconceived notions of the contents of Black Tie White Noise.

While I was aware of the radio hits, I had more or less avoided the dance radio of Bowie's EMI releases from '83-'87 (Let's Dance, Tonight and Never Let Me Down). They're records I appreciate more now but, at the time, they were recent transgressions that the straight-up rock of Tin Machine had only begun to rectify. Black Tie White Noise's packaging looked too slick but the clerk told me Mick Ronson was involved. I laid my money down, ran back to my room and opened the record. Mick Ronson was on one track. And it was a shitty, unnecessary Cream cover. I skipped around, desperate for something better. Oh...a shitty, unnecessary Morrissey cover. Oh... a duet with Al B. Sure! (yes, the exclamation point was always included then). Oh... keyboards, Nile Rogers, songs about his wedding to Iman.... fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck... I proclaimed it all style, no substance, shelved it and never quite forgave David Bowie though I did, admittedly, keep buying each and every new release, of which there have been far too few in recent years. It's that dearth of new Bowie material that has had me scouring the backcatalogue as of late and, eventually, brought me back to Black Tie White Noise. Has Black Tie White Noise improved with time? No. It's the same. It still sounds like a lot of plastic jazz snob rock that lame adults dig. Except now I'm a lame adult. And I kind of dig it.

For a man over-over-over-described as "chameleonic," Bowie does hand in another rebirth/reboot with Black Tie White Noise, and this time starts over the romantic dance/soul vibe that he succeeded with in Let's Dance. Never mind that it was horribly out of place in 1993 and would be turned on its head by his cold and convoluted follow-up, Outside, just two years later. Like Bowie's EMI efforts, Black Tie White Noise wants for depth and, despite its sonic leanings, soul. Still, no one emotes plastic detachment that still manages to seduce like David Bowie. After instrumental opener (and thematic bookend), "The Wedding," "You've Been Around," a re-worked Bowie/Gabrels Tin Machine leftover, is promising enough, with a driving beat and a cold, unaffected menace not unlike that Leonard Cohen provided on I'm Your Man. Despite what others say, I still find the Ronson re-team on Cream's "I Feel Free" wasted on a cover of a track that was weak to begin with. "Jump They Say" was the album's single and understandably so. Again, it fits nicely with the recent EMI sounds, instrumentally, not far removed from Lodger. It is "Nite Flights," though, a Scott Walker cover from '78, that really delivers upon revisitation and, perhaps it's the title's similarity to "African Night Flight," but, for me, it also recalls the textures of Lodger as well.

"Pallas Athena," an instrumental composed for Bowie's wedding ceremony, was a track I originally scorned and, ironically, it now sounds so very much like the Chemical Brothers material I was repeatedly smoking along to only a year later. "Miracle Goodnight" still emotes too much synth skronk for my taste but does bring great Bowie backing harmonies against his lead vocal that, again, takes me back to Lodger, particularly "Boys Keep Swinging." Again, with years between that first listen and the most recent, the Morrissey cover, "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday," has turned digestible, preferable to the original in its gospel choir incarnation here, presented in the proper melodramatic setting that, with Morrissey on his own, can tend to annoy. Other tracks, such as the clumsy attempt to update "Ebony and Ivory" with the title track, still fail entirely.

Black Tie White Noise is redeemed, I guess. It's still not great by any means. As a coherent album and artistic statement, it's not even good. Measured against Bowie's career arc as a whole, though, it is now an intriguing point of reference and a fascinating amalgamation of sound that came before with hints of the very fertile period that was to follow from 1995's Outside through 2003's fantastic Reality. An utter oddball in 1993, Black Tie White Noise still remains out of place in 2012, as outdated and uncategorizable as the day it was released but, like most Bowie, it keeps me coming back to investigate, explore and, finally, enjoy.


  1. David Bowie. The other day when you asked about what legacy band would you want to see, after thinking about it, he's definitely on the list. I think it might be a tossup between him and the Cure.

    I grew up on Bowie, my dad was a pretty big fan. I actually kind of dig the 80s stuff, just because that's what I remember hearing my dad play at the time. I actually kind of really like Never Let Me Down and the whole crazy OTT Glass Spider/Serious Moonlight tour.

    It probably doesn't stand up to the test of time these days and looks incredibly cheesy but it still holds a place in my heart. (and for some reason, it's a little easier for me to digest than late 70s Thin White Duke cokehead Bowie..for a good time, read his ex wife's biography where she goes on and on about him being convinced some black spot on the bottom of his pool was a gateway to hell and the devil was coming for him. Granted, I'm sure she paints the picture to suit her but still entertaining)

    Back on topic, I totally skipped over this album, going from Tin Machine I to Outside, so I don't really have a whole lot to add other than professing love for DB. (Hallo Spaceboy might be one of my favorite DB songs) If I had a time travel device, my first stop would probably be the Bowie/NIN tour.

    As far as new Bowie (rather, the last few, now nearly 10 years old) I'd have to take Heathen over Reality.

    Also, one more quick bit, re: alienating the 6 readers you get. I have to say, I kind of feel the same way. I'd like to think I'd write more if I knew somebody besides asiandentistry-hokeylink.com.net was responsible for more of my traffic. But your blog is an inspiration, extremely well thought out and written. I have a tough time writing something more than 'I like this because I do and if you don't, you suck'. Good, in depth stuff you've got going on here, keep it up.

  2. Thanks, as always for your comments. I didn't touch on it here but have certainly come to love Let's Dance and Tonight, though I have to admit I still am not attached to Never Let Me Down. I'm most attached, overall, to Low but also have a special place in my heart for any of the Outside and on work. I did see Bowie in '97 at the Aragon in Chicago touring in support of Earthling and a lot of Outside material was still in the set (NIN on their Downward Spiral tour was a pot-hazed, surreal experience but still a memorable one).

    Thanks for the words of support as well. I am late to the whole social media sphere yet the handful of intelligent cyberfolk I have connected with via this blog offer me more human interaction than most of the flesh and blood I interact with throughout the rest of my day. Someday, perhaps, our paths will have to cross and many beers will be consumed.