In recent days, perhaps weeks, I’ve been doing something that I have not done for a while. No, not that, you filthy minded types. I have, look you see, been listening to David Bowie albums.
For most of the last year my Bowie listening has been somewhat limited to Blackstar, with a trip to Tin Machine during November. It just didn’t feel right, or I didn’t feel up to it, going back to that which once was. One day, though, I said right, let’s get them all out and unpacked and enjoyed again. So I did, and so I have.
Once upon a time I did a series of posts called Listening To Who, in which I randomly wrote about a specific album off of The Who. As they tended to be rather well received, I figured why not do the same with my adventures with David Bowie records? If it is of interest to anyone great, and if it lets someone discover a record for the first time well then so much the better.
The starting point for this, then, is the one which I listened to most recently. That would be 1993’s Black Tie White Noise.
Some trivia and what not to commence? Sure. It was David’s first solo album of new material for about 6 years, with the last one being 1987’s Never Let Me Down. It has the honour of being the first ever David Bowie record to be declared as being “arguably his best and most important album since Scary Monsters”, a review which would be awarded to at least five of the next seven albums he would release. It was a UK number one album in a time when you had to sell a lot of records to even chart, knocking Suede’s debut off the top before being knocked off itself by Automatic For The People by REM. And, if that in itself does not illustrate what an amazing time it was for music back then, it’s also worth noting that Black Tie White Noise was only Bowie’s second best record of 1993.
Provenance of my copy of the record? An interesting story. I was approached by someone who worked at a record label to do a recording job for them, for making video to video copies was still quite an in-demand art back then. In return for this I could either be paid cash or I could select a couple of (then very expensive) CDs from their catalogue. I selected the new Bowie release, thanks, and a “best of” The Sweet.
How best to describe the feel and sound of this record. Hmn. I’ve always referred to it as a sort of funky jazz, or if you like jazz funk. This is mostly because David unleashes his rather unique approach to saxophone playing across a lot of the record. David himself, and producer Nile Rodgers, described it as an attempt to put melody and soul back into what was then coming to be called the “new R&B”, something which in 1993 was sounding very sterile and machine produced when compared to the raw emotion of R&B and soul in the 60s and 70s. A noble effort, and one that sadly seems to have failed when you listen to all the talentless sh!t that masquerades as “R&B” these days, but anyway.
Highlights? More now that it felt like at the time. There’s a kind of refined, I want to say melodramatic but it is wrong, mellow sense to the record. Despite the fact that he was this, when he recorded it he was far too young to be doing easy, middle of the road, elder statesman of rock stuff like this – hence, probably, the creative anger backlash that followed in the form of Outside and, in particular Earthling. If you imagine this record was made by Bowie in his 60s rather than his 40s then it sounds a great deal more better.
I got distracted there somewhat. The lead single, Jump They Say, remains as strong a track now as it was then. The cover of Morrissey’s then fairly recent I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday is inspired and witty. According to an interview with David himself, when he heard the Morrissey original he thought “cheeky” as it clearly borrowed from Rock N Roll Suicide off of Ziggy Stardust. As either revenge or, more likely, an acknowledgement, David describes his cover as “me doing a Morrissey impersonation of me”. Works now as it did then. You’ve Been Around is also a pretty decent tune. The edgy, somewhat raunchy nature of it tells you that it was probably intended for a third Tin Machine album.
The title track? Ostensibly a reaction to the racial violence which flared up in LA after the Rodney King “incident”. He and Iman happened to be in the area when it all kicked off looking for a new home, which is perhaps why they eventually settled in New York, and a number of Italian castles. There is more to the song than that, though, As part of the overriding aim of the record mentioned above, it was a song intended to reference, perhaps reconnect, with the black American blues music which had inspired him and so many other British musicians in the 50s and 60s.
Speaking of Iman, the record features some of the music which Bowie composed for their wedding. Wedding and Wedding Song are the somewhat obvious two, but Pallas Athena also.
Despite being a sizeable Bowie fan I would not call myself a world leading expert on him. I mean, I know bits of trivia, and this and that, but I wouldn’t say I have definitive or exhaustive knowledge. I know enough, however, to know that some who claim to do this have been saying all sorts of wrong things in the last year. Black Tie White Noise is a good example of why some so-called experts shouldn’t be saying what they are.
Firstly, there’s a lot of talk about how, as an artist and musician, David “never looked back”. Nonsense. Other than one of the remixes of Jump They Say featuring samples from the celebrated Cracked Actor documentary off of the 70s, Black Tie White Noise contains a cover of I Feel Free purely for his personal memories – something we will get to.
Other examples of David not “never looking back”? sure. The 1980 re-recordings of Space Oddity and Panic In Detroit, the 1990 re-recording of Fame, the early 2000s re-recordings of Conversation Piece and Rebel Rebel, just about all of the unreleased Toy album, etc, etc. He was, I would suggest, an artist that loved and cherished what was in the past, and enjoyed tinkering with it.
Also, musicians. On Black Tie White Noise he worked again with Mick Ronson, who he’d not recorded with since (if my memory is right) Aladdin Sane, Reeves Gabrels from Tin Machine and of course Nile Rodgers, who he created Let’s Dance with. In respect of the latter, “going back” to work with producers would see a reunion with Brian Eno on the next record, Outside.
The other thing which has been said of late is that what made Blackstar so astonishing was that it was rare, if not “never the case”, that Bowie let personal feelings, thoughts or emotions be expressed explicitly in his music. Really? Again, that’s his wedding music on the record – how much more explicitly personal are you looking for him to be? Also, he did not hide away from the fact that Jump They Say was him writing his feelings on his step-brother’s mental health problems and suicide. I Feel Free was covered on the basis of memories of attending a Cream concert with him.
In interviews and things like VH-1 Storytellers Bowie was great at being entertaining and informative without ever revealing all that much about his private life. Music, however, was a different matter. It would not have been as great as it was, is and always will be if he hadn't poured all that he had into it.
This was only Bowie’s second best record of 1993, then. First? What was ostensibly called the soundtrack for a TV adaptation of The Buddha Of Suburbia, despite very little of the music actually featuring in it. The nine original tracks on that record (the tenth is a different version of the title song with Lenny Kravitz on guitar) represent some of the finest work which Bowie ever gave to the world.
Somewhere in a box I will have the VHS of Black Tie White Noise. It features, from what I remember, 5 or 6 performances of songs from the album, along with some interviews. I think that’s where I heard him say all the stuff I mentioned above about the Morrissey cover. The video got a DVD release as and when DVD was invented, but I don’t think I upgraded.
Black Tie White Noise is no lost or forgotten masterpiece. It’s a very good album, but it would be a bit much to say it is one of his greatest. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it in full for, most likely, the first time since the year it came out. Well, I was more bothered about the other 1993 release from him.
Anyway, that shall do for that. If, as hoped for at the start, this has been of some interest to someone somewhere, most happy day.
Which Bowie album next? No idea. Let’s see what I end up listening to, and if I feel of a mind to write some thoughts about it.
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
be excellent to each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!