Wednesday 3 February 2021

David BOWIE: Black Tie White Noise


(#477: 17 April 1993, 1 week)


Track listing: The Wedding/You’ve Been Around/I Feel Free/Black Tie White Noise/Jump They Say/Nite Flights/Pallas Athena/Miracle Goodnight/Don’t Let Me Down & Down/Looking For Lester/I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday/The Wedding Song


(Author’s Note: The original CD issue of this album includes three bonus tracks – an “alternate mix” of “Jump They Say,” a Meat Beat Manifesto remix of “Pallas Athena” and the album outtake – many still protest that it should have been the lead single – “Lucy Can’t Dance,” essentially an extended jibe at Madonna, which may explain why it was not.)


Just as the synthesised train effects at the beginning of the song “Station To Station” were oddly reassuring, so are the tubular bells which introduce “The Wedding” and therefore this album. The bells are played by Michael Riesman, normally musical director of the Philip Glass Ensemble – and that is far from this record’s only reference to an illustrious predecessor.


The bells yield to an engaging, midtempo study in semi-static funk, with a bassline which may stem from “White Lines” – but wouldn’t it be nice if he had gone directly to “Cavern” for his inspiration? – and which acts as an informal leitmotif throughout the album (it resurfaces on “Nite Flights”).


Then emerges a very familiar, and formerly quite desolate, sound – that saxophone which its player seems intent on treating like a synthesiser, or at least a mellotron; a sound source which is experienced rather than performed. We recall its doleful coda to “Subterraneans,” a piece of music which seemed literally hope-less (though for keenly attentive listeners it turned out not to be the case)…and it is as if this spirit, this casualty, has risen, become reborn, has returned to the visible surface of things.


Did I mention that, despite its frequently desperate lyrical nature, this generally comes across as such a happy album?


It is as if the ghost of that jazz club has materialised in tandem with the falling of the Wall. The annexation of Eastern sensibilities – which recurs as late in his day as “blackstar” – remind us that she is Somalian. The woman who married the artist, who probably saved him. There are some wordless falsettos – not made-up words, but no words at all – possibly filtered through a Fairlight but heavily reminiscent of…well, do I need to say which Scotsman? An abrupt backwards vocal loop, like a genially gnarled signature, concludes the opening. The speed of life, indeed.


I think it was very good of Bowie to come back with an Associates record.


Once past its drone introduction, “You’ve Been Around” – a song from Tin Machine days – settles into sharp but amenable art-funk underlined by an amicably jogging bass, again reminding us of what The Glamour Chase by the Associates could have been like. Again he remodels the song as an effective tribute to his wife, with some self-fourth-walling (“But you’ve changed me/Ch-Ch-Ch-Changed!”). The album’s co-producer Nile Rodgers, finally able to make the avant-pop album he’d expected to have been asked to make a decade previously, is deep but audible in the mix; in contrast, Reeves Gabrels’ guitar contributions are scarcely detectable (his own lead lines provided a significant difference in the song’s original version) – my understanding was that this was intentional on Bowie’s part.


Nonetheless, his new sparring partner now comes bounding into the arena; that other Bowie, from St Louis, possibly the outstanding (and almost certainly the most recognisable) musician in post-Coleman jazz, his instantly identifiable trumpet boldly skittering into the picture as surely as it had done on “Theme De Yoyo” over twenty years earlier. Apparently one of the Bowies had long been keen to work with the other one, and throughout the record Lester proves a marvellous foil.


“I Feel Free,” the Cream original of which is the first record I can clearly remember hearing in my infancy, is from Bowie’s core era of the mid-sixties, and his reading here effortlessly outshines everything on Pinups (on which the song had nearly appeared) – he seems to take Low’s “What In The World” (which itself referenced the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love”) as a template and his at times comical baritone suggests that he is trolling Iggy (who also appeared on “What In The World”).


Yet that is not why the song is here, and situated so closely on the record to “Jump They Say,” since both songs refer to his half-brother Terry Burns – while attending a Cream concert in Bromley with the younger Bowie in 1966, Burns suffered a severe mental collapse with lucid hallucinations; in January 1985, by which time he had been a long-term inpatient at the Cane Hill psychiatric hospital in Coulsdon due to schizophrenia, he sneaked out of the hospital grounds, walked to the local railway station and jumped in front of an oncoming express train. He was killed almost instantly.


Hence there are swathes of breakdown swirling around Bowie’s “I Feel Free,” and the climactic guitar solo was performed by a returning Mick Ronson, as though old ghosts were indeed being summoned up – Ronson had produced Morrissey’s 1992 album Your Arsenal (of which latter, more anon) and Bowie got back in touch with him. Already very ill with cancer, Ronson nevertheless turned up for the session, one of the last sessions that he was to play in his life – so the performance serves as a partially inadvertent memorial.


Whereas “Jump They Say,” which again uses “What In The World” as a broad stylistic template, is a rather clinical study case of a suicide which tends to avoid the issue of personal commitment; there is little to the unknowing outside observer to suggest that he is singing about family (which may have been an intentional coping process). Nevertheless, as a single, it made enough impact (at least in Britain) for people to regard it as an almost-pop record, “Let’s Dance” put right (but, paradoxically, never more wrongly, subject-wise); again, Lester Bowie’s contribution, mirroring the agony of the protagonist’s mind, helped make the song effective.


The title song is troubling but intriguingly so – its words refer directly to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which Bowie and Iman witnessed, albeit from high-up, in the comfort of their hotel suite. The song also pours scalding scorn on the notion that “protest” songs can alter anything – he and co-singer, the Bostonian New Jack Swing operative Al B. Sure!, run through a series of examples, including “What’s Going On?” (prefaced by some guilty giggling), “We Shall Overcome,” “We Are The World,” “I Got You Babe” and, perhaps accidentally, “No Doubt About It,” Errol Brown’s own witness account of a space oddity. The song’s seemingly formulaic R&B setting is, I think, deliberate, since Bowie (and Sure!) waste no time in warping and detouring it, harmonically and otherwise. Strangely, the song fades out to a refrain of "Chick-A-Boom (Don't Ya Jes' Love It)," a 1971 novelty hit for “Daddy Dewdrop” (a pseudonym for the song’s producer and main performer, Dick Monda) written for the animated television series Groovie Goolies (“This really far out cat was screaming half crazy”).


In “Nite Flights,” Bowie finally comes to terms with Scott Walker, and interprets what was already a very Bowie-esque song precisely as “David Bowie” would have interpreted it. His reading is a recapturing as well as a salute, and the presence of Nile Rodgers suggests that Bowie had realised his true vision of 1978, since this version broadly sounds like the Walker Brothers as played by Chic (I must say, generally, how great it is to have the bass back on this album, given its effective absence from Bowie’s parched, stolid mid-eighties).


As with “The Wedding,” “Pallas Athena” was composed by Bowie for his and Iman’s marriage ceremony, and it was one of the most experimental things he had done for years; it sounds like a trip-hop variant on “Subterraneans” – he had obviously been listening to Massive Attack – with a more prominent, if still word-free, one-man vocal choir which indicates that “Weeping Wall” may have been more in Bowie’s mind. Added to this are the plaintive trumpets (overdubbed, both open and muted) of Lester Bowie, which sound like a homage to the then-recently departed Miles Davis. Over and over, a vocal sample (possibly a processed Bowie) declaims “God is on top of it all.” But on top of what – a dormant volcano?


With “Miracle Goodnight,” we are firmly in the land of Prince, with its cheery kids’ TV synthesiser riff (reminiscent of “Delirious”) which musically is progressively derailed by Bowie – a troubled, mumbled soliloquy, an elaborate Fairlight interlude of classical flurries, Rodgers’ Nigerian high-life single-note guitar meditations - but stands as one of his most open and moving proclamations of love. At times – “It was only ma-ake be-EE-lieve!” – we find that he is still emulating the mythical Anthony Newley.


“Don’t Let Me Down & Down” – so much better than “Never Let Me Down” – was an Anglicisation of the song “T'Beyby,” originally recorded in 1988 by the Mauritanian singer/songwriter Tahra Hembara, which came to Bowie’s attention via its inclusion on a mixtape CD which Iman had put together. Here, Bowie turns it into an R&B lurve ballad in the partial manner of Luther Vandross – who, eighteen years earlier, had sung on his earlier “plastic soul” experiment, Young Americans – and more so in the manner of Jam and Lewis/Alexander O’Neal. Though regarded by some commentators as an exercise in unforgiveable vulgarity, I find Bowie’s continued plasticity quite affecting – and there is a direct Newley reference (“What kind of fool am you and I?”). The piece is topped by a lyrical trumpet solo by Lester Bowie – broadly Chuck Mangione, with a touch of Harry Beckett – and I find it as moving a performance as “Can You Hear Me?” Indeed, the presence of Fonzi Thornton and others among the backing singers, as well as a very characteristic harmonic modulation which cycles through the song’s fadeout, caused my penny to drop – this is Bowie doing Scritti Politti!


“Looking For Lester” is a summery smooth(ish)-jazz-funk workout in the Barney Miller signature tune sense, or at least initially makes us think that it is. Again, Lester Bowie’s solo is compelling (like Herb Alpert on pep pills and slide whistles – though I wish I knew who the other trumpeters on the session were; I don’t think they are all multitracked Lesters) – but then Bowie’s alto re-enters the picture and acts, at length, as its own “direct inject anti-jazz ray gun”; it seems to want to dismantle any picture of “jazz.” Technically never an articulate saxophonist, Bowie nevertheless stayed focused on what he wanted to communicate via that instrument and how he wished to do it. In the event, his old pal Mike Garson pops up towards track’s end for a typically zippy piano feature.


Then, Bowie does Morrissey. He perhaps does him camply, but I think does him better. “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” had been the penultimate track on Your Arsenal (not a number one album) and in that Ronson-produced form could have been judged a send-up of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”; Bowie presumably decided to return the homage to its sender and here treats it as a gospel epic, complete with strings, horns and backing choir - and some storming lead guitar from one Wild T Springer, a Trinidadian who came to Toronto in the eighties and spent some time as a member of the band Rough Trade before forming his own blues band, Wild T and the Spirit - although, once again, he is vocally far closer to Newley than to Andrae Crouch. His version acts as a friendly rebuke to Morrissey – hey, Steven, I meant it, you know. Was he simply trying to make himself matter again, rather than anti-matter, in 1993?


All I do know is that overall he sounds more contented than he had done on any of his previous albums – free of the eighties, free of Tin Machine, free in part from expectations (sales were generally disappointing; in Britain, they barely exceeded 100,000). Don’t call it a comeback? Perhaps call it coming out of an eighties coma. Some expected a friendly Stunning Return To Form and they got Fuck-You Art-Jazz-Rock – and I’m sure that is absolutely what Bowie intended.


But, just as the turnaround midway through “Station To Station” is the aural equivalent of a gigantic window finally being allowed to open and permit the sunshine to penetrate that blue room, Black Tie White Noise bears the hallmarks of liberation. It concludes, as his previous great album had done, with a bookend parallel reading of the opening track, now with words, sung, again, in the manner of Billy MacKenzie. Never did he sound more contented, Bowie, more at peace with himself. It represents the payback to “Be My Wife,” the single chink of honest light which he had hitherto allowed in. Reader, she said yes, and married him.