15. Black Tie White Noise

black tie white noise

Black Tie White Noise” is David Bowie’s 20th studio album and was originally released on 5th April 1993.

After Bowie’s (mis)adventures with Tin Machine, this album was seen by many as a return to form and a return to being the solo artist many fans craved. It was the first album that I remember that came with the initial label of being “his best album since 1980’s Scary Monsters and Super Creeps”, a label that many of his subsequent albums would also share.

The early 90’s was a period of some change for Bowie, not only did he decide to retire the Tin Machine project, but much more importantly, he met the woman of his dreams in Iman Abdulmajid who he would marry and remain happily so for the rest of his life. The album as such reflects much of this married bliss and is bookend with music that he wrote specifically for his wedding.

The album also marks a couple of key musical reunions. Firstly, after the relative commercial and critical disappointments that were his Tin Machine albums (and indeed some albums beforehand), Bowie was keen to get back to some form. Who better to turn to than Nile Rodgers who produced the killer commercial monster that was “Let’s Dance“.  Although Rodgers’s influence is not as strong here as on “Let’s Dance”, the album has a certain “vibe”, a “catchy” quality that makes the album such a joy to listen to. The main difference here is that so many of the songs are of a better quality than those on “Let’s Dance”.

For me though, this album will always be remembered as the album where Bowie finally reunited after 20 long years with the great Mick Ronson (albeit on just one track), his “Spiders From Mars” sidekick who would so tragically pass away before the album was released. The resultant track “I Feel Free“, a cover of the Cream classic that Ziggy and the Spiders would play in their heyday is worth price of admission alone methinks.

The main musical influence on the album though is someone new to the Bowie universe, Lester Bowie (obviously no relation), who’s trumpet playing would provide the major musical theme throughout the album and gives the album a wonderful distinct dimension.

The album opens with the majestic instrumental “The Wedding“, written by Bowie to be played at his wedding. Starting with church bells, it quickly hits a groove that’s both incredible catchy but also romantic in nature. It really is quite a beautiful piece of music.

The next track “You’ve Been Around” is co-written with Reeves Gabrels, his Tin Machine cohort and features Gabrels on lead guitar (although barely in the mix to Bowie’s amusement and Gabrels annoyance), this being the only link between this album and Tin Machine. It has a killer bass line and features Lester Bowie at his best during the trumpet solo. Bowie’s vocal is somewhat distorted, which gives the song a certain eeriness that I’ve always liked. The ch-ch-ch-ch-changes line certainly brings back memories. Rodgers with his production work here has totally transformed a Tin Machine number into a funky, jiving piece that works rather well.

I Feel Free” comes up next and has always been a bit of an emotional number for me as it reunited Bowie with Mick Ronson for the last time in the studio. I have a number of poor quality bootleg versions of this song dating back to 1972 when Bowie performed it with the Spiders From Mars, so it’s kinda nice that he revisited it again on this album. Again, it has that Rodgers inspired groove, but with Ronson’s guitar solo giving it that edginess in the later stages. Bowie’s vocals are much deeper than usual but absolutely divine. A nice way to musically say goodbye to each other.

Up next is the title track “Black Tie White Noise“, a duet with Al B. Sure! where they jointly lament the injustices on blacks living in the US. Bowie was horrified by the 1992 LA race riots that followed appalling attack on Rodney King and was motivated enough to write this tough appraisal of the white/black relationship in the US (sadly, little has changed in all these years). Bowie doesn’t usually tackle political issues with his song writing, but when he does he certainly does so with some bite. This is a truly great song with the joint vocals working perfectly together. The tough lyrics are a little at odds with the catchy, bass lead backing track which slightly disarms what is a powerful protest song. Again, Lester Bowie’s trumpet contribution works beautifully. This was the second single off the album and probably deserved to do better than it did (although it did reach the lofty heights of 76 in in Australian singles chart !!). See music video.

black tie white noise single

 

Jump They Say” is one of the most brilliant of all Bowie songs, an all time top 20 entry and in my opinion perhaps the most under-rated single in his entire catalogue. Based in large part on the recent tragic suicide of his half-brother Terry, it’s a powerful piece where the driving rhythm, the catchy musical phrases, Lester Bowie’s trumpet and the astonishing vocal performance by Bowie all combine to make this epic Bowie masterpiece. Yes, I love this !! This was the lead-off single for the album and came with one of Bowie’s very best music videos, a wonderfully complex view of a corporate executive being driven to madness and eventual suicide by corporate greed and jealousy. If you have never this song before or seen the video, do yourself a favour by watching it here: music video. The video became the basis of a PC video game at the time, where you can edit the video yourself and listen to some Bowie interviews.

jump they say

The brilliance continue on the next track “Nite Flights“, a cover of the Scott Walker classic who was a big influence on Bowie. I would rate this as perhaps the best cover Bowie has recorded, with the exception of the sublime “Wild Is The Wind” from “Station To Station”. It’s that good. Featuring a wonderful backing track, amazing synthesizers and atmospheric touches during the chorus and vocal breaks and again a brilliant vocal performance by Bowie, this is a true highlight of what Bowie could achieve in his criminally under-rated 90’s period. Nile Rodgers deserves much credit for putting all these components together so superbly.

This was most certainly the best side one of music Bowie has recorded since “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps”. It’s that good. Although the second half doesn’t quite match up to the same standard, there’s still much to enjoy.

The second half begins with “Pallas Athena“, another mainly instrumental heavily influenced I suspect by his recent marriage. It’s got that now familiar catchy Rodgers groove, with a bass line and drum beat that drives on and on and with perhaps a nod to the sounds he would explore further with the drum ‘n’ bass on the “Earthling” album. “God is on top of it all, that’s all” is the only repeated foreground lyric, delivered by what sounds like a black American preacher (but perhaps that’s just me). It was actually released as a 12″ dance single in some regions.

Pallas_Athena Single

Up next comes “Miracle Goodnight“, clearly a love song to Iman. It’s a lovely little ditty, that is more keyboard based than much of the other material on the album. Bowie sings the song in a higher register than normal, which gives it that vulnerable vibe. It reminds me a little of his work during the Labyrinth soundtrack period. Released as the third single off the album, it featured a clever video of Bowie (looking a little like The Thin White Duke) at times surrounded by a hoard of women to which he shows no interest and at other times in a weird, jesters type outfit surrounded by mirrors. Oh, and there’s a cowgirl too. Yes, I don’t quite get it either. Watch music video.

miracle goodnight

We now reach the less interesting section of the album. “Don’t Let Me Down & Down” is a cover of a song by Tahra Mint Hembara (who?), a friend of Iman who liked a album of hers and suggested her new hubby should cover it. It’s a nice enough song, but it’s a little sedate and not up to the quality of the previous tracks on the album. There’s is an alternative version that contains an Indonesian vocal which strangely enough is actually an improvement on the album version.

Looking For Lester” is another instrumental, a bouncy fun piece, written I can only assume to highlight the trumpet playing of Lester Bowie. It’s the closest Bowie has really gotten to that jazz feel, with Mike Garson no doubt another influence here, returning again on this track after nearly 20 years. His piano playing features more prominently near the end of the track. Garson would go on to feature heavily in future Bowie albums until near the very end.

I Know It’s Gonna Happen Some Day” is the album low point for me, a cover of a song by Morrissey that featured on his recent “Your Arsenal” album (that was produced incidentally by Mick Ronson, hence the connection here). I’m no Smiths/Morrissey fan (sacrilege I know for someone who grew up in Manchester), but I just find his voice annoyingly whiny and here we have Bowie doing Morrissey doing Bowie. I much prefer Bowie doing Bowie. I even prefer Bowie’s cover of “God Only Knows” from “Tonight“. Enough said.

Happily, the album ends on a high with “The Wedding Song“, a reprise of the excellent opening instrumental, but this time with some yearning lyrics and a heartfelt vocal performance by Bowie (not too dissimilar to his vocals on the excellent “Untitled No 1” on his next “Buddha of Suburbia” album). Bowie produced some of his best work during his dark days, but this song and the album as a whole shows that Bowie is more than capable of producing some excellent material when life is chirpy and kind.

The album was seen as a returned to form by most fans and critics and debuted at No. 1 in the UK charts, his last No. 1 until “The Next Day” album in 2013. I have always loved this album and has a soft spot for me, in part because of the quality within and in part because of the various guest appearances.

The album has come out in various formats over the years, including a special 10th anniversary 2CD+DVD version that contains an extra CD of mainly remixes but includes two additional tracks worth a mention:

Lucy Can’t Dance” is a bouncy, catchy, little ditty that I’ve always quite liked and would have rated as one of the better tracks had it appeared on either the “Tonight” or “Never Let Me Down” albums. It doesn’t quite fit in this album and one can see why it was shelved.

Real Cool World” was recorded during these Nile Rodgers sessions, but was released prior to the album as a single and as part of the soundtrack to the movie “Cool World” (yes, I missed the movie as well). It’s all a bit ploddy with a basic drum beat and electronic flourishes but with little melody or anything to really make it particularly memorable. Bowie even sounds a little bored as he sings away. The fact it was Bowie’s first solo single for quite some years and that it only reach No. 53 on the UK charts suggests not many were taken with it.

real cool world

Bowie didn’t tour the album (and wouldn’t tour again until the brilliant 1995 “Outside” tour), but he did release a somewhat bizarre 1 hour video (included in the 10th anniversary edition) where he discussed the album and mined 6 tracks from the album in a warehouse somewhere with some brights lights and a few hand held cameras. The six tracks selected were “You’ve Been Around”, “Nite Flights”, “Miracle Goodnight”, “Black Tie White Noise”, “I Feel Free” and “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”. The interview/discussion sections are quite interesting and give some insights into the making of the album.

The album proved many of his critics wrong and highlighted that Bowie was far from a spent force and still had it in him to make some amazing new music. He would achieve even greater artistic success with some of his future albums, including the next album on my countdown. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: “Jump They Say”, “Nite Flights”, “Black Tie White Noise”

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19. Pin Ups

pin ups

Pin Ups” is David Bowie’s 7th studio album and was originally released on 19th October 1973.

On 3rd July 1973, David Bowie famously killed off Ziggy Stardust and declared he would never tour again. The following night he enjoyed a retirement party at Cafe Royal in London with a bunch of celebrities buddies and a few severely pissed off Spiders From Mars. And so that was that.

So with future tours put on hold and with it having been ages since he last released a new album (“Aladdin Sane” less than 3 months ago), what else was there for Bowie to do but record a new album and keep his successful momentum flowing.

The plan was to record an album of covers, featuring songs from bands that Bowie loved and would watch live during the late swinging 60’s in London. With an eye on the USA market, they would be songs which were less well known in the USA than they were in the UK.

Bowie’s own notes on the album show his intentions:

These songs are among my favourites from the ’64–67′ period of London. Most of the groups were playing the Ricky-Tick (was it a ‘y’ or an ‘i’?) Scene club circuit (Marquee, eel pie island la-la). Some are still with us. Pretty Things, Them, Yardbirds, Syd’s Pink Floyd, Mojos, Who, Easybeats, Merseys, The Kinks. Love-on ya!”

Bowie also planned to dump the “Spiders From Mars” rhythm section, replacing Mick Woodmansey on drums with Aynsley Dunbar and Trevor Bolder on bass with Jack Bruce. However while Dunbar jumped at the chance, Bruce turned the invite down and so Bolder was somewhat embarrassingly asked to participate in the recording sessions. So without “Woody” on board, this album kinda marks the start of the end of Bowie’s ever so successful and brilliant “glam-rock” era.

With the rest of the usual gang still on board (the dynamic Mick Ronson on guitar, Mike Garson on piano, Ken Fordham on baritone sax and Ken Scott as co-producer), they headed on down to the famous Chateau Herouville studios near Paris to record what would be yet another No. 1 hit in the UK and what really is a fabulous album. Interestingly, Bowie would in only 3 years or so record the “Low” album at the same studio, the difference in musical vibe could not have been any starker !!

Yes there are of course a few tracks better than others on “Pin Ups”, but Bowie really does appear to be enjoying himself here and the band are in fantastic form. Mick Ronson described this as his favourite recording experience with Bowie and it really does show. I’ve always imagined this album as Ziggy Stardust having a bit of fun doing a session at the Marquee Club before the Earth finally reaches the end of its Five Years.

It all starts off with “Rosalyn” originally by The Pretty Things and it’s a real rocker, with both Ronson and Dunbar in particularly fine form. Bowie sings many of the songs on the album with quirky vocal expressions and does so here. This is basically rock ‘n’ roll at its best.

Here Come The Night” made famous by Them comes next and is another great track. The problem I’ve always had with this is that Van Morrison’s performance on the Them version is so damn good, it’s always difficult to top such an iconic version (which Bowie does very successfully elsewhere).  I don’t think this song suits the band as much as many of the others but it’s still an enjoyable listening experience.

I Wish You Would” famously covered by The Yardbirds is another fine rocker, with Ronson I’m sure keen to show off his Eric Clapton like skills.  Again, they all sound like they’re having a fun time playing tunes they love and this especially comes across with this track.

Now “See Emily Play” really is special. I love Pink Floyd and the work of poor Syd Barrett and this is one of the very best early Floyd singles. Bowie here beautifully adapts all the strangeness that Syd encapsulates and then sprinkles Bowie magic all over it all for a fantastic tribute to his musical hero. The verses here are wonderful, especially the second verse with the multi-speed vocals, but the choruses are a joy as is the extended outro section. I love the original but I love this version just as much and no greater praise can I give.

Everything’s Alright” originally by The Mojos features here some fun backing vocals but isn’t one of the stronger tracks here. Again, just close your eyes and imagine Ziggy having a fun night out and it does kinda work.

I Can’t Explain” originally by The Who is OK but not great but then I think the same can be said for The Who original as well. It’s a bit of a plodder and although Bowie sings it well and the sax throughout is wonderful, the arrangement is a bit lame as is the little guitar solo. It’s notable in being one of the very few tracks on the album that Bowie would ever perform live.

Friday On My Mind” originally by The Easybeats is almost an Australian anthem and so has a special place in my heart (I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve hummed this in the middle of a boring week). Thankfully, Bowie again does this song total justice and is an absolute highlight here. The arrangement is wonderful, Ronson plays the famous guitar riff perfectly and Bowie sings the song with all the working class, glam-rock brilliance that Harry Vanda (Easybeats member and co-writer of the song) said was the only cover version of his song that he liked.

Up next is “Sorrow” recorded famously by The Merseys and the only track released as a single, where it was yet another big hit for Bowie reaching No 3 in the UK and yes, a No 1 smash in New Zealand. Now I’ve listened to this album 100’s of times over the years and I still think this track is by far the weakest point on the album. It’s just all a bit bland and mushy, especially compared to so many of the other tracks here. But like I said, the single was a huge hit and many think it an original Bowie classic, so what would I know. There was no official video made for the single although the performance recorded for the remarkable “1980 Floor Show” has become the unofficial version. Link Sorrow Video.

sorrow

Don’t Bring Me Down” originally by The Pretty Things is another example of a great rock ‘n’ roll song being performed with aplomb. Dunbar’s drums are great, Bowie’s quirky vocals are spot on, the instrumental middle section just rocks and Bowie’s harmonica throughout just lifts the whole thing. A joy.

Shapes Of Things” is yet another highlight. Bowie has often described Ronson as his “Jeff Beck”, so it’s only natural that Bowie/Ronson would nail this version of The Yardbirds classic. Again the whole band are in fine form, but it’s Ronson’s version of the classic Jeff Beck solo that steals the show. It would have been great to have seen this performed live, if only…

Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” is the second Who track to feature and if truth be told, is again a little disappointing. I’m not a huge Who fan so it obviously influences my judgement, but this track has always left me a little ho-hummed. It’s an OK performance but no more so than that.

Where Have All The Good Times Gone” originally by The Kinks closes the album and must have been a personal favourite of Bowie’s as it’s the only track to have its lyrics printed on the album. It’s a rather lovely version, with Mike Garson’s little piano flourishes a highlight for me as is Dunbar’s drumming. Actually, Dunbar’s drumming is a highlight throughout the album. Bowie sings this in a downbeat manner as he laments where have all the good times gone and does rather predict things to come for Bowie.

The end of the album, with the somewhat downbeat ending in terms of its vibe brings things back to the album cover, which has always been one of my favourites. A fantastic photo of a dreamy looking Twiggy (“the wonder kid”), the famous model who seems to be reminiscing of past glories maybe from the 1964-67 era the album covers, while “Ziggy” Bowie seems to be looking in dread to some horrific future to come. Where have all the good times gone indeed with his awful experiences of LA all soon to come.

So overall, a really enjoyable, fun album that did it’s job of being a perfect little filler to keep the fans amused before moving on to more series stuff.  I love it but doesn’t get ranked any higher on my list for the simple reason it doesn’t contain any Bowie originals. It’s an often forgotten album, in that its anniversary has come and gone over the years with no “special edition” as yet released although it’s been re-released and remaster a number of times. Most notable of these being the 1991 era Ryko/EMI Sound and Vision release that featured a couple of bonus tracks:

Growin’ Up“,  a cover of the Bruce Springsteen song is actually a track from very early  “Diamond Dogs” sessions and features Ron Wood on guitar. Bowie was a big fan of early Springsteen and recorded a couple of Springsteen tracks. This one sounds a little like a demo and doesn’t have the polish of a completed track. Bowie does an OK US impersonation here but perfects this vocal style by the time he gets to “Young Americans“. There was always talk of a Pin Ups II album that would feature American songs, but sadly never materialised.

Port Of Amsterdam” is actually from the Ziggy Stardust sessions and is a cover of a Jacques Brel song. It features here as it was the B-Side of the “Sorrow” single. Although I much prefer his stunning live performances of Brel’s “My Death”, this really is an excellent cover and probably deserves more credit than its received. With its slow start and building acoustic guitars, Bowie’s vocals positively soar by the end of this rather sordid little ditty. It would have been hopelessly out of place on the Ziggy Stardust album, but is the perfect B-Side gem.

There was of course no live tour for this album, Bowie had just “retired”, but Bowie did perform “Sorrow”, “Everything’s Alright” and “I Can’t Explain” as part of the fantastic “The 1980 Floor Show Midnight Special” TV special he recorded on 19th October for NBC in the US. If you haven’t seen this (possible as it’s only been officially shown in the US), it’s a superb “must-see” experience and marks the end of Ziggy Stardust with it being the last time he performed with both Mick Ronson (for many years anyways) and Trevor Bolder. The costumes themselves are worth price of admission as is Bowie’s duet with Marianne Faithfull as they perform “I’ve Got You Babe”. 1980 Floor Show link.

Other than that, the Pin Ups songs were very rarely performed live. “Sorrow” did feature a few times, especially during the 1983 “Serious Moonlight” tour, as did “I Can’t Explain” for a few of the earlier 1983 shows.

With Pin Ups,  we mark the end of an era. No more Ken Scott, Bowie’s important co-producer since “Hunky Dory”, no more Trevor Bolder, the Spider on bass also with Bowie since “Hunky Dory” and perhaps most notable of all, no more Mick Ronson, his superb side-man since “The Man Who Sold The World” and who was such an important ingredient for all the amazing, formative albums since then. It would be some 20 years before Bowie would (sadly all too briefly) reunite with Ronson.

Bowie would of course move on after the demise of Ziggy Stardust and later in the year work on yet another masterpiece. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: See Emily Play, Friday On My Mind, Shapes Of Things