As we hit the anniversary of the Starman’s death there will no doubt be a deluge of tributes, retrospectives and thought pieces related to his enviable collection of material. As a memorial to one of the greatest artists of this generation GIGsoup are highlighting his penchant for reinvention over the often over-looked 90’s period – where there were soundtracks, collaborations and the artists take on a future world. Over the next few days GIGsoup writers pick their personal 90’s Bowie favourite and tell us why, even in a decade of dance, Britpop and boybands, the artist led the way in popular music.
In popular culture terms, the 1980s are often characterised as being a decade of indulgent excess; one in which integrity, substance and subtlety gave way to a focus on commercial success, surface-level glamour and an unapologetic ‘bigger means better’ mentality. David Bowie, a proven genius though he was, was seemingly no exception to the message of the day. After successfully upgrading leagues from Britain’s premier chameleonic national treasure to global pop sensation by dominating the charts with the polished, Nile Rodgers-produced new wave record ‘Let’s Dance’ in 1983, Bowie spent the rest of the decade regrettably seeking to retain his popular standing at all costs, resulting in a slew of uninspired pop albums that failed to match ‘Let’s Dance’ commercially and alienated his fanbase creatively.
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‘Black Tie White Noise’, then – his first solo outing of the 1990’s, following his collaborative ‘Tin Machine’ side project – was intended as Bowie’s re-emergence as a solo artist, hoping to correct the course after his self-described “Phil Collins years”. Recorded with Rodgers back at the helm, it’s a slick, vibrant affair, taking inspiration from the burgeoning New Jack Swing movement (a la Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’) and bristling with modern electronic flourishes and funk elements – but with a slightly wacky, more avant-garde twist that harkened back to Bowie’s celebrated 1970s work, being reminiscent of the off-kilter ‘Lodger’ in particular. The record’s twelve tracks present loose concept album exploring Bowie’s then-recent marriage to Iman Abdulmajid, who has been credited in retrospect with providing the famously hedonistic star some much needed stability in his life after his battles with addiction throughout the 1970s and his creative struggles in the decade prior.
Opening with the pulsing, instrumental ‘The Wedding’ – which along with the equally danceable ‘Pallas Athena’ were written for the couple’s wedding ceremony – the album straddled the line between the accessible and the experimental. The curious lead single ‘Miracle Goodnight’, for example, was a giddy ode to new love featuring spoken word, stream of consciousness interludes and a climbing, chromatic guitar riff, but nevertheless found Bowie sounding vindicated and free, as if he was genuinely having fun for the first time since ‘Let’s Dance’. Elsewhere, his brooding, house-indebted take on Scott Walker’s ‘Nite Flights’ is one of the album’s more intriguing listens, with the way its world-beating chorus (“be my love/we will be gods on night flights”) overshadows the desolate verse lyrics hinting at Bowie’s borderline idolisation and deification of his new spouse as a literal – as opposed to merely figurative – saviour.
Other tracks diverged somewhat from the overarching theme of the record but still gave a glimpse into the recently middle-aged singer’s psyche; title track ‘Black Tie White Noise’ was an electro-soul comment on US race relations inspired by the 1992 Los Angeles riots – presented as a duet with New Jack Swing artist Al B Sure! – which aside from a few clunky, ham-fisted couplets (“I’ve got a face/not just my race”, “sun goes up and the man goes down/woman comes again”) still sounds fresh and immaculately produced thanks to its liquid, groove-laden bassline and jazzy saxophone breaks. ‘Jump They Say’, meanwhile, despite its upbeat musical backing, dealt with Bowie’s difficult feelings surrounding his half-brother’s suicide in 1985, and another notable cover ‘I Know Its Gonna Happen Someday’ – appearing as the penultimate track – presents itself as a genuinely optimistic, affecting torch song within the record’s wider “love will set you free” context, eliminating the wry, tongue-in-cheek bleakness of Morrissey’s original.
Overall critical response was, in general, cautiously warm. Whilst it would be his final album to reach the number one spot until his surprise, much publicised comeback ‘The Next Day’ in 2013, after a close to ten years of largely forgettable chart-pop releases and public indifference to ‘Tin Machine’, the world was ostensibly hesitant to re-affirm their faith in Bowie as a musical and cultural force so suddenly.
In hindsight, however, ‘Black Tie White Noise’ is a flawed but fascinating record, and one that was perhaps more ambitious than it seemed at the time, despite being regarded today as one of his less celebrated releases. If nothing else, it crucially marked the point in his career where Bowie began to make music for himself and his core fanbase again, as opposed to appeasing the commercial lowest common denominator and a large, faceless and fickle general public – a trend that would give birth to a scattershot array of projects throughout the remainder of the decade, such as the industrial, dystopian rock opera ‘Outside’ and the outlandish, drum and bass-aping ‘Earthling’. After a decade in the wilderness, it was ‘Black Tie White Noise’ that finally saw the demise of David Bowie the mere pop star, and heralded the return of David Bowie the innovator.