I’ve been very lucky lately about getting albums that I wanted on vinyl, which were not released in that format when they were firs came out on the market in the 1990’s. Today I scored a copy of David Bowie’s “Black Tie, White Noise” which was one of my top five albums I wanted a vinyl release of, and I only just recently found out it was now on available in this format. This is the album that I was talking about the night Grz famously rolled over half asleep and said “I love you, but I have no opinion on David Bowie records I’ve never heard before,” which sort of became the inspiration for doing Vinyl Stories.
Now I’m going to be honest. When “Black Tie, White Noise” was first released in 1993 I really didn’t like it that much. I was 17 years old and this was the first new David Bowie albums that had come out since I had become a fan. But I was still drinking up his Ziggy Stardust phase, and while I was really into his music, my true appreciation of the scope of his talent was still very shallow. I remember Jay Nadeau and I skipped our morning classes to go to the mall and buy this on cassette the moment it hit the shelves, and then we went back to Jay’s place to listen to it. I remember being really underwhelmed, and I rarely listened to it after that. But when I got older, and as both my tastes and understanding of music got more sophisticated, I rediscovered this album and realized it was brilliant, and was probably just far too sophisticated for my 17 year old self. Its why I often referred to this album as Bowie’s “ignored gem.”
In a lot of ways, “Black Tie White Noise” was the rebirth of Bowie after a rocky decade of career instability. After Bowie’s MTV phase he had released some dull and forgettable releases (some of the worst of his career), before changing direction completly and starting his own band, Tin Machine. Tin Machine was well received by fans, and was a positive experience for Bowie, and he felt rejuvinated and was ready to go solo again and dissolved the band in 1992.
The same year Bowie married Iman in a private ceremony in Switzerland, but upon returning to Los Angeles, the newlyweds got trapped in a hotel that was in ground zero of the 1992 LA riots. As the couple watched the city burn down below them from their hotel room, Bowie reflected on the juxtaposition of the love in his life, and the chaos in the streets caused by racial unrest, The concept of racisms had never seen more foolish to him, and “Black Tie White Noise” became his statement on racial equality and injustice. Bowie experimented with sampling and hip hop beats for the first time, and created some of the most provocative music that he had created in over a decade.
For me, the highlight of the album is the bookend songs, titled “The Wedding Song,” featuring some beautiful saxophone work and haunting vocals. The most powerful song is “Pallas Athena,” a mostly instrumental number, which fuses together African chanting and that powerful sax again. But these songs aren’t produced to party to. They weren’t going to be radio hits. They are something deeper, which I’m not convinced what 90’s music was about. Honestly, “Black Tie White Noise” should be a 90’s classic, but it kind of got left behind,. tts one of Bowie’s best albums, but also his most underappreciated. But if you really do a deep listen to it, you’ll see that even in the 1990’s David Bowie was trying to push music into new and exciting directions that other artists had yet dared to go.
But what is even more important about “Black Tie White Noise” is how timeless the themes of the album are, and how in the post-Trump era that this album needs to be heard more than ever. In a time where police violence continues and movements like Black Lives Matter become more relevant and important in our society, “Black Tie White Noise” speaks to our current society even louder despite the fact that Bowie has been gone for seven years. But while it could be rcriticized that this is a white artists’ take on racial inequality and injustice, I believe that it is an important statement from the prospective of an allie who had a position and a voice to point out issues during an era where voices were more marginalized. Bowie was concerned with the racial unrest in the world, and this is his personal statement. It is a statement that still holds up thirty years later and louder than ever, proving the last power of David Bowie.