Black Tie White Noise

Black Tie White Noise.
Black Tie White Noise (video).
Black Tie White Noise (Arsenio Hall Show, 1993).
Black Tie White Noise (The Tonight Show, 1993).
Black Tie White Noise (3rd Floor US radio mix).
Black Tie White Noise (club mix).
Black Tie White Noise (Here Come Da Jazz mix).
Black Tie White Noise (extended remix).

A week after they were (first) married, Bowie and Iman flew to Los Angeles for some apartment shopping. Their first night in LA, 29 April 1992, was to be marked by a celebratory dinner. Instead, dinner was cancelled and the couple stayed in their hotel, watching from their windows as the city burned. “The whole thing felt like nothing less than a prison break,” Bowie said the following year to Rolling Stone. “By people who have been caged up for too long with no reason.”

The very JG Ballard image of a rich man standing in his hotel suite, watching a riot unfold in the city below and feeling vaguely euphoric about it, would seem ripe inspiration for someone who’d once written “Panic In Detroit.” Instead, Bowie’s L.A. riots song was “Black Tie White Noise,” a track teetering between dark sarcasm and watery humanism. Though saved from complete disaster by its lyric’s occasional self-awareness and harshness, “Black Tie” drowned this acerbity in a glossy jumble of “contemporary” R&B sounds, the backdrop to Bowie’s duet with a mediocrity, Al B. Sure!.

“Black Tie” started as Bowie’s attack on the pop tradition of interracial-brotherhood songs, from “Black and White” to “Ebony and Ivory” to the song it seemed to be directly answering, Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” “Black Tie,” while inspired by a racial crisis, denies any wisdom, its most coherent point being that songs of its ilk (Bowie mentions by name “We Are the World,” “We Shall Overcome” and”What’s Going On” (and he weirdly drags “I Got You Babe” into these ranks)) have nothing to say about such crises, that they’re instead cheap slogans meant to make “white liberals” feel better, as Bowie told the NME in 1993. “[Black people] have their own ideas of how they can improve their lot, and they couldn’t give a fuck what we think. They don’t want our advice.” (This seems like Bowie had just seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which had opened in late 1992.) In another 1993 interview, Bowie was scathing about how such songs strive to find “white sameness within everybody” as a means of racial reconciliation.

This emphasis on chastising messengers suggests that Bowie, having long lost any contact with the street, especially the American street, could only approach life via songs. But he was aware of where he stood. In 1993, Arsenio Hall asked Bowie if he and Iman, as an interracial couple, had ever experienced any hostility. Bowie was blunt: never, because the two of them had been established as celebrities well before they’d married. They already had public personae, so their wedding was more akin to the merger of Warner and Time Inc. than it was the potentially “troublesome” union of an African woman and a white British man. To consider their marriage as a typical interracial one would be, as in Bowie’s opening line, “getting [your] facts from a Benetton ad.”

That said, Bowie was playing with his marriage as a symbol. The song’s title is a vague reference to their wedding gear, as well as a comment on their personae (Iman: elegance, Bowie: abrasive music). As he was envisioning having children with his new wife (and he would), it’s fair to say he was considering the future that his bi-racial child would inherit. He finally had some stake in the game, and he was optimistic in an apocalyptic way, believing that a series of further L.A.-style riots were needed before anything changed. “There’s going to be an awful lot of antagonism before there’s any real move forward,” he told Record Collector. Or as he had Al B. Sure! sing: “there’ll be some blood, no doubt about it.”

However, these were all just public statements. “Black Tie” as a finished song, as a title track, discarded the troubling and contrary notions that Bowie was voicing to the press in favor of an awkward and at times tasteless production, one apparently meant to bury the song’s fatalism in a vein of pop R&B so lifeless that it could have won a Grammy.

“Black Tie” as a composition was already an ungainly bird, alternating between pairs of verses set in a vague E-flat major and a longer pair of bridges (interrupted by an 8-bar break over the verse chords) that establish the song in A-flat (with Eb revealed as the dominant chord). (The only curveball is an out-of-key F-sharp minor seventh chord that transitions verses to bridges and vice versa). Over this Nile Rodgers slathered a paste of sounds: a jawboning wah-wah guitar, Lester Bowie’s ebullient trumpet fills, over-mixed drums, a quavering piano ostinato, washes of synthesizer and Tonight-style supper-club backing vocals (their staccato “black! tie! white! noise!” is the closest “Black Tie” comes to a hook, and it’s preferable to Bowie’s descending croak of “no-oi-oi-se” or his would-be-reggae chant of “cranking out” in the coda).

Then there was Al B. Sure!,* to whom Bowie generously gave the opening verse and who got many of the song’s allegedly dramatic moments (and who handled the lion’s share of the high notes, like the peak A-flat on “Lord Lord” in the bridge). Sure!’s performance is ultimately a blank, with little sense of personality imparted. As Bowie said he spent ages coaching Sure! as to how he wanted the vocals to sound, it’s possible that Bowie just shoehorned him in too tightly. It didn’t help that Sure! was given lines like “I’ve got a face, not just my race.

The latter line is in the bridges, which were apparently meant to be the emotional peaks of the song, with the two singers facing off on a street as though it’s the last minutes of Reservoir Dogs. But whatever nuance and fatalism Bowie tried to impart in his lyric is rubbished by the vocals, which border on the comical (“you won’t kill me! you won’t kill me NO!” or Bowie’s singsong “I won-der WHY, I wond-er WHY“) and was finished off by Rodgers’ production, with its swooning high synth lines and occasional murmurs of Bowie’s saxophone.

The break (starting at 2:29) has the best singing on the track, in service of the song’s apparently straight-faced “We Are the World” moment, the cynicism giving way to a heartfelt plea for togetherness. Bowie said that he didn’t want to make another “Ebony and Ivory,” that his song was meant to be a bitter riposte to such treacle, but maybe that’s all he really had in him.

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or Power Station, NYC. Released as the second single from the record it titled, (Arista/BMG 74321 (#36 UK)). Some 15-plus remixes were made of this song! Please see the Illustrated DB site’s entry for a complete breakdown. Of the mixes linked above, the “3rd Floor” mix was first issued on a promo CD for US radio and later was included on the BTWN reissue; the “club mix,” the Extended Remix and the Here Come da Jazz mixes (the latter uses Bowie’s “crankin-out” coda chant as its central hook) were on the UK 12″ promo (BLACK 1), with the latter included on the BTWN reissue.

* Sure!, a man with one of the more ridiculous stage names in pop history, was an occasional chart presence at the turn of the Nineties, with one top 10 hit (“Nite and Day”) and a few R&B #1s (“Off on Your Own,” “Right Now”). By the time “Black Tie” was released in late ’93, he was cooked: he didn’t release another LP or single until 2009.

Top: Dark Sevier, “Los Angeles,” April 1992.

66 Responses to Black Tie White Noise

  1. Ian McDuffie says:

    I’ve always found the song so glossily irritating I couldn’t even make out what the lyrics are. Having now read them, it’s a real drag this song wasn’t so much better. “I know you won’t kill me, but sometimes I wonder” looks chilling on paper, but in performance it’s completely lost.

  2. humanizingthevacuum says:

    At the time I was offended that Bowie had stuck the singer and writer of the awesome “Nite and Day” with these lyrics. Sure! winces his way through them.

  3. Mike says:

    Cringeworthy. I witnessed the LA riots first hand, and it certainly didn’t sound or feel like this….

  4. Maj says:

    One of my least favourite songs on the album. This just is not a good song, musically: it’s weird but in the wrong way, no proper hook or melody. It meanders and never goes anywhere. And to be honest since the song is so dull it’s never even crossed my mind the lyrics are not 100% earnest…

    Ebony & Ivory is at least controversial in that it’s a huge, overplayed annoyingly ear-wormy hit that many people hate (me included). BTWN is also a bit annoying but the overall impression I get whenever I listen to it is just “meh”.

  5. David L says:

    And we’re back in Never Let Me Down land, a big bag of noble intentions crushed by stunning ineptitude.

  6. Diamond Duke says:

    Well, I don’t know…I’ve always liked it!😦 What it’s got in its favor (or should that be my favor?) are those wonderfully unexpected, rather jarring chord changes after each verse (on the “Putting on the black tie / Crankin’ out the white noise” part). That, and I like the overall groove of it. Perhaps my admiration for this song is more cerebrally based, rather than visceral. From a more detached standpoint, I can somewhat understand why this song would fail to engage people on a musical level, because the overall production sound is kind of bland and lacks any real kick (although I believe most of BTWN is at least interesting enough to transcend this limitation). Another negative factor is that, as a song, it kind of feels like an interesting experiment that didn’t quite ignite into any real fire. Lyrically, it certainly can’t be faulted for its good intentions, and you can certainly tell that Bowie at least tried to compose a song about racial harmony (or the lack thereof) without resorting to easy liberal platitudes, but in terms of the overall statement made it’s kind of muddled. Try as he might, Bowie is not really a “message” kind of songwriter.

    Two more things:

    Is it true that Bowie only decided to work with Al B. Sure! after failing to enlist the services of Lenny Kravitz? (Perhaps there was a scheduling conflict? Kravitz eventually did lay down a guitar solo for the “Rock Mix” of Buddha Of Suburbia.)

    I read somewhere (or maybe my memory is playing tricks on me?) that the riff for this song is based on a jam by Bowie with his old friend Keith Christmas called Both Guns Are Out There. Any truth to that?

    Keep up the good work, Chris! Your research has been quite thorough, and you’ve come up with quite a few interesting tidbits of information for the last couple of albums. Quite impressive considering that not a great deal is known about the history of Bowie’s post-’80s work (beyond of course what the man himself has volunteered). I’m really, really, reeeeeeeaaaaallly looking forward to reading your thoughts on Outside (my personal pick for the “best since Scary Monsters” title)! 😀

    • col1234 says:

      dd–yes to the Kravitz, I think. As to the Christmas claim, I will do a brief “both guns are out there” entry after the BTWN album, in part about this (but long story short, I really don’t know, as the original demo hasn’t circulated).

      • david says:

        I also read somewhere that he wanted TLC, or was it Destiny’s Child? Bowie and Beyonce. What a thought.

      • BenJ says:

        David,
        Beyonce was just 12 at this time and Destiny’s Child were an unknown group called Girl’s Time. I doubt they were on Bowie’s radar at this time. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did reach out to them sometime post-Earthling, pre-retirement.

      • Diamond Duke says:

        david,
        Wrong period, I’m afraid. David eventually would express an interest in working with TLC, having them sing background vocals on Thursday’s Child (from “…hours” in ’99), but Reeves Gabrels didn’t like the idea, instead suggesting that they enlist the services of Holly Palmer…

  7. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Nope, sorry but I really dislike this song. Bowie’s stated aim might have been not to make another Ebony and Ivory. But the “bitter riposte to such treacle”, which would certainly have been welcome, just doesn’t come through at all.
    Intead all we get are a load of posturing and cringeworthy platitudes drenched in syrupy synth-strings. And dredging up memories of the dreadful, treacley “We Are the World”, whether he’s being ironic or not, just doesn’t help matters. I think Diamond Duke nailed it when he said that David Bowie is not a “message” songwriter at all. Nor should he ever try to be. He didn’t used to, and I think that’s one of the key reasons that I loved him in the first place.

    • humanizingthevacuum says:

      Not to sidetrack this thread, but as dreadful and treacly as “We Are The World” is as a song, it’s a much better realized performance than “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” Robert Christgau never exceeded this review (whose conclusions I share): http://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/rock/song-85.php

      • humanizingthevacuum says:

        “surpassed” I should have said.

      • stuartgardner says:

        Infinitely sharper is the “We Are The World” tease in the Pop / Bowie composed title track on Iggy’s 1986 album. “We are the world / We are so huge / Blah-blah-blah…”

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        hhmmm, I started to read Christgau’s piece but it just went on and on. But all I can say is, sorry HTV, but once again I have to disagree with you. “Do They Know It’s Christmas” though not a great song, is at least one I won’t rush to turn the radio off when it comes on. Whereas “We Are The World’ is just, two fingers jammed forcefully down the back of the throat, sentimental slush, B-A-A-D. Lionel Richie is the antichrist.

      • humanizingthevacuum says:

        Band Aid loses because they didn’t employ Dionne Warwick, Daryl Hall, and Stevie Wonder. Band Aid is a through-the-looking-glass peek into Britsoul: Tony Hadley! Simon Le Bon!

  8. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Chris, I visited America briefly in the mid 90s, and the impression I got as an outsider was that, unlike what Hollywood and TV sitcoms had tried to portray, blacks and whites didn’t mix much at all. Would you say that’s still the case post 9-11?

    • col1234 says:

      well this is a ridiculously difficult question to answer in a blog comment, but i’ll just say much depends in the US on a) class and b) region. I grew up lower-middle-class in the South and went to 50/50 black/white school, with great interaction between the races. I went to high school in the North, at a suburban school with about 4 black kids. (guess which had more open racism?) I’ve lived in “unfashionable” parts of Northern cities, in apt. buildings where most of my neighbors were black. I currently live in a blue-collar-but-slowly-gentrifying New England town that’s very white. So again, I guess it all depends on where you are, basically.

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        Yes, I realized as soon as I’d posed it how difficult a question that is to answer. In the end I guess you can only such answer it with anecdotal evidence from your own experiences living in different areas, as you have done. Thanks.
        Incidentally, I was in New York when the not guilty verdict was announced in the O.J Simpson trial. At the time, watching the local news, and on the street, it seemed as if reaction to the verdict was divided along racial lines.
        I remember being staggered that such overwhelming DNA evidence against him could be disregarded, but was careful to keep my opinion of the case to myself. There was almost a suggestion of fear that if he’d been convicted it could have sparked another LA riot, but on a national scale.

  9. Patrick says:

    Glad it;’s not just me. A mess, disjointed and often muddy semi buried lyrics in search of a tune and a hook. The ” Black Tie, White Noise, Noi, Noi Noi” is just embarrassing and irritating..

  10. It’s “crankin’ out”, as in “crankin’ out white noi-oy-oy”etc.

  11. stuartgardner says:

    The notion that one’s feeling of interracial brotherhood might be demonstrated by having confidence that the other race isn’t going to MURDER you is the saddest thought any Bowie lyric offers; I remember struggling to justify it as sarcasm or hyperbole the day the album was released, and of course failing. I still recoil every time I hear it.
    That the same track has one of my favorite Bowie moments is truly ironic; the intro, with the sound of the scratched vinyl record, the “Yo, yo, yo, yo,, YO…” and the horns is just dynamite.

    • stuartgardner says:

      A trivia note on the Rodney King riots. While Bowie and Iman were on their balcony, two friends of mine who owned a chain of radio stations were in the back of a limo with Stevie Wonder, all of them still unaware as they drove into the city of what was going on.
      Traffic slowed and eventually stopped as they found themselves entering the chaos and learning the cause of it from the radio.
      Bill and Gill told me that Wonder suggested he get out and try using his celebrity to calm the crowd and restore some peace, but that it was clear to them that his good intention owed much to his inability to see the size of the mob and scale of its madness, and that it took some effort on their parts to talk him out of the plan.

      • stuartgardner says:

        Is there an option for editing one’s posts here which I’m overlooking? My failure to capitalize Iman’s name is an embarrassing typo.

      • col1234 says:

        all fixed, Stuart.

      • Anonymous says:

        Thank you, Chris. Sorry to derail with a tech question, but for the future, is there a way we can do this ourselves? Thanks in advance, either way.

      • col1234 says:

        sorry, but no: only way is to make everyone co-blog-moderators, which is not going to happen. if there’s an error or typo in a comment, just tell me and I’ll correct it as soon as I can.

  12. Ian McDuffie says:

    I was a little kid and living in LA when the riots happened. My family, by chance, took a vacation to northern California the day the riots began, and stayed there for the duration.

    So my memory is a strange youth-twisting of coming back to a city that’s changed in unknowable ways (for example, the library we went to was a blackened crisp when we returned). I certainly didn’t understand what was going on, though my parents didn’t try to sugarcoat it for me.

    But even then, I can safely say this song doesn’t even invoke LA ’92 from a child’s perspective. It’s just too slick. Is the fake record popping supposed to be edgy? It’s as close as the track gets. It’s so gaudy as to be nearly offensive.

  13. Mike F says:

    The opening 30 seconds are interesting. Fake vinyl crackles and wah wah guitar as if this were some lost 70s soul classic. Then the way too loud 90s drums kick in and Lester does his bit. When the singing finally starts, it’s all over for me. The urge to hit the skip button is overwhelming.

    When it comes to commenting on LA race relations, Bowie sounds like a clueless Mitt Romney figure. A rich white Brit who happened to fly into LA is probably not going to have brilliant insights on the LA riots. And social commentary has never been his forte.

    The hooks (“noy-oy-oyz”) and lyrics that I can make out (“you won’t kill me”) are awful, cringe worthy stuff. I watched Bowie and Al perform this live on Arsenio. The “you won’t kill me” bit was a WTF moment.

    Bowie’s ability to spot young talent has slipped. On “Young Americans,” he featured Luther Vandross patterning “Fascination” on Luther’s song. Here he decided to put the spotlight on Al B. Obscure!

    Bowie took control of the sessions from Niles but he needed someone, not a yes-man, to give him objective feedback when his ideas were off. I could go on and on but the less said about his train wreck of a song, the better.

  14. Brendan O'Lear says:

    As a frequent visitor to LA, I often pass the time on solo drives out from the airport by wondering exactly which hotel the Bowies were staying in to get such a good view of the riots. … My money’s on the Super8, Inglewood.
    There was actually a book published quite recently titled something like “Black talk, blue thoughts”. Nothing to do with Bowie, but related to the LA riots.
    I was always puzzled by the Keith Christmas story. Seems very unlikely but then again so unlikely why make it up?

  15. tin man says:

    so-so…, no great Bowie stuff!
    the 1974/ 75 Plastic Soul Era is far better! there’s nothing in common with that kind of new r’n’b (with little r & little b) ridicule duet… completely interchangeable & highly predictable. A multitude of “artists” already did it more than a 10000 times.

  16. Maj says:

    Not sure if this is the right place to start this but…what do we in general think of Bowie as a lyricist?

    A while ago I decided to put together a list of my favourite lyricists and Bowie did not make it. By far. And he’s hands down my favourite solo male artist. Hm.

    • He’s often an unfortunate lyricist, especially in his glam phase. But he reached a peak in the STS-Berlin era. Scary Monsters has real howlers though.

    • col1234 says:

      I’m curious as to what people think. I’ll just say that DB’s lyrics, even more than most rock singers, are intended for performance. On the page, they often die. “Joe the Lion,” “Ashes to Ashes” are lyrical masterpieces on record IMO that seem silly, trite and clunky when printed as “verse.”

      • Maj says:

        Good point.

        I don’t think he’s bad by any chance (there are things like Alternative Candidate to which I listened to before I decided to ask this…), but I think you picked the right reason why he never got into my list: I tend to prefer lyrics that work regardless of their context. Ashes or Heroes work best in the moment, on the record or when performed.

        Also I’m not sure how to define his song-writing style in this regard…he doesn’t predominantly create images or write stories or create word plays… I have to say I was disappointed by his attitude towards lyrics writing (the cut ups etc.) because I’m a very word-oriented person (is that a thing?), it almost made me feel like he didn’t care.

        Hilariously enough, considering he had a lyric-writing block at the time, one of my favourite lyrics of his are those to Sound and Vision. To the point.🙂

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        Maj – a lot of people have problems with Bowie’s cut-up lyric writing process. On the surface it seems nonsensical,( or in your case interpreted as offhand) and open to parody. But what I think Bowie was trying to do is circumvent the “good taste” that his instincts would impose when writing traditionally, in much the same way that Eno uses his oblique strategies cards.
        There’s a scene in Dead Poet’s Society where the teacher grabs an avowedly shy kid who sees himself as a non-poet, covers his eyes, and forces him to “free form” in front of the whole class. What comes out surprises everybody, and can be seen as a bit Burroughs-ian.

      • stuartgardner says:

        Isn’t criticizing a song lyric for not reading well on paper like criticizing a waffle for not making a good snow tire?

    • Patrick says:

      As mentioned he often used the Burroughs cut up method at least in the 70s. Which suggests he viewed words often as a vehicle for the music rather than narration or coming “from the heart” as it were.
      There’s a fine line between genius and embarrassing madness eg in “Time falls wanking to the ground” – “Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow”. Audacious, jarring, memorable.
      I think though some of the lyrics make “Heroes” a much more poignant track (though not great poetry) while the relative obscurity in places of say “Young Americans” plastic soul it may be, but it’s more evocative lyrically than BTWN’s clumsy social concern-by-numbers.
      “From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads” is one of my favorite lines. Even though DB wrote Life on Mars? almost as a exercise in songwriting form (after My Way) it almost suggests a T S Eliot The Waste Land quality in places.
      As Dylan Thomas once said (really he did), the best poetry is like cheese. it has holes so what is not in the poem can get through.

      • col1234 says:

        consider also the cut-up/ more random style of lyrics DB gets into ca. 1970 is a reaction to his earlier songs, which were often very clear & narrative (see the 1st album, even as late as “God Knows I’m Good,” which someone, i think Momus, once nicely called DB attempting Balzac via Dylan)

        as i think i said, the big hinge is “Mars?” first verse: trad narrative, 2nd verse: cut-up, impressionist, with gawky lines left in for kicks or for their sound

      • Lyrics are not my priority; I notice only when they’re especially good (Bowie’s got a few) or especially bad (Bowie’s got more than his share).

      • algeriatouchshriek says:

        wanking to the floor

    • Bowie has two type of lyrics – ones that are chosen for the way they sound and for pure imagery, and ones that have literal meaning. His literal lyrics tend to not be very good. I feel the same way about his lyrics as I do about opera libretti – I generally appreciate them more when I don’t understand them and they just compliment the musical intent. Otherwise, I find them trite more often than not. (Though there are exceptions – Absolute Beginners and Ziggy Stardust don’t offend me. Black Tie White Noise does.) Bottom line is, he is not a clever Cole Porter or Sondheim, and he isn’t a poet like Dylan or Cohen, but he’s a pretty good Bowie when he wants to be.

  17. Momus says:

    Bowie is an autodidact whose writing is scattered with malapropisms, neologisms, howlers, solecisms, breakages, oddities. “It’s not really lyrics, it’s just the power to charm” might sum it up for me. When it charms, it really charms. Since someone mentioned Alternative Candidate, I adore:

    I make it a thing when I’m on my own to relieve myself
    I make it a thing when I gazelle on stage to believe in myself
    I make it a thing to glance in window panes and look pleased with myself

    Later in that lyric we get “a kick in the moon” and “do I have to give your money back when I’m the Fuhrerling?” (a word even more divinely decadent than the use of “gazelle” as a verb).

    He’s an extraordinary artist, but lyrics are just one arrow in his quiver, one colour in his paintbox. When he’s bad he’s rotten, but it doesn’t matter; there’ll be something else to dazzle: a gesture, good make-up, amazing shoes, a sexy little gasp, a Buster Keaton move, the way he counts the band in…

  18. Mike F says:

    Momus nailed it. Bowie is not a gifted writer but he is very creative and takes big chances. Sometimes he succeeds brilliantly. Other times he fails in a big way.

    Colin is also correct. His lyrics are best enjoyed in context of the song including the tone of voice, character he is playing (if applicable), atmosphere of the piece, etc.

    I am very hesitant to read his lyrics on paper instead of listening to them in context. It’s sort of like seeing the hot girl after the bar has closed and the bright lights are turned on.

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      I’m not usually one for sitting around analysing lyric sheets but BTWN might have benefitted from one. It’s the one Bowie album where I cannot make out what he’s singing half of the time. Then again, the bits I can make out in the title track suggest that it may be just as well he didn’t give us a lyric sheet for this one.

  19. gcreptile says:

    I have to admit that I quite liked this song at first. I liked the somewhat superficial lounge jazz production and assumed that the song was Bowie’s take at ‘Ebony and Ivory’. I am german and always have to make an extra effort to absorb the lyrics, so it took me a while to realize how weird some of the lines are, like ‘You won’t kill me…and I wonder why sometimes’. Now that I read about the background and Bowie’s original intention, I understand what a complete mess this is.

  20. Jeremy says:

    Actually I really like this song. It took ages for me to like it but one day I put on the album and it kind of clicked. I like it that it’s a mess. I skip other tracks on this album but not this one.

  21. MC says:

    I have a certain fondness for this song too. It’s clunky as hell, lyric-wise, the production and arrangement are flawed, and true, “noi-oi-oise” is a pretty poor excuse for a hook, but for me it has a joyous swing which puts me in mind (no kidding) of some of the finer moments on Young Americans. As far as DB’s words, I’ve always felt a real surge of feeling behind “They show us how to break the rules/But never how to make the rules” – for me one of his finest lyrics in his post Tin Machine didactic mode, and the song’s emotional peak.

    As far as Bowie-as-lyricist, for myself, he ranks in the all-time pantheon somewhat below the really accomplished wordsmiths, the ones whose scribblings you could read in book form like L. Cohen, B. Dylan, and on a good day, L. Reed. He also doesn’t cut to the bone the way Lennon could. However, he’s way ahead of a lot of his contemporaries (i.e. Jagger, McCartney, etc.) for daft flights of imagery, wonderful nonsense, and the occasional line that just stops you in your tracks.

    As far as his best lyric-writing, I’m with some of the posters as far as favouring his work in the high cut-up period of Diamond Dogs (particularly on deep cuts like We Are The Dead). However, there are days when the stark, chilling simplicity of Be My Wife makes it Number One for me.

  22. TWDuke says:

    Is this song not notable for the fact (I think) that it is the only duet ever an an official Bowie studio album?

    • Mike F says:

      What about his duet with (an inaudible) Tina Turner on Tonight?

      • Magnus says:

        Turner’s inaudible? Not to these ears. By strict definition, there are lots of duets in the Bowie cannon. Also see “Dancing With The Big Boys,” “Shining Star (Makin’ My Love),” “Across The Universe” and “It’s No Game (Part 1),” just to name a few.

  23. spanghew says:

    Well…usually I find myself agreeing with Chris for the most part – but I rather like this song. Sure, the production is a bit annoying and of-its-(just-passed)era…but like Diamond Duke, above, I really like that odd F# chord to move from verse to chorus. And the bridge works for me – not least because it’s also a musical echo of “What’s Going On” (the high “string” line, the interchanging vocal parts). As for the lyrics – yeah, some clunkers…but in its confusion and uncertainty (am I gonna be straight about this? be cynical? be reassuring?), honest enough. I really don’t care that Al B. Sure! is basically a nobody – and while his is not a world-shattering performance, I don’t find it as dry and flat as all that.

    In general, BTWN is a sort of weird beast: Bowie getting interest(ed/ing) again, Bowie recapping the best parts of Let’s Dance (Nile Rodgers, horn parts that at best sound like actual jazz parts, not just R&B horn parts), an effort to marry pop with art…but I’m sentimental about it, because when I heard it, it sounded to me like Bowie stood a chance of rescuing himself from the thicket of dead-ends he’d been hacking his way through for the past decade (despite the occasional promising moment – I’m one of those who find Tin Machine entertaining about half the time – until this he never really seemed comfortable with a record since Let’s Dance). And Outside confirmed it for me (getting ahead of the story) – to me, that’s just a flat-out triumph.

  24. postpunkmonk says:

    I’m with Spanghew, up to a point. I differ on “Outside,” to put it charitably*. My pathway back to Bowie fandom following the EMI years was convoluted. I never owned “Lets Dance” through “Never Let Me Down” until 1999. I got Tin Machine’s first album straight away thanks to the clever conceit of the 10 minute medley video that assured me that Bowie was undergoing an exorcism of his pop persona that I [and Todd Haynes, apparently] had found so troubling. The second Tin Machine album was another thing entirely. It blew the goodwill of the first album for me. When “Black Tie White Noise” appeared, I wasn’t quite convinced.

    What convinced me was the dorky “Jump” CD-ROM! Curious, and with a top end Mac at the time, I bought it because it was the only such title that appealed to a music-loving, non-game player like me. The disc was very hit and miss. Mostly the latter. The only cool thing about it was the ability to make your own edits of the videos, but the songs all sounded pretty good. I finally bought BTWN and found it to be 60-70% of a great Bowie album, such as they were in these wilderness years.

    I really like the meter of the title cut and the opening that sort of reminds me of “Atomic Dog” by George Clinton is the last thing I would expect from Bowie but I respond to the funk, and this is the best such beast in the Bowie canon since “Fame.” I like the unresolved melody and “hookless” nature of the arrangement. It ends up referencing jazz as much as a track like “Looking For Lester.”

    * I find listening to “Outside,” in spite of the 5-6 amazing songs on it extremely challenging without hitting the skip button.

  25. I think BTWN is proof that if your main intention in creating art is to show you’re cooler or more “with it” than someone else, you’re going to fail horribly and make yourself look like an ass more often than not. As a reaction to “Ebony and Ivory” or “We Are the World,” this song ends up making you appreciate the ones it’s “cooler” than unintentionally. This is just smugness personified.

  26. Ramzi says:

    I quite like the song for what it is, even if it’s rich tax-exile acting as if he’s experiencing the race riots like everyone else…

    I don’t know why but I always heard “Lennon called me brother” instead of “let him”. Obviously my one makes no sense, but it’s interesting enough to me, at least.

  27. You've Been Around says:

    Noii-oii-oiiisSse! Still a quiet good song though. The video helps alot. Is it only me or did Bowie feel very proud of his (then) new teeth in his videos for this album?

  28. crayontocrayon says:

    The first line ‘getting your facts from a Benneton ad’ shares a link with the song that precedes it, I Feel Free. The morse code rhythm of the delivery matches the first break in the Cream version ‘I can walk down the street and theres no one there’. On Bowie’s version of Free everything is stretched out, maybe to obscure the similarity.

    As for the rest of the song it has some great lines(and plenty of duffers) but the music is all over the place and nowhere at once. It’s more a case of the vocals being in about 6 different time signatures against the pretty straight ahead funk beat rather than the weird chord changes which after all are something of a Bowie trademark.

  29. Ezekiel Benedict says:

    Gets my vote for Bowie’s worst song. Just terrible.

  30. leonoutside says:

    Chris, I think it’s worth exploring, “Black Tie White Noise” as (one of) Bowie’s takes on modern day race issues. Especially relevant is surely Frantz Fanon’s powerful book, “Black Skin, White Masks” published in 1952. Black Skin, White Masks, was a study of the psychology of the racism and dehumanization inherent in situations of colonial domination. Where “skin” became “tie” and “masks” became “noise”. Fanon wrote Black Skin, White Masks, as response to Octave Mannoni, of the “Prospero” and “Caliban” complexes in The Tempest, of possession and dispossession of the coloniser and the colonised.

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