Miracle Goodnight

Miracle Goodnight.
Miracle Goodnight (video).
Miracle Goodnight (2 Chord Philly Mix).
Miracle Goodnight (Make Believe Mix).

A happy contrast to the leaden “Black Tie White Noise,” the follow-up single “Miracle Goodnight” is the cleverest and most moving of Bowie’s wedding songs, a minimalist production on an often dense and cluttered record.

Built on a dual-synthesizer riff (allegedly inspired by a frog chorus Bowie had once heard in Bali) that provides the scaffolding for the verses/choruses and the two spoken asides,1 “Miracle” never extends too far outward in sound, with its accompaniment reduced to the synthesizer hook, a few secondary synthesizer colors (like the long-held notes that sing overhead in the second verse), sets of electronic and live bass/drums and a few low-mixed traces of saxophone. “Miracle” is the closest that Rodgers came on Black Tie White Noise to the stripped-down precision of his Chic masterpieces (including his marvelous guitar solo, see below), while other influences ranged from Prince’s Parade to the synth-hook-strewn McCartney II, with Bowie’s frog chorus riff in line with the relentless earworms of “Coming Up.”

McCartney offers a good perspective to view “Miracle Goodnight.” While Bowie’s song isn’t melodically (a near-conversational, & at times actual conversational, vocal that keeps to a three-note range until the choruses) close to McCartney territory, it shares some thematic parallels with the latter’s work. McCartney was one of the few rockers to celebrate domesticity and monogamy, which earned him his share of critical abuse. “Miracle,” a besotted groom’s ode to his wife, is working in the same line, and at times suggests that Bowie’s channeling a distorted memory of McCartney’s public wife-worship.

But as usual with Bowie, there’s an undercurrent of doubt, building on the fatalism of “The Wedding Song.” The singer is in love, but in the choruses he keeps interrogating his senses to reassure himself that she’s real (or is there actually “nobody dancing”?), while occasional hints of doom crop up in the lyric (“haven’t got a death wish,” “burning up our lives,” “ragged, lame and hungry“). The second spoken break is a blunt compromise: let’s agree that we never talk about who we used to sleep with. Even his images of contentment have double meanings: “Iman” is a “morning star,”2 the planet Venus as well as the angel Lucifer, the once light-bringer (she’s also an “evening flower” standing alone3) while the title line is both a man bidding goodnight to a woman he can’t believe he’s with, and the man fearing that the good times will end (don’t want to say goodnight,” Bowie sings towards the fade).

A harmonically spare song in G major (with a climactic E-flat seventh chord swapped in from the parallel minor), “Miracle” has a lightness of touch throughout, whether in its easy transitions between verses and choruses or its occasional musical joke, like an eight-bar keyboard solo in slight hock to Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.”4

And just as the song seems about to close, there’s suddenly a dazzling four-bar guitar solo, a last burst of pure elation. Bowie told Nile Rodgers to play “as though the Fifties had never existed,” Rodgers recalled to Dave Thompson. That is, as if white pop music had never been infused with the sound of black electric blues guitarists. “I don’t want to hear a single blue note,” Bowie told Rodgers. (It’s evidence that Bowie was running variants on Eno’s Oblique Strategies on poor Rodgers throughout these sessions, with Bowie taking the role Eno had played on Lodger). So Rodgers came up with a twangy, spiraling line that suggested early Les Paul (especially in the third bar) and also, defying Bowie’s edict by offering an alternate set of black musical influence, the “dry” guitar style of African highlife and soukous. The solo kicks off with a three-chord phrase that had opened the song (it’s the start of the synth hook), then dances in the air, weightless, as though Rodgers is finally able to indulge a set of roaming thoughts. It’s one of his finest guitar solos on record, and by far his best moment on an album for which he was often a frustrated presence.

Recorded ca. summer-autumn 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. Issued in October 1993 as the third UK/European single from BTWN (Arista/BMG 74321 16226 7, c/w “Looking for Lester,” #40 UK). It was given a Matthew Rolston video in which Bowie revived Pierrot, performed aerobics with himself and finally got a chance to play his old influence Buster Keaton (albeit a Keaton who’s apparently wandered into a Calvin Klein “Obsession” ad.) (There’s an alternate video by David Mallett, on the BTWN DVD, with Bowie miming to the song alone on a studio set.) Remixes included the 2 Chord Philly Mix and Maserati Blunted Dub (on the CD single), and the Blunted 2, Make Believe Mix and Dance Dub (on the 12″ single). The Make Believe Mix later appeared on the BTWN 2-CD reissue. There’s a surprisingly decent mashup of Thom Yorke’s “Black Swan” with the Maserati Dub version of “Miracle.”

1: The riff (three dyads, or two-note chords: G-B, A-C, A#-C#; a falling phrase (a B-D chord) answered by a G note; and tight runs of three G notes) is an intricate thing. It’s opened on Rodgers’ guitar, but it’s mainly played by two synthesizers parked in the left and right channels of the mix. They begin each reiteration in sync, but as the left-mixed synth gets an additional repeat of the tail-end hook (three repeats of the three G notes to the other synth’s two), this creates a constant echoing effect. There are also two basses parked on the ends of the spectrum, both of which hit on the downbeat then trail off across each bar. The riff is constant throughout the song except for the two solos.

2: There’s also a little play on words here, with Bowie calling her a “yellow dime,” or a sun that’s a “perfect 10.”

3: This line is followed by what sounds like “puzzling capiche,” which only makes sense if worded “puzzling, capiche?”

4: More in mood than melody, as Bowie’s sets of 16th notes are jumping upward where Handel’s were regally descending. (The patterns reappears in the coda).

Top: “Espino Family,”  “Moscow Subway Music,” August 1992.

29 Responses to Miracle Goodnight

  1. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Nice description of Rodgers’ excellent solo. The song’s video, it should be noted, boasts the first genuine subversive Bowie moments in years: Bowie in Thin White Duke drag dancing with himself; Bowie dancing ballet.

  2. Jasper says:

    I like this one, a sweet wedding song.
    The Skin tell me/Head tell me/Nobody dancing vocals reminds me of Labyrinth.

  3. Patrick says:

    It’s a tolerable whimsy but I’m not sure it would encourage many repeated plays for me. The guitar part is far too short. I wanted that to go on or be made much more of the track..

  4. gcreptile says:

    It’s a bit on the gimmicky side, in my opinion. I like it, but Bowie’s raw voice scares people off, it’s not a good single. The guitar solo is great, but out of time. It’s a song for connoiseurs.

  5. gnomemansland says:

    You know I prefer Black Tie to this

  6. david says:

    It may be a paean to his wife, but I think like a lot of his work, it disguises the female muse as a symbol for his creative stock. The ‘Nobody Dancing’ line perfectly summing up anything post LD, and in fact there was an excruciating story doing the rounds during NLMD where Bowie had eagerly previewed the album at a dance club, clearing the floor in record time.
    I like elements of this song, though his voice before the musical interlude, always grated and struck me as sounding like pathetically pleading, which was possibly the point .The video is wonderful, very David Lynch in places, visually on a par with Ashes and …Alien for me. Love the Keaton Outtakes too, wish he had done more with that.

  7. scarymonster says:

    The first Bowie single I’d really loved since Absolute Beginners (although ‘Jump’ had its charm, it was hardly uplifting), this still sounds fantastic today, perhaps because it’s less indebted to those early 90s production sounds.

    I was never a big fan of any of the BTWN videos, however and this one in particular made the new gnashers look especially odd – did he have further work at a later date, as they seem to become less prominent and noticeable?

    scarymonster

  8. Maj says:

    Love this one. I’m usually not into this sort of smooth pop sound but this song’s got *something*.
    I do recognise this is not one of the coolest and most original songs in Bowie’s discography, but together with Jump.. this is my favourite song on the album. It’s sweet but in a quirky way, not in a sugary way. Works for me.
    Also nice to see the legs again, in the video.😉

  9. princeasbo says:

    True, Macca is noted for ongoing celebrations of his cozy domestic life, but don’t forget his old spar, and Bowie hero, Lennon who recorded an entire (unlistenable) Lp called “The Wedding Album” with virtually everything he recorded post-Beatles in some way, often explicitly, referencing his wife/marriage.

    http://thriftyvinyl.wordpress.com/

    • col1234 says:

      oh yeah, certainly. and Lennon put out a “Macca” domestic bliss record as his comeback LP in 1980 just as Macca himself put out a weird, alienating synth record.

  10. tin man says:

    Pleasant…, sort of reverie feeling; now’s the 90’s & we wonder what’s going on?
    Nile’s chorus (short but effective) is a good point but “miracle” ‘s sound is still stuck somewhere in the 80’s.

    I’m waiting for… the Outside world.

  11. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Yep, this one, Jump They Say and Nite Flights are the highlights of this album for me. While it’s a bit corny, it just works because it’s such a gorgeous and simple melody. And that late “dazzling four bar guitar solo” of pure elation just sweeps you up into the sky. Incidentally, is it yellow dime on high or yellow diamond high?
    As you say though, for an unabashed paean to Iman, there is a lot of questioning and doubt in the lyric. The line future full and empty knocking on my door is a further example of this.
    It’s funny too that, while similar to McCartney the song celebrates monogamy and domesticity, there’s a scene in the video where Bowie is surrounded by a seraglio of writhing bikini models.

  12. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    …actually, it’s not the four bar guitar solo I was referring to that sweeps you up into the sky. That bit comes in at 2:24 on the video.

  13. Mike says:

    Poppier than a laundry basket full of poppyseed muffins. Seven more of these and NR would’ve had the LET’S DANCE II that he wanted…

  14. Momus says:

    This is gorgeous. Frogs should clearly have been given a much bigger writing role across the rest of the album.

  15. Diamond Duke says:

    It’s not really one of my all-time Bowie favorites, but it’s still quite appealingly quirky and eccentric. I love Rodgers’ cool guitar solo, as well as the Bowie vocal harmonies (sung by multiple Bowies in the video, of course!). Gee, I really don’t know what to add to the discussion that others haven’t…😀

    Funny you should mention McCartney II, because I just recently picked up the 2-CD Archive Collection edition! And I was just thinking myself that it was probably the closest thing that McCartney had ever come to making a Low/“Heroes”/Lodger of his own! (I must say that I actually prefer the earlier live Wings version of Coming Up – recorded ’79 in Glasgow.) While my favorite tracks are the ballads – Waterfalls and One Of These Days – it’s got some really weird electronic pop stuff on it like Temporary Secretary, which I initially found incredibly annoying and grating but somehow became quite infectiously catchy on repeated listenings! The bluesy On The Way is also a bit of a sleeper, and I would also recommend the delightfully ditzy B-side Check My Machine (on Disc 2)…

  16. Mike F says:

    I am hearing a minor, introspective piece, not a “Chic masterpiece.” It was not the single Bowie needed at this point. Bowie is using his tired, world weary Tin Machine II voice. It has a cheesy synth riff which sounds like it could have come from an early 80s video game (Frogger?).

    What happened to the guy who wrote “Fashion” and “Ashes to Ashes?” Or the team that created “Let’s Dance” or “Modern Love?” Bowie needed another one of those instead of another love letter to Iman.

    • TW Duke says:

      Agree. I’ve always strongly disliked this one, and hate hate hate the video despite its Buster Keaton-homage paying or whatever.

      Musically, to me it sounds like a kids’ song, something Elmo would perform on “Sesame Street” or something. My rule for anyone, even Bowie, is no more than ONE major quirk per song, so a chirpy Balinese frog-inspired synth line AND a deeply-intoned spoken interlude—too much!!

      In, what, almost 20 years of owning this album I almost always skip this one, so I rarely get to the end of it to ever even hear this “blistering” Nile Rodgers guitar solo. (To be honest, I never noticed it before).

      “Marvelous”? “Dazzling”? “Pure elation”? “One of his finest guitar solos on record”? To me, that would be Nile’s stupendous solo at the end of Diana Ross’s “Upside Down”, not the jangly and, in my opinion, kind of dull and by-the-numbers solo here.

      • algeriatouchshriek says:

        Yeah. Not one of my faves either. Wasn’t this his first album with his new teeth? I remember a contemporary saying ‘what’s happended to his voice’ when he first heard BTWN. It is very processed in parts. I get the impression the new gnashers were taking some getting used to and subsequently his vocals weren’t as pash as previously. The only time he really yells is on ‘I Know Its Gonna…’. Perhaps that was the last track he recorded with the old pegs?

  17. jopasso says:

    Don’t like the song, this album is for me one of his lowest points, except for “Jump they say”, but the video is interesting in some ways.

    Back in 1976, if someone had asked how Bowie would be 16 years later, and be showed this video from the future, surely the answer would be: “Well, a bit fatter, that’s all”

  18. MC says:

    Great entry on a terrific song, one of the highlights of BTWN to be sure. I can see in retrospect why it wasn’t much of a hit, though. There’s something a bit fragile and tentative about the melody and the vocal – compare it to the steely confidence of Modern Love & Blue Jean.

  19. BenJ says:

    From comments of his that I’ve read, this seems to have been Rodgers’ favorite song from the album, or at least up there. I can see why. His guitar part is gorgeous.

  20. Jeremy says:

    I agree with most people here – nice track and a pity there wasn’t more of them.

  21. Remco says:

    Yes. This IS nice. I honestly never noticed it before, my mind tends to switch off somewhere during the first half of the record and this song flew right under the radar. Lovely tune, lovely video.

  22. Tin Man says:

    Nile, i’m only dancin’ again & again & again & again… what’s goin on with my brain, loose the feelin, loose the spirit
    i’m waiting for the light Bowie saw once more with Gabrels and Tin Machine at the end of the 80’s; i’m waiting for a less poppy Bowie much more involved into music…

  23. Anonymous says:

    I’ve just seen the music video.
    My life is no longer the same.
    Bowie’s legs shall never leave my mind’s eye.

    Bonus points: watch it immediately after “Blackstar”

  24. jason_x says:

    You all know he was joking about the Balinese frog chorus, don’t you???

    The main synth motif is clearly ripped from the theme tune to Sanford & Son – the U.S. remake of Steptoe & Son.

    Search YouTube for “Sanford Son Theme”.

    The same part was used extensively by Diplo in his mix of U.R.A.Q.T. by M.I.A. It’s a popular hip-hop sample.

    I’m pretty certain that Bowie and Rodgers were first to build an entire new song around the motif though.

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