Black Tie White Noise

October 17, 2012

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.