Synopsis: On Saturday May 8, 1993, at the Hollywood Center Studios in Los Angeles, David Bowie was filmed performing six tracks from his latest solo album ‘Black Tie White Noise’. These performance pieces are complemented by exclusive footage of David Bowie talking intimately to camera about his latest album, personal experiences, old and new friendships and much more.
eyelights: the ever-magnetic David Bowie. the many topics that are covered. the music videos.
eyesores: the production quality of the studio performances. the brevity of the interview bits.
After many years as a member of rock band Tin Machine, April 1993 saw the return of David Bowie as a solo artist – with the release of his first studio album in six years, a then-unprecedented downtime for the legend. It was very well received and brought him back to the spotlight after years of critical failures. It would be his last number one album until ‘The Next Day’, some twenty years later.
‘Black Tie White Noise’ was the first time that I had expressed any interest in Bowie; I had seen the video for his first single “Jump They Say”, which I simply adored. Until then, Bowie was a vaguely familiar figure, but he seemed too peculiar for my tastes. Now, however, buoyed by the infectious “Jump”, I got the CD from the local library and proceeded to copy it. I played it a few times, but never really could get into it.
However, I did pick the subsequent VHS companion piece (also called ‘Black Tie White Noise’) in a second-hand music shop. I can’t recall what the impetus was (Was it the low asking price? The inclusion of the music video for “Jump They Say”? Bowie’s mesmerizing gaze on the cover?), but I remember being interested enough that I ended up watching it very soon thereafter – perhaps even the same day, when I got home.
That video changed everything for me.
Until then, I had had very little exposure to Bowie. I had seen him in the ridiculous “Dancing in the Street” video with Mick Jagger, but had otherwise never seen him perform or even heard him talk. In ‘Black Tie White Noise’, I was completely bowled over by Bowie’s magnetism and charm. And there was his gaze, which was extremely unusual, piercing. I hung on his every word; I was under his spell.
‘Black Tie White Noise’ is a one-hour home video release that features David Bowie talking in brief snippets about the making of the album, a few highlights of his career, and his personal life – backed by music from the album, naturally. It’s bolstered by six performances that were recorded on May 8, 1993, at the Hollywood Center Studios and is completed by the album’s three music videos.
Frankly, even twenty years later, even though I’m no longer a novice (I have more Bowie CDs and DVDs than I eat!) this programme still holds up: I was captivated by Bowie from start to finish. This is entirely due to the interview material, of course, as Bowie was a thoroughly engaging speaker by then (he used to be far more reserved). And he’s funny, making wild statements, followed by knowing looks and then a laugh.
Unfortunately, this black white footage is a jumbled mess and doesn’t seem to follow any coherent plan – at least in the beginning, when it mostly consisted of 15-second clips that overlapped each other. It felt as though the whole thing was largely improvised: that the producers had Bowie just sit down and talk directionless while they filmed him – then did their best to edit this into some sort of comprehensive whole.
As such, it’s difficult to resume.
Bowie talked about the opportunity to work with trumpeter Lester Bowie, of collaborating with Mick Ronson again after so many years, of Niles Rodgers returning as producer (‘Let’s Dance’ was Niles’ album, this is Bowie’s), about the power dynamics in Tin Machine (given that he shared the spotlight with three others), the careful reflections he did before marrying Iman – and how this inspired him to do a solo album.
He also talked about his spirituality and his sexuality (how he was a “closet heterosexual”) and what appeals to him most in music: the enigmatic – that he prefers the textures of a song over the lyrical content. Watching him, I couldn’t help but wonder how is it that he never worked with Annie Lennox: seems to me that their voices and their styles would have made for an interesting match.
This is made even more apparent to me while watching the staged performances, given that most of the songs were a mixture of rock and soul. For these clips, Bowie was almost always wearing a suit, albeit a different one each time – a more formal style he’d picked up during the Tin Machine years. Sadly, the sets and direction recall talk show or variety show performances – they’re sort of uninspired.
(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)
1. You’ve Been Around: This one is set on an empty set, save for David Bowie and his backing band (four background singers, an upright bass, a drummer, a trumpet and a saxophone player with an eye patch). Wild T is on guitar, which is awesome (His first two albums rocked! I was a fan so, when I’d heard he had been picked up by Bowie for his touring band, I lost it!). The guitar part was originally performed by Reeves Gabrels, and it’s crazy, noisy – but mixed into in background. Lester Bowie’s trumpet solo is also pretty wild. I love the eerie distortion in the vocals. But I’ve got to say, Bowie really dances like a white guy – the kind that made not want to dance. Ever. 7.25/5.5
2. Nite Flights: This is a cover of a Scott Walker track; Bowie loves to do covers, and often includes a couple on his albums. I’m not especially keen on this one, but it’s got a nice bass line. Bowie basically croons here. I love how deep his voice is. And I love the sawlike keyboard lick. The performance consists of Bowie alone on a blue set (likely the same set as the previous one but lit in blue), with cameramen filming him and guys flashing lights around. It feels like a manic photoshoot, with Bowie merely gesticulating and moving about/posing (Is this is his version of “Vogue“?). It feels improvised somewhat, which would hardly be surprising. 5.5/6.5
3. Miracle Goodnight: Bowie is sitting in a chair on an empty set. There are red curtains forming a semi circle at the back, with a column of light down the center, and elevated platforms behind him and to his sides (it feels like there should be others there). It’s a very plain performance. I love the contrast of his main vocals with the background ones and I like the reflective spoken bits. there’s not much else aside for a swirling, magical keyboard bridge which is the highlight for me. There’s also a discrepant guitar solo by Wild T. This song sounds very dated and, from what I remember, it felt awkward even then. But it’s alright. 6.5/5.5
4. Black Tie White Noise: During the interviews, Bowie discussed the L.A. riots, as well as white attitudes to racial diversity, integration, …etc. He said that this is what inspired him to write “Black Tie White Noise”. Personally, even if it’s the title track, I always kind of found this one uninteresting: I like the funky groove, but the vocals are dull. The performance takes place on the same set as “Miracle Goodnight”, but with the full band and Al B. Sure! sharing vocal duties. It’s the first time I noticed that Sterling Campbell (who was in Duran Duran for a time) is the drummer. How awesome is that?!!! Sadly, Bowie seems out of place, even out of synch with the others. 6.0/5.5
5. I Feel Free: Bowie had performed this Cream cover on stage with Mick Ronson back in the day, and he brought him back (just before he died of cancer) to record it once and for all – properly, because they had never been satisfied with their live rendition. Personally, I only find it so-so. The stage is the same set-up as “Black Tie”, but without Al B. Sure! and with Bowie armed with a sax. He gives two terrific, f-ing crazy sax solos – they’re totally discrepant and noisy. The song itself is driven by beats but it’s otherwise dull. Frankly, Bowie looks like a dork, but Wild T makes up for it by evoking Hendrix during the guitar solo. 6.5/5.5
6. I Know it’s Gonna Happen Someday: Bowie felt that Morrissey was parodying his “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” with this track, so he decided to have fun with it by covering it as he himself would have done it in back in 1974. It features dominant soul backing vocals and is very slow, ballady. It’s alright. The video consists of just Bowie (who, this time, is wearing a turtleneck with his suit) on a shadowy set, with what looks like Christmas lights behind him, over purple drapes. He takes the piss out of the moment by breaking out a lighter during Wild T’s guitar solo. Like the others, it’s nothing truly remarkable. 6.0/5.5
After some brief closing words from Bowie, the programme moved on to the three videos, back-to-back, uninterrupted.
(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)
1. Miracle Goodnight: This is a simple, but nice video which predominantly uses a mirror effect to double, triple or quadruple Bowie (or his hands), allowing him to dance with himself, do background vocals with himself, that sort of thing. Here, he’s seen singing in black undershirt, underwear, socks, sock garters and shoes, doing mild contortions. He’s also in a pin-striped suit and hat, backed by an orgy of dozens of lovely young women. Yum. He also does a vaudeville tap-dancing routine, which is fun. I’m not a big fan of the song, but the video is cool. 6.5/8.0
2. Jump They Say: This is the one that caught my attention at the time. It has an eerie, dystopian vibe to it (which is probably why I like it). It takes place on and around a skyscraper, with a disproportionate Bowie singing on top, or walking down the building’s hallways and taking the elevator. There are also shots of businessmen in a board room, including one who is taken away for reasons that are unclear. There are also women dressed somewhat like the stewardess in ‘2001‘ looking through telescopes, doing background vocals. One of them shows up on a screen in the boardroom. Bowie is also seen singing in a blue light with eyes rolled up, surrounded by dangling mics. Chills. He also sings made up with facial wounds, before we see him lying on top of a collapsed car roof, with bystanders checking out the scene. The song is quite dancey, very horn influenced and there are no other tracks like it on the album – hence why I was disappointed at the time. It’s definitely the highlight for me; I love the chorus. 8.0/8.0
3. Black Tie White Noise: There not much to this video, but it looks good, stylish, inky. It consists of shots of various non-caucasian men, women and children in an urban setting – and white cops with helmets and sunglasses on. There isn’t any on-screen conflict or anything like that, but it’s implicit. Bowie is standing about with his sax and Al B. Sure! is sitting out of a car, before convening to sing together. That’s about it. 6.0/7.75
After the videos, the credits roll with behind-the-scenes material, a sort of “making of” for the videos, before a series of traditional credits roll. I enjoyed this because it shows Bowie doing various takes for the vaudeville number and he shows a sense of humour there. It was nice to see because, at the time, I was being introduced to him as someone perhaps more grounded than you’d have imagined.
After watching the programme, I decided to relisten to the album itself. I remember now what little pulled me to it: “Jump They Say”, and especially the instrumental numbers, the glossy production and Bowie’s deep, unusual voice. I must admit that it grew on me with time, but mostly because it flows so well and it has highlights to perk it up. Still, there’s some really unpalatable stuff on there. Ouch.
At the time, my newfound interest in Bowie led me to pick up his subsequent album, ‘Outside’. Unlike the rest of the world, I was an immediate fan: while I didn’t like all of the album and found it overly long, I adored its peculiar gothic/jazz/industrial mixture and its creepy concept. I looked forward to the next two parts in this proposed trilogy – which, no doubt due to its commercial failure, was never completed.
But Bowie was on my radar at this point, and I began to pick up all of his new releases. I also started to seek out the older stuff: I bought the limited edition ‘Sound and Vision’ boxed set (even though it bore me when I first borrowed it from the library), picked up some singles, the fantastic soundtrack to ‘Christiane F’, and have since picked up most of his albums – in special editions if possible.
I’ve even gone so far as to grab every DVD of his that I could, including live shows, his exhaustive video collection, television appearances (ex: ‘The Hunger’), and his motion pictures too. And when ‘Reality’ was released in 2003, I was one of the first to line up at my local multiplex to watch a live interview with Bowie, followed by a small concert. Heck, I even collect covers of Bowie tunes.
I am, indeed, a pretty big David Bowie fan now. And, as unimaginable as it might be, it wouldn’t have happened if not for this ‘Black Tie White Noise’ home video.
Post scriptum: In 2003, this programme was re-released on DVD as part of the deluxe, 2CD edition of the album ‘Black Tie White Noise’. Obviously, I bee-lined for it.
Date of viewing: May 28, 2014