It’s been a bit more than a year since David Bowie’s passing and it’s still hard to accept his death. His legacy likely will be celebrated far into the future. Even then mutated historians will marvel at all the personas and musical styles Bowie has tried in his lengthy career. My favorite of those styles explored funk and R&B. Songs like “Young Americans”, “Fame” and “Fashion” were some of the first Bowie songs I fell in love with.
His brushes with Black music happened in varying degrees, but reached a high point with bookends from 1979’s Lodgers to 1983’s Let’s Dance. After a prolong experiment with other musical styles, Bowie nearly fell off the radar to all but hard core fans. Despite my loving Tonight and tolerating Never Let Me Down, I could never convince anyone else that these albums were worth listening to. Bowie’s lengthy funkafied singles were another matter altogether (the kids are always looking for fresh new material to sample).
Bowie reinvented himself once again for Black Tie White Noise. This time he recruited Nile Rodgers and Al B. Shure among others to make a slick adult pop/R&B album. A purest might find it a stretch to call this a R&B album, (or even a plastic soul album by Bowie’s own definition), but it did feature Al B. Sure on the title track in an impassioned performance (if not a bit cringe inducing and awkward at moments). Just the very ideal of Al B. Sure being the ambassador for Black urban culture seemed humorous.
That song along with the single “Jump” became a big pop hit for Bowie on the heels of racial strife highlighted by the O.J. Simpson and Rodney King trials. In many ways the album can sound awkward, mostly because Bowie’s appropriation of contemporary pop elements (like Quiet Storm-like instrumentals) would come across as over produced musically or lyrically preachy.
Despite it’s lyrical intention for better or worse, this album is thought provoking with a brash mechanical sounding and occasionally bombastic production. The in your face nature of some tracks, still leaves room for the suave crooning that Bowie can be known for (“Don’t Let Me Down & Down” and “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”).
Originally inspired by his writing music for his wedding to supermodel Iman, the album’s subject matter would explore social issues in ways Bowie had not in years. Musically, the album sounded like no other Bowie production before it. Exotic blends of Middle Eastern sounds with processed saxophone created some interesting musical textures. On top of this, elements of R&B were mixed with jazz thanks to noted trumpeter Lester Bowie who played alongside David (Bowie) on saxophone.
The slick Nile Rodgers co-production left plenty of room for Bowie to express himself, in sharp contrast to Lets Dance (which Bowie contends was a Rodgers album). As a New Yorker just married to a black supermodel, Bowie’s interest in race relations was understandable even if it was not always convincing.
While race relations was not a new subject to Bowie (Absolute Beginners hinted to Britain’s Notting Hill race riots), the subject was hot on the minds of Americans as many artists wrote songs of protest and awareness. The album did little to bridge the gap between The Bloods and The Cripts, but might have advanced exposure of artists like Al B. Sure who was formally relegated to R&B charts and only then in a marginal way.
With Black Tie White Noise, Bowie had made his most personal album since 1980’s Scary Monsters. In fact, he often compared the two as both feature arrangements that were more dance pop oriented. There were other less obvious connections to the past in the form of Mick Ronson (on the Cream cover “I Feel Free”), who’s guitar playing was prominent on many ’70s era Bowie albums.
Black Tie White Noise made Bowie a thing again in the ’90s. Once again he found a new fashion statement and gave voice to it as he would move from R&B to more grunge inspired experimentation of his ’90s output.