Released: 5 April 1993
Black Tie White Noise
David Bowie: vocals, saxophone
Al B Sure!: vocals
Nile Rodgers: guitar
Barry Campbell/John Regan: bass guitar
Richard Hilton, Dave Richards, Philippe Saisse, Richard Tee: keyboards
Lester Bowie: trumpet
Poogie Bell/Sterling Campbell: drums
Fonzi Thornton, Tawatha Agee, Curtis King Jr, Dennis Collins, Brenda White-King, Maryl Epps: backing vocals
The title track of David Bowie’s 18th studio album Black Tie White Noise was inspired by the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
David has incredibly artistic angles on things that he sees. He was explaining to me how he and Iman were flying over Los Angeles and saw the LA riots and they saw the city burning, and y’know, hence ‘Black Tie White Noise’. Y’know, I wanted it to be more commercial; he wanted it to be, what I would say… more artistic. Not saying that they negate, the two, but my thing is… I start songs with choruses, and he develops a song into the chorus.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
Bowie and Iman arrived in LA on 29 April 1992 on a house-hunting expedition. That day four LAPD officers were acquitted on charges of excessive force used against Rodney King, an African American man who had been beaten during an arrest on 3 March 1991.
Riots broke out that day in response to the acquittals, and also long-standing social issues related to the perceived treatment of black people by the police. The rioting lasted six days, ending after the California Army National Guard, the Army, and the Marine Corps re-established control in the city. Sixty-three people died and 2,383 were injured.
We were standing on the roof of out apartment block, hand-in-hand, looking out at these fires starting up everywhere. And they were close! It was unbelievable. If it hadn’t been so frightening, you could have looked out and said ‘Cor, dunnit look like Blade Runner?’ But we thought, ‘Oh shit, we’re in this’ and we did the same thing that everybody else did – we got in the car and went down the supermarket and started buying food, because we didn’t know if we’d be able to get out of there for a few days.
And I stayed up all night the second night because they were getting quite close to our block… It really did feel like a prison where people had been imprisoned unfairly on no trial and no evidence, and that they’d just had enough. This was like the last insult by the guards and it was like, ‘I don’t care what you think, we’re gonna fuck you up!’
And [President Bill] Clinton had better do better than he’s doing at the moment. He’d better actually have some policies, because everybody’s depending on this administration to resurrect this wave of hope and, if all that morale just dissipates – which is what’s happening at the moment – all hell’s gonna break loose over there.
NME, 27 March 1993
Bowie had tackled social issues before, most notably on 1987’s Never Let Me Down, and his experiences in LA informed much of Black Tie White Noise.
The opening couplet – “Getting my facts from a Benetton ad/I’m lookin’ thru African eyes” – was in response to a commercial directed by Spike Lee for the clothing company.
I thought it was dodgy when Spike Lee did a thing for them. Y’know, I felt that reading about race relations through Benetton adverts was almost an insult. But then again, we’re presuming that any statement made has to be altruistic. I mean, what actually has the most validity: altruism or opportunism? I wonder… I mean, because of the humanization and dignifying of black athletes, are Nike doing a better job at promoting race relations than say, the administration?
Everybody loves Magic [Johnson], everybody loves those guys now, primarily because Nike made people of them and showed them as personalities rather than saying, y’know, ‘All black guys are good at basketball’.
It cut through all that and presented them as real, living human beings who think and have their own opinions, and it’s very successful and very seductive and, yes, of course it sold loads and loads of Nikes. But has it done something else also, in terms of race relations?
NME, 27 March 1993
Unusually, Bowie shared lead vocals on ‘Black Tie White Noise’. His guest was Al B Sure!, an American singer, songwriter, and record producer. Bowie’s first choice was reportedly Lenny Kravitz, with whom he later collaborated on ‘Buddha Of Suburbia’.
I’d originally wanted to record it with another singer, not Al B Sure!, who I didn’t know at the time, but this other singer had recording commitments of his own, and couldn’t show, because he had to give the ‘I’ve got me own album to do’ situation. So I thought, well I could do both parts myself, but it wouldn’t be quite what I had in mind when I originally wrote it.
So a mutual friend of both Al’s and myself got us in touch with each other, and I invited him down to the studio and he came and listened for a few days to see the kind of thing that I was doing. And I had given him the lyrics to the song and said, look, you’d better take these home and read them, because they’re not necessarily politically correct, but you might feel that it might be something you would want to do with me.
So he phoned back a couple of days later and he expressed an interest in doing it. I was really worried because our voices were so dissimilar. I wasn’t sure that it would work at all, because he had this kind of light, Marvin Gaye, love song approach to his work, and I just didn’t know if our voices would blend at all successfully. But in fact it turned out to be one of my favourite performances on the album. I like the song very much indeed.
Black Tie White Noise film
‘Black Tie White Noise’ was the second single released from the album, credited to “David Bowie featuring Al B Sure!”.
A video was directed by Mark Romanek, and in May 1993 Bowie performed the song with Al B Sure! on The Arsenio Hall Show and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
What I can talk about is the music itself and some of the struggles we had. Nothing too big, like we had a disagreement about him using Al B Sure! on ‘Black Tie White Noise’. I like Al B as a person and a singer, but he was a new jack swing, R&B guy. I didn’t think he was right for a Bowie album. At the same time, Lenny Kravitz had called me and said, ‘Nile, I would love to do anything on the album.’ So I’m thinking David’s audience probably would be closer in taste to Lenny than Al B. And Lenny was hot at the time so to me that could have been a match made in heaven.
Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001) book
The 7″ single contained a radio edit of the song, and ‘You’ve Been Around’ (Dangers Remix) on the b-side, while the 12″ contained five versions of ‘Black Tie White Noise’: Extended Remix, Trance Mix, Album Version, Club Mix, and Extended Urban Mix.
The international CD single featured the Radio Edit, Extended Remix, and Urban Mix, plus ‘You’ve Been Around’ (Dangers Remix). The latter was by Jack Dangers, an English electronic musician, DJ, and producer.
There was also a US CD single which contained seven versions of ‘Black Tie White Noise’: Waddell’s Mix, 3rd Floor Mix, Al B Sure! Mix, Album Version, Club Mix, Digi Funky’s Lush Mix, and Supa Pump Mix.
It’s an interesting thing. White noise itself is something that I first encountered on the synthesizer many years ago. There’s black noise and white noise. I thought that much of what is said and done by the whites is white noise.
‘Black ties’ is because, for me, musically, the one thing that really turned me on to wanting to be a musician, wanting to write, was black music, American black music – Little Richard and John Coltrane in the 1950s.
The first artist I really sort of dug was Little Richard when I was about eight years old. I found it all very exciting – the feeling of aggression that came through the arrangements. It was like breaking up the sky – his voice broke out of the skies – an extraordinary voice. That’s what triggered my interest in American black music. That led me to the blues, John Lee Hooker and all those guys, and for a number of years I worked with rhythm and blues bands, and my participation in them formed my own black ties in that area of music…
I don’t think there’s been an album that hasn’t owed a lot to rhythm and blues music. Everything that I’ve done has had that basis.
Record Collector, May 1993
‘Black Tie White Noise’ was less successful than its predecessor, ‘Jump They Say’. It peaked at 36 on the official UK chart, and did not chart in the USA.
The 10th anniversary reissue of Black Tie White Noise included the 3rd Floor US Radio Mix and Here Come Da Jazz remixes.
We were comfortable in our own space. What I tried to do was remind him that he was David. Like, you don’t really need Al B Sure! to sing on your first [sic] single off your record. You’re David Bowie – they want to hear you sing both the verses. That album was an attempt to reclaim some Let’s Dance territory, but anyway. I helped cheerlead his natural inclination.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)