Putting on the black tie, cranking out the white noise...
David Bowie wasn't one to look back. But when he announced Black Tie White Noise, many fans collectively breathed a sigh of relief. Might the "old" David Bowie be returning? The 1993 album was his first in six years, following three albums (two studio and one live) with his hard rock band, Tin Machine. It also reunited him with Nile Rodgers, producer of his all-time best-selling album Let's Dance, and with Ziggy Stardust-era guitarist Mick Ronson. Black Tie White Noise turned out to be anything but a retread for the ever-experimenting artist, and inaugurated a decade of sustained creativity. That period is explored on the fifth of Bowie's "Era" box sets from Parlophone. Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001), out now on 11 CDs or 17 LPs, chronicles his forays into electronica, dance music, theatrical rock opera, and even video games, and premieres the 2001 album Toy in which he did allow himself the luxury of revisiting the past. Bowie's musical history does crop up throughout Brilliant Adventure, making this sprawling journey through five uncompromising studio albums (plus Toy and related bonuses) all the more poignant.
At the heart of Brilliant Adventure are remastered editions of Black Tie White Noise (1993), The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), Outside (1995), Earthling (1997), and 'hours...' (1999). That quintet is joined by Toy as well as a remastered and expanded BBC Radio Theatre show from 2000 (originally released in part on that year's Bowie at The Beeb box set); and a triple-disc Re:Call 5 set featuring a sampling of the may edits, B-sides, one-offs, and soundtrack appearances released during this period.
Black Tie White Noise resulted from the push/pull of Nile Rodgers' pop instincts and Bowie's desire to push the sonic envelope. Contributing to its modern R&B sound - in some respects, an update of his so-called "plastic soul" of the 1970s - was an eclectic group of musicians including drummer Sterling Campbell and Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels. Bowie's own saxophone was a prominent component of the sound, too. Neither Bowie nor Rodgers wished to recreate the sound of Let's Dance - a near-impossibility, anyway, given the 1990 passing of guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who played such an integral role on the earlier album - but co-producer Rodgers admits in his affectionate liner notes that Bowie sought to downplay the more commercial aspects of the record. He also acknowledges that "His songs came from things he was obviously contemplating, things David was conscious of, things that Iman had shared about her life."
Its funky, cool mélange of original tunes and cover versions deliberately reckoned with the artist's past and embraced his present. Bookending the album are the instrumental "The Wedding" and its vocal version, "The Wedding Song," casting Iman as an angel; her presence in his life and art is just as strongly felt in "Miracle Goodnight," "Pallas Athena," and the title track. Rodgers recalls Bowie and Iman flying into Los Angeles and witnessing the 1992 Los Angeles riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. "Black Tie White Noise," while typically impressionistic, ruminated on the tenuous state of race relations in their adopted country. All of this added up to one of the artist's most personal albums to that point. Even the repurposed Tin Machine leftover "You've Been Around" appeared to be speaking directly to his new wife ("You've been around/But you've changed me/You've been around/Can't pass you by...") while the surprise U.K. hit "Jump They Say" was inspired by Bowie's half-brother Terry who died by suicide years earlier.
Black Tie's four stylistically diverse covers tied into the loose past-and-present themes of the album, from a spiky take on Cream's "I Feel Free" with old friend Mick Ronson on guitar to the slow-burning gospel-soul treatment of "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday," a Morrissey tune first produced by Ronson and unabashedly inspired by Bowie's own "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide." On "Nite Flights," Bowie credibly recreates the dark, velvet croon of Scott Walker. Long championed by Bowie, Walker's influence is mightily felt throughout Black Tie. While his own music would take him to a more harrowing place than Bowie likely ever contemplated, the two men shared the strong desire to keep moving artistically and an aversion to repeating themselves. Iman's Mauritanian friend Tahra Mint Hembara penned "Don't Let Me Down and Down," with English lyrics by Tahra's producer Martine Valmont. It was recorded upon Iman's suggestion, and its smooth, glossy production might have felt completely out-of-place on Black Tie if not for Bowie and Rodgers cannily sequencing it near the album's end, immediately before the buoyant, spirited "Looking for Lester." The jazz improvisation featuring Lester Bowie's (no relation) horn against Rodgers' pulsating backdrop, with sizzling brass arranged by Chico O'Farrill, also allowed for impressive solos from Mike Garson on piano and Bowie on saxophone. (Lester also added his smoky tones to four other songs on the LP.) The two tracks conclude the main portion of the album on a bright, high note, with the bookend of "The Wedding Song" as the grand finale.
Just months after the release of Black Tie White Noise, Bowie issued the not-quite-soundtrack album The Buddha of Suburbia. Having agreed to contribute music to the BBC serial adaptation of Hanif Kureishi's novel of the same name, he soon realized the potential of the material to compose a full-length album. Despite the fact that "this collection of music bears little resemblance to the motif-driven small pieces that became the actual transmitted soundtrack for the BBC play of Buddha," per the LP's original liner notes, Arista marketed The Buddha of Suburbia as a soundtrack album rather than as a "David Bowie album." It didn't even receive a U.S. release for almost two years. Brilliant Adventure affords the opportunity to revisit this perhaps least well-known of Bowie's LPs.
Written and recorded over a mere six-day period, with David Richards (Never Let Me Down) on hand as co-producer and Turkish multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilçay as his primary collaborator (the album's credits read "Performed by David Bowie and Erdal Kizilçay"), Bowie challenged himself to write in a largely non-linear fashion: "Fifty percent of the lyrical content is used just because I like the sound of the word. Some of it is reasonably narrative-driven." He immersed himself in ambient sounds (the epic "The Mysteries," the anagrammatically-titled "Ian Fish, U.K. Heir"), avant-jazz ("South Horizon," featuring Mike Garson tickling the ivories), dance ("Untitled No. 1"), new wave ("Dead Against It"), and even conventional pop-rock ("Strangers When We Meet"). The title track was heard in two versions, the second a "rock mix" with searing guitar from Lenny Kravitz. Intentionally reminiscent of Bowie's work from the 1970s - the period in which The Buddha of Suburbia was set - it nodded at the likes of "Space Oddity" and "All the Madmen." It would be Bowie's final pastiche for some time. (For this set, The Buddha of Suburbia is presented with its U.S. cover artwork rather than the U.K. original which did not feature Bowie's image.)
Thru' these architects eyes...
1995's Outside (stylized as 1. Outside: The Nathan Adler Diaries - A Hyper-cycle due to the fact that it was conceived as the first album in a series) brought Brian Eno back into the fold alongside David Richards for one of Bowie's most ambitious releases. The "non-linear Gothic drama hyper-cycle"/concept album/quasi-theatre piece and rock opera spans a 23-year period but most closely follows Detective Nathan Adler in the fictional town of Oxford Town, New Jersey as he investigates the "art murder" of a teenager named Baby Grace. Outside was largely improvised by Bowie, Eno, and a familiar cast of musicians including Reeves Gabrels, Erdal Kizilçay, Mike Garson, Sterling Campbell, and Carlos Alomar. The musicians were assigned characters in the studio, the process intended to free them from cliché. For the lyrics, Bowie employed a computerized "cut-up" technique in which he placed words into a computer and ran with whatever the computer spit out. This is in marked contrast to most theatrical writing in which the lyrics are written to specifically develop character or plot. Still, both character and plot crept into the writing as the artist, players, and producers shaped Outside. (An earlier version, a "three-hour improvised opus" entitled Leon, still remains in the vault.) Dark, gritty, intense, and uncompromising, Outside was Bowie's most challenging work in years.
The original CD was accompanied by a booklet (reprinted here) containing Nathan Adler's diary (authored by Bowie) and a libretto identifying the character singing each song. The quirky dramatis personae includes Detective Adler, the residents of Oxford Town, an informant named Paddy, an "Outsider" and suspect named Leon Blank, the mysterious Artist/Minotaur, members of the Court of Justice, and jeweler Ramona A. Stone. It's easy to imagine each of these characters representing some aspect of Bowie's persona and art, sitting comfortably alongside such other creations as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke.
Offbeat spoken-word segments, in which Bowie utilized various voices, heightened the surrealistic world as does the steely, dense sound. Musically, Outside careens from hard rock to jazz to dance to electronica and back, with plenty of disquieting soundscapes and suitably creepy dramatic flourishes. "A Small Plot of Land" has a welcome touch of Sweeney Todd horror in it. "Hallo Spaceboy," later transformed by Pet Shop Boys into a hi-NRG anthem, is thrashing industrial rock here. Yet for all the darkness, an arched eyebrow is detectable as Bowie croons The Artist's icily detached "I'm Deranged" and dread-infused "Wishful Beginnings."
Once again defying expectations, he concluded Outside with a big, bold re-recording of "Strangers When We Meet" as sung by the character of Leon Blank. That the most conventional tune on The Buddha of Suburbia was reprised on Bowie's least conventional album speaks to the iconoclastic nature of the project. Outside most closely resembles a multimedia project in search of another medium; purely as an album, it's a fascinating if uneven work. Had Bowie and Eno ever continued the story as originally planned and employed stage, video, or further printed components, it might have had a greater impact.
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell
Two years later, in 1997, Bowie returned with Earthling. Compared to Outside, it was a straightforward affair. For one thing, it was a "band" album featuring the road-tested group of Bowie, co-producer Reeves Gabrels, Gail Ann Dorsey, Mike Garson, and Zachary Alford plus co-producer Mark Plati. Whereas Outside was sprawling (19 tracks), Earthling was taut (9 songs). In his new liner notes for Brilliant Adventure, Gabrels explains the songwriting process: "We would work out chord sequences, riffs, and general ideas for a song while Mark ran the loops that we had made prior. Eventually we would have a verse, chorus, bridge, and maybe a vocal melody idea. We would record it and move onto the next song." The sound was in a techno vein, with liberal use of sampling, distortion, and looping throughout. Bowie's recent immersion into the dance styles of drum and bass and jungle, foreshadowed on Outside, led to those styles dominating Earthling. As they had on Outside, Bowie and Gabrels transferred guitar licks to a keyboard, building riffs from sampled pieces.
Earthling was a much more spirited album than its predecessor, though, with such throbbing, turbo-charged highlights as the playful "Little Wonder" (in which Bowie drops in the names of a handful of Disney dwarves), urgent "Dead Man Walking," and reflective "Battle for Britain (The Letter)," the latter a hybrid of Bowie's early vocal sound with jungle, techno, and even classical-inspired piano from Garson. The forceful, clattering "Seven Years in Tibet" might be the harshest cut on Earthling, with Garson's otherworldly Farfisa organ, Bowie's own saxophone, and Gabrels' scorching guitar all vying for space in the punchy mix. Ironically, the album's most successful track was a reworked outtake from Outside: the biting Brian Eno co-write "I'm Afraid of Americans." The sparse, sardonic rumination on American culture became Bowie's final single to reach the Billboard Hot 100 in his lifetime and was notably remixed by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor. More cohesive than Black Tie White Noise and more accessible than Outside if still light years removed from common conceptions of "rock," Earthling was a powerfully youthful statement from the 50-year old artist.
1999's hours..., though, epitomized the work of a gracefully aging superstar. After the drum and bass clang of Earthling, its sound was stripped down. Primarily the work of just Bowie and Reeves Gabrels - who co-wrote and co-produced all ten songs on the album in various studios - hours... sprung from the score the duo had created for a video game with the now rather unfortunate title of Omikron: The Nomad Soul. Mark Plati was once again on board to engineer and add bass and other instrumentation and Mike Levesque played drums.
The opening track "Thursday's Child" set the tone for the album. The gentle, romantic ballad was in the mold of classic Bowie, and its lyrical directness, compositional elegance, and uncluttered production would continue through similar midtempo ruminations such as "Something in the Air" and "Survive." With hours..., Bowie had nothing to prove, and he and Gabrels instead seemingly refocused on the basics of songwriting and production. There's nothing particularly groundbreaking about the album; it's earnest and often quite beautiful. But its conventional nature proved an asset; ...hours reminded longtime fans why they loved David Bowie in the first place. The elegiac "Seven" could have been recorded by the "Space Oddity"-era singer-songwriter, and its deeply-felt vocal was matched by the sympathetic contributions of Gabrels, Plati, and the track's drummer, Sterling Campbell. The LP picks up steam with "What's Really Happening" (boasting some of Gabrels' most fiery guitar) and "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell" which brings to mind Bowie's own "Oh, You Pretty Things" or even the band which Bowie covered twice on Pin-Ups. The latter slyly sends up glam ("They wore it out/But they wore it well...") over a riff-rock track. The artwork for hours... emphasizes duality, with multiple images of two Bowies, including on the Pietà-inspired cover. But he sounded purely content and confident throughout - just one man who'd merged his personas and disparate musical interests into a sound that was undeniably all his.
I Dig Everything
Hours... marked Bowie's final collaboration with Reeves Gabrels, but he continued to work with Mark Plati. Playing guitar and bass, Plati joined Bowie's band alongside Earl Slick (guitar), Gail Ann Dorsey, Sterling Campbell, Mike Garson, and backing vocalists/musicians Holly Palmer and Emm Gryner on the road. On June 25, 2000, this unit played the Glastonbury Festival, and two days later, they recorded an intimate concert for the BBC at the station's 550-seat Radio Theatre. (The Glastonbury show was issued in 2018 on CD and DVD. Two other shows released last year as part of the Brilliant Live Adventures series, Something in the Air: Live Paris 99 and Live at the Kit Kat Klub: Live New York 99 feature this band on the hours... tour, minus Slick and with Page Hamilton on lead guitar.) This show was issued as a bonus disc on 2000's Bowie at the Beeb, but here it's gained five additional songs. Among the familiar classics ("The Man Who Sold the World," "Fame," "Starman") and recent favorites ("Little Wonder," "I'm Afraid of Americans," "Hallo Spaceboy"), the tight, cracking band performed two songs which were likely only recognizable to Bowie devotees. "I Dig Everything" and "The London Boys" dated back to 1966 and Bowie's brief associations with the Pye and Deram labels, respectively. The notion of revisiting these pre-fame songs first struck the artist when he was planning his setlist for VH1's story-and-songs show Storytellers. He dusted off another 1966 single, "Can't Help Thinking About Me," for that broadcast, and enjoyed reconnecting with his younger self. In May 2000, Bowie and co-producer Plati conceived of the album that would become known as Toy. Sessions took place that summer.
Save for the original title track that developed from a jam on "I Dig Everything," Toy would consist entirely of new recordings of songs that were long dismissed as mere juvenilia. Bowie was still finding his voice as a songwriter in the mid-to-late sixties, experimenting with different sounds and styles. But he clearly saw something in the youthfully spirited melodies, with their vivid characters and heart-on-the-sleeve writing. With Toy, Bowie and his road-tested band breathed new life into roughly a dozen songs, the most recent of which was over 30 years old. They didn't approach these as re-recordings, though. Instead, they approached the tunes as if they'd just been written. As a vocalist, Bowie brought his earnest, older-and-wiser ...hours sound to his work, while the band infused the songs - both ballads and rollicking uptempo numbers, originally cut in pop, folk, and psychedelic styles - with a consistent rock muscle. Playfulness was in abundance; while the new "I Dig Everything" ditched the groovy Hammond organ which dominates the 1966 original (produced by pop maestro Tony Hatch), it retained the chirpy call-and-response vocals.
In his liner notes for Brilliant Adventure, Plati reveals that Bowie sang live with the band, and some first takes were even utilized for the album (including the striking ballads "Shadow Man," "Conversation Piece," and "Silly Boy Blue"). Multi-instrumentalist Lisa Germano and electric guitarist Gerry Leonard were later brought in for overdubs, as was Tony Visconti to conduct strings for a few tracks. ("Conversation Piece" is a standout.) But Toy nonetheless bubbles over with the immediacy of live recording and a breezy sense of fun. Sometimes the bigger, beefier arrangements reference the original '60s sounds (just listen to those swooning "Oooh-aah-ooohs" on "You've Got a Habit of Leaving") but never slavishly so.
By embracing these "baby pictures," Bowie would have given his most devoted fans a treat, and introduced his more casual fans to these former curios. But his record label at the time first postponed and then passed on Toy, preferring to release an album of new material. Bowie responded by switching labels, but Toy got lost in the shuffle. Some of its tracks trickled out as bonuses and B-sides, and in 2011, an entire rough mix was leaked. Brilliant Adventure, at last, presents the authorized Toy as Bowie and Mark Plati intended, and it's a delight. If only they'd revisited "The Laughing Gnome," too! (An expanded 3-CD or 6-LP Toy: Box is also available, adding two alternate presentations of the album plus the 2000 versions of two more oldies, "Liza Jane" and "In the Heat of the Morning.")
We Shall Go to Town
Brilliant Adventure concludes with the most fulsome volume of Re:Call yet. Over three CDs (or four LPs) and 39 tracks, Re:Call 5 rounds up soundtrack tunes, B-sides, single versions, remixes, and one-offs issued contemporaneously with the original albums. As always, it's an enjoyably mixed bag. Bowie was particularly in demand during this time for movie soundtracks, hence the songs from Cool World ("Real Cool World," co-produced with Nile Rodgers), Showgirls (an embryonic "I'm Afraid of Americans"), Basquiat ("A Small Plot of Land," heard here in an extended version released on a promotional cassette), The Ice Storm ("I Can't Read," in a longer version than the one on the movie's soundtrack album), Stigmata (an alternate version of "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell"), and American Psycho (a remix of "Something in the Air"). Tributes to The Who ("Pictures of Lily") and George Gershwin ("A Foggy Day") are re-presented here, along with key remixes by Nine Inch Nails ("I'm Afraid of Americans") and Pet Shop Boys ("Hallo Spaceboy"). Re:Call has international tracks (the Indonesian Vocal Version of "Don't Let Me Down and Down" and "A Fleeting Moment," a.k.a. "Seven Years in Tibet" in Mandarin) and assorted curios but collectors should hold onto such past releases as the original 1993 and expanded 2003 CD editions of Black Tie, White Noise (both of which have bonus tracks not reprised here) and Columbia/ISO's 2007 albums box with its entire bonus discs devoted to Outside, Earthling, and hours.... (as well as the subsequent Heathen and Reality).
While Re:Call 5 offers a generous selection of rarities, there's still much more to explore. It's likely the compilers didn't want to include five versions of "I'm Afraid of Americans," or four of "Seven" or "Little Wonder" - and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Re:Call 5 is the most comprehensive volume yet, but also the one missing the most material released during the corresponding era. (Perhaps the most significant omission is "Nature Boy," sung twice by Bowie on 2001's the best-selling Moulin Rouge soundtrack. Neither version was available for licensing.)
Those familiar with past "Era" boxes will know what to expect of the packaging and sound, and Brilliant Adventure is indeed consistent when it comes to both. The luxurious, slipcased CD set (adorned with the artist's rather sinister self-portrait) contains a hardcover 128-page book. It's printed on glossy paper, boasting full credits and discographical annotation as well as period essays (including an insightful piece from the late Greg Tate) and new commentary from such collaborators as Nile Rodgers, Erdal Kizilçay, Brian Eno, Reeves Gabrels, and Mark Plati. The book is beautifully illustrated with photos and memorabilia from the period. Each album is housed in a deluxe mini-LP replica jacket with protective inner sleeves and inserts where appropriate. The discs themselves are adorned with custom labels and are pressed in gold instead of the typical silver. Remastering is primarily by John Webber at AIR Mastering, with credit also given on their respective albums to Messrs. Rodgers, Kizilçay, Eno, Gabrels, and Plati.
David Bowie reunited with producer Tony Visconti for two more albums as the millennium dawned before basking in a well-deserved 10-year retirement. His 2013 return The Next Day might have heralded yet another new era, but 2016's Blackstar turned out to be his final (master)work. Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001) captures Bowie still innovating and experimenting even as he began to embrace his role as an elder statesman of rock. "A fleeting moment," perhaps, but one well worth revisiting...
Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001) is available now: