I came to David Bowie’s music late and via a weird path. Because my music growth was sluggish, I didn’t start listening to David Bowie’s music until I was in college, and even then, I was initiated to the Thin Duke’s music by his dance mixes. I love dance music, and found that I gravitated toward his Bowie’s dance music – which is often derided as the worst of his output. As a kid growing up in the Age of MTV, I saw “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl” playing on practically a loop. I loved “Let’s Dance” – particularly the striking strings. It was disco during a time when disco wasn’t cool.
The first David Bowie CD I bought was Earthling, a late-in-life entry in his discography. Influenced by dance, techno, electronica, and drum & bass, Earthling satisfied both my respect for Bowie, and my love of dance music. “Dead Man Walking” is a fantastic, swirling number, with fuzzy guitars and squelching beats. “Little Wonder” is a grimy, creepy song with some intense jungle beats. There’s a track on the record, “I’m Afraid of Americans” which I found so weird, twitchy and fantastic, that I plunked down some hard-earned coins for the import EP, so that I could get the remixes, as well.
Speaking of remixes, my second Bowie CD was Outside, which I bought with trepidation because I heard it was a challenging record. I got it because I was entranced with the Pet Shop Boys remix of “Hallo Spaceboy.” By that point, I was a huge PSB fan and devoured anything they did, so when I heard that they were pairing up with David Bowie, I was intrigued. Over the Pet Shop Boys’ patented chugging, plastic drum machines and rubbery synths, Bowie’s strange, disaffected, dry voice glided perfectly.
For most people, David Bowie’s a rock god, but for me, he was the ultimate in dance music. I always felt that his contribution to the clubs was woefully underrated. Most people view his poppier work with wariness – his output during the 1980s was derided as creatively bereft of the kind of innovation found in the Berlin Trilogy. I agree, Tonight and even the solid Let’s Dance doesn’t have the staying power of “Heroes” or Hunky Dory. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is regarded as a definitive rock record.
But I argue that people should look again at the 1993 release Black Tie, White Noise. The title track is an interesting contradiction of creativity, ambition, and cynical commerce. Inspired by the L.A. Riots, the song is a funky, soulful mess with some excellent sax work by Bowie – as well as good support from 90’s R&B star Al B. Sure. “Jump They Say” (produced by Nile Rogers), has a great breezy beat and more great sax work – while the pained lyrics deal with the suicide of Bowie’s brother. Black Tie, White Noise was very much a 90s superstar record, expensive with some high-end guests, but deserved much more attention than it got.
For many during the 1980s, Bowie was a huge star of their nightmares because of the Jim Henson film Labyrinth, in which the androgynous superstar played Jareth, the Goblin King, who kidnaps Jennifer Connolly’s baby brother. Done up in some fantastic 80s fantasy drag, a silvery mop of spiky hair, and a face beat within an inch of its life, Bowie was a striking figure. Queer, arch, funny, and menacing. The soundtrack has a pair of Bowie’s most overt attempts at mainstream pop music: “Underground” and “Magic Dance.” Of course, the songs date – the thick bass and shiny synthesizers, but the songs also hark to Bowie’s 70s work that flirted with Philly Soul. “Underground” has some wonderful backup vocal work – a gospel chorus that includes Luther Vandross and Cissy Houston. Bowie coined his music “plastic soul,” and he’s right – there is a certain level of distance and artifice when he embraces black music – it’s not the work of a true soul artist like Dusty Springfield, but instead, a fantastic musical experiment.
Much was and will be made about David Bowie’s constantly-changing look and sound. It’s become a cliche to call him a cliche – in much the same way it’s become cliched to call Madonna a cliche (by the way, has there ever been an artist who owes as much to Bowie as Madonna?). What I appreciated about Bowie was that he seemed restless with what he was doing – music was something to be played with, experimented on, and enjoyed. Most artists stay in their lanes when it comes to making music, but Bowie seemed intent on changing lanes constantly – and even when he wasn’t at his best (the pair of Tin Machine records weren’t great), he was still interesting.