One of the final books in Gemmell’s Drenai setting, White Wolf introduces a new hero called Skilgannon the Damned.
It’s all here: the fast pace, the brutal fight scenes (Gemmell knows sixty adjectives for an axe splitting a skull), the terse and efficient characterization, the unabashed heroism, and the tension between ideals of good and evil and the complexities of reality. I truly believe that nobody ever did it better.
But “it’s all here” doesn’t feel like an unalloyed compliment, not after twenty five books of mostly the same stuff. Gemmell was an excellent but limited author, and here he paints within the lines, offering up mostly familiar pleasures. The result is a book that, while fun, doesn’t particularly need to exist.
All the usual baddies make an appearance – the Nadir, werebeast “Joinings”, assassins, shamans – as do the typical Gemmell action setpieces (here we get three fights in a tavern as opposed to the usual one or two). Once again, a character renounces their violent ways and tries to become a monk, with predictably disastrous results. And the final encounter, while exciting, couldn’t be more of a videogame boss battle if “One Winged Angel” was playing in the background.
The protagonist Skilgannon poses a particular problem: he’s just a jumble of traits from past Gemmell heroes and never emerges as a compelling and unique character. He has Waylander’s dark past, Druss’s demon-possessed weapon (the actual Druss appears in this novel, muddling things still further), Jon Shannow’s sense of having outlived his time, Tenaka’s sense of being ill-used by someone he trusted, etc. He’s supposed to be an antihero, but he only commits evil acts because of a pair of mind-controlling swords, a bit of thematic oddness that Gemmell never addresses.
Gemmell doesn’t do anything new here, but he does turn up the emotional intensity in a few places. The scenes depicting Skilgannon’s youth were fascinating, linking past Gemmell figures such as Gorben and Michanek and adding a host of new ones. Druss the Legend steals the show every time he appears, to the point where I wished the entire book was about him. And the title’s full meaning is actually pretty interesting, particularly in light of the sequel, The Swords of Night and Day.
I enjoyed White Wolf, both when I read it here and when I read its various bits and pieces in earlier books like Waylander et al. It was probably for the best that Gemmell spent his final years writing quasi-historical fiction (re-telling the Iliad). It forced him outside of his comfort zone. Gemmell incapable of writing anything but a Gemmell novel, but many of his best stories happened when he at least tried.
Maybe you bought this book expecting to learn about the Roman Empire. Good news – you’ll learn a lot!
For example, that Caligula’s sister died at age twenty three due to a “surfeit of buggery” with her brother and “seven outrageously well-endowed studs” (p34). And how when Caligula travelled he “amused himself by taking potshots at the dull-witted peasants in the roadside fields, wielding a sort of projectile-shooting bazooka” (p38). Or how, in the arenas, skilled gladiators could decapitate a man and then direct the pumping jets of blood to spell “Caligula” on the sand, with the falling head forming the dot on the letter i. (p74).
But it wasn’t all fun and games. The most prized animal in the arenas was the “Libyan lion…eleven feet in length, with enormous paws armed with razorsharp (sic) claws of sabre-size dimensions, even their engorged testicles were as large as a man’s head”. Scary! The only way the Romans could subdue the Libyan lion and its engorged testicles was for a “particularly handsome slave to present his shapely, exposed anus to the lion’s mighty sexual apparatus; then, once the act of copulation (which invariably proved terminal for the unfortunate slave, due to unsustainable blood loss) reached its critical point and the lion was momentarily distracted, a gang of a hundred or more whooping slaves would wrestle the lion to the ground and throw a net over it”. (p83)
Divine Carnage is hilarious, and one of the funniest books I’ve read. I’m fighting and so far losing a battle just to fill this review with my favorite parts. Nearly every page of this book has entertainment of some sort: and a good thing, as you won’t find any history (or literacy).
I’m not sure to what extent the authors were in on the joke: it’s either a troll job, a parody of the “edgy history” trend (Dan Carlin, etc), or else one of Creation Books’ typical scams. The back cover has the words “ORGY OF DEATH GLADIATOR KILL”, with all capitals and no punctuation. The copyediting was done by someone throwing a gladius at a keyboard, there are usually multiple spelling and grammar errors on every page. The phrase “plebian scum” is used so often it becomes a tic. Also, the book was written by time travellers: James Havoc’s foreword is copyrighted 1999, but it mentions the “recent” Russell Crowe movie Gladiator, which came out in 2000.
Much of the book was definitely composed while drunk – sometimes the writer’s mind wanders down a little alley and you can see them clumsily make stuff up while staring at an empty glass. For example, the part where we’re told about the Imperial “thumbs up for life, thumbs down for death” thing, with an aside that the emperor’s thumb was actually penetrating a slave’s rectum.
Who are the authors of this masterpiece?
Jeremy Reed is a “Jersey-born poet, novelist, biographer and literary critic”, and Stephen Barber is a longtime Creation Books hack for hire who has written a dozen titles along the lines of “transformative future sex death semiotics in the films of Uwe Boll”. Neither is a historian, but they attack the project with gusto. At the end, Jeremy Reed heroically cites four books as “…an invaluable sources of reference (sic)”, though his final sentence is blunt: “There is no definitive life of Heliogabalus, and I have attempted to resassemble (sic) aspects of his character most likely to resonate in the current times.” Stephen Barber cites no books at all, just the “newly-excavated” Butrinte Caligula, which must be newly excavated indeed, considering that Google offers no evidence that it exists.
It is the first book in the Blood History series that marked Creation’s twilight years as an actual publisher. The second book was Flesh Inferno by Simon Whitechapel, and the third was The Bloody Countess, which was actually a reprint of a 1960s title by surrealist poet Valentine Penrose (whether Creation obtained the necessary legal rights from Penrose’s estate is doubtful). The fourth book exists only in our imaginations.
I’d be remiss not to quote my favorite line from the book, on p96. “Commodus was certainly the first post-modern Roman emperor”. That sentence sums it up. Creation Books ripped off a lot of people, but they did not rip off me. Not here.
Every culture has a beloved national dish that amounts to “take all the leftovers and put it in a pot”. Hours is David Bowie’s version of that, an unfocused collection of tracks from a videogame, an unfinished Reeves Gabrels solo album, plus some other crap, with a production job so bad it ruptured time and space.
Look at the cover. You pretty much already much know how it sounds. Light, breezy, housewife-hooking AOR pop rock with no real edge or bite. Bowie tried to get TLC to guest on “Thursday’s Child”. I don’t know what’s sadder: that he seriously had that idea or that it probably would have worked.
“Thursday’s Child” is the big hit single. It features a lame R&B-inspired backbeat, gratuitous female backing vocals, and greasy, syrupy synths. Someone once said that synths are to American musicians what firewater was to the Native Americans. I agree, and wish they were what smallpox blankets were for the Indians.
“Something in the Air” is six minutes of boredom and glitchy sound effects. I don’t know what Reeves Gabrels is playing on guitar. It doesn’t relate to the music in any way. It’s like they recorded him noodling at soundcheck time and put it on the record. This was Gabrels’ final studio release with Bowie, quitting while he was behind.
“Seven” is an acoustic song with loud obnoxious slide guitar parts. Not bad, but anyone could have written it.
“What’s Really Crappening” is Bowie’s infamous “cyber-song”, meaning its recording was broadcast via livestream. There were probably people who racked up a $40 phone bill over their 56ks listening to Bowie make this – they should have watched the video of the dancing baby instead. The lyrics were partially written by a fan, Alex Grant, who won a contest on Bowie’s website. Nobody can find any trace of Grant now. He may have entered the witness protection program.
“Brilliant Adventure” is etc…
You get the idea. I dislike hours greatly, there’s something cold and dead about it that I don’t hear in any of the other “bad” Bowie albums. Even Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine I have odd charm that renders them lovable from a certain perspective, but this has none (and no artistry either). This is a strong contender for the worst thing Bowie ever recorded on a major label.
The digital sampler is one of the great musical instruments of its ages, nearly equal to the electric guitar. Or maybe it’s an anti-instrument – rather than creating music, it takes the music of other people, and fascinatingly tortures it to death.
The Akai MPC sampler is to music what the AK-47 is to firearms – a mass-produced weapon that allowed peasants to get into the game. Not knowing a damned thing about music was no longer an obstacle to making it. Illiterate rappers could slice parts out of someone else’s tracks, reconstruct them into Frankensteinian monstrosities, and play the results to a crowded dancefloor. Sampling culture reveled in taking music out of its natural environment, and shoving square pegs into round holes. It put Beethoven’s Fifth over hip hop beats, and uncool dad rock over souped-up breakbeats. Much of the Mona Lisa’s effect comes from the fact that you must pass through an austere gallery before you see it. It would have a different impact if you saw it in a sewer. Sampling works by the same principle: it allows us to hear old music in a new way, breaking preconceptions and forcing the mind into unfamiliar paths.
Bowie’s 1997 album makes a fetish out of sampling. Most of Reeve Gabrels’ guitar riffs are actually recorded samples. Wild scratchy noises spray like jets of graffiti from an aerosol can: these are saxophones, sped up and glitched in the studio.
It’s also supposed to be a celebration of jungle music, a style he was quite enamored with at the time. In the press, he referred to it as “the great cry of the twentieth century”. On tour he split the set into two halves – a rock set and a drum ‘n’ bass set. Critics didn’t like it, and neither did his fans. After he noticed that most of his audience left after the rock set ended, he defiantly put the drum ‘n’ bass set first for the remainder of the dates. Jungle was pretty trendy and oversaturated by this point, which didn’t do him any favours with the cognoscenti. It was as he’d decided in 2001 that rap-metal was the great cry of the twenty-first century.
Regardless, Earthling is aggressive, cartoonish, excessive, and brilliant at times. Most of the tracks speed along like little mechanical rabbits, flurries of breakbeats trying to throw you out of the groove. “Dead Man Walking” proves itself the strongest cut, with a tough KMFDM groove mixed with introspective lyrics: Bowie is pondering his own sell-by date. “Law (Earthlings on Fire)” is also pretty strong, ending the record on an apocalyptic note. The music seems to be blasting from lamppost speakers while chlorine gas swirls below.
“Seven Years in Tibet” is rather long-winded, featuring a kick and snare sample that seems inspired by Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” (or maybe it is that kick and snare! I’m not sure). The song plods along, with massive gravitas, before exploding into an incandescent fireball of guitars. Bowie was a Free Tibet supporter for many decades: “Silly Boy Blue” on his first LP deals with it, and although he forgot about all those early songs, he never forgot Tibet.
“I’m Afraid of Americans” is more KMFDM-sounding material, with Bowie using synths the way he used Ronson’s guitars in the past, as riffs for him to emote over. The song was a rare chart hit in the United States. For the last time, they had to be afraid of him.
Although the two sound nothing alike, Earthling was made in the same spirit as Low. “How can I make human musicians sound like robots?” Low achieved this with motorik, synthesizers, layered drums, and Brian Eno. Earthling uses computers. For the first time, Bowie was cut on ones and zeros. Right around the corner were BowieNet, Bowie Bonds, BowieBanc, and all the rest.
Earthling is a fascinating example of an album that doesn’t particularly want to be loved or hated, just remembered. There was nowhere to go from here. How do you follow up excess? Even more excess? Bowie course-corrected after this with the stripped back …hours, landing so hard back on earth with that he buried the record in the ground. His subsequent records tended to be conservative and calculating, carefully doling out “experimentation” one pinch at a time. Earthling is a special moment: the final time Bowie truly went mad in the studio.
1. Outside is a masterpiece, Bowie’s greatest work in fifteen years, and barring a nanotechnological rebirth, will be his greatest work in the remaining sum of human years. (Sadly, I don’t believe Blackstar finishes as well as it began.)
But it’s exhausting. “Heroes” charges you up, this album drains you dry. The occasional pop song (“I Have Not Been to Oxford Town”, “Strangers When We Meet”) falls like a sweet berry between filth-stained cobblestones of industrial metal, avant-garde jazz, spoken-word interludes, and atonal ambiance. Sometimes the music seems to be reaching too far, and I feel I’m becoming lost. But when the next chord change hits, things always fall back into place.
Some parts I still don’t understand: in particular, the album concept. Something about ritualistic human sacrifice, a private detective, and characters called things like Algeria Touchshriek and Leon Blank. References are made to the “world wide Internet”, and Richard Preston’s alarming 1994 nonfiction book The Hot Zone. Something seems to have happened to this world, an event that Bowie won’t allow us to know. We’re peering through the window, guessing. We’re outside.
Maybe there’s not even a single concept. Like Diamond Dogs, Outside is a musical patchwork quilt, assembled from the wrack of a few different projects. In 1994, Q Magazine asked him for a “week in the life” type diary. Bowie felt that his real life wasn’t quite as exiting as they were probably hoping, so he wrote a fake diary by one Nathan Adler (this diary is reprinted in Outside’s liner notes). Two years earlier, he’d re-united with Brian Eno, and attempted to form a kind of avant-garde supergroup (much of their work eventually saw release on the internet as the Leon Suite.)
In addition to Eno, Bowie has his most powerful lineup in years. Carlos Alomar is back (holy shit!), as is Reeve Gabrels, whose rhythm tracks are distorted to near Static-X levels. Mike Garson makes a very welcome appearance – if you liked the middle fifty-five bars of “Aladdin Sane”, Bowie just gives him six kilometers of rope on this album. He just lays down solo after solo, on track after track, shredding Bowie’s chord progressions with hailstorms of chromatic notes.
The internet, or “information superhighway” (as it was ponderously called in 1995) is a big influence here. Outside seems married to it, somehow. Here’s a David Bowie FAQ from 1996 or so: it’s interesting to read Bowie’s fascination with computers (the digital art accompanying the Q Magazine story was created by him, somehow). Soon BowieNet would exist.
Picking out great tracks is hard, but I really like four. They come in groups of two, each positioned next to each other on the tracklisting (ignoring a segue).
“A Small Plot of Land” is aggressive, ear-bleeding jazz, paying tribute to Scott Walker and nearly upstaging him. “Hallo Spaceboy” is an industrial dance experiment that makes “Pallas Athena” sound like “All of the Dudes”. “Thru’ These Architects’ Eyes” riffs of Thomas Aquinas’s idea of God being an architect, and takes the album to new, celestial heights. And closing track “Strangers When We Meet” is powerful, dark, and tuneful. A perfect song to end on.
Some Bowie albums are best without their context. Outside is best with it. It’s flotsam from a confused and turbulent time in human’s history, when zero started to became one. Bowie was much better than average at predicting the future, but here we see him caught up amidst manifesting predictions – society unease and turmoil, and a digital pantokrator set to pave over humanity with silicon wafer. The album was meant to have a sequel, called Inside. This never materialised, but the wheels of time still turn, and soon we will see Inside for itself.
So obscure it hardly exists: The Buddha of Suburbia is a quasi-soundtrack to the BBC serial of the same name, based on a book of the same name, written by an author of not the same name. (He’s called Hanif Kureishi, thankfully. “Mr Buddha of Suburbia, Esquire” would be a bad name – almost as bad as “Zowie”.)
On my first listen, I hated the first song so much that I didn’t listen to the rest for a long time. This was a mistake: “The Buddha of Suburbia” might be adult contemporary glurge, but everything after it is fascinating, and much of it is good.
It’s Bowie’s scrapbook circa 1993, filled with doodles and ends. It’s his most disjointed studio album if you consider it one, the hyped-up penny arcade chiptune of “Dead Against It” is followed by the adventurous world music of “Untitled, No. 1”, which is followed by about six minutes of gentle fuzz and crackling sounds. Some tracks are reworks of the TV show’s music, while others are new. A proper soundtrack to The Buddha of Suburbia still hasn’t surfaced, and probably never will.
The book, from what I remember, was about being a mixed-race Britain, separated from both white and Indian. The songs all exist alone, and can’t be discussed in relation to each other.
“Sex and the Church” is a house track that prefigures Black Tie White Noise. It makes its point – my main problem is that it’s incredibly overlong, and only has about two ideas.
“The Mysteries” is Bowie’s first ambient track since 1981. It sounds similar to Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports, which was created to be both “interesting and ignorable”. An organ builds ominously, like a cloud that never turns to rain. Again, it’s very long, but it’s an intriguing experiment.
“Ian Fish, UK Heir” is an anagram of “Hanif Kureishi”, and it’s an even stranger ambient piece that evokes peaceful unlistenability. Sometimes hints of melodies appear in the suffocating carpet of fuzz.
“Untitled, No. 1” is loaded with exotic instrumentation, and Bowie sings in another made-up language. Why no title? Scott Walker released an album in 1984 called Climate of Hunter where most of the songs had no names, they were just “Track Three” and such. This was intentional, he felt that titles would overbalance the songs like poorly-weighted boats – the listener would focus overmuch on the title instead of the lyrics. There might be a similar logic here, as “Untitled” certainly seems too broad-reaching to be pinned down the way “Warszawa” et al can. Chris O’Leary thinks it’s supposed sound like a painting, which is another credible interpretation.
The standout is “Strangers When We Meet”, although you’d never know if you only heard the Buddha version, where the fluffy production robs it of its power. It appears in a much stronger form on 1. Outside, and I still consider it a track from that album.
The final song is “The Buddha of Suburbia” again with Lenny Kravitz on guitar or something. It continues to suck.
In 1967, David Bowie’s recording career began…and didn’t.
Well, it depends. What do you consider a beginning? Metallica’s first album is Kill ‘Em All, but that’s just a Diamond Head imitation. Their signature sound emerged on Ride the Lightning. That’s their beginning. The first Mad Max movie came out in 1979, but it’s just a violent exploitation film: the series truly starts with Mad Max 2. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series begins with hallucinatory fragment The Gunslinger: but the story only truly takes shape with book 2, the Drawing of the Three.
First efforts are usually flawed efforts, contaminated by inexperience, self-doubt, and outside interference. They’re not “real” starts, any more than Michelangelo’s first cast-off lump of clay was his first sculpture. David Bowie probably existed by 1969, and certainly by 1970. But in 1967, the cards were still falling. Whoever this is, it isn’t him. Not yet.
David Bowie is musically bizarre in light of his later albums: fourteen show-tunes for shows that never existed. It never misses a chance to be quirky, chirpy, and naff, the songs are bedecked with organ and keyboard parts, and Bowie (who had just turned twenty) does a fine job of sounding like an elderly sex pest.
It draws aesthetics from music hall, a venerable tradition that was fading in the 1960s, and is now utterly unendurable to modern listeners. I have never met a person who likes music hall. Have you? Do they exist? I’ve met people who claim they’ve seen aliens, but the elusive music hall fan still avoids me.
Music hall featured (and relied upon) stage shows and live performances: it may have been the the 19th century’s equivalent to the music video. The album suffers for its lack of a visual element, and feels a bit flat. No doubt Bowie had planned out short films and mime performances and dancing bears for each one, but then the album flopped. The songs are like colorful little parrots, their plumage covered by a dropcloth. We can hear them well enough, but they’re less charming without their bright feathers.
The music is mostly in good order. Even at twenty, Bowie knew how to put a song together. “Love You ‘Till Tuesday” strides into its chorus with a ritardando that made me say “nice” out loud in the middle of an empty room, which was embarrassing. “Sell Me A Coat” is a catchy ohrwurm, hand-tailored for the single release it never received.
The lyrics are a high point, although they’re definitely more interesting than good. Music hall was “low” entertainment, attracting people gate-checked out of polite society, and it played music to match. Bowie takes full advantage of this and just lets it all hang out, writing anything that will scan, no matter how stupid or awful or anti-social.
“We Are Hungry Men” is a humorous science fiction dystopia about a dictator’s solution to overpopulation. I laughed at the line about people being allotted a cubic foot of air to breath, although the part about China someday having “a thousand million” people didn’t age well.
“She’s Got Medals” is Bowie’s first song to deal with transvestism (“Passed the medical! Don’t ask me how it’s done!”), and “Little Bombardier” takes a nasty turn into pedophilia. The closing track is a spoken-word piece called “Please, Mr Gravedigger”, which tightrope-walks between being ludicrous and genuinely horrific.
There’s a lot of filler and half-songs (and quarter-songs), and I won’t pretend I want to hear things like “Come and Buy My Toys” ever again, but the songs are so diverse it hardly matters. They’re presents under a tree: if you don’t like one, you try your luck with another.
Bowie did the same thing – you can see many possible futures for him, refracted in the facets this strange, strange album. A mime? An actor? A vaudeville hoofer? A hippy? The genius who wrote Hunky Dory? I’m glad he chose the future he did, because it easily could have gone another way. In June 1967, an album came out that would change the face of pop forever. This, however, is not a review of The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but the first David Bowie album.
This song was created as part of a prompt: it’s based around the movie The Guest, directed by Adam Wingard and starring Dan Stevens.
The first half of the movie (before it descends into Jason Bourne cliches about supersoldiers and government agencies) is genuinely frightening. A man shows up on the doorstep of a family that has lost a son in the Afghanistan war. He claims to be a soldier, and a friend of their son.
He’s affable enough, but there’s something not right about the stranger. He’s intrusive, and oddly persistent. Nothing about his backstory adds up. Brutal violence lurks in his smile – he’s a human guillotine, with the guard-rail filed down to a hair. What, exactly, does he want?
The movie draws from westerns, particularly the darker, subversive breed pioneered by Clint Eastwood. In it, the Man with No Name rides into town…and he’s somehow even more terrifying than the bandits. He’s ostensibly a good person, but where did he come from? Why did he have to leave? What are his motives? And God help us…what if he’s not actually good?
I tried to reflect this in the horizontal motion of the piece. We begin in jarring 7/4 time, and the G mixolydian melodies attempt cloying sweetness and instability. The family at the start has lost a son, and although they’ve found a rhythm it’s not a good or satisfying one. Nothing like the life they had before.
Then the broken half-rhythm is invaded by knife-attacks of backmasked guitars and neotonal piano flurries. Then the ambiguity about the song (and the soldier) vanishes, ripped away like a mask, and you wonder why you ever thought there was ambiguity to begin with.
I’m not super happy with this, but it’s the best thing I’ve managed yet from a production and mastering perspective. Working around technical limitations sucks. (I ended up with hats chained to the snare bus somehow, limiting percussion possibilities.) My brain still thinks in 4/4 even when I’m writing 7/4 and 6/4, and some of the piece suffers for that.
At one minute and fifty-one seconds, this is a short-staying Guest.
Beavis and Butthead wander around America, so stupid they’re almost immortal. The show itself works the same way. It’s one-dimensional to the point of being immune to criticism: everything is right there, on the surface, an inch from your face. There’s nothing to “unpack”. There’s no message, or subtext. Merely by reading the title, you’ve plumbed its deepest depths.
Read contemporary reviews and you’ll see flop-sweating critics trying to find nuance in a show that doesn’t appear to have any. What can you say about Beavis and Butthead? That it’s a show about two idiots? Is that it? Is there anything deeper going on at all?
Maybe. Let me attempt an explanation:
The show is an extreme parody of Generation X nihilism. The 80s became the 90s, the Berlin Wall fell, Nirvana’s Nevermind came out, and millions of young people collectively decided it was uncool to care. Your clothes? Flannel and torn jeans. Your career? Skateboarding, or playing guitar in a local band called Turdsplatt. Your death? Late twenties, overdosing on some fashionable drug (probably heroin.)
Generational contempt hit an all-time high. Parents in the 60s thought their kids were commies, parents in the 80s believed their kids were devil-worshippers, but at least those things require initiative. Now, kids just sat in front of the TV all day, growing dumber and less curious by the second, as the Ozone layer burned and bombs pounded Vukovar. For the first time, the youth weren’t scary, just embarrassing.
Yes, this stereotype was unfair. The most famous Gen X’er, Kurt Cobain, was industrious, introspective, and mentally ill, not an apathetic slacker. But the lack of fairness is sort of the point: Beavis and Butthead are caricatures from baby boomer imaginations, rendered in full ridiculousness. Mike Judge isn’t mocking teenagers, he’s mocking their parents. “Look at this. Is this really what you believe your kids are like?”
But what about the movie?
The story begins with Beavis and Butthead noticing that their TV has been stolen. After pronouncing weighty judgement on the situation (“this blows”), they set out on a journey to find a new one, road-tripping across America and snickering at every sign on the interstate (“heh heh…Weippe…”)
They’re soon wrapped up in a drama involving government agents, a deadly bioweapon, and the President. The specific details are unimportant, since Beavis and Butthead successfully misunderstand or ignore every single thing that happens to them (no mean feat, as one of them is an elbow-deep cavity search). There’s funny jokes, and even some pretty good animation (particularly a peyote-tripping scene created by Rob Zombie).
Roger Ebert enjoyed the film, but noted his difficulty in telling the two central characters apart. I can confirm that they are distinct: Butthead is taller, has dark hair, and is somewhat more intelligent. He wears an AC/DC shirt, which I always thought was a little off (Metallica is fine, but AC/DC was a band your dad listened to). Beavis is an anarchic force of chaos, barely held in check by an occasional “shut up, buttmunch” from his domineering friend.
B&BDA is 25 years old, and many of its cultural references seem dated. In another 25, it will need a Rosetta stone to be understood. It came out in 1996, and although it made money there wasn’t a sequel. The show was cancelled in 1997, and for years it existed in a weird dead zone: too old to be relevant, but not old enough for a nostalgia-fueled comeback. That happened in 2011, although the show will probably never command the level of attention it had before. B&B don’t really work when you transplant them into modern times. In 2018, it’s old people who sit around watching TV all day, not kids.
But some parts of Beavis and Butthead haven’t aged, and some that did really shouldn’t have. When government agents try to track the duo down, they use a fax machine. Beavis and Butthead are stupid, but there are worse things. There is intelligence paired with malice. They should be glad that they weren’t living in 2018, smartphone addicted rather than TV addicted, with the NSA understanding them far better than they understand themselves.
Black Tie, White Noise is legendary, and not just for having a punchable album cover. When it came out in 1993, it marked Bowie’s return from the wilderness – his first solo album in six years. Just try holding your breath for six years – I bet you can’t do it. You probably won’t even make it halfway.
Bowie spared no effort in trying to tank it. He re-united with Let’s Dance producer Nile Rogers, who recounts baffling self-sabotage inside the studio. A potential smash hit (the Madonna-ripping “Lucy Can’t Dance”) was demoted to a mere bonus track. The final tracklist seems to emphasize the artistic and non-commercial songs, particularly a piece composed for David’s wedding to Somali fashion model Iman.
BTWN is a cold, funky dance record. They pulled 70s disco out of cryogenic suspension, partly thawed it, and added some 90s production elements. The album contains the snappy, bright Cheiron Studios sound that was all over the charts at the time, along with sampled beats and grafts from jazz and swing. At first the album’s sonics impress (as Let’s Dance‘s did), but soon you want to hear distorted guitars, and roughness, and humanity. BTWN is too clean. Actually, it’s germophobic.
A couple of the songs connect with me. “They Say Jump” delves into societal pressure through the metaphor of Bowie’s half-brother Terry, who had committed suicide some years before. It’s the closing parenthesis to “The Bewlay Brothers”. “Nite Flights” is a cover of a Scott Walker song, adding lots of air to what was already a large and generous-sounding arrangement. And “Pallas Athena” is a furious and crushing dance track, woven out of thudding drums and stentorian vocal samples.
The title track is a self-conscious aping of “Fame” from Young Americans. Carlos Alomar’s riff is replaced by a funky slap-bass part, the descending “fame”s at the end replaced by ascending “yow-yow-yows” at the beginning, John Lennon replaced by someone called Al B Sure! (whose career spiraled the drain after doing this collaboration). The half-rapped ostinato (“Black! Tie! White! Noise!”) is quite good, although I could do without the “crankin’ out the white noy-oy-oise” chorus.
The lyrics are McCartney’s “Ebony and Ivory”: a guilty white guy talking about how mankind is a beautiful rainbow, with a black musician dutifully playing Br’er Rastus in his minstrel show. I always dislike these types of songs, mostly they’re never as brave as they think they are. “I’m a face, not just a race!” Bold words in 1993. The lyrics reference the Rodney King riots, but still end with all the usual cliches of black and white man holding hands and becoming one. You know what I’d like to hear? A song that’s about how different we are. That maybe black and white aren’t the same, and we need to come to terms with that in whatever way we can. It would be career suicide, but at least it would be a fresh take on things.
The rest of the album is unmemorable. What artistry it has overwhelmed by a driving sleet of digital breakbeats and pad synths. Bowie’s vocal melodies are slender things, unable to support the weight of the arrangements. To be blunt, I don’t need to listen to Bowie for 56 minutes straight, nor do I need to hear about his wedding. The tacky “modern” elements just emphasise how little of the old Bowie is present on the album.
Comparisons can be drawn to another album, twenty years earlier, when Bowie was also newly married. But where The Man Who Sold the World became a classic, Black Tie, White Noise is sadly the first of many inconsistent and often uninteresting 90s efforts.