"Black Tambourine" began life as this song
, an early live experimentation based upon the beat from Serge Gainsbourg's song "Requiem Pour Un Con." Beck was clearly into the beat, and carried it into his recording a new album, and the beat ended up as "Black Tambourine."
came out there was a lot of talk of Beck getting into a rock and roll sound, and Beck admitted that this song is the best example of what he wanted to do. He told XFM that "Black Tambourine" was the "direction I wanted to take... percussive and primitive, revolving around the melody." The song was recorded quickly, in order to keep it stripped down and simple. The beat (Beck calls it a "Bo Diddley / Adam Ant party") is a good one, and lends it to being a great song on stage; albeit live versions are much more guitar-heavy than the very minimal drum & bass rattle found on Guero
"Black Tambourine," one of Beck's more impressionistic songs, uses short phrases strung together. (OK, a lot of his songs are impressionist.)
Beck has used a musical instrument to symbolize a feeling a few times in the past, and I reckon the key line is in the second verse:
"And when the sun is down
We'll shake and rattle our bodies
To keep it warm and night
My tambourine is still shaking"
This contains the idea that music is a sort of savior; that no matter how dark it may get or troubled life is, music will be there to help get you through. Beck has explored this idea in his lyrics many times. The rest of the lines look at troubles in various ways: public break-ups ("black hearts in effigy"), criticism ("sharks smell the blood that I'm bleedin'"), desolate situations ("broken-down buildings" / "spider webs are my home now").
I reckon the image of a black tambourine comes, as does the beat, from Serge Gainsbourg, who has a song called "Black Trombone."
Played live 299 times:
Earliest known live version: January 28, 2005
Latest known live version: October 18, 2017
Beck has played "Black Tambourine" at pretty much every concert since 2005.
2005-2007 Guero / Info tours
"Black Tambourine" really blossomed quickly on stage. The earliest bootleg version we have, from February 4 2005, which was likely the 2nd or 3rd time it was played, is pretty hot. It sounds and feels good in a natural setting, the beat enhanced, lots of percussion and tambourines shaking. It still follows the very minimal style of the record. The song is played with two
drummers, a percussionist, and a bass player, as Beck sings and plays the big electric guitar bridges (which he clearly loves). This is song is all about rhythm mixed with melody. The song does get stretched at the outro a bit, as Beck improvises somewhat on electric guitar over the beat (and sometimes Brian LeBarton would add harmonica), even sometimes going through more cycles of the chorus.
Early in 2005, Beck's lead guitarist (Justin Stanley) would not add guitar, but instead percussion and drums. But by 2006, they had stepped up the explosiveness of the song, and he was joining in on guitar, echoing Beck's rhythmic explosions.
Beck would continue with the song, riding that beat, that guitar riff, throughout his tours for Guero
. While the song continued in more or less the same arrangement every night, it never quite
sounded the same. The song is too primal and energetic for that! One night may have some falsettos at the end; another may ride the drums for a long intro; others may have some beatboxing or harmonica near the end. Things like that. There is some flux chaos to it, and Beck's talented bands can do all sorts of things with this song.
This was very regular in 2005, 2006, and 2007, played every night.
There were a couple of acoustic-type gigs at shows in 2006, and a few included "Black Tambourine." The show on October 17 was a beauty, and a very relaxed, acoustic version of the song kicked things off. It's a cool twist to the usual way you hear the song, stripping away the chaos. Beck also played an "acoustic" show on October 22, 2006. They opened with another stripped-down version of "Black Tambourine." A very nice energy, and they let the music carry the song instead of the usual bombastics.
2008-2009 Modern Guilt tour SHAKE SHAKE TAMBOURINE live versions
As Beck started to tour behind Modern Guilt
, "Black Tambourine" remained a regular. In the beginning, it was as usual, similar rock versions as before. This lasted for a few months, until August. This version was a little less wild and chaotic than in 2005/2006, because this band wasn't that insane. But somewhat surprisingly, the song is very adaptable to the moods of the band, the evening, the situation.
I am not entirely sure the debut of this, but I believe it was August 24, 2008. That night, Beck and his band started performing on little electronic GameBoy-like beat pads, played electro remix versions of "Hell Yes" and "Black Tambourine." The entire band stands there with their little toys, as Beck sings. This version of "Black Tambourine" uses the riff from the "Shake Shake Tambourine" remix from Guerolito
. He often just did two verse/choruses and then it segued into "Clap Hands."
This continued through the end of 2008 and the Japanese tour of March 2009.
2010-2013 pre-Morning Phase tours
Beck toured relatively sporadically in this time period, but at most all his appearances, he did perform "Black Tambourine." He had reunited with his classic band for some tours, and they sort of played "Black Tambourine" a bit funkier, especially in the verses. Smokey Hormel adds that funk scratch guitar to the bass & drums rhythm. They don't extend the song as much as they used to (occasionally though, Beck would solo a bit), but it still has explosiveness and a looseness to the performances.
2014 Morning Phase tour
On Beck's Morning Phase tour, Beck performed "BT" at most all the shows. It mostly feels similar to the 2012/2013 take, but with a couple of new moments (and one subtraction). Most notably, the first guitar break becomes more dramatic, in how it drops down and builds back up. Also, during the second break, since they have two lead guitarists (Smokey and Jason), Jason sometimes dropped a guitar solo over the rhythm. Also they cut the coda of the song, where they used to improvise and do whatever, which ends up making the song feel tighter and less chaotic. It is still a pretty great live song, but this version feels fairly professional.
2015-2017 post-Morning Phase tour
After the Morning Phase tour, "Black Tambourine" was carried into the following legs and was played basically every night. (I think there one shortened festival set where they skipped it.) The arrangement is the same as 2014, where they cut off the outro, ending the song right after the second guitar explosion break. They do on occasion stretch the intro before Beck starts singing. Listening to some versions, occasionally the band seems to race through it, playing it faster than normal (ie., at the Boston Calling festival). Beck also includes more audience participation in the song (getting them to clap along or do the "do do do" parts).
In 2017, Beck expanded his band, adding 3 new musicians. Two of them (Jake and Cecilia) are additional guitarists, on "Black Tambourine", they simply add more tambourines. It's an interesting oxymoron: the versions of the song I like the best are the ones when the band is bigger and more chaotic (i.e., 2005-2007 band, 2017). But at the same time, the song is still very minimalistic and does not really require more musicians. "Black Tambourine" just needs more tambourines, I guess, nothing else.