It’s very strange to reflect on the fact that when I actually wrote this passionate defence of David Bowie’s controversial hard rock experiment Tin Machine – fuelled by my decades of defending them to people who would scoff at the merest mention of the name despite it being patently obvious that they had never heard a single note of the actual music, and tipped over the edge by some sneering newspaper column that, tellingly, I can’t remember the identity of now – Bowie was very much still with us and everyone was eagerly waiting to find out what he would do next after The Next Day. Only a short time later he wasn’t, and we’re all too familiar with the chilling and haunting final statement of Lazarus, and in one of those bizarre twists of fate that would have had the sixteen year old me shouting for Prisoner Of Love at the Royal Court snorting in disbelief, I was actually informed of this by one of Tin Machine, but you can read much more about that here.
I am no uncritical fan of David Bowie – you really do not want to get me started on Pin-Ups, Tonight, Just A Gigolo or those bits on 1. Outside where he shouts “Eric Pode of Croydon” while falling into a bin or something – but equally, I will immediately leap to the defence of any corner of his career that is roundly dismissed without any consideration of its relative merits (and in some cases it really is relative), be it the sixties material, Earthling, Never Let Me Down, the single version of Holy Holy (which at least marks an important enough turning point in his career to warrant something other than, well, being ignored entirely) or, well, 1. Outside. In fact, if you’re looking for more evidence of precisely that, you can listen to me defending Absolute Beginners the movie here, or singing the praises of Bandslam – a long forgotten teen comedy that featured Bowie’s last screen acting role – here.
Defending Tin Machine, however, is more of an uphill struggle, and one that is very much reflected in the sheer weight of force behind the argument in this feature, which I’m still very fond of and which you can find in a hugely expanded form featuring much more about when I saw Tin Machine live (and the Earthling tour as well), in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. Happily, we may also now be on the verge of a major reassessment of Tin Machine, but more about that – and indeed much more from me on that – soon…
Why, at an all time career height of popularity, did David Bowie see fit to form his much-derided band Tin Machine? Well, if you believe the average bore writing a boxout list at the foot of an article on flop albums in The Guardian, it was ‘his mid-life crisis’. Nothing more, nothing less. Four years and three albums dismissed with a bit of sneering from someone who themselves is probably no stranger to acting their shoe size rather than their age, and whom more than likely hasn’t heard any of those three albums anyway, let alone Bus Stop (Country Version).
The reality of it, and indeed the it that, whatever your opinion of the album, led to Reality, is – surprise surprise – ever so slightly different. To understand why Tin Machine made their expectation-confounding appearance at the end of the eighties, you really need to look at the expectation-meeting that Bowie had been doing for the rest of the decade. Well, excepting Scary Monsters… And Super Creeps, Alabama Song, the Baal’s Hymn EP and all the rest of that turn-of-the-decade post-Berlin avant-gardeness, but that’s where and how it all really starts. Let’s Dance, Live Aid, the launch of Now That’s What I Call Music!, and so many other small but significant routes into the mass mainstream audience had conspired to push David Bowie into somewhere he probably shouldn’t have been and very clearly didn’t want to be, and not unreasonably he felt obliged to induldge in an extended outburst of crowd-pleasing. The Let’s Dance album, while certainly one of his most listenable, was not one of his more artistically challenging moments, and this fed directly into the inspiration-free void (alright, Loving The Alien aside) of the for once not unfarily maligned Tonight, and the anti-climactic Never Let Me Down, which sees a set of mostly very strong songs buried beneath ear-assaultingly overloaded eighties production that even Bowie himself now seems to regret; standout track Time Will Crawl has only ever appeared on latterday compilations in a later and vastly-improved stripped-back mix, while one song, Too Dizzy, has proved sufficiently embarrassing to be retrospectively removed from the album itself.
In between those two underachieving and underinspiring albums came a handful of singles that seemed to suggest that Bowie himself was all-too-aware of his creative straitjacket. Recorded with the not exactly chart-troubling Pat Metheny Group, This Is Not America was a wifully obstuse diversion from the lighters-in-the-air mood of the time, while the lightweight but fun Dancing In The Street seemed to be taking the rise out of his current status (not least in the accompanying video), and Absolute Beginners is quite simply one of the best songs he has ever written. If it’s never quite nudged into the upper echelons of the public-percepted Bowie Canon, it’s largely due to its association with a film that people can’t seem to look past on account of its poor reputation, despite the fact that they’ve probably never seen it themselves and that indeed it’s actually a lot better than Halliwell’s Film Guide would have you believe. And yes, there is a bit of an important theme developing there.
The idea for Bowie’s subsequent career detour started to formulate during 1987’s post-Never Let Me Down ‘Glass Spider’ tour, an expensive, technically ambitious and not entirely successful attempt at taking his avant-garde ideas to the mainstream. During the tour, Bowie was both introduced to experimental guitarist Reeves Gabrels and reacquainted with Iggy Pop’s former bassist and drummer Tony and Hunt Sales; desperate to try something new, yearning for the relative anonymity of being part of a band, fascinated by the proto-grunge sounds of Screaming Blue Messiahs and The Pixies, and quite possibly indulging in a spot of Oblique Strategies-inspired lateral thinking, Bowie initiated rehearsals with the stated aim of ‘making the kind of music we want to listen to’. Rather than trying to take the avant-garde to the mainstream, he was now intending to drag the mainstream, kicking and screaming, towards the avant-garde. As we shall see, they would not like this one bit.
So, on paper, Tin Machine look like an astonishing prospect; you’ve got an acclaimed innovatory guitarist, the rhythm section from Lust For Life, and David Bowie. What’s more, you’ve got a David Bowie keen to find his creative fire again, helped along in no small part by the voluble and wisecracking Sales brothers poking fun at his more overblown ideas, and Gabrels’ even more influential mantra repeated whenever Bowie talked about having to do artistic or commercial things that he didn’t want to – “stop doing it”. What’s more, they were all expecting and expected to contribute to the songwriting and even singing. As we will see, this laudably ego-deflating band democracy would ultimately prove as much of an achilles heel as it was a strength… but let’s save that for later. Nobody even knows Tin Machine exist yet.
By the end of 1988, Tin Machine – naming themselves after a song they had written pretty much on the spot in rehearsals – were in the studio. Recording as live in record time, and with music and lyrics both intentionally left rough and unpolished, the band had an entire album and releaseable outtakes to spare in the can before 1989 had even really started. During the sessions, without having formally announced the project, they played a secret gig at a small club near to Nassau’s Compass Point Studios, to audible audience debate over whether the mysterious bearded figure onstage was actually David Bowie or not. And when the self-titled debut album – yes, the one with the bafflingly mocked sharp-suited position-changing cover photo – appeared with astonishing speed in May, it did so to what were initially enthusiastic reviews; and, before Q started having to have endless lists of the Eighteen Thousand Worst Albums Ever Made every three sodding minutes, it made their list of best albums at the end of the year. So why’s it treated with such disdain now?
Well, for starters, there’s the wider general public’s reaction. Critics and a sizeable proportion of Bowie devotees who knew their Subterraneans from their Cat People (Putting Out Fire) might well have embraced this unexpected turn of events, but there’s no escaping the fact that a damagingly large number of more recent converts from across the globe, who liked that he’d apparently now joined the long line-up of formerly innovative rock stars who had given in to the urge to coast along at a crowd-pleasing artistic standstill, would have – not unreasonably – found it disorientating and unpleasant, and probably even felt ripped off (and music snobs should accept that there’s nothing wrong with that feeling, as anyone who owns Tarantula by Ride will wearily attest). Meanwhile, many critics would soon revise their opinion on finding that this ‘band’ genuinely were placing themselves on an equal footing even when it came to promotional duties, and it’s quite likely that many of the more scathing articles that followed were written by journos who had found themselves chatting to Hunt, Tony or Reeves when they had been expecting a chance to meet David.
Even then, some actual hardcore Bowie fans weren’t exactly keen, which is as good a moment as any to start talking about the album itself. In fairness, it’s an incredible departure even by the tiresomely over-analysed and over-exaggerated standards of the ‘chameleon of rock’, and is as much the other three’s album as it is his. It’s rooted in influences from a genre that, even before it really had a name as such, had deliberately set itself apart from established norms, and involved the sort of sounds that in some cases listeners might actually have turned towards the likes of Bowie actively to avoid. They’re also the sort of sounds that in some regards haven’t aged well, based primarily around a clattering wall of noise and lacking the finesse and diversity that Nirvana would have everyone emulating a short while later. And on top of that, some simply don’t like the lyrics – direct, less poetic, and often dealing with subjects (poverty and drug abuse in Crack City, violence as cheap entertainment in Video Crime, far right politics in Under The God and so on and so on) that well-to-do rock stars are hardly exactly well-placed to pontificate on; in balance, however, many of these were in fact influenced by the work of Gabrels’ investigative journalist wife Sara Terry, and in any case, a millionaire rock star shining a light on the uglier day to day realities of corners of the globe that had been left to decay in the name of profit was something of a welcome relief after several years of them all asking us to put our hands in our pockets rather than address the actual underlying causes of situations.
If, however, you were an impressionable youngster who liked David Bowie (and was then still unaware enough of notions of ‘canon’ to think Day In Day Out was a great song) every bit as much as the murky, speaker-rattling noise buzzing out of John Peel’s Radio 1 show, the idea of the two colliding was about as exciting as it got, and perhaps those listeners who did accept it on face value are worth listening to. They’d probably tell you that Heaven’s In Here, Prisoner Of Love, Under The God and Baby Can Dance are easily superior to the bulk of his previous three albums, that the weary yet snarling riposte to where he had found himself I Can’t Read (“I don’t know a book from Countdown“) is even better than that, that Bus Stop provides a brief note of comic relief with its short sharp story of a commuter finding religion, and that the more laid-back and hazy Amazing momentarily dispenses with the sonic overload to present some intriguing hints of where they might go next. True, there are also some throwaway thrashes and a jarring cover of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero – not exactly the sturdiest of songs to begin with – but how many albums, and this does include most of Bowie’s, have never included at least one fish out of quality-related water? And anyway, two of those throwaway thrashes were only included on the CD, back in the days when an unwritten law stated that all releases on the brand spanking new format had to have additional exclusive ‘content’ or Brookside yuppie Jonathan Gordon-Davies would cry, so technically they can’t really be held up as shortcomings anyway. Plus on top of all this, those who ‘got’ the band were rewarded with a top smart non-LP single in the form of a rowdy – and decidedly pointed – cover of Bob Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm. Less than a year later, she was gone. Makes you think.
Then fast-forward eighteen months to the summer of 1991 – one of the most packed eighteen months in Bowie’s entire career, with the Sound + Vision tour and box set, the arrival of his back catalogue on CD with fantastic bonus tracks (notably Bombers, I Pray, Ole and the astonishing Some Are), the superb pre-fame singles collection Early On, and the quietly forgotten ‘best of’ Changesbowie and accompanying remix single Fame ’90 – and while the post-Live Aid contingent might well have been blissfully boring themselves senseless with Simply Red and Bryan Adams, it was a rather exciting time to be a fan of indie, alt-rock, or whatever you prefer to call it. Even aside from the onslaught of noise that was about to crashland from across the Atlantic, there was still just enough hope left that The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets might take on the mainstream and win – hope that, for three wildly differing reasons, would be dashed before the year was out – and The KLF were busy taking art terrorism into the orbit of even the most empty-headed chart-head, while Creation Records were gearing up to release four (and very nearly five) hotly tipped and eagerly anticipated albums that between them reinvented everyone’s idea of what ‘independent’ music could achieve both creatively and commercially; a reinvention that Britpop would take its cue from but then sadly squander only a couple of years later. And into the middle of all this walked Tin Machine.
No, really. Literally into the middle of it. Perhaps recognising that trying to pull their angular conceit off in the arena-playing arena had worked against them with the first album, this time around Tin Machine did everything they could to place themselves alongside the bands that were technically their musical peers, to the extent of recording a live set for Radio 1’s The Evening Session, performing on hip and happening TV shows like Paramount City, and even embarking on the ‘It’s My Life’ Tour around the sort of venues that Bowie probably hadn’t even seen since about 1969; indeed, I would get to see and hear them blasting the air with noise and a set that included a cover of The Pixies’ Debaser in the exact same venue where around that time I would more normally have gone to see the likes of Ride and My Bloody Valentine. Even the accompanying album, Tin Machine II, was released – thanks to Bowie’s general disgruntlement with EMI – on the sort of vaugely-ish independent label Victory. Yes, alright, so it was technically bankrolled by JVC, but it was formed especially for Tin Machine and they licensed it to long-established UK indie London Records anyway, so who’s counting?
Half of Tin Machine II is a vastly better album than the band’s debut. And, unfortunately, half of it is much, much worse. On the plus side, there’s the propulsive Baby Universal, the surprisingly melodic – if slightly overlong (and dubiously-lyriced) – One Shot, the likeable if undistinguished Roxy Music-alike You Belong In Rock’n’Roll (although the accompanying cover of Roxy’s If There Is Something falls somewhat wide of the mark), and Bowie’s soaring, affecting salute to the natural disaster-ravaged architectural beauty of Amlapura. The other tracks, however, veer from the OK-ish but unremarkable Betty Wrong to Hunt Sales’ notorious bluesy plod Stateside, which has the dubious distinction of being the most roundly disliked song ever to appear on a David Bowie record. In its defence – which is not a sentence I had ever envisaged myself writing – as bluesy plods go it’s at least on the tolerable side, the bands they sought to emulate and indeed Bowie himself as a solo artist were never averse to including listener-challenging bits of overlong ill-fittedness when it suited them (any scoffing Pixies fans are respectfully asked when the last time they listened to Silver was), and to throw things into a bit of perspective it’s not like The Police’s albums ever get quite so much of a battering for including Andy Summers songs.
Still, the album as a whole is characterised by a more diverse and sophisticated sound than the debut, and it also includes two of David Bowie’s greatest ever songs. The admirably restrained barrage of soured Americana Goodbye Mr. Ed is the one song that even avowed Tin Machine haters will confess to really, really liking, whilst the arresting Shopping For Girls really is in a class of its own. A third-person look through the eyes of a sex-trade tourist set to a classic Bowie-style backing that cleverly references both cliched ‘oriental’ melodies and Prince’s 1999, it combines uncomfortable yet righteously vitriolic lyrics (complete with an ambiguous reference to Michael Jackson) with an angst-ridden, despairing delivery and, at a climactic moment, Reeves Gabrels chiming in with a blast of guitar noise that sounds for all the world like Sweep from The Sooty Show is plummeting ablaze from the sky, intent on launching himself bodily at the rat-infested room that Bowie describes with such fury. It really is dispiriting to think that these two songs, and I Can’t Read, are never likely to reach the popularity they deserve, purely on account of the fact that so many listeners just can’t bring themselves to look past what they think it says on the, erm, tin.
Although the singles were a moderate success – leading to two appearances on Top Of The Pops, one of which saw Gabrels infamously elect to smear his guitar with a chocolate eclair and cause Bowie to crack up while the other was a belting live performance at a time when many of the other featured acts were struggling to cope with the all-new all-live format, as well as an infamous interview on Wogan which turned into an essay in tense nervousness as the host ungraciously ignored Tony Sales and made a beeline for Bowie, who indignantly responded with monosyllabic non-sequiturs – the album underperformed badly and Bowie was already dropping hints that it was time to move on. After that, and the almost completely ignored live album Oy Vey, Baby (rendered inessential on account of containing absolutely no rarities or exclusives whatsoever; perhaps foolishly, they’d already used their live cover of Shakin’ All Over as a b-side and given away their live cover of Go Now to the much-more-ropey-than-Tin–Machine–IINME compilation Ruby Trax, plus there was an eight minute version of Stateside which didn’t exactly help), Bowie’s solo career resumed with the electro-disco single Real Cool World (although all of the journalists who have more recently taken to referring to that as a ‘return to form’ require investigation under the Trade Descriptions Act), and Tin Machine were quietly decommissioned. And then even more quietly written out of David Bowie’s career history. While Reeves Gabrels would stay on as a collaborator for several albums, Bowie has occasionally revived a couple of songs including Shopping For Girls and I Can’t Read, and a fair selection from both albums ended up on the Sound + Vision box set, you’ll be hard pushed to find any acknowledgement of Tin Machine in any official Bowie overview.
The first album is still available, albeit lacking key bonus tracks like Maggie’s Farm and the alternate Bus Stop, while, staggeringly, Tin Machine II has been out of print for years. Just think about that for a second. A David Bowie album is not available to buy, even digitally, in a world where you can get the equally derided sixties and nineties output literally at the click of a button. Never mind that, you can get sodding David Live. This is usually explained away as being due to ‘low demand’, which is a reasonable explanation but not one that really tallies with mint condition copies of the CD routinely changing hands for silly money. The likely real explanation is that it took such a battering on release, mostly from people who had either never heard it or were being paid to be ‘controversial’, that even Bowie and his current back catalogue distributors have started to believe it and are preferring to quietly forget that it ever existed. Some (though not all) of the better tracks are on the recently-reissued Sound + Vision, of course, but that’s hardly the same thing. Oy Vey, Baby is also currently unavailable, but… erm… um… anyone got any kettles that need descaling?
There’s probably a case for saying that, even allowing for band democracy, Tin Machine maybe would have benefitted from giving a little more control and influence to the member with the proven track record in crafting globally successful albums, but then again if they’d done that, the albums might have been better but they just wouldn’t have been Tin Machine. As an exercise in both artistic deck-clearing and shaking off an artistically restrictive audience, it certainly did its job admirably – like or loathe Bowie’s nineties output, at least he’d started making music that surprised people again – and unlike The Divine Comedy’s ‘serious’ album and so many other similar career missteps, at least people actually remember it. And as there isn’t any more of this to read, why not try listening to I Can’t Read?
Buy A Book!
You can find an extended version of this feature, with much more on seeing David Bowie live both on the Tin Machine II and Earthling tours, in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Goodbye Mr. Ed by Tin Machine is one of my Ten Best Endings Of Anything Ever, which you can find collated as Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea… here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.