For the last 15 – 20 years it has become quite a trendy, fashionable thing for certain music journalists and other observers to simply knock or dismiss all that carries the name Tin Machine. I do wonder when they do this if they’ve even bothered to listen to the band or are just simply knocking on the basis that “everyone does”. It’s not like they have checked the facts – the first Tin Machine album, for quite a while, sat at number five on the list of biggest selling Bowie albums of all time. That hardly makes it an act of folly, does it?
Before we go in to the Tin Machine music, let’s try and see how David Bowie got to the point of wanting to submerge himself into the workings of a band rather than simply stay solo. I would suggest the first step on that path came in around 1982 & 1983. After spending most of the early 80s acting (superb reviews for his performance on stage in The Elephant Man and on screen in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence) and with very little music (his superb title track for the remake of Cat People), Bowie turned to producer Nile Rodgers when it was time to return to the recording career proper. “I want hits”, Bowie is reportedly to have told Nile Rodgers, “lots and lots of hits”. That is exactly what he got in the form of his pop friendly album Let’s Dance.
Let’s Dance was a peculiar thing for the more ardent Bowie fans. Used to seeing him change his style and be innovative, at face value the album was Bowie trying to slot in with the New Romantic pop of the day, a movement he pretty much inspired with his late 70s work. It contained only one truly bad track – the horrid re-recording of the Cat People theme, it’s moody drum and bass sound replaced by synthesisers. Three huge hit singles, propelled by videos that TV could not get enough of broadcasting, came in the form of Let’s Dance, China Girl and Modern Love. The latter was effectively footage from the Serious Moonlight tour, which is worth discussing here.
The Serious Moonlight Tour reflected the best of times and the worst of times for Bowie fans. At best, it was him back on stage, doing what he does best and selling out huge venues. Alarm bells rang, however, at how he had “changed” some classic songs. Station To Station, for instance, was no longer an 11 minute opus full of dark despair and isolation; he had changed it into a 3 minute pop song. This kind of represents how at this time Bowie had more or less handed over musical control to the musicians he had picked up for the album and tour, concentrating only on singing himself.
With presumably some pressure from the record label too, Bowie decided to capitalise on the success of Let’s Dance and indeed the huge audience of the Serious Moonlight tour by getting a new album out in late 1984, just over a year after Let’s Dance was released. That album was Tonight, one that Bowie (unlike his Tin Machine work) has been critical of in retrospect.
Tonight is a frustrating experience. There are two songs on it, Loving The Alien and Blue Jean, that rank right up there with the best stuff Bowie has ever done. The other seven songs leave a lot to be desired, however. It’s perhaps telling that the two I single out are the only Bowie-only compositions – the rest are either co-written with his mate Iggy Pop, or are cover versions (and yes, an Iggy Pop cover or two feature in that list). It did sell well as Bowie had hoped or intended it to, but in no way is it one of his greatest efforts.
The next couple of years saw David Bowie less in the studio, more into doing other things. He recorded some exceptional songs for movies – When The Wind Blows, This Is Not America and Absolute Beginners – and of course the soundtrack for one of his more celebrated (for all the right and all the wrong reasons) film roles, Labyrinth. There was also his duet with Mick Jagger, Dancing In The Streets, for the benefit of Live Aid – SARFTH AMERICAAAAAA, anyone? Music seemed to be taking a back seat to Bowie’s acting and general celebrity appearance wishes. Right up until 1987, when the world got the Never Let Me Down album. Whether the world wanted it or not.
One review somewhere, I forget who did it, summed up this album as “so bad even the fonts used on the text are rubbish”. Others were a bit kinder, applauding Bowie’s wish to return to a more guitar and rock based sound, albeit one retaining the pop sensibilities of the previous two albums. For me it has two decent songs – the title track and the lead single, Day In Day Out. The rest are tracks I would rather not hear again, thank you. One of those tracks gave a sign of things to come, though – the odd Glass Spider.
And so it came to be that Never Let Me Down was intended as an elaborate soundtrack for an unbelievably elaborate and highly expensive “concept show” in the form of the Glass Spider Tour. And my what a concept! The stage, funnily enough, was dominated by a massive spider and effectively filled with all sorts of performing artists and musicians (one of them being Peter Frampton, no less). It cost a great fortune to put together and take around the world – so much so that Bowie signed a sponsorship deal with Pepsi to get the whole thing funded.
You are welcome to seek out any of the Glass Spider performances if you so wish, but the best advice i can offer is do not do that. Although Bowie can take some credit for starting the ball rolling on elaborate stage settings (subsequent tours by Madonna and U2 certainly borrowed from what Bowie was trying to do), the frustration of this tour was that David Bowie was more or less a bit player on the stage. It was just plain wrong to see Bowie perform something like Heroes with all sorts of theatrics going on. He has been quoted as saying that he felt as if he was “losing his way” with the manner in which all this went. How fortunate, then, that a publicist handed Bowie a tape of her husband, Reeves Gabrels, in the hope that he might consider working with him.
For whatever reason, Bowie played the tape, and liked what he heard. It went beyond liked, really, for one of his first reactions was to recall the Sales brothers, Hunt and Tony, from his days of running around with Iggy Pop in the 70s, and pondered how good this guitarist would sound with the drums of Hunt and the bass of Tony. Tin Machine, then, was born in Bowie’s mind on a walkman during one of the quieter moments of the Glass Spider tour.
With the tour done, Bowie got the three in a room to see what would happen. The Sales brothers were somewhat notorious, if not head cases, and tended to approach everyone with aggression at first. Whereas Bowie recalls the musicians “instantly clicked”, Reeves Gabrels recalls it a little different – “who the f*** are you?” was how he remembered the Hunts speaking to him at first. Nonetheless, the band were soon “gelled” when Hunt and Tony were satisfied that Reeves was good enough to play with them, and off they went.
The sound of Tin Machine was solid rock. Hard rock if you will, stopping short of Heavy Metal. If you want a Bowie comparison, it marked a return to the sound of an album like The Man Who Sold The World. The first few shows, all in low key venues, caused quite a storm in the press – after the theatrics of the Glass Spider tour, it was interesting to see Bowie playing on a bare stage in venues that held no more than a few hundred. There was also the notable absence of any Bowie solo songs – Tin Machine gigs were Tin Machine only affairs. This frustrated many, it is fair to say.
The debut album from Tin Machine sold exceptionally well at first on release in mid-1989, getting to number three in the charts (held off the top spot by Queen and Jason Donovan). Sales drifted off, however, and it was out of the charts by the end of July 1989.
So, was it any good? Well, the best I can do is suggest that you listen to it and judge for yourself. If it helps, however, here’s my track by track rundown.
Heaven’s In Here – a masterpiece. A dirty, grimy number that makes distinctly unsubtle sexual references and some of the best imagery ever found in a Bowie related song.
Tin Machine – a blasting, brilliant piece of melodic noise. A great thunderous sound and again top drawer lyrics.
Prisoner Of Love – ho hum, the obligatory ballad. Doesn’t really work for me.
Crack City – oh dear, the album is losing it’s way. A tiresome song, apparently as best as i can work out a threat by Tin Machine to drug dealers along the lines of “Tin Machine does not like drug dealers”. Good instrumentation wasted on cliché riddled bad lyrics
I Can’t Read – wow. The album recovers very well at this point. An astonishing tune, berating and possibly even predicting the dumbing down of the world via television.
Under The God – further moralising from the band, this time against racism, but it works better here than it did on Crack City. Great song.
Amazing – does what it says on the box. Quite simply an amazing song. People who consider Tin Machine to be nothing more than a blasting noise need to hear this one and think again, this is brilliant by any standard.
Working Class Hero – oh dear. When multi-millionaire John Lennon did this there was kind of a subtle irony to it, with the pillar he had been put on despite his wealth. Mega rich rock stars doing it tend to look rather silly. Tin Machine are no exception.
Bus Stop – class, just class. A two minute bit of fun that’s wildly amusing and great to play. Sounds like it’s just a ditty Hunt and Tony were messing with to tune up, and Reeves guitar and Bowie’s vocal and it is a winner.
Pretty Thing – Something of an afterthought to Heaven’s In Here, really, a sort of rockier, faster take on the idea of a “dirty sex” song. Some newspapers briefly tried to court controversy with the lyric “tie you down pretend you’re Madonna”, but the controversy, much like the song, never really went anywhere.
Video Crime – oh dear, back to moralising. You could argue that Tin Machine were ahead of the game, for blaming violent acts on videos was something the British press would not stop doing for the next few years, but that does not make it a good song. A pity that this doesn’t really work, as it has a great lyric hidden in it – “I’ve got dollars, I’ve got cents, wonder where the Third World went”.
Run – another go at a ballad type thing. Yawn. Move on.
Sacrifice Yourself – Wow! Here we go, the big, blasting noise of Tin Machine returns in full force, delivering what is one of their best tunes. Excellent live, fantastic on the record.
Baby Can Dance – a so so track, really. A bit of a rubbish way to end off the album with, but not the worst thing on the record.
By my reckoning I have roughly half of the tracks on the album as exceptional, a quarter as being not bad and the remaining quarter being “ho hum filler”. That hardly makes it an act of folly. If you’ve avoided this particular album just because the rather lazy members of the press have said it is rubbish, hopefully the above sees you change your mind and give it a try.
After the Tin Machine debut and tour, off David went to do that Greatest Hits shenanigans for a while. The Sound & Vision tour saw Bowie selling out stadiums once again, as he went off to play all the hits for “one last time because he had to”, his intention being that he would only play them again if he really wanted to. People assumed that the huge success of the greatest hits tour and releases meant the end of Tin Machine, but that was far from being the case.
Just as soon as he had finished touring, it was back into studios around the world (mostly in Australia) to record the second Tin Machine album, imaginatively titled “Tin Machine II”. This one did not sell anywhere near as well as the first, which is a great shame as it is a far more accomplished album. Track by track again? Why not!
Baby Universal – well, hello, what’s this? A bash at a pop record by the monstrous sound of Tin Machine? Yes it is, and it works! A great opener, a great single, a great song.
One Shot – and doesn’t this album just get better and better! Delving into the darker side of Tin Machine and the lyrics on the debut album, this is a more refined sound than before that retains the high quality of the lyrics.
You Belong In Rock And Roll – “and so do I”, as the lyrics go. The clearest, outright shot on the album of something of wide, commercial appeal, and it works just fine. A brilliant song.
If There Is Something – a truly inspired cover version. It takes the meandering Roxy Music original and turns it into a ferocious rocker, Bowie tearing through the lyrics like he is bellowing from the heart. A must-hear cover version.
Amlapura – oh. Some sort of impassioned plea about Indonesia that presumably makes sense to Bowie. Next.
Betty Wrong - a sort of dark, end of days song. Once again as is often the case with Tin Machine some evocative, amazing lyrics. I could quote them, but the words alone do not do justice – rather hear the whole song.
You Can’t Talk – quite possibly a little comment to those critical of Tin Machine – “you can’t see me drowning, I don’t see you swimming” seems to be a bit of a symbolic take on the reception the band got from the press. A decent enough blast of music.
Stateside – Hunt Sales fancies some singing. Mostly a rambling if not meandering attempt at a country blues thing. Lyrically, it seems that Hunt Sales really does not care for anywhere outside of America and is looking forward to going home. Good luck, move along.
Shopping For Girls – another fantastic song. In essence it visits the areas of concern for songs on the debut like Crack City and Under The God, but gets it absolutely spot on with some truly inspired imagery going on in the lyrics. Well worth hearing again and again.
A Big Hurt – mostly a lot of shouting and a great deal of noise. It attempts to be provocative and interesting, ultimately sounds rather tired and half-hearted.
Sorry – Hunt Sales fancies a ballad. Nothing to see here, move along.
Goodbye Mr Ed – a sensational, low key end to the album (bar the Hammerhead extract on as a hidden track). A wonderful slower number, once again employing some wonderful imagery.
And, other than the less than spectacular Oy Vey, Baby live album and video release, that was that for Tin Machine. From this, Bowie went on to his celebrated performance at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert, then off to record some music for a TV show called The Buddha Of Suburbia, then indeed to record some music for his marriage to Iman, released on the Black Tie White Noise album. There was, apparently, every intention to go back to record more with Tin Machine, but it just did not happen.
A great many people assume that Bowie ditched Tin Machine as he had re-established himself as a creative and commercial solo artist once more, the band project apparently having served its purpose. This, it seems, is not strictly speaking true. Accounts from those close to the band suggest that Hunt and Tony Sales simply got “bored” with the whole thing, horrified with the move from a hard rock sound to a commercial and radio friendly one between the two albums. Reeves Gabrels stuck with Bowie, of course, featuring on all the solo albums he released in the 1990s. All I can say for sure is, going on the building done on the second album from the debut, i consider it a huge shame that there was not a third record at the least from the band.
Every now and then there’s a mention of a possible “retrospective box set” of Tin Machine coming from Bowie. With him in semi-retirement, it seems, there is not much realistic chance of this surfacing at all, especially not with the traditional music press always ready to slam anything by the band. This is a great shame, as I fear many music fans have just avoided Tin Machine as a consequence of this relentless and plain wrong bashing.
Out of close to 30 released songs, somewhere around 20 of the tracks released by Tin Machine are above average, with a further ten being ace classics. That is a pretty good success ratio, in particular when compared to the drivel the music industry throws out these days. Somewhere tucked away in a cupboard i have a t-shirt from the 1991 Tin Machine tour. Written on it are the words “F*** YOU I LOVE TIN MACHINE”. That’s pretty much what i think of when i read all these articles saying how bad the band were apparently were. They were not, and you should really check out their music for yourself.
This has been one of my longer posts, hasn’t it? If you read the whole thing, thank you very much indeed for doing so, and i hope you go off and discover or rediscover the excellent sounds that came from the Tin Machine.
be excellent to each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!