Tin Machine II
London 828 2721 - September 1991 (LP)
London 828 2722 - September 1991 (CD)
David Bowie: Vocals, Guitar, Piano, Saxophone
Reeves Gabrels: Guitar, Backing Vocals, Vibrators, Drano, Organ
Hunt Sales: Drums, Percussion, Vocals
Tony Sales: Bass, Backing Vocals
Tim Palmer: Additional Piano, Percussion
Kevin Armstrong: Piano on "Shopping For Girls"/Rhythm Guitar on "If There Is Something"
Studios 301, Sydney/A&M Studios, Los Angeles
Tin Machine/Tim Palmer/Hugh Padgham: "One Shot"
Most of Tin Machine's second album was recorded in Sydney in the autumn of 1989, hard on the heels of the band's inaugural tour. The project was reactivated at the end of 1990, following a year's hiatus in which Bowie had diverted his energies to his Sound + Vision tour and The Linguini Incident. Before recording resumed, news broke that David had finally parted company with EMI.
In a joint statement in December 1990 both parties announced that the split was amicable, but other sources have spoken of a serious row over Bowie's increasingly uncommercial work and the continued attempts of exasperated EMI executives to secure another Let's Dance. It is believed that the label refused point-blank to market another Tin Machine album, whereupon Bowie elected to sever the alliance. The Rykodisc/EMI reissue programme remained unaffected (at the time of the split, the albums from Young Americans onwards were yet to be re-released), but Bowie's new material needed a new home.
In March 1991 Tin Machine negotiated a deal with Victory Music, a new label launched by the electronics giant JVC and distributed worldwide by London Records and Polygram. In the same month, the band reconvened in Los Angeles to record a further three tracks for Tin Machine II. The studio line-up of the first album, including guest instrumentalist Kevin Armstrong and co-producer Tim Palmer, was joined in Los Angeles by Tonight's Hugh Padgham, now renowned for his production work with Phil Collins and Sting. Padgham considered "One Shot" "a bloody great song" but was unimpressed by the Tin Machine ethos; he tells David Buckley that "The Sales brothers were basically mad", but that "Reeves was a master of his instrument in an Adrian Belew kind of way."
Another blast from the past was sleeve illustrator Edward Bell, creator of the classic Scary Monsters artwork. Bell's sleeve design was a charcoal sketch of four kouroi, Greek statues dating from the sixth century BC, which were once believed to represent Apollo but are now understood to be idealised figures lacking individual identity - and therefore entirely in keeping with Bowie's fallen-god, one-of-the-boys Tin Machine ethos. Kouroi are represented as athletic, naked youths, and with tiresome predictability, Tin Machine II became the second album sleeve in Bowie's career to undergo castration. British buyers were left to the mercy of the original artwork, but in America, the terrifying organs of generation were airbrushed away and civilization was saved.
Tin Machine II was released on September 2nd 1991, less than a month after EMI's reissues of the Berlin albums; comparisons were inevitable and none of them was in Tin Machine II's favour. There were those who applauded the album - the NME gave it a surprising thumbs-up and Billboard approved of the "lashing axe-fuelled Hugh Padgham-produced track "One Shot" among other "potent rockers" - but they were in the minority. The album only reached number 23 in the UK chart, while in America it scraped to number 126. As Tony Horkins of International Musician stoically hypothesised, "maybe, like the rest of Bowie's career, it'll all make a lot more sense in a few year's time."
Even in 1991, Bowie was speaking of Tin Machine II primarily as a therapeutic work-in-progress manoeuvre. "The band became my obstacle," he explained to Horkins. "They re-present me with ideas and also problems that I wouldn't encounter working on my own, telling people what to do. You start to learn how to tell people how to do things, and that becomes a system. And once you've got a system you're really fucked up...I needed to break it! Fortuitously, this band has done that for me. My system has been broken."
Tin Machine II is a record of extremes. Its best moments are an improvement on much of the band's previous output, but its worst moments are simply unspeakable. From the outset of the Tin Machine project, it was clear that much of the band's character would be defined by its irrepressible and outspoken drummer Hunt Sales, who established himself from the earliest interviews as the joker in the pack. By the time of Tin Machine II he had been promoted to the status of band mascot, his "It's My Life" tattoo prominently displayed on the back cover artwork (a rear-view of Bell's charcoal kouroi with a ripped photo of Hunt's shoulder overlaid, Scary Monsters-style, onto one of the four figures). In an alarming development of Tin Machine's pretensions to band democracy, Hunt Sales sings lead vocal on two of the album's tracks, one of them entirely self-penned. There's no denying the man's credentials as a musician, but on the evidence of these tracks his no-frills, no-irony, southern blues agenda is simply the antithesis of everything we associate with David Bowie. "I always felt that he would have been more in tune with a big band set-up," admitted David in 1997. "The whole thing about him is that slouch and mood of the big band drummers." Similar collisions have fuelled some of Bowie's finest work; here, the temptation to over-indulge a colleague threatens to bring Tin Machine II to its knees. "Stateside" and "Sorry" rank among the most frighteningly bad songs ever to find their way into the Bowie canon.
Far more promising are the signs that David was tiring of Tin Machine's indiscriminate rocked-up style and seeking to inject a degree of sophistication into the proceedings; he described the new album as "sensitively aggressive". Tin Machine II offers a more balanced and polished production style than its predecessor, and boasts a greater variety of instrumentation, including some of Bowie's best saxophone work in years. The experimental element is wilfully eccentric - Reeves Gabrels plays his guitar with a vibrator on some tracks - but there's no denying that the results are all the better for it. On the first album the tendency was for every track to degenerate into a guitar-and-drums demolition; here, thankfully, such urges are reined in. Better still, Bowie's lyrics are a massive improvement on the half-baked posturings of Tin Machine, returning to his more accustomed territory of allusive, fragmented imagery. The best tracks, notably "Baby Universal", "Shopping For Girls" and the genuinely brilliant "Goodbye Mr. Ed" (with music co-written, to give him his due, by Hunt Sales), deserve a wider audience than they are ever likely to reach.
But ultimately no amount of songwriting can compensate for the lack of governance that consigns Tin Machine II to mediocrity. Long before the end one yearns for Bowie to overthrow what remains of the band's autonomy, seize the reins of power and get on with the serious business of making a proper solo album. "Even taking in The Spiders or whoever, I've never been in a band," he told The Irish Times in August 1991. "I've never been in a band. I've always led a band. It's probably the only band I'll ever be in, because it's fulfilling everything I ever thought you could with a band and I would see no necessity for being with another one." Thus, even before Tin Machine II was released, there were hints aplenty that the end was in sight.