Tin Machine

  1. Heaven's In Here [6.01]

  2. Tin Machine [3.34]

  3. Prisoner Of Love [4.50]

  4. Crack City [4.36]

  5. I Can't Read [4.54]

  6. Under The God [4.56]

  7. Amazing [3.04]

  8. Working Class Hero [4.38]

  9. Bus Stop [1.41]

  10. Pretty Thing [4.39]

  11. Video Crime [3.52]

  12. Run [3.20] [CD Only]

  13. Sacrifice Yourself [2.08] [CD Only]

  14. Baby Can Dance [4.57]

 

Bonus tracks on 1995 reissue:

  • Country Bus Stop [1.52]

Tin Machine

Released:

  • EMI USA MTLS 1044 - May 1989 (LP)

  • EMI USA CDP 7919902 - May 1989 (CD)

  • Virgin CD VUS 99 - November 1995

  • EMI 493 1012 - 1998

  • EMI 7243 5219100 - September 1999

Personnel:

  • David Bowie: Guitar, Vocals

  • Reeves Gabrels: Guitar

  • Hunt Sales: Drums, Vocals

  • Tony Sales: Bass, Vocals

  • Kevin Armstrong: Rhythm Guitar, Hammond B3

Recorded:

  • Mountain Studios, Montreux/Compass Point Studios, Nassau

Producers:

  • Tin Machine/Tim Palmer

Desperate situations require desperate measures, and by the end of 1987, Bowie was all too aware that he was in danger of becoming a laughing stock. The residual goodwill of even the most loyal fans was wearing a little thin, and there was a growing sense that the shining light of 1970s rock was a spent force. Bowie later admitted that the feeling was not confined to onlookers: "More than anything else, I thought I should make as much money as I could, and then quit," he said in 1996. "I didn't think there was any alternative. I thought I was obviously just an empty vessel and would end up like everyone else, doing these stupid fucking shows, singing "Rebel Rebel" until I fall over and bleed." He considered retiring from music altogether to concentrate on his painting. Instead, just as he had done a decade earlier, he chose a radical course of action to drag himself bodily out of the mainstream, and in the process took one of the most controversial and massively derided leaps of his career.

 

Bowie's first attempt at a new sound involved a brief collaboration with Bon Jovi producer Bruce Fairbairn, but the session was not adjudged a success. Another, far more influential figure was about to appear in the story.

 

At the end of the Glass Spider tour in November 1987, Bowie's American press officer Sarah Gabrels gave him a demo tape recorded by her 31-year old husband Reeves, whom David had befriended backstage on the American leg of the tour without ever knowing that he was a musician. "He was very clever - he'd picked out all the best bits of guitar playing he'd done," said Bowie later. "I loved the tape, so I got hold of him immediately." In May 1988 Gabrels, who was then giving guitar lessons to students in Kensington, was flown out to Switzerland where he stayed with Bowie for nearly a month. "He was at a crossroads," Gabrels tells David Buckley. "Either he became Rod Stewart and played Las Vegas, or he followed his heart." Gabrels, who by his own admission had nothing to lose, "was naive enough to point out the obvious", telling Bowie that "I've never had the drug of commercial success. The only barrier between you doing what you want and you doing what you think you should do is you."

 

A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Gabrels was an art-school experimentalist whose favoured guitar style, a hardcore squall somewhere between the sounds of Robert Fripp and Earl Slick rapidly found favour with Bowie. The first fruits of the new relationship came in July 1988 at the "Intruders At The Palace" concert, after which the pair returned to Montreux to begin work on what was envisaged as a David Bowie solo project. The first idea was a concept album based on Steven Berkoff's West, but this was scrapped after yielding only one demo, "The King Of Stamford Hill". Widening their horizons, the pair began working on embryonic versions of "Heaven's In Here", "Bus Stop", "Baby Can Dance" and even "Baby Universal". To produce the forthcoming sessions Bowie appointed newcomer Tim Palmer, whose previous clients included British goth-guitar outfits like The Mission, Gene Loves Jezebel (who would later support some of Bowie's UK dates in 1990) and The Cult, whose guitarist Billy Duffy had recommended him to David.

 

At this stage, it is conceivable that the project might have evolved into experimental art-rock in the vein of Scary Monsters (one of Gabrel's favourites) or Lodger (the last Bowie album that Palmer had "really enjoyed"). However, Bowie was about to deliver another of his customary curveballs, one which would arguably redirect a valuable experiment in a more regressive direction. A rhythm section was needed, and both he and Gabrels were eager to avoid using polished session-men. Bowie had floated possible names, including Frank Zappa's drummer Terry Bozzio and Brian Eno's bassist Percy Jones (both direct links to Bowie's Berlin period; the former was playing with Zappa when David enlisted Adrian Belew in 1978, while the latter played on Eno's mid-1970s albums including Another Green World). Instead, Bowie settled upon the ultimate in unreconstructed rock 'n' rollers: at a party in Los Angeles, he chanced to meet bassist Tony Sales who, with his percussionist brother Hunt, had provided the rhythm section on Iggy Pop's Lust For Life back in 1977. Sales later recalled: "I went up to say hey, how you doing. He went, Tony! Hey, listen, I was thinking about this project..."

 

The Sales brothers joined Bowie and Gabrels at Mountain Studios at which point, according to Tim Palmer in Strange Fascination, "all hell broke loose. The sessions took on a completely different feel; it was much more chaotic." Bowie declared that his wish was to return to the basics of rock 'n' roll - something he'd been claiming to do in one way or another as far back as Let's Dance - but this time without resort to studio processing of any kind. The keynotes were spontaneity and, as David would later reiterate, an egalitarian band effort. "To be able to write like this with other people," he enthused, "It's been something I haven't been able to do for a long time." Ten years later he explained that the band dynamic forced a reassessment of his role in the studio. "All three of them were very canny, masters of the put-down - the Sales brothers, being the sons of Soupy Sales, were born stand-ups. So I wasn't allowed to lord it, which I recognised as a situation I wanted. To be part of a group of people working towards one aim."

 

Bowie remembered a "strange period of feeling each other out" during the first week of the sessions. Gabrels recalled: "When I first got there, Hunt has got a knife on his belt and he's wearing a T-shirt that says, 'Fuck You, I'm From Texas,' so I think, oh shit. And whenever I played something they'd say no, you play it like this, kid. And after a week of being a nice guy - walking that fine line between ignoring what people were telling me and being gracious about it - I did it how I wanted."

 

Also on board for the sessions was Bowie's Live Aid/Intruders At The Palace rhythm guitarist Kevin Armstrong. Since 1985 he had toured with Iggy Pop, played in Jonathan Ross's house band, worked with Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney, and played the guitars - uncredited - on Transvision Vamp's imminent album Velveteen.

 

After a few months' break, recording recommenced at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, where the sessions were long and prolific. Bowie was adamant that he wanted an authentic live sound, and any tracks that required embellishment were rejected out of hand: "That's why we did something like thirty tracks. We just wrote them and played them as they came, as they hit the deck...there's very little overdubbing on it at all." Some tracks, including "I Can't Read", were recorded completely live. "It took a certain leap of faith on the part of the engineers to trust us in the way we wanted to record," said Gabrels. "They kind of looked at us funny because we wanted to play it all at the same time and David wanted to sing, which is generally not done any more."

 

The songwriting was also handled on the hoof; Bowie was improvising on the microphone in a way he hadn't done since "Heroes". "It was impressionistically written," he revealed. "The very first things that came into my mind and what suited the feeling of the music." He was egged on in this approach by the band: "They were there all the time saying, don't wimp out, sing it like you wrote it. Stand by it. I have done and frequently do censor myself in lyrics. I say one thing and then I think, Ah, maybe I'll just take the edge of that a bit. I don't know why I do that. I'm English."

 

The subject matter, too, saw a retrenchment of sorts as Bowie discarded his celebrated detachment and wrote from a position of first-person frankness. "Things like "I Can't Read" came from my own desperations, not from watching or observing other people," he said. ""Crack City" is because of my own very intense and dangerous liaison with cocaine in the mid-seventies...I'm making my art serve me and not having me serve my art, which is just another way of working. People say, 'Why can't he be like he used to be? It's more fun for us to watch him fucking up.' Fuck 'em. I'm not interested."

 

The new sound was a combination of Bowie's back-to-basics imperative, Gabrel's guitar experiments and the Sales brothers' crashing roadhouse blues style. Bowie cited the influence of Jimi Hendrix and Cream along with guitar maestro Glenn Branca and jazz heroes John Coltrane and Miles Davis; he told one reporter that "There's a lot of Mingus and Roland Kirk in some of the more free pieces." Gabrels added that "There was almost an architectural reference - deconstructivism and things like that, letting the ends of the music dangle. You know, if the guitar makes noises when you plug it in, why can't that go on tape as well?" This sounds enticingly like a return to the spirit of the Eno collaborations, and Bowie intimated that this was a period to which he had turned for inspiration, "[I] spent a long time with my old albums. "Heroes", Lodger, Scary Monsters, Low, to push myself back into why I was writing." He also repeated an assertion he had made regarding Never Let Me Down two years earlier: "This, for me, is like catching up from Scary Monsters. It's almost dismissive of the last three albums I've done. Getting back on course, you could say."

 

Both album and band were christened Tin Machine after one of the new songs. Even here, Bowie assumed an air of rock 'n' roll indifference: "We really weren't interested in what kind of band name we had, so it was almost arbitrary - ah, let's just pick a song title." Reeves Gabrels recalls that the Sales brothers favoured Tin Machine "because it was like The Monkees, having your own theme song!" His own suggestion was The Emperor's New Clothes, although he later admitted that this would have been "a little too much like setting yourself up; giving your critics ammunition."

 

When Tin Machine was launched it was made clear to the press that anyone wanting to interview David would get the rest of the band as well. Although he played the part to the hilt, few onlookers were truly convinced that this new, anonymous Bowie was quite as sincere about band democracy as he was keen to suggest. Growing a beard and letting your drummer do all the talking was no way for a superstar to behave, and the laddishness that dominated interviews would soon be written off by critics as a piece of calculated stage management, the latest in a long line of pretentious blunders by a self-reinventor fallen on hard times. "I think the context annoyed and angered, and really gave the critics the excuse they needed to humiliate somebody, which is what they really look for more than anything else," he observed ten years later.

 

As a defensive tactic while Bowie recharged his creative batteries Tin Machine clearly served its purpose. It forcibly jettisoned the mainstream audience which had threatened his well-being as an artist in recent years. It allowed him to escape the pressures of stadium tours and play his songs in tiny clubs in front of a few hundred people at a time. It returned him to a predicament - creatively if not financially - of having to work for his supper. It was good for him. Whether it was any good for the rest of us is an entirely separate matter.

 

When Tin Machine was released at the end of May 1989, the initial response was one of cautious enthusiasm. Rolling Stone described the album as "Sonic Youth meets Station To Station," going on to note approvingly that "Tin Machine effectively reconciles the bracing noise of a full-tilt electric band with the nuances of Bowie's writing craft." Q declared that the album "revives [Bowie's] energy levels and all-round excitement quota by recalling some of the bolder moments of his musical history," resulting in "the loudest, hardest, heaviest effort of his whole career...an experience that's not unlike allowing your head to be used as a punchbag. Stranger still, you'll come to find you kind of like it." The album shot to number 3 in the UK chart - three places higher than Never Let Me Down. But its subsequent fall - both from the billboards and in critical estimation - was swift.

 

At the end of 1989 Tin Machine appeared in Q's fifty best albums of the year; to give some sense of perspective, The Cure's masterpiece Disintegration did not. Only seven years later Tin Machine appeared in the same magazine's "Fifty Albums That Should Never Have Been Made". In 1998 a panel of pop stars, DJs and journalists voted Tin Machine 17th in a Melody Maker poll of the worst albums of all time. The following year, when Glasgow's hardcore post-punk artist Rico was making waves with his debut album Sanctuary Medicines, he revealed to Q that the opening track featured the sound of a copy of Tin Machine being smashed to smithereens. "I was looking for a shit album," he explained, "so I bunged it on the turntable and gave it a good fucking beating. I thought that was fair enough." Critical abuse seldom comes any less equivocal than that; Tin Machine is now widely regarded as one of the greatest follies of Bowie's recorded output.

 

The initial reviews were right to note that Tin Machine boasts a raw energy that Bowie's work had lacked since Scary Monsters. That aside, it's not an easy or even a particularly likeable album. An abiding characteristic of Bowie's career is his willingness to absorb and assimilate whatever external influences are at hand, often with superb results. He once famously described himself as a photostat machine. On this occasion, it seems that his susceptibility to outside stimuli turned against him: in Reeves Gabrels he had found a collaborator with the potential of another Eno or Fripp, but any experimental aspirations seemed in constant conflict with the no-nonsense rock instincts of the rhythm section. Many years later Gabrels revealed that, despite the financial advantage it offered him, he had tried to dissuade Bowie from the democratic band concept "because I thought the Sales brothers were nuts! I didn't want to be in a band any more. Bands are a nightmare, and democracy doesn't work as well as benevolent dictatorships in rock 'n' roll in my opinion."

 

Gabrels is surely right. Re-reading contemporary interviews with Tin Machine, it's ghoulishly clear that Bowie was allowing himself to be dragged into the prevailing "Fuck You, I'm From Texas" mentality, and forcibly encouraged to disown whichever bits of his back catalogue proved too highbrow for his colleague's tastes. The band's refusal to let David rewrite his lyrics results merely in the most half-baked set of song words he's ever allowed onto an album. With a few notable exceptions, Tin Machine is saddled by a one-dimensional element of hectoring demagoguery as Bowie unleashes unsophisticated polemics on drugs ("Crack City"), splatter-movies ("Video Crime") and neo-Nazism ("Under The God"). On tracks like "Pretty Thing" there's an entirely unwelcome injection of posturing rock 'n' roll sexism, and throughout the album there's a ridiculous overdose of embarrassingly misplaced swearing. When the word 'wanking' appeared amid the delicately preening glam of Aladdin Sane's "Time", a delighted taboo-breaking shudder ran down the collective spine of a generation of teenagers. When the line "don't look at me you fuckheads" turns up in "Crack City", it's as though someone has accidentally let Roy Chubby Brown into a meeting of the Fabian Society. Matters aren't helped by the sleeve photography (by "Heroes" veteran Masayoshi Sukita), which reveals the bearded Bowie and his three sidemen posing uncomfortably in double-breasted suits like a gaggle of insipid estate agents.

 

But despite all reservations, Tin Machine is by no means the atrocious write-off its reputation suggests. Gabrels at his best provides guitar work on a par with the past achievements of Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew. "I would have gone for a somewhat more technically proficient and aggressive rock thing," he tells Buckley, "rather than a garage thing, which is what we got with the Sales brothers." More than once Bowie has leapt to the defence of Tin Machine's undisputed highlight, the superb "I Can't Read", a song that side-steps all the album's problems to emerge as a genuine classic, offering a sophisticated lyric and a textured sonic discretion quite unusual amid the surrounding crash-bang-wallop delivery. The entirely ignored "Amazing" is another highlight, while the title track and "Baby Can Dance" both hint at what the album might have sounded like with a less wilfully fuzzy, horrible drum-heavy mix. "Bus Stop" offers a welcome spot of light relief, and "Heaven's In Here" is genuinely exhilarating until it disintegrates into an unconvincing attempt at Hendrix-style demolition.

 

And although at the time, Tin Machine was greeted by many with incredulity, historically it now makes complete sense. Bowie's accustomed art-rock territory was all but extinct in 1989; the charts were ruled by trivial pop-rappers who had nothing to offer him, the British indie renaissance had yet to take off and the dominant sounds from America were coming from new heavy metal giants like Guns N'Roses. Most of the rising acts Bowie was citing with enthusiasm (Dinosaur Jnr, Sonic Youth and in particular Pixies, whose breakthrough album Doolittle was released at the same time as Tin Machine) inhabited the proto-grunge hinterland as yet unknown to the mainstream. It would be pushing credibility to suggest that Tin Machine paved the way for Nirvana, but if nothing else David was once again moving with the tide.

 

Bowie's retreat to Berlin in 1976 to dismantle his first period of mainstream success resulted in some of the finest albums in rock history. While the same will never be said of Tin Machine, it's worth bearing in mind that the project was evidently an invaluable process of creative therapy. "Some people liked it, some didn't like it, but for me, that band was absolutely necessary," David would say in 2003. "It accomplished exactly what it was supposed to do, which was bring me back to my absolute roots and set me back on the right course of what I do best." If the project ultimately unlocked the door to The Buddha Of Suburbia, 1.Outside and Earthling then it was surely worth it. But as an album in its own right, Tin Machine must remain one of the least satisfactory listening experiences in Bowie's recorded legacy. "Some nights it just blew me away," he said five years later of the band in general. "It was so adventurous and so brave. When it worked, it was unbeatable, some of the most explosive music that I've been involved in or even witnessed. But when it was bad, it was so unbelievably awful you just wanted the earth to open up and take you under."