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Scalzo's Corner

Tin Machine: The Redemption Of David Bowie

Chris Scalzo

David Bowie is lost.  

It's 1987 and Bowie is artistically spent.  He has inhabited many personas throughout his career; the troubadour, the alien rock star, the purveyor of plastic soul, the grand experimenter.  It was time to cash in become a massive pop star.  But along the way Bowie abandoned his art.  By embracing public adulation, he sacrificed his artistic integrity.  Now it wasn't all at once.  There are some true gems in Bowie 'Pop Star' period, in fact, much of 'Let's Dance' is classic Bowie, assimilating the musically landscape around him and creating memorable, even classic pop songs.  

Even the follow up to 'Let's Dance', 'Tonight' is not without its moments.  But it's truly start of diminishing returns. The record company had been pushing for him to release more material after the success of 'Let's Dance', Bowie felt obliged.  Which bring's us to 1987 and 'Never Let Me Down' ('NLMD').  Woof.  Is there a worse example of cashing in then 'NLMD'?  I'm hard pressed to think of one.  Bowie himself disowns the album and it only contains one real stand out song, the titular track.  In fact, two of the B-sides are actually better than most songs on the album; 'Julie', the B-side to the 'Day In, Day Out' single, and 'Girls', the B-side from 'Time Will Crawl'.  That's it, that's the list.  In fact none of these songs can be stand with his strongest work.  And let's all try and forget that THIS EVER HAPPENED (Be wary, you can unsee this).

Clearly Bowie is artistically bereft and is even contemplating retirement.  The Glass Spider Tour promoting 'NLMD' was wrapping up and one of the publicists of the tour, Sara Terry, gave Bowie her husband's demo tape.  This would be the beginning of collaboration between Bowie And Reeves Gabrels that would run for 13 years.  Upon meeting each other. Bowie told Gabrels about his artistic struggles, even telling Gabrels that he had "Lost his vision".  Bowie realized he wasn't prepared to retire just yet, he just felt he needed to do something… Something different.  He just wasn't sure what.  He and Gabrels decide to form a band where he would be an equal member, and not the driving force, may help his process and reignite his passion for music.  

From there they enlist the sons of Soupy Sales himself, Hunt (drums) and Tony Sales (bass), as the rhythm section.  The Sales' previously played with Iggy Pop in the late seventies and Bowie had even toured with them while playing the keyboards.  The Sales' are old school beat the drums and pound the bass types. The newly formed group decide to take it on an album by album basis in an attempt to stay true to the integrity of the music.  If it wasn't working out or the band was sounding stale, they'd simply call it off and move on.  They convened in late 1988 to create some demos in Los Angeles.  Then on to Switzerland, Montreal, and Nassau, writing and recording songs together through early 1989.  

They wrote about 35 songs over a month and a half, but were still unsure of what to call themselves.  Sticking to the band's credo of keeping things simple and direct, they settled on a name from one of the songs they recorded for their debut album.   And from there Tin Machine was born.  Tin Machine also eschewed an album name (a tradition they would repeat with the group's follow up effort, cleverly titled 'Tin Machine II').  Bowie felt invigorated recording and playing with the new band.  It allowed him to unshackle himself from his pop star expectations and embrace what he loved about making music again.  But for all it's artist integrity, Tin Machine was not without their problems.  

They wanted to have a raw, unpolished sound, reminiscent of the Pixies and other alternative acts of the time.  Unfortunately this stripped down and direct direction birthed an album almost too cold and efficient for its own good.  The group also encouraged Bowie not to re-write his lyrics and stick with his initially drafted words.  This is painfully obvious at times while listening to the album, particularly with the songs, 'Crack City' and 'Heaven's In Here'.  The sexual lyrics housed within 'Heaven's In Here' are anything but subtle.  Bowie beats you over the head with them.  Even the lyrics for 'Crack City' are almost juvenile at times.  The album could have been immeasurably improved had Bowie given the lyrics another few passes.  

But still, there's something there.  Something starting to emerge from his music.  For all it's clumsy verbiage, there's something primal and driving about the lead single, 'Heaven's In Here'.  'Prisoner Of Love' is one of the best ballads he'd written in the 80's, couple that with 'Amazing' and now you have some of the best work derived from this particular union.

While most of the first album was harsh, brash and at times daring you to listen to it, the sequel wasn't quite as severe.  'Tin Machine II' isn't quite the audio punch in the gut (or perhaps nails in the ears) as the first album at times sounded.  You can hear Bowie starting to influence the band more and more with his rock and pop sensibilities.  There's an embrace of warmer and melodic sound on 'II', unfortunately the album as a whole isn't quite as strong.  But there are few songs on the album that are quite good and portend the future of Bowie as a songwriter.  With songs like 'Baby Universal', 'One Shot', 'You Belong In Rock n' Roll', and possibly the best song from the Tin Machine era, 'Goodbye Mr. Ed', Bowie appears to be able to at least be able to see the top of the creative hole he had dug himself into with 'Tonight' and 'NLMD'.  

Bowie went on to release the solo single 'Real Cool World' from the film of the same name.  In fact, the sound of 'Real Cool World' would introduce us to his next phase which he'll further explore with his solo album, 'Black Tie White Noise'.  Though even with the release of 'Real Cool World', Bowie had still intended to make a third album with 'Tin Machine'.  But rumors abounded that Hunt Sales' drug addiction was making the band dynamic untenable.  Bowie would never respond to questions concerning the reason for the band's dissolution directly, he would just state there were personal problems that made it impossible for the them to carry on.  

So it appeared the grand experiment had run its course.  In the end it was the structure of the band that refocused Bowie's energies.  Gabrels and the Sales' forcing Bowie to stop writing music to please his fans, but to write for himself again.  I've always felt the Tin Machine era was unfairly maligned.  In fact, Tin Machine may have been a few years ahead of its time, embracing a harder, stripped down rock sound, in direct defiance of the 90's pop that was so prevalent on the radio at that time.  Though casual Bowie fans, especially the ones he had won during the 80's, were put off by Tin Machine, the group salvaged his career.  Saving him from becoming a Vegas attraction, touring his greatest hits for the next 30 years.  And it would turn out that even greater work lay on the horizon.  Bowie had embraced the role of global pop star, became suffocated by it, and by stripping off all the machinations of the role's expectations, had found himself again.

If you are unfamiliar with Tin Machine, I've assembled a playlist for you.  Check out Tin Machine's first album on iTunes.  Unfortunately 'Tin Machine II' was released on a start up label that sadly had no money to promote it.  Even with the Bowie remasters in 2007, 'Tin Machine II' didn't make the cut and is currently out of print.  You can find used copies online quite cheaply and easily.

  1. Heaven's In Here (TM1) 
  2. Tin Machine (TM1)
  3. One Shot (TM2)
  4. Prisoner Of Love (TM1)
  5. Crack City (TM1)
  6. Baby Universal (TM2)
  7. Working Class Hero (TM1)
  8. You Belong In Rock & Roll (TM2)
  9. Under The God (TM1)
  10. I Can't Read (TM1)
  11. If There Is Something (TM2)
  12. Amazing (TM1)
  13. Goodbye Mr. Ed (TM2)

TM1 = Tin Machine

TM2 = Tin Machine II