Tin Machine Turns 30

Along with Soupy Sales’ boys and guitar maverick Reeves Gabrels, David Bowie rebooted his sound in 1989 through his love for college radio

Tin Machine Longbox

Even in 1988, the words “Bowie’s on TV,” could still elicit excitement and a commitment to either watch or set your VCR to record.

I think I did both, in a full-on example of “appointment television.” This was despite the fact that I hadn’t bought a Bowie album since Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) in 1980. Sure, I had liked the title track of 1983’s Let’s Dance, but the insistent yuppie-anthem “Modern Love” and defanged versions of “China Girl” and “Cat People” kept me from shelling out for the album. I still count myself lucky to have seen the Serious Moonlight tour later that year, which featured a killer band, smart staging, and Bowie in excellent voice and at his most charismatic.


VIDEO: David Bowie – Cat People (from Serious Moonlight Tour)

But Tonight, which came out in fall 1984, invited even less of an investment than Let’s Dance. Despite the marimba-led wonders of “Loving The Alien” and the sleek reggae remake of Iggy Pop’s “Don’t Look Down” much of it felt shockingly…inconsequential. Three years later, when Bowie put out Never Let Me Down it was barely a blip on my radar, swamped by competition from The Replacements, Eric B. & Rakim, The Smiths and Public Enemy, among others. One of my friends, a more loyal fan than I, bought it and we chuckled at the “Glass Spider” monologue and tried to parse out the decent songs, of which there were a few, from the fatally overstuffed production.

But then came ABC-TV’s broadcast of the subsequent tour and the heart-sinking realization that the man whose taste had once seemed so unerring had lost it entirely. Besides the ridiculously gaudy set and the tacky costumes, there were idiotic dancers chasing Bowie around for ill-conceived vignettes which were supposed to add up to a message, something about “the rock star vs. reality.” Well, there was truth to that at least. We turned it off after 20 minutes and recorded over the tape with something from TCM. As far as I was concerned, although still a legend, Bowie was no more of a going concern than Rod Stewart after “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.”

Then came the rumors. Bowie had a new band. Or was in a new band: Tin Machine. It was to be a back-to-basics rock band, with influences ranging from Jimi Hendrix and Glenn Branca (yes!) to Gene Krupa and Mountain (say what, now?). It turns out that one fruit of Glass Spider had been a burgeoning friendship with Reeves Gabrels, whose wife had been a press agent for the tour. Gabrels, a furiously talented journeyman guitarist who had also studied art and design, must have been a hell of a good hang as they hit it off even before Bowie knew of his musical side. When he did hear Gabrels work, however, he quickly invited him to help with a special version of Lodger’s “Look Back In Anger” for a benefit concert in 1988. Seen now, it’s not a particularly auspicious debut for a partnership that would last a decade, but there is a noisy guitar interlude, with Gabrels and Bowie himself thrashing away, that gives a hint of where things were going. From that tiny seed something mighty was born as Bowie and Gabrels decided to go into business together.

Tin Machine on cassette

When it came to selecting a rhythm section, Bowie pulled two rabbits out of an old hat: The Sales Brothers, with whom he had last worked on Iggy Pop’s 1978 tour. In a way it made perfect sense, as that was Bowie’s only other experience being a member of a band, standing in back, playing keyboards and singing backup for one of his heroes. Hunt, the drummer, who will probably have “Lust For Life” on his tombstone, and Tony, on bass, give a good argument for siblings playing together, as there is a symbiotic quality to their work. Put another way: they were one of the best rhythm sections on the planet and a perfect choice to complete Tin Machine. One could wonder why the Sales brothers weren’t in higher demand, but the fact remains that both were immediately available to join Gabrels and Bowie.

While the resulting debut album was recorded essentially live to tape (Bowie: “The album is our live sound.”), recording came after a solid period of rumination and conceptualization. “We spent nearly a year working on why we want to play music,” Bowie said in an interview included on one of their singles. In the same discussion, Gabrels’ expounded upon influences that came from outside of music, noting, “Some of the early pieces we worked on, there was an almost architectural reference, like deconstructivism, letting the ends of the music dangle. If the guitar makes noise when you plug it in, let that go on tape as well.” One way they avoided overdubs was to have Kevin Armstrong join the sessions on Hammond B3 and rhythm guitar. He would also join them for the first tour and go on to work with Bowie and Brian Eno on the Outside sessions a few years later. 

When the album finally arrived in 1989, it was mostly well-received, with criticism mainly aimed at Bowie’s motivations. Robert Christgau called it “the hard rock Let’s Dance,” and in the New York Times, Jon Pareles pointedly said, “Tin Machine suggests no small commercial calculation; current FM-rock radio formats still lean heavily on 1970’s guitar bands.” In fact the calculation was artistic not commercial, with all four men all agreeing that the radio was no longer meeting their needs. As Tony Sales remarked in Spin, “We were so sick of turning on the radio and hearing disco and dance music and drum machines; all that stuff, which I think in the business they call “crap.”

This Bowie fan never had a problem with his artifice – all that mattered was if the music held up. And when my friend brought the album into our photo studio and turned it up loud, I instantly knew it was the best album Bowie had been involved with since Scary Monsters. The first song, “Heaven’s In Here” is an overture, an explosive statement of purpose that starts off fairly sedately, with interlocking guitar riffs, a head-nodding groove, and Bowie at his most relaxed vocally. Then, after about two minutes, Gabrels kicks into high gear, spraying off shards of noise, leading to a breakdown, which comes together, stops, starts and goes back into the song proper. Two minutes later, things go beautifully off the rails, with Hunt stutter-stepping the beat as he tries to play along with Gabrels’ fractured rhythms. It almost goes into collective soloing, but Tony keeps steady. Finally, the song breaks down for good and the galloping riff of the title track picks up the pieces, thrillingly. 

Tin Machine alternate cover art

The template set, the band continues to iterate the formula, mixing up blunt guitar anthems that threaten to fall into free jazz with soaring anthems like “Prisoner of Love” and “Amazing,” one of his most gorgeous love songs, Gabrels’ seagull squeals the perfect touch. The one cover song on the album, John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” probably reintroduced a lot of people to one of the ex-Fab’s angriest songs, with Bowie selling the bitter lyrics hard. I know it took me aback on first listen, with everything about the arrangement an amplification of the haunting folk of the original. Armstrong’s organ is stunningly effective, adding a touch of epic soul to contrast with Gabrels’ histrionics.

And what was Bowie singing about in his own lyrics? While he was clean at the time, there’s a lot of sex and drugs in the lyrics, from the “heaven lies between your marbled thighs,” of the first track to the “crack and coke and alcohol,” of “Crack City.” It’s almost as if Bowie amped up the sensual and visceral elements in his lyrics to match the physicality of the music his compatriots were churning out. There’s also wit to spare in songs like “Bus Stop,” which quickly became a favorite – all 1:41 of it – with Bowie revisiting some of the questions about faith he posed in “Word On A Wing” a decade earlier: “I’m a young man at odds with the bible/But I don’t pretend faith never works/When we’re down on our knees/Praying at the bus stop.” You can tell he’s in a better place, since he can laugh a little at the crises that tortured him during the Station To Station era. The promo video Julian Temple made back in 1989, and just reissued for the first time since, mixes the earthy, floor-shaking power of the band with blatantly artificial moves like Bowie floating over the audience at The Ritz, also displays marvelous confidence and humor. Bowie knew he and his bandmates had cooked up something good!

While there are a couple of weaker tracks (most notably “Run”), I played the album on repeat and even bought my own copy from the BMG club. Whatever would come next, I was happy that Bowie had proved that he wasn’t so far from artistic renewal after all. Listening now, the album holds up remarkably well and can be seen as both the perfect capstone for where rock was in the eighties (Pixies, Sonic Youth, etc.) and the ideal launching pad for where it would go in the nineties (Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, etc.). And Bowie being Bowie, there’s the odd line that comes off as shockingly prescient to our current situation. Take this from “Under The God,” one of the more unhinged numbers: “Washington heads in the toilet bowl/Don’t see supremacist hate/Right wing dicks in their boiler suits/Picking out who to annihilate.” It’s almost as if he saw Charlottesville coming – just another reminder of why the man’s absence continues to be felt so keenly. If you’re missing him, celebrate the 30th anniversary of yet another one of his guises by playing Tin Machine at maximum volume.


VIDEO: Tin Machine – Nine Track Compilation

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Jeremy Shatan

Jeremy Shatan is a dad, music obsessive, and NYC dweller, working to enable the best health care at Mount Sinai Health System. He’s also a contributing writer for RockandRollGlobe.com. Follow him on Twitter@anearful.

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