“Tin Machine II” is David Bowie’s 19th studio album and was originally released on 2 September 1991.
Strictly speaking this is of course the second and final Tin Machine (as in the band) studio album, but if you’re like me, who considers the whole Tin Machine phase just another Bowie persona, then this is effectively another David Bowie album.
After the first Tin Machine album and the general outcry that Bowie being just a member within a hard rock band was at best absurd and at worst just plain ludicrous, many assumed one album would be it. Having gotten things out of his system and attempted to move away from his 80’s era albums as far as is almost imaginable, most thought Bowie would return back to his solo ways, especially after spending much of 1990 on his hugely successful “Sound+ Vision” greatest hits world tour (but no Australia goddammit !!).
But Bowie had other ideas, perhaps to show everyone he won’t again be detracted by popular opinion and perhaps to add legitimacy to what Bowie frustratingly considered his best album in “Tin Machine” for quite some time.
Part of the delay between albums was Bowie trying to find a new record company after EMI clearly had enough of the “just one of the boys” Bowie. They refused to release a second Tin Machine album, so after a bit of shopping around the Victory label finally got the nod.
Recorded over an extended period of time between 1989-91, (although much of it in Sydney, Australia in 1989), “Tin Machine II” retained much of the grit and hard rock edginess of its predecessor. However, unlike the first Tin Machine album, which was just sheer brutality in its delivery, this album had a much more polished finish, with a few more melodies and a lot more subtlety in its sound.
As such, I actually prefer overall the comparative originality and shock value offerings of the first Tin Machine album. At its best, the material on “Tin Machine II” is equally as good (and in a few cases, arguably better) but I just feel this is a less even album with some of the relatively low offerings pulling down the overall album quality. I’m one of the very few people on this planet who loved the first Tin Machine album upon its release and as very good as this album is at times, it doesn’t quite have the thrill value of the first offering. That said, “Tin Machine II” is a much better album than most of the music critics at the time decried.
If Bowie being in Tin Machine wasn’t controversial enough, further controversy ensued with the album cover as it featured 4 nude statues with those naughty, manly dangly bits in full view. Obviously, the guys who work at the censors office hadn’t been to a museum lately, but in some countries, the statues had to be castrated with the good old airbrush. Similar issue to what happened with the original “Diamond Dogs” album, Bowie just seems to get foiled in his attempts to have bollocks on an LP cover.
The album kicks off with the rather excellent “Baby Universal“, bringing back memories of a “Cosmic Being” talking to all the young ones on Earth. It has all the ingredients of a Bowie classic, a driving rhythm, nice touches of guitar, catchy backing vocals, weird little background noises and lines such as “Hallo humans, nothing starts tomorrow”. It was released as the second single and would have been a hit if released as a Bowie solo offering. Music Video.
“One Shot“, the 3rd single off the album (and the last from Tin Machine) is unfortunately not as good, being a bit ploddy and one-dimensional. It has a drum beat that I could copy, a bit of a nothing guitar solo and an unusually unconvincing vocal by Bowie. There are much better songs on the album, although whether they be single worthy is a different discussion. Music Video.
We’re back on form with the next track, the wonderful lead off single, “You Belong In Rock n’ Roll“. I’ve always liked Bowie when he starts slow and quietly builds and this is a nice little example. With a steady beat slowly building up, the flourish of Bowie’s sax at the end of each verse is a delight. Bowie’s vocals here sound effortless and are among the best on the album. The band at their finest. Music Video.
The cover of Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something” from their brilliant first album is up next. Tin Machine do an OK job of it, but it lacks the energy and spark of the original. The guitar work of Reeves Gabrels is a highlight though and worth investigating for this alone.
In the context of Tin Machine, the next track “Amlapura” is as quiet and gently a song as they recorded. Bowie has a well documented love of Indonesia (he reportedly wanted some of his ashes scattered there) and this song offers a romantic, dream-like landscape of this Indonesian island. It’s actually quiet beautiful and highlights a softer edge to the Tin Machine period which they probably should have explored a tad more. A highlight of their live shows, it’s also a highlight on the album.
“Betty Wrong” comes next and probably has the most catchy chorus on the album. To use the word “commercial” might be stretching things a tad, but it does rather have the attributes for this to have been a hit. But only if recorded as a Bowie solo track. Featuring another excellent Gabrels closing guitar solo, this track (in much extended form) was one of the highlights of the rather ordinary “Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby” live album.
“You Can’t Talk” is one of my favourites here as it returns to the more conventional Tin Machine sound, with much anguished guitars and frantic lyrics. The chorus (with associated backing vocals) has a nice melody and I don’t know, I’ve always just kinda like it.
With “Stateside” however, we hit a bit of a problem. Perhaps to prove that Tin Machine were really a collective band and not just David Bowie’s backing musicians, the drummer Hunt Sales got to sing on a couple of tracks. This first effort can only be described as pitiful, a dreary, ploddy, entirely boring, forgetful track that brings down the whole album. Thank goodness with CDs you can just hit next.
“Shopping For Girls” is the best track on the album. A powerful song about the awful subject of child prostitution, Bowie sounds like the narrator of some shocking documentary, who strews a tide of words and thoughts without barely taking a breath. He can also barely hide his contempt for the guy who “grunts his reply in a garrulous croak, that’s a mighty big word for a nine year old”. There is no way such a song could ever be released as a single, but the haunting melody and shocking content makes this one of the most compelling songs in the Tin Machine cannon.
“A Big Hurt” is all just a bit too loud with not enough happening musically or lyrically to hold your interest for long. As I was thinking through the track list, I almost forgot this track, which kinda says all one needs to know.
Notable for the acoustic guitar sound, a rare thing for Tin Machine, “Sorry” is perhaps more notable for being their worst track. The second song sung by Hunt Sales, it almost makes “Stateside” sound positively brilliant in comparison. Sorry, is of course the perfect title for this sorry mess, but is really is as bad as a Bowie related recording has ever been. I’m trying to think of a worse song in the entire Bowie catalog. I’m get back to you. Where’s the next button on the remote, where where where !!
“Goodbye Mr Ed” finishes on a much more positive footing, a really nice song on the subject of farewells. With typical obtuse lyrics, my mental image is of Bowie saying goodbye to America, the “tolerance to violence”, shopping malls, and the TV show “Mister Ed”. But Bowie was of course saying hello to America about to move across there permanently and live out the rest of his days in New York. So I’m not suggesting this is an accurate mental image 🙂 Bowie was probably just saying goodbye to the whole Tin Machine period.
“Hammerhead” is a hidden track that appears just after “Goodbye Mr Ed” that isn’t included in the official track listing. An instrumental jam, I had thought for many years this was part of “Goodbye Mr Ed” but is the lads just letting off a bit of steam.
“Tin Machine II” is far from being one of Bowie’s best albums. But it’s far better than most of the reviews at the time of release had suggested. There are a number of very fine tracks, far more than the occasional dreadful ones that do indeed lurk in there.
After touring the album with Tin Machine between October 1991 and February 1992 on the “It’s My Life” tour, Bowie seemed to lose interest in the Tin Machine project. There was talk of a third album, but after the poor sales of the admittedly average “Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby” album, Bowie pulled the pin and went back to his solo career.
Reeves Gabrels would continue to be a key figure throughout Bowie’s work in the 1990’s, when Bowie would record four albums of a much higher caliber than he did throughout most of the 1980’s and with Tin Machine. But Tin Machine was a crucial part of the artistic process in moving Bowie on from the commercial influenced mess in found himself in during the 1983-1987 period and for that alone, we should be thankfully for what he managed to achieve with Tin Machine.
Much much better was to come from Bowie, including future masterpieces, but that’s a story for another day.