“Tin Machine” is David Bowie’s 18th studio album and was originally released on 22 May 1989.
Although officially the first of two albums by the band “Tin Machine” of which Bowie was but one humbled member, for those of you who consider the whole Tin Machine period to be just another Bowie persona, this is for all intents and purposes another Bowie studio album.
By the end of the 80’s, Bowie was in a difficult place. His last album “Never Let Me Down” was universally panned by the critics (I rated it as his worst album and artistic nadir). His “Glass Spiders” world tour of 1987, although commercially successful, was likewise viewed a critical failure, often deemed just too over-bloated and over-the-top in its production (I personally loved the shows precisely because of its theatrical values). Bowie himself felt he was struggling artistically at the time, from 1983’s “Let’s Dance” onwards if truth be told. Bowie was even considering if he actually had a future left in music and whether he should focus on acting, directing or just putting his feet up living the high life with his now considerable wealth. In the end, Bowie took a different path entirely.
After being reacquainted with the Sales brother (Tony on bass and Hunt of drums), who he had worked with in 1977 during the making of Iggy Pop’s brilliant “Lust For Life” album (next time you watch “Trainspotting”, that brilliant rhythm during the song” Lust For Life” is the Sales brothers in action), they decided to work together again on the next Bowie project. Bowie also enlisted the services of Reeves Gabrels, suitably impressed when Bowie’s then publicist suggested he should check out her husbands guitar playing. Kevin Armstrong, who had worked with Bowie on a number of occasions previously (most notably on Iggy Pop’s excellent “Blah Blah Blah” album) plays rhythm guitar throughout, but was not “officially” a member of the band.
Together, they recorded one of the most controversial albums of Bowie’s career, not only because of it’s relative “rawness” and very hard rock content but also because Bowie wanted this released not as a solo project, but as a collective band effort. Bowie also insisted it be a democratic band, in that he was simply just one member of the gang, so the band photo on the cover had Bowie as the most distant member (and what the hell, was that facial hair on Bowie !!). Bowie wasn’t mentioned anywhere on the album cover, this was a Tin Machine album.
At the time, the music itself was actually quite well received, but the notion of Bowie being just a member of the band was generally ridiculed, which I can’t help thinking consequently impacted the overall reputation of the album itself.
Overall the music is dark and can only be categorised as heavy/hard rock, the “hardest” album Bowie has recorded since 1970’s “The Man Who Sold The World”. The “Tin Machine” album though is much “trashier” in sound and much less compromising in its take no prisoners approach, with frequent swearing and direct, unambiguous lyrics. Considering his previous album was the soft rock/pop of “Never Let Me Down”, this couldn’t be more different and confrontational, especially for his then Phil Collins-type fan base he had accumulated during the 80’s. Although there is no Iggy Pop at all on the album (unlike the previous 3 albums), this sounds soooo much more like authentic Iggy Pop than anything Bowie had managed to record so far.
I remember vividly when I first bought this album in that I simply loved it at the time. Following the disappointment that was “Never Let Me Down”, I considered this a real return to form, a Bowie who didn’t appear to put commercial interests up front anymore. Although far from his very best work, it was at least different and unconventional and “brave” and I was just so glad to have that adventurous Bowie back again. This was the first Bowie album for many a long year not to be played on commercial radio, here in Australia anyways, with JJJ radio one of the few places where the singles could be heard on the airways.
Which is all a bit of a shame, as it really is an excellent album that has aged remarkably well. After a few listens with the volume nice and high, it sounds surprisingly current and suggests it was perhaps a little ahead of the times, especially considering the Grunge sound, a close artist neighbour, was still a few years away from really taking off.
The album opens with “Heaven’s In Here“, supposedly the first thing they wrote together, which rather sets the mood of the whole album. A catchy guitar riff, which quickly goes into all sorts of squealing areas and a constant driving rhythm propels this song along. Bowie’s vocals start quiet and brooding, but by songs end he is screaming frantically. With lots of Gabrels guitar solos, especially at the end, this is the Tin Machine model that’s so dominates the album.
The title track “Tin Machine” comes next and is one of my favourite tracks on the album. It has so much going on with a frantic sound and tempo where you can just imagine the band with their heads down just going for it. I have no idea what the song is about, so it has that classic Bowie ambiguity that is so endearing (“Working horrors humping Tories, Spittle on their chin“). It does though touch on the subject of “Goons” and has an anti far right-wing political sentiment that runs throughout the album. The band must have been somewhat attracted by the song as they named themselves after it. This was also the second single from the album, backed with a somewhat mediocre live version of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm”.
“Prisoner Of Love” is my favourite track here and is really is a fantastic song. It’s the closest to a love song on the album, although there is a dark undertone to the song which still gives it that Tin Machine edge. That said, it really is quite beautiful, with the music restrained and Bowie’s vocal performance nothing short of brilliant. The chorus with excellent backing vocals is the most “grandiose” Bowie has sounded for quite some time. This was released as the third single off the album and would have been a huge hit if it had been a Bowie “solo” effort (or indeed recorded by Iggy Pop). Music Video.
“Crack City” is one of those really “direct” moments on the album. Bowie’s scorn at the issue of drugs and the evilness of those “candymen” who peddle this type of death just hits one on the back of the head. Really heard. The music is hard and ferocious but nothing like the lyrics and Bowie’s scathing delivery, which are the most upfront and unambiguously savage in Bowie’s entire career. One gets the feeling after nearly succumbing to drugs and crack cocaine himself throughout the mid 70’s, Bowie and gang felt the need to tell it how it is. With lines such as:
“May all your vilest nightmares
Consume your shrunken head
May the ho-ho-hounds of paranoia
Dance upon your stinking bed
This nation’s turning blue
Its stink it fouls the highways
Its filth, it sticks like glue”
“I Can’t Read” lightens things up a little (relatively speaking anyways) and was Bowie’s favourite track on the album. Bowie laments the inability to read, while he aimlessly changes the channel on the TV in some lonesome existence. The mood and feel of this would have suited the “Low” sessions rather well, although the music is not quite as cutting edge or adventurous. I have to agree with Bowie with this being one of the best moments on the album. Bowie was so endeared with the song that he re-recorded it in 1997 for the film soundtrack to “The Ice Storm” and released that version as a single.
With “Under The God“, we return to the harder side of Tin Machine, with a manic, anti-fascist piece that derides the ugly far-right of UK politics, especially popular with skin-heads and racists at the time (Brexit anyone?). Hard to believe this was written by the same Thin White Duke who dangerously dabbled with far right musings a dozen years previously. “Washington heads in the toilet bowl, Don’t see supremacist hate, Right wing dicks in their boiler suits, Picking out who to annihilate” doesn’t really leave much doubt for their thoughts on the matter and accompanied with a raging rhythm section (not unlike “Lust For Life”) and with Gabrels manic guitar, this track is a real rocker. This was the lead-off single, promoted with a video featuring the band being mobbed onstage by uncontrollable thugs. Music Video.
“Amazing” is one of the quieter moments, a lovely ballad on how amazing life is with someone special, although there’s that slight edge with the concern she might move on to someone else. The guitar work here by Grabrels is particularly exquisite, as are Bowie’s tender vocals and suggests perhaps Tin Machine should have recorded more tracks such as this.
“Working Class Hero” is a cover of John Lennon’s classic and fits the anti-establishment feel of the album perfectly. I absolutely love the original Lennon version and is one of my favourite Lennon songs, so it was a thrill to hear Bowie and gang give it a go. Although nothing can beat the Lennon original, this isn’t a bad version with an appropriately sparse arrangement, Gabrels guitar to give it the Tin Machine signature and Bowie’s angry vocal delivery.
“Bus Stop” is a fun little ditty about someones skepticism of a religious experience while waiting at the bus stop, which on reflection might just have been a result of last night’s curry. It’s about the only moment of humour on the album, so make the most of its 1 min 43 seconds. The band obviously had fun with this song when on tour, converting it into a bizarre country and western romp.
The next track “Pretty Thing” is a pretty standard rocker, with the rhythm section in charge here with the start/stop arrangement. The best part though is the weird little middle eight section where the track goes off into a different tangent before the long closing sequence, where I’ve always liked the texture Gabrels guitar provides on top of everything.
“Video Crimes” is another rocker, with a somewhat stuttering feel that again fits the overall protesting theme of the album, this time lamenting the nasty videos that cause so many issues for society. Bowie plays the part of someone who obviously spends way too much time watching violent movies in his isolated existence and is contemplating “chopping” a few things up himself. It’s imagery on a level far more disturbing than on anything found on the likes of say “Diamond Dogs” or “Low”.
“Run” features my favourite Gabrels (albeit brief) solo on the album, although it’s Armstrong’s guitar that features most predominantly on the track (I guess as he co-wrote the thing). I always viewed this as a recommendation on what to do if you ever met the creepy character from the previous song but is really about how Bowie would react if he doesn’t get the girl of his dreams. It’s typically dark and broody but Bowie sounds rather good here. Interestingly, “Run” and the next track “Sacrifice Yourself” didn’t appear on the LP version, no doubt due to space issues, but with most people now buying CDs, Bowie and gang were obviously keen that they be included. The fact the songs are simply not plonked at the end of the album and both have their lyrics in the album notes suggests they are legitimate members of the album proper.
“Sacrifice Yourself” as I mentioned didn’t make it onto the LP version of the album and is another somewhat frantic number, with break-neck lyrics that again make references to a God (as in a number of the previous tracks). There’s nothing really that distinguishes this much from other tracks on the album and is one of my least favourite moments.
The album ends with “Baby Can Dance“, which reminds me the most of his previous 1983-1987 period material and could perhaps have fitted in on the “Never Let Me Down” album, where it would have been one of the better tracks. It does have the Tin Machine arrangement, which means upfront drums and lots of squealing guitars, but I’ve always liked this track and makes me wonder what some of the other earlier material would have sounded with Tin Machine playing or if some of the Tin Machine songs had a more commercial shine.
Tin Machine would tour the album extensively, but alas never in Australia (other than a one off, unannounced engagement in Sydney). The shows were generally well received (if you were expecting a Tin Machine experience) and were played in much smaller, more intimate venues than Bowie had played for a very long time. The shows featured no solo Bowie numbers to emphasise this was a real band to be taken seriously, which disappointed many and explained the much smaller crowds. But how I wish I could have attended one of the shows. The somewhat mediocre live album “Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby” was some consolation although one got a better taste of things with the “Live at the Docks” concert video recorded on 24 October 1991.
I don’t believe history has done this original “Tin Machine” album justice, often forgotten and ignored as being from that “silly” Tin Machine period. Overall, it’s an album that indeed has a very distinctive edge, with a hardness and rawness that’s kinda unique in the Bowie cannon. The follow-up “Tin Machine II” album has a lot more of a melodic feel than found here with much of the rawness polished away. But this really is an excellent album that rewards with repeat listening.
For many however, this was the point in time when they stopped buying Bowie albums. The older generation often stopped buying albums in general anyways, while the newer generation had new heroes to follow. Which is a shame, as this album provided Bowie the circuit-breaker he needed to ditch his 80’s commercial tendencies and rejuvenate himself into making some truly brilliant solo albums throughout the 90’s and beyond.
The next album in my review will be the first of my top 20 Bowie albums and the first album to come from his 1970’s period. It might be a tad controversial as the next album in my ranking is often regarded as a much loved album from what is widely considered to be Bowie’s best decade of output. But that’s a story for another day.
Best Tracks: Tin Machine, Prisoner Of Love, I Can’t Read