Popdose Flashback: Tin Machine, “Tin Machine”

Tin Machine was flat-out great, featuring fierce guitars, edgy lyrics and even edgier production. The world thought it stunk, and threw stuff at David Bowie and his noisy bandmates when they took the stage and played its songs. For this critic’s CD-buying money, the two records Tin Machine did—this 1989 debut and the 1991 Tin Machine II followup—are still the finest post-Let’s Dance material Bowie’s made.

Tin Machine’s main fault was that it refused to pump out another tired Ziggy Stardust nostalgia cruise on stage—with some Low, Lodger, and Young Americans stuff interspersed to keep it real—that hardcore Bowiephiles wanted. Instead, Bowie forsook his brand and Tin Machine played originals like the cut after which the band was named, “Tin Machine.”

How dare he play dissonant songs, charged with aggressively political and at times angrily anti-religious lyrical content? The words were a good-news, bad-news proposition: Popdose colleague David Medsker claims that a couplet from “Crack City”—”They’re just a bunch of assholes, with buttholes for their brains”—is one of the worst couplets in rock history.* Hard to disagree with that. Some of Tin Machine’s lyrics, and for that matter, the feedback, seem gratuitous.

The point is, we remember those words two decades later. Can anyone give me any couplet, good or bad, from Black Tie White Noise? Or from 1. Outside? Does anyone even remember those Bowie album titles? Nobody? The prosecution rests, your honor.

He was on to something with Tin Machine. Tired of being depressed like on Low or the opposite—the modern minstrel of Let’s Dance and all that followed—Bowie got his grunge on with Tin Machine and fired off some downright angry, refreshingly unpolished tuneage. It was a rare-for-Bowie band project, and not a David Bowie record; the members collaborated on songwriting.

As with his Glam and Eno-New Wave periods, Bowie was merely ahead of the curve. A prophet, a voice in the desert predicting the coming of Nirvana. At the time, Nirvana was toiling in Seattle obscurity, pushing its debut Bleach on Sub Pop at every dive it played.

There’s an Iggy Pop connection with Tin Machine, as is often the case on Bowie records. Over the span of three decades, Bowie often played benefactor to Iggy’s ne’er-do-well, and the ne’er-do-well repaid the benefactor in kind by serving as occasional muse.

When Iggy was with the Stooges, Bowie produced Raw Power. Years later, in the late 1970s, Bowie and Iggy famously hung out in Berlin, making records together by day and cruising the city at night, trying to get straight after a decade of drug debauchery.

They were partially successful in getting straight, but the band on Iggy’s Lust For Life album and tour—Bowie tagged along, playing keyboards—included some hardcore partiers, namely brothers Hunt and Tony Sales on drums and bass. According to music-biz legend (and a couple Bowie-ographies) the Saleses put off Iggy and Bowie’s rehab for a spell.

(The Sales boys came by their mischief honestly: In his most famous prank, their father Soupy—a comedian and kids’ show host—was peeved he had to do his morning show on New Year’s Day, 1965. So on that episode he suggested kids sneak into their parents’ bedrooms while they were still asleep from last night’s parties, go into their wallets, and send to him the green pieces of paper with pictures of presidents on them. That didn’t go over well with the network brass.)

Flash forward a decade to 1989: After experiencing diminishing critical and commercial returns with his post-Let’s Dance recordings, Bowie re-formed Iggy’s band and inserted himself as lead singer. He renewed acquaintances with the Sales brothers and enlisted Boston guitar hero Reeves Gabrels to clear everyone’s sinuses of the throbbing synthesizers that had graced his previous records, Tonight and Never Let Me Down.

There was no mistaking Tin Machine for Duran-ny pop like on Tonight, or the British-style funky soul like on Young Americans and Station to Station or even the earthy, postdisco funk of Let’s Dance. This was raw, postpunk, pregrunge noise—but, in typical Bowie style, featuring a frontman nattily attired and fashionably unshaven.

Taken out of the context of the times—Tin Machine competed on the charts with the likes of Milli Vanilli, Icehouse, Taylor Dayne, Paula Abdul, Johnny Hates Jazz, Depeche Mode and INXS—and just judged on its merits, Tin Machine rocked. Don’t believe me? Check out “Under the God.” In context, Tin Machine stuck out like a sore thumb. Compared to Milli Vanilli, Tin Machine was grating and downright scary. Compared to some of the hardcore bands or grunge like Mudhoney out at the time, it was pretty tame stuff. The band drowned in the ebb tides between the pop charts and trendy indie rock.

The world took many years to appreciate Lust for Life as well as Bowie’s Berlin trilogy of Brian Eno collaborations, which merely laid down the foundation for New Wave and a thousand 1980s bands from ABC to Human League to even Duran Duran. Tin Machine still gets no love. Even fawning, diehard Bowie fans still regard Tin Machine as a strange side alley to Bowie’s main road, 20 years on.

That’s today. Calling Tin Machine “Bowie’s folly” represents a considerable softening of what was abject hate for the band in 1989. Back then, like Herodias did with John the Baptist, the music-critic establishment—along with the angry clubgoers expecting “The Jean Genie” and “Awwwwwww, wham, bam, thank you ma’am!”—ordered Tin Machine’s head on a platter, and Bowie dissolved the band after a couple years, shelving a Tin Machine III record allegedly in the works. Nirvana had arrived, the prophet moved on to other missions.

But Tin Machine‘s vapor trail still lingers, and this misunderstood record hangs out there for the picking—and appreciation—of fans who missed it the first time around. I liked it then, and I like it more, now. Bowie didn’t get everything right in his career, but God bless ‘im for changing it up and trying out new things.

Tin Machine was one of those grand experiments that didn’t work out at the cash register. So the Great Rock Ledger gives it short shrift. I’m out to change that, part of a growing blog movement along with other like-minded folks such as Christian at Popshifter who are finally giving Tin Machine the credit it deserves.

* My own internal editor goes off when triggered by Paul McCartney’s “In this ever changing world/in which we live in,” from “Live and Let Die.” Triple redundancy? Are you kidding me? Upon hearing it, I must go club a few baby seals to restore universal equilibrium.

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  • David_E

    “In this ever-changing world in which we're living.”

    Not that much better, grammatically, but better nonetheless …

  • http://garagerock.wordpress.com edmur

    I remember liking only the odd-numbered songs on the first Tin Machine CD. Seriously: Songs 1, 3, 5, 7, et.al. really did it for me, while Songs 2, 4, 6, 8, and so on left me cold.

    And I still think “I Can't Read” is a gem. That's the song that proved Reeves Gabrels' guitar genius. I lost track of him soon after, but I may now have to track down his post Tin Machine II work…

  • jbacardi

    Gabriels was the problem I had with Tin Machine. He had the skill, and came up with some good riffs, but he had no artistry in his soul and more often as not it seemed like TM songs just devolved into protracted wankery, with Gabriels soloing aimlessly and furiously to no good effect while the Sales Bros. crashed and bashed away and Bowie would wake up long enough to bellow out a song title or a lyric line here or there.

    I could probably give you a couplet or two from 1.Outside, which has its moments; but Tin Machine's two albums were still better than the awful Black Tie White Noise, or anything which succeeded it until the transcendent Heathen.

  • solipsistnation

    Oh pshaw. 1.Outside was one of my favorite Bowie albums. I could sing most of it at you right now.

  • MichaelFortes

    Yes yes, we've covered this one before. Time to let “Live and Let Die” rest!

  • http://www.bullz-eye.com DavidMedsker

    Um, I actually quite like a lot of Black Tie, White Noise. But it's well documented that I don't know jack about what's good, so there you go.

  • Old_Davy

    The line is “But IF this ever-changing word in which we're living…”

  • David_E

    Too right. Which is 98% grammatically correct, excusing the lazy participle (really, should've gone with “in which we live”) for the sake of the internal rhyme (“makes you give in …”).

  • hagen

    Someone finally gets it.

    I played the hell out of each of the Tin Machine CDs upon their release, and couldn't quite understand what was wrong with everyone else. Reeves Gabrels' guitar scared the hell out of me, but it had that same other-planet feel that Jeff Beck was developing, and I was glad nobody else could play most of Gabrels' stuff… it made it all the more precious to me. And the second album was one of those will-not-leave-my-player discs when it came out three million years ago. I remember combing through record shows to find all the import singles and weird packaging, including the uncensored penis cover… the late eighties and early nineties didn't do Bowie any favors, but I still owe him for Tin Machine. What a savage band. Glad to hear other music fanatics are listening.

  • http://popshifter.com Less Lee Moore

    Hey, thanks for the link to our Tin Machine lovefest/article.

  • http://www.yarnivore.com/francis Francis

    “Black Tie, White Noise” is far and away my favorite Bowie album between “Scary Monsters” and “Heathen”. Totally underrated.

  • mojo

    Does someone have the acvtual lyrics on a CD page? I have googled it and found it 10 different ways. Can someone give us official confirmation of some kind? I guess I just trusted the ringtone hucksters to get it right (my bad, mea culpa, whateveaaaahhhhh)

  • mojo

    Whenever you get a bunch of Bowie watchers in the same room (like here), Bowie never fails to be polarizing. You either love or hate any of his albums. We're never lukewarm.

    I guess that is a sign of genius?

  • mojo

    Even if I am wrong, those baby seals better start tottering off anyway…because the only definitive thing we know from this discussion is that Sir Paul sang the line over and over throughout the song like a mushmouth. Now where did I put down that club?

  • mojo

    you, me, lone voices in the boggy blog wilderness…we rule.

  • mojo

    just wait until my Black Tie White noise concert flashback, heh

  • Rene'

    I agree with you totally, I don't understand why so much “Anger” towards the brief, but great 'Tin Machine'. After all BOWIE is a Rock'N'Roller, right???
    I would LOVE a new 'Tin Machine like album from BOWIE and Friends. It's been 6 years, since he has released a new CD, hopefully 2009 will be productive. Anyway, Long Live 'Tin MAchine'. a lad insane…

  • Rene'

    I agree with you totally, I don't understand why so much “Anger” towards the brief, but great 'Tin Machine'. After all BOWIE is a Rock'N'Roller, right???
    I would LOVE a new 'Tin Machine like album from BOWIE and Friends. It's been 6 years, since he has released a new CD, hopefully 2009 will be productive. Anyway, Long Live 'Tin MAchine'. a lad insane…

  • Rene'

    I agree with you totally, I don't understand why so much “Anger” towards the brief, but great 'Tin Machine'. After all BOWIE is a Rock'N'Roller, right???
    I would LOVE a new 'Tin Machine like album from BOWIE and Friends. It's been 6 years, since he has released a new CD, hopefully 2009 will be productive. Anyway, Long Live 'Tin MAchine'. a lad insane…

  • ly

    Two fantastic records!