David Bowie (Tin Machine): Tin Machine (1989)


Bowie brings the ‘80s — and his tenure as a mainstream pop star — to a close by teaming up with Reeves Gabrels and the Sales brothers (Hunt and Tony, sons of comedy legend Soupy Sales) to form Tin Machine, an actual rock band in the truest sense: all members had an equal stake in songwriting, and profits were shared equally.

Wikipedia notes that some critics have looked back and feel this album was a) judged too harshly (though many contemporary reviews were quite positive) and b) presaged the coming of grunge. For (b), I submit the videos for Tin Machine’s “Under the God” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which seem eerily similar to me.

Tin Machine: TIN MACHINE Under The God
Nirvana: Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit

And, like Grunge, the music on Tin Machine wears many of its ‘60s and ‘70s influences on its sleeve, yet spiced up with some modern sensibilities — again, just like grunge. (Bowie has also stated that The Pixies were a big influence on Tin Machine.)

Having made my way through Bowie’s “pop sellout” trilogy just prior to this, Tin Machine is a breath of fresh air. It’s rocking in a sometimes ramshackle way, simultaneously avant-garde and roots-y. The production from Tim Palmer — who would go on to mix Pearl Jam’s Ten — suffers a bit from sonic “‘80s hangover” in that there’’s still a lot of reverb and Big Drums™, though the music beneath it all is still wonderfully organic; it reminds me a lot of Living Colour’s 1988 debut in that way. Regardless, the end result remains wonderfully bombastic and muscular, capturing the one-and-done, band-plays-it-live vibe that Tin Machine was apparently shooting for.

Highlights for me include “Prisoner of Love”, “Amazing”, and “Baby Can Dance”. “Prisoner of Love” sees Bowie basically out-Goth-ing (or maybe out-New-Romantics-ing) the various bands he’s influenced while also harkening back to some of the experimental guitar work Fripp did back in the Berlin days; i.e., Peter Murphy wishes he could write a song like this. “Amazing” provides a nice respite from the loud rock that makes up the rest of the album, though it admittedly feels like they chose to fade out rather than write an ending. “Baby Can Dance” feels the most Tin-Machine-y song to me; if there was once song I would put forth as a perfect summation of the band, it’d be this one.

The flip side is that the album is maybe a few songs too long; the CD release adds two songs to the original vinyl track listing — “Run” and “Sacrifice Yourself” — that I’m not sure I would have missed otherwise. Also, I don’t know if any of the songs on are truly among Bowie’s best. The band’s “back to basics” methodology required songs be written fast and loose, and while that’s an asset overall, I have to wonder how much a little bit of polish and editing might have improved the album. That said, Bowie seems happy to dip back into sounds that would not have been out of place on Scary Monsters, Diamond Dogs, or even The Man Who Sold The World — a very welcome change after nearly a decade of finely-crafted pop hits.

Any dissatisfaction with the material on the album also needs to take a back seat to Bowie once again introducing a guitar phenom to the world, i.e., Reeves Gabrels. One has to wonder where the hell the man had been hiding given the sheer amount of virtuosity on display here. Gabrels easily navigates between (and possibly beyond) Fripp/Belew experimentation and Hendrix/Cream tastiness, all the while sounding largely unlike any of those players, remaining uniquely himself. And this is doubly amazing given that, guitar-wise, 1989 was mostly about Guns n’ Roses, Poison, and Motley Crüe — meaning that Gabrels was practically transmitting from another planet.

I think I originally bought this album new, on CD, back when it was first released. For some reason, it’s mostly been collecting dust on my shelf since then; I had to dig through a box of CDs in my basement so I could rip the thing and get it on my iPhone to prepare for this post. This seems to be a recurring theme with me and the more challenging Bowie albums; maybe I was just not ready (or able) to comprehend Tin Machine in 1989. According to the critics I mentioned above, it seems that I was not the only one.

Aside: I bumped in to Gabrels once back in the ‘90s when I lived in Boston. I was browsing in a guitar store (since I couldn’t afford anything) and Gabrels was there trying out an amp or something. I didn’t have the nerve to actually talk to him, so I just stood nearby and listened, dumbstruck, as he blazed away on a vintage reissue strat.

“1988 David Bowie with La La La Human Steps – Intruders At The Palace,” the ICA benefit performance that was Bowie’s first collaboration with Gabrels and thus led to the formation of Tin Machine.
1988 David Bowie with La La La Human Steps – Intruders At The Palace



David Bowie: “Never Let Me Down” (1987)

This is going to be short, because I am not listening to this album a second time.

I remember buying this album when it first came out, listening to it once, and then never listening to it again. I remember seeing Bowie on the resulting Glass Spider tour after having to practically beg my friend Evan to come with so I wouldn’t be going alone. (Fuck if he didn’t want to go; I went and saw fucking Supertramp with him, so fuck you, Evan.) I remember being baffled by the concert, not knowing most of the songs and not recognizing most of the ones I did know due to the arrangements. I remember Bowie allowing Peter Frampton to integrate a few lines of “Do You Feel Like We Do” into one of the songs.

The production on this album — courtesy of the late David Richards, who did a lot of Queen’s later albums — is so slick and so processed that it’s like drinking a glass of high-fructose corn syrup; it’s the sound of the ’80s collapsing in on itself. Whatever songs are buried underneath these cluttered arrangements and digital reverb make no impression on me whatsoever; there’s no stylistic or thematic through-line connecting any of them. And the rap duet between Bowie and Mickey Rourke on “Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)” is, hands down, the low point of Bowie’s career, at least as I’ve seen through the seventeen albums I’ve listened to so far.

Thankfully, Bowie will follow this up by forming Tin Machine, which should prove as much a palate-cleanser for me as it probably did for him.




David Bowie: “Tonight” (1984)

This is the second in Bowie’s trilogy of hit ‘80s albums upon which he now looks back with regret. I’ll admit some amount of dread as this album was approaching — especially after re-listening to “Let’s Dance” and realizing how poorly it fared against Bowie’s previous work — because I remember really enjoying “Tonight” back when I was a teen. I was afraid that now I’d end up hating it.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

Granted, we’re still deep in the ‘80s mainstream here, with big, gated drums — natch, since that sound’s inventor, Hugh Padgham, is producing this time around — and syrupy arrangements, continuing the thread from “Let’s Dance”. That said, I find Padgham’s production much more engaging than Nile Rodger’s; there’s a depth here that’s missing on the previous album, with more “air” surrounding each song. I’ve always liked Padgham’s work; he’s engineered and/or produced XTC and Police albums that I love. You can hear his sonic signature on tracks like the Iggy-Pop-penned “Neighborhood Threat”, which has a definite “Synchronicity II” vibe.

“Blue Jean” is definitely the standout track here, one for he few songs on the album written solely by Bowie and which has remained in his live repertoire ever since. Whatever else one may think about “Tonight”, the album’s existence is justified by this song. It’s light and danceable, yet there’s a subtle edge present that stamps it as uniquely Bowie.

I also think “Loving the Alien” and “Tonight,” Bowie’s duet with Tina Turner, are fantastic. Bowie has said that “Loving the Alien” is too dark for this otherwise lightweight album, and while I can see that, I think therein lies its strength. For a not-so-brief moment (seven minutes), we’re almost back in “Ashes to ashes” territory. As for “Tonight”, I honestly get a little choked up every time I hear it. I think it may be one of the finest duets Bowie’s ever done. It’s also, IMO, a massive improvement over Pop’s original version, which included a spoken-word introduction that frames it as a serenade to a girlfriend currently overdosing on heroin. Omitting the into, I think, allows broader application of the song’s sentiment, shifting things from pure tragedy to a sort of melancholic solace.

Beyond these three, I will give props to “Tumble and Twirl”, a raucous Carnevale of a track that’s a hoot to listen to, as long as you give Bowie a bit of a pass for the lines about “dusky mulattoes”.

The other tracks on “Tonight” range from forgettable (ironically, a cover of Leiber and Stoller’s “I Keep Forgettin’”) to saccharine (a cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”) to just plain ‘80s bombast (“Dancing with the Big Boys”). None are truly bad; I find the album as a whole very listenable. Still, it has neither the hit-songwriting-prowess of “Let’s Dance”, nor the challenging experimentation of Bowie’s previous work.

So, instead of listening to the album, I suggest watching the long-form video “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean”, directed by Julien Temple of “The Filth and the Fury” fame and “Absolute Beginners” infamy; enjoy the best song on the album and watch Bowie flex his comedic acting chops.

David Bowie – Jazzin’ For Blue Jean