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