Tin Machine is not a David Bowie record. Tin Machine is a band.
Hunt Sales, 1989.
In the Sixties, Bowie had gone through a string of bands: The Lower Third, the Riot Squad, the King Bees, the Kon-rads, the Manish Boys, the Buzz, Turquoise/Feathers. Each had failed in its own way. Some had been flawed propositions from the start, hamstrung by Bowie’s non-negotiable demand to be first among alleged equals. A few later editions, like the Buzz, assembled by Bowie and his manager via Melody Maker want ads, became a workable template—a band as a second unit orbiting its frontman, as with the Spiders from Mars. Even then, there was too much free movement: Bowie dispatched Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey within two years. Bowie’s most enduring band, his backing group of the late Seventies, were craftsmen who generally kept behind the scenes.
Now at age 41 Bowie finally wanted to submerge himself in a group, to go in hiding in a crowd. Tin Machine was credited to the band, not “David Bowie and Tin Machine” (though EMI affixed the album with stickers reminding buyers the bearded man on the cover had made “Let’s Dance”).* Duties were communal: songwriting, solos, singing. Tony Sales would often introduce the band on stage. In TV interviews of the time you can see Bowie restraining himself from talking over his bandmates. This deliberate anonymity pleased few in the Bowie organization or his label (Tin Machine would be the last EMI record). Reeves Gabrels later said that even Bowie’s assistant Coco Schwab “felt Tin Machine was bringing down the value of the currency of the David Bowie name.”
The name itself was an afterthought. “We couldn’t think of a good name, so we picked [one] from a song on the album,” Bowie said in a 1989 radio interview. “Tin Machine” was the obvious choice (though in an alternate life, Bowie fronted Crack City), as it worked as a play on the likes of Led Zeppelin and Iron Butterfly and signaled Bowie’s intentions: an automobile, i.e., a tin machine, is a means to get you out of town and on the road heading somewhere else.
Gabrels, interviewed by Spin at the album’s release, said “tin” was symbolic because while it seems like an “archaic material” it’s actually found everywhere—cans in supermarkets, rusted scraps on the street. The band in turn tried to be deliberately archaic, reactionary, not using synthesizers or sequencers (“we were sick of turning on the radio and hearing disco and dance music and drum machines, which I think in the business they call ‘crap,’” Tony Sales said in the same interview); Gabrels and Bowie favored older gear, like a 1963 Stratocaster once owned by Marc Bolan and a Marshall 100-watt Super Lead amp that Bowie had lying around in Switzerland. Bowie, Gabrels and second guitarist Kevin Armstrong even tried to limit their use of chorus and delay effects (Gabrels claimed no guitar effects he used were post-1974). That said, they weren’t entirely Luddites, as Gabrels often played a prototype Steinberger guitar with a transposing tremolo mechanism on its neck.
So Tin Machine the band came after “Tin Machine” the song. The Sales brothers liked the idea of having a theme song like the Monkees (Hunt, who emblazoned his kick drum with his first name, was especially keen). It added a hint of silliness to a deadpan group, as there’s often something inherently ridiculous when a band uses its name for a chorus: take Bad Company’s “Bad Company” or the Clash, who kept at it with diminishing returns (“Clash City Rockers,” “This is Radio Clash,” “We Are the Clash,” a sad declaration issued after half the band had quit).
But a key ancestor here is Minor Threat’s 1981 hardcore anthem “Minor Threat,” (though in this case the band’s name—a joke about Ian MacKaye et al‘s youth and unassuming appearance—had preceded the song), as “Tin Machine” is arguably Bowie and crew having a run at making hardcore. So I asked my cousin Robb, who played in hardcore bands in his youth, what he thought:
It’s like [Bowie] listened to a 1987/88 New York Hardcore compilation once and decided to emulate it. It sounds like it’s the “idea” of hardcore—”We’ll make it simple, short and fast”—but DB’s idea of simple and fast has key changes, too many chords, and is still too slow. Also, there’s no real conclusion—no buildup or breakdown, it just kind of ends. [This is in reference to the "single" edit of the video, which cuts the track off after its first chorus. Upon hearing the full version of "Tin Machine," Robb said it was an improvement but was now far too long. I agree---by the time Bowie's scatting what sounds like "dooby dooby dooby" in the coda, you're praying for the engineer to stop the tape.]
The riff at the end [in the bridge, starting at 1:09 on the album cut] could work as hardcore, but the rest of the song sounds like a regular rock song with extra distortion. I suppose you could claim it’s the first “Art Core” song, but it sounds more like a hastily put together attempt to associate Tin Machine with the next big underground, up-and-coming genre. I can’t tell if it’s a sincere failure or a cynical failure.
I’d put my chips on sincere, as the track seems to be a valiant attempt, in Bowie’s words, at making [Glenn] “Branca-sonic,” with its multi-tracked pack of guitars and Bowie’s flat, clipped-out vocal, which mainly keeps to a two-note range in the verse/refrain. The problem was that Tin Machine had too much collective chops to let the song lie. So “Tin Machine” is more harmonically “dense” than it needs to be—the 44-bar opening refrain/verse shifts between G and A major, while the “bridge” moves to a run of B minor/E minor, with a A/D/G tag at the turnaround back to the verse.
It also sounds as if the not-fast-enough tempo is still leaving the Machine winded, though it’s one of the few tracks that suits Hunt Sales’ drumming, which has some nuance—Hunt’s sparing use of crash cymbals or the little fill that fuels the track midway through the second verse (after “glare”). Gabrels also got crafty: he created the sound of “facsimile bagpipes” for his main riff by playing his guitar like a slide in his lap, “fingering from the top, with one foot on his Wah-Wah pedal and the other pumping volume.” (Spin).
And Bowie’s likely first-draft lyric is a choice example of the allegedly topical, “fractured word” writing that blighted much of Tin Machine, with lines including “mindless maggot glare,” “night that spews out watchmen” (DB reading Moore/Gibbons?), and the fan favorite, “humping Tories/spittle on their cheeks.” There’s wordplay of sorts (“blue-suede tuneless“) and callbacks to old songs, here the recently-revived “All the Madmen” (“I’m not exactly well“) As with the guitars, Bowie’s at his most convincing when he’s raging in the bridges, his spray of descending lines culminating in a choked-out “hell.”
Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. Performed during both Tin Machine tours, 1989 and 1991-92.
* Later reissues reclaimed the album as a “David Bowie” release.
Top: Misha Erwitt, “Marilyns, New York, 1988.”