Pretty Thing

Pretty Thing.
Pretty Thing (video, fragment).

A few throwaway album tracks find Tin Machine in its most viable conception, of being a cracked imitation of a hard rock band. “Pretty Thing” is often knocked as being crass, tuneless filler (which it is), but it’s also a compressed set of musical parodies. Start with Bowie’s lyric, which is so crude and laddish (“something getting hard when you rock it up,” “tie you down, pretend you’re Madonna“*) that it seems like a mocking attempt to cobble together verses from half-remembered Winger or Motley Crue come-on lines, though here sung by Bowie in a nasal, whining tone that’s counter-erotic.

There are also various blunt references to past Bowie glories: “sweet thing” and of course, “Oh! You Pretty Things.” The chorus even begins with the title line of the latter, though where in “Oh! You Pretty Things” Bowie had begun on a high A note and grandly plummeted down an octave to finish the phrase, in “Pretty Thing” it’s a dud, an aborted melody, with Bowie starting on a G#, falling to C# (on “you”) but then pulling back to the original G# to end the phrase, as though he’s lost his nerve or just doesn’t give a damn anymore.

You can find parody even in the song’s harmonic structure: it’s set in F# minor with occasional feints to the relative major, A, which is a standard heavy-metal progression (e.g., Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”). “Pretty Thing” soon becomes so unstable, so barely-there as an actual conception, that it feels as though it’s constantly about to be consumed by its players: take how the four-bar raveups ram against Bowie’s spindly verse lines (it’s yet another reference, here to the stop-start structure of the Pretty Things’ “Don’t Bring Me Down”).

Finally, in the solo section, “Pretty Thing” implodes. There’s a four-bar Reeves Gabrels skydiving solo guitar line and then, out of nowhere, a miniature six-bar Mod soul track gets wedged in, with Kevin Armstrong on Hammond organ. Gabrels kills that interlude off with a bludgeoning riff that’s better than anything he’s played in the “proper song” so far, and Hunt Sales follows up by doing his best Gene Krupa imitation. While “Pretty Thing” lurches back to life for another round of choruses, the collective damage has been done: it’s become a beaten pulp of itself and expires soon afterward with a final taunting on drums by Hunt.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. The video clip above is the entire Julien Temple-directed sequence of mini-videos for Tin Machine (here’s Part 2), which includes “Working Class Hero” with the Machine wearing tuxedos and “Video Crime” with girl boxers and a dancing monkey.

*A tasteless reference to then-current tabloid stories about Madonna being abused by her husband Sean Penn (including allegedly being tied to a chair). Bowie made it worse by joking about “hanging out with Sean, and he told us a few things, you know what I mean?” in a 1989 interview.

Top:  Lincoln Clarkes, “Elizabeth Mazzoni, London, 1988.”

18 Responses to Pretty Thing

  1. Jeremy says:

    This isn’t filler in my mind – great song. Sound far more relaxed and inspired than some of the other songs on the LP.

  2. david says:

    The lyrics are a trifle, but I have to say I’ve always been a sucker for a dark descending melody line, and I love the way it turns and blisters after the ludicrous cod latin bridge of Bowie’s ‘prrrrrretty,pretty,prettugh’. Definitely a good song in there somewhere beneath the murk and the daft lyrics.

  3. Maj says:

    I don’t even know. This is kind of beyond criticism. It’s like a Scary Movie.

  4. Diamond Duke says:

    One of the things I’ve always found vaguely annoying about a lot of the criticism directed at Tin Machine was how reviewers used to lazily throw the words “sexist” and “misogynist” around as a way of dismissively judging the lyrics. (Even The Complete David Bowie author Nicholas Pegg is occasionally guilty of this.) Okay…they’re not necessarily the best lyrics that Bowie’s ever written. However – and this becomes even more readily apparent on Tin Machine II – there is far more going on beneath the surface whenever Bowie’s lyrics get into the more dysfunctional aspects of male/female relationships. Your observation of Bowie’s vocal on this particular track as being deliberately “counter-erotic” seems a very astute observation. (And frankly, Sacrifice Yourself from the first album strikes me as being somewhat autobiographical. More on that when we get to it, however…) I’m glad to see that you’re going against the grain and offering a more interesting perspective on Bowie’s work from this period. (I’m also thinking that a lot of the initial criticisms of Bowie’s Tin Machine lyrics have a lot to do with the times, the late ’80s and early ’90s being a time when there was a lot of “right-on” attitudes being thrown around by people in the entertainment media. An easily understandable backlash against ’80s conservatism, I’d guess…)

    However…that having been said…Pretty Thing is probably one of my least favorite songs in the David Bowie canon, and definitely my least favorite Tin Machine track. (And yeah, I do like the Hunt Sales numbers more than this one. You got a problem with that? ;)) It’s strikes me as being really no more than an uptempo rock ‘n’ roll throwaway (whatever its individual points of interest) and whatever Bowie’s intent with regard to the Madonna reference, it’s one of his sillier pop-culture references. Not really up there with the namechecking of Jagger and Twiggy in Drive-In Saturday, I’d say…

  5. diamond dog says:

    Like most of the album the lyric was written with a hammer very funny indeed . The end reminds me of the us mix of rebel rebel. Its ok but hardly a classic but does recall past glorys something he has continued to do. The promo for the album I liked as they were snippets very immediate and far better than listening to the tiring album.

  6. Roman says:

    Around this time, Bowie seems to have quite an issue with Madonna.

    In 1987 he was bitching about her in interviews because his masterpiece video for Day In Day Out was censored and her video for Isle of Benita (maybe ?) got through unscathed (considering she touches herself passionately in it – Bowie’s argument!).

    Then there’s the original version of Lucy Can’t Dance which he recorded around 1988 which was then called Lucelle (I think) – and that’s apparently about Madonna in a disparaging way. He even references the Material Girl in the lyrics.

    In one of the biographies – though it could be one I read on Jagger – it references Bowie and Mick at a New York party where they took turns in keeping Sean Penn occupied while the other chatted up and took their chances with Madonna.

    And of course there’s this song.

    i wonder how he felt when Madonna inducted him into the Hall of Fame a good few years later?

    • Maj says:

      Interesting. I had no idea Bowie had a problem with Madonna. I thought it was only Elton. I guess she took over Bowie’s shtick with ch-ch-ch-ch-changing and provoking to a certain degree. I suppose being a Queen is more about attitude than about sexuality. ;)

      But possibly fascination more like, than problem..?

      • sigmata martyr says:

        I thought the line about Madonna was pretty cheap because the bit about being tied up at Thanksgiving(Xmas?) was everywhere and it was hard to hear it as anything else. I do think Madonna rankled Bowie as a conceptual idea – sprung from Michigan, like Iggy, with all that American music as her birthright, bringing the press into a frenzy in Ziggyesque ways, remaining Madonna rather than being subsumed by roles, no substance abuse issues, in control of her money, transitioning from her big selling Nile Rodgers project with even more success and zooming into a position of peership with the Bowies and Jaggars of this Billboard world out of nowhere. He seemed to be tipping his hand that she bugged him. I see this abit in Grace Jones’ dismissive comments about Lady Gaga too. Bowie, in America at least, was hobbled by his gay/bi/artiness, Grace Jones by her perceived masculinity. They both get to see someone gather bigger success and fawning by the press that they hadn’t received “doing it first” they were seen as extreme at the time and by breaking down the barriers made a clear landing strip for these newcomers. Bette Middler groused about Lady Gaga as well, but unlike a manish black woman and a femmy english dude she could tone herself down to be palatable to the mainstream.Bette was seen as quirky; Bowie and Jones were seen as too subversive. Bowie was watching lots of artists eating his cake and winning but Madonna was like the full flower of this. I don’t blame them for being miffed but, in Madonna’s case she, for good or ill, came in on her own terms and remained successful in a way nobody could have forseen when she first charted. Madonna recently put that Lady gaga song Born This Way into her own tour in the same sort of way, scratching an itch to remind anyone listening ” Hey! I was here first !” She is now in the position Bowie was- these youngins just don’t know their history, if they only knew I was the innovator…I guess Little Richard is the first of a long line of performers who get that stuck in their craw.

  7. nijinska says:

    Musically, I’ve always thought the latter half of this one has a fair bit going for it – in retrospect, it strikes me that the sledgehammer rhythm and layers of feedback certainly provide a preview of the sound that came to characterise the Outside renaissance.

    But lyrically (and despite a previous poster’s arguments on the issue) when this was released I found the misogyny unbecoming of Bowie and I’m afraid I still do: ten years before, this man had written ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ and ‘Repetition’, and had also been explicit in interviews about the intentions behind the Japanese version of ‘It’s No Game’. Who can say whether it was down to bitter personal experience or the company he was keeping at the time (I’m tempted to ascribe it to the latter) but ‘Pretty Thing’ leaves a horrible taste. What’s more, it’s only one of a number of offenders from the Tin Machine period which seem to indicate a real fear and hatred of women (‘Baby Can’t Dance’ and ‘One Shot’ are only the two most obvious other candidates), so the parody / persona excuse doesn’t feel very convincing to me – there are too many examples elsewhere for this to feel like an isolated exercise in clever projection. Maybe it’s how he actually felt: maybe he’d hit a crisis of masculinity in which regarding women as nothing but pretty things was the most convenient way for him to feel like a ‘real man’. But against the legacy of (much, much better) work he’d already created on the topic of gender and sexuality it’s really difficult to listen to this without hearing the sound of a man hoist by his own petard

    • david says:

      Interesting point of view, and coming as these songs did on the back of the ‘Bowie bit my back’ scandal and the continuing bitter sleights from Angie, the theory that our man was feeling a little bent out of shape could hold water.

  8. Momus says:

    I’m tempted to echo Chris’ trope about Kate Bush being the *real* David Bowie of the 1980s by saying that the *real* Tin Machine came 15-odd years later in the form of Nick Cave’s Grinderman project. Cave took the middle-aged-songwriter-goes-hard-rock template (directly from Tin Machine, out of sheer perversity, I’m tempted to say; there’s Tin Machine and Tin Machine 2, and there’s Grinderman and Grinderman 2) and got it right.

    Listen to No Pussy Blues (http://youtu.be/lL3dNfxcpnw) and you hear something strikingly like Pretty Thing (the steroidal Bo Diddley riff, the focus on the middle-aged male libido, the Gabrels-type guitar wank) but with a much more honest and humorous slant: the Cave narrator, despite donning rubber gloves and doing the younger woman’s dishes for her, fixing her broken gate, and so on, just can’t get his sexual reward: “Still she didn’t want to.”

    It’s as if Cave is commenting slyly on the sexual politics of Bowie’s divorcee-club band, turning Pretty Thing’s anti-political-correctness celebration of lust into a post-PC shriek of animal frustration. Later in the song the narrator tries cognac, calls his target “little ho” and throws her on her back, all to no avail. And yet, because desire is about not getting what you want exactly when you want it — or, in this case, no longer getting it because you’re too old — the Grinderman song carries a much stronger sexual charge. And racks up over 600,000 YouTube hits.

  9. The end of this song is pure bedlam – if you take it out of the context of this otherwise wretched song, it’s easily the Machine’s finest moment.

    • sigmata martyr says:

      Yes, you can seriously dance to this! The kind of face off with your partner when you start trying to top them- sweating and everything…

  10. xianrex says:

    I hear a strong nod to James Brown’s “Think”, which has a similar lyrical style: “Think – about the good things baby/Think – about the wrong things maybe”.

  11. princeasbo says:

    Though it will be dealt with in due course, I wonder should there be reference to the latter “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” here.

  12. tin man says:

    Fantastic! Tony Sales used to sing it on stage at the end of the first Machine tour.

  13. s.t. says:

    I’m a little surprised that the Pixies aren’t mentioned in this post. For all of the talk about them being an influence on the Tin Machine period, this is the closest Bowie’s ever come to their sound.

    The Pixies are known in shorthand as the band that introduced the loud-quiet-loud dynamic to rock music (not counting Boston), but a lot of their stuff is more of a start-stop-start dynamic, a fun sort of punk-as-salsa vibe.

    I think “Pretty Thing” is Bowie’s version of Pixies tunes like “Vamos,” “I’m Amazed,” “Broken Face” and “Oh My Golly.” Not surprisingly, it’s a bit stodgier than the source material, but the debt seems pretty obvious to me.

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