Tin Machine

Tin Machine.
Tin Machine (edit, video).

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.”

32 Responses to Tin Machine

  1. Anonymous says:

    I like the intention more than the delivery on this one, which could summarize around 70% of Tin Machine material for me. ‘come and get a good idea, come on and get it soon’ and ‘I’m neither red nor black or white, I’m grey and blown to hell’, are so telling of his state of mind and creative stock post Lets Dance era.

    The Watchman thing is intentional I think too-there’s a frame in the story were two punks are playing ‘Neighborhood threat’ from a ghetto blaster, which was highlighted in a number of Bowie zines such as Starzone, so I definitely think he was aware of it.

    As always, another great insightful post.

    • Sorry if this is a dumb question, but is it Iggy’s version or David’s?

      And again sorry if this is stale info, but there are at least two Bowie refs in the Watchmen movie, the v brief scene depicting Aladdin Sane and that scene with the Man Who Fell To Earth book.

      • col1234 says:

        if I recall, it’s just a boom box blasting the lyric so it could be either. My bet’s on Iggy’s version though—can’t see the knot-tops blasting the crap “Tonight” version of that song (though perhaps in Watchmen-world, it was good).

  2. Sam Therapy says:

    Wasn’t most of what Bowie did playing with an ‘idea’ of a genre rather than copying it, Soul, Kraftwerk, Drum and Bass (really looking forward to that, but that’s much later). I’m a huge Bowie fan but skipped Tin Machine due to it’s reputation and must admit am enjoying some ‘baby can’t dance’ but really don’t like other bits ‘topless on heaven in here’. Should I invest in a copy of Tin Machine 2? I guess the answer to that is coming soon. Anyway, thanks for this blog us Bowie fans need something.

    • Tall Ship says:

      Tin Machine is fucking awesome and I won’t hear a word said against it. The point of this band is to enjoy the music, just as they are doing. This is not naval gazing music. These moaners should shut up and dance.

  3. MC says:

    Agreed about the song’s daftness (and the “dooby dooby dooby” at the end is beyond silly, of course), but listening to the song again after a long interval, with its cascading riff and spat-out lines about a “psycho time-bomb planet poised to meet its maker”, etc., I’ve gotta say, my gut reaction is THIS ROCKS LIKE A BASTARD!!!

    Erm, sorry. Again, what I loved and love about the Tin Machine concept is the renewed dedication to all-out rocking. Lots of the songs here don’t measure up quite well enough but for me this is catchy, fierce, and fleet enough to qualify.

    Another great, informative post, and I can’t wait for the entry on a certain not-so beloved throwdown in the War on Drugs. Cheers!

    • PH says:

      Come on, – “A-wop-bop-aloop-bop-awop-bam-boom” was accepted into the rock’n’roll lexicon over fifty years ago. Surely we can get our heads around a simple little “dooby dooby dooby”?

  4. Diamond Duke says:

    MC, I presume you’re referring to Crack City. Yeah, I’ve got some choice things to say about that one, too! 😉

    However, I personally like this song a lot! Regardless of whether or not it holds up according to anyone’s standard of “pure” punk or hardcore (and since when did Bowie claim to be any sort of purist, anyway?), this seriously rocks! There’s something truly and wonderfully warped about its hybrid of thrashing pogo beat and that nifty little “bagpipe” riff from Gabrels. And I actually like Bowie’s spit-out, fragmented lyrics a great deal here. If it is first-draft, he definitely nailed quite a few zingers here. And even though there’s a political dimension here, what with the reference to “humping Tories” (another one of Bowie’s “dog” references, although if memory serves the word itself doesn’t actually appear here), it’s certainly not as deadeningly didactic as Crack City. Good times, good fun… 😀

  5. Recently, Bowie was acclaimed as the ‘Pope of Pop’ by the Pulitzer Prizewinner for Poetry in gratitude for having inspired her winning book of poetry and, of course, Tin Machine was not the work she was thinking of.

    Tin Machine was a sincere failure, an honest failure and for us hardcore fans, an enjoyable failure (just, and only without making comparisons).

    Released at a time when an indie band (Bongwater) would snark that ‘David Bowie Wants Ideas’, there was also a sadness for then-contemporary fans.

    I once saw an ancient NME where I think Parsons (poss) had written a review of a new Dylan album and said something like, the reason that this review occupies a large space is because of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, not because of the new album.

    We know the sentiment.

    And this piece is as well crafted as always, Chris. Thank you.

  6. Remco says:

    I don’t know anything about hardcore, to me it sounds like an attempt at ‘Come on pilgrim’-era Pixies. And not a bad one at that.

    I listened to the album in the car earlier this week, very loudly, and the one-two punch of ‘Heaven’s In Here’ and this song made me grin like an idiot. ‘This rocks like a bastard’ indeed.

  7. Momus says:

    A “tin machine” may be a car, but it might also be the “tin can” spacecraft by means of which Major Tom kept Planet Earth at arm’s length. It could also be Gunter Grass’ Tin Drum, accompanied by glass-shattering screams (Gabrels?) uttered as howls of protest on the part of a pixie (or a Pixie, a sort of weeping gnome) against fascism. And it would fit in with all this imagery if Tin Machine were a vehicle for the kind of primal howl of protest Ginsberg issued in Howl. Read ’em, pal, and weep, then scream like a baby.

    A couple of literary sidenotes, if I may be so bold. The TM lyrics seem to me to use a great deal of Anglo-Saxon alliteration — “mindless maggot glare” and “money moving” and “beats his baby” — which puts you in mind of Beowulf (the monster-slaying epic) and The Seafarer and The Wanderer; the literary version of getting back to rock basics (Auden took this route at some points). And it seems to me that if that black-toothed and macho poet Baal formed a rock band in the late 1980s, it might have been Tin Machine. Or at least something inspired by the TM blueprint: a spontaneous scream of bohemian visionary disgust against bourgeois society.

    The reality, of course, was much less exciting.

  8. Jeremy says:

    Beowulf and Tin Machine? Wow. Gabrels is the monster. Actually, for some reason the way Gabrels is standing in that photo really irritates me! I always disliked those headless guitars as well. Silly gripes aside this song is a winner, one of the stronger tracks on the album. Great riff – it all works.

  9. mrbelm says:

    I can’t help it, ever time I hear this song I think of “Over Under Sideways Down” by the Yardbirds.

  10. Frankie says:

    A short wailing great song. I guess some people easily dismiss TM as a fake band. I’d see it as a Sergeant Pepper approach – where you pretend you are somebody else, which leaves you the freedom to do something you wouldn’t normally do as yourself. Although Bowie tended to look uncomfortable and unconvincing playing “just one of the mates” in band interviews, I’d grade him an A for restraint in the midst of the venting of Sales. I thought Tin Machine was a good vehicle for Bowie nevertheless, for refreshing his creative process, where he used his past work as a palette without feeling attachment or preciousness – thanks to Gabrels’ detached contribution, I’d guess. That’s why I find TM sounds full of ghosts, there is something unworldly lurking under the surface of brash jagged edges. I loved the ambiguous yet direct lyrics, and the psychologically unhinged vocal delivery, all conveying the impression of channeling what Chris aptly dubs a “fractured world”. I could relate to the noise of the band on a personal level because I too had a noisy band in the 80s, The Belligerents it was called, pre-dating TM by 5 years. It quickly became defunct but in its short, ill-fated existence it weirdly foreshadowed TM perhaps, in that The Belligerents originated with me and my musical friends forming a mock hardcore band as an inside joke after listening to a particularly bad hardcore album that we thought we could outdo! But the band’s true musicianship kept breaking through, including using the name of the band in the chorus of a particularly ridiculous song! Tin Machine sounds like a mangled vehicle used to drive through a crisis over unstable terrain, but somehow finding it fun crashing through the mess along the way….

    • David L says:

      Interesting stuff, Frankie.

      This is my favorite track on the album, love it especially mid-way when Bowie’s steady delivery keeps going beyond a breath, seemingly battling the guitar for air space … and it’s one of the few songs on the album that ends just about when it should.

      That pic of the band up there is telling, though. Really doesn’t look like a band at all, just a bunch of strangers who decided to jam one day. Bowie looks the least pretentious of the bunch!

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Your old band sounds really cool! You didn’t by any chance make any recordings or demos? Because now I think you’ve piqued people’s curiosity. 😀

      • Frankie says:

        Yes, Diamond Duke, thank you for asking. There are quite a few surviving “recordings” and “demos” in my bottom drawer, from the Belligerents, in a heap. I’ll try to find something with merit to present to those piqued, and perhaps post a link.

      • Frankie says:

        Hey, Diamond Duke! I will post info for a link to some Belligerents material for those who are interested in hearing it, very shortly. Having gone through a few recordings from my bottom drawer, there are many tunes still on cassette that I haven’t transferred yet. I found a few pieces that may or may not be an example of what I described before.

  11. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    Does anyone else think there’s something a bit dissonant about all this emphasis on group identity and the band as a unit, but regular contributor Kevin Armstrong isn’t a member?

  12. Mike says:

    I had a friend who never understood my Bowie obsession, and for a while he got a real kick out sarcastically singing this song whenever I was around.

    He was wrong about Bowie, of course — but he picked a good tune to ridicule. It’s horrible.

  13. Maj says:

    This song is to hardcore what the tropical sugary stuff on Tonight is to reggae.
    I was hoping to read here that the band was making fun of this sort of rock, because to me it sounds almost like a parody…

    Since Tin Machine interviews have been mentioned I always find the one they did with Wogan absolutely hilarious. He was close to punching them.

    • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

      This is horribly unfair, as I know barely anything about the man, but Hunt Sales seems like a real asshole.

      • David L says:

        What’s he going for here … Elephant Man-chic? He looks like one of the patrons of the Cantina bar in star wars..

  14. diamond dog says:

    The lyric is dreadful but as was said is very telling of his desperation to ‘get a good idea’ which ultimately in the end it was not. I always associated the song with a big hulking train with the sound effects and gabrels over the top screeching. I’ve been playing the album and this is one of the embarrassing ones I’m afraid to say its tiring and your glad when it comes to a halt to take a breather. I fail to see what good tin machine had on Bowie apart from making him a figure of fun , hiding in a second rate imitation middle aged rock group with no ideas on how to get back to being artful and cool.

  15. Regarding your asterisk, I have noticed that back catalogue-reissuers now treat Tin Machine as the name of a Bowie record rather than a band and Tin Machine II and Oy Vey Baby as non-existent. I have also wondered how that’s even legal, especially considering the fervent attampts to make the band a democratic unit. Did the Saleses and Gabrels get paid off?

  16. s.t. says:

    For me, this doesn’t even sound like the idea of hardcore, this sounds like an unholy fusion of the Pixies and Guns ‘n’ Roses. Both of those bands owe a some debt to hardcore (the Pixies’ debt is more obvious, but GnR covered Fear), but I think Tin Machine was all about rock maximalism, which is antithetical to the no-nonsense ethos of hardcore.

    • s.t. says:

      On second thought: perhaps your brother is thinking of albums like Bad Brains’ “I Against I” and Suicidal Tendencies “Join the Army,” which are showier, more metal-influenced examples of hardcore. Still, the Pixies/Roses influence may be a more parsimonious explanation of TM’s sound.

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