Video Crime

Video Crime.

“Video Crime,”* a tuneless Bowie collaboration with the Sales brothers, is part of the loose affiliation of “protest” songs on Tin Machine, the subject here a hodgepodge of serial killing (“trash time Bundy,” “late night cannibal“), urban decay/de-industrialization (the singer’s a broke prole who “wonder[s] where the Third World went“) and the corrupting influence of “video nasties.”

It’s worth briefly recounting the latter, a UK scare of the early Eighties that was fueled by the usual suspects (Mary Whitehouse, The Sun) and concerned the popularity of straight-to-VHS horror/sex films (in a Young Ones episode, the gang rents Sex With the Headless Corpse of the Virgin Astronaut). This was pure capitalism at work: the major movie studios, wary of piracy, had been slow to release their films on video, so a wave of cheap, violent schlock filled the vacuum. For the likes of Whitehouse, the rise of the home VCR meant yet another sign of cultural devolution. After all, in the past, you had to go to seedy theaters or Friar’s Club stag parties to see pornography: now you were able to watch it in your own apartment. It was too easy, a domesticated depravity; someone could now spend their life watching violent, morally vile movies (and rewinding the good parts) that censors would have formerly prevented him from seeing. It would make for a coarser, more violent, more debased society.

So in his lyric, Bowie’s playing with this idea—his narrator is a pathetic, grubby figure whose imagination has been shot through with lurid images from too many slasher films (“chop it up!”) and there’s a vague suggestion he’s started killing people himself, or at least standing on a street corner at night pretending that he’s casing victims. The scenario had some promise—there was something to make out of the cultural fascination with serial killers** in the Eighties—but the lyric is a string of first-draft juvenile images, and Bowie sang it terribly, in a jerking, sing-songy, appalling vocal that keeps to a four-note range. Yes, I know, it’s meant to be numbed, dehumanized, robotic. But compare how truly strange and alienated Bowie’s vocal is, his phrasings, his intonations, on something like “Breaking Glass”—there the detached figure Bowie plays allows no entry into his workings, but his performance is so striking that you try to puzzle him out regardless. By contrast “Video Crime” is, in the words of a better songwriter (at this point), a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard.

Worse, the track is just a slog: two chords, E and F, with a brief escape to A in the solos; given not so much a groove as an imposition, with the usual tricks used to keep things moving—-Hunt Sales’ fills, Gabrels’ guitar-screams. It’s all such dull stuff that it’s a highlight when Tony Sales varies the bassline in the third verse. Credit again to Kevin Armstrong, whose rhythm guitar playing is in the pocket and hints that a better song was buried somewhere in this morass.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. The only song from Tin Machine never to be played live.

* Called “Video Crimes” on the LP sleeve and in the official songbook. I went with the singular, as that’s how it’s registered with BMI.

** Once on a bus ride from Boston to New Haven, I listened to two mild-mannered-looking middle-aged women, who apparently had never met before and were just seatmates, talk for an hour about various serial killers (“then there was the one who used to hang them from coat hangers”).

Top: Freddy Krueger breaks for lunch, Nightmare on Elm Street 4, 1988.

22 Responses to Video Crime

  1. Maj says:

    Trying to get through the song but in the immortal words of Vamp Willow/Dark Willow: bored now!
    The song’s really not worth any further commentary though the entry did a good job analysing what the song is about – I never would have even dreamed of trying to find on my own. 😀

  2. david says:

    Could have been an outtake from Never Let me down. I always skipped this one,and listening again, I can see why. I remember the promo video showed the song literally unplugged by a monkey. The monkey had taste apparently.
    Odd sentiments from a man who extolled the virtues of Chris Burden, and got his kit off for China girl.
    Great writing on a song unworthy of analysis. And there’s still Don’t Sacrifice yourself to come.

  3. Diamond Duke says:

    Very insightful, as usual, but perhaps just a tad too dismissive. This is actually another one of my personal faves from the first TM disc. I actually think it’s monotonous, numbed-out quality – as well as Bowie’s sing-songy vocal – gives it a rather chilly effectiveness. Hunt Sales’ Thor’s-hammer, Bonham-esque beats are perhaps the best part of the song. In fact, between that and the opening “dive-bomber” guitar chord (a la Jimmy on Whole Lotta Love), Video Crime actually makes one think of Led Zep’s Presence in a Ballardian car crash with Low on a Berlin street corner. (Well, okay, maybe it’s not quite that interesting, but I think it’s a fair description! BTW, as it happens, Presence was recorded in Germany – but in Munich at Musicland Studios, not in Berlin!) I also love that riff that occurs at a later point in the song.

    To each his own, though. No accounting for taste. I fully grant you there’s a possibility I’m just plain mad!

    BTW, good photo choice. Not necessarily one of my favorites in the Elm Street series, but it’s got a few choice Krueger one-liners: “If the food don’t kill ya, the service will!”

  4. PH says:

    I’m with you on this one DD. Though certainly no masterpiece, this song is given unfairly short shrift I feel.

  5. Momus says:

    This ain’t rock’n’roll, this is genocide!

    Talking of video crimes, it’s really shocking to me how low some of Bowie’s YouTube view stats are — some of the Tin Machine vids struggle to reach four figures. This one is 1400 or so. A hit like Let’s Dance scores 5.6 million views, but clearly very few of those people investigate the rest of the catalogue. That such a popular artist can also be so deeply unpopular — whether deservedly or not — is really quite striking.

    • Pierce says:

      Says a lot about the material I think. Why watch/listen to some ropey Tin Machine clip/track when you can revel in the majesty of Let’s Dance. Seriously.

  6. MC says:

    The song’s plug-ugliness plus the deranged first-person perspective puts me in mind of Running Gun Blues. I think they’re very close which of course is not necessarily a compliment! Personally, I rather like both; clumsy as they are, they have a certain brutal conviction. I would also draw a comparison to Lou’s near-contemporaneous and similarly-themed Video Violence. That’s a better song, but Reed’s rather lofty perspective on his “poor working stiff” protagonist beating a prostitute’s back bloody, etc. compares unfavourably for me to Bowie’s immersion in his character. He doesn’t distance himself from the subject in the same way. Mind you, some of these lyrics really don’t stand up under scrutiny, do they. (“Ain’t got time for honeymoon” – huh?)

  7. There’s something mildly perverse about the way the best parts of this song are pushed all the way to the back of the mix – namely, Armstrong’s aforementioned rhythm guitar playing (good call on that one, btw) and Gabrels’ droning, high-pitched leads that kick in around the second chorus. A frustrating glimpse at what could have been, hidden by a wall of headache-inducing snare drum hits.

  8. princeasbo says:

    The Rolling Stones had humorously dealt with this topic in “Too Much Blood” on the relatively poor Undercover Lp.

  9. Marion Brent says:

    I meant to comment on the previous entry where the question of Bowie’s class came into play but I didn’t get round to it. I don’t think it’s really right to say Bowie was “solidly middle class”. I’d say more “precariously lower middle class”. His mum was a cinema usherette, he lived the first six years of his life in Brixton which was rough as guts back then. Throughout his career he’s been not so much classless but a class chameleon. There was a period in the late 70s when he seemed to make an effort to talk “posh” and other times when he’s camped up the cockney, but his “normal” talking voice seems to be a curious London brogue that is on the cusp of lower middle class and working class – a type of accent that is pretty much extinct now I’d say but lives on in expats like Bowie. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I think the whole class issue is pretty important to Bowie’s oeuvre. Perhaps it’s the anxiety of being neither working class nor “received pronunciation” middle class either…

    • Roman says:

      With regards the class issue – I think it was Tony Parsons who said that out of all his meetings/dealings with Bowie, he learned that David is very insecure about never having gone to university – and this comes across very obviously in his penchant to name drop and to list books he’s (supposedly) read at the first opportunity. I suppose this would make sense with regards the company Bowie keeps – I mean sitting at a table with the likes of Martin Amis and the crew from Modern Painters, I don’t being a ‘pop singer’ would garner you much kudos!

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      Don’t you think it’s a little too simplistic to describe post-war Brixton in that way? I imagine it was in quite a state of flux at that time, with the first wave of immigration and families like the Joneses moving out. But I think your point about his class insecurity is a great one. As is the point of his lack of formal education.
      If you get chance to watch the 1973 Russell Harty interview, he actually mentions his propensity to switch accents; and then proceeds unwittingly to do so within two minutes of the interview. Then watch the 1975 Russell Harty interview and watch him get ‘posher’ as his antipathy towards the interviewer grows. There’s another later interview where in comparing himself to Eno, he describes himself as ‘working class’; I think in this case, he’s conflating social class with formal education.
      I totally agree that the social class issue is really important in understanding what Bowie was about. For what it’s worth, I think a lot of it is down to an insecurity that stems from, and as you point about, not being ‘solidly’ middle class.

      • david says:

        I’m presuming all this will be covered when Col does his entry on ‘I have not been to Oxford town’

      • col1234 says:

        i’ve gotten into this a bit more in the book revision. But yes, “solidly” middle class was the wrong phrase and generally agree w/the points made above (it also seems that Brixton ca 1947-1953 (Bowie’s time there) wasn’t much rougher than many bombed-out London neighborhoods, though if I’m off, please point me in the right direction—this inference is via recent histories like Kynaston’s “Austerity Britain” and “Family Britain”).

        That said, DB, while in a lower-middle-class family, was fairly atypical I think—never wanting for toys, clothes, records—and was always financially supported in following his pop star dreams once he left school, never pushed to “pick a career.”

  10. diamond dog says:

    Gotta say its a pretty middle class view that normal people are that affected by ‘video nasties’ a very mary whitehouse view. Its an interesting song for the fact its not dated and seems more relevant we here in the uk have the conservatives back in power who still have the moral majority firmly behind stopping what we see. Its surprising that many of the video nasties are now available legally here when in the 80’s you could jailed for owning some of them. I like this one
    It crackles on this and tin machine are quite effective Bowie’s delivery is detached in ahenry portrait of a serial killer way perversley one of the tracks where the band work well.

  11. diamond dog says:

    Buttgereitt boogie. ‘This skeletons mine ‘

  12. Mike says:

    “Video Crime” is such a horribly outdated title. It might as well be called “VHS Crime” or “Shoulder Pad Crime”. Ugh, the ’80s….

  13. Jeremy says:

    Outdated title yes but this sludgy, grimy tune does it for me for some reason. It’s certainly the anti Lets Dance song for all those new recruits from 83….

    • PH says:

      …And for that it should be roundly praised: P(sink the boots into Let’s Dance at every opportunity -ha ha!) H.

  14. RLM says:

    The forced march anti-funk of Video Crime/s reminds me a bit of Fashion. A very little bit. I’d agree that this is probably a slightly better song than seems to be popularly supposed – musically alright, lyrically hopeless.

    Has this blog’s discussion of Tin Machine been responsible for the reappearance of Reeves Gabrels? He is appearing with The Cure for their summer festival shows, and as far as I can tell the initial response from the Cure fan community is quite positive (although one chap did describe him as “an American faux-Hendrix widdler that looks like Reg Holdsworth”).

  15. i really liked your “40 from 40” blog. the writing and the choice of songs.

  16. Frankie says:

    Great writing on the subject. At this point on the album I would always get exhausted by the unsubtle messy noise of it all, and as a stand-alone listen now, it doesn’t stand up as much as the even more exhausting Baby Can Dance which actually has somewhat of a melody worthy of cover. But personally I preferred my old band The Belligerents better. (I was unable, through lack of knowledge to post a link here – not that I’m fielding listeners or trying to co-opt this space for self-promotion.) The song sounds like something that was written in his sleep – an idea more interesting than the tune itself.

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