A Big Hurt

A Big Hurt.
A Big Hurt (live, 1991).
A Big Hurt (Arsenio Hall Show, 1991).

The only sole Bowie composition on Tin Machine II was the misbegotten “A Big Hurt.” So don’t blame the band for this one: this was apparently Bowie’s long-stewed response to punk. Bowie had missed the height of the UK punk season, as he was living and working in France and Germany then, and he basically stayed clear of London until the Sex Pistols had broken up.* In the following decade, punk hardly informed Bowie’s music, if there’s arguably a trace of it on Scary Monsters. Like country & western, punk was a rare genre that Bowie seemed to have no interest in assimilating.

Now in Tin Machine, Bowie’s partners had been inspired or involved in punk, even if it was in far-diminished forms: Tony Sales had briefly played in a band, Chequered Past, with ex-Pistol Steve Jones, while Reeves Gabrels owed his style to the Mission of Burma and the Gang of Four. So Bowie had an arsenal if he wanted it. “Tin Machine,” a vague attempt at hardcore, had been a first foray, and now “A Big Hurt,” with its stub of a guitar riff, stop-start dynamics (Bowie again aping his beloved Pixies) and a screamed-mumbled vocal, went full-tilt.

The Machine carried it off fairly well—the guitar/kick drum sparring in the chorus, Hunt Sales’ Benzedrine-paced drumming (the tempo was even faster live), a suitably tasteless Gabrels solo. It’s Bowie who wound up with egg on his face, whether for his hoarsely shrieked verses, his crap lyric (inspirational couplet: “I’m a believer/you’re the sex receiver“) or his awful phrasing (the way Bowie belches out “big HURT”). As with “Stateside,” a modestly-interesting bridge serves as distraction or compensation—not enough in either case.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, Studios 301, Sydney. A version recorded by the BBC was issued in October 1991 as a B-side of the 12″ “Baby Universal.” Played throughout the “It’s My Life” tour, 1991-92.

* Not so poor Mick Ronson, who in 1976 went out to Oxford Circus dressed in his glam gear, only to be ridiculed by the punk kids.

Top: Joey Harrison, “New Orleans buskers, 1990.”

19 Responses to A Big Hurt

  1. Diamond Duke says:

    A piece of wreckage from a mid-air collision between the Pixies and Guns N’ Roses? Or simply His Royal Dameship experiencing a whopping bout of “middle age crazy”? You be the judge! 😉

    OK, in all seriousness, now…In addition to being a major Pixies fan, Bowie also had a great deal of admiration for Guns N’ Roses at the time of Tin Machine. (As I pointed out in an earlier post, he’s known Slash since the latter was a little kid, having dated his mother when she designed his costumes for The Man Who Fell To Earth). And I must say that, lyrically, A Big Hurt sounds a bit like Bowie’s attempt at using the influence of Black Francis to subvert Axl’s bratty misogyny. (And as much of a fan of GN’R as I am, I do have to acknowledge this unfortunate lyrical strain.) Musically, the song is kind of a doppelganger to the thrashier, angrier numbers from the Use Your Illusion albums (which came out that same year).

    Granted, an all-out thrash/punk/metal assault doesn’t really play to Bowie’s true strengths, and the song has virtually nil in the way of true staying power. But it is quite the eyebrow-raiser on first listen, and the lyrics are even zanier! (In addition to the aforementioned “I’m a believer / You’re the sex receiver” couplet, there’s the immortal “Even a glass eye in a duck’s ass can see that!” and the out-of-nowhere WTF?! “And here come the Indians / Whoo-whoo!”)

    (BTW, apropos of nothing…
    Bowie first made the acquaintance of Axl and GN’R while visiting the set of the Sweet Child O’ Mine video, where he reportedly made the mistake of getting a little too flirtatious with Erin Everly, who was Axl’s girlfriend at the time! Axl being Axl, he took rather violent exception to this and threw a punch or two Bowie’s way and had him thrown off the set. However, the two later patched things up and Bowie even apologized to Axl. Later on, when GN’R was opening for the Rolling Stones in LA in 1989, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton came up to Axl and pressed him for details on what exactly went down between them. Axl told them the story, and – knowing Bowie very well – the two older rockers were positively howling with laughter…)

  2. Maj says:

    This song makes me wanna give Bowie a hug. While it’s not completely bad, I’m pretty sure I won’t listen to it again any time soon.

  3. david says:

    the most execrable dirge, really awful in every way and to think at the time Bowie was touting it as his favourite track on the album. You are right when you say no excuses. I think he tried to reapproach the same godawfull din when he wrote the title track for Reality, which to my mind is another lamentable turd, but we still have that joy to come.

    This, plus the last three songs make four duff tracks in a row-its like he lost the plot middway through making the album.

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Regarding the title track from Reality, I’m afraid I must beg to differ with you, david. That, in my humble opinion, is the point where Bowie finally achieves a mastery of a particular sort of loosely raucous hard rock style that he had been working towards (on and off) since Dancing With The Big Boys from Tonight, and which he had only partially and fitfully achieved on Never Let Me Down and during the Tin Machine years. (BTW, to my mind, another way of defining Reality would be: Never Let Me Down done right! ;)) Too bad he only delivered on it right at what now appears to be the endpoint of his recording career… 😦

      A Big Hurt, on the other hand…doesn’t quite nail its target the way it was intended. It stomps around and makes an amusing racket for a while, but that is all…

      (BTW, is anyone familiar with a song entitled The Big Hurt? It was a hit for Toni Fisher in 1959 – written by her husband Wayne Shanklin – and it was covered by Bowie’s idol Scott Walker on his 1967 solo debut. I’m not necessarily saying that’s the connection, but I just thought I’d point it out. :D)

    • Roman says:

      After reading David’s post I suddenly remember Bowie touting this as his favourite song back in ’91. And for a brief while I’d assumed that this would mean I would grow to love it – in the same way that nearly all my favourite Bowie tracks – Sweet Thing, StoS, etc – were disliked by me when I’d first heard them. But it never happened with Big Hurt. Though I did try – refusing to skip it when every iota of my being wanted to skip forward.

      TMII really is a strange album. For me it has a bunch of songs that are as good as his 70’s/early 80’s work. And then a cluster of dirge that would be rejected out of hand for even Tonight and NLMD. To me TMII is the melody of his midlife crisis.

  4. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    I think Punk was like New Wave – it was a movement Bowie had influenced too much for him to be able to take part in it. He dabbled in both on Scary Monsters and then left for more commercial pastures on Let’s Dance.

  5. Remco says:

    Uhm….this is actually my favourite song on the entire album.

  6. MC says:

    I may be crazy, but I rather like it too. For me, it always seemed a cock-rock parody a la Pretty Thing on TM1, except mercifully shorter. The daft lyrics sound like their composer took a severe blow to the noggin before setting them on paper. (Btw, Chris, did the first-take rule apply to some of the lyrics for this album as well?)

    Of course, this track is where the album’s sequencing becomes truly bewildering, coming as it does between Shopping For Girls and the lugubrious Sorry. It always seemed to me that this was where Bowie was trying to prove the Machine’s versatility, perhaps misguidedly.

  7. Momus says:

    The lyric to Big Hurt would make a lot more sense if the word “cock” replaced “hurt”.

    Something is going on in this song — as in a lot of the Tin Machine material — which I’d call the petulantly defiant enjoyment of masculinity. This is happening at a time both when Bowie is in something of a midlife crisis himself, and when masculinity as an idea is in crisis, assailed by feminism, deconstruction and the anti-sexism of 1980s political correctness.

    A fightback begins, a new masculinism: it’s in 1990 that Robert Bly’s Iron John is published, for example, and becomes a bestseller. Tin Machine is Bowie’s Iron John.

  8. NiggyTardust says:

    Speaking of Hurt, will NIN/Bowie tour (and the songs Reptile and Hurt) be covered here when the time comes?

  9. Mike F says:

    Why did the US government use waterboarding? All they had to do was play this song over and over. Detainees would have done anything to make it stop.

  10. MC says:

    Just wanted to add something I remembered today: if memory serves, A Big Hurt was mooted at one point as the title for the 2nd TM album. Not sure what to make of that, except to say DB and company probably made the right choice.

  11. Jaf says:

    Never heard this song and don’t think I want to. I just wanted to counter the Mick Ronson story – I think it’s made up, Ronson was still a hero to the punks in ’76 and I doubt very much he’d have been ridiculed. It sounds like the equally made up story about Rotten slamming the door of Seditionaries in Mick Jagger’s face.

    Still absolutely loving this blog btw

    • col1234 says:

      the story is from Ronson’s wife, Suzy, I believe. I’ll track down the source–maybe Spitz’s bio. The punks in question were just jerky teenagers on the street, not anyone who would’ve known who Ronno was.

  12. s.t. says:

    Wow, am I the only one who likes this track? It’s Tin Machine in a nutshell: ill considered but fun. If only the rest of their stuff was this gonzo.

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