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.”