One Shot

One Shot (earlier version).
One Shot (single edit).
One Shot (live, 1991).

In December 1990, Bowie and EMI divorced, with mutual recriminations. Bowie groused about what he considered poor promotion of Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine, while EMI pointedly noted that the best-charting Bowie album of the past half-decade had been a Rykodisc reissue (ChangesBowie had hit #1 in the UK the past March). Bowie’s world tour in 1990 did little to promote any EMI record. Now Bowie was offering them another Tin Machine album, and one with such enticements as “Stateside” and “A Big Hurt.” EMI passed; Bowie split.

Though he’d loved to complain about his labels, Bowie had been built, in part, by RCA and EMI, by their worldwide sales channels, their sacks of promotional dollars. The labels had been irritated about putting out a Low or a Tin Machine, but they still bought trade ads and in-store promo material for them, they still made the records available for someone in Kankakee to buy, they still had pushed them on the radio, if indifferently. If clueless and occasionally corrupt, the dinosaur labels that had released the bulk of Bowie’s oeuvre had provided a level of patronage that’s inconceivable for a musician of Bowie’s bent today. Even Bowie would never have its like again—he spent the Nineties as a free agent, jumping from label to label, sometimes going it alone, always on the hustle, and so offering a preview of the lot of the average pro musician in 2012.

So in 1991, for the first time in nearly 25 years, Bowie didn’t have a record deal, and all he had to sell was a waning commercial reputation and some promo mixes of Tin Machine II. His back catalog, having been freshly licensed off, couldn’t be used as bait. So amidst filming The Linguini Incident and an episode of Dream On (the latter had one of Bowie’s best camp performances), Bowie wearily flogged TMII to a number of labels.

Around March 1991, he found a taker. Victory Music was the first-ever US-based label launched by a Japanese company, the electronics giant JVC. With former Atlantic Records exec Phil Carson hired to run it, Victory pursued a cut-rate strategy of picking up “classic rock” icons past their prime. Hence its first signings: Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Tin Machine. (Victory would soon sign Yes and Paul Rodgers, then mercifully expired around 1994).

As Tin Machine II would be Victory’s first big release, the label wanted the Machine back in the studio to shine up the record and to cut another prospective single. Unfortunately, these sessions were run by the albatross of Bowie producers, Hugh Padgham. Padgham had a career of making smashes for other pop stars but for Bowie, for whatever karmic reasons, he produced Tonight and “One Shot.”

If “Goodbye Mr. Ed” was Tin Machine in their best light, “One Shot” was hard evidence of why they needed to die. It’s an airless box of a record. To be fair, the band is merely dull here, with Padgham’s production doing them no favors. Bowie was the main villain of the piece, offering a garish, grating vocal in the service of a thuggish, cliche-strewn lyric (“ten dollars tore us apart…one shot put her away“: there’s livelier writing on James Patterson book jacket copy).

Ian MacDonald once said that a tell of when Lennon and McCartney were slumming as lyricists was when they sang about buying their girlfriends jewels, and there’s something analogous in Bowie’s writing in this period—when inspiration falters, some girl gets smacked around. Call it Bowie working out some mid-life frustrations, channeling a stillborn character that he could never realize, or attempting another spavined roundabout critique of domestic violence. The cumulative effect of these songs was a general sourness, a coarseness; they had the stink of a cheap fantasy, third-hand caricature.

The lyric, a meager thing dragged out across two verses and three bridges (Bowie repeats all of his stanzas to pad out the song), contrasts a hard-knock couple locked in some firetrap of their own devising with a softer dreamworld—their recollected former life or how society sees them from the outside (the bridges: “look out on a green world/windows and wives“). But Bowie’s writing is so vague here, using the emptiest of lines to hit emotional peaks, that when the guy eventually shoots his wife (or as Bowie sings it, “put her ah-way-uh-hey-hey!“) the song offers nothing. No remorse, no anger, no disgust, not even would-be badassery. It’s a paper doll killing another paper doll, but here the dollmaker thinks it has pathos.

Rock & roll lyrics often use minimal language to sound emotional truths, with the cliche, when deployed well, serving as a narrative twist or a grace note, an undermined joke. Bowie’s lyric here can’t even rise to the level of a film noir cliche, as is the apparent intent. He rhymes “meanest” with “pieces”; the dead wife was a “spitfire” who gave him “hot love” (was poor Marc Bolan exhumed for this thing?) Bowie’s vocal (double-tracked an octave apart) generally worsens his lines—he gives an empty-shell bravado to the title line, while there’s a constipated straining to hit the high notes in the third verse. On stage, Bowie acted as though “One Shot” was a cover whose lyric he was recalling while he was singing it, much to his frustration.

The band first cut “One Shot” during the 1989 Sydney sessions for TM II, then revised the track with Padgham in Los Angeles. The earlier versions of the track have close to the final lyric, but are taken at a slower tempo and set in a different key, with Gabrels trying out various guitar tones and solos. To be fair to Padgham and the Machine, the final version and mix at least are passable, with some structural variations added—the vocal-and-drums-only third verse; the change of lyric for the third bridge repeat.

There are a few things in its favor. Gabrels’ guitar solo, which Tony Sales described as “smooth, sax-like,” has a nice melodic arc to it. (That said, Gabrels erases any accrued goodwill with 56 bars worth of skronk soloing in the outro, which was trimmed by a minute in the single edit.) The vocal harmonies in the intro and chorus show how much an undeveloped aspect of the Machine that was—Bowie never deployed the Sales brothers well as singers, whether as straight support or as the goon chorus of Iggy Pop’s “Success.” And the minor-key bridges, with Bowie’s softly ascending phrases and Gabrels’ guitar ostinato, serve as respites to the hectoring verses.

Still, after all of the bluster about Tin Machine, about how radical they were, how hard they pushed an audience, how uncontrollable a force they were, how they were a knives-out democracy who bloodied Bowie but got him out of the Eighties, here Bowie is in March 1991, back with Hugh Padgham, grinding out tepid, sour corporate rock. Which lacked even the comfort of sales, as TMII flopped. It’s as though Bowie had fallen into a wormhole and found himself in 1986, grubbing again for radio play, trying to seem “relevant” by being vulgar, making an Eddie Money gangster record. (There’s a dated pop sound to the final mix (it slightly jars with the rest of TM II) with Hunt Sales’ snare suddenly sounding like Phil Collins’.)

Consider the world that “One Shot” was sent into: Nevermind about to be released, Slanted & Enchanted and Loveless and Select Ambient Works and The Chronic about to write the grammar of the new decade, the pop charts alive with clatter and sparks. Some of Bowie’s contemporaries were woken up. Neil Young was doing feedback concertos to rival Sonic Youth; Bob Dylan was holed up in his garage taping old murder ballads; even the Stones put out a half-decent Gulf War protest single. Where was Bowie? Making tatty proof that he’d lost the plot. One of Bowie’s most aesthetically bankrupt records, “One Shot” was the dead-end that he’d banged on about in his lyric.

Recorded March 1991, A&M Studios, Los Angeles (the earlier versions likely came from the Sydney sessions in late 1989 and possibly from various 1990 sessions). Released as TM II‘s third single in Germany, Japan and Australia (there was only a promo single released in the US).

Top: the managing general partner of the Texas Rangers contemplates an unimaginable future, C-SPAN interview, 11 June 1991.

23 Responses to One Shot

  1. Maj says:

    Okay….the lyrics are bad and the production mediocre (doesn’t sound like a band much) but I’d argue that the melody is at least memorable. I think it’s one of the better songs on the record. Not quite Baby Universal or Mr. Ed but definitely better than Big Hurt or You Can’t Talk.

    If you put this song in the context of the music coming out at the same time it definitely loses but in the context of Tin Machine…there’s been worse.

  2. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Good call on “Highwire.”

  3. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    Where did this misogynistic streak in his lyrics come from? Except for “Repetition”, there’s none of this in his catalogue before Never Let Me Down. Now it seems every third song is about raped prostitutes and murdered girlfriends.

    Seriously, what’s happening?

  4. Momus says:

    Isn’t this song rumoured to be Bowie’s reaction to the news that Angie had secured a book deal to write the kiss-and-tell tome that became (in 1993) Backstage Passes: Life On the Wild Side with David Bowie?

  5. V. De Lay says:

    One shot…and the track bursts into flames. Fabulously eviscerating review.

  6. Roman says:

    They ,made a big budget (by TM standards) video for this. All black and white and moody.
    And I like the song and reckon it would’ve been a bigger hit than YBIRR if he’d gone with it as the lead single, as originally intended.

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Speaking of the video, did you catch the “lipstick smear” quotation from Boys Keep Swinging? (It’s also quoted in the clips for China Girl and later on in Jump They Say – as well as in the Serious Moonlight performance of Rebel Rebel, during “Your face is a mess…”)

  7. Diamond Duke says:

    I’m afraid I must offer the voice of dissent here: This is actually one of my favorite Tin Machine tracks. Yeah, it’s a pretty meat-and-potatoes hard-rock number, but so what? I guess musically you could call it the missing link between Foreigner and Suede. (And of course, the latter band’s singer Brett Anderson admitted outright to Bowie that he outright ripped off his famous octave-doubling vocal trick!) And anyways, just ’cause I dig Scott Walker and Lou Reed doesn’t mean I can’t be partial to more straight-up no-frills FM rawk. (I also dig that snarling, distorted wah-wah intro from Reeves, which also kind of wrongfoots the listener rhythmically – a la the Beatles’ I Want To Hold Your Hand – until Hunt’s drums kick in.)

    And although I may be very lonely in my opinion, I think it’s rather compelling lyrically as well. A couple weeks ago, I was watching an episode of a true-crime series called Final Witness on ABC, where each episode deals with a horrible murder and the story is told from the viewpoint of the victim. And one time, I caught an episode about this young couple with a fraught personal history who lived in New Orleans’ French Quarter:

    One of the people who was interviewed for this episode was a friend of the couple’s who sadly described their relationship as “graveyard love” – a relationship so intense that one person has to die before they can separate. And for some reason, my mind drifted towards Tin Machine’s One Shot. (“Hot love is the dearest / No money can buy”) Quite simply, this is a rock ‘n’ roll “graveyard love” song. Misogyny has little if anything to do with it – certainly not on the level of creative intent.

    There is a strong sense that the catalyst for the final destructive act is something petty and trivial, some final straw (financial, one would assume) which finally breaks the proverbial camel’s back. (“Then nothing meant nothing / Ten dollars tore us apart”) But there is also the sense that the trigger which provokes the man to murder could have been anything at all. (“You threw me the pieces / I started the fire”)

    A truly underrated song, and one which I can tell from the above comments is indeed very much undervalued. Musically, it can hardly be said to represent Bowie at his most innovative. And granted, these are some of Bowie’s simplest, most artless lyrics. But they are nonetheless effective in conveying a sense of tragedy and waste – however callously and dispassionately it sometimes comes across. (“Hey-hey…”)

  8. Jeremy says:

    Is this it for Tin Machine now? Are we there yet?

  9. Mike F says:

    Championing “Mr. Ed” over “One Shot” is like championing Spain’s economy over Greece’s. It’s pointless, the smart money is looking elsewhere.

  10. jopasso says:

    Well then.
    So what do we have finally in TMII?
    4 great songs
    3 average songs
    the remaining, crap songs.

    In fact, the ratio is only slightly smaller than in most of his albums.

    In my opinion the thing is, you want to play the TM joke? Well, one album is enough.
    Put the best songs you have demoed, produce and mix it properly, and you’ll deliver a 10 song kick-ass album.
    Easy to say, I know

    • David L says:

      Here’s how I think it breaks down:
      Very good songs: Baby Universal, Shopping for Girls, Mr. Ed
      Pretty good songs: One Shot, Amlapura, Betty Wrong
      Songs that tried mightily but didn’t work: You Belong in R&R; If There is Something
      Goofs that didn’t quite work either: Big Hurt, You Can’t Talk
      Songs that Threaten to destroy all of Civilization by their mere existence: I’m Sorry, Stateside

      • tin man says:

        So so overstated David L; try to listen to “Sorry” or “Stateside” without Bowie in the landscape… those two songs are good tunes & as i’ve already wrote it a 1000 times, Hunt’s voice is convincing as it is a fantastic R’n’B voice!
        Hunt must be the white Samuel David Moore.
        Concerning Stateside, the way he plays when singing his tune makes me think he’s such a wonderful musician. I also do like a lot his latest project, The Hunt Sales Memorial… this is not innovative but i don’t care cos it’s true music for real people.

      • I would move Amlapura up to the Very Good list and add I Can’t Read. I would drop One Shot from Pretty Good and swap in Prisoner of Love and Baby Can Dance and perhaps Bus Stop. The rest can stand.

  11. david says:

    Its interesting because although TM ii was unleashed onto a world that heralded Nirvana and REM, in the UK Bowie clones Suede were about to hit the vanguard,there was a hark by to the glory days of glam that was Stay by Shakespeare’s Sister, which was #1 for what seemed like eons and Blur released Girls and Boys-an almost paint by numbers Bowie circa Berlin song. It felt like there was a certain revisionist affection for the pre 80’s TM David permeating, and I think it really re-energized him, shook him out of his doldrums and gave him a certain confidence back in himself and his legacy.

  12. Tin Man says:

    “One Shot”… Tony Sales in a 2008 interview: “One Shot” was definitely a favourite of mine & “Sorry”, “Stateside” was great too. “Shopping for Girls” was quite poignant from an experience that Reeves’s wife had as a journalist when she was covering a story on prostitution in India & that was reflected in the lyrics of the song. The themes that Tin Machine were talking about involved some heavy messages socially. I think for that reason, the band should have made their mark and it was my favourite project of my career.
    (taken from the text & interview of both Sales Bros. by Stephanie Lynne Thorburn, “The Sales Brothers-In Their Own Words”)

  13. David L says:

    Couldn’t one interpret the song in another way — I always thought it was about a woman either shooting herself with drugs or literally shooting herself in order to escape a suffocating marriage or a lifeless suburban existence. Never thought it was “Hey Joe” told from a different perspective, and the lyrics are vague enough to allow another interpretation.

    It’s a pretty good song, probably their best “single”, though Mr. Ed is their best song, I think.

    • Diamond Duke says:

      I never thought of that one. It’s certainly possible. And I think that alternative description can also describe the lyric of She’ll Drive The Big Car from 2003’s Reality… 😉

  14. Tim says:

    Tend to agree with Diamond Duke above–think you were far too hard on this song. Certainly not a masterpiece, but, given the time and place, better than acceptable. Not the best song on TMII, but, for me, in the top three. And, I like the softer side of these lyrics–the very one you quote, in fact (…windows and wives…) as sub-par was always one of my faves…. Oh well. De gustibus non d.

    Looking forward to the rest of the 90s!

  15. I hadn’t heard this song before, and after reading the review I was expecting to hate it, but really, it’s not bad! OK, sure, it wasn’t groundbreaking for 1991, but if this song had come out a few years earlier it might have gotten some play.

  16. Brian says:

    Echoing the above poster, this is pretty okay. It has its moments. Certainly not to me an example of why they needed to die, there are many other better examples for that!

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