Tin Machine II at 30

Tin Machine II, released thirty years ago today, is a strange thing to commemorate. You may recall that it got little respect at the time of its release (its legendary Melody Maker pan ended with telling Bowie to “sit down man: you’re a fucking disgrace”). Time hasn’t been much kinder to it, though I have seen reappraisals here and there, and more of late.

Part of its oddness is the album’s quasi-bootleg status for much of the 21st Century—it was out of print for well over a decade and who actually controls the rights to it at present remains rather mysterious. The fact that a Dutch label was apparently able to do a legitimate reissue last year without Reeves Gabrels or even the Bowie estate knowing beforehand speaks volumes. And TMII remains a fugitive from the streaming age—it’s not on Spotify nor anywhere else, I believe.

Was Bowie, in his later years, okay with its twilight existence as a used record store CD staple and unauthorized YouTube upload? After all, he did a massive securitization deal in the ’90s to buy out Tony Defries’ share of his music, and after the MainMan debacles of the mid-’70s, he’d watched his finances and copyrights like a hawk. You’d think if securing Tin Machine II had been important to him, he would’ve put his financial adviser Bill Zysblat on the case at some point. Instead an album that he released in 1991 fell out of his hands, and he didn’t seem too bothered by it.

Not just his hands. Tin Machine II was the work of a four-person partnership: each band member owning a piece of it. Since Bowie’s old label EMI wasn’t interested in releasing the record, the band wound up going with Victory, an ill-fated Japanese startup label whose collapse in 1994 began TMII‘s long sojourn in the wilderness. Perhaps this is how to view Bowie’s perspective on TMII—he truly did consider it to be a joint project, to the point of having the drummer sing two tracks, and thus when the album fell into eclipse, he wrote off his losses and got on with things, much as he did with films like The Linguini Incident from the same era.

And yet. At the time, he really had committed to the band and the album. For much of August 1991 to February 1992, Bowie all but lived on the road with Tin Machine, playing small venues he’d never do again—it’s still wild to me that Tin Machine played Toad’s Place and The Sting in Connecticut in fall 1991: clubs where I used to go see 24-7 Spyz and Men and Volts as a teenager.

TM II took ages to assemble—for Bowie albums, only The Next Day would have a longer genesis. “Baby Universal” dated to 1988, to the start of Bowie and Gabrels’ songwriting collaboration (and the Roxy Music cover was a holdover from the first Tin Machine sessions). Much of it was tracked in Australia in fall 1989, and then, due to Bowie spending much of 1990 on the Sound + Vision tour, it was overdubbed around the world—in Miami; at Pete Townshend’s Eel Pie Studios in Twickenham; in LA in the spring of 1991. Gabrels was the one who held the album together, sometimes flying to wherever Bowie was on tour to get in a few days’ work, and in the process he made the album into a temple of guitar overdubs, especially on tracks like “You Belong in Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

Because of this, TMII isn’t the most unified of records, apart from having a sort-of Pacific travelogue theme—“Amlapura,” “Shopping For Girls,” “Hammerhead,” the surfer outtakes “Exodus” and “Needles on the Beach.” You hear on it a band forging a more unified sound than on the first record, which was a hard battle for supremacy (the drums often won)—they’re slicker, but at least they’re listening to each other more. It’s Bowie processing some recent influences—the Pixies homage “A Big Hurt,” for instance (I’ve come to like the latter far more than when I first wrote about it, which was in the spirit of Tom Hibbert). And there’s the two Hunt Sales songs, the garrulous appendix to the Bowie catalog.

What TMII sounds like to me now, upon a fresh listen, is as the middle piece of a trilogy that would never be completed (& Tony Sales once said a three-LP run was always the plan). It’s a transitory album, moving Tin Machine from their studio improv origins towards being more of a working unit, but it remained in transit. 

The months of touring they put in for TMII makes you wonder if the band, at last working together at length on stage (they had only done a brief promo tour in 1989 for the first album), would wind up in a different place; it’s intriguing to wonder how Tin Machine III, the lost concluding episode, would have sounded. Instead we got for a hasty last word the live LP Oy Vey Baby, which is still out of print.

I won’t make the case for TMII being any sort of forgotten gem. Too many of its tracks don’t work for me, and it was weakened by some late-in-the-day sequencing decisions, such as ditching the hard-nerved “It’s Tough,” apparently in favor of the wearying “If There Is Something” and/or the label-mandated single “One Shot,” in which the band is in self-caricature mode. But it’s no disaster, either, and I think its bad reputation is unmerited. Its highlight, the masterful “Goodbye Mr. Ed,” is as strong as anything Bowie released in the Nineties.

Timing was most of it, as it often was for Bowie. TMII wasn’t what many of Bowie’s fans, fresh from Sound + Vision, wanted from him in the fall of 1991, and it was pitched towards a pop metal audience (Tin Machine even did interviews with RIP, a heavy-metal magazine, in the fall of ’91) at the exact moment when grunge broke. So it withered and died on the LP charts—#23 in the UK, an ignoble #126 in the US—and by mid-1992, Bowie was done with the band. 

Destined to be an orphan, Tin Machine II has now reached middle age. Who knows, maybe it’ll find a home someday.

30 Responses to Tin Machine II at 30

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thirty is not middle-aged!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I have a fondness for this album and it’s a shame that it’s out of print and not even on streaming sites. It would be great for some kind of Tin Machine box to come out, but these rumors about rights or publishing issues don’t make me hopeful about that. I have the same view of TMII as the first TM album: if you trim a few songs off of each one, you end up having a couple of rollicking, fun, enjoyable albums with some stellar songs on each of them. And when they were on fire during some of their live sets, you can really get a sense of what Bowie was going for; the recently streamed Paris ’89 concert was really good.

    • Christine says:

      I recently bought Tin Machine II on vinyl as it is not streamed and am glad I did as I do like some of the songs. But I agree with you that live performances really bring these songs to life so regret never having seen them live. I think that must have been a very exciting experience

  3. PAUL FRASER says:

    As with the first album, if you fade the songs out about 30 seconds earlier, you save lots of the Gabrels squawling guitar solos that make songs outstay their welcome. A bit of judicious editing and this album would be so much stronger. Still love Amlapura, Goodbye and Shopping though.

  4. Phil says:

    I loved Tin Machine at the time, I saw them perform a tiny venue in Newcastle, England. I still rate some of their songs, which is credit to the albums 30 years on. As an 18 tear old at the time (with my new It’s My Life tattoo- thank you Hunt), I thought Bowie was starting to age. Here I am 30 years later, ageing, and pining over Blackstar.

  5. postpunkmonk says:

    This album was perhaps better than my memory of it. I had been a dyed-in-the-wool fan of “Tin Machine.” I felt that Gabrel’s had saved Bowie’s bacon. Still do. It was the rape and murder of “If There Was Something” [my favorite song from “Roxy Music”] that I reacted to so badly, but the truth of the mater was that during the Tin Machine period, I actually collected the band. I have all of the CD singles and even promo CDs of the material!

    “Baby Universal” was far away from the metallic blues of the debut and should have been a real notch in Bowie’s belt at the time and in later years. “Amlapura” was entrancing. Never moreso than on the version that was sung in Indonesian on the B-side of “You Belong In Rock + Roll.” Which was itself, a relatively good tune, if a tad undercoooked. In the post-Never Let Me Down” context, I’ll take undercooked Bowie over the obverse any day!

    As for “Oy Vey, Baby.” my last few listens [years ago, admittedly] have seen the album ramp up the love in ways i could not have imagined at the time of release. When it was viewed as a pariah in the Bowie catalog. I was aching to see Tin Machine during their brief heyday, but they never ventured into the swamps of Florida, I only ever heard two of the songs live. Bowie, of course, highly regarded “I Can’t Read,” so I saw that one on the “Earthling” tour [which, by the way, was in a club]. When I next saw Reeves Gabrels, in 2017 with a transcendentally beautiful set at my local emporium, he favored us with a take of “Bus Stop.”

    • I often wonder why Bowie chose to slaughter ‘If there is Something’ .. It really is without redemption considering the worth of the Roxy original and Bowie’s support of Bryan Ferry over the years (competitors sure, but this was like a gross insult).

      • postpunkmonk says:

        roxymusicsongs – Well, I could also point to his Iggy Pop covers as being like gross insults, and his friendship with James did not immunize him from bad artistic judgement. Im sure Bowie was blindsided by the startling emergence of Roxy Music as if from the head of Zeus but Bowie reacted smartly to this new and daunting competitor by having them open for his Ziggy Stardust tour. Establishing a pecking order with Ferry while also helping build them up with some leakage from his spotlight. It’s best to keep potential rivals close at hand. I can see how “Roxy Music” must have spooked him. Ferry was positioned to do more groundbreaking work than anyone since Lou Reed and the VU six years earlier.

      • My brother to this day defends that Roxy cover! It’s not as awful as Bowie’s rendition of God Only Knows, but I really don’t understand the appeal.

      • postpunk and Phylum, good points all round. I think Bowie’s covers of Iggy’s stuff retains the appeal of the originals – say, ‘China Girl’s’ commercial hook is revealed in the remake; or ‘Red Money’ for ‘Sister Midnight’ (a co-write); but Tin Machine remain for me a willful and intentional destruction of his (Bowie’s) past (including Roxy) and as a result not a very enjoyable listening experience by design.

        As Sick Boy says in ‘Trainspotting’: “No, it’s not bad, but it’s not great either. And in your heart you kind of know that although it sounds all right, it’s actually just shite.”

  6. glenntwo says:

    I do wish I’d seen Tin Machine Live! Perhaps especially at the concert you mention at Toad’s Place, which was for me as well a much frequented venue where I saw local and regional bands (I’m not sure I’m proud to say I saw Blotto there not once but twice).

    But while I bought the TM albums when they came out, I tended to listen to them once or twice and then put them aside. The most memorable thing from this album for me was the cover of “If There Is Something,” because it was a song I loved. The TM cover seemed, at best, unnecessary. I guess you’ve inspired me to listen to this album again soon, but not with high expectations….

  7. Nice to see a new post from you, Chris!

    Rather than a trilogy, I’d prefer a consubstantial Tin Machine trinity…meaning three albums worth of ideas from the band boiled into one.

    I did try to do as much from the T1 and T2 albums. This is my preferred playlist, 45 minutes, all killer, no filler:

    1) Tin Machine
    2) Prisoner of Love
    3) I Can’t Read
    4) Bus Stop
    5) Pretty Thing
    6) Run
    7) Baby Universal
    8) You Belong in Rock n Roll
    9) Amlapura
    10) You Can’t Talk
    11) A Big Hurt
    12) Goodbye Mr. Ed

    …Well, maybe a little bit of fun filer. 🙂

    • Aloysius van Assel says:

      Where is “Shopping For Girls”????

      • Still waiting for an available cashier? I dunno!

        But seriously, I think we all have some TM faves that are a bit polarized among fans overall. I know Chris hates Pretty Thing, for instance, while I think it’s playful trashy fun. Me, I was just never sold on Shopping for Girls.

  8. skholiast says:

    I will go to bat for TM2 as being a lost gem — albeit one encrusted in some considerable dross. It is maddening to not be able to get it streaming — I have a chronological-order whole-career spotify list of favorite tracks with a big gaping hole in the middle of ’91. (Incidentally, I think you also cannot stream Gabrels’ Ulysses on spotify). I sort of see what Chris means about One Shot (“self-caricature”), but the guitar solo alone is a work of art.

  9. I hear Chris about TM2 feeling like the midpoint of a never-completed trilogy, but there’s something about Tin Machine that feels to me unfinishable. I always thought that TM1 was exactly half a great album, the caveat being that the dividing line often ran through the middles of individual songs; it’s telling that fans like Phylum (and me) tend to reassemble their TM playlists from bits of the released oeuvre. And indeed, for me, if Tin Machine has a masterpiece it’s that medley video they put out in advance of the first album: the best parts of most of the songs; a killer sequence and pace; and Bowie’s performance-art ideas all packed in and given a perfect one-time proscenium. The momentum seems to have been mortally wounded by TM2’s delay (though I prefer that intervening Bowie & Belew micro-period to anything by Tin Machine). The evolution between 1 and 2 was from plastic postpunk to plastic classic rock, so the cherry-pickable parts get fewer and farther between…and glenntwo at al., don’t mourn for not having seen them live; I’m sure there was ferocious energy to the few surprise club gigs when they first formed, but by their only full-on tour, around TM2 (when I saw them) they seemed already done with it; the only time I was ever bored (or, god help me, laughed!) with Bowie on stage (though, once again, some pieces worked; Hunt was a phenomenal force and Reeves always fascinates, though they each could’ve been alone in separate booths and sounded as good). Also the only time I met Bowie face to face, but that’s a run-on for another time… 🙂

    • postpunkmonk says:

      That TM1 13 minute [?] highlight video was absolutely critical in getting me to buy the first “Tin Machine” album. I had been very cautious about what Bowie had spent the 80s doing. I loved the first “Cat People” and hated everything else except for “Time Will Crawl,” oddly enough. But I thought that the “Tin Machine Video Album” was a brilliant marketing move to re-sell Bowie to his now wary fans. Excerpts of nine of its songs left little doubt in my mind. There was nothing in its running time that gave me pause. All of the decadence of the Phil Collins Years® had been clearly purged.

  10. bennyk777 says:

    I think TM 1 is mostly a brilliant album, probably two songs on it more than there needed to be, which drags it out and down a bit, but the good stuff is just about as good as most of Bowies’ other work. It has a great sound to it as well. TM 2 I see no point in at all. I just cannot find anything to like about it, nothing on it catches my attention.

  11. phyllisinpigtails says:

    tin machine. well. even through the nadir of the 80’s i could still sit through Tonight and moreso NLTMD and enjoy a lot of it while at the same time knowing for someone like Bowie, it just wasnt good enough. but hey there were still those movie singles that showed deep down he still had it and Bowie seemed happy and content. but Tin Machine… i could have put of with some of the music but what really stopped me getting into it was David’s new persona. First time i came close to disliking him as a person. just couldnt stand his Tin Machine interviews, who the f### was he trying to be? even when i watch the interviews now, it seems like a completely different person. thank goodness for the 90’s.
    going back after his resurrection, i can now appreciate of a handful of the songs on TM I and II.

  12. I really like this album. It feels like the blueprint for 90s Bowie. His vocals, the generally claustrophobic production, the orientation toward alternative rock (while TM1 was more hard rock), the partnership with Gabrels… it would all be developed more on Black tie white noise, Outside and Earthling.

    The whole album is solid IMO, call me crazy, but it’s a 8/10 ot at least 7.5. I like or love every track, except the ones Sales sing. Amlapura and Shopping for Girls are favourites, I’m glad he did the later in Earthling era, I wish he had done Amlapura again too. Also I think since Bowie ashes were thorwn there, it elevates a lot of the meaning of the song, it kind of foreshadows

    I was shocked with the vinyl release. If those obscure dudes (I imagine some neonoir mafia types holding the TM2 rights they stole from a bar in Hong Kong in a safe box in the back of a strip club) can release the vinyl, why can’t they put it on streaming?

    Anyway thanks for the entry, 90s is one of my fav eras of Bowie to read about, like a king trying to recclaim his kingdom, and this blog gives plenty of attention to it

  13. William Byron says:

    I’ve always wondered of an alternate universe where Bowie slightly tilted TM to where it was just the title of another solo album while keeping the same album cover and keeping Reeves and the Sales Brothers prominent in his promotion of this “era”.

    I wonder that because I wonder if that tilt would make it more psychologically accessible to the press and fans alike that we might be heralding Bowie’s genre-jumping in the late 80s’ instead of lamenting a man lost and re-finding himself (something we could argue Bowie did during successful periods as well as unsuccessful ones), and with TMII, if you remove Hunt’s songs and still title it a Bowie album, you’ve got a few very strong songs. Just always something I thought about.

  14. Take off ‘Betty Wrong’, ‘Stateside’ and ‘Sorry’ and it’s an excellent album.

  15. Coagulopath says:

    Two is greater than One. “Baby Universal” and “Goodbye Mr Ed” are gems – some of his best songs through the period.

    While I’m sure Bowie took it seriously, many of his decisions look odd – as though he’s trying to bury the record. Obviously there’s dicks on the cover, but for the first time there’s no connection to the Bowie brand anywhere. This is his only LP cover (until Blackstar) that doesn’t feature his face, and the back side doesn’t even have the word “Bowie”.

    Even the title’s drab and anonymous. Albums, like movies, tend to live in their predecessor’s shadow when they’re called II (although there are counterexamples, like Meat Loaf and Led Zeppelin), and it’s not like the first Tin Machine set the world on fire. Tin Machine II has the same level of pizzazz as Dudley Do-Right II.

  16. Wafiti says:

    I do not know anything specifically about this album’s case, but something I’ve heard from a reliable source (wrt licensing for home video/streaming releases) is that Victor Entertainment (parents of the defunct Victory) has a reputation for charging absurd amounts to use recordings they own. Could upcharging on a limited edition release cover that cost, or would that recent release be in part a labor of love?

    That its a shared project w Gabrels and the Saleses might’ve played a part in Bowie’s reluctance to reissue this in life. The critical/commercial shellacking was one side, the band’s internal fraying over inner demons was another. And this time there’s no mobbish ex-manager without direct creative input that just needs to be bought out once and for all.

    External factors aside, a shame this will not get revisited/expanded on any time soon. Some fine work by the questionable quartet, as many here have noted. A shame Goodbye Mr. Ed never was resurrected during his roadloving decade that was the mid ’90s-mid ’00s.

  17. bigfg says:

    I just always liked Shopping For Girls. Also, does anyone else think Nolan Cook (the Residents’ current guitarist) owes a lot to Reeves Gabrels?

  18. Anonymous says:

    I found this CD at a music store in the punch out bin about 20 years ago. It was a delight because, as a Bowie fan, I didn’t know that it existed. You Belong In Rock N Roll is probably my favorite track.

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