Prisoner of Love

June 13, 2012

Prisoner of Love.
Prisoner of Love (video).
Prisoner of Love (live, 1989).

The only group songwriting effort on Tin Machine, apart from the band’s theme song, is “Prisoner of Love,” in which Bowie, Reeves Gabrels and the Saleses write a Iggy Pop song, with Bowie serving as Pop’s stand-in. Pop’s absence, his growing estrangement from Bowie, is the context of Tin Machine. It’s not only that songs like “Prisoner,” “Heaven’s In Here” and “Run” seem intended for his voice and/or reference Pop’s work (at the end of “Prisoner,” Bowie recycles the Allen Ginsberg Howl quote that Pop had used on “Little Miss Emperor”). Tin Machine itself seemed to be Bowie reassembling Pop in plural, separating the wild man primitivist (Hunt Sales) from the underground American intellectual (Gabrels).

Pop had been a muse, a collaborator, a friend to Bowie, and in the Eighties, he had been a lifeline: a defiant personality ready to do battle with the world no matter how much shit was thrown at him. Global fame and wealth had made Bowie empty, had made him doubt the value of work, a belief that had kept him going even when he was most estranged from humanity. Pop, even in his most pathetic hours, retained a belief in redemption via making art. Having never really succeeded, Pop had no need to please anyone and he treated whatever success that he came across as a private joke.

Bowie and Pop’s fortunes finally shifted in the late Eighties. A year after Bowie released Tin Machine to modest sales and ridicule, Pop made what would be the best-selling record of his life: Brick by Brick. In the album Pop wanders through a flyblown America; he’s a ridiculous, dissolute figure who’s the closest thing that the country has left to nobility. Its best tracks (“Home,” “Candy,Neon Forest“) take solace in lust and wisecracks, or the idea of home as being the one right they can’t strip away from you. Pop’s political asides— “America takes drugs in psychic defense,” “this whole country’s scared of failure“—had a hard-won beat wisdom, unlike Bowie’s splenetic rants on Tin Machine.

And although Brick by Brick, produced by Don Was, is crammed with celebrity muso cameos, from Slash to Waddy Wachtel, Pop seems relaxed, hardly bothered by the sudden opulence. It’s like a tramp kicking back in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, saying yeah, this works. The joy of the early Nineties was that the oddballs who had been knocking around for a while, the Iggy Pops and Kate Piersons, the Bob Moulds and David Lowerys, the Michael Stipes and Sinead O’Connors, suddenly were everywhere, on the radio and TV, as if the world had finally come around to their perspectives.

So “Prisoner of Love” could’ve been on Brick by Brick, and Pop may have sung it better than Bowie. That said, “Prisoner” is one of the finest tracks on Tin Machine, with a sense of melancholy and passion, even a grandeur in the chorus. Bowie’s lyric seems crafted to be sung for once—the repeating ell and vee sounds in the first verse (“whatever it takes…I’ve believed I belonged to you for a long time“), or the gently arcing vocal line in the bridge, where, after hitting a high G (‘don’t be“) Bowie gracefully sinks to an octave below (“fools who“). The lyric, Bowie later said, was a pledge to his new lover Melissa Hurley, a woman who was far younger and less jaded than he (“just stay square“), though with typical Bowie irony the title also references Jean Genet’s last work— Genet’s ode to Palestinian guerrillas and to the concept of perpetual revolution, written as Genet was dying.* (It’s also a James Brown reference.)

Gabrels and Kevin Armstrong made the track, whether Armstrong’s barrages of rhythm guitar in the verses that harry Bowie’s vocal melody, or Gabrels serving as a one-man guitar orchestra: the Hank Marvin-style twanging opening riff; the way Gabrels becomes a string section in the bridge and chorus; the “chimes” sound that Gabrels got by using a plectrum between the trapeze tailpiece and bridge of an old Gretsch; the weeping lines he plays as the song fades. On a record so generally devoted to dominance and bluster, it’s a masterful, gorgeous collective performance.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. “Prisoner” was released as the album’s third single in October 1989 (EMI MT 76 c/w live versions of “Baby Can Dance” and “Crack City”): it went nowhere.

* The lyric has some groaners, too, of course: “like a sermon on blues guitar, love walked into town.” I’d like to think Bowie was mocking Bono here.

Top: Gundula Schulze Eldowy, “Berlin, 1987.”

Sacrifice Yourself

June 11, 2012

Sacrifice Yourself.
Sacrifice Yourself (live, 1991).

Although written by Bowie and the Sales brothers, “Sacrifice Yourself” is Reeves Gabrels’ show, the latter offering a performance as loud as it’s merciless and unprincipled. Given a slightly unusual chord structure* and a punishing tempo to work with, Gabrels begins by imitating an air-raid siren (veering from left to right speaker); he defaces the opening guitar riff with a wailing overdub, mocks Bowie’s two-note chorus melody with a set of exuberant guitar lines and, two minutes in, knocks the track down and throttles its life out.

Beneath the din (Hunt Sales fills whatever few spaces Gabrels has left open) is a three-verse Bowie lyric with some affinities to “I Can’t Read,” as its subject is a similar spent-out artist figure who’s become respectable, rich and empty, one who’s fumbling around for any sort of inspiration—God, or an eroticized death—which the chorus suggests isn’t worth it. Surprise yourself: keep yourself alive isn’t the most inspirational wisdom, but in a diminished, broken time as the Tin Machine period, it’s some form of solace. The last verse ends with a quote from “Suffragette City” and a collective moan.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. While it was initially downplayed—“Sacrifice Yourself” didn’t make the LP’s sequencing and was issued as a B-side to “Under the God”—it became a favorite of Tin Machine’s live sets.

* As “Sacrifice Yourself” is in A major, the B chord (II) here ought to be a B minor chord (ii). Instead, by becoming a major chord, B serves as the secondary dominant: the V chord of A major’s V chord (E, in this case). So much of the song, in both verse and chorus, is a struggle between secondary dominant and dominant (B and E): essentially a war between two equally-matched powers.

Top: Charles Peterson, “Nirvana, Bainbridge Island, 1988.”

Pretty Thing

June 6, 2012

Pretty Thing.
Pretty Thing (video, fragment).

A few throwaway album tracks find Tin Machine in its most viable conception, of being a cracked imitation of a hard rock band. “Pretty Thing” is often knocked as being crass, tuneless filler (which it is), but it’s also a compressed set of musical parodies. Start with Bowie’s lyric, which is so crude and laddish (“something getting hard when you rock it up,” “tie you down, pretend you’re Madonna“*) that it seems like a mocking attempt to cobble together verses from half-remembered Winger or Motley Crue come-on lines, though here sung by Bowie in a nasal, whining tone that’s counter-erotic.

There are also various blunt references to past Bowie glories: “sweet thing” and of course, “Oh! You Pretty Things.” The chorus even begins with the title line of the latter, though where in “Oh! You Pretty Things” Bowie had begun on a high A note and grandly plummeted down an octave to finish the phrase, in “Pretty Thing” it’s a dud, an aborted melody, with Bowie starting on a G#, falling to C# (on “you”) but then pulling back to the original G# to end the phrase, as though he’s lost his nerve or just doesn’t give a damn anymore.

You can find parody even in the song’s harmonic structure: it’s set in F# minor with occasional feints to the relative major, A, which is a standard heavy-metal progression (e.g., Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”). “Pretty Thing” soon becomes so unstable, so barely-there as an actual conception, that it feels as though it’s constantly about to be consumed by its players: take how the four-bar raveups ram against Bowie’s spindly verse lines (it’s yet another reference, here to the stop-start structure of the Pretty Things’ “Don’t Bring Me Down”).

Finally, in the solo section, “Pretty Thing” implodes. There’s a four-bar Reeves Gabrels skydiving solo guitar line and then, out of nowhere, a miniature six-bar Mod soul track gets wedged in, with Kevin Armstrong on Hammond organ. Gabrels kills that interlude off with a bludgeoning riff that’s better than anything he’s played in the “proper song” so far, and Hunt Sales follows up by doing his best Gene Krupa imitation. While “Pretty Thing” lurches back to life for another round of choruses, the collective damage has been done: it’s become a beaten pulp of itself and expires soon afterward with a final taunting on drums by Hunt.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. The video clip above is the entire Julien Temple-directed sequence of mini-videos for Tin Machine (here’s Part 2), which includes “Working Class Hero” with the Machine wearing tuxedos and “Video Crime” with girl boxers and a dancing monkey.

*A tasteless reference to then-current tabloid stories about Madonna being abused by her husband Sean Penn (including allegedly being tied to a chair). Bowie made it worse by joking about “hanging out with Sean, and he told us a few things, you know what I mean?” in a 1989 interview.

Top:  Lincoln Clarkes, “Elizabeth Mazzoni, London, 1988.”

Under the God

June 4, 2012

Under the God.
Under the God (video).
Under the God (live, 1989).
Under the God (live, 1991).

Bowie wrote “Under the God” about the alleged rise of neo-Nazism in the Eighties, and he took pains to be precisely understood. As he had with “Crack City,” Bowie said he wanted to speak bluntly, without metaphor or high-flown language. He told Melody Maker that “I wanted something that had the same simplistic, naive, radical, laying it down about the rise of a new Nazi so that people could not mistake what the song was about.”

Was neo-Nazism on the rise in 1989, though? Sure, there were the likes of Skrewdriver, a first-generation UK punk band that, under the lead of Ian Stuart Donaldson, eventually aligned itself with the National Front and various white power groups (Donaldson, killed in a car crash in 1993, also co-founded in 1987 “Blood and Honour,” a neo-Nazi/white-power music promotional network). And there was an uptick in West German neo-Nazis in the late Eighties, a movement again abetted by fascist punk groups like Endstuffe (sample lyric: “Dr. Martins, short hair, that’s Aryan, no doubt about it!/Down with mixed-blood, because that doesn’t do the fatherland any good!”).

Still, compared to the fascist gangs of the Twenties and Thirties who took over governments, the neo-Nazis of Thatcher and Helmut Kohl’s era seemed a hapless, marginal lot (although given the current precarious economic state of Europe, one wonders whether they’ll find more receptive soil in the 2010s). As Timothy S. Brown wrote in 2004, “the resulting [skinhead] identity [was] expressed in terms at once threatening and pathetic, full of bravado yet highly pessimistic.” This didn’t mean they were harmless—a number of immigrants were beaten and killed by these thugs—but they lacked the numbers, the dedication or the strategy to build the nightmare neo-fascist dystopia predicted in “Under the God.”

And as with “Crack City,” in “Under the God” the target seems too broad, its anger too justified. How much courage does it take to “speak the truth” about crack dealers, Nazi skinheads (“right-wing dicks in their boiler suits,” “white trash picking up Nazi flags“) or, in “Tin Machine,” “the guy who beats his baby up“? It’s not quite on the same level of audacity as, say, Sinead O’Connor ripping up the pope’s picture on stage on live TV. Further, as the punk movement had been self-policing against fascist skinheads for a decade (see the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” from 1981), “Under the God” seemed both overblown and yesterday’s news.

I agree with Nicholas Pegg that the visceral disgust in Bowie’s vocal seems more self-directed, that where “Crack City” was Bowie lamenting the wasted years of his addiction (still, as he made three or four classic LPs during that period, it wasn’t that wasted), “Under the God” is Bowie rebuking his past Nazi flirtations. There’s also a sense of irritation that rock & roll was being used for anthems and as a messenger service by neo-fascist thugs, particularly as punk, their genre of choice, had descended from the Mod scene that Bowie had grown up in. Taking the verse guitar riff from the Pretty Things’ cover of the bluesman Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would” (which Bowie had covered on Pin-Ups), and so showing that rock & roll is at heart an African-American music, was the subtlest political message in the whole track.

“Under the God” (it was chosen as the lead-off single for Tin Machine, and flopped in both the UK and the US, failing to even chart in the latter) verges into self-parody at times, whether in the cheery repeated “white trash!” backing vocals from the Saleses, or Bowie’s ludicrous singing on lines like “ten steps over the CRAZY CRAZY.” Cheers to Reeves Gabrels, who realized early on that he was playing on a secret Billy Idol track, and turned in a fittingly garish performance—the stepwise descending notes that harry Bowie’s vocal in the bridge; the wagging, mocking tone of his brief solo; the tea-kettle-whistle feedback at the close. The muddy mix didn’t do the track any favors, either; “Under the God” fared far better live—the 1991 performance on the Oy Vey Baby video, for example, is faster, tighter and more convincing than the studio take.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. Released as a single in June 1989 (EMI USA MT 68 c/w “Sacrifice Yourself,” #51 UK).

Top: Taizo, “Prospect Park, 1988.”

Crack City

May 30, 2012

Crack City.
Crack City (live, 1989).
Crack City (live, 1991).
Crack City (live, Oy Vey Baby, 1991).

In December 1977, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones went on holiday to Kingston, Jamaica. Kitted out in their leathers, the two walked from their hotel down to the docks, vaguely in search of the producer Lee Perry’s studio but mainly looking to score drugs. On the streets, they were mocked, called “white pigs” and threatened (“the only reason they didn’t kill us was that they thought we were merchant seaman off the ships,” Strummer later recalled). Shaken, Strummer and Jones spent the rest of their time in Kingston holed up in the Pegasus Hotel, smoking grass and writing songs, one of which, “Safe European Home,” was their self-mocking memoir of the trip.

A punk comes back from holiday (“wherrrre’d you go?” the backing singers keep asking him—it’s like a punk music hall number) and freely admits he was out of his league when he stumbled upon actual Third World poverty. “I went to the place where every white face is an invitation to robbery,” he says, sitting down with relief at his local. He’s happy to be back home, walking the streets in his gear and his sense of contempt, secure in his anti-social privilege. The Clash were never finer then when they rubbished their own legend, as with the London counterpart to “Safe European Home,” “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” where the punk turns up at a reggae show, is upset that the black performers aren’t playing political and insurrectionist numbers (“it was Four Tops all night!“) to rile up the black audience, then turns the blade back on himself and his generation’s own miserable, failed pretensions at revolution.

A decade later, David Bowie, while recording in a luxury resort in the Bahamas, allegedly once walked through a rough part of Nassau. Inspired by the misery, he wrote “Crack City.” “The crack situation down there was just trouble on legs, it was hateful. It may seem like a naive kind of story but it made an impression on me as a writer.”

But while the initial sparks were similar—white British musicians shaken up by encountering a post-colonial Caribbean city—the songs seemed to be from different galaxies. “Safe European Home” had wit, drive and hooks; “Crack City” bluntly nicks from Jimi Hendrix’s version of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” for its riff and shuttling I-IV-I verse chord progression, and features deathless lines like “they’re just a bunch of assholes/with buttholes for their brains” or “like Everest it’s fatal/its peaks are cold as ice.”

There was an opening for a cynical Strummer/Jones-style look at the “crack plague,” which, though an awful reality, had also become (at least in the U.S. in the late Eighties) an easy means to bemoan the behavior of poor, inner-city African Americans, with commentary about crack addiction often descending into racist urban legend (e.g., the idea of a fearsome generation of “crack babies,” which had no medical foundation)—even Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” has a duff verse where a crack mother leaves her baby in a garbage can while she gets a hit.

But “Crack City” just uses crack as a stalking horse for Bowie’s real concerns: his past battles with drugs (and, possibly, Hunt Sales’ ongoing struggles) and the false glamour that rock & roll bestows upon the grubby business of addiction. So Bowie sneers at “the icon monsters/whose guitars bequeath you pain” and throws in some meager wordplay on “Velvet Underground” in the last verse, which he later said wasn’t a dig at Lou Reed but the “lifestyle” that the VU allegedly soundtracked. (Playing the song live in 1989, Bowie was more blunt about referencing Hendrix*, throwing in a “‘scuse me while I kiss the sky” towards the close).

Bowie’s awful lyric, a career low in terms of clumsy/overwrought imagery, shows the strain of having to keep to first-draft inspirations—allowed a revision, Bowie may not have salvaged much, but at least he could’ve done something about lines that didn’t even scan, like “ho-how-hounds of paranoia.” In an interview, Bowie had claimed that most anti-drug songs had been “all intellectual…written for other writers,” suggesting that “Crack City” was meant to be direct and blunt, simple “street” wisdom delivered at a stadium level. And true, if the song had wholly consisted of lines like “don’t look at me you fuck-heads,” he may have had a point. But instead too much of it comes off as fifth-rate Bob Dylan, particularly “Masters of War” (esp. the jeremiad against dealers in the third verse).

The best thing that “Crack City” has going for it is, for once, the Machine, whether the hollered “hit-Crack-Citaaay!!!” chorus vocals by the Saleses, the only hook the chorus was allowed, or Reeves Gabrels’ bloody-minded playing in the verses and his sustain-riddled eight-bar solo, or the usual tight rhythm guitar by Kevin Armstrong. Even Bowie’s singing is far better than his lyric deserves, with Bowie slowly descending a fifth in the verses, building to a hoarse bellow in the last verse and chorus.

Then oddly enough, “Crack City” blossomed live. It helped that Bowie was often inaudible on the mic and that the band re-thought the song’s arrangement, breaking up the monotony by having the players back off in the last two verses. It became a loud, vulgar grind-piece for both Machine tours, with Gabrels becoming particularly inspired in his soloing. In its meat-handed way, “Crack City” ably summed up everything that Tin Machine allegedly stood for.

Recorded at Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. A live version from Paris in July 1989 was a B-side for the 12″ version of “Prisoner of Love.”

* The Hendrix references likely were owed to Bowie and Gabrels’ shared love for the recently-released (November 1988) Radio One sessions; the CD also brought the label Rykodisc to Bowie’s attention.

Top: Matt Weber, “Anti-Crack Mural, Spanish Harlem, 1988.”

Video Crime

May 24, 2012

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.

Working Class Hero

May 22, 2012

Working Class Hero (John Lennon, 1970).
Working Class Hero (Tin Machine).
Working Class Hero (live, 1989).

[John] was not the big working-class hero he liked to make out. He was the least working class of the Beatles actually. He was the poshest because his family almost owned Woolton at one time.

Paul McCartney, 1983.

Even by the standards of Bowie’s earlier misreadings (“I Can’t Explain,” “God Only Knows”), Tin Machine’s version of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” seems oblivious, even hostile, to the original song’s ironies. Bowie covered “Working Class Hero” for admirable reasons. Sean Lennon, having become friends with his son, was around during the Tin Machine sessions in Nassau, so Tin Machine started playing the song as a tribute. Bowie decided to put it on the record, telling an interviewer he wanted to bring back into circulation a neglected Lennon masterpiece.

Timing was also part of it. Two months before Tin Machine recorded their cover, Albert Goldman had released a rancid biography, The Lives of John Lennon. Serialized over two weeks in August 1988 in People magazine, Goldman’s book used the formula of his earlier biographies (Elvis Presley and Lenny Bruce): Goldman, having first posited himself as a “fan” of his subject, sadly discovers that the subject was in fact a vile, repellent human being with no redeeming qualities. Goldman was a decent researcher and a cynical biographer; he cherry-picked the most salacious anecdotes and the tawdriest stories that he found and strung them together.

Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney urged a boycott of the book (you can’t blame them, as Goldman portrayed each as being conniving and horrific), while Bono compared Goldman to Satan (“his kind are like a curse”) in a bad song rushed out on Rattle and Hum in October. In America, if the angry letters that People and Rolling Stone received about the book offered any consensus, there was dismay and bewilderment. Had Lennon, rather than the martyr he’d been considered since his murder, actually been a brute, a lecher, a goon, a reckless fraud? The “controversy” helped sell Goldman’s book, which was forgotten in a year, but it ultimately did little to sour Lennon’s posthumous reputation. The whole episode seemed an ugly, ridiculous epilogue to the Sixties, played out over the last months of Reagan’s second term.

Lennon, had he lived, may have been more sanguine about Goldman’s biography. After all, no one could rubbish his reputation as well as he could. In interviews he gave with Playboy soon before his death in 1980, Lennon went through the Beatles canon song-by-song and dispatched some classics with assessments like “that didn’t work,” “crap,” or “that was Paul completely—I would never even dream of writing something like that.” The post-Beatles-breakup, post-Primal-Scream-therapy Lennon of Plastic Ono Band had been even harsher, with Lennon as the vicious debunker of Beatles and Sixties myths, in his litany of denunciation “God” and in his more subtle “Working Class Hero.”

“Working Class Hero” is Lennon at his most unreadable. Its lyric seems a lament of working class life: the narrow paths left open for the masses, their exposure to fortune and exploitation, their continual gulling by the ruling class. But there’s a cold disdain for “working class life” as well: keep you doped with religion and sex and TV…you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see. The song’s title refrain mocks the traditional strengths of working class life, of finding dignity in being “real” and in the nobility of work. A working class hero is something to be, with Lennon stressing the latter words with a phrasing that’s both sympathetic and cutting, suggesting the goal is both unobtainable and not worth the struggle.

Its five verses are Life According To Lennon: birth, school, the Hobson’s choice of picking your “career,” and the scant narcotic comforts of adulthood. The final verse is the sanctioned way out of the trap, the few clauses which allow a handful of the working class to escape their lives, whether lottery tickets or “entrepreneurialism” or getting rich via sports or pop music, as Lennon had. This is the cruelest delusion of all (“there’s room at the top, they’re telling you still”), as by striving out of your working class world, you discard the noblest part of yourself, which may be in turn another delusion.

Throughout the song, Lennon plays a game of bluffs as to his own sympathies. He’d grown up middle-class in Liverpool, as his childhood, though chaotic, had been the most comfortable of all of his bandmates.’ During the early Beatles years, Lennon had been emblematic of the “classless” Britain of Swinging London: he was both provincial (keeping the Scouse accent) and worldly (writing sophisticated pop music and “avant garde” books). And in 1970, as he was becoming involved in radical leftist politics, Lennon talked as though he had come from the streets. “I’m working class and I use few words,” he said on the Dick Cavett Show. “I‘m not an intellectual, I’m not articulate.” The point of view of the song’s narrator is fluid: he moves between disdain, empathy, mockery and sadness on any given phrasing.

“Working Class Hero” is in Dorian A minor, a folk modal key that consists of two tonal centers, A minor and G major. So it deliberately sounds “old,” as though Lennon has revived some Leveller ballad (it’s the same scale as classic British folk songs like “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor” or “Scarborough Fair”) and it has a cyclical feel, suggesting that the song has no escape, in both its construction—it just shuttles from A minor to G major and back again*—and Lennon’s acoustic guitar playing, which allows no freedom of movement, ushering verse through refrain through verse until the close (paced by regularly-sounded bass notes on an open fifth string)**. Yet “Hero” is also sharply modern in its subject matter—nothing like it would have been allowed on a record as recently as 1965—and in its language: it was the first time that “fucking” was heard on a British rock record.

In theory, taking on “Working Class Hero” had potential. Tin Machine could play the typical Sixties game of electrifying a folk song into a hard rock number, and Bowie was an inspired choice to sing the lyric. Like Lennon, he had been raised solidly middle-class, but unlike Lennon, he had never made a fetish out of pretending otherwise: his perspectives had been either surreal suburban or, as he grew in fame and wealth, that of a “classless” aspirational figure. Even his occasional “Mockney” accents had been obvious stage costumes. So a cutting Bowie take on Lennon’s own conflicted song could have added further nuances to the piece.

The problem was Tin Machine. Bowie had a vehicle incapable of subtlety; he could use them as a weapon, as a goad to get him out of his bad habits, but unchecked, they easily slumped into loud obliviousness and tastelessness. Bowie sounds drowned out in the recording, having to howl out lines just to be heard, and the band hustles him through the lyric, with Bowie discarding Lennon’s incisive phrasing in favor of a bellow or a sneer. Take how Lennon, in the third verse, precisely sounds each consonant of “pick a career,” and teases out the last vowels, making the phrase as piercing as a needle; he’s savoring the bureaucratic coldness of the words and also playing on the double meaning of “career”—as something spinning out of control. Bowie just blunders through: “PICK-uh C’REER.” He also flatly sings or mumbles the lyric’s two curses, which Lennon had deployed like land mines. And Bowie’s strangled, hoarse screaming at the end seems mere bluster compared with Lennon’s measured anger and pity.

The result seems a collaborative effort to worsen the song. Bowie and the Machine recast the song in standard A minor (so using the V chord of Am, E minor, instead of the G major of the original); they replaced the ominous, waltzing tempo of Lennon’s track with a fat, bluesy vamp; they shoehorned in a Gabrels guitar solo after the third verse, squandering whatever momentum had remained; and they book-ended the track with the usual Hunt Sales snare drubbing. It’s a dreadful, witless recording that should’ve been a B-side at best.

Recorded at Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988.

* There are some slight variations: the last refrain line is Am-G-D-Am, suggesting a slight shift to G major (although the D major is barely there, it’s just used as a passing chord on the way back to A minor).

** The recording of “Hero” is a classic example of Lennon’s indifference to time (the song’s not quite in 3/4— it’s something like one bar of 9/8, 2 bars of 6/8) and studio perfection, as he’s often not intoning the bass notes “properly.”

Top: Alistair Berg, “Scottish fans make their way to Wembley for the Rous Cup game against England,” London, 1988; Helen Levitt, “New York, 1988.”

I Can’t Read

May 17, 2012

I Can’t Read.
I Can’t Read (rehearsal, fragment, 1989).
I Can’t Read (live, 1989).
I Can’t Read (live, Oy Vey Baby, 1991).
I Can’t Read (Bridge School Benefit, 1996).
I Can’t Read (Bowie and Gabrels, acoustic, radio broadcast, 1997).
I Can’t Read (Ice Storm, 1997).
I Can’t Read ’97.
I Can’t Read (live, 1999).

Bowie, a keen judge of his own work, singled out “I Can’t Read” as the best song on Tin Machine: he brought up the track in mid-Nineties interviews as an example of what Tin Machine had gotten right, and he revised it in 1996, keeping it in his live sets for the rest of the decade.

As Tom Ewing wrote about “Ashes to Ashes,” Bowie’s pop was always at its strongest when it was him alone in his house of mirrors, and “I Can’t Read” is the Beckettian epilogue to Bowie’s run of songs-of-songwriting: “Quicksand,” written at the early vertiginous height of Bowie’s compositional powers; “Sound and Vision” where a weakened Bowie summons a possibly-departed muse; “Ashes”, where Bowie entombed himself in his work. “I Can’t Read” is the end of the line—a man bled clean of inspiration, left only to mutter curses at an audience that inexplicably wants something more from him.

“I Can’t Read” came out of Bowie’s summer 1988 demo sessions with Reeves Gabrels (who co-wrote the music) and it stings of the wounds left from the Never Let Me Down/Glass Spider debacle. With that record and tour, Bowie had thought he’d ended his creative drought: Never was supposed to be his grand counter-move, his third-quarter rejuvenation. But the critics had disliked it, the public had been indifferent to it. He had played for stakes and lost. In the past, even when he felt dried up, he had tacked down and delivered. This time it just didn’t work, he had failed to eclipse himself; he faced the hard prospect that he could no longer write well.

As always with Bowie, there are mirrors reflecting mirrors—it’s a mistake to consider “I Can’t Read” being directly autobiographical. Rather, “Bowie-the-composer” had been a reoccurring character in his songs, whether as a central figure or popping up in Hitchcock-esque cameos (as in “Life on Mars?,” whose last verse ends with the camera rolling back, revealing “Bowie” as the director giving cues to his mousy-haired lead actress (“it’s about to writ again/as I ask you to focus on…“)). If Major Tom had been Bowie’s symbol of the lost promise of the Sixties, Bowie-the-composer had been his aesthetic surrogate, as “Nathan Zuckerman” was for Philip Roth, the vehicle through which Bowie showed the struggles of a belated artist, of being an inheritor wandering through an abandoned property, or, as here, being an emptied man in a dry season.

In “I Can’t Read” Bowie has illiteracy stand for creative barrenness—it’s a latter-day illiteracy, as a facility which had once come so easily is now lost. “Bowie” tries to capture a melody he’s come up with, but finds he can’t read music anymore, that he can’t play it, that even the constituent parts of music—the flats and sharps, chords, guitar tones, vocal phrasings—no longer make any sense. Much of the track is howling waves of feedback, as though noise is the only sound that Bowie can still find any meaning in. He watches TV, flicks from cop show to newscast. Going for a jog, he sees himself on a magazine cover. He’s a man reduced to his famous face, a mask with nothing behind it.

There are tastes of his former glories in the lyric: “countdown” calling back to Major Tom, or another reference to the buried “Shadow Man.” And Andy Warhol, having died in 1987, appears as a ghost. The obvious reference is Bowie’s tribute to Warhol from nearly two decades earlier. There Bowie had held all the power, dancing Warhol through his song like a marionette, using Warhol’s maxims about art and fakery to build his own plastic rock singers. Now Bowie’s reduced to arbitration: Andy, where’s my fifteen minutes? If all that remains open is a cheap celebrity high, come, let’s have it.

The only means forward is to move at a crawl, with a song that sounds like it’s going to collapse after every verse. “I Can’t Read” takes nearly a minute to get started: a basic 4/4 drumbeat, an occasionally querying bass, squalls of feedback. Finally Bowie begins to sing, keeping on a single note (just above the chord, E minor’s, root note) until he sinks a step down to close each phrase (“I-can’t-read-and-I-can’t-write down“). It’s a voice drained of any audible emotion, just a blank, observational tone; it’s like a man who’s survived a car crash calmly recounting the details to a policeman. Each meager vocal phrase trails off, leaving empty bars for Gabrels to fill—first with a primitive grinding riff, like a car stuck between gears, then even more inchoate lines.

The chorus finally comes, summoned by Hunt Sales’ table-rapping. Bowie, roused momentarily from his stasis, soars up a fifth and sounds light-headed. “I—can’t read shit anymore…I just can’t get it right, can’t get it right,” delivering the latter lines in a mocking sing-song, as though he’s taunting the listener. You want a melody? Here: blah blah blah. (The chords are also meat-and-potatoes rock & roll, just I-IV-V all the way through). And then, as if he can feel pain in his bones again for a moment, Bowie suddenly closes the chorus in exasperation: I CAN’T read SHIT, I CAN’T READ SHIT.

There seems nowhere to go next. The players meander, decide on running through the long intro again, but there’s the sense that anyone could just stop playing and let the song expire. You wonder if Bowie’s done with the thing too, but he comes back for another verse and chorus. After the last I CAN’T READ SHIT, the song is finally allowed to die.

For once Tin Machine makes sense, as the players’ indulgences, their lack of a common language, act out the song’s mood of self-loathing and resentment. The hiss of Hunt Sales’ ride cymbals in the chorus, his intrusive fills, add a cracked joy to Bowie’s admission of defeat. Tony Sales’ bassline hook in the chorus suggests Trevor Bolder’s jaunty line that drove “Suffragette City”: it’s as if the sound of Bowie’s past triumphs is eating through the recording. Kevin Armstrong, again low in the mix, adds perspective and nuance, sometimes paralleling the barely-there vocal melody on guitar. And the exuberant noise that Gabrels crafts is the counterpart to Bowie’s dispassionate vocal. It’s the way out, staring in Bowie’s face the whole time.

Bowie revised “I Can’t Read” as soon as he began playing it live. He told an interviewer that the Tin Machine tracks were works in progress, that the album versions of the songs were just initial attempts to capture them, and that the songs would be developed further on stage.

So in their short 1989 tour, the Machine slowed the tempo (the original “Read” goes at a fairly fast clip), letting it brood, as if to make the song more purgatorial, with Bowie throwing in lines from Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” (which they were covering at the time). In 1991, the Machine flayed “Read” open on stage, letting Tony Sales’ bass sing through the intro. They gave it pantomime—Gabrels played a police car wail over the “watch the police car” line, Bowie mimed being crucified while singing “when you see a famous smile”—especially in the chorus, which they trashed up, making it sound like a piece of a Ziggy Stardust outtake, killing it off as it crested.

Bowie’s studio revision of “I Can’t Read,” recorded during the Earthling sessions in mid-1996 (he gave a preview of the new version at the Bridge School Benefit in California later that year), was intended to give the song a second chance to find an audience, so he sweetened it, gave it a studied melancholy, anchoring the verses on acoustic guitar strums, with Gabrels having an elegant acoustic solo midway through, and calming the mood with washes of synthesizer. The new “I Can’t Read” was tasteful (“I can’t read shit” had already been replaced by “I can’t reach it” during the live Machine shows): it was somber, proper music for exit titles, which it literally became, for Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. Bowie altered the lyric, moving the second verse to the last, while in his new second verse, he replaced lines that had the soreness of memory with those filled with empty abstractions: Can I see the family smile? Can I reach tomorrow? Can I walk a missing mile? Can I feel, can I please? It was dull and false, an odd misreading of his own work. Even Warhol had gone missing.

Bowie rallied, though, restoring “I Can’t Read” to its original form for the “Hours” tour in 1999 (Bowie sang the Warhol line with venom this time, as if cursing over Warhol’s grave) and the chorus had a quiet majesty to it, a sense of faded glories being collectively recalled.

Yet none of these rewrites and rethinks surpassed the original, merciless Tin Machine version of the song. Recorded in under an hour one night in Nassau,* the original “I Can’t Read” is a singer dully picking at a wound while his band ignores him, screaming to themselves around him. Bowie’s long bid to reclaim his title in the Nineties is inconceivable without him having first made “I Can’t Read”—it was a reckoning, an exorcism, a confession; a song in which failure became a muse.

Recorded at Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. The live version recorded on 25 June 1989, at La Cigale, Paris was a B-side of the 12″ single version of “Tin Machine.” “I Can’t Read” was remade during the Earthling sessions in August-September 1996: it was released as a single (Velvel Records/ZYX 8757-8, #73 UK) in December 1997 and also appeared on The Ice Storm soundtrack.

* Either during a “gothic deluge” of a tropical storm (Trynka) or “under a full moon” (Buckley). Or perhaps on a less dramatic evening.

Top: Jim Kasson, “Paddington Station, London, 1988.”


May 14, 2012


Tin Machine seemed like a quartet of randomly selected individuals who were collaborating for some sort of prize. Reeves Gabrels had the clearest of motives—being in the band gave him international exposure and let him work with David Bowie on favorable terms. “Tin Machine” was just the handiest vehicle to do so; he would’ve been equally content as the next Carlos Alomar. For the Saleses, it was vindication for a decade spent on the margins, a classic example of sideman’s revenge.

Bowie seemed most taken by the abstract idea of being in a band, and he had a convert’s punctiliousness to the rules and traditions of his new sect. So he demoted the band’s rhythm guitarist and keyboardist, Kevin Armstrong, to a second-tier member (as a commenter pointed out, Bowie assigned Armstrong the “Ian Stewart” slot). For Bowie, a “band” apparently meant the Beatles mold of two guitars-bass-drums and four distinct visual personalities; even the Machine’s stage arrangement—Tony Sales stage right, Bowie center, Gabrels stage left—was close to the Beatles’ typical lineup (though Bowie should have taken the Lennon spot instead of Gabrels). Armstrong, although he would play with Tin Machine on its first tour, was a face too many for the LP cover/publicity tour, and perhaps Bowie felt that Armstrong, an unassuming-looking man, lacked the necessary visual “presence.”

So during the second round of Tin Machine sessions in Nassau, in late 1988, Bowie visited Armstrong’s bungalow to break the news that he wasn’t going to be a full Tin Machine member. According to Paul Trynka, Bowie delivered the blow politely and graciously, and he gave Armstrong prominent credit on the album sleeve, including a photograph. Armstrong was disappointed but seemed to bear Bowie no ill will, as he later worked on Outside. But after the 1989 mini-tour and a few early sessions for Tin Machine II, Armstrong was done, and went off to write songs with Morrissey.

Ironically, Armstrong was the one member of Tin Machine who seemed fully committed to the band—he was the only supporting player in a group of would-be lead actors. Each successful group has needed such a figure: the honest broker through whom other parties can negotiate, or just someone who’s funny or unobtrusive enough that he or she bothers no one (e.g., Ringo Starr, Joey Santiago, Rick Danko, Gillian Gilbert, Charlie Watts, Greg Norton, etc.). Armstrong was especially valuable in a garrulous collection like Tin Machine, as his rhythm guitar is sometimes the only thing holding tracks together, like the brittle-sounding riff low in the mix that keeps “Tin Machine” on course.

During the Tin Machine sessions, Armstrong co-wrote the music for “Run” with Bowie.* Unsurprisingly, as Bowie and Armstrong had worked on Blah Blah Blah together and as Armstrong had been lead guitarist on the subsequent tour, “Run” seems meant for Iggy Pop, especially the chorus, whose climactic “runnn” seems crafted for Pop’s baritone. Bowie claimed some ownership with his verses, whose vocal melody is similar to “Loving the Alien” and which he delivers at an angle, singing through bars and varying his emphases with each line. Built, verse and chorus, over a nonstop G-E-Am-F progression, “Run” offers some pleasures, like the guitar hook, Armstrong’s arpeggiated near-octave rise and fall pattern against which Gabrels prods and batters. But it ultimately comes off as mildly-ambitious filler on an overstuffed record.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. Played on most of the dates of the Machine’s 1989 tour.

* “Run” wasn’t on the LP issue of Tin Machine, so it could be considered a bonus track. But as the majority of people in 1989 (and later) bought the album on cassette or CD, both on which the track appears, “Run” (and “Sacrifice Yourself”) seem firmly part of the album proper. Even the official sheet music book includes the songs.

Top: “Cromacom,” “Western (Wailing) Wall, Jerusalem,” 1988.

Tin Machine

May 9, 2012

Tin Machine.
Tin Machine (edit, video).

Tin Machine is not a David Bowie record. Tin Machine is a band.

Hunt Sales, 1989.

In the Sixties, Bowie had gone through a string of bands: The Lower Third, the Riot Squad, the King Bees, the Kon-rads, the Manish Boys, the Buzz, Turquoise/Feathers. Each had failed in its own way. Some had been flawed propositions from the start, hamstrung by Bowie’s non-negotiable demand to be first among alleged equals. A few later editions, like the Buzz, assembled by Bowie and his manager via Melody Maker want ads, became a workable template—a band as a second unit orbiting its frontman, as with the Spiders from Mars. Even then, there was too much free movement: Bowie dispatched Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey within two years. Bowie’s most enduring band, his backing group of the late Seventies, were craftsmen who generally kept behind the scenes.

Now at age 41 Bowie finally wanted to submerge himself in a group, to go in hiding in a crowd. Tin Machine was credited to the band, not “David Bowie and Tin Machine” (though EMI affixed the album with stickers reminding buyers the bearded man on the cover had made “Let’s Dance”).* Duties were communal: songwriting, solos, singing. Tony Sales would often introduce the band on stage. In TV interviews of the time you can see Bowie restraining himself from talking over his bandmates. This deliberate anonymity pleased few in the Bowie organization or his label (Tin Machine would be the last EMI record). Reeves Gabrels later said that even Bowie’s assistant Coco Schwab “felt Tin Machine was bringing down the value of the currency of the David Bowie name.”

The name itself was an afterthought. “We couldn’t think of a good name, so we picked [one] from a song on the album,” Bowie said in a 1989 radio interview. “Tin Machine” was the obvious choice (though in an alternate life, Bowie fronted Crack City), as it worked as a play on the likes of Led Zeppelin and Iron Butterfly and signaled Bowie’s intentions: an automobile, i.e., a tin machine, is a means to get you out of town and on the road heading somewhere else.

Gabrels, interviewed by Spin at the album’s release, said “tin” was symbolic because while it seems like an “archaic material” it’s actually found everywhere—cans in supermarkets, rusted scraps on the street. The band in turn tried to be deliberately archaic, reactionary, not using synthesizers or sequencers (“we were sick of turning on the radio and hearing disco and dance music and drum machines, which I think in the business they call ‘crap,'” Tony Sales said in the same interview); Gabrels and Bowie favored older gear, like a 1963 Stratocaster once owned by Marc Bolan and a Marshall 100-watt Super Lead amp that Bowie had lying around in Switzerland. Bowie, Gabrels and second guitarist Kevin Armstrong even tried to limit their use of chorus and delay effects (Gabrels claimed no guitar effects he used were post-1974). That said, they weren’t entirely Luddites, as Gabrels often played a prototype Steinberger guitar with a transposing tremolo mechanism on its neck.

So Tin Machine the band came after “Tin Machine” the song. The Sales brothers liked the idea of having a theme song like the Monkees (Hunt, who emblazoned his kick drum with his first name, was especially keen). It added a hint of silliness to a deadpan group, as there’s often something inherently ridiculous when a band uses its name for a chorus: take Bad Company’s “Bad Company” or the Clash, who kept at it with diminishing returns (“Clash City Rockers,” “This is Radio Clash,” “We Are the Clash,” a sad declaration issued after half the band had quit).

But a key ancestor here is Minor Threat’s 1981 hardcore anthem “Minor Threat,” (though in this case the band’s name—a joke about Ian MacKaye et al‘s youth and unassuming appearance—had preceded the song), as “Tin Machine” is arguably Bowie and crew having a run at making hardcore. So I asked my cousin Robb, who played in hardcore bands in his youth, what he thought:

It’s like [Bowie] listened to a 1987/88 New York Hardcore compilation once and decided to emulate it. It sounds like it’s the “idea” of hardcore—“We’ll make it simple, short and fast”—but DB’s idea of simple and fast has key changes, too many chords, and is still too slow. Also, there’s no real conclusion—no buildup or breakdown, it just kind of ends. [This is in reference to the “single” edit of the video, which cuts the track off after its first chorus. Upon hearing the full version of “Tin Machine,” Robb said it was an improvement but was now far too long. I agree—by the time Bowie’s scatting what sounds like “dooby dooby dooby” in the coda, you’re praying for the engineer to stop the tape.]

The riff at the end [in the bridge, starting at 1:09 on the album cut] could work as hardcore, but the rest of the song sounds like a regular rock song with extra distortion. I suppose you could claim it’s the first “Art Core” song, but it sounds more like a hastily put together attempt to associate Tin Machine with the next big underground, up-and-coming genre. I can’t tell if it’s a sincere failure or a cynical failure.

I’d put my chips on sincere, as the track seems to be a valiant attempt, in Bowie’s words, at making [Glenn] “Branca-sonic,” with its multi-tracked pack of guitars and Bowie’s flat, clipped-out vocal, which mainly keeps to a two-note range in the verse/refrain. The problem was that Tin Machine had too much collective chops to let the song lie. So “Tin Machine” is more harmonically “dense” than it needs to be—the 44-bar opening refrain/verse shifts between G and A major, while the “bridge” moves to a run of B minor/E minor, with a A/D/G tag at the turnaround back to the verse.

It also sounds as if the not-fast-enough tempo is still leaving the Machine winded, though it’s one of the few tracks that suits Hunt Sales’ drumming, which has some nuance—Hunt’s sparing use of crash cymbals or the little fill that fuels the track midway through the second verse (after “glare”). Gabrels also got crafty: he created the sound of “facsimile bagpipes” for his main riff by playing his guitar like a slide in his lap, “fingering from the top, with one foot on his Wah-Wah pedal and the other pumping volume.” (Spin).

And Bowie’s likely first-draft lyric is a choice example of the allegedly topical, “fractured word” writing that blighted much of Tin Machine, with lines including “mindless maggot glare,” “night that spews out watchmen” (DB reading Moore/Gibbons?), and the fan favorite, “humping Tories/spittle on their cheeks.” There’s wordplay of sorts (“blue-suede tuneless“) and callbacks to old songs, here the recently-revived “All the Madmen” (“I’m not exactly well“) As with the guitars, Bowie’s at his most convincing when he’s raging in the bridges, his spray of descending lines culminating in a choked-out “hell.”

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. Performed during both Tin Machine tours, 1989 and 1991-92.

* Later reissues reclaimed the album as a “David Bowie” release.

Top: Misha Erwitt, “Marilyns, New York, 1988.”