Tin Machine II at 30

September 2, 2021

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.

One Shot

September 4, 2012

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.

Goodbye Mr. Ed

August 28, 2012

Goodbye Mr. Ed.
Goodbye Mr. Ed (live, Oy Vey Baby, 1992).

This boy had everything. He had the looks, the moves, the manager, and the talent. And he didn’t look like Mr. Ed like a lot of the rest of us did.

Carl Perkins, on Elvis Presley.

Here those which Fortune hath frowned upon in England, to deny them an inheritance amongst their Brethren, or such as by their utmost labors can scarcely procure a living, I say such may procure here inheritances of lands and possessions…That I must needs say, that if there be any terrestrial Canaan, ‘tis surely here, where the Land floweth with milk and honey. The inhabitants are blessed with Peace and plenty, blessed in their Country.

Daniel Denton, A Brief Relation of New-York, 1670.

Goodbye to what, really? Not America, where he would come to live, or American music, particularly black American music, which he would emulate (passive-aggressively) on his next record. Not his youth: that was already gone. Not spectacle, not celebrity: he’d already tried to enroll himself into witness protection with Tin Machine. It wasn’t even meant to be goodbye to the Machine, with whom, but for the 1991 tour, he may have been cajoled into making more records. (As it turned out, “Goodbye Mr. Ed,” sequenced to close Tin Machine II, proved the band’s tombstone after all.)

But the song was a farewell of some sort. If not to America itself, then it was the snuffing out of some last spark of the imagined America of David Jones, suburban misfit and aspirant. America became like a dreamland to me, Bowie had said in 1974, while nodding off in a documentary about himself. His relationship to America—the fable-America of his youth; the Nixonian snipers-on-the-roofs madhouse that he snaked through as Ziggy Stardust; the bloated, sated country that he had finally conquered through television in 1983—always had been a sort of estranged fascination. Now he dug at the roots of it, envisioning the start of America which, for Bowie, meant the start of New York: Dutchmen and Indians, 1626.

Bowie recalled an episode of Tony Brown’s Journal about the former inhabitants of Manhattan island who, according to American legend, were the biggest suckers in U.S. real estate history. American history is, in great part, a history of con men and their marks. The Lenape were king marks, royal dupes: the people who had sold Manhattan to the Dutch for sixty guilders worth of baubles. Bowie saw the ghosts of “the Manhattoes” standing on the roof of Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building, the latest capitalist tower-shrine erected upon what had once been a farm or burial ground. The Manhattoes taking the view, then hurling themselves off the tower, screaming. The name was wrong—the Native Americans who had lived on Manhattan island were the Lenape. “Manhattoes,” Bowie’s word, had been coined by white colonists, taken up centuries later by Washington Irving and Herman Melville. So the Lenape are suicidal ghosts denied their own name. Their defiance, jumping off a landmark skyscraper, eerily predicted a NYC catastrophe a decade later, the death to come.

With that as a founding image, Bowie wrote the rest of “Goodbye Mr. Ed” by “juxtaposing lines which really shouldn’t fit, free-association around the idea of ‘bye-bye ’50s America,'” he said in 1991. The reoccurring figure is “someone”—the indifferent angel of “Look Back in Anger,” the blank eye of the television tube, a bored God—seeing it all, watching the wrack of a civilization piling up. The lyric is a stroll through a ruminative mind: Andy Warhol’s skull, housed in a shrine in a Queens shopping mall; Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (possibly reached via WC Williams’ poem); a soured nursery rhyme. It ends with the Sex Pistols and their inheritors, the former seeding demon eggs, the latter left to hatch them. A gnomic end to a gnomic lyric—the Pistols as the end-stage cancer of rock music, the acrid revenge of Britain on the music of its lost colonies.

Bowie’s vocal is a studied exhaustion, keeping to a narrow range, with his strongest vocal melody nicked from Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” (cf. the descending “shrieking as they fall”; h/t Nicholas Pegg). The song’s structure is a set of irregular verses, three brief solos and a repeated bridge. In the verses, Bowie’s lines are a loose iambic trimeter, each phrase generally five or six syllables with a strong-beat/weak-beat rhythm (“AN-dy’s SKULL en-SHRINED”), while Bowie sings the title line flatly, giving the same cold intonation to each of the five syllables, letting the stop (“ed”) quickly expire.

The vocal mutes the accumulation of bizarre images in the lyric, Bowie’s delivery suggesting that nothing in the ruined landscape of his imagined America holds any ability to surprise anymore. The miraculous and the uncanny have become bric-a-brac. My brain hurt like a warehouse, he’d once sung, when he was nothing but voice, color and ambition. Now he was absently sorting through it, wondering why he’d bothered to fill it up in the first place.

“Goodbye Mr. Ed”* began as what Tony Sales recalled as a “tuning-up thing” from the Sydney sessions, an instrumental studio jam to loosen everyone up (so it may have been similar to something like “Exodus”). The Sales brothers wrote the music with Bowie, and the final track has some of their finest performances. Tony plays parrying, unsettled basslines throughout, making a wistful ascent before the first bridge, while there’s a loneliness in his querying notes in the solo between the bridges. Hunt deftly handles the swift, erratic changes of tempo, varying the buildups to start each verse, jabbing in sharp little snare fills throughout, giving thundering kick work in the bridges.

Reeves Gabrels spent 1990 chasing Bowie, using down weeks in the “Sound + Vision” tour as opportunities to overdub the provisional Tin Machine II tracks. “‘Goodbye Mr. Ed’ was just a rhythm track until we got to Miami,” Gabrels said. “Mr. Ed” appears to have been finally completed during the last sessions for the album in March 1991 (see endnote).

But where on other TMII tracks Gabrels had dubbed dozens of new guitar lines, with vibrator vibrato and shards of feedback, his contributions to “Mr. Ed” are more spare, more precise. Take the intro, where a rapidly-picked acoustic guitar in the right channel is joined, two bars later, by an electric guitar playing a shrill version of the same riff, while another electric, first only heard as a distant echo in the left channel, quickly emerges as a rival voice. Another electric guitar dub offers a flourish, then Tony Sales’ bass and Hunt’s cymbals arrive with Bowie to propel the song to its early climax (midway into the first verse). It’s Glenn Branca’s “Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar” in miniature, a guitar symphony condensed to 20 seconds.

Throughout the track Gabrels offers new melodies, new agitations—a nagging ostinato, the singing phrases in the space before the first bridge. After Bowie’s final goodbye, the song sinks into itself, imploding, the players fading out and creeping back in, warring to be heard: the last thing that you hear is a repeating busy signal via feedback.

Despite its wayward creation, having been pieced together over years and continents, “Goodbye Mr. Ed” was one of the best group performances that Tin Machine ever recorded—within its brief span, they were the band they were always intended to be. It’s also one of Bowie’s most inspired vocals of the era, the musings of a dry man idly watching TV. “Mr. Ed” answers and augments the frustrated, spent figure who sang “I Can’t Read” (the corpse of Warhol exhumed again)—here it’s a man unraveling a myth that he once needed to live. Despite the chaos of its lyric and the brief surge of contempt heard in the bridge (Bowie giving sharper emphases to his lines in the repeat), “Mr. Ed” is another retreat, another surrender in a season of them, a man closing down another wing of some grand abandoned house, further reducing himself (it’s telling how many of Bowie’s best songs of the Eighties are resignation letters). One of the peaks of the Tin Machine era, and its worthy epitaph.

Recorded ca. October-November 1989, 301 Studios, Sydney; (vocals, overdubs, poss. retakes) ca. April 1990, Miami; ca. October-November 1990, London; March 1991, Los Angeles. Performed on the 1991-92 tour, with a version from Tokyo, February 1992, on Oy Vey, Baby.

* I love to imagine that Bowie got the title from this headline in the 16 October 1990 Weekly World News.

An endnote on chronology, suitable only for obsessives: As EMI had rejected releasing another Tin Machine album, by the end of 1990 Bowie no longer had a record contract. Throughout 1990, Bowie and Gabrels worked on the Sydney tapes to make them more “commercial” to EMI, and latterly to lure another label. Sessions were held during rare off weeks for “Sound + Vision.” So the Miami session that Gabrels mentioned likely coincided with the S&V stops in Florida, around 27 April- 5 May 1990. There’s another documented dub/mixing session, with Tim Palmer engineering, at Eel Pie Studios in London, in late October-November 1990 (Matt Rescinoff, from Musician, attended the Eel Pie session and then visited the Machine again in LA on 18 June 1991 (which he said was “eight months later” from the Eel Pie session). The March 1991 sessions in LA, where the master version of “Mr. Ed” was likely completed, were at the behest of Bowie’s new label, Victory—we’ll get into that more when we reach “One Shot.”

Top: Lucian Perkins, “A Survivor of the Gulf War,” 1991 (William Meyers: “yellow fires flare up across the horizon of al-Burgan oil fields south of Kuwait City. The ground to the horizon is sand dotted with small shrubs, and the sky above the horizon is blue and black with smoke from the fires. A donkey in the left foreground rears upon its hindlegs, almost vertically, as if dancing. The donkey has some bedding from an Iraqi trench in its mouth“); US Air Force, “F-16A, F-15C and F-15E flying during Desert Storm,” Kuwait, 1991.

You Belong In Rock n’ Roll

August 9, 2012

You Belong In Rock n’ Roll.
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (single mix, video).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Paramount City, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Wogan, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Top of the Pops, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Sacrée Soirée, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Eleva2ren, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (live, Oy Vey Baby, 1991).

Are there any new ideas left to be discovered in rock and roll?

Bowie: In rock and roll, no. But in what you can give rock and roll, yes. I think the whole idea of talking about the feelings that you have between your mid-30s and mid-40s…there are endless experiences there. The whole weight of having gone through the apocalyptic vision of the Seventies, the greed and vanity of the Eighties: these are things that none of the younger bands knew about or experienced. So they’re just a result of it. With a band like Guns ‘n’ Roses, lyrically there’s a kind of abandon there. But abandon from what?

Alan di Perna, “Ballad of the Tin Men,” Creem, 1991.

The lead-off single of Tin Machine II, “You Belong in Rock n’ Roll” was Bowie’s most overt attempt at pop since “Never Let Me Down,” and it tanked, charting only (and poorly) in the UK, ignored by the rest of the world. Possibly inspired by U2’s “With or Without You,” it shared with the latter a bass-driven, deep-crooned verse, a sudden dynamic shift in the chorus (triggered by the title phrase) and a simple, repeating chord progression—“Rock n’ Roll” just uses the first two chords, C and G, of “With or Without You”‘s cycling C-G-Am-F. But compared to U2’s brooding religious erotica, “Rock n’ Roll” is camp trash, with Reeves Gabrels playing his guitar solos with a vibrator.*

The title suggested some kind of reckoning with the past: after the bridge-burning of Tin Machine, it seemed to be Bowie trying to align himself for a fresh decade. An old friend once said that it was never a good sign when an aging band wrote a song with “rock and roll” in the title (he was thinking of Kiss, who had just put out “God Gave Rock and Roll to You”), as it usually was a cue for gross nostalgia or base pandering. Thankfully that’s not the case here—Bowie’s “Rock n’ Roll” is too slight, too moody, too crass, although he is chasing after ghosts in it.

The guiding spirit is Marc Bolan in his prime, comparing girls to cars and mountain kings: I love the velvet hat–you know the one that caused a revolution…you got the blues in your shoes and your stockings…I’ll call you Jaguar if I may be so bold. Bowie’s come-ons in “Rock n’ Roll” are shopworn and banal by comparison: the girl (or rock itself) reminds him of “cheap streets,” she says “cheap things,” she’s got a “bad look.” It’s third-rate seduction. Bolan had known he was the prize—the come-ons were just for show, he was just peacocking for his own delight, as he’d already closed the deal. Bowie in “Rock n’ Roll” has to really work the sale, and seems to vaguely despise himself for it.

The big hook, triggered to the song’s one chord change, is “you belong in rock n’ roll…well, so do I,” a weakly Bolanesque line. Bowie’s phrasing of the last words, a slight aspiring push upward, suggests that he knows it’s a dubious claim. But what was “rock n’ roll” here? In 1990 it meant Guns ‘n’ Roses and Warrant—it was no place for some crackpot dandy like Bolan, let alone Bowie entering his high Dorian Gray period. Bowie had never been reverent about rock music; he’d always questioned whatever transcendence it offered. In his Ziggy Stardust days, he referred to rock as an aging tart. Twenty years on, he felt the same, although now he was in a serious hard “rock n’ roll” band whose players sometimes acted as if they were the music’s last hope—it’s tempting to call “Rock n’ Roll” Bowie’s subconscious rejection of Tin Machine. In the video for “Rock n’ Roll,” Bowie preened into the mirror, wriggling out of his garish lime-green jacket while he sang “so do I”; on stage, he sometimes mimed slapping on foundation.

But the track’s not mere parody, either. As with Bolan’s influence, you can hear Bowie trying to recall an old language, trying to ground himself again in a music that had once worked for him. There’s a trace of Buddy Holly in how Bowie toys with his phrases, hollowing out vowels, stretching a small word to fill the space of three: luh-uh-huh-hove, say-uh-hay-hay. (On the Paradise City performance, Bowie sings the second verse in a quasi-American accent). So it’s fitting that it ends back at the mirror. When Bowie builds up to the climax, he finally imitates “Bowie,” the imperious, archangel-voiced Bowie of pop memory: on fire! on FIRE! on FIRE! on FIIIHAH!

Though its rhythm track—a rumbling Tony Sales bassline, flourishes of acoustic guitar, a tight Hunt Sales playing a swinging kick drum pattern—was nailed down in the Sydney sessions, “Rock n’ Roll” was one of the tracks that Gabrels wouldn’t leave alone. He cut guitar overdub after overdub while Bowie was on his world tour in 1990. By the time Tin Machine II was mixed in spring 1991, “Rock n’ Roll” had ballooned to a 56-track recording, the majority of which was taken up with Gabrels’ bleats, buzzes and whines.

Gabrels had been obsessed with Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, and as “Rock n’ Roll” was “basically a bass song, I wanted to lay in some industrial stuff against it,” he said. Gabrels started by vibrating an electric razor against his guitar strings but found he wanted something with variable speeds, so that he could better tune it. So Gabrels and his guitar tech went out to a few Sydney sex shops and came back with a selection of vibrators. Gabrels became a fan—“You can use [a vibrator] as a sound source and also as a string driver by laying it against the bridge,” he said—as did Bowie, who said he expected to soon go into a music store and find rows of vibrators with effects pedals and slides: an inspired vision of commerce that sadly never came to be.

That said, Gabrels’ main solo, the eight-bar fill between refrain and verse, is Gabrels at his most restrained, offering just a series of steadily-rising chords, while his various vibrator-guitar dubs work as mood colors in the mix rather than overwhelming the track. The final mix of “Rock n’ Roll” sounded good—Tony Sales’ backing vocals giving tension to Bowie’s murmurings, the handclaps, the low-mixed saxophone—but in the fall of 1991, no one wanted to hear it. Perhaps it was a minor cultural exhaustion with Bowie: it was the first single after the Sound + Vision tour/retrospective. The Bowie of the past was far too strong a presence, the Bowie of the present seemed compromised and empty. “Rock n’ Roll” was a pretender, soon sent packing.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, Studios 301, Sydney, with overdubs in 1990 and March 1991. Released as a single in August 1991 (LONCD 305, c/w “Amlapura (Indonesian version), #33 UK). There was also a limited edition single in a metal box. To produce it, according to Pegg, the label had to purchase used tins from the US Navy. The band played or lip-synched “Rock n’ Roll” on Denmark’s Eleva2ren, France’s Sacree Soiree and the UK’s Wogan, TOTP and Paramount City, generating weak sales and minor controversy because of Gabrels’ vibrators. (Weirdly, the Machine apparently didn’t play “Rock n’ Roll” in their big US TV promotion, ABC In Concert.) Played throughout the 1991-92 tour, with a version from Chicago, 7 December 1991, used as the closing track on Oy Vey Baby.

* Gabrels told Musician that his touring vibrators were “a 4″ Ladyfinger and an 8″ variable speed, with a Panasonic electric razor as backup.”

Top: Michel Piccoli and Emmanuelle Béart, La Belle Noiseuse (Rivette, 1991).


August 2, 2012

Hammerhead (B-side edit).
Hammerhead (album edit).

There are two official versions of “Hammerhead,” a Bowie/Hunt Sales composition: a minute-long instrumental, in which Bowie’s saxophone is soon elbowed off stage by a Reeves Gabrels guitar meltdown, that appeared uncredited at the end of Tin Machine II, and a mush-mouthed rant-thrash piece in the line of “A Big Hurt” that was issued as a B-side. As it turned out, they were the same track—the instrumental is the lopped-off coda of the master take.

Seemingly free-associated at the mike, Bowie’s lyric is a rapid-fire slurred ode to a femme fatale, with the woman in question compared to a shark, a boxer (including, apparently, the turn-of-the-century champion George Dixon), Cher, Bruce Lee (Bowie seems to mumble “enter the dragon” at one point) and a Forties film star. Bowie sounds out of her league in any case, especially as his jaw seems to have been wired shut.

If one of the themes of Tin Machine II had been an attempt to lampoon ultra-masculinity (with mixed results),”Hammerhead” seems a natural end point—it’s a male POV made lunatic and ridiculous, a manic spew by a man trying to comprehend a woman by comparing her to a run of celebrities and wildlife. Still, it works better as an instrumental.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, Studios 301, Sydney. The full version (3:15 in length, YouTube has no versions of it currently up) was released in August 1991 as the B-side of “You Belong in Rock n’ Roll” and, in Germany, “One Shot.”

Top: Nick Hider, “Saturday, March 31, 1990: London’s Poll Tax riot.”

A Big Hurt

July 31, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Can’t Talk

July 27, 2012

You Can’t Talk.
You Can’t Talk (live, 1991).

The Reeves Gabrels guitar squiggle that smirks midway through the intro of “You Can’t Talk” serves as fair warning: good taste is nowhere near. Ghastly sorta-rapped verses, their flow vaguely inspired by the Clash’s “Magnificent Seven” and their lyric pointlessly referencing “Beauty and the Beast,” give way to a chorus that at least has a melody, if a flat one. The lyric is as obscure as it’s witless: Bowie, in early takes, sang “I know you don’t blow me…away,” while in the final mix he cut out the last word, hobbling his weak bawdy joke.

Given these poor materials to work with, the band and the frenetic mix do what they can to distract the ear. The Sales brothers are fairly inspired, with Hunt turning in a hustling shuffle and Tony makes the song halfway danceable at times. Reeves is Reeves. There’s some fine rhythm guitar playing, reminiscent of early Talking Heads. To what end? It’s mildly catchy, it passes quickly enough. But a track like “You Can’t Talk” is an indictment of Tin Machine—there’s a hole in the center of this music. It’s pointless, uninspired, forgettable, forgotten.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, Studios 301, Sydney. Four early takes circulate on bootleg. One, which goes at a slower tempo and in which Bowie’s still trying out paces and phrases, seems like a studio demo. The others are fairly close to the final track, with occasional tweaking (for example, the break after “call you over under out” (@ 2:25)  is followed by, in various takes, silence, a hi-hat, or a guitar panned left-to-right). Played throughout the 1991-92 tour, with the 24 October Hamburg show used for the Oy Vey Baby video.

Top: Flavijus, “Moscow, 1991.”


July 25, 2012

Stateside (Oy Vey Baby, 1991).

The run of travel songs on Tin Machine II ends—how else?—with a bored, horny drummer stuck in Sydney, wanting to get back home. Dreadful as it is, Hunt Sales’ “Stateside” doesn’t quite seem to merit the collective hatred it’s inspired. Its sins are venial: crassness, dullness, far overstaying its welcome. Oh, and the way Hunt whine-sings “she wanted my lovin’…MY LOVINN'” in the first verse makes you want to burn down his house.

It helps that Bowie undermines “Stateside”‘s gassy blooze rock with some gonzo contributions (he’s credited as co-writer of both words and music). There’s his squib of a saxophone solo, Bowie hardly bothering to come up with a melody, his tone so dwarfish that it sounds as though he’s tootling on a plastic toy. It seems a mockery of the cliche wailing sax middle-eights of Eighties power ballads and bar-belters. Better still is the Bowie-penned bridge (repeated towards the close), which ridicules Hunt’s homeward longings, offering a Trash Americana landscape: inflatable Marilyn Monroe dolls and Kennedy convertibles (still blood-stained?), with lines pilfered from Gershwin/Heyward’s “Summertime,” “Home on the Range,” and, naturally, the band America itself.

“Stateside” is also of meager interest for being one of the few “straight-up” unironic R&B tracks that Bowie ever recorded (even here, he still spoofs it). Ever since “Liza Jane” Bowie had tried to find (or piece together) some dialect of R&B that he could converse in. He had loved the music, had spent his youth delving into it, but found he couldn’t channel it directly—he had to approach at an angle. Ziggy Stardust is in part James Brown as Pierrot. And Bowie’s two main offensives were the harrowed soul and funk of Young Americans and Station to Station, and the brighter Let’s Dance, which, as Bowie said in 1991, was the “rediscovery of white-English-ex-art-school-student-meets-black-American funk, a refocus of Young Americans.” These records would have been inconceivable without the agency of Luther Vandross, Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis, George Murray, Omar Hakim and Nile Rodgers. In a way, Bowie considered them the control, his own relentlessly ironic persona the experiment: the albums were the transcripts of their collisions.

So “Stateside” offered a cheap alternative, for once. The Saleses had cut their teeth playing R&B, and “Stateside” is meat-and-potatoes white “trad” R&B, of the sort that you can hear in some biker bar in South Carolina on any given evening. It drags along, satisfied with its loping pace, Tony Sales occasionally walking his bass. Reeves Gabrels’ two lengthy, awful solos are the variable—are they in quotation marks, intentionally meant be the sort of garish cliche-strewn lead lines that you’d hear from Blues Hammer, or is Gabrels just saying, “fuck it, it’s Hunt’s song,” and plowing away without taste or inspiration? Either interpretation works.

Pure album filler, “Stateside” passes without too much pain. Live, it was toxic. Extended beyond its already-elephantine length, inflicted upon an unwilling audience by its author, who had the tenacity and taste of a drunken wedding toastmaster, “Stateside” became hateful. (Bowie often checked out during performances—you’ll see in the clip above that he takes a cigarette break during one of Gabrels’ solos). I wouldn’t be surprised if one reason Bowie broke up Tin Machine was his desire to never play the thing again.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, Studios 301, Sydney, w/ poss. overdubs 1990-March 1991. Performed mercilessly throughout the “It’s My Life” tour.

Top: Erik Sinclair, “Paris, 1991.”


July 23, 2012

Amlapura (Indonesian version).
Amlapura (Oy Vey Baby, 1991).

Amlapura is the largest town in eastern Bali, the island to the east of Java, although the Indonesian guide books generally don’t consider Amlapura worth a visit unless you’ve already checked off the top-tier attractions. The area suffered a volcano eruption in 1963 and has never quite recovered. What remains of interest to the tourist are Amlapura’s three palaces, one of which is still used by some remnants of former royalty. The palaces, which are filled with Dutch paintings as much as the work of local artists, reminds one that Amlapura, originally known as Karangasem, was the center of a quisling kingdom—its rulers had acquiesced to Dutch rule in the late 19th century, and so were allowed to retain the trappings of their rule while other Balinese states were conquered. Vague divine retribution of a sort came via the volcano, Mount Agung, which killed 1500 people but spared the Mother Temple of Besakih. After the fire, the town’s name was officially changed from Karangasem to Amlapura: it was a sign of humility or an attempt to disguise the town so that the volcano would pass it by the next time round.

Bowie had gone to Amlapura in July 1989, as part of his Indonesian vacation after the first Tin Machine tour. The song he wrote about it is a mingle of colonial-era imagery (tall ships, flying Dutchmen, shore dwellers watching for “boogies”–i.e., bugis, seafaring traders and occasional pirates)* and of the recent past—the dead children buried under the lava in ’63, whose bodies, Bowie implies, serve as the soil for regeneration: flowers blooming around a statue’s mouth.

The Amlapura of Bowie’s chorus is a sacred dream-space that’s been soiled in some manner, whether via the guns and traders of the West or just by the essential grime of humanity. In his earlier song on Indonesia, the Road-to-Borneo adventure “Tumble and Twirl,” the mood was more absurdist, the most striking image being a rich man’s hilltop mansion piping sewage onto the allegedly pristine beaches. “Amlapura” is vaguer, mistier and feels out of time, a suggestion more than a song. Bowie sang his vocal a semitone flat in an attempt to convey sadness and loss, and he wound up contributing to the sense that the song isn’t finished, that it’s still coalescing into some more permanent form.

Tin Machine, working out the song in the studio, dampened down any attempt to rouse things—Hunt Sales’ drums, which had been prominent in early takes, were reduced to a few kick drum beats in the intro and first verse, with Hunt’s off-kilter fills only arriving in the second verse. Tony Sales’ bass is nearly inaudible, with the verses carried by three acoustic guitars (Gabrels, Bowie, Kevin Armstrong?) scanned across the spectrum—the guitars parked left and right strum the back-and-forth chord clusters (either C-D-C or Em-D-Em) while in the center another guitar plays arpeggios. Gabrels’ Steinberger playing (including an 8-bar solo over the intro chords) is similar to his neo-Dick Dale work on the surf instrumentals cut in the same period (“Needles on the Beach,” “Exodus”).

With “Amlapura,” “Shopping for Girls” and the surf songs, Tin Machine II seems in retrospect Bowie’s half-baked attempt to revisit Lodger, another record on which he made a stateless, traveling figure a recurring image. But then Bowie had been in fighting strength, with the finest supporting band of his life backing him and with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti as directors and provocateurs. Tin Machine II is a record of a far diminished time, with even its highlights like “Amlapura,” lovely and evanescent, suggesting more than they offer. If Bowie was reduced to eking out small victories, making pawn’s moves with tiny mood pieces like “Amlapura,” it’s still heartening: Bowie was recovering his ambition, if not yet his voice.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, Studios 301, Sydney, with overdubs in 1990-March 1991. Bowie cut an Indonesian vocal as well, which was used as the B-side on the 12″ single of “You Belong In Rock n’ Roll” (London LONX 305), and so added another language to Bowie’s tally (total so far: Italian, French, German, Spanish). Performed throughout the 1991-92 tour, with a version from Hamburg, 24 October 1991, appearing on the DVD/VHS version of Oy Vey Baby. A few alternate takes of “Amlapura” have circulated on bootleg—an instrumental track and three other takes that differ mainly in having more prominent drums, guitar (the instrumental has Gabrels soloing throughout the song) and Bowie using slightly different phrasing on his vocals.

* There’s some debate whether “bugi” is the source of “bogeyman” (the OED makes a reference to “Malay pirates” in its first use of the word).

Top: Irène Jacob, The Double Life of Véronique (Kieslowski, 1991).

Shopping For Girls

July 16, 2012

Shopping for Girls.
Shopping for Girls (Oy Vey Baby, 1991).
Shopping for Girls (ChangesNowBowie, BBC, 1997).

Kham Suk is 13 years old. She is a small child with a delicate face. When she giggles, she sounds like any little girl at play. But Kham Suk doesn’t have much time for fun. Three months ago, her mother walked her across the border from Burma into Thailand and sold her to a brothel for $80. Kham Suk’s family desperately needed the money. Kham Suk still is paying the price: $4 a customer.

“Children in Darkness,” Sara Terry, Christian Science Monitor, 30 June 1987.

In 1987 Sara Terry, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, wrote a series of articles on exploited children in developing countries, centering on the Philippines and Thailand.* Her husband, Reeves Gabrels, accompanied her on research trips and helped his wife’s work by, for example, paying for child prostitutes so that Terry could interview them in privacy. Bowie had been to Thailand as well, during his 1983 tour, and had seen similar horrors. So when he and Gabrels began collaborating, they decided to pool their experiences into a song about the child sex trade.

It took Bowie years to write a lyric. The problem, he later said, was that the subject was so awful, so immune to irony or nuance, that it seemed impossible to make a rock song about it. Bowie scrapped draft after draft for being too sensationalist, for being too didactic. “The moment I got fingerwagging about it, or moralistic, the whole thing just went to pieces and became embarrassing,” he told Musician in 1991. The would-be prophet-of-rage voice he’d used on the likes of “Crack City” and “Under the God” would’ve been disastrous here. An inspiration possibly came from Lou Reed’s New York, in which Reed was more an amoral narrator of urban blight than a polemicist, letting the details pile up, letting their collective weight do the work for him.

So the final lyric for “Shopping for Girls” is a mix of narrators, starting with a cold, clipped third-person perspective for the first three verses and shifting to second person in the last, abbreviated verse. Annie McDuffie, when she wrote on this song, argued convincingly that the entire lyric could be in the first person, the removed perspective of a sociopath numbed to his actions. The shadowy perspective is paralleled by the song’s murky tonality—while the verses seem to shift between E minor and its parallel major, the B-flat chord that kicks off the chorus puts it in F major.

What’s striking here is Bowie’s phrasing, a type he had rarely used before. When a singer in his or her mid-forties alters their phrasing, it’s often to compensate for the strains of age—a move to a lower register, for example—but in Bowie’s case it was to attempt to create a new character, a shabby narrator on the margins, singing lines in a croaking, rapid patter which barely rises above the conversational—an unnerving recitative. (He would develop it further on Outside and Earthling). It was a voice that seemed to have wormed into the song, a disreputable person muttering things that you don’t want to hear.

So the first verse begins with Bowie dashing through lines without taking a breath, dispensing with rhyme or meter, as if he’s breaking into what was supposed to be part of Gabrels’ intro. It’s a consonant-heavy string of phrases that culminates with there are children riding naked on their tourist pals. Only then does Bowie allow the song proper to begin, sinking into the first eight-bar verse. He sings the first “shopping for girls” coldly, then gives the phrase more and more triumph as the song goes on. Details fill up the verses: a Michael Jackson song playing (Bowie spitting out Jackson’s name); a john emptily talking about how back home there’s winter; a brothel room that smells of the tropical flower frangipani, a favorite image of the Victorian decadents (it figures in Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Huysmans’ À rebours), made pathetic here.

“Shopping for Girls” bricks itself up in older songs, as if trying to distance itself from the coarse transactions at its heart, and calling into question all of the swagger and promises of love and bliss that pop music offers, which are lies when the songs play on the radio in some Phuket child brothel (yet the songs could be the only thing keeping the child sane). It could be a David Bowie song playing there, after all—“Let’s Dance” or “Golden Years” tinnily chirping away during some routine $4 sale. So the song’s title references the Coasters’ “Shoppin’ for Clothes.” The distorted guitar riff that follows the second chorus, and which crops up throughout the rest of the track (including all of the last verse), parodies the hook of “Raspberry Beret” (the joy of discovering sex in Prince’s song curdled into disease here). A striking line in the last verse, “her eyes for a million miles,” is a near word-for-word Captain Beefheart quote.

Should Bowie have dispensed with the word games** and references? Should Gabrels have used a less zippy guitar hook, which he even kicks up an octave at the close, as though the song’s ending with a blast? Yet what would have a more serious song accomplished but be unbearable to hear? (The Specials’ “The Boiler” comes to mind: one of the most harrowing protest-realist songs ever recorded, and all but unplayable.) The Christian Science Monitor series on child exploitation disturbed its readers, embarrassed governments, won prizes, but the child sex trade thrives, a quarter century on. What could a song buried on a forgotten Tin Machine record have done?

“Shopping For Girls” confesses its impotence. It offers no means of revolt, no incentives to rally, no heartfelt cries of support, no communal singalongs: it’s not “Biko,” it’s not “Free Nelson Mandela.” “Shopping for Girls” is just distanced reportage, a stew of unstable narrators, a collective disgust, a curse. Because in the end, Bowie and Gabrels couldn’t come up with a song worthy of the awfulness of its subject. All they could do was levy a guilty verdict on everyone—the song’s subjects, its narrator(s), its writers, its performers, its listeners, its compilers, its critics.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, 301 Studios, Sydney, and with overdubs in 1990-1991. Performed on the 1991-1992 tour, and revived as an acoustic track for Bowie’s 50th birthday radio broadcast, ChangesNowBowie, which aired on 8 January 1997.

* Terry developed the series with fellow reporter Kristin Helmore and photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman.

** Bowie’s bizarre line that opens the second verse (“a small black someone jumps over the crazy white guard“) seems an apparent spoof of the English pangram.

Consider supporting: ECPAT International.

Top: David Alan Harvey, “Child Prostitute,” Bangkok, 1989.