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.