Baby Universal

June 26, 2012

Baby Universal.
Baby Universal (Paramount City, 1991).
Baby Universal (video, 1991).
Baby Universal (live, 1991).
Baby Universal (Saturday Night Live, 1991).
Baby Universal (live, 1996).

Hot tramp! We loved you so. Now sit down, man. You’re a fucking disgrace.

So ended the Melody Maker‘s review of Tin Machine II. Jon Wilde, responsible for the bludgeoning, said on a Guardian comment thread that “Bowie’s PR later told me that Bowie read it and cried when he got to the last line. I’m not proud of that. But that was the last we heard of Tin Machine. If my review had any small influence on Bowie’s decision to disband, then at least my career as a music hack wasn’t entirely pointless.”

Tin Machine had been received in the press with some bafflement but mainly with relief that Bowie seemed to be trying to put the Eighties behind him. Tin Machine II, issued two years later, was spat on. In Spin. Jonathan Bernstein called the record “a follow-up as eagerly awaited as Mannequin 2: On the Move” and Bowie “a man made ridiculous by adhering to rules he wrote for his most rickety and least publicly subscribed persona.” Bill Wyman, in Entertainment Weekly: “Anonymous, grinding rockers…songs with passable chorus hooks and nothing in the verses to support them. Meaningless lyric after meaningless lyric.”

Two decades on, Tin Machine II remains an ignored, unloved album, a commercial and critical failure (peaking at #23 in the UK, #126 in the US) that killed Bowie’s relationship with EMI, which had refused to release it. When Bowie shopped the TMII tapes around to other labels, one exec said “a band like Tin Machine could bankrupt the whole enterprise” (as per C. Sandford’s bio).

TMII‘s reception is unsurprising if one considers the perspective of the average Bowie fan at the turn of the Nineties. Summer 1989: Bowie puts out Tin Machine, tours a bit to support it. Okay. Fall 1989: the Sound + Vision career retrospective appears, followed by a staggered CD reissue of the classic Bowie catalog, some of which had fallen out of print. The likes of “Velvet Goldmine,” “Sweet Head,” “Some Are” and “Who Can I Be Now” are finally released. Reappraisal of Bowie’s genius in the press. March-September 1990: Bowie tours the world, singing the old hits, winning adulation and forgiveness for past musical sins. He seemed restored to his former place in collective memory. He was “relevant” again. Who knew what he would do next? September 1991: hold on, it’s another goddamn Tin Machine album?

The record came at the wrong time: its creation had been a mess. While most of TMII was cut in a few weeks in the autumn of 1989, with the band, fresh from their mini-tour, in good spirits and working at a fast clip, a combination of delays—EMI’s refusal to release TMII and Bowie subsequently not having a record deal, and Bowie’s decision to put TMII on the back burner to concentrate on the Sound + Vision tour/retrospective—led to TMII being released two years after its main sessions.

And during their album and tour promotions in late 1991, Tin Machine itself seemed an abrasive and desperate collection. It wasn’t just the “we’re four dicks” album cover illustration, which caused an inane mini-controversy when US record dealers refused to carry it until the statues’ genitalia were obscured. The group persona of Tin Machine could seem smug, mildly bullying and pathetic. Bowie in particular has never been as unpleasant a public figure than he was during this time, whether condescendingly telling an interviewer “you seem like a smart girl—why are you asking me this” when she brought up the cover art controversy (the only newsworthy thing about the record) or acting like a boor to Paula Yates and on the Wogan show (Terry Wogan later said Bowie’s behavior nearly earned him a slap in the face).*

The album, nearly forgotten amidst the teacup tempests of its promotion, deserved better. Tin Machine II, at its best, is Bowie trying to create a viable template to move forward—it’s the rough draft of Outside, Earthling and the last records—and to better wed his commercial instincts with his avant-garde ones. Of course, that had been Bowie’s intent with Never Let Me Down as well, though that record wound up being a compromise which failed all sides.

Now Bowie had Reeves Gabrels serving as prosecutor. For Gabrels, rock music had stagnated after punk had died—in 1989, guitarists were still hung up on trying to play Jimi Hendrix, he said, which had chloroformed the instrument’s development. Why play the same blues licks Albert King could’ve played in 1965? Taking inspiration from Adrian Belew and Allan Holdsworth, Gabrels tried to recast the role of lead guitar. He considered lead playing as a series of disparate events, he told Musician in 1991. “The events get people from the verse to the chorus, or through the second verse after they’ve heard the melody once…the current listener’s horizon time is shorter in terms of how often you have to give them things to keep them interested.” While avant-garde in theory, the strategy also suggested developments in commercial film in the Nineties, with action movies, for example, becoming a series of explosive spectacles connecting plot point to plot point.

For Gabrels, an “event” could be anything—the tone of a vibrator pressed against the guitar neck, for instance, or a riff stolen from a speed metal record cropping up in a ballad—and he coupled that with an attempt to work in a “modal chromaticism,” that is, using a combination of various modes with a common tonic chord, and so letting the player essentially use any note on a variety of scales.** In Gabrels’ words, the rule was to “play any note you want, as long as you end on a right note.” So if a Tin Machine song was in E major, for example, Gabrels could play in E Phrygian, a scale that would let him play “notes that shouldn’t be there” (say an F when it should be an F-sharp). It was a seat-of-the-pants strategy that sometimes led (deliberately) to bizarre excesses, but in other cases created passages of uncanny melodies, or shocking counterpoints that elevated a banal chord progression.

And TMII became Gabrels’ record. With Bowie occupied for much of 1990 on Sound + Vision, Gabrels kept toying with the roughs, adding more and more guitar overdubs, recording dozens of new solos, sometimes just a few tweaked or buzzed notes. The finished result was a Glenn Branca-esque wall of battling guitars—on some tracks like “You Belong In Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Gabrels’ collected overdubs took up the vast majority of the 56-track master.

As a counterweight to Gabrels’ ambitions was a more collected and tighter band, with Bowie contributing more rhythm guitar than on the first Tin Machine. When the band assembled in Sydney in September 1989 to record the album, they were in high spirits. A group camaraderie had developed, as Bowie had traveled with the rest of Tin Machine in buses throughout that summer’s tour, playing cards and pretending he was 20 years old again. So although Bowie and Gabrels had been reluctant to make another record so soon (Bowie’s attention was becoming consumed with the Sound +Vision project), they bowed to the Sales brothers’ wishes to capitalize on the generous collaborative mood.

It helped that they had some material stockpiled: “Baby Universal” and a cover of Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something” had been tried out in the first LP sessions, while Hunt Sales’ “Sorry” had been road-tested. Other tracks came together quickly, over a few days in the studio. And a general agreement to reduce the guitar-drum artillery of the first record to focus more on melody and structure lessened the monotony of the Machine’s debut album—there was brutalist surf music, pop metal, dressing-room blues.

So yes, a distracted Bowie allowed his drummer to write and sing two songs, both of which are among the most hated pieces in the Bowie catalog, and Tin Machine hadn’t lost its habit of overplaying and throttling promising material to death. But at its best, which I would argue is about half of the album, Tin Machine II had some of Bowie’s strongest writing since Let’s Dance. Rather than being a throwback to reclaim past glories (as would happen in 1992), TMII is the record of a man finally coming to terms with his extremities, and being helped, rather than being buried, by his bandmates.

Bowie and Gabrels had written some of “Baby Universal” in their first extended songwriting collaboration, back in the summer of 1988, so it hails from the same period that produced “I Can’t Read” and “Amazing.” While he worked on “Baby Universal” during Tin Machine, Bowie had soon set the song aside—from the producer Tim Palmer’s perspective, it seemed as though Bowie considered the song too catchy, too rewarding, to suit his hard rock deconstructionist manifesto.

“Baby Universal” is a boundary work for Bowie, calling back to past songs yet setting terms for the future (both “Hallo Spaceboy” and “Looking For Satellites” seem to have come out of it). Its lyric concerns another of Bowie’s space messiah figures, first viewed skeptically in the verse (where he’s compared to a spoiled child, a product of awful, chaotic parents) then with a grand annunciation in the chorus. Where earlier incarnations, the Supermen, Ziggy, the Pretty Things or the Starman, had promised some sort of liberation, the space messiah here is self-contained, jaded (“it doesn’t matter–I’ve seen everything anyway,” he says in the brief second verse), imploding into himself, with humanity an afterthought. The chanted opening, where a repeated “baby” is mixed with barely-audible interjections (including “thinking/walk” and “lost/found”), suggests that the messiah’s been reborn as stream of binary code.

In A major for its verses, “Baby” shifts to a vague G major for the start of its chorus until an E dominant chord (on “I’m the baby now“) brings the song back into A. The past bleeds through: the first prechorus vocal melody (“failures as fathers”) seems a rewrite of the chorus of “Under the God,” while the “no baby no baby NO” tag calls back to some of Eno’s rock tracks from the Seventies, like “King’s Lead Hat.” The chorus itself, with its eerie guitar/organ accompaniment, matches the lyric’s attempted grandeur—it seems a deliberate attempt to hint at “Space Oddity” at first—and then builds to the thrashing title refrain, with Bowie howling the line twice, then letting it expire with a final slurred “U-ni-vers-ULL.”

It’s an ideal album opener: a tight, contained performance, with Tony Sales playing Kim Deal to Gabrels’ Joey Santiago, its mix littered with fine details (the tambourine in the pre-chorus, Hunt Sales’ lightning-fast drum fills to trigger chord changes in the verse) and with a Bowie lyric that’s as well-crafted (the nice internal rhymes of “humans” and “assume you’re”) as it’s sloppy (Bowie rhymes “thinking” with “thinking” in the chorus). The Nineties would be Bowie’s long battle of reconquest, a bid for the throne by an exile who seemed not to care anymore, so paradoxically his ambitions grew in stature; all of it starts here.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, Studios 301, Sydney (w/overdubs throughout 1990 and at A&M Studios, March 1991). Released in October 1991 as Tin Machine II‘s second and last single (LOCDT310 c/w BBC versions of “Stateside,” “If There Is Something” and “Heaven’s In Here,” #48 UK). Performed throughout the 1991-92 tour, often with Bowie and Gabrels on dueling “headless” Steinbergers. It was played a number of times on TV, including Top of the Pops and Saturday Night Live on 23 November 1991, Bowie’s second of three appearances on SNL.

* To be fair, Bowie was irritated that the BBC had made him lip-sync “You Belong In Rock ‘n’ Roll” for the show, and Wogan does come off as a dim, gaseous uncle here.

** Gabrels, in the Musician interview, said the term had been coined by “a couple of jazz oriented friends of mine,” but it actually was Bela Bartok, who was not a regular in the Boston music scene.

Top: Andrew McDonald, “Drag Queens, Sydney, 1990.”