March 14, 2013


Now (Tin Machine, live, 1989).
Outside (first live performance, 1995).
Outside (live, 1995).
Outside (live, Loreley, 1996).
Outside (live, Gail Ann Dorsey vocal, 1997).

Basically I haven’t liked a lot of music I’ve been doing in the past few years. I forgot that I’m not a musician and never have been. I’ve always wanted to be a film director.” So Bowie told the 17 year-old Cameron Crowe, during an interview in Los Angeles in May 1975. While much of what Bowie said to Crowe was cocaine-fueled gibberish, the baiting of a young, credulous journalist, this small self-insight explains in part what happened to a record that Bowie made two decades later.

If you consider Outside as an art film in the guise of an album, then the revisions Bowie made to the project in early 1995—essentially “normalizing” the record with a set of new, catchier songs that had little, if anything, to do with his original art-murder-anti-narrative—were the equivalent of a reshoot, recasting players and cutting a new edit. It’s as though Bowie had been his own test audience, and had found the material lacking after a poor screening. And sure, he was looking for a label to distribute the album, which would be an easier sell if it was a collection of “David Bowie songs with weird spoken bits” rather than 20-minute collages of song-slivers and weird spoken bits.

So, back to work. One of Bowie’s first moves was to reclaim a lost Tin Machine song, “Now,” which Bowie had co-written with the Machine’s fifth member, the guitarist Kevin Armstrong.* “Now” was played only twice during the Machine’s brief 1989 tour, and it’s unknown whether the band cut a version of song in the studio for either of their records (no takes are circulating).

“Now” itself revised the past: it developed out of Bowie’s reworking of “Look Back in Anger” in 1988, his first collaboration with Reeves Gabrels.** “Now,” in its live performances, began and closed with the pummeling guitar maelstrom from the revised “Anger.” Midway through, the song downshifted into a set of moody eight-bar verses and bridges, built on an ascending four-note bass hook. One reason “Now” didn’t make the grade, apparently, was that Bowie wasn’t happy with some of the verses he’d written (he apologized to the crowd on the song’s debut): “Ah! I need your love! Talk about love!” was a bit too Sammy Hagar for his liking.

But Bowie had a habit of keeping his potentially strong songs on retainer, holding back on finishing the pieces until he felt the mood was right (most notably “Bring Me the Disco King,” a song that he kicked around for nearly a decade). So perhaps rather than waste “Now” as an album track on Tin Machine II, he felt it was meant for grander things. And so it was: Bowie turned “Now” into the title song/overture/prologue to his art rock concept record.

While there’s a domesticated version of the “Look Back in Anger” intro as a lead-in, “Outside” itself is fairly muted, reserved—Bowie holds off on moving to his high register until the second bridge, and doesn’t use his octave double-tracking until the third verse. (On stage, he usually sang the first verses and bridges seated, then rose to his feet for the climactic section.) The track’s harmonic base is two “horn” lines, mixed left and right (they seem to be synthesizers, though it’s possible Bowie’s playing baritone saxophone on the right-mixed track), that parallel the ascending bassline, and what sounds like Carlos Alomar playing arpeggios on acoustic guitar—Gabrels comes in for the last two bridges, first shadowing the ascending horn/bassline, then soloing off of it. And “Outside” is driven by a tremendous performance by Joey Baron (possibly Sterling Campbell) on drums: the subtle shift in the drum pattern that triggers the moves to the bridges, or the machine-gun tom fills at 2:38. Along with the various fills, sweeteners and oddities—a tambourine in the first verse, chimes and congas in the second, Eno squiggles throughout—there’s a guitar solo that’s minimalist by Gabrels standards.

A line in “Now” about “going to the outskirts of town” possibly suggested the title change, but Bowie also had been talking up the merits of “outsider” art to interviewers, and there are a few lines in his revised lyric that call back to his and Eno’s trip to Gugging Asylum (“the crazed in the hot zone“). Meant as a curtain-raiser for the 17 tracks to come, “Outside” serves well enough as the album’s master of ceremonies. But it was also a statement of purpose for Bowie. After a decade of disappointments, bafflements and false starts, “Outside” was a public bid for attention, Bowie promising that this record was something new, that it was committed to the present:Now….not tomorrow…It happens today. In a rock culture so often devoted to nostalgia and past glories, it remains a worthy, if often ignored, demand.

“Now” debuted at the Machine’s 29 June 1989 show in the National Ballroom, Kilburn, and it opened the band’s set at St. George’s Hall, Bradford, UK, on 2 July 1989. These remain its only circulating performances. “Outside” was recorded ca. January-February 1995 at the Hit Factory, NYC. Bowie usually had Gail Ann Dorsey sing lead on it during the Earthling tour.

* Oddly enough, while Armstrong played on Outside (he’s credited for “Thru These Architects Eyes”), he apparently didn’t play on his own song, at least according to the credits and the bios.

** “Anger” was one of the few “classic” songs that Bowie played on the Outside tour.

Top: Takahiro Fujita, “Kathmandu, 1995.”


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.